Saturday, December 29, 2012

Waits for No Man

29th December 2012

Time passes. (D. Thomas) A poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then his heard no more. (Will.) Time changes everything except something within us which is always surprised by change. (Hardy)
On the subject of time: I am filling out the questionnaire sent to me by Simon and Schuster for their website, and one question asks for my motto. I put, "Everything at this moment is exactly as it should be," a thought I hold dear but am not very good at living up to. Like this week when the Aspen Writer's Foundation got my name wrong in their "Upcoming books" section. Like yesterday when I found an e-book with a similar title to mine, with a similar theme and a picture on the cover of a castle and a hunk in a kilt holding a semi-clad time-traveller. Another question asked for my worst fear, and I suppose my worst fear these days is finding my book shelved in the Romance section. Everything at this moment is exactly as it should be.
Stephen King says that he writes every day, including Christmas. I find I can't write once I'm jostled out of my routine, like during the holidays. Other writers find it helpful to get out of their normal situation and take themselves off to a cabin in the woods or a motel. Unless I am sitting where I always sit on my chair in my house with the same view out of the window and the same clutter on my desk, I am too distracted to write. During the bustle and come-and-go of holidays, I just stay away and wait for things to go back to normal. But even in the usual routine, things can move in and upset you.
At times like these, like today, for instance, there's a scene from Amadeus that I return to again and again: Mozart and his father and wife are all arguing in the living room. Mainly the fight is between Constanze and Leopold. Unnoticed, Mozart steps out of the room and leaves them to it. He goes into an adjoining room where there is a billiard table, and, with the noise of the argument in the background, he starts to roll the balls on the table. He rolls one ball. It hits three sides of the table and comes back to him. He sends it off again. It comes back to him. Slowly, he begins to hear the music of Don Giovani. He rolls again. Everything fades back except for the music, which he begins to write down.
So, in the midst of chaos, you step out of the fray and find your creative space. The universe responds. It has no choice but to fill in the vaccuum.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

And To Know The Place For the First Time.....

22nd December, 2012

We all survived the passing of Armageddon yesterday - planes are flying, people are shuffling towards their morning cup of stimulant, computers are working and America is still coming down on the side of the NRA. I found my self with a group of folks yesterday by a fire on a hillside, turning to the six directions (downwards and inward being the other two) and I reciting the passage from Eliot, "And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time." If we are passing into a new era, here's our best hope.
Eliot's wife, Valerie, died last month. She was far younger than he, of course, but how strange to have had until now that living connection to one of the last and greatest.
In publishing news: I received a curious e-mail from Simon and Schuster yesterday, which needed translating for such a computer half-wit as myself, but amounted to an invitation to add my details to a website generated by them so that future readers and enthusiasts will have access to me. I am currently filling out an extensive questionaire with such soul searching questions as, What are your most overused words? Who is your favourite fictional character/villain; what are your favourite five songs; who would you most like to meet in history; what is the key to happiness? I have been waiting for the excitement of my being published to hit, and now I think it  finally has. Good lord, it looks like I'm going to be published after all!
Apart from contributing to the expansion of my ego, this is a great thing for the publisher to do. I wish I had an in-depth personality profile written by the author for all the writers I admire. The questionaire has to be run by an editor, though, so my answers can be checked for being PC etc. But sooner or later, you'll be able to find me and my ideas of myself on Simon and Schuster's author list. Sweet.
I have also been working on my own website and have added a page of some essays I wrote on Scotland, a page of poems by yours trully, and a brand new page of my favourite Scottish songs. It's a bit like preparing for a newborn, assembling the drawers of tiny clothes and nappies, buying the changing table, preparing for a life without sleep. All shall be ready at the time. All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. (Now, that's a "darling" (cf earlier blog entry) but I ain't going to kill it.)
One of the questions on the S&S questionaire was, "What is your worst trait?" I didn't have to stop to think about that one. "Shooting my Mouth off."  Still, history is full of us, and sometimes, just sometimes, we have something to say. It might actually be a requirement of a writer. My mother used to say, "Claire, you have too much to say."  And so I do.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Life as a House

16th December 2012
Nothing to do with writing, I just want to mention Sandy Hook Elementary and the atrocity that happened there on December 14th. I want to say, "Wake Up America! Look around you - other developed countries manage to incorporate freedom and the strictest gun control. You're being manipulated by a thoroughly dishonest body called the NRA, ad it needs to stop before one more innocent person is gunned down by a madman."  There, I said it. And I'm not sorry.
Now to things literary: When I first set out to write my oeuvre, I wanted to get five novels under my belt, so that if one sold, I would have an easy time of it following up with others. I didn't want to be under pressure to produce, because, as we all know, the muses need to fly free. So, sitting here waiting for the machinery to take me onto the next phase of the publishing process, my mind naturally travelled towards a sequel. I started one tentatively, and all kinds of things started to happen in the story that I hadn't anticipated. Often writing feels like walking into a screening room for an already completed film. I sat down and started to watch, and it was pretty interesting. So, I've written fifty pages, which is a sixth of a book, and I have no idea how it is going to unfold. But I do like the space to be still and listen to the story come.
There was an article on writing in The New York Times earlier this month called "The Art of Being Still," by Silas House. Can't he get a Pulitzer just for his name? It should be a new category:  Best Author's Name. What else could he have been but a writer with a name like that? He could have worked in construction and caused a few chuckles. But he is a writer, and what he was saying in the article was how writers creates their own stillness inside the most mundance tasks, that you can't actually wait until life conspires to give you uninterrupted time to write your great opus. You just have to find it, and if you have something to say you will.
So, excerpt four from the current novel, "Veil of Time." Chapter Four: Back in her own time, Maggie longs to get back to Dunadd AD 735. She hasn't yet met Fergus, but she has spent some time with the Sula the druidess.  She still thinks she's dreaming....
"Something in me it is that pulls me to fire.  I tug my raincoat on and climb to the fort in the wind today, stopping at the cleft of the rock where in my dream the gates stood. I remember them down to their heavy wooden smell and the knot in the wood above the sliding hatch.  And I notice on my way up this time, and wonder why I have never noticed before, several holes in the rock where the gate posts must once have been lodged. There’s a stain of rust leaking out from iron rods that must still exist somewhere deep in the rock. I gain the flat grassy area where the houses stood in my dream, but now instead of buildings, I am standing amongst rubble, half submerged in grass, looking like nothing at all. 
On the summit, I sit on the little ledge of stone left from the original seat in the witch’s hut. If I close my eyes, I can hear the snap of the fire, smell the drying herbs hanging from the rafters. Even now you can see why the ancient people picked Dunadd as a fort, for it looks straight across the Mhoine Mhor, a great stretch of peat moss leading down to the Atlantic.  Off to the south, through the dips of the foothills, you can see mountains; to the north and east great forests rise and fall, and along the valley floor the River Add wraps itself around the fort before snaking through The Moss, as though it really would prefer not to get to the sea at all. The sun is setting behind the islands, casting the world in an orange wash. From below, only the raucous call of the pheasant interrupts the stillness."

Friday, December 7, 2012


7th December 2012
The literary admonition to kill your darlings has been ascribed to several authors. I thought it was Auden, others say Faulkner. Here is Stephen King harping on about it: "Kill you darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler's heart, kill your darlings."
But whoever its author, it remains a very good rule for any writer to impliment. The "darlings" in question are not just certain flowery phrases by which you aim to impress, but those thoughts, expressions, pictures, that have a personal weight or meaning for you but act as dead weight in your writing.  You're going through an edit of something you have written, and there's an illusion, almost a private one, that gives you a bolt of joy (hence the "darling") and it takes all your strength to highlight the phrase and nix it. You almost have to close your eyes. Sometimes it's whole pages. I have had entire characters that fell into this category - someone I once knew and want to honour, but they're getting in the way of the story. Kill your darlings. It hurts, but kill 'em anyway.
One darling I won't be killing any time soon, because my protagonist Maggie would protest, is her love interest in the eighth century, Fergus MacBridghe (MacBreej, I want to write it out phonetically, so no one mispronounces it, but that's just one of those darlings that needs to get nixed.) This passage is from Chapter Three, when Fergus is first introduced:
"The call of an owl muted the subtler sounds; wings fluttered suddenly to Fergus's left, a good portent, the druidess would say. He had not meant to be away this long, too long since the day he left his daughter in the arms of her grandmother. Already, in his absence, the celebrations for her eighth year had come and gone.  Two years since the plague had taken her mother, and now there was talk among the Britons of another round of the pestilence coming up from the Sassenachs in the south.  If it spread this far north, he would take his daughter to the people who lived away from Dunadd, in the houses on the lochs, until the danger had passed. Illa was all he had left of his wife and he meant to hold onto her.
Fergus leaned forward into the smell of his horse, ran the coarse strands of her mane between his fingers. Horses were like the Druids in a sense, hearing and seeing more than they should. Only a little while now and he would be home--not the home he had shared with his wife, for he had closed that door two years ago after the body had been burned."

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Writer's Compass

December 1st 2012
"The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof, shit detector. This is the writer's radar."
I think Hemingway has hit on something very important in this quote. It's what Nietzsche referred to has having "psychological antennae." Someone once descirbed writing a novel as moving through a deep forest at night with a flashlight. But for that you need an inner compass. You need to know you'e going in the right direction, even though you are only consciously aware of the few trees in front of you.
And it would be a  mistake to interpret Hemingway's "shit detector," as an excuse for cynicism. The modern era has happily latched onto that one, because it's easy and instantly gratifying.  The writer's "shit detector" should be a highly private faculty, a radar screen behind the eyes, an instrument of  navigation, that, to my mind, is the umbilical cord to the source of all creativity that lies in the collective consciouness. The "shit detector" is best at routing out what is ego or mere circumstance. It's also a muscle, and it atrophies if not used. It's located deep inside the body, and you have to listen carefully or its message goes unheard.
Last week I posted a paragraph from the first chapter of my novel "Veil of Time." Due to popular demand (!), here comes another - this time from chapter two. To fill you in: my protagonist, Maggie, has moved into the cottage at the base of Dunadd Fort in rural Scotland. She has a history of seizures - in fact she is biding her time at Dunadd until the lobectomy surgery that should end these for good. Her medication usually takes care of them, but the following one slips through, and we begin to sense that her stay at Dunadd is going to bring more than she had counted on. This early in the story, she thinks these are just  dreams, but , as time goes by, the plot will thicken:
"After the seizure comes sleep.  I dream I am at Dunadd--not the present Dunadd, because in my dream there are high walls all up the side of the hill where nowadays the footpath meanders through heather and bracken.  I am standing where the house ought to be, looking down on the river, only this time there’s a footbridge, and across the field aren’t sheep but a village of houses, all thatched and smoking, not rectangular stone houses but round houses made of wattle and mud, houses that look for all the world like an African village.
I have had dreams before in the aftermath of seizures: I have argued points of theology with Mary Queen of Scots, who wasn’t the blockhead history has made her out to be. I have strolled along the beaches of Saint Helena with Napoleon insisting to me that he was being poisoned. But nothing has struck quite so close to home as seeing Dunadd in this way, with goats tethered and children running barefoot, with great waves of drumming and singing, and at the back of it all, a low murmuring like a didgeridoo. I must have arrived during some kind of festival.