Friday, December 27, 2013

Making Lemonade

27th December 2014

You know how the saying goes, "If life gives you lemons, make lemonade"? Well, writing is a great way to sweeten the sour, remove the stinger, defang the asp, take the poison out of any undesirable history, especially personal history. You take those who have wronged you in life and make them the villains in your book!
The reason I bring this up is that I have just run into my first bad review. It hurts, by God. I have been walking around all week with heart palpitations. One of the questions in the Q&A at the back of my book asked for my motto, which I foolishly gave as "Everything at this moment is exactly as it should be." Strange how these kinds of resolutions slip out of the radar when you hit a wall face first. Strange how you can forget that you have ever had a good review. It must be due to some facet of human nature that though you are told a million times you're beautiful, it's the one comment about a crooked nose that goes to bed with you, that gnaws at your skull, tapping like an insane woodpecker until the hole is deep and irreparable.
Before I get into this bad review, here are some good ones for Veil of Time:

“As richly detailed as a fine tapestry, Veil of Time is entrancing and enthralling from the first page to the last. Anyone who enjoys the work of Diana Gabaldon or Karen Marie Moning will adore this book. A jewel of a story! Veil of Time is time travel at its best.”

Veil of Time will enthrall you. Claire McDougall’s fine novel is both a meditative exploration on the nature of perception and sanity and a saga of the first order, a wholly captivating journey through time and the variegated yet immutable complexities of love.”
-Scott Lasser, Battle Creek

“From the moment I opened Veil of Time I was instantly swept up in the lush, haunting and wholly credible world Claire R. McDougall has created. Fiercely inventive, steeped in history and emotionally charged, Veil of Time is the gripping story of a grieving woman who is offered a second chance to rebuild her fractured family. The twist? She must relinquish her current life and return to 8th century Scotland. A powerful and thought provoking novel, reading Veil of Time is like falling into a wild, enchanting dream state from which you hope never to awaken.”
-Jillian Medoff, Hunger Point

“At long last a novel that features the mystical aspects of the temporal lobe epilepsy experience. With echoes of Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife and Daphne Du Maurier’s The House on the Strand this poetically written novel tells a magical love story that spans the centuries while at the same time describing in striking detail the subjective effects of this intriguing neurological state. A brave, powerful, and incredibly moving debut novel from a very talented writer.”
-Anthony Peake, The Labyrinth of Time

So, the bad review was written by a woman who shall be nameless and goes like this: I am a longtime fan of Diana Gabaldon, and the love story in Veil of Time between Maggie and Fergus is nowhere near as good as Gabaldon's Jamie and Claire. My reviewer is very disappointed in Fergus. She can't love him. Gabaldon's hero Jamie, she says, would never have dry-humped the goddess in front of Claire the way Fergus does. How can you love a hero who dry-humps a goddess in front of his girlfriend? She places my story in 765, which is wrong (735, if you please) and she puts my heroine Maggie in a village in Scotland - wrong again. (Maggie moves to a rural cottage surrounded by nothing but the wind and the bracken.) Did she actually read my book or just skim it for dry-humps? She says the method of time travel (i.e. epileptic fits) stretches all credulity (like falling through a standing stone does not!)
Any reviewer worth their salt does not judge a book by how it matches up to another book.  I have never claimed there was any comparison between myself and Gabaldon, though, as you can see above, other reviewers have made the connection. My book is about the ephemeral nature of time, and about this particular moment in history where Christianity took over the goddess religions. As Scott Lasser says, it is an exploration on the nature of perception. All dry humps aside, this book isn't a simple romance, though it includes one.  
So I reach past the lemons for those tweezers and snip the stinger off the end of this particular scorpion's tail. The scorpion has already struck, but heart palpitations only make the poison spread faster. The lemonade part of me says that so many people will be intrigued by the idea of a "dry-hump," they'll want to read the story.
My hero Fergus is complicated and yet still alluring, thank you very much, Miss! (Just for the record, Maggie does have a problem with the dry-hump.) What I am doing is  asking the reader to step into a different time, a different set of morals, a different religious sensibility. Fergus belongs to a different era, which makes him  a little complicated for our modern day heroine.  Do you want historical fiction or just a paper-thin story? I have my own agenda, my own literary voice, and I don't need to borrow anything from another writer. This is a book written by Claire R. McDougall. It says so on the front cover, something our reviewer appears to have missed. It's a good book. A jewel of a story!
So, hand me that glass of lemonade, will you?  I will pull up my chin, and I will try not to choke.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Back Covers and Wrinkly bums

20th December 2013

Long ago before I was a published writer, I used to think about how I would like to be portrayed on the back cover of my book. I thought about this quite a bit. In fact, I even went ahead and had a photo taken by a photographer friend (just in case.) Every so often it got updated. This one was taken about four or five years ago:
( I am now going to wow everybody by putting a picture in here.)

Oops, it didn't go in here (I'll explain this later.) It went up there, but I am no computer whizz, let me tell you. Just to prove the point I am going to add another, more updated, picture here:

It was supposed to go here, but it went even further up the page (I'll explain this later, too.) Look, you should marvel that I moved any picture around at all. (I was idly flicking through the icons and came across one that said, "insert image," a no-brainer, even for me.)
Early this week my editor told me I had until Friday to send them my back cover picture.  Not a problem, I thought. After all, I had been preparing for this moment for years.  So I sent off the black and white one. It came back - not enough pixels. I sent off the other one. It came back - not enough pixels either. Panic ensued. We need 300 pixels, Claire. They might have asked me to dance a Flamenco.  One day out from the deadline, still no photo, and the pixies were not being kind.
Okay, said my wise and wonderful editor, find yourself a teenager and ask them to help you. Teenagers know nothing about life, but they know all about clicking on this icon and that and saying, "There's something toggled in your set-up." I speak two other languages apart from English (and have tried to learn Gaelic, I have, I have, but it evades me) so why can't I learn computer-ese?
Look here's another picture:

That's the cover art for my book, but it isn't where it should be in the blog, because...wait a minute, a teenager just walked by, and now I know how to sort the problem. "Just click and drag," they say. Click and drag. Of course, why didn't I think of that? Now all the pictures are where they should be, and I have a blog this week with images! Here's the back cover picture that finally made it through with enough pixels:

Just for good measure, here's a random photo of people who probably know even less about clicking and dragging then I do. I do not know these people, and I can only look at his picture for so long, but you get the sense that they are posing and must never have seen themselves from the back.

Pictures, portraits, nudity, no real salient point - this blog could go viral (and even I know what that means!)

Friday, December 13, 2013

Shades of Nonsense

13th December 2013

I wonder how you judge books for prizes. What is there in writing that is quantifiable in any way? Woody Allen never attends Oscar ceremonies. He says, "They're political and bought and negotiated for - although many worthy people have deservedly won - and the whole concept of awards is silly. I cannot abide by the judgment of other people, because if you accept it when they say you deserve an award, then you have to accept it when they say you don't." 
Allen has a point there. 
Yesterday they announced the judges for the new and re-vamped (expanded to the Americas) Mann Booker Prize, among them an American professor, an Oxford professor, a neuroscientist, a philosopher, an American critic, and the director of the British arts council. There are four men and two women - could they honestly not find another random person who happened to be female? Madonna? JK Rowling? Jane Goodall? Or did they just have to show that men know best when it comes to handing out prizes?
At any rate, in their gender-lobsidedness, their goal, as stated, is to pick "the very best work of literary fiction." They will whittle down the numbers to twelve in July of next year and then to six by September. You just wonder what the operating criteria are: buzz-worthiness? Surely now that the Booker prize has been extended to the Americas, we are not going to see Shades of Grey get any shades of recognition. Still, they don't want to pick anything too obscure, too unsold, no matter what its literary merit. The truth is that very often Booker Prizes like Pulitzer prizes go to authors that are never heard from again. If you look at the lists of winners through the years, hardly any are recognisable. How about Bernice Rubens, Stanley Middleton, Roddy Doyle, to name but a few?
Is the panel going for location, location, location? The prize is almost certainly going to go to an American writer next year, otherwise why expand the prize's geographical boundaries?  Shades of Grey might be brought out of the shadows for the literary spectacle that it is. Did I say, "literary"? How clumsy of me. Perhaps the panel might decide to show the world how terribly hip and in touch with the times it is. E.L. James, take out your black dress and diamonds! 
Fellow Scottish writer, A.L.Kennedy, who was a judge in 1996, called the prize "a pile of crooked 
nonsense" with the winner determined by "who knows who, who's sleeping with who, who's selling drugs to who, who's married to who, whose turn it is".  E.L. James, get out your notepad - there is a story here. Only you might have to call it "Shades of Nonsense." (A.L.Kennedy, it's "whom.")
I should probably have called myself C.R. McDougall to even be considered for a Mann Booker prize. I should definitely be sleeping with someone - mmm, decisions, decisions, the neuroscientist or the philosopher? But now I understand why there are four men and two women on the panel!
On another note, but a similar shade of nonsense - last month was National Novel Writing Month. The slogan?: "Thirty days and nights of literary abandon." It's a big notion and a big deal, too. Such notable books as "Water for Elephants," were composed during a month of literary abandon such as this. As if literary abandon were a place you could go, an urge with a destination similar to feeling like a burger and trotting off to McDonalds. "Literary abandon" is as silly a phrase as "Reading is sexy," which you hear bandied around these days. It's meant to provide some allure to people with otherwise little literary inclination. Reading isn't sexy.  It would be sexier to stay in the realm of possibility and engage with another human being. And writing might involve abandon, but there the similarity to sex ends.  All I can say is Freud must have been right - sex does sell, but it is only the idea of sex, just like these literary honours might just be the idea of literary perfection: it founders on the doorstep of the real world. 
It just makes writing sound like the mystical experience that it isn't, as though it is a romantic process, like writing on a valentine's card. There is just something in us that needs to think halos shine above the tellers of stories, above those who judge them. It makes us want to see the prizes as glittering, handed out by wizards, and not what they are: human, all too human. 
(N.B. If any lob-sided panel wants to give me one, I am willing to be shiny for a day!)

Friday, December 6, 2013

Dark Matter and the Bothersome Rant

6th December 2013

Coeur de lion Nelson Mandela! All men die. Not all men truly live. But Madiba did!

Sometimes you have to take stock. You have to ask yourself why you do what you do. I have to wonder why I spend my life as a pen-pusher (as Kazantzakis would have said.) Why do I bother writing? Why do I bother with the books and the blogs, with the tweets? Why do I bother at all?

Quite apart from the creative urge, here is why: it matters to me that we as a race need a new paradigm. I should probably say, we as Westerners need a new paradigm, but there isn't much of what is not the West that has not been infiltrated. Only a few untouched outposts in the rain forest remain. But the bulldozers are on the way, and I don't just mean tractors, I mean this disease we call western civilisation which is a moving body with no heart.
But then there are the physicists in the West who live in an entirely different universe than the common person. They are working at the level of sub-atomic particles and the result is a new paradigm. Once the word gets out. I have to ask who is holding it back? Once we get it, we will not be able to view experience in the same old way, and that will change everything. Thousands of years ago, sages from all corners of the world were saying, there's not really anything there, and it doesn't matter because that's not what is important! That was the ancient paradigm. Now the physicists, those former slaves of materialism, are saying essentially the same thing.
I just don't understand why there exists this enormous gap in time from the father of quantum physics, Einstein, almost a hundred years ago, to us now walking about the streets with our staunch belief in solid space, solid time, solid politics, solid religion. We are a constipated mass of humanity lacking the fluidity that those in the rain forest might still have, those for whom the earth is still infused with the heavens. Everything for us is fixed. If you live in America, then the conservative party will play on this notion of constipated inertia by running around screaming about the dangers of new-fangled socialism, as if half the world isn't already happily socialist. Much more happily socialist than capitalist America, if you go by the surveys.
So we need a new paradigm, one that involves circles and not pyramids. The pyramid power structure belongs to the days of kings and explorers and popes sanctioning extermination of native populations and creating manifest lies like manifest destiny. We need a new paradigm where the people of the world negotiate and cooperate. We need the circle of elders, not the kings, not the presidents, not the CEO's, not the popes or the priests.  And, just as a matter of historical fact, those circle of elders so romantically portrayed in Hollywood as gatherings of pipe-puffing gentlemen in feather head dresses was just as likely to be comprised of women. It was only when the male powers-that-were who conquered this land insisted on negotiating (or so they said) with men from the indigenous people, that the male "chief" arose, the one we recognise who held up his hand and said "How," who spoke uggy wuggy for Hollywood audiences - that's when the women of the native peoples lost their status.
Here's what I think, and why this all matters to me: a plane load of people on  9/11 were held hostage by two guys with box cutters. The world today is being held hostage by a bunch of powerful box cutters at the top of the pyramid. And we need a new paradigm, folks.
I don't write for the prettiness of words, though I often read for that reason. I don't come up with plots because they might be mildly amusing, because book groups might decide that I know how to put a sentence together. What I want is for people to say: I'd never thought of that before; I'd never thought how the world would look differently if we as a race hadn't bought into the pyramid scheme. We can have all the technology we want, and it would have come anyway, but we need to find a new place for the sacred circle. There is a very big reason that the  circle was sacred to our far ancestors. Our entire survival might rest on our seeing that.
We need a new paradigm, because the old one simply doesn't work. Here we are on the brink of 2014 with the ice caps melting, with the deserts spreading, with the earth's clean water in serious jeopardy, with the Middle East about to implode, with rampant human rights abuse. We need to stop listening to the old paradigm, which says wealth equals happiness. We need to stop seeing ourselves as consumers and take back our humanity.
I know I harp on about loss of the sacred feminine and about Scottish independence, but really, both are about this same change in paradigm I am speaking of.  My book is about holding a light to the so-called "dark ages." Dark because of what? Because it lacked the "pure light of reason?" Because it was pagan and not Christian?  Look where the pure light of reason has brought us? It has divided our world into black and white, into heart and head, into a sterile atmosphere where "heart talk," or "spirit talk" or "woman talk" is thought of as inferior.
We need to stop arguing about oil, and we need to stop listening to the heart of darkness that says man lives by bread alone, by the Rolex watches and the fast cars and other icons of male prowess. I'm not letting women off the hook, because there are many women who have bought into this insanity. But it is not in our nature: we are creatures of the circle, not the pyramid, as I think my book shows. And the sequel shows even more.
Scotland - well, that's a whole rant unto itself. Tune back in next week. (Maybe.) Suffice it to say that one small voice in one corner of the world saying "Enough!" to colonialism and imperialistic greed can move mountains.
Here endeth the rant. But somebody has to take a stand. Mendela did.
This is why I bother.

Friday, November 29, 2013

In Everything Give Thanks

29th November 2013

I quote 2 Thessalonians only in deference to Thanksgiving this week - I don't want anyone to think I have gone back to my evangelical ways. But then I share my birthday with evangel Billy Graham, so  the compulsion is always there. Then again, Joni Mitchell was also born on my birthday, or I was born on hers, so there is no compulsion whatever.
This thanksgiving is being spent in Ithaca, New York, which is a use of the passive tense, and an aberration in the eyes of Strunk and White in their much celebrated book on the elements of style. Writing in the passive tense is also eschewed by Stephen King in his fantastic book on writing, but then he is pretty much a strict devotee of the two grammarians who both lived and worked at Ithaca New York's prestigious university, Cornell.  Which is why I bring it up (a sentence that would have brought the Strunk and White house down around my ears.)  Avoid the passive tense at all costs, say the two gentlemen, for it is a weak tense and lowly of heart. Refrain from using the passive voice or else Microsoft will underline your words with a green squiggle. In the world of tenses, la voix passive is an invalid, stuck in its literary wheel chair and unable to stand.
But tenses don't evolve for no reason, and using the passive tense is not always a sign of weakness. Lately critics have been taking Strunk and White grammatical dictates back and chastising the ancient gentlemen for throwing the populace into a state of grammatical angst. G Pullam laments the state of affairs whereby this land of the free lies in the grip of Strunk and White. He says fifty years of stupid grammar advice is quite enough, thank you, and why should our spoken English be always one step away from a gnawing unease at every utterance of the passive voice or downright disgust at the split infinitive. Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise recognises no such bounds and boldly goes where no grammar has gone before. So why shouldn't we? It wouldn't have the same ring, would it, "to go boldly"? It loses its adventure. It makes you want to grab the English back like a security blanket from the parental hands of Strunk an White and cry, "No! Mine!"
They don't care for adjectives and adverbs either, our Messrs. S&W.  They want you to keep it simple and not get too off-beat. They not only want you to kill your darlings, but to entertain no darlings at all. Many have been the well meaning readers of my writing that have groaned in red ink at my overuse of adjectives and adverbs.
Okay. They are right to a point:
"I am on to you," Sally said to Joe knowingly.
We don't want to be hit over the head with how on the ball Sally is.                                                   But, "I love you," Sally said with a sneer - this qualifies the spoken word to the point of changing it. And adjectives? Why the disdain? Adjectives are, in the parlance of kindergarten, describing words. What a luscious job they have - describing. Someone in my writer's group years ago used to write OTT (over the top) on my manuscripts. Strunk and White were peering down at my style over his shoulder and clucking their dead tongues. But the best parts of books to me are the describing passages. Take the adjectives from Paul Harding's Tinker's and the frame of the book would collapse. You want to steer clear of cliches, of course, because cliches are phrases that, though once new, have lost their edge. But don't skimp on adjectives or adjectival phrases. Describe - it's what sets an author apart from everyone else. Hell throw in a cliche every so often. Cliches have a hidden beauty - there is a reason they have been overused.    
In terms of creative writing, conventions in any case go out the window. The language is your own, and that's what makes it interesting. Ask James Joyce, a veritable Strunk and White nightmare. And he knew thing or two about words on a page, at least, he knew how to go down in literary history.
But enough about Strunk and White and the elements of style. Enough about Ithaca New York.
Thanksgiving will be spent here, whether the infamous gentlemen are here to see it or not.
On the publishing front: Short of a couple of outstanding reviews, the cover of my book is set, so I have a good one-liner on the front and three full length reviews on the back.  The previous line on the front about One Woman, Two Worlds and a Love that Knows no Bounds has been replaced by Jillian Medoff's line about how reading Veil of Time is like falling into an enchanted place from which the reader doesn't want to awaken. If any prospective reviews come in late, they will go on the Amazon page or in the inside of the book. So I am told. So the passive voice is employed. So, while you are not supposed to judge a book by its cover, what goes on the cover of a book goes a long way to promoting it.
While castigating Strunk and White, I should have mentioned that the White of Cornell fame is also the EB White of Charlotte's Web notoriety - a book with no small comet's tail: a publishing history of more than ten million books sold in twenty-three languages. The man had a way with words. He knew a thing  or two about the power of description, about adjectives with resonance, life-saving adjectives, like Terrific, Radiant, Humble. One could argue that better adjectives could have been used, and one might use that passive voice to take the edge off the accusation.
We need the passive voice, like we need so many things that have fallen into disrepute by the dictates of convention. Like the sacred feminine. Like Scotland. And though we probably shouldn't start sentences with a conjunction, we do need to be footloose and free-floating with words. They should be daffodils tossing their heads in the rain, not dried flowers on the sideboard.
We need all of this and we shouldn't forget at any time that the most important of these is to give thanks. (Stuffed to the gills with turkey and pecan pie, that's  as close to spellcheck and a poignant ending as I'm going to get, the elements of style notwithstanding.)

Friday, November 22, 2013

Ecce CyberNats!

22nd November, 2013

I was talking to my agent, the estimable Esmond Harmsworth of Zachary, Shuster & Harmsworth, who is a busy little bee and has been finding me reviews and having breakfast with people high up in the world of media. He is high up himself, being a better class of a Brit than I am (Brits have this class consciousness thing going, thankfully unreplicated in the New World where money not blood speaks.) Yes, very distracting this class business, but at any rate, I was talking to him about the publicity angle of the book launch. He had found out from my editor at Simon and Schuster that pre-orders for my book are actually doing quite well with independent bookstores, though not so well with Barnes and Noble. The numbers are "soft," he said. I don't know what to make of that, so I am not going to try.
Veil of Time is not coming out for three and a half months, but now I am panicking. The cogs had better start turning now - I had better get my bleeding ducks in a row, because it is a dog-eat-dog world of cliches out there where books fly in and out of book sellers, and before you know it you're finding your beloved tome on the shelves of the local thrift shop. This is actually my most monstrous fear, not the cliches, which I kind of like, but finding my lovely book languishing among all the other well-meant, feverishly-researched, lovingly-mastered books on the thrift shop shelf. Just think, each of these arrived in a box of others of its kind into the homes of an eagerly awaiting author, was fondled like a lover, cherished like a child, and bought by friends and family, only to be criticised by the high-minded and fall off into irrelevance like a disgarded wrapper from McDonald's. Oh woe! The cliches go on.  I do like to wallow in imminent tragedy.  It gives a writer a sense of importance to come to such a sorry end.
To avoid this, I have been spending long bog-eyed hours in front of my computer, composing riveting letters to the editors of magazines and other forums that might let me have a moment to jump up and down and shout, "Over here! A new novel, a new Scottish novel, with bells and whistles and brutish  handsome Scotsmen with tattoos and a heroine who keeps slipping in and out of the 8th century. Buy my book! Make me a success.! Help me to go down in posterity!"
I have been assigned two publicists by my publisher, and I talked on the phone to one of them just the other day for the first time. It was like a breath of fresh air!  Relax, she said, let us do our job! Well, she might not have said those exact words, but words to that effect. They have people running through websites and blogsites, running through publications and book reviewers. They know just where to place me. They are the experts. They do this for a living.
Isn't it nice to be able to say, "My publicist advised me..." "My publicist is of the opinion that.." How many people have publicisits? It's a hard word to say! I can't even spell it! I love it!  And I have one! Two, actually. I am talking to my publicist, and I ask a question about sales in Scotland, so she leans over to someone in Foreign Sales and asks the question. They send books out for me to reviewers, like the editor at Scottish Heritage Magazine who wanted one. There are even e-gallies, which are accessible on line if you have the secret password!
So, the face of publishing has changed dramatically over the last few years. The book tour is really a thing of the past (unless you're a celebrity - I have a publicist but I am not a celebrity!) Unless people are going to turn out in their hundreds, you can't reach that many people at a book signing. As my publicist told me, every author has had the experience of turning up at a book signing and being the only one who does. I'm not sure my fragile author-ego would survive that one!   So, publicity these days is all about social media. Heck, Obama won two elections by being savvy about this stuff. England is so nervous about the Scottish National Party using this stuff that they have given people who use it the nasty term CyberNats!
But you can't fight it, and why should you? Have your book reviewed on GoodReads or Bookwheel, and you have reached thousands of potential readers in one fell swoop. One savvy Tweet on Twitter and you have just extended your reach a thousand fold. So, it is all good. Especially because it effectively rescues me from the thing most people rank with fear of death: fear of standing up in a bookshop and addressing an audience of one

Friday, November 15, 2013

It Be All His Fancy!

15th November 2013

The quest is still on for getting reviews ("blurbs" - they have invented a whole new word stem here: blurbed, blurbers, blurbees. My agent just found one for me from Jillian Medoff (Hunger Point), who wrote nice things, like, "reading Veil Of Time was a trip into an enchanted dream that the reader doesn't want to wake up from." So, I have three good reviews at this point, and the net has been cast for the catching of others. My agent says my book is a "guilty pleasure," for the sophisticated ones, because though it is literary, it is also fantasy. But not as fantastical as it used to be.
Scientists are already discovering that particles go back and forth though time, which is in itself anyway this nebulous cloud of something or other moving in vague circles. Time, my friends, just ain't what it used to be, when you could see yourself stepping on to one end of a time line at birth and dropping off the other at death.  Time is the great mystery, and scientists are tying themselves in knots just trying to utter one coherent sentence about it.
I thought Einstein's saying, "The distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion," would be a fine line to splash across the front of my book, but I met some resistance there. But I should persist with that, because readers, hell, Romance readers, respect Einstein and the world of science, and it would be better for my prospects if the idea of travelling through time were entertained by the scientific community, which it is. I think the most we can say is that time is an illusion. We perceive it as going in one direction because the Big Bang set everything into motion towards entropy, but the thing we call time -  past present and future - is all relative. The faster you go in space, the more time slows down - a little known scientific fact. If you could go at the speed of light, time wouldn't exist at all. And the more science goes on about things that defy all explanation, the more it sounds like the vedas or other books of wisdom encrypted when man was just beginning to figure things out and when he was more connected to the workings of the universe naturally.
Universes are made and fall in the dream of Brahma....religion or theoretical physics? "There's no necessary limitation upon the number of universes, i.e. there can be many universes, i.e., a multiverse." Where did that come from? It's what they're talking about these days in physics. So, time and space are being turned on their head. We've come full circle from the mystics of old, and now we know that anything we say about the universe is just fancy. In the words of Lewis Caroll's gryphon, "It be all his fancy, that!"
The point is, my book Veil of Time is aptly named, and its timing is also apt, because we're only just now beginning to realise that time is at best a veil, at worst a puff. I didn't plan my book this way - it evolved all by its own self, because writers are always accidentally putting their toes on the rim of a land mine and having it go off in their faces. I didn't think I was writing about multiverses, but I suppose I am, and at least one theoretical physicist is doing back flips over it.
The other thing my book turned out to be was a shout out for Scotland. I won't say that was accidental, but I didn't contrive in my head to make it so. All I wanted was to write about this place I grew up near where the kings of Scotland were once crowned, but the minute you start looking at the history of Scotland, the more you have to concede that its neighbour to the south has played things pretty dirty over the course of time. I won't go so far as to use the words tyranny and imperialism, but why not? The artist is committed to truth. The tyranny goes on - just look at the "No" campaign leading up to the referendum on Scottish independence. Somebody leaked out that the in-house name for this movement from the south of the border is "Project Fear." I rest my case.
The other thing my book turned out accidentally to be was a book about women and the sacred feminine. I am one of the least likely to be known as a feminist, since I am more easily drawn to the company of men, but, again, when you take a look at history, at least the last five thousand years or so, what you see is one sex lauding it over the other, and very often going to extremes to declare itself king.
The church has been at the forefront of this movement over the past sixteen hundred years or so, leaving us religiously bereft.
I didn't have any clue what I was getting myself into when I put a thesis on witch burnings into the hands of my protagonist, but that's the great thing about writing stories - the characters can take over. On a good day, they are taking over and talking among themselves, and all you have to do is listen and write. I suppose it wouldn't be a great day if they all decided to mutiny - you'd have all these men and women walking right off the pages of your book, like a scene from Harry Potter.
So, you're getting into a lot more than you bargain for when you sit down to write a story. I thought my book was about Dunadd, but it is about a whole lot more. It might one day be about a film, and if that day comes, I will be knocking on Scottish actor Richard Madden's door and asking him how he'd like to play my handsome hero Fergus McBridghe. I think about these things, even though it may all just be my fancy, that.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Witches and Ghoulies

8th November, 2013

Beautiful Colorado has sunk into its frozen state early this year. The exceptionally colourful autumn has been overtaken by the spirits of antartica, clothing the scene from my window in white, gripping everything and squeezing the last life out of it, putting nature down to sleep. I always think of it as Narnia, this frozen lifeless country, because this is the way it will stay now forever, at least that is the way it seems. The Queen of Narnia has cast her spell and left us shivering and shrunken. She is a cruel goddess, this hag of winter, and knows no mercy.
Last week we celebrated Halloween, which is a holiday that to the pagans was a way of dancing with this hag and coming out the other end. They called it in Scotland "Samhain," (with the unlikely pronunciation of Sah-voon) The Christians co-opted it and threw out the goddess to make it a celebration of the saints instead. But you need the goddess when you are trying to survive the onslaught of winter. You need to know that ultimately the earth is kind. The opposite celebration to Samhain was Beltaine at the beginning of May. At that time the hag would turn into the young woman with flowers in her hair (and otherwise not much cover, because she was now the goddess, not of death but of life and regeneration.)
When I was growing up in my evangelical family, all of this goddess talk was considered playing with fire, talking to the devil. And it was playing with fire - each of these pagan celebrations was always accompanied by a fire from the highest geographical point around.  On November 5th in Scotland it is "Bonfire Night," and even though it is now celebrated in the name of Guy Fawkes, it originally had to do with the Samhain fire. Nowadays, you burn an effigy of Guy Fawkes in your bonfire, but fire, until it was used by the Christians to burn up "witches," (read druidesses) was not negative, but highly positive. It was one of those elements like water which seemed to symbolise the in-between zone between life and death, spirit and matter. I think you feel this when you stand by a bonfire - it has a magical quality that draws you in, puts you in that timeless zone that all religious feeling is supposed to engender.
So, playing with fire it is, but talking to the devil, not so much. The notion of an evil male anti-god came to Scotland with the first monks. Until then the "horned god," (did the Christians take that notion and run with it or what?) was the companion of the goddess, and good balance of yang to her yin. But if you turn that horned god (horned, by the way, because he wore the antlers of the stag) into evil, you lose the balance that he is there to maintain. And so you get a world out of balance, which is what we have. How out of balance is the argument of big industry that it can't improve its carbon footprint in the interests of saving the planet, because it would cost too much? How big do the blinkers have to be?
I have faith, though, in the Gaia principle, which is what, I think, the notion of the goddess was in reality - the belief that an intelligence (an intelligence closer to nurturing female energy) operates the controls and will redress any imbalance.
Let's build our fires, then, and call upon the queen of fire to hear us, now at the start of her sleep and in May to wake her up and start to paint flowers on the earth again.
The best scene in "The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe,"is when nature takes back Narnia, and all the stone statues come back to life; the snow melts and flowers blossom like they do in nature programmes with time-lapse photography. In this out-of-balance wacky world, we have all been slowly turning to stone. There is no way to get back to our goddess view of the world, because it belonged to a different time and sensibility, but we can see our modern stone-age for what its is, something badly in need of heart. We can stand up against the powers of industry and gun-propagation and exploitation; we can defuse the power of gold by not participating in the madness. That doesn't mean we have to go and live in the woods. In the high mountain woods, you wouldn't survive. But it means re-assessing our gain and what we have lost, understanding who we are as human beings, more than anything else, homo religiosus. Femina religiosus.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Chinese Whispers

1st November, 2013

Got word this morning that my novel is on its way to Diana Gabaldon (with the caveat that she is up against a deadline herself and may not get to my book in time for a jacket blurb.) My editor was once assistant editor to Gabaldon's editor, and so the network was set, and here I am down the line reaping the benefit of those tendrils. Some people are very good at the business of networking, and I am about the worst, but at least a lot of this is done in virtual reality these days and not at cocktail parties. My vision of hell is of a never-ending cocktail party, particularly of the British variety, where attendees have not generally been brought up to socialise on this level. How many times have I clung to a tiny sherry glass, trying to swallow the awful finger foods (a pineapple or a piece of sausage or cheddar cheese off the end of a cocktail stick) while I did my best to sink into the floor and go unnoticed? I don't know who invented the food stuff of the cocktail hour, but what are you supposed to do with the cocktail stick once you have removed the offensive piece of food off the end - use it to take a jab at other awkward people trying their own very best to sink into the floor? Americans are better at all this sort of stuff. They have learned the art of setting others at parties at ease. British cocktail do's are nearly all upper class affairs (the British working class feel no compulsion to make conversation under any circumstances, a feature I miss on this side of the Atlantic - there is something enormously comforting about sitting in silence with others.)
So, you're grasping hard the tiny stem of your sherry glass, standing next to some other bundle of nerves, waiting for the moment to inspire a question, which never comes. There is much shifting of feet and noises such as only Rowan Atkinson normally makes in his incarnation as Mr. Bean, until some such phrase as "I'm Giles" or "Interesting party," or "How about a pickled onion on a stick?" drifts up into the air as though no one actually spoke it and it was simply manifest of the general air of forced communion.
Because normal discourse is hard for Brits, forced social situations give birth to abberations like one young man, unknown to me, who once sat next to me at table in college (picture Hogwarts dining hall, because that's what it was - they actually filmed that at my alma mater, Christ Church, Oxford) muttering vile suggestions to me under his breath. Here we were in our academic dress (flowing robes and silly hats) and at first I couldn't believe what I was hearing, but he kept saying these things, and being a well-brought-up Brit myself, I wasn't able to just turn to him and tell him to piss off.
I have been thinking of my alma mater of late because I am asking them to put a paragraph about my upcoming book in their quarterly magazine (amusingly called "Christ Church Matters.") I think Hugh Grant left Christ Church as an undergraduate the year I arrived as a post graduate, so I never saw him (or so I think - maybe he was the character muttering obscentites to me at table that night - given his later forays into the Santa Monica league of prostitution, it seems entirely likely.)
Point is, I am rattling my brain to find anyone or place of note to get the word out about my book. I have so far had two reviews - one that said, "If there is any justice in the world, this will be the next Time Traveller's Wife" - I jest not.  My editor called this "a money quote." The other said that Veil of Time is a fine novel and a saga of the first order.  (Both of these reviewers, however, were well enough acquainted with me to know that I could come after them with my second degree black belt karate skills.) Diana Gabaldon is not of that order, nor is Dan Brown, to whom I have a teentsie connection (well, my brother-in-law taught at Phillips Exeter with his dad!) But my editor says a blurb from him would give the reader the wrong impression about the nature of the book. Ha!   :-)
And yet, and yet. Despite the vastly differing writing styles and the different audience, I still think there is a lot in common between the types of topics Dan Brown grapples with and my own - we both lament the passing of woman-centric religions and both have a lot to say about the role of the church in all of this. But we will leave this matter in the lap of the gods. Nay, we will leave it in the lap of the goddess, a kinder and softer and more inclusive place to be.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Racy Blood

25th October 2013

One thing I am learning about posting blogs is that you should be very careful with titles.  A blog I posted a few weeks ago entitled, "Literary Bleeding Hearts," apparently created a big stir within the vampire community and I was getting all kinds of hits from their websites. They must have been very disappointed to find out I was simply waxing lyrical about metaphorical blood from the existential wounds of writers. A more recent post called "Pretty Faces," was inundated by porn sites, and in that case I was actually happy to have wasted their time, because all I was going on about was how little writers make in general and even in Hollywood, because nothing says blockbuster to the moguls in Tinsel Town like a pretty face. From now on I will try to have blog titles with less flair, and then maybe I will go back to the small but steady stream of readers who are actually in tune with the theme of this blog, which is how, from the author's point of view, a book gets from here to over there in the publishing houses and onto the shelves. It is not intended to be a how-to, because I have been pretty unadventurous in the whole scheme, but it is a record of how it happened to me, for what that is worth.
Oh, it's a long and drawn out business.
John Steinbeck (who in case someone hasn't gathered yet, I have a particular fondness for) says it's "a real horse's ass business." It is, and just as when you stand at the back of a horse, you are sometimes marvelling at the grandeur of the beast, sometimes standing down-wind of a lot of hot air and sometimes being outright kicked.
Stephen King in his fantastic little book "On Writing," says, "Writing isn't about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it's about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own as well. It's about getting up, getting well and getting over."
To paraphrase him a little further, it's about getting over yourself. Steinbeck says about writing, "The mountain labors and groans and strains and the tiniest rodent comes out. And the greatest foolishness of all lies in the fact that to do it at all, the writer must believe that what he is doing is the most important thing in the world. And he must hold to this illusion, even when he knows it is not true."
Not only that, but the pay is lousy.
People tell me from time to time that they have pre-ordered my book, but there seems no way of telling how sales are doing generally. I have a special "author's portal" into the Simon and Schuster website, but, as my agent tells me, you don't know anything about sales until you get your first paycheck, and that presumably won't be until I have paid off my advance. Wouldn't it be nice to pay off your advance just in pre-sales? The way it goes, I will only make about a dollar per book (more on e-book sales - more, but not a whole lot more, as it should be), so I would have to sell something close to ten thousand books ahead of time to pay off my advance before March of next year.
But, as King says, writing books is not about making money (how can he say that - he's sold so many books he has lost count?) He can say that because there was a time when Stephen King's telephone was cut off because he didn't have enough money to pay the bill, and yet he kept on writing. As in all other areas of achievement, it seems that perseverance is the key factor. To quote Rockefeller, the richest man in history, "I do not think that there is any other quality so essential to success of any kind as the quality of perseverance. It overcomes almost everything, even nature."
That means that talent isn't even key. There is no simple equation between talent and success. Stephen King's first book Carrie was rejected thirty times. JK Rowling's first Harry Potter book was rejected twelve times and then she was told by her publisher to get a day job because there is no money in children's books! Einstein, who didn't speak until he was four and didn't read until he was eleven, was thought by his parents and teachers to be mentally handicapped. Vincent Van Gogh painted eight hundred pieces in his lifetime and sold one  - to a friend.
Old Japanese proverb say: Fall down seven times. Get up eight.
That's the story of writing and publishing in a nutshell: Keep getting back up!

Friday, October 18, 2013

One woman. Two worlds. And a love that knows no bounds.

October 18th, 2013

All the buzz this week has been about judging a book by its cover - I got a draft of the close-to-final copy for the back cover in which my story is tailored for the best market. The tagline on the front cover reads: One Woman. Two Worlds. And a Love that Knows no Bounds. I can almost hear the ultra-deep voice-over: In a World where love knows no bounds...
That's how they sell books these days, and I will be very glad if they sell mine in heaps!  Selling your soul to the devil be damned - I'm walking with him right into his fiery lair.  You want Romance? You got romance - you got a love that knows no bounds, because that, I guess, is what we have to believe in. You got Mary Shelley who kept her husband's heart wrapped in a cloth in the top drawer of her desk (gruesome!) You got WB Yeats pining away most of his life for love of Maude Gonne. You have Robert Browning losing his heart (but not literally this time) to Elizabeth Barrett (even though she looked like a man in drag); you have Abelard for young Heloise, who had him by the goolies until the goolies went missing one night, and then you had a monk pining for a nun. There's Simon De Beauvoir pining for Jean Paul Sartre, a five foot toad with a large cranium (who says size doesn't matter?) but possibly the worst teeth in all of literary history. Love is blind. And so, presumably are most readers  readers, who will read anything so long as it has as its theme endless love.
My readers will in large part be female (so I am told repeatedly - well, they make up 62% of fiction readers - 91% of Romance), and I am tempted to call  all women out on the need for tales of endless love and order them to stand on their own two feet. Love like this might exist, but it ain't going to make you feel any better about yourself if you don't already. But I like love stories, too, and I sorely miss them when they are absent. I don't care for that celibate protagonist Langdon from Dan Brown's books. I decry gratuitous sex in books, but I keep wanting Langdon to forget himself and run his hand up Sophie Neveu or Vittoria Vetra's leg. It's the mix of spices, isn't it? I don't care for bland saltless food, and no more can I take a depiction of life without sex. It feels limp (so to speak) and lacking somehow. So, I am the perfect author to be writing tales of love that knows no bounds. I suppose even the most vigilant of us are looking for our happy-ever-after. Slap it on the front cover then: this author wants  immortal love and she hopes you do, too.
They want a photo of me now, too, for the back cover. I sent one, but it didn't have enough pixies in it. I don't have enough pixies in me, that's for sure, otherwise I would never sink into those morose moments (or longer than moments) that writers are famous for. The question is how glamorous to appear in a back cover photo, how young? It inevitably happens that you go along to a book reading only to find that something like twenty years separates the person in front of you from the one you saw and liked so much on the back cover of their book. But what can you do - we live in a culture of youth, though the youth know nothing, and wisdom is housed in bags of saggy wrinkles. Writers, like everyone else, must be eternally young and ensconced in immortal love. So the pictures aren't exactly telling a lie, but they ain't telling the truth either.  I can do nothing about my wrinkles unless I go and have them surgically removed, which would offend my deep literary ethics. Because in books women, even old women, are always beautiful.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Pretty Faces

11th October, 2013

Lots of excitement this week! I got back from that dog walk with which I ended last week's blog to find a box of bound galleys of Veil Of Time waiting at my doorstep. I wasn't expecting them,  and I haven't got teary yet about the whole publishing deal, but I have to say that as I lifted the first of sixteen of my books out of the cardboard box, my adam's apple did seem all of a sudden awfully large. The book runs to about 395 pages, and seems quite thick, but then the font isn't small. It's a classy looking book, for all that it is not a hardcover, with the stark black background and the scene of the wilds across the naked back of the girl.
There is nothing like holding in your hand the first copy of your book. As long as you are passing computer files back and forth with your agent and then your editor, and even after you have seen a printed copy, the process still feels a bit like one of those polaraoid instant pictures waiting to take shape in your hand. There is something magical about holding any book you are about to read for the first time, like having a ticket to a fantastical destination in your pocket. But it is all the more sweet when you are the creator. It's a moment of feeling like God. Just a moment. Just a nano second.
The bound galley version is what gets sent out to possible reviewers. It was taken from the script before I made the last editing pass (so not much will change.) I have sent a copy off to Anthony Peake in England because of his interest in the connection between epilepsy and time travel (from a theoretical physicist's point of view) and to local writer Scott Lasser (who has four books by Norton to his name.)
I sat across a table with Scott in the Main St. Bakery a couple of days ago, just as twenty years ago we sat across the table from each other in the local writer's group. We had differences in our literary taste back then and still do, but it was a poignant moment that found two would-be writers transported forward twenty years into their active literary careers. He makes money writing for Hollywood these days. He seems a tad jaded by the publishing business, and maybe I'll feel that way, too, after four books. For now, I'm still cheerfully optimistic and that is my prerogative as a bushy-tailed writer pulling her first bound galley out of its casing. At any rate, I handed Scott my book across the table - he looked through it and went "mmm," and "mmm." He said, "Impressive." His last book was titled, "Say Nice Things About Detroit." I asked him to say nice things about me.
My editor, Abby, is busy on the marketing trail selecting would-be reviewers (or "blurbers" as they say in the industry) mainly from the kind of genres that she thinks the audience is most likely to appreciate - mainly romance or historical fiction. I have taken my hands off that particular juggernaut because I don't have a heavy vehicle license and wouldn't know how to drive one anyway. Meanwhile, my agent is busy finding me blurbers from his agency's stable.
I have to say that this is where traditional publishing really comes into its own from a writer's point of view - I wouldn't know where to start if I were at this stage in self-publishing and needed some endorsements. But then I'm not that enterprising. Like Scott, I will undoubtedly get to the point of complaining about the small revenues a writer manages to squeeze out of a book's profits. But is  Hollywood any better? It's not, when you think of the salary of those who write film scripts against those who star in them. This is not a culture that honours creative genius like it does a good song and dance routine. Greece had its sportsmen and we have our pretty faces. Go put on your make-up. Go figure.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Praise Be

4th October 2013

Time passes. Now that we have hit October,  it is only five months until the publication of Veil Of Time! The thing about time is, it waits for no man. Nor woman. The point is, it takes no hostages, male or female. The blink of an eye, and you are dead in the water. And before I resort to any more cliches, let's move on. That's the publication part of the blog.
Here's the real topic of this week's blog: Writing. And a few praises.
Praise be to Gandhi who was born 144 years ago this week in India and who is an example to us all and without whom India would still be in bondage to England as Scotland still is, but that's another story.
I have attended many writers' groups and classes over my career (now that I am about to be published in five months, I can talk about the length of my career and how it started when I was twelve. My career has spanned many years, too many to mention. I am middle aged - that's as far as I'll go. It's more than twenty. It's actually more than thirty. That's really as far as I'll go.)
Point is,  there is so much standard advice out in the writing milieu: Show, don't tell; kill your darlings; leave out most adjectives; leave out all the adverbs; leave out anything but "said" in dialogue; no rambling sentences, and no dangling anything, male or female.
But once in a while, you hear something that puts a new spin on all of this rhetoric and gets to the heart of the matter. So, praise be to author Ron Carlson in whose class I sat one summer (along with someone else who is currently doing well in the publishing world, Linda Lafferty - in her acknowledgements to "The Drowning Guard," she offers thanks to dear old Ron for a pithy piece of advise which actually wasn't on my list of Carlson pithy sayings, but we'll get to that one, too.)  I am going to name three Carlsonisms, because they really are good and have stuck with me (and not much does.) I don't know where he got them. It could have been Wikipedia for all I know, except that this was before wiki leaks of any kind.
I might be more susceptible to this flaw than most. Ask anyone who knows me - I am always on my bully pulpit, I am the original proseltyser, and I always have an opinion. (I am also a very bad speller.) So I should have been a politician, except that if that had been in America I would currently be out of work (cf. government shutdown.) Everyone has their little hobby horses, and they like to ride them, but Carlson's point is, you don't ride them onto the page. A piece of writing has to breathe, not sputter in truisms. Literature (and especially poetry, you eejits!) buckles and sighs under the weight of ideas. Your story is about people, all the nitty gritty and the quirks and the failings. Get past your ideas if you are going to be a writer. That's not where writing comes from. (This is fast becoming my blog refrain.)
I feel the truth of this statement so keenly, but the mathematical reference throws me into panic. I didn't understand vectors when I was on my way to failing O'Level maths, and I still don't (Lines don't move, silly, they are  drawings! Would you have passed me?) I think what he means is similar to the first saying: don't cut your characters out of cardboard. They have to have a life of their own, and they have to be their own force in your story.
Number three: This one is the best, and I carry it around with me in my chest (which is also not a vector.) THE STORY IS THE MOTOR, BUT NOT THE FREIGHT. THE FREIGHT IS THE HUMAN HEART.
So there, Dan Brown and all you plot-driven novelists. No, I take that back - the freight of Dan Brown's books is ultimately the human heart - the loss of the sacred feminine, yes, all doing human heart work. Well, it's something to bear in mind, a reason to quiet the editor in your mind who wants to keep the plot moving at the expense of everything else. That's what makes me cringe about the industry idea of "the hook." The hook has a place in a story, of course, but it is not the freight! It is only the faint rumbling of an engine starting, not even the motor itself. The freight is the human heart - make your work bleed. Who said that you should be able to open a book on any page and catch it bleeding? Good god, I think it was Ron Carlson! Someone canonise that man, will you?
And so to the saying that Linda Lafferty took away from that class - it was the advice to Stay in the room. Writers, STAY IN THE ROOM! Live with a scene, a character, an exchange, and listen to the sound of it breathing. Yes, kill your darlings if need be, hide them behind the couch and mop up the blood stain, but stay in the room and let us join you.
Right now I am going to leave you there, living, breathing, pondering the human heart. You stay - I am going to walk my dogs.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Attention Fixation Disorder

27th Friday 2013

I went to a book launch recently where the writer disclosed that the only place she could write was in bed. I used to write in a closet (a useful Freudian metaphor) because there was no other space for my computer. I wrote a few novels in that closet. DH Lawrence liked putting his desk under a tree, some writers prefer hotel rooms, and others trains. I am so attached to my brown leather office chair, that I couldn't imagine being able to write at some writers' retreat or anywhere else. My desk is up against a wall, but I do have a view of trees from the sliding glass doors if I turn my head. Mostly, however, I am staring into a hovering middle distance which is where novels and poems and things artistic hang waiting to be picked. It's the kind of space in which alarms can go off, people can talk and babies can cry, but you hear none of it. You have stepped out of your framework of time and space and you are wandering, listening in on conversations that may never have been spoken, but probably have in one go-round or another. It's a sort of meditative trance and writers, for one, spend much of their time there. Between trance and tapping away on a keyboard, hours go by unobserved.
This might be a mental illness for which the experts currently have no name or way of diagnosing. It is sort of the opposite of Attention Deficit Disorder, but ought to have a similar kind of name: Attention Fixation Disorder. AFD.  I have AFD. I have episodes daily, and not only while sitting in my chair at my desk. If someone were to make a film of one of my days, there would be multiple times when the picture would dissolve to squiggly lines and I would be off catching letters and words and making them into sentences like the little boy Michael after a spoon full of sugar in Mary Poppins.
I was watching a documentary about Bipolar disorder. It is apparently quite hard to diagnose this disorder, except that it seems to have an underlying connection to creativity. They listed just about every artist that ever lived as a sufferer, and why am I not surprised? "Intense feelings" seem to be one of the criteria for diagnosis. Moodiness. Swings between happiness and sadness. Do I sound like I am describing a writer yet? Ask my husband.
Well, Beethoven might have been bipolar, but thank God on high he was. It all comes down to the question posed by Peter Shaffer in his brilliant play "Equus." Should you normalize someone who is sometimes in pain but at other times in ecstasy? Do you take away the pain and lose the passion? Does it just make us more comfortable to homogenize human feelings as though a person were a vat of milk? I don't know what the answer to this is. It might just be some people's lot in life to be wringing genius out of their torture. It's just hard to be a spectator on it, that's all.
So galleys went back to the publisher and I was assured that I was not the only one proof-reading the thing. At least two others ("cold readers" I am informed, meaning, I assume, that they have not set eyes on the manuscript before) have been rifling through my words and sentences looking for errors. But I think it might get passed back to me one more time - it seems that what I corrected was the "first pass" and the "second pass" should be coming my way in a few weeks. But I don't want to clap eyes on the thing again. I am so close to finishing the sequel and want to keep going. Get someone else to read the damn thing. I'm going into my closet to catch fairies.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Literary Bleeding Hearts

20th September 2013

I'm sending my galley proofs back to the publisher today. I do hope others are proof reading it, because I caught quite a lot of errors and there must be more that I didn't see.
Now I can devote my day to reading Pulitzer prize winner Paul Harding's new book "Enon." Like Steinbeck and Hemmingway, he might one day be  discussed as one of the big names in American literature, and so it is exciting to watch his career unfold. He got a three-book deal (everyone seems to, except me!) from Random House and so he is under obligation to churn a couple more out. A lot of pressure, which is not conducive to the production of any good art. Art demands space, and that's why I decided to write a canon of five books before sending the first out. Writing is a gossamer art - reach for it too hard and it slips between your fingers.
After much resistance, I am now tweeting once a day. (@kilmartin1978) Twitter's strength and its weakness is its word limit. Half the time you're referencing other people. No room for theses or even half-formed ideas. The good thing is, no one is going to waste your time for long. It's a funny little virtual world,  opening up a space for people to matter, if only for just a sentence or two, as they always did in our pre-industrial revolution communities. Once money became the benchmark for the value of people, a person was only as good as their labour. We have been on a de-humanising track for many centuries, but the pendulum is swinging, as it always does, and we have created this cloud-space for the significance of individuals. I believe in the Gaia principle which holds that the universe is intelligent and will redress imbalance within itself. Humanity has become a limping wounded spectacle, and perhaps our race-course to the end of the technological venture is simply all about this: finding out again who we are. In the immortal words of a bard named Eliot, "The end of all our searching will be to arrive where we started and know that place for the first time."
So, if we get to that place, presumably a place without pain, will there be room for art? Or does art necessarily spring from bleeding hearts?  If Hermann Hesse is right that art is the great universalizing mirror, then surely not.  Ode to Joy is as much art as Sartre's Nausea. It is just that for a long time we have approached reality with a gnawing sense of dyspepsia, with the existential angst that has perpetrated much of writing and the other arts for a long time now. But perhaps as the pendulum swings and we find ourselves back at the beginning seeing ourselves again for the first time, literature and music and the visual arts will evolve back into vessels of celebration. What has been subverted into sentimentalism will break out into a grand Hallelujah. And now I am sounding like Martin Luther King. I have a dream....
The rain that has been pouring on Colorado and breaking records and washing away houses has settled into a cold drizzle that last night left its first covering of snow in the high country. I can see snow-capped mountains from my office window, and I am fine with it, just as long as it stays up there for now. I don't mind if the water-logged leaves stay green and the fields refuse to give up hay. I don't mind the mushrooms and moss and the days spent beneath low cloud. I am not a child of the high country nor even of this continent. My ancestors lived in the mulching ground and slept on beds of damp moss. My ancestors never breathed in a gulp of dry air in their short lives. And so it comes down through the DNA, this ease with rain. Leave me out in it. I might even grow roots.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Neanderthal Fiction

13th September 2013

I am up to my ears in galleys - two, to be precise, because the first they sent (second-day air UPS) didn't have my Gaelic words and phrases italicised. The new copy was sent overnight UPS, and they both arrived on my doorstep at the same time. The publisher caught the error, not me. I have to read through the galley and send it back by 25th September. They sent me a special green erasable pencil to mark any errors, and they sent me a key so I would know which sign to put for which errors. For instance, if I need to insert a space between two words, I put a line between the words and in the margin put a hashtag #. I'm a bit nervous about doing the wrong thing, and I don't know if my editorial skills are suddenly sharpened but I am finding lots of things I need to change. For example, although I have read this text over many times before, I caught the fact this time that I called the drystone bridge at the location of my story Gothic. Well, it isn't really Gothic, which would be more of a vaulted apex. So I took a minute to google different types of arches and found the one I had in mind most closely resembled a Roman arch. So, I took my green pencil and put a line through Gothic, stuck a little arrow at the end of the space, and in the margin I wrote "Roman." Then, it suddenly dawned on me that I had throughout the text mis-spelled "Sassanach," all with a's as it turns out and not with any e's.  If any of the Gaelic is mis-spelled, I'm not going to catch it, because my  knowledge of Gaelic is only elementary, my Dear Watson.
My editor and I are trying to put together a plot synopsis for the back cover, but so far haven't agreed on what should go there. I say, please no handsome highlanders or Celtic warriors or noble Scots. She says, yes, but we're trying to sell this to readers of commercial fiction. Yes, I think, but there's my integrity to think of. I keep imagining published writer friends of mine reading the back cover and rolling their eyes. I keep thinking of the sister who hates me hating me even more for writing drivel. It's not drivel, of course; that's not what it is at all. But I don't want to give anyone an excuse for rolling their eyes at me. I was once describing the storyline of my book to a poet with a shock of white hair and noble features.
He said, "What, you mean a children's book?"
No, it is not a children's book, and I have a  chip on my shoulder about being a writer of literary fiction.  Well, I am, but that's not to say that I must be excluded from writing a book about a woman travelling back to ancient Scotland. Can it not be imaginative and literary, too? Must literary fiction be populated only by the kinds of characters that fill their pockets with stones and walk into ponds, for the dreadful weight of existence? My protagonist, Maggie, is a weighty character: she is just coming out of a divorce, her daughter has just died, and she is trying to finish a post-graduate thesis on the medieval witch burnings. How heavy can you get? It's just that she falls in love with a figment of her imagination called Fergus McBridghe, who just also happens to be a handsome Celtic warrior from the Dark Ages, and he might not be a figment, after all. He might just belong to another reality, as if we ever know what reality is to start with.
As if we ever know what history is to start with.  I was just watching a NOVA programme on my new IPad (from that splendid PBS App) about ground-breaking research on Neanderthals. Didn't history portray Neanderthals as dim-witted hairy cavemen, and isn't that still the popular conception? New research says, No, these hairy folks, if they were hairy, and how the hell do we know, had language, made art and buried their dead with religious objects. More than that, it turns out that Neanderthals weren't outmatched by brainy little Homo Sapiens and driven into extinction, but actually brainy little Homo Sapiens couldn't keep his hands off hairy Neanderthal woman (take that, all ye leg-dilapitating, armpit shaving moderners!) Neanderthals weren't driven to extinction but were outbred. African people have little to no Neanderthal DNA, Asians have very little. Neanderthals encountered humans in Europe and that's where they left their trace.  It's the Europeans writing literary fiction that have significant amounts of the stuff.
Just saying....

Friday, September 6, 2013

Social Insecurity

6th September 2013

When I started out this blog many moons ago, it was to provide a weekly commentary on the publishing process for those who might be contemplating submitting a book or even writing one.  Lord knows, I didn't think I would ever get to entry number 83 with my publication date still six months off. But then that is part of the tale. I just had a look at my blog from this same date a year ago, and I was fretting then about the possibility of my publication date being set back. Talk of the devil - that's just exactly what happened. People look at me and say, "Why is your book taking so long to come out?" They might as well be saying, "Well, it's not exactly hot news, is it? The publishing world isn't exactly staying up nights to make sure it is out on the shelves next week, eh?"
I must have a serious inferiority complex, because I feel myself slipping into the place they are putting me, down there, where the insignificant things of this world end up. It goes back to growing up in Scotland with a Scottish accent, being made to feel that the children who went off to boarding school and had the posh accents were inherently more valuable. And then later at university when you were trying to get noticed by boys with plummy accents, you didn't stand a chance, and so the Scottish accent started to fade by necessity. You could never work your way into those circles, because you didn't have the pedigree, but you could become an American, which is a class-free shift, and that's what I did.  So Social Insecurity are my middle names, and I should have grown out of it after all these years, but I only have to get in the presence of the plummy ones, and I am all fingers and toes again.
I was just at a book launch of another local writer called Linda Lafferty. She got a 3-book deal with Amazon publishing, and is now launching her second of those books. The first has just passed the one hundred thousand mark in sales, and all power to her. But I sat at that book launch by myself, a seat away on both sides from anyone else - why is it no one ever wants to go to these events? I hope they come to mine! - and I was jealous. I admit it. I might harbour more jealousy in my black soul than most, but it was hard to watch this success story, with the promotional cards for my own book deep in my bag, with everything ahead of me part of the big unknown, and not feel just a little like grabbing the mic and doing something crass like a belly dance. "No, look at ME, everyone!"
Lafferty celebrated her good sales record by buying a horse. I think I might buy passage on another cruise. I'm so cheesy, so working class and lacking finer refinements, I would choose sitting next to thousands of fat people stuffing their faces on an oversized cruise-liner than trotting aristocratically through fields of grass.  Did I mention I come down from a long line of Scottish and Yorkshire weavers, not a streak of blue blood to be found? I got hold of my great-grandfather William McDougall's recruitment papers from the first world war. Under marital status, he had written "Widower," in a nice hand. Under occupation, "Weaver." He died out there in Belgium. Across his recruitment papers, some insensitive cur scrawled the word, "DEAD." I would pay a king's ransom to find out what happened. He was over forty. He couldn't have been on the front line. I come down from a long line of DEAD Scottish weavers. Perhaps even suicidal dead Scottish weavers.
My editor at Simon and Schuster and I are trying to come up with a list of authors to write glowing blurbs for the back of my book, the kind of thing you flip over to when you don't know the author but are contemplating buying a book:
 Dan Brown, author of the Da Vinci Code writes, "I only wrote about the loss of the sacred feminine. Claire McDougall makes you live it."
Paul Harding writes, "Despite her Nietzschean leanings, Claire McDougall has written a book of immense cultural significance."
 Diana Gabaldon writes, "If only I had been born a Scot! With her book, 'Veil of Time,' Claire McDougall is set to take a few million readers right out of my court."
But only in my dreams.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Requiem for Seamus Heaney

30th August, 2013

Sheamus Heaney died today.  He has been variously called "the most important Irish poet since Yeats," and the "greatest poet of our age." He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1995, an unusual honour for a poet. Not long before that I won a half-scholarship to study with him for a summer in Northern Ireland, but I was young and couldn't muster the other half, and so the opportunity fell away "like a tinsmith's scoop sunk past its gleam in the meal bin."
Heaney talked about "the physicality of words," and like any good poet, his poetry was more than a vehicle for ideas. The images are graphic and dig hard to get under your skin. "All poems," he said, "are born out of infancy." The Latin root infans means unspeaking. "All good poems have been gathered in silence," he said. He is a writer of the land because he is carved and sliced by it - there is no getting away. He wrote about the bog man, and he was the bog man, setting himself layer by layer into a tradition of which perhaps Yeats is the best example, where the imagery is visceral and there is no escaping its traction. It's a dying breed and it died a little more today.
So much depends on a red wheelbarrow glistening with rain, says William Carlos Williams. But I say, so much depends upon "the scone rising to the tick of two clocks."
I love that when Heaney read his poetry it was as one who simply speaks, and there were no airs, no pretentious cadences to his speech. I appreciate that Seamus Heaney spoke out for his country, as I do for mine. He wrote about the Irish Catholic soldiers who were shot down on Vinegar Hill fighting for their land against the English, and his words became a kind of fight and a judgement more searing than was ever handed down by a jury: "The hillside blushed, soaked in our broken wave/ They buried us without shroud or coffin/ And in August...the barley grew up out of our grave."
It is August again and an unlikely poet, the oldest of nine children raised in poor kitchens by a mother dusted in flour, will be returned to the land his rhythms and rhymes taught us to love.  May the soil of Ireland claim him and dissolve him and grind him into dust for another generation of poets. May the barley grow tall above his head. May he forever walk in fields of gold.

Seamus Heaney -- 1939-2013

Friday, August 23, 2013


23rd August 2013

I don't know what it is about dreams that draws you back in. Just when you are in that twilight zone between dreaming and waking, especially if you have dozed back off to sleep in the early morning, it seems that the dream world is where you belong and waking isn't really desirable at all.  You can be dreaming of the most mundane things, of walking down a street or folding clothes, but it seems of the utmost importance that you get back there. I have read quite a few accounts of near death experiences, and the same thing is usually told of those -- the overwhelming sense that the person is where they should be and can't stand the thought that they will have to get back into their body.  If dreams are really access to parallel lives, could it be that those lives are more crucial to who we really are? I suppose I don't have many nightmares, and I might not feel this way if I did, but it makes me wonder what is happening in dreams when they seem more real than reality. From what theoretical physicists are saying these days, "real life" as we have seen it might be in essence just a form of dream anyway, a blip of energy in a vast field of energy. Hindus have always asserted that reality is just a dream in the mind of Brahma, the creator. He opens his eyes and a world comes into existence, he closes them and it goes out like a moth drawn too close to a candle. But it might not just be Brahma who is dreaming worlds into existence. Perhaps it is us every time we awake.
I have been thinking about this, because there is another place that draws like the dreamworld, and that is what I experience when I sit down at my desk to write. Maybe in the dreams we dream in sleep, the internal chatter-dial is turned way down, and the same goes for getting into the creative zone. It has to go quiet or you can't get there. It's like drawing close to a radio whose signal is only faint. You have to turn up your hearing acuity and get really close so you can find out what is being said. You have to not be thinking about anything else.
I gave up my daily routine of writing during the summer because there were too many distractions, too much going on in the outer field. The summer started with a wedding and ended with a cruise, and now I am getting back in gear to write the conclusion to that sequel that has been languishing too long with its back end hanging off. I am a great believer in gestation, though -- something has been going on during this time. I just have to give it space to emerge. It isn't going to take long, perhaps two weeks to "get her done," as the cowboys say. She is female, no doubt, as all things at the creative nexus are.
One good thing that came out of the study guide that is going to be inserted at the back of my book is that it suggested a comparison to a book called "Witchcraze," by Anne Barstow.  I hadn't heard of it, so I looked up the reviews, and almost didn't buy it because it was written off as feminist propaganda. But I thought I ought to take a look, just in case any of my readers follows up on the book guide. I am happy to report that it is written by a bona fide historian, who teaches history in New York, and is in fact a serious attempt to look at the holocaust of witches in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries from the point of view of their being women, not just a factor of economic or religious history. Barstow is actually balanced in her approach and won't, for instance, consider numbers of witches burned beyond the records even though we know there must have been far more than ever made it into any list.  And in any case, why is a feminist perspective less legitimate an historical approach than the imperialist one most of our "history" has been filtered through? I wish I had known about Barstow's book earlier, though my story of Maggie and the witches doesn't come out of any specific interest in history, but out of that dream time I was talking about earlier. If I have any axes to grind it is with the church and its scrupulous method of cover-up, but that will come out of its own accord. That all belongs to my internal chatter and has no place in the quiet zone that has its own voice and its own way of being heard.

Monday, August 19, 2013

At Sea

16th August 2013

A short blog today because I am anchored off the shores of Belize on a cruise ship.
It feels as though every Texan that ever lived is here with me, asking if "Ya' all," have had enough soda to last a lifetime. There's even a payment plan on board by which you can have access to unlimited soda. There are people whose body fat index must be off the charts waddling towards soda machines from break of day. You couldn't pay me to drink a glass of soda, but my scorn for the overeaters fell aside when I started compulsive eating myself, pretty much the minute I climbed on board. It is a sorry sight, we citizens of the free world face down in a tray of cakes, and I can feel the slim waiters from Buenos Aires and El Salvador rolling their eyes when no one is looking.  I usually eat next to nothing for breakfast, but aboard a cruise ship you have to dig me out from beneath piles of pancakes and muffins.
All of this has nothing to do with writing or publishing. In fact, it is probably about as diametrically opposed as it gets. Writer Sherwood Anderson found that out the hard way when he boarded a cruise headed through the Panama Canal. The author was a hardened Martini drinker, and following cruise ethic that more is decidedly better, he had downed a few drinks before he swallowed the olive in his Martini whole. This would not normally have caused any upset, but this olive was attached to a cocktail stick. How many Martinis you would have to down before a cocktail stick slipped down your gullet unnoticed is anybody's guess. So the cruise proceeded with its limitless supply of fodder (and soda, no doubt) when Sherwood began to experience bad stomach pains. By the time the ship docked, the poor man was dead from peritonitis. It appears the cocktail stick had punctured his bowel. The inscription on his tomb reads, "Life not death is the great adventure." He got that much right. Sailing on the blue Caribbean has far more appeal than waving through the mists over the River Styx. LIfe is much more than books, to - - against the prospect of swimming with dolphins, the entire canon of literature falls on its face. Stories are never any substitute for living.
The second installment of my book advance should have gone to pay the taxman, but we are human after all and could be dead tomorrow with a cocktail stick lodged in our lower intestine. So, better to be a fat waddling piece of humanity, looking up long enough from a glass of soda to gaze on the blue horizon.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Balls of Dung

August 9th 2013

Writing this blog sometimes feels like scratching my marks on the cell wall to mark time. I think it's been 76 posts, which amounts to as many weeks, so getting on for a year and a half since I started keeping public track of my publishing process with Simon & Schuster.  Someone asked me the other day how long it had been from when I conceived the idea of the book to the point of publication. So, I think I wrote a first draft in late summer of 2009. It was after a lengthy summer stay at the hill fort of Dunadd in the holiday cottage where I set the book. I had for a while wanted to write a story about Dunadd, so pregnant anyway with history, but I hadn't been able to find a way of approaching it until Audrey Niffenegger came out with "The Time Traveller's Wife," and it seemed as though time travel could be taken seriously by mainstream fiction readers. I came home from Scotland and wrote the first draft and then hid it from my agent, because he was supposed to be selling another of my novels, and I didn't want him to get distracted. When I eventually did show it to him, he of course lost interest in the first novel, which was more interior and didn't have any car chases (neither does "Veil of Time," but it has a woman walking into a different dimension!) Speaking of car chases, I had a lot of resepect for Jeffrey Eugenides' novel "Middlesex," until the end and the car chase. It's like some blockhead of an editor said, "Great book, Jeffrey, if you could just insert a car chase..." It is so out of tenor with the rest of the book, that you wonder what lapse in taste could have produced it.  I suppose I am just lucky that they had no cars at eighth century Dunadd, or I, too, might have succumbed. I suppose I could put in a gratuitous horse and cart chase.
Anyway, I digress. I signed a contract with Simon and Schuster in March of 2012, and the book is coming out in March of 2014. So, that's the time frame. The time frame is ages and ages and eons. Five years. If that first novel ever sees print, it will be more on the order of twenty years. What other profession has such a slow turn around? I suppose the answer to that is, any of the arts. But we're on the last stretch now. I am told galleys will be sent out to me on 4th September and then I will hold in my hands the fruits of my labour. I am expecting that to feel very very good.
So why do we keep on at this madcap business?
Steinbeck says, "There is one purpose in writing that I can see, beyond simply doing it interestingly. It is the duty of the writer to lift up, to extend, to encourage." He directs this comment to the "neurosis belt of the south..the hard boiled writers," who take themselves too seriously. We write to save ourselves, I suppose, and in doing so, help others. "It is too bad," he goes on, "we have not more humor about this. After all, it is only a book and no worlds are made or destroyed by it. But it becomes important out of all proportion to its importance. And I suppose that is essential. The dunghill beetle must be convinced of the essential quality in rolling his ball of dung."
So the dung ball takes five or twenty years to come of age. The people hold it in their hands and declare it a truly worthy ball of dung.  And if they don't, they will cast it aside, and who cares? It is is only dung, after all.