Sunday, January 27, 2013

For A' That

27th January, 2013

If you live in the Rocky Mountains, as I do, and you wake up to sunlight fingering branches heavy with new snow, you should be true to the ethos of the place you live, reach for your skis and be out on the slippery slopes, not at a desk composing a blog about literature. I have in my time been an avid skier, but this year I didn't even buy a ski pass. I am slowly coming round to Dave Barry's opinion about this winter sport that "Skiing combines outdoor fun with knocking down trees with your face."
The year before last, I tried knocking down a tree with my head and ended up in the ER. Last year, I merely broke my shoulder, but it all amounts to me thinking that maybe my days of flying down the slopes are coming to an end. And this, despite the fact that I just took out a fifteen year mortgage on a new pair of ski boots. They hurt, those boots, like a vise, cutting off feeling to my toes and pressing in on sensitive parts of my feet I never knew I had. "Melted bowling balls," Dave Barry calls ski boots, and he's not far wrong, no matter how much faux fur they pack around the top. But I might just be too clumsy for skiing these days.
Back to things literary: Friday 25th of January was Burns Night. I don't expect anyone not of Scottish heritage to have any idea who Robert Burns was, although his song "Auld Lang Syne," is sung with abandon on New Year's Eve throughout the world without anyone having the foggiest notion what it's about.
He is our most celebrated Scottish bard, born in 1759, well known for his literary acuity, his astounding fertility and his love of a good dram (shall we say.) He influenced Wordsworth, Coleridge and Shelley, and Dickens brings him up frequently in his works. For some reason, he is wildly popular in Russia. But no wonder, because Robert Burns was very good poet and wrote some touching verses to the many ladies he loved, some of which you can hear put to music on my website (
But Robert Burns also had his political agenda and was an unabashed nationalist. Though the son of a mere farmer, with very little formal education, he turned his nose up at the Edinburgh elites. He was known to shoot his mouth off, and was constantly being hushed by people who thought his opinions were not in the best interest of his career.
I would quote a poem here called "A Man's a Man For A' That," but it's as unfathomable as "Auld Lang Syne" to the untrained ear. In paraphrase, it says: the authentic person, though poor and disregarded by the mighty, is twice the person of stature than those folks of fashion and wealth who take the stage and laud their position over others.
Och, hell, I'll quote a verse of the poem, because it is so good (and change words and put explanations in paranthesis.)

 "Ye see yon birkie (fellow) called a lord,
Who struts and stares and all that?
Though hundreds worship at his word,
He's but a cuif (fool) for all that.
For all that, and all that,
His ribband star, and all that.
The man of independent mind,
He looks and laughs at all that."

The Edinburgh elite thought Burns quaint, for all that, and made of him a kind of mascot. They liked his farmer's work clothes, unpowdered hair and common speech, just as long as they could stand him in a corner of their parlours and not think too much about what he stood for. The powers that be like originality, just as long as it doesn't try to rub noses with them. They like it where it can be sanctioned and packaged.
So my hommage to Robert Burns today is to disregard the ribband star of the fashionable, the monied custodian few, especially in the arts. You don't have to like to drink as much as Burns did, and you don't have to go about increasing the population at the rate he did, but you do have to look and laugh at all that. Right, Rabbie?

Sunday, January 20, 2013

I think I can....

20th January 2013

I have been writing this blog weekly for almost exactly a year now, sometimes with more readers, sometimes with fewer. I started it just after I signed a contract with Simon and Schuster to publish my book (within eighteen months, so they are pushing the envelpoe a little here.) The idea was to track the book's progress through the system, marking significant points. A year later, and the book has got through the editor's office and is now into production. I haven't heard from anyone in that department. My editor, Abby, says that office looks like air traffic control and she doesn't want to pressure them but I should be hearing from them within the month. I think she said that about a month ago.
What I have learned in this year-long process is to take deadlines with that metaphoric pinch of salt. To departments in a large publishing house, one book must seem much the same as another. They have a list before them, and they go down it book by book. So mine is in the line-up somewhere, chugging along like the little engine that could.  I have sort of lost track of what's up next - I think we're through line-editing and onto prooof reading, but there may be another level of editing I've forgotten about. Once we get through that and into things like cover-art, it will get more interesting. But forgive me if I snore off in the meantime. 
People ask me in endless rotation, "So how's the book coming along?" and I know they must wonder at my blank look. "But it's so exciting," they say. And, yes, it is exciting, but, like buying tickets to see your favourite star, you lose sight of the goal a bit when you've been standing in line for a year. I've stood in line for tickets where the queue ran out of the building and back around the block. I probably haven't stood in line anywhere for more than two hours, but the time always seems interminable. Anyway, opint is, you lose a little enthusiasm along the way.
I have no doubt that as we approach my publishing date (the exact one I have not been told yet), I'll be waking up in the night with butterflies doing flips in my stomach, just as when you finally get close enough to that box office it's time to take out your wallet and pay for the much-anticipated tickets. But day to day, the answer to "What's happening with your book?" seems to be "Not much."
People look back at me quizically. "You don't even know your publication date?" "Why aren't you more excited?" "Are you making this whole thing up?"
Maybe I am. Maybe publication is all in my head, something I simply dreamed up. Except for the odd note from my editor, I might thing it was.
The answer to when my book is coming out is "Last I heard, September," which seems like a bleedin' life time away. Eventually things will start to heat up, but not before I have made quite a few more blog entries. I'm sorry it's boring. It's out of my control. It could drive a writer to distraction, and maybe that's why we move on to different projects in the meantime. It's an act of sanity. In my case, I might have a sequel ready to go before the first one sees light of day. I might. I am enjoying this free floating space of zero pressure to write it in.
The really good news is that the little engine that could eventually does. At some point we will pull out of the station again and be on the go. In the meantime, I'll keep you posted.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

A Quality of Light

13th January 2013

I am going to try and write this entry on my new IPad, but judging how long it has taken me to write this much, I may not succeed.  John Steinbeck in the journals he wrote while he was penning his novels would often wax lyrical about a new pen in his possession, and I can appreciate how important a writer's tools are. I suppose it's that you don't want to have to be thinking about the particular roll of a ball-point pen or an awkward keypad when you're composing: "Cannery Row in Monetrey is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a....damn it...a quality of light...this pen is also a stink."
The Ipad is to give me something to write assignments on, like this blog, when I am away, but why Apple couldn't have just included directional arrows on the keyboard is anyone's guess. If I try to move the cursor with my finger, as prescribed, it goes anywhere but where I want it, and I don't have particularly big fingertips. Anyway, I can see I will have to break down and buy a proper keyboard, which only goes to show what an old fogey I am when it comes to computers. 
Bill Bryson describes how one day at his new computer he watched in horror as his cursor ate his words pacman-like as he tried to type in more. This happened to me more than once, until I realised I had inadvertently hit the "Insert" button.  (Half of this last sentence just disappeared of its own accord, so I am going to have to abandon ship and go to my regular computer...but now I can't find the "Save" button...damn, this contraption is a stink, and not a particularly good quality of light...)
Back at my desktop, I couldn't retrieve what I wrote on the Ipad, so had to write it all over again. Yes, I know it's just me. I have a similar problem with keys.
At any rate, what this blog was supposed to be about was not fearing rejection. Here I am a hypocrite, because rejection to me is like a new computer - what else is there to do but fear it? Barbara Kingsolver says that when you get a rejection letter, you should think of it as an envelope adressed to "The editor who can appreciate my work" - it's just that it didn't reach its destination. Yeah, right. Through the blurr of tears, it just looks like a form letter with a few scratched remarks about your book not being right for their "list." I always want to shout, "What bloody list? Your shopping list?"
But there are more constructive ways to approach the rejection letter, and history proves this. Last year, I went to hear Kathryn Stockett, author of "the Help," whose book (a best seller and Oscar-nominated film)was rejected sixty times. I have friends who keep their rejection letters (line their bathroom walls with them) and I did for a while, too, but that bulging brown 8" by 11"envelope just sat on my dresser emanting bad energy, and I decided to toss it one day. I have never looked back.
Robert Pirsig, who wrote a cult book of my youth, "Zen Buddhism and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," had 121 rejections before it was picked up by a small publishing house and went on to be a best-seller. I loved that book when I was at university and brought all kinds of disdain from my professors for quoting it in philosophy papers.
Moving on, Audrey Niffenegger got 25 rejection letters for "The Time Traveller's Wife," again finally going to a small publishing house. Harry Potter was turned down by twelve publishing houses, for goodness' sake! I, like every once-rejected novelist, revel in the groans and gnashing of teeth that must have come out of those literary agent's offices when that book took wings and shot off into the literary stratosphere.
Louisa May Alcott's father ws told by the editor in chief of The Atlantic magazine, "Tell Louisa to stick to her teaching: she can never succeed as a writer."  She told her father to tell Mister Big Shot, "I will succeed as a writer, and I shall write for the Atlantic." And she did. And she wrote "Little Women." End of story.
The point is, rejection letters knock you for six, but you have to have some of that Alcott grit. You can lie in the mud for a while, but you have to get up again and know one day you'll write for the Atlantic.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Book That Wants To Be Written

6th January 2013

"You have to write the book that wants to be written," says Madeleine L'Engle.

I like this quote because it it emphasises the "hands off" element to writing. As in life, in art you don't get to write the music, just direct the choir. That's what scares me about writers who map out the plot of a novel from start to finish - it's sort of like conducting a relationship minute by minute from a set of instructions: it might work, but the elan vital is gone from it. I keep saying this, because it is true, that listening is the writer's best tool. You show up at your desk and hear the book that wants to be written, and if you're lucky, you'll hear the words to "A Wrinkle in Time," which is currently in its 5oth anniversary commemorative hard back edition. Presumably you'll also hear a good title, which "A Wrinkle in Time," is, and which I wish I had thought of first.
I heard from my editor at Simon and Shuster this week, because I had submitted the answers to the questionnaire that I am being asked to fill out for their author page. Those answers go back to my editor for review, and one made her sit up and wonder if I wasn't intent on committing career suicide. The question had to do with who I would most like to meet in history, and I said Jesus. This is not because I am an evangelical Christian (although I was brought up one) but because so much has hinged on that thirty-three year life, and now we're living in the throes of it. I said that I would like to ask him what he thought about what had become of his teaching, and I concluded he might....well, maybe that would be career suicide, so I redid the question and had him quoting TS Eliot instead: "That is not what I meant at all. That is not it at all." I think my editor had a point, otherwise I wouldn't have changed it.
That was actually an easier question than naming my five favourite books. So many books in my past have been formative, but I wouldn't count them as favourites today. I struggled with this question, took it away and mulled it over. I scanned the books on my shelves, and came up with this:

1 "The Grapes of Wrath," by John Steinbeck
2  "The Meadow," by James Galvin
3  "Sunset Song," by Lewis Grassic Gibbon
4  "Cannery Row," by John Steinbeck
5  "Zorba the Greek," by Nikos Kazantzakis

I think they all wrote the book that wanted to be written, and that's why I like them. No apologies.