Saturday, February 23, 2013


23rd February 2013

Trust the Germans to come up with as an apt a word as Zeitgeist. German is the leggo language, where you can snap off one word and stick it to another to create a whole new concept. Zeitgeist is one of those words, from Zeit, meaning Time, and Geist, meaning Spirit. Dasein is another good German leggo-word, from Da, meaning There, and Sein, meaning Being. Zeitgeist translates as "the spirit of an age," and Dasein as "The art of being," or being present, being a silent witness, just Being There.
In a way, being in touch with the Zeitgeist requires a certain Dasein. I bring this up, because I have been thinking this week about the role of the artist in society, and I think it has to do with both of these German conundrums. In our age of hyper-individualism, we have to some extent lost sight of the role of art as anything but sheer self-expression. These days, if I stand in front of a piece of visual art or sit down to read a new author, I am only being asked to see the relationship between the psyche of the artist and the piece of art. The larger context, to some degree, has been lost.
Traditionally, however, the artist played the role of the chorus in Greek drama. He/she was a mirror reflecting back the action, the simple Dasein held up to the Zeitgeist of that particular drama. If you think about the writers that have endured, you will find this quality about them. They are witnesses of their particular Zeitgeist, reflecting it back to the general population. Dickens, The Brontes, Orwell, Hesse, Steinbeck, to name but a few, belong here.
But, just as a mirror only reflects what is there, the Zeitgeist resists manipulation. It is what it is and must find its own way to expression, which it does inevitably. In other words, the artist shouldn't set out to be a bearer of the Zeitgeist. The artist can only be the silent witness, and that requires a level of unconsciousness. This is why, though a part of me wants to regale against a book like "Fifty Shades of Grey," or even "Harry Potter," the better part of me knows that it is an expression of the times.
The focus of the writer (let's steer away from the more controversial visual arts) should just be the writing. Whatever else comes through will be a function of the writer himself or herself , and that has to do with his or her quality of Dasein. (Don't you wish we could just plunk for the German here and talk about himself/herself as one thing - the neutral, "One.")
Now, I read early Barbara Kingsolver with relish. "The Bean Trees," and "Animal Dreams," were very good books. But along the way, she veered off into the land of social conscience. On the face of it, it would seem that social conscience would go right along with the concept of Zeitgeist, but in a way it is its opposite. In the arts, that is. Zeitgeist is a mirror, it's not a vehicle for anything other than itself. By the time Kingsolver was writing "Prodigal Summer," she was hanging decorations on the outside of the Zeitgeist mirror. It's a hard thing to do, but the writer has to trust that what they have to say will come out in the writing without them trying to say what they have to say.
Which all comes down to Being There (Dasein.) To being present. It is the voice of the author that is the vehicle, not the issues. It is the silence within which the artist finds himself/herself (Wo man sich findet.) It is the silence that speaks the loudest.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Vox Clamentis

17th February 2013

I am still on hold with regard to my agent's intercession for me at the publishing house.  But this much I know: they're not going to budge on the publishing date. March 1st 2014, it is. What I am pushing for now is to be granted an official "acceptance" date for the manuscript (i.e. the date it left the editor's office) because that secures me two things:
(1) The publication date won't be pushed any further back (within the terms of the contract, they have to publish within eighteen months of this "acceptance" date.)
(2) My second payment cheque
I encouraged my agent to let me in on what he had proposed to the publishing house to make the medicine a little sweeter, but he wasn't coughing. He says it has to do with the promotion of the book and will cost them money, so my editor has to go to her boss for approval. This will take time.
The title of my novel should be switched from "Veil of Time," to "It Takes Time," because it is taking a bloody lot of it. Time being the theme of my book, I ought to have more understanding for the illusory nature of time. And I do, really. 
In the meantime, a writer friend this week was urging me to exert pressure on my agent to get on with hawking my other books. Because it's not just this book that is held up with this new publication date, but my eight-book backlog.  However, by the terms of my contract I am obliged to show my next novel to Simon&Schuster, though any offer they make on it has to be agreeable to me. Also, by the same terms, I cannot publish another book within six months of the first. So it's just a big bung-up all along the line.
I am toying with the idea of taking a writing class by Paul Harding this summer. His book "Tinkers," is one I admire and keep going back to, so I figure I stand to learn something.
No pearls of wisdom this week. I am speaking from the wilderness, a place where time loses all meaning and no sound echoes back.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Year of the Horse

February 10th 2013

This is the Year of the Snake, and I am a Pig (well, I like to say Boar, because that fits in with the Pictish stone carvings in my novel and in with the place where I grew up in Scotland.) I was looking at my astrological forecast for the Year of the Snake, and it said that I should lie low this year and put off any big ventures for a year. So, I called up my agent and my editor immediately and said, "Look, you have to pull all the strings you can so that I can put this publishing thing off until 2014. Next year, the Year of the Horse, is going to be much more compatible with launching my career, because the horse likes to be in the limelight, unlike the snake who has sneaky energy and likes to work behind the scenes. The Year of the Snake has to do with steady progress and attention to detail, so, please, in my best interests, could we wait and not publish until next year?"
My agent said he didn't think they could do that - I mean, there are all those potential readers out there, waiting for September so that they can read this book. At my insistence he broke down and talked to my editor at Simon and Schuster, and with much reluctance, they took a look at their 2014 calendar and said, "Okay. We will put Claire McDougall's book on the March 1st slot. But tell her this is the last time we are going to do this."
Because I spend my time dreaming up fiction, this is the way I cope with devastating news. It's a way of thinking of March 1, 2014 and not crying, because it is an entire bleedin' year from now. Do you want the truth? Then here it is: I e-mailed my editor this week and asked if she could give me a firm publishing date, in September like she said. Her e-mail came right back. It said my firm publishing date is March 1st 2014, the year of the horse. (She didn't mention the horse. I put that in.) I admit I cried. I admit I whisked off an e-mail to my agent which said, "Can they really do this?" Unfortunately they can. My agent said, "I'll talk to them." He did. The publishing date it still March 1st, but he said he talked them into something to my advantage, the details of which he couldn't give me because Hurricane Nemo was banging at his door and he had to run from his office in fear of his life. (He really did! I'm not making that part up. Well, he wasn't in fear of his life, but he was anxious to get home.) Point is, whatever sweetness he hath garnered for me from this debacle, I will not know until he has dug his office out from under piles of snow. Alas, cruel fate!
Tune in next week for an exciting update.
In the meantime, I am still in denial. Just yesterday someone asked me when the book was coming out (as they always do) and I told them September. People are going to think I am making this up. Just to give you a time-line to put all this in perspective. I signed a contract with my agent in July 2009. It wasn't for this book, but that's how long he has been trying to get me in print. I signed a contract with Simon and Schuster for this book in March 5, 2012. So it will be almost exactly two years before the book is published. As I pointed out to my agent, the contract says they are supposed to get the book out within eighteen months, but, as he pointed out, the clock doesn't start until my final manuscript is actually "accepted." This means the point in time when my editor handed my manuscript off to "production," which was October of this year. This is all news to me.
All I am saying is that things had better start moving a bit faster soon. All I am saying is that this business is not for the faint of heart. Writing your book is the easy part. You have to hope there is a bigger plan at play here. That's all you can do.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

All Greek

February 2nd 2013

Two popular conventions in writing have to do with the use of adverbs and cliches. Basically, you're not supposed to use either (a quick google search came up with the title, "500 cliches to avoid in writing." I didn't know there were five hundred cliches!) Elmore Leonard famously said, "Never use an adverb to modify the verb 'said,'.....To use an adverb in this way is a mortal sin." You hear these two maxims in writer's groups, at writer's conferences or from anyone who is supposed to know about writing. Stephen King in his admirable book on writing says that the road to hell is paved with adverbs.
I have a writer friend who has to throw up into her hankie every time she hears a cliche, but I am not of that school. I kind of like cliches, because it's no accident they caught on. They are usually wise pithy observations, and why shouldn't we honour them just because they have been used too much? Overused verbage is much more annoying when it has no content, like LOL (which I hate) or 24/7.
"Don't sweat the small stuff," is a cliche, but a mantra for me. I don't care how many times I hear it. Or, "What goes around comes around," is close to a religious tenet, so why spit on it? People use cliches all the time, of course, so why should dialogue in literature not reflect this? I suppose in the actual text, a writer is always having to convince the reader that she/he is in control of the writing, and the use of cliche might undermine this. But, anyway, I think cliches have had a bad rap.
On the subject of dialogue, there is the issue of that road to hell, the adverb. Again, I have my reservations. I suppose it is always better to let the content of the speech dictate to the reader how the spoken word should be taken.
"What do yout think I am, a potted plant?" naturally carries with it exasperation. So it would be superfluous and a waste of reader time to add, "she said exasperatedly."
But sometimes, the dialogue can't reflect the attitude of the speaker. For instance, "'I love you,' he said bitterly." That kind of sentence is more like heaven than hell, because it has that satifying little twist to it.
The point is, all these rules, perhaps especially the ones that get shouted from the mountain tops, are only current opinion. Things will change and the adverb will come back into favour. The cliche will be venerated again. I wonder if cliches are like old literature, and at some point you have permission to like and use them again. I wonder if there is such a thing as the public domain of cliches where they go for R&R, ready to come back into common parlance.
Perhaps Shakespeare used cliches, and we are just out of touch with the Elizabethan cliche du jour. I know he certainly started a few in his time: I refuse to "budge an inch," on this issue, or be "tongue tied," even if it means "knitting my brows," or giving my detractors "short shrift." I may be living in a "fool's paradise," and "the more fool me," but I find a "tower of strength," in such sayings. I hear what the opposition says back, but "It is all Greek to me."