Friday, May 31, 2013

Tweet, tweet

31st May 2013

The search for a book cover had become a little frustrating, until one morning at 4 a.m. I awoke with the image of a Scottish dry stone wall. I thought that somehow we could invoke the idea of a transition through time by altering the wall slightly from one end to the other across the face of the book. I was taking a Twitter class that day and going back and forth with my editor during class about this idea. A few days later in the early a.m. again, I awoke with the notion of a gate in the stone wall and a woman walking through, perhaps from the modern era into the past. It seems obvious, now that I think about it, but I hadn't seen how evocative a stone wall could be and how it could work as a symbol both for Scotland and time.
Then yesterday I was going through a shelf of random sheet music, trying to see what could be chucked, when I came across a pencil sketch I had made years ago of a stone wall with a gate in it. So, you see, all things work together in this sea of quantum soup we live in. I pitched the idea to my editor, who promised to pass it along. Now to await the decision of the art department and see if they are living in the same portion of the soup as I am.
I attended this all-day Twitter class because my agent advised me to get on the Twitter bandwagon. I can see why he did, because it saves everyone standing around at dreaded cocktail parties trying to pretend they're not there just for the networking. Little does he know how absolutely clueless I am when it comes to computers and the workings thereof. I think when I was a high school student in rural Scotland under the tutelage of dragon maths teachers, something in my brain switched off and now won't turn back on.  Plus, almost everyone in the class had Twitter accounts, had their laptops open and at the ready. I hadn't even brought a laptop, because I don't own one. By dint of a Christmas present, I do own an Ipad, so had brought that. But to do what the teacher was asking, I had to download the Twitter Ipad App, and for that I needed the password for the Apple Store. Now someplace sometime I had decided on a password, or someone who was using my Ipad had, but God only knows (and wasn't telling) what the damn password was.
Upshot was that I couldn't download the App and couldn't create my Twitter account, and while I was figuring all this out, the rest of the class was onto Hashtags and Hootsuites.  In my medieval maths class in Scotland, the awful teacher would strut with his weapon of corporal punishment across his shoulder, waiting for a maths dunce like myself to mess up a precious piece of graph paper or not know what "a" signified. Being of a literary mind even then I couldn't for the life of me understand what "a" or "b" or "c" could possibly signify other than the beginning of a word. Hot tears would well, and panic ensued.
So it was in Twitter class. I left at lunch break with that wild frenzy of feeling I have sometimes had (once when walking out on a waitressing job in the middle of a shift, despite losing my pay for that last stinking day.) I drove out of the parking lot and knew I wasn't going back.
Consequently, I still know next to nothing about Twitter, though I do now (with a little help from my friends) have a "handle," which is @Kilmartin1978, incase anyone is interested. I have tweeted once since, and keep meaning to do it again. I have two followers, and no idea what to convey in 140 characters. I am not sitting on the edge of my seat waiting to hear news bursts from others, and can't imagine why anyone would be interested in mine. I am long-winded by nature, intensely private like most writers, so what is there to say?
Great Gatsby: I've run out of time again. The movie suffers from the same problem the novel does, which is that for a story about one particular person, that person is not very well drawn. I am not any more fascinated by Leonardo Di Caprio than I was by Fitzgerald's description of Gatsby. I don't for a minute buy Gatsby's love of Daisy, who is as carboard-y as her counterpart in the novel. One difference is, the movie feels about half an hour too long; the novel was about one third too short.
But bear with me on the Twitter thing. I will work it out. It took a while, but I figured out blogs, didn't I?

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Book Cover Up

23rd May 2013

The book cover saga continues. My preference is for dreamy landscapes, but that is just dreamy me. My editor wants to veer away from suggesting this is just historical fiction. I want to get very far away from any hint that this book belongs on the shelf with romance fiction. If I don't get a hard back, I should at least have a classy cover. She was asking me what book covers from my collection have stuck with me, and, honestly, there are not many. Book covers tend to be pretty bad, often irrelevant. But album covers do have more impact, and Dougie MacLean's are particularly good. It helps that his wife is a landscape artist. In fact, I have a print of the picture on his album "Tribute" hanging on my wall. If Simon and Schuster could come up with anything half as good as Dougie's album cover "Indigenous," I will be happy.

I should qualify what I said in my last blog about how the arts reflect back the Zeitgeist. I should have mentioned that this isn't something that can be forced, anymore than you can force a mirror to reflect a flattering image of yourself. If you, as an artist, get in the way of the reflection, you'll end up with fun-house type distorted images. On the political scene, this happened with Karl Marx. I've read "Das Kapital," and it is a very interesting analysis of how societies function and evolve. But he wasn't trying to get in the way and force any of this to happen. Lenin and his successors were, which is where communism all goes downhill fast. Modern art to a large extent has also fallen into this pit, and turned the reflection into a mind game.
So in light of what I said last week, let me council artists in whatever medium to stay out of the way of themselves. The examples I gave of Dan Brown and JK Rowling prove the point, because they are not trying to re-introduce notions of the sacred feminine or magic. They are just standing out of the way and letting the wave of human "Geist" speak through them. They would probably recoil from such a  description and tell you they were simply writing the stories they would want to read, which is always a good platform for a writer, as long as you listen deep. This is a lesson I have had to learn as a writer. You have to trust that what is important to you will come through in your writing anyway. Your art is the writing, not the agenda.
I have all kinds of agendas that I could try to wheedle into my work. I have strong opinions on the evolution of mankind, on the environment, on how to raise kids, and a huge Scottish Nationalist agenda. It turns out that almost all my books are set in Scotland where I grew up, but that is just what I hear when I listen in the wind. It's like a bagpipe drone, always there behind the song. That's why writers tend to live in exile, all the better to hear that drone.

I keep meaning to write about turning books into films. Right now all attention is on the new movie version of The Great Gatsby. But it's a bit like translating poetry: so much nuance gets lost along the way. Some movies manage it, but often by chance: "Zorba the Greek," is a great rendition of Kazantzakis's classic, but only by virtue of Anthony Quinn in the lead role. There are some movies that have even done a better job than the book. Michael Ondaatje's "The English Patient," for one. It's an interesting topic, and a very hard feat to pull off. Perhaps this is why Diana Gabaldon has never sold film rights to her outlandishly popular books. I have a vision of being in a cinema watching one of my books on screen for the first time, and sinking further and further into my seat with sheer horror. Lucky John Irving was allowed to write his own script for "Cider House Rules," and got the Oscar for it to boot. But this is a big subject, and I will tackle it next time.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Bedknobs and Broomsticks

18th May, 2013

I got word yesterday that the design department at Simon & Schuster is having a hell of a time trying coming up with a cover for my book. My editor tells me she sent back a whole batch of proposals this week (no doubt sporting some hairy hero in a short kilt!)  To my surprise she is asking me for help. I don't think they want me to get out my water colours just yet, but they want me to send some links for sites that might give them some sense for the mood of my book. See, if they had kept my title "Dunadd," the designers would have been able to google it and come up with all kinds of images. But, since I had been told this was completely out of my court, I haven't been thinking about it for myself. My agent and I had decided that the cover for "The Time Traveller's Wife," was really good, (the lower half of a schoolgirl standing next to a man-size pair of shoes) but it reflects the story's location in modern times.  Mine needs to conjur the misty past, and there are no clothes left behind in my story. Diana Gabaldon's "Outlander," has an (imagined) gold Scottish emblem on its cover, which is actually quite effective. Anyway, all of this has to be resolved very quickly, because the postcards I am supposed to be getting for flogging my book this summer at the writer's conference are due within the month. Tally Ho! All fun.
Not all fun, say the readers of Dan Brown's new book "Inferno," which came out this week. "Abandon hope all ye who enter here," says one commentator. "This book reads like a travel brochure," says another. "Twaddle," says a newspaper in Britain, "but entertaining twaddle."
This week I have been re-reading "The Da Vinci Code," and what occurs to me about the importance of this book is that, like "Harry Potter," it goes way beyond its literary merits. The point is, when your ten-year old novel is already on the list of best selling books of all time, you have to answer to no one. The answer to their popularity obviously lies somewhere else. 
I harp on a lot about Zeitgeist, one of those wonderful German words which scoops up two ideas into one and creates something else. The meaning of Zeitgeist conveys a reality that most of us most of the time don't even think about: that nebulous throbbing wave of collective knowledge, rather like Cloud on the ether. I am quite sure neither JK Rowling nor Dan Brown paces across their office trying to get in touch with it. But somehow both of them are listening at the right frequency, and both books reflect an incredible thirst in our age for the kind of magic and mystery that was quickly stifled by the church and then double by our "enlightened" quest for the purely rational.
To my mind, Homo Sapiens should have been called Homo Religiosus, and I don't mean people standing to sing hymns in cloisters. I mean the longing that a skyful of stars can invoke. The shooting star that creates awe in even the hardest most scientific breast doesn't even want a rational explanation. It wants JK Rowling and Dan Brown to hand them a broomstick; it wants to get up there itself. And that's why these books sell. They are broomsticks, so no wonder they have the religious right shouting bloody murder.
Literature is enormously powerful. It is what Herman Hesse considered all of art: "The universalising mirror." You can burn the books, but you can't smash the mirror. I'm not sure the qualities of holographs were as well known in Hesse's time, but that universalising mirror  actually functions more like a holograph. You can't burn it; you can't smash it, because every little piece goes on reflecting the whole.
I am enough of a literary snob myself, not to join in the voices denigrating shoddily written prose like Brown's. Creating a sense of place is not about copying travel brochures into your pages. Extraneaous material has to come under the chop of  "killing your darlings" (whoever said that first. Let's say Shakespeare. He should have said it.) But understand we are not talking about words and pretty sentences here. When all is said and done, I can let the book fall with the rest of them and hold out my hands for the broomstick!

Friday, May 10, 2013

Cool Shades

May 10th, 2013

For years I used to go along to the professional consultations at my local writer's conference, which just happens to be the prestigious Aspen Writer's Conference. It was my annual shot at securing an agent. I used to have fantasies about agents signing me there and then on the cool patio of some hotel under umbrellas next to many other such tables under other umbrellas shading other earnest writers and cool agents or editors. I noted from former years what cool lady agents and editors wore and tried to wear the same casual but sophisticated jackets and sandals.
But it's hard to stay cool when you're led by a young intern across a room of earnestness to a waiting agent who has all the balls in their court. Balls seem to desert you as you advance, shake hands and sit down, hoping your dream might come true but a little leary of this one because she hasn't looked up at you from your pages yet, despite the shaking of hands.
It's hot in late June in Aspen. I would drive my car to the consultation with the windows shut despite the fact that the air conditioner was broken. It was a choice between runaway hair and sweaty forehead. I usually opted for the sweat, which probably didn't improve my odds of winning anyone over.
I would check in with the eighteen year old intern and wait with the crowded others trying my best not to look like them. I never knew anyone and have never done well in the company of strangers.  I also have the kind of face that shows every tiny fluctuation of emotion, a trait that has made people ask me from time to time if I am feeling all right. I imagine I looked somewhere between distressed and humiliated. People were probably trying not to stand too close to me and definitely trying not to look like me.
There was usually coffee on hand or milky lemonade with slices of lemon floating in it. The idea was to provide refreshments, but fat chance of me trying to pour any liquid into a cup under these conditions, let alone trying to negotiate it down my gullet. If I had spilled coffee on my shirt, I might as well have left right there and then. I remember one moment of "what shall I say next" when talking to a young female agent, when both she and I stared down at an un-waxed one inch square of leg just below my skirt and feeling that this probably wasn't going to be "a good fit", as they say.
As the years rolled by, I began to look more and more like the others, like the middle aged women with their memoirs of self-discovery after menopause. Mostly in these rooms the female sex is over represented. The agents and editors must really perk up when a man is brought to their table. They're probably thinking,"Now, this might be a good fit," and I bring that phrase up again, because it annoys me only slightly less than getting letters back from agents who don't think you're right for their "list." Their shopping list? Their laundry list? What the hell kind of list might I not be right for?
So you sit there under the umbrella (with the sun in your eyes nevertheless) trying to make meaningful eye contact with the agent or editor, groups which are also over-represented by the female end of things. She is usually younger than you, and you can tell that under the right circumstances she could be really catty, but you need her on your side so desparately, you are willing to let go of your principles and suck up.
Sometimes they even seem excited by your work; sometimes they are flat out rude. What do they have to lose? One (male) agent once told me to send him everything I had, which was three novels at the time. I sent him one. I didn't hear back and he didn't respond to phone calls or e-mails. Ever. Surely it couldn't have been that bad.
They are cool these people. There is no other word for it. They are cool because they are young and have got quite far already in the publishing industry. They get to leave the patio with the umbrellas and have cocktails with the real hot shots at writer's conferences (which aren't the ones under umbrellas with the sun in their eyes.) They are cool because they are playing with a full deck of silky playing cards and you have only one scrubby three of clubs.
So, why did I go through all those years of being frog marched over to the table with the cool person under the umbrella? Because you have to hope, and you have to hold onto the idea that against all odds someone is going to take your three of clubs and turn it into a shining star that you can wear on your forehead and then you won't look anymore like the middle-aged folks with the memoirs. Sometimes it happens, and you have to believe it can.
So, why am I going on about this? I'm telling you all this, because I just signed on to be in Pulitzer Prize winning Paul Harding's advanced fiction class next month at the Aspen Writer's Conference. For part of the fee, I am told, I get two free sessions with the agent or editor of my choice.
But guess what?  I don't need to use them! Some agent or editor will be sitting there in my time slot glancing at their watch, wishing that Claire McDougall would be brought to them, and I'll be off somewhere else sipping a Martini in the cool shade under some umbrella. So there.

Friday, May 3, 2013

4 am In The Morning

May 2nd 2013

Last week I was writing about how whenever a writer puts his ideas down on paper, he is hoping for an audience. But with an audience comes voices of dissent, and authors are not famous for taking criticism well. In fact, after Steinbeck came under fire from all quarters in his native country for winning the Nobel Prize for literature, he barely ever wrote another word. Touchy, touchy, but, honestly, it goes with the territory. Show me an author with thick skin, and I'll show you someone who can't get into the skin of his/her characters. To be a writer, you have to be vulnerable, and the hurtful things people say about your writing are not going to sit well, especially about four o'clock in the morning when you're giving yourself pep talks about being above criticism and trying to focus instead on the big picture.  It's just that the big picture at four o'clock in the morning is just about impossible to get at. In that state of semi-awareness, the mind is only interested in raking through the nitty gritty. And not just once - it goes over and over the same ground, looking for thorns to stick in your feet. Oh, the mind is an unconscionable beast. The dark circles under my eyes are testament to that fact.
Two things happened this week. The first was good, in that I talked to author Anthony Peake who has written extensively about a new paradigm for understanding time. Basically I am into new paradigms for everything, because we have out-used the old ones and they hang around screaming and shouting about how they are illused. Scientists scream and shout about Anthony Peake because he has the audacity to talk about things such as Quantum Physics, when no university gave him the authority to do so. Scientists went into fits of rage when Copernicus dared to suggest that the old world paradigm wasn't right. Scientists committed suicide (I joke not) when Einstein's Theory of Relativity was accepted. Paradigms are paradigms because they are dug in concrete twenty feet down and sixty feet up, and the walls are seven feet thick. Don't come knocking on that door. In fact, there is no door. You just have to take dynamite to it. The British Empire is a point in case. But I am a Scot, and don't get me started on that. That is 4am in the morning stuff.
Anyway, back to Anthony Peake. He is excited about my book called "The Veil of Time," because it, too, is suggesting an alternative way of looking at time. He has me up on his Facebook wall, which I can't see because I don't know the first thing about Facebook. Some paradigms change too quickly for me, and I am still trying to catch up with that one.
The second thing that happened to me this week, and the reason I am harping on about critics, is that I failed to.....more about that later. Here are some other failures:
I have a picture of Emily Bronte on my wall, but look what a critic wrote about Wuthering Heights when it came out. He said, "Here all the faults of Jane Eyre (by Charlotte Bronte) are magnified a thousand fold, and the only consolation which we have in reflecting upon it is it will never be generally read."
Eat your heart out James Lorimer of the North British Review. Wuthering Heights has never stopped being read. Still, I feel your pain, Emily. I have lived the hours of your insomnia.
John Burroughs of Century Magazine had this to say upon the publication of Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities:
"I forced myself through A Tale of Two Cities. It was a sheer dead pull from start to finish. It all seemed so insincere, such a transparent make-believe, a mere piece of acting."
I bet that review had Dickens up at 4 am in the morning, and all because he couldn't see the big picture. The big picture about The Tale of Two Cities is that it is the best selling book of all time. So, stick that in your nineteenth century pipe, John Burroughs, and smoke it.
I have an entire book of these kinds of rotten reviews. I should keep it by my bedside. It should give me courage to reveal the other thing that happened to me this week, but it doesn't. No, I'm not going to tell. It still hurts too much. I will get over it and so will history, but for now don't touch me. I am a writer and I am nursing a wound.