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.