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.