Friday, January 31, 2014

The Soft Underbelly

31st January 2014

I cleaned my house today, a task I normally avoid as much as possible. But I am on edge. I haven't sat down at my desk to write in months. I am not at ease at all in this waiting period as we inch towards publication date, March 11th. I am on trial for my creative life and the verdict will be slow and laborious in coming. It will amount to numbers of rating stars and percentages and money generated. It is me distilled into this thin liquor, poured into a cup for everyone to see and touch and swill.
In the evil days of witch hunts, there was a man called a "witch pricker," whose job it was to detect witchy women by how they responded to the prick (we'll take that as an apt Freudian metaphor!) See above image. If you were pricked and didn't bleed or bruise, you were ipso facto the devil's accomplice. (I researched witches for my current book and even more for its sequel where the extermination of the wise women gets its due.) So, we know I'm not a witch, because I have been pricked and bled all over the place. But like the witches, I have no rights now. I must remain silent, because, again as in the case of accused witches, the very act of protesting proves my guilt. And as in the witch trials, it is always the worst of the rabble that pick up and throw the first stones.
So I'm feeling a little vulnerable and in a way I hadn't anticipated. Not to this extent. But it's worth noting as a part of this writing/publishing process. A writer writes in her own little cocoon, ferreted away in her office or (as was the case with me for some years) in a cupboard under the stairs. It's a struggle painting paper with words and seeing how the picture comes together, but it is your little world and no one intrudes. It's a glorious self-absorbed struggle, and when it is finished, you pack it off and send it out to agents and editors and, if you're lucky, they scribble notes on it and you go away and make fixes. But you are in control. The voices are soft and encouraging. And then one day before publication, your book is on-line and some people that you don't know are still whispering, but others are yelling and picking up stones, and all you can do is turn into a hedgehog and protect your underbelly. Because that underbelly has to live to see another day. It is the soft underbelly that did the writing in the first place.
So, that's where I am: a hedgehog, waiting for the noise to stop, waiting to get back to what hedgehogs do best - snuffling around among the leaves looking for worms.

When my kids were little I used to tell them a story I made up called Dreamboat. Well it's less of a story than a way to get your kids' minds to sleep, but apparently they liked it - my son even wrote a song about it (available on ITunes.)
I'm not going to give away all the details of Dreamboat because I entertain hopes of one day making it into an illustrated children's book, but suffice it to say that it pictured waking life as a stroll down a leafy lane that ended up by a lake where sat a boat of many colors. Going to sleep was a trip out on the lake, up and down on the small waves until you couldn't keep your eyes open. It's a pretty picture, and I suppose that at bottom my image of life is a little like this, a fairly sunny world painted in pastel hues.
Lately, though, it's felt more like being in a very small dinghy on a tumultuous sea with sharks taking jabs at this inflatable craft and threatening to sink it.
Am I tough enough to stay afloat?  I guess the jury is still out on that question, too.
I think I liked the lake better.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Year of the Tattoo

January 24th 2014

Simon and Schuster put my book up on for giveaway two days ago. There are 25 copies and 350 entries so far. So join up! You never know. Winners are selected randomly. Two reviews so far: the first lamented how different my book was from Diana Gabaldon's Outlander (some good soul responded, "So what?") The second was fairer, but neither liked the book and gave me only three stars out of five. I think I will limp now into my office and commit literary hari-kari. Eloi eloi lama sabachthani? (Well, I'm an artist with a flair for the dramatic!)  I know it is too early to tell how this thing is all going to come out in the wash, but this is not what I was anticipating. I sort of thought that trumpets would sound and people would be bowing down to kiss the street I walk upon (ditto.)

Maybe this isn't the right thing to be posting on a site that is supposed to be promoting my book, but I set out to log the process, and perhaps this is part of the process: I shared the glory of getting a publisher, of being assigned a publicist, all those things that had me hopping for joy. But there is no joy right now. There is self doubt and a clutching feeling in my chest. There are tears and vows that I will never write another word. I will come out of it. Human buoyancy predicts that I will bob back up on the surface after a period of time.

On to other things. 2014 being a big year (both for me and Scotland), I decided to do something radical and get a tattoo. My ancestors in Scotland were called "picti" by the marauding Roman army when they first encountered them on the Scottish border. "Picti" means "the painted ones," so we can assume they were fairly well tattooed. In my book set in the time of the Picts, nearly everyone is tattooed, so I thought I should reach back into my DNA and pull up a pictish symbol to adorn my arm. This is what I came up with:

On the inside of my forearm. I have never in my life done anything like this. Call it a mid-life crisis. Call it a move that floored the people who know me. I didn't even really know how to go about it. But the place I picked should have been a warning: The Dingy Cupboard. I ask you. I arrived at the appointed time and passed a woman outside drawing heavily on a cigarette. "Please make that not the tattoo artist," I prayed as I went inside. But she was. I had even researched her: I knew she had a degree in art, but nothing was said about nicotine addiction. She walked in after a while smelling of cigarettes and booze and a little jittery, I thought. I showed her my picture of the above symbol.
"Can you do this?" I asked.
She assured me she could. We decided on the place on my arm she would draw the tattoo, and then she asked to be excused for a quick smoke. I could have run then. I could have called the whole thing off when she came back in and had me sit in the seat and said, "You can moan, you can bitch and you can whine. But don't fucking move."
Believe me, I didn't move. The tattoo needle painted on the tattoo like a sewing machine running up a hem - though more slowly. More agonizingly. She was wiping away black ink and getting her face very close to her work. Every so often I stole a glance, and damn if it wasn't coming together just as I imagined. I had initially asked for a coloured-in tattoo, but once she had made the outline of the sign in black ink and filled in the swirls and inner design, I was thinking it looked just about right the way it was. My artist lady told me to take a few minutes to think about it, while she went outside for a fag. I strode up and down in the dingy cupboard looking at my arm in the mirror, thinking I was a pretty cool-looking middle-aged women and wondering how my children were going to react.
"I'm going to stick with this," I told her when she came back in. Credit due - she did a great job. I am very pleased with my tattoo.
Which just goes to show you: sink or swim, things don't always turn out the way you expect them to. Not in the publishing world. Not even in the tattoo parlor.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Putting Your Tail To The Ground

17th January 2014

I found my book reviewed in my alma mater's magazine at Oxford (called Christ Church Matters.) Nice to think of those fellow students who looked askance at me in those days noticing and saying, "But, God, she was so odd..."  Therein you have one of the less noble reasons writers write. Oh well, only human.
I received a form letter from my publisher a couple of days ago noting that it is only eight weeks until publication, and I had better plug into my Author Portal and make sure I'm doing everything I'm supposed to. I was on the phone yesterday to my agent, talking about such things. He bemoans the fact that there is no forum for book clubs to go to for reading ideas, because a book like mine could surely use one. It's odd that in spite of our high tech age, the movement of any given publication still relies on word of mouth. It's just that word can spread more quickly. But you still need those people in the first place using their mouths and lips to say to their neighbor, "I've just read such a good book, Darling!" He thinks we need to make inroads into communities of readers, like those of historical fiction, feminist and fantasy fiction. I have been attempting this sort of thing very clumsily on Twitter.
Meanwhile, two different book blogs, The Qwillery and My Bookish Ways, have asked to put my book up on their websites and conduct interviews and post guest blogs from me. They must have found me through my blog!
Meanwhile, I have submitted the title of my talk for Muses and the Market Place for May 4th in Boston on Grub Street: Art from the Heart - Getting out of the Way of Your Writing. I think we've been taught to overthink our role as artists instead of just listening, because the first requirement of any writer is to have good hearing. It's what Nietzsche called "psychological antennae." You have to have your ear to the ground, picking up the slightest pulse. The slightest pulse can be a moment of shattering insight. It's when we try to pull our art out of ourselves, particularly out of our heads, that our hands come up empty or sticky with dross. We have to be connected, like the shaman is, like the people in Avatar are when they connect their tails to the mother tree. Carl Jung would have loved that image - it's what he meant by the Collective Man (in the same vein as the collective unconscious. The writer as any other artist is an artisan whose medium is the collective unconscious.) So you can't get caught up in yourself - if you do, you end up blowing out your brains figuratively and in a few cases actually.  So you connect your tail to the tree of knowledge and you listen.

I am really getting out of the way of my writing these days. In fact I am so out of the way, I haven't sat down at my desk in my office since I finished the sequel to Veil of Time. It's been months, and it's beginning to wear on me.  It's not a case of writer's block. It's a case of being caught in the headlights.  I'm not sure which direction to turn, and I am a little frozen in place, waiting for the juggernaut to pass.  It would help if one of the many drivers of this publishing machine would put their head out of the window and shout out a word of encouragement, even the suggestion that I hop on the back and enjoy the ride. But I seem fixed down here at the side of the road, such a peaceful rural country road where I can usually hear the birds singing, the background hum of grasshoppers.
It's at times like this that you need the agent. You need him to say, "It's okay, let's have a party." Which is what we're going to do in Boston in May. A party for my book and for the Boston literati. I will put on my silk frock and sip cocktails and be full of what my book is and isn't and how long a writer like myself sat in the wings waiting for a party to be celebrated at. And then I will pick up my backpack and head back to the country road, smooth out the dirt and hang boxes in the trees for the birds to nest in. I will be quiet and lay my ear to the good earth and the good mother from which all proceeds.

Painting by Steven Cronin:

Friday, January 10, 2014

Judging a Book By Its Cover

10th January 2014

If you can't judge a book by its cover, then you won't be able to tell how good my story is from looking at the images below. But just for curiosity's sake, here's the final cover, back and front, for "Veil of Time."

My editor and I struggled over the back cover blurb till each of us was ready for a divorce (the only time we even came close!), but I think it came out pretty well. My part of the struggle was to keep the hyperbole on the ground, and hers understandably was to fit the book into a marketable niche.  I wouldn't have advertised the fact that my hero, Fergus, is a prince, though he technically is.  It's just that he is not a prince of the white charger stamp. I let it go. Why fight it - we are all in the same game at this point of trying to get as many books out into the world as possible, Scottish princes notwithstanding.
The photograph of yours trully is not the greatest, but that is my fault for not having a good enough one on hand (despite years of fantasizing about having my face on a published novel!)  I have promised myself that for the next book I will shell out proper money for a professional picture.
In retrospect I regret not having mentioned that I also spent four years at Edinburgh University - I was trying to be concise, and I knew Oxford carried more weight, but Edinburgh is my true alma mater (in more than one way, since I was born in that city) and the place I earned my MA (in philosophy.) So let it go on record: I didn't mean to shove it aside.
I do like the fact that the designer repeated the landscape on the back cover. I like to think that if you made an image of me with the right kind of contraption honing in on a specific type of energy wave, you would find Scotland etched on my skin. It's not far beneath the surface. This scene is not of Dunadd and could be of the farthest reaches of Argyll, but it is a bleaker landscape than is typical of my native soil. Dunadd is heavy with bracken and oak forest (at least it was in its original state, and that's the way they're letting it return.)

In other developments, I was sent the "Buy Buttons" to put up on my website (once again I was indebted to a techno-savvy teenager!) Now you can buy my book from a number of booksellers, some of which I hadn't even heard of.  Also, I have been invited to speak at Boston's Writer's Conference, The Muse and The Marketplace in May. It's a big bustling event with 100 faculty and 600 students. Now all I have to do is rip my heart out, squeeze it dry in front of my audience, then replace, still beating, back it in my chest. It might not be as traumatic as that, but this is what comes to mind when I think of the "performance." Being a shy Scottish lass, public speaking is close to harikari on my list of dreads. And yet, and yet. My father was a great public speaker, made his living from it, as a matter of fact. So maybe there is some hidden potential there in my make-up cowering in the dank cave of my insecurity, listening to the hours, days and weeks dripping from here to there like running stalactites. Maybe I will rise to the occasion. Who knows? Things are going to have to change from here on out. Maybe this public life is my new era. Maybe there was a lot more involved in this writing life than I counted on when I set out.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Jupiter is a woman

January 3rd 2014

OMG! It's 2014, and it's going to be a good one. Call me soft in the head, but I think the movement of the planets effects our lives, and Jupiter, the biggest and most powerful of the planets, has just slid into my career sector! What's not to believe? If there is one thing you can say about our universe, it's that everything works together in one great swell of cosmic soup -  the stars and planets and the butterfly wing in China. So I am looking forward to being a particularly big bubble in the pot this year. Mercury, messenger of the gods, is also in my sign, and favors media and getting my message out.  So bring it on! This Scorpio has lived long enough under a rock and needs to take wing and fly. As a new year's game with some others I was asked to predict three things for my life by this time next year. I have never had any problem dreaming big, so here's what I said: 1) Veil of Time will be doing well; 2) The sequel will be well into pre-production; 3) My book will be optioned for a movie.
(The last of these is not something I wish for lightly. A whole host of conditions would have to be met for that to happen. I don't need creative control, but I do need to be in the loop. There are directors out there who value the input of writers - it's just a question of finding the right one.)
Anyway, that's me for 2014.
Nelson Mandela said, "There's no passion to be found playing small - in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living." He certainly didn't settle for anything less than he was capable of. During his twenty-seven years of imprisonment he was repeatedly offered his freedom by the South African government, but repeatedly refused to accept the conditions that that freedom rested upon. I firmly believe that it is not our dreams that fail but our resolution. Dreams that are held on to tightly, have a way of manifesting themselves. They may not happen according to our agenda, and we have to be flexible enough to ride the waves, but the key is not to lose sight of the land we're aiming for.
With my book launch coming up at 6pm on March 11th of this year, I have been busy planning. The folks at Aspen Writer's Foundation, bless their little hearts, are putting this on for me. I could have had it at the local book shop (one of the few left in the country, but, this being Aspen, it is owned by a wealthy enough concern for it to be still viable) or at the county library, in some ways an obvious venue. But I chose the community centre in Woody Creek, a sort of fringe community at the farthest reaches of Aspen where Hunter Thompson lived and where John Oates and Jimmy Ibbotson currently have houses.
Woody Creek is mostly a trailer park, a tavern of ill repute, and couple of speed bumps, but it's where I live. The community center has a garden to sit out in in the summer and a fire to huddle around in the winter, and it is a comfortable setting. I'm asking people to come in kilts or in any other ethnic dress (for instance, my Cherokee friend will come in his tribe's regalia.) I want an actor friend to come dressed in a cowl, hood up, waving incense in a censer. Book readings can be boring non-events. They can have you trying to sneak a look at your watch. So, I am aiming to have this one be a happening event. If I could afford a piper, I would, but the closest pipers are in Denver, four hours away. At very least, I might be able to bring in a few local musicians to play Celtic tunes and set the stage. Because the book is about more than just me. It has themes of ethnicity, of Christian religion against pagan. It's about being a proud Scot and celebrating a history that is uniquely Scotland's before it was taken over by a history uniquely English.
The biggest of my book's themes, I think, is that an age of domination and hierarchies, of slash and burn, should pass now, is passing now. The whole world view that that hinged upon, needs to go now - homo sapiens does not control the earth or space or time. Mine is a book about time, because that is the linch pin that this worn out world view rests upon, the piece in the puzzle that if you remove it, everything else collapses. We need a new way of looking at our universe, not one from a conquerer point of view, but one of perspective and humility. The reason my heroine flies like a witch back to 735 AD is that it might be helpful for us to look at the kind of religious perspective we had before the monkish religious perspective took hold. We can't go back to that, obviously, but the denigration of the goddess, of the female, has been disastrous for the world. Willy nilly, Christianity has been a tool used for that purpose. But the sky God has had his turn, and we need to re-embrace the sacred feminine, the earth goddess, whatever form that is going to take in the centuries to come.
At the beginning of this important year, this is my fervent wish, book signing or not, sequel or not, movie or not: that the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know that place for the first time. (Eliot.) In my book, I am trying to find a way there.