Friday, May 29, 2015

Spooky Action at a Distance

29th May 2015


In Scotland, black cats aren't a bad omen as they are in the US. They are good luck. Somewhere along the line when the church was transforming good witches into hags, the black cat went with them into the shady area of occult.  So in my book Veil of Time, a black cat appears out of nowhere on Halloween, and my protagonist adopts it.   She names the cat Winnie, because it rhymes with skinny, and it becomes a sort of touchstone for her. When she gets transported back in time, lo and behold the black cat goes with her.
So one dark night a couple of weeks ago, a neighbour knocked on my door and asked if I was missing a black cat. Well, I don't have a black cat, but I was curious. I went out, and there she was. Winnie. Just exactly how I had imagined her: skinny, small head, friendly with a loud purr. Readers of my book will remember that it is the cat's rhythmic purring that sometimes sends Maggie off into an epileptic seizure.
Oscar Wilde famously said, "Life imitates art far more than art imitates life." This sentiment even has a name: Anti-mimesis. And people have always felt it - all the way back to Aristophanes. Perhaps even before that. Is it possible that this is why we tell stories, that we are really trying to manifest the life we choose?

I was reading yesterday in the paper how some scientists are beginning to think that traditional science has reality on its head. According to that science, the universe is full of a number of things, and these things generate a field of information. But the scientists in the paper yesterday were positing the opposite:  before anything else, there is a field of information and then there is the physical manifestation of that field.

Perhaps that's where Winnie came from: the field of information I created when I wrote a book about time travel and witches and a black cat called Winnie. You never know.
As I write, Winnie is sitting at my shoulder looking out of the window, surveying the world that perhaps she only partially belongs to.
Of course, I have adopted her. What else can you do when spooky things turn up at your doorstep?

Friday, May 22, 2015


22nd May 2015

Here you are, on the brink of success.You have all your literary ducks in a row: you have honed your craft, you have walked the inner sanctum of the publishing world and found the agent and at last you have a publisher. All you have to do now is get that ball into the back of the net. Everyone is watching you: sisters, brothers, that teacher back in middle school who said you'd never amount to anything. But don't succumb to the vagaries of pressure, just shoot. It's easy - the net is wide open. The only thing in your way is that person hopping around in the goal trying to stop the ball.

Let's tease this metaphor out a little more: that person in your way is actually yourself. It's the parrot on your shoulder and the snickering voice in the night that says you're not going to make it. It is self-doubt, and it will actually make a lunge to stop that ball ever making its mark. It's your worst enemy and ultimately you have created it, this evil hobgoblin who wants to see you fail.
Recently I was watching a panel discussion on creativity featuring no less than the Dalai Lama, Deepak Chopra, Ken Robinson and a few other people in the field. One of the panel cited a study showing that when the player in a penalty shootout (let's say in a world cup match and the deciding goal is going to be this one!), pauses before he shoots, he is statistically more likely to score than if he goes for the ball the second the referee blows the whistle.

This relates to creative writing, because what the player who pauses is doing in those critical few heartbeats is finding within himself a still place. He or she is opening up a space to clear out the hobgoblins and let loose.
So, block out the crowd and don't get caught up in the voices, either your own or others. Give yourself time to retreat into the still centre, this creative space that stills the voice of self-doubt. And then get your eye on the goal, and go for it.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Song of Scotland

May 15th 2015

At the end of June I am going to Scotland for a book reading in my native Argyll. It will be strange to do this amidst all the scenery that is the backdrop for my book. I have only ever done these kinds of events in America, which is a foreign country for me - even after twenty-nine years here, I  am still a stranger in a strange land.  Other Scottish ex-pats of my acquaintance wouldn't entertain the idea of returning to Scotland - they have found their land of plenty, and the idea of moving back into the land of dour faces plunges them into a state of despair.

It is true, Scottish people can be dour. The reasons we all left in the first place are still there. And yet, and yet, there is something about the place of my birth that calls and has a strange magic to it.  There are people in the US who are only vaguely connected to Scotland, who get all droopy by anything Scottish (except for haggis, of course - but I had it just last night via Texas, and I still love it!)
There is just something about Scotland:


The history of writers living abroad is long: James Joyce, DH Lawrence, TS Eliot. Even Lewis Grassic Gibbon, the most Scottish of writers, lived in Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire. How English is that? And this from a Scottish writer who insisted on writing in Scots dialect, a decision which arguably deprived him of a worldwide audience. He deserved to be better known. He is, apart from Burns, the foremost Scottish writer. You can keep your Walter Scott and even your Robert Louis Stevenson. It's Lewis Grassic Gibbon who made the word embody the land. He is the Scotsman of beautiful words.

The film industry has finally caught onto this, and his best book Sunset Song is now in post-production as a major movie. Can't wait. And once they're done with that, I have an entire slew of books just waiting for the making. Hell, I have an entire slew of screenplays of the books just waiting for the making. Lewis Grassic Gibbon died at age thirty-three. He had to fit a lot in to a very short life. I have more time. But I still can't wait!

Friday, May 8, 2015

In a Glass Darkly

May 8th 2015

I talked to my agent this week. He was on the New York subway, but it's always nice to cross that bridge and feel there's someone else in this picture apart from me madly scribbling my way into oblivion. He told me the jury is still out at the publisher on the second book in my time travel series.   A few years ago a writer friend of mine signed on with Amazon Publishing right when it was getting going and because like me she had a backlog of books, they published one of hers every six months. To date she has sold hundreds of thousands of copies. But the policy at the big six publishers, of which S&S is one, is more one of wait and see. So I am waiting. Eventually I will also see.

But the main reason for the talk with my agent was to discuss my current book, which has nothing to do with time travel, Hazel and The Chessmen. He has just finished reading it, and he loves it. Yeah! He loves it, but...Isn't that the way it always goes? He worries my American protagonist is not American enough. That's because I am not American enough. So we agreed then that this book which harps on about Scottish independence somewhat might be more suited to a Scottish audience.  And that's where he's going to take it. Yeah!
He says, even though he already loves it, I could amp up the tension - it's pretty clear, after all, that my American heroine is going to fall in love with my Scottish hero, even though that isn't the main point of the story, and even though she has a boyfriend back home in America.
Okay, I said. I will try and fix that. I will start right away on a rewrite, and then I will write Book Three of my time travel series, even though I don't even know yet if they want Book Two. I will fling myself into the abyss, because that's what writing entails

You can't argue with Nietzsche. He knew all.
Post Script: You can't mess with Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party, either.  Congratulations to the SNP on last night's sweep of Scotland in the general election. It's like Newton said: For every action there is an opposite but equal reaction. We didn't get independence last September, but this is sweet retribution on our way to peaceful revolution.

Alba gu brath!

Friday, May 1, 2015

May Day

May 1st 2015

When I was a student in Oxford, May Day was one of the highlights of the year, just because for one silly day everyone went bananas. If you have ever spent so much as a day in an Oxford college, you'll understand how unusual that is. If you have ever sat at dinner night after night in those hallowed halls, you'll understand that bananas are not even on the menu.
But long before the university town of Oxford was founded, there was the pagan town of Oxenforde worshipping at the feet of the goddess Frige.  There are still some archeological remains of her sacred places buried beneath the roads and colleges that were built to rout the sacred woman out. Oxford was into routing women out for many centuries, until it became too un-pc to sustain. But it is still a male bastion. There are still too many bastards. But that's why May Day was invented.  In the pagan calendar it is Beltane - and you'll have to read the sequel to Veil Of Time if you want to find out what our pagan ancestors got up to on the festival of Beltane, and what happens to my female protagonist when she follows the green man to a Mayday fire festival. In brief, Beltane had to do with fertility, the celebration of new life after a frozen sodden winter in your wool rags with not much to eat either.

No wonder May Day means "Help!" Actually, that usage comes from the French, "Venez m'aider!" so nothing to do with bananas at all. I hate bananas, cannae stand 'em. Can't stand the smell of them. I suppose Freud would a have a heyday with that. But everyone going bananas once a year was the one sigh of relief in my whole Oxford experience. Help!

I wasn't about to jump off Magdalene bridge into the River Cherwell at 5am in the morning, but I wasn't able either to become a cog in the blue-blood machinery. My blood wasn't blue, for one thing - just tartan, I suppose. I bought the Oxford bike and the gown and cap and I attended tutorials with my near-dead tutor. But the drummer was nowhere near. The drum I was moving to even in those far off days lived on a hill where the rowan bent down to the chattering stream. The wind in my head was much too loud to let in the litanies of an emasculated priesthood.