The Art of Sabotage

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It was the middle of May, and I was deep in a round of edits of multiple projects at once. A manuscript that was long overdue in my mind, a portfolio, and a magazine that was needing to go to print sooner rather than later. Nerves were frayed, tensions were high, something had to give. The manuscript and the blog went first. I had classwork on top of my graduation materials, and I couldn’t keep up with everything. It felt at once as though the creativity had been sucked out of my soul and I could barely keep track of my thoughts unrelated to graphic design, as the portfolio show loomed near.

In the grand sense, I was thrilled that it was going to be over, ecstatic that I would no more have to see faces of teachers I loathed. I would no longer have to deal with asinine assignments that taught me nothing or struggle to perfect a magazine that had begun to fell less and less like my vision and more and more like an attempt to appease the powers that be. Less writing, more design, different design, change, change, less writing. More space.

In the aftermath of the portfolio show, I was fried for the better part of a week, but it would be months before my creativity returned to me. Or at least, that was how I felt. Eventually I got back to work on my writing, but the experience had taken a toll, and I was beginning to find myself second guessing everything I had worked hard on before portfolio show. Suddenly I was making seemingly small changes, that escalated into larger and larger changes until I was engulfed in a sea of self destruction of my own doing. I would spend months trying to sort out my changes, and in the end, I can’t help but wonder, was it really necessary?

It’s been roughly seven months since portfolio show, and I feel as though I’m only finally getting back on my feet. I’ve updated a good deal of my work, and even my brand, but until recently my mind’s been sort of circling the drain writing wise and I couldn’t figure out why. And then, I reached the 9th chapter of my current draft of my work-in-progress. I had liked, mostly the work I had done up till then, but as I found myself struggling to make sense of everything I’d done up till that moment I had to wonder, were all of the changes I had made really that necessary? Was I actually helping my story, or was I, in an effort to fix the small changes really damaging the story all along?

At what point does editing go from fleshing out the story to self destruction? At what point during the process do you wonder if you haven’t strayed so far from the pack that you can’t even see it anymore? And at what point do you decide to go back, and try to figure out where everything went wrong?

A Change of Mindset

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When I was thirteen, I went for my first physical, I was always a bit of an overweight child, but the doctor was particularly concerned by my size. In a matter of hours I was checked for diabetes and heart conditions, and was given a rather stern lecture about the amount of sugar in a single can of soda (spoiler alert, it’s about what you’d expect). I always remembered that moment, but it wasn’t until I was 23, that I hit that Aha moment and decided a change needed to be made. It didn’t come from someone telling me I was fat (surprise, surprise, fat shaming doesn’t actually accomplish anything), nor did it come from a doctor scare. In truth it came from a random decision to check my weight on the scale.

No one can tell you when your ready to learn something, they can explain something to you until they’re blue in the face, but if you’re not ready to absorb it and to hear it, it won’t have any impact on you. In order to change you have to be in the mindset for it. Nobody can make you get there. There just has to be a moment when you realize and decide that whatever you’re doing, and your reasons for doing it aren’t helping you, and something needs to change.

But what does my change in eating habits and exercise have to do with writing? Surprisingly a great deal, because my issues with my writing are still a mindset thing. I can tell myself I have it figured out, and I know what my problems are when it comes to overthinking and overanalyzing everything, but knowing it isn’t the same as processing it on the level that allows you to make actionable changes. In the case of my weight, I knew that the weight I was at was not acceptable to me, I didn’t like it, but because I had for years stayed level in that same weight (gaining and losing two or three pounds periodically), I had written it off. It was not until I saw a number, much higher than I was previously accustomed to seeing that I became so shocked that I realized I needed to make a change, and fast. It adjusted my mind set on my eating habits and my exercise habits (or lack thereof), and I changed immediately. This is not to say that I’m by any means a diet expert, I’m not. I’ve managed to get healthier and lose a few pounds by trying to decrease my portions, decrease my intake of fast food, and increase my exercise. It’s boring, it’s not a fad diet, and the change is so slow you may not even notice it’s happening, but I realize now that were I not in the right mindset, not losing weight as fast as I’d like would have been a deal breaker for me.

In the case of my writing, this shock to the system came just this morning as I was looking over chapter 9, and I hit a wall so profoundly frustrating that I began to question everything that had lead up to that moment. Why was I here? What had I done to get myself stuck in this situation? I decided to go back to an earlier draft, and I found myself wondering what had been so wrong with this idea? Why had I been so quick to drop it like yesterdays news? Was I so sure I could make it better or was it something deeper?

Reading Franzen Part VI & VII

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Part VI: One Last Christmas & Part VII: the Corrections

Summary:

I really don’t know what to say about these final two parts other than nothing that I expected happened. Alfred didn’t die until the last page and the fighting that I expected at Christmas was almost nonexistent. Part VI spent a lot of its time sort of clearing up where everyone was and why Gary’s children didn’t show up, what Denise had been up too, how she had become rather evil to Robin which I really didn’t appreciate and how Chip had nearly been killed in Lithuania.

Eventually it becomes clear to Enid, and everyone else that Alfred is not going to get better, and she decides to place him in a hospital for a while, then in a rest home. After which, Alfred’s life gets perpetually worse and everyone else seems to live happily ever after, especially Enid.

Thoughts:

Curiously, though reading this story has made me thoroughly exhausted, I feel like it’s made me a better critic, because my critiques of Franzen and his work are no longer based on abstract ideas about him as a human being, but in what I’ve actually seen of his work. As I said early on in this project, authors are not known for being warm and fuzzy, it comes with the territory. But just because he’s pretentious and obnoxious in real life, does not necessarily mean that somehow he is a bad author. In truth, it would be disingenuous of me to suggest that it was a completely terrible book. The mere fact that the characters, detestable though they mostly were made me feel anything at all (even if it was revulsion) says something of his skills as an author. What this says, remains to be seen, and I still wonder if the emotions I felt while reading it were necessarily the singular emotion the author wanted the reader to feel throughout reading his novel, but I digress.

Overall ‘the Corrections’ was, interesting, bizarre, and entirely not what I expected, whether or not that’s a good thing I can’t say. It’s definitely not one of those books you go back to over and over again, at least not for me, and I don’t think Franzen is an author I’ll be watching any time soon. Ultimately, I think that for all his pomp and circumstance regarding genre fiction there was nothing dealt with in his book that felt any more ‘serious’ than anything any genre author writes about. Unless he’s thinking purely of romance novels or penny dreadfuls then perhaps we can have a serious discussion.

I don’t think I can seriously recommend this book to anyone, personally, it’s not the sort of story I would normally have read and frankly the fact it took nearly 400+ pages to even get slightly more interesting was a problem for me. To say nothing of the occasional bouts of soap box preaching from Gary, and Chip, and Franzen himself. It was tiresome most every time and transparently predictable.

Next month I’ll be reading: Dark Places by Gillian Flynn.

READING FRANZEN MASTERLIST: 

PART I

PART II

PART II CONT’D 

PART III

PART III CONT’D 

PART IV

PART V

PART V CONT’D 

Writing Nook

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For many years now, I have never had what one would call a proper writing space. For a while, I wrote pretty much wherever I could set up my laptop, which more often than not meant I was doing a lot of writing in bed (not great for the back).

Currently my writing space consists of a series of incongruous items, fashioned into what I call a desk, but what is in reality the top of a former desk which began to fall apart after a move several years ago, a three drawer dresser that is full of mostly writing, the occasional charger, and a box full of receipts. And a chair that defies sitting in at the best of times.

A hipster might call this desk up-cycled. I love it, don’t get me wrong, but as desks go, it’s not the mahogany corner desk with matching hutch that I always dreamed of. Still, it has it’s charm and it more than performs it’s task for writing and design purposes. Recently however I’ve been longing for a change. Every so many months I like to change up the position of things in my bedroom, which would be fine, if not for the fact that at this point… everything I have has already been everywhere it can go in my room, several times over. So what’s a writer do to? Improvise. Utilizing a series of old bedsheets, and pushpins, I’ve managed to create for myself a comfortable writing nook within my bedroom that allows me a separate space in which to work. Inside I have my desk, a bookcase, and a laptop table I can move underneath the desk for extra room.

The setup needs a few finishing touches, including some artwork on the walls to really help foster the creative flow I’m looking for, and I want to work out a better organizational system than what I currently have but this nook has proved quite cozy and a fun experiment in DIY office space conversion. I’d also love, since my bookcase is here, to set up some pillows or cushions to create a little reading corner.

Ultimately time will tell whether or not I’m able to be more creative/productive in this semi-secluded office space, but I’m incredibly hopeful and excited all the same.

Reading Franzen Part V Cont’d

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From the outset one of the things I knew about Denise is that beyond being the only real likable character in the entire story, she’s the only one who doesn’t strike me as a selfish, spoiled brat, like her brothers, and she doesn’t seem to have the obsession of not turning out like her parents, to the point at which it nearly destroys her life, as do both Gary and Chip.

Thus far Denise has made this story almost worth these last three grueling weeks. Almost. Once again though it strikes me as interesting that it took several hundred pages to get interesting after a slump at the end of part IV and the beginning of part V, and though Denise is currently trying to forget about her lover I really wish Robin and Denise would end up together in the end because they’re the only couple, and for that matter, only characters I can actually manage to root for. So here’s hoping.

I really don’t know what to say about how this part ended, beyond the fact that it was wholly unbelievable. Literally. From the father falling off the cruise ship he was on, to, whatever is going on with Chip which… I have no words for. It’s curious to me that with everything Franzen has to say about genre fiction this book sure has taken a bizarre turn that even a genre author might find a bit questionable.

Giving Your Book Space

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I’m way, way, way too much in my own head about my current work in progress. It’s becoming a distraction and a bit of a problem.

I can’t even manage to write a decent blog post at the moment because all of my thoughts are stuck on this current draft. Oddly, it isn’t so much that I’m having trouble with it, I’ve seen worse times, but I’m just so in the midst of it that I can’t see my way out anymore, and I know that’s a problem.

After giving it a great deal of thought I’ve decided that I’m going to need to put some space between myself and this story after this month is over. I’m still going to work towards my original February deadline, but I’m not going to hold it against myself if it just doesn’t happen.

It occurs to me that I’ve been going non-stop on this project since last year, which I would say is something to be proud of, but it means that I owe it to myself and my story to put some space between it and myself. I’ve known for a long time that you’re supposed to put time between yourself and the story, but I’ve never exactly known how to do that, and so it’s been something I haven’t taken seriously. But as artistic burnout lingers on the horizon, I’m coming to realize that perhaps this is something I’m going to need to take seriously in the future.

I don’t know how long the break is going to be for, or even what I’m going to do in the mean time, besides blog of course, and work on mapping out my favorite book as previously promised, but book wise, I really don’t know what my plans are.

author beware

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Somewhere in my early teens (I can’t seem to remember exactly when), ever enamored with the idea of publishing and becoming a real published novelist, I decided to do some googling and came across a website for a literary agency and so I decided to submit to them. I was thrilled and terrified,  knew virtually nothing of the world I was getting myself into at the time. The response was surprisingly quick. They wanted to sign me, but they also wanted a hundred some-odd dollars to read my work. This should have set off alarm bells somewhere, but I was young and naive enough not to have done my homework before hand. I didn’t have the money myself, but my mother was more than willing to pay for it. We signed the contract and off we went. They reviewed the writing and even gave me quite a few pointers on it, it almost seemed legitimate.

But the more we talked about it with other people the more red flags started to pop up. You see the one thing we didn’t know at the time, that needs to be stated is that literary agencies, don’t ask for money. They get paid a percentage through royalties. I dissolved the relationship about a month or so in; I later found their agency on the Preditors and Editors website. It’s lucky it only cost me a hundred dollars and not several thousand as one might worry that something like this could cost.

It’s hard to be a writer, and sometimes we let the excitement of possibility get the better of our judgment, in my case, I allowed my excitement at the possibility of having an agent cloud my better judgement in learning how all of this works. Had I simply read a book on the subject I might have known that agents don’t charge you to read your book. This is a warning, to all my new writers and young writers out there. Be careful, there are unfortunately those who would take advantage of you without a second thought. Give yourself time, you may think you’re ready now, and perhaps you are, but sometimes, giving yourself time to get better is so much of a help. Truthfully, I would have been mortified if I’d been published back then, looking at some of my older work (as it does for many authors) makes me cringe.

Reading Franzen Part V

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The Generator

Summary:

Part V, is Denise’s story. The youngest of the three children, and perhaps the most likable character in the entire book, this part details her affair with a married man before college, and her subsequent, unrelated, failed marriage.

Thoughts:

Surprisingly I don’t feel like I have that much to say about part V. The fact is, a lot of this experience for me, is getting tedious. I have a good idea I know where it’s going to go, everyone’s going to do the final Christmas in St. Jude, Gary has already agreed to it, though it may destroy his marriage, Denise has agreed to it (from what I can tell), and Chip… may or may not be dragged there by Denise. The Christmas itself, which is the next part is going to be interesting and that’s going to be the deciding factor in how everything goes.

I could predict, and I’ve been wondering about this for sometime that at Christmas either the father or the mother will die. I predict a bit of fighting, but I also gather there will be some kind of like big turn around moment where the family comes together to grieve that. But maybe Franzen will surprise me. Part VI is, I believe, the final part of the book, which means that if something major is going to happen, it would have to happen then. So that’s my guess.

The Process of Summary

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When I first started reading the Corrections I never really imagined I would learn all that much from the process of reading and blogging about a book. After all, I had kind of done so, many times before. All throughout grade school we were required to read a certain number of books each trimester and we were required to summarize what we had read. The summary part was always something I struggled with. How does one condense an entire novel into a few pages? Or even 1 page? I think it’s honestly one of the most difficult skills, but one that’s the most important, especially when it comes to publishing. You have to be able to talk about your book in a way that makes people want to read it, but more than that, most literary agents and publishers want to see a summary of what’s going on, in depth. So how do you break it down?

One of the things I’ve learned throughout this process is to break it down chapter by chapter. Giving yourself a short one to two sentence summary of what happens in each chapter allows you to see on a single page (or a few pages) what’s going on. From there you can visually decide what needs to be included in the overall summary or what can be put to the side. For example, each Reading Franzen blog post I write, begins with me writing down thoughts in a notebook as I’m reading. More often than not, the notes themselves won’t end up verbatim in the blogpost, but it allows me to have the general idea of what I’m going to say when I’m writing the post up later. It also helps me organize my ideas and try to get a handle on what I’m reading. There really isn’t much in the way of plot with what I’m reading currently, which makes it difficult to summarize beyond a paragraph or so, or even a few sentences in the case of Part IV.

The process has given me an entirely new way to look at summarizing my work and to ensure that I give myself plenty of notes to work from before I ever start summarizing, or even writing.

Reading Franzen Part IV

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Part IV: At Sea

Summary

Alfred’s condition has significantly worsened as he and his wife take their yearly cruise; Enid finds solace in a new miracle drug called Aslan.

Thoughts: 

This was perhaps the most interesting part in the entire novel, 302 pages into the 568 page novel we are finally treated with intrigue in the form of a tragic story told by one of the passengers on the ship, a woman named Sylvia who’s daughter was brutally murdered by one of her patients. It’s the first part of the novel that’s actually felt real, and incredibly tragic, and yet it somehow retains this odd clinical distance that makes you feel vaguely sad, yet not quite emotional enough to actually cry over it, the way one might at the death of a character in any other novel. One of the many issues I have with Franzen, now having read the majority of this book, is there is this strange distance he keeps between the reader and the characters, it really lacks the emotional depth one would expect from a novel, and I can’t really ascertain whether this is deliberate or some oversight on his part, but it’s really quite frustrating. Even in something like the Casual Vacancy which is of the literary genre, there isn’t this separation… you feel for the characters, you hate most of them, but there’s empathy there. Almost no character thus far in the Corrections elicits empathy, merely apathy. I’m not really sure how you sustain a readers interest without some form of emotional connection with said reader.

Though the part is intermingled with technical details (Franzen is really obsessed with teaching us the chemical science of depression and emotions), and odd jumps to the past, it’s made all the more interesting by this story told by Enid’s new found friend, and her newfound comfort from her life in a drug called Aslan. (The Chronicles of Narnia are mentioned several times throughout the book, make of that what you will).

I really have nothing negative to say about Part IV, other than, somewhere along the line towards the final few pages of the part, while Enid and Alfred were at breakfast, everyone’s conversations were all over the place. Scattered to the wind with no direction. I’m going to assume this is meant to be from Alfred’s point-of-view, but given the novel’s propensity for leaping randomly from past to present, to otherwise unrelated random tidbits of information, it’s hard to say what this stream of consciousness style of dialogue is meant to mean.