Thursday, September 30, 2010

Adrift, Sort of, In a Sea of Compulsive Activity

I realize that I have gone too long without working on a novel. Bits of my mind seem to be working their way loose and rattling around my head and making it impossible to concentrate on little things like work. There is a compulsion to write chunks of meaningless and disconnected fiction and I am annoyed, more-or-less, that I'm not involved in a grand project. Thank God, I say, that I get to begin revisions next Tuesday.

This compulsive need to create fiction has resulted in one short story that I think is successful. I've submitted it to a literary journal; we'll see what happens there. Finally, I think, I am getting a handle on the short story form.

Ideas for new books/novellas/whathaveyou have also been coming at me too quickly, almost, to bear. Mighty Reader and I were wandering through our local library last weekend when I had a sudden image of a story and I've written down a 600-or-so-word synopsis of the story outlining the three major conflicts and sets of characters and someday, maybe, I'll have time to even write the damned thing. There was a period of time, a few years ago maybe, that I worried I'd have to struggle to come up with ideas for stories. There was a time when I felt such immense gratitude to the universe if I came up with the slimmest of ideas, and now all I have are ideas but I have no time to do anything with them.

Mostly, what I have is the urge to write. I think revisions to Killing Hamlet are going to be a lot of fun.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Reading "Freedom" by Jonathan Franzen, Pt 4

This may be my final post about the novel in question. Not that I've finished it; I'm only about halfway through but I am considering setting it aside and reading something else. Why? I could say "politics," but that's not really true. Here's the thing: Franzen clearly has some axes to grind with big business, the Republican party and all sorts of modern cultural phenomena. Some reviewers have slammed the book because they don't agree with Franzen's politics and see the entirety of "Freedom" as an attack on the American Right. Those folks are not reviewing the book; they're reacting against Franzen's themes and that, I don't think, is how one reviews literature. So I tell you now that Franzen's politics, or what appear to be his politics from my partial reading of his latest novel, are off the table. Frankly, I agree at least in spirit with what I've read so far. So that's not where this novel fails.

What I find objectionable while reading "Freedom" is the way in which the political references are inserted into the narrative. I have recently encountered an episode where the Richard Katz character is giving an interview (to a college freshman or high school senior--I forget which--who's going to post the interview as an mp3 to the web). In this interview, Katz launches into an extended diatribe against consumer culture and ties it to Republicanism and rich entertainers pretending to be philanthropists. Those sentiments, as I say, are fine by me. But the Richard Katz character has never before in the narrative given us any reason to believe that he is anything but indifferent to culture or politics. He's spent decades in a drug-fueled haze, touring with his little band, living in his crappy New Jersey apartment and focusing his mental efforts on sex, music, and his own happiness (or his own misery, if you like). All of Katz's diatribe about politics is out-of-character. Out-of-character. It feels tacked on, as if Franzen did a revision of the manuscript with the sole intention of finding places where he could shove political slogans and speeches into his characters' mouths. That, Jonathan Franzen, is bad writing, and that is the only sin I hesitate to forgive. You have written badly, and it will take a bit of effort for me to pick up your novel and continue reading. I'm not sure if I want to make that effort, if this sort of bad writing is going to increase in frequency as the novel progresses. You've lost this reader's trust.

So here's the deal. I'm going to read on during my lunch break today, and if you don't misbehave, I'll give you another chance. Otherwise, I have a six-foot tall stack of "to be read" books to which I could turn my attentions.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Countdown to Revisions

Revisions to my novel Killing Hamlet are not scheduled (yes, I'm clearly insane having worked out deadlines and schedules like this for the book) to begin until Tuesday, October 5th. I have, of course, already started anyway. The first chapter is pretty well marked up in red penl; I've made some notes and written a few paragraphs for a scene I want to add somewhere in the first third of the story (Fredrik relates a dream of total war to Horatio and then has to hide behind a tapestry--hey, that last bit sounds a mite familiar); I've made a list of ideas, motifs, et cetera that I want to have running all through the narrative. Unless I discover something seriously wrong with the story itself, the actual revisions should go pretty quickly; I am expecting to spend no more than two weeks on it. We'll see how that goes.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Reading "Freedom" by Jonathan Franzen, Pt 3

I promised to talk about why I'm still reading "Freedom" even though I have complained about Franzen's narrative style. Well, the book has plenty going for it:

The characters, times and events are all familiar to anyone in/near middle age in America, so it's easy to engage with the story on that level. I have met people like all of the main characters in real life, and Franzen is talking about the way real people try to navigate through the real world. So that's all good stuff. It's not quite D.H. Lawrence or A.S. Byatt, but it feels true.

There's also the language. Some of Franzen's prose is just plain gorgeous. I give you two examples:

There's a hazardous sadness to the first sounds of someone else's work in the morning; it's as if stillness experiences pain in being broken. The first minute of the workday reminds you of all the other minutes that a day consists of, and it's never a good thing to think of minutes as individuals. Only after other minutes have joined the naked, lonely first minute does the day become more safely integrated in its dayness.

and

A melodious bird that Walter had despaired of teaching her the proper name of, a veery or a vireo, grew accustomed to her presence and began to sing in a tree directly above her. Its song was like an idee fixe that it couldn't get out of its little head.

Here is Patty talking about herself in the third person. I have some issues with this device of Franzen's, but some of it works:

The only thing that gave her any hope was how well she was concealing her own inner turmoil. She'd been maybe a little abstracted and shaky in the last four days, but infinitely better behaved than she'd been in February. If she herself was managing to keep her dark forces hidden, it stood to reason that Richard might have corresponding dark forces that he was doing just as good a job of hiding. But this was a tiny sliver of hope indeed; it was the way insane people lost in fantasies reasoned.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Reading "Freedom" by Jonathan Franzen, Pt 2

I'm now about 200 pages into Franzen's novel and while I have mostly overcome the feeling of experiencing the story through a sheet of glass because of the emotional distance Franzen creates with his choices in narrative technique (see this post if you've not already), I am still finding myself sort of being resisted by the text. The characters are interesting, the story is engaging and Franzen's prose is fine, but I have noticed that there is no variation in tone. The mood remains the same all the time, and so I am not getting from this book the feeling of movement I wish I was. Mr. Franzen, you are making me work a bit more than I feel is necessary here. And I don't mean "work" in a "the reader is challenged intellectually or aesthetically and must overcome his prejudices or lack of experience with formal experimentation" or anything like that. I just mean that there's no variation in the tone of the book and so, after a while, I sort of feel like I've been running in place all this time and getting nowhere. The general tone of the narrative, even during Patty's autobiographical sections, is one of journalism, of observer, and I realize that my difficulty with Franzen's text remains one of emotional distance from the story. So, huh.

Still, I don't want to put the book down, so perhaps I should find some nice things to say about "Freedom" to explain why I keep reading. Possibly in my next post. Right now, I'm a bit frazzled from working this job o' mine, to which I must now return. Adieu, adieu, adieu.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Reading "Freedom" by Jonathan Franzen

This is not a book review, if that's what you seek. I've been reading Jonathan Franzen's Freedom for a couple of days now, and I'm at about page 100. It's a good book and I'm happy to be reading it, but I have noticed some things about Franzen's narrative style that I'd like to think about out loud, as it were.

The first thing that struck me about the writing is the way Franzen chose to tell the story primarily in narrative summary rather than in dramatized scenes. There are--up to page 100 anyway--few actual scenes. Franzen will give a snippet of dialogue or an isolated character action but rarely do you see an event played out for any length of time. Perhaps the story covers such a long stretch of years that this is the most economical way Franzen could find to build his narrative. I don't know. But this technique of continuous summary creates a distance between me as reader and the world of the story. There is no real immediacy, no sense of urgency. This bothers me, but the fabulous writing and the characters more than balance that out.

The next thing that struck me, as I moved into the chapters which comprise Patty's autobiography, is that Patty writes of herself in the third person. This gives rise to some funny moments, but again there's that emotional distance between reader and story. Patty holds her own tale at arm's length and we are also held away. Patty's character is growing on me, but too often it does feel as if I'm being told about Patty by a disinterested-if-amused third party, not by Patty herself. Patty-the-autobiographer's emotions don't really come through on the page. So this is, to me as a writer, a curious choice.

I'll be interested to see how things continue. Possibly Patty's resolve will break down during the course of her autobiography and she'll stop being so distant. I have no idea. I'm still not actually sure what this book is about. I'm on page 100 and I feel like I'm still reading the backstory, the setup. It's an engaging backstory even with my reservations regarding Franzen's narrative techniques, but I still keep expecting the story to fly into action somehow, to get kick-started into a life larger than it has so far.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Finished!

At 6:00 PM PST!

wordcountometer = 79,537!

It's come in a bit shorter than my target minimum of 80,000. But I'm sure I'll add scenes during the rewrites in October. That always happens. On Halloween, or thereabouts, I'll send the revised MS off to my agent and hopefully in 2011 we'll be submitting it to publishers. But for now: phew! It's been a rough six and a half months. Mighty Reader and I are going out for dinner at a fancy restaurant to celebrate my victory.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Chapter 22: Brief Excerpt

Hopefully no real spoilers here:

Hamlet took me by the collar with his bloody hand. He shook me hard and looked wildly around.

“Oh, I know you and your sciences. You would say that my thinking these thoughts is proof that God allows it.”

“My lord, we should leave the castle.”

“Your sciences could lead to a world where earthly kings, and even God Himself, is of less import than a bear.”

“My lord, I am as fond of bears as any. The castle is burning. Prithee, let us away.”

“God’s wounds, Horatio! I see the castle burning! It is not the end of civilization. But a world where everything is equal in being nothing but a measurable phenomenon, or a bear? I do not want that. You do not want that. No man wants that.”

“My lord, if we leave the castle immediately, I swear that I shall forever place man and God above bears.”

“Your word upon it.”

“My word upon it.”

Hamlet retrieved the severed head and

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Chapter 22 Finished!

wordcountometer = 76,838!

That was a rough one, but exhilarating. My Literary Lab post on Friday will talk about the work I did on this chapter, going back into it after I'd thought it was finished and adding in two long segments. Still, it's done now and I think it's pretty good. Body count is now through the roof. Really, I have no idea how many corpses are lying about. Scores of them. Sad, really. But don't worry, because none of them were real people. It's just fiction, you know.

Anyway, my favorite bit is when Hamlet turns to Horatio and asks why there's a bear in the courtyard. The inclusion of a bear (all because Mighty Reader made a joke about it) was a fabu idea, I must say.

I am pretty sure that I'll wrap everything up in Chapter 23. I may finish this book by the end of the weekend. That would be cool; I could start revisions on October 1st if I really wanted to. I think the book is pretty solid already, though of course since I don't read back at all while I'm working on a first draft, I have no real idea. I'll bet there's a lot of stuff I've forgotten about since I began writing on the first of March. That seems forever ago.

Also, and very importantly, I wrote the Final Sentence of the Novel this evening, on the bus ride home. I'm sure I was channeling a better writer than I am, because yes, it's that good. I am well pleased and I can't wait to get to that final sentence.

Anyway, in about 3500 words, I'll have this first draft (of the total rewrite of a novel I heavily revised eight times already) finished. And that's a relief, I can tell you. Soon soon soon.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Chapter 21 Finished!

Francisco the bear's chapter is written. Yes, I should've been reading entries for the "Notes from Underground" contest over at the Literary Lab, but I needed to finish this chapter. I have, I think, three chapters left to write and the book will be done. The outline for the next chapter is all written, and it looks very exciting indeed! The carnage has begun! Corpses will begin to pile up in all the corners!

Anyway.

wordcountometer = 73,396!

"Francisco the Bear" was a short chapter; only about 2100 words. I expect the next two chapters to be about 3500 words each, because a lot of things happen in them. The last chapter will likely be pretty short. I may only have 23 chapters, adding whatever would be in the last chapter into the penultimate chapter so as to not have an epilogue-type thing. It will depend on how precipitously I want the book to end. We shall see. There is no way I won't finish this book by the end of the month.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Chapter 20 Finished!

Just now! Just a moment ago! Eel reference included!

wordcountometer = 71,318!

Up next, Chapter 21, "Francisco the Bear." Francisco is a Eurasian Brown Bear (Ursus arctos arctos). He and the king will share a memorable scene.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Chapter 20, In Progress!

Working title: "Sing Him To Sleep."

wordcountometer = 70,600!

Brief excerpt:

The queen was given a free hand to make the fortress into a festive place. Branches of evergreens had been brought from the forests and tied into great swags with ribbons of red and white to adorn every window facing into the courtyard. Bunting of red, white and gold hung in the corners of the yard, around the great marble planter and over the doors that opened into the great hall. Danish soldiers were everywhere, their armor polished bright and decorated with red and white ribbon as if they were not men at arms but a child's toys. The smell of mulled sack, fresh evergreen boughs and roasting meat filled the air.

"It is like unto a hunting party in a forest," a passing noblewoman remarked. "Gertrude is very clever. I will not be surprised if a live stag is chased down the halls, the king loosing arrows at it."

Friday, September 3, 2010

Chapter 19 Finished!

Possibly written in record time! Horatio is now finally off the island of Hven and back onto the island of Zealand. Hey, it's Denmark; they have 400 islands. Not my fault. Anyway, the protagonist returns to Elsinore and the final act begins. Yay! There's going to be a bear in an upcoming chapter, which will be very cool. It's like I'm John Irving.

wordcountometer = 68,064!

Finished draft by September 30! Or else!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Jonathan Franzen, "Freedom"

I have not read any of Franzen's books, and to be honest I haven't had any interest in him before now. It's not that I found anything about him or his writing particularly off-putting; it's more that I was ignorant of his work and his was just another name floating around out there. Also, admittedly, I thought The Corrections was about prison. Really.

But all the publicity surrounding Franzen's newest novel, Freedom, edged me on to read the first chapter of the book, and you can do the same if you poke around online and have a look for it (I used the "look inside" Amazon.com feature, myself).

David Shields ("author" of a collection of plagiarism called Reality Hunger) has, apparently, said unkind things about Franzen's writing, calling it old-fashioned and behind-the-times and irrelevant. Of course, what David Shields doesn't know about literature is Almost Everything There Is To Know About Literature, and why people even talk to him is a question for which I haven't yet found a good answer. This paragraph adds nothing to my essay; it's just an excuse to bash Mr. Shields, which is something people who understand and read fiction should do often. Take that, Shields.

Anyway, I read the first chapter of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom last night, and now I want to read the whole book. The voice of the prose and the tone Franzen takes with his characters reminded me, I realized, of everything I enjoy about J. D. Salinger. Which is high praise coming from me. So my advice, for what it's worth, is that you should at least go read the first chapter of this book and see what you think.