About halfway through Jonathan Franzen’s FREEDOM

Jonathan-franzen-freedomIt’s not as good as THE CORRECTIONS, but it’s still better than 95% of the books I’ve read in my life.

Sometimes its worthwhile to read an author’s lesser work, because it helps show you exactly what you liked about that author. For instance, THE CORRECTIONS is a lot more funny and humane than FREEDOM. In THE CORRECTIONS, it felt like these were ordinary people who were struggling a little bit and might’ve gotten caught up in some stuff that was a bit beyond their control, but they weren’t really bad.

In FREEDOM, the characters are just lost. Utterly lost. Nothing can save them. They’ve given up on being good people. They’ve just given up. And it’s also clear that Jonathan Franzen just absolutely hates these people. He doesn’t spare them at all. There is not an ounce of mercy. He hates them so much that it doesn’t even come off as satire or caricature. People are always like, “Oh, J Franz loves to make fun of dopey midwesterners.” But I am not sure that is it at all. I do not believe that these people are somehow representative, even in his mind, of the Midwest. I don’t think he’s saying that these people are awful, but people in New York are somehow great.

No, he’s just saying that people are awful. Period. They are all awful. Unredeemably awful. And they all deserve to be tortured. There is something so profoundly misanthropic here. And what makes it worse is that the people he selects are so well-intentioned. They try so hard. And he always goes deep into the psychology of their dysfunction and tries to establish exactly how and why they went wrong.

But in the end, it doesn’t matter. There’s still no mercy. Even if you know exactly why a person’s soul is ugly, it doesn’t change the fact that they’re hard to look at.

And I love it. I really love it. There is a fierce aliveness to these characters. They fully inhabit their own lives. There is so much drama inside one tiny, rather-unremarkable family. When you read a book like this, it rejuvenates the world and makes life worth living, because it shows you that ordinary experience has the potential to be outsized and dramatic.

Five software programs that’ve improved my productivity and given me peace of mind

This is what your scrivener screen can look like, if you are a power user (which I am not).
This is what your scrivener screen can look like, if you are a power user (which I am not).

I’ve always scoffed at writers who blogged about the software tools they use. Mostly because that stuff doesn’t really matter at all. And I continue to stand by that. None of these tools makes you into a better writer.

In fact, most technological advances haven’t improved the writing. Jane Austen wrote her manuscripts in pen and they’re still unsurpassed.

But…technology does make your life easier. It makes writing more pleasant and less aggravating. And that’s worthwhile too. Not everything has to be so grimly focused on “But does it improve the writing?” If it improves your happiness and productivity, then that’s a good enough reason to use something.

Freedom – I can’t overstate how useful I find this program to be. Almost 90% of my writing is done while it’s enabled. It’s a program that disables the internet for the amount of time you specify. Really, all it does is put thirty seconds of work between you and the internet. If you want to use the internet (before the time is elapsed), you can just restart your computer. But those thirty seconds are enough! I won’t say that I don’t spend some of my writing time staring at the wall or checking my twitter feed on my iPad. But, by and large, it’s really cut down on the amount of time-wasting I used to do. It’s also trained me in the correct habits. Sometimes I forget to set it and I’ll have written for an hour and a half before I realize that I actually do have access to the internet.

Microsoft Excel – It would be a misnomer to say that I have a “submissions spreadsheet.” Really, I have a spreadsheet that I use to track everything in my life that’s important to me (including my submissions). It started out as a simple submissions tracker and over the last nine years I’ve added more and more functionality to it. The core of the sheet has become my Daily Log: a place where I record my writing output (both in terms of minutes and words), the number of hours I’ve spent reading, my TV-watching time, the number of calories that I ate, and my social media activity, and also includes short notes on what I worked on and what other things I did on that day (in addition to a few other fields). But there are other important sheets to. I have a log of every book I’ve read for the last three years (which includes capsule reviews of each book). And there are ancillary sheets: one on which I tabulate various statistics re: my life, one for my finances, one to track novel and nonfiction queries, one for MFA applications, etc. I am sure that there are dedicated software packages for life-tracking, but I really don’t think that any of them have the flexibility of Excel and portability of Excel.

Dropbox In March of 2009, I suffered a hard disk failure that wiped out three months of work. Since then, I’ve used Dropbox. There’s really only one way to use it. Just move everything in your My Documents folder to your Dropbox folder. And from then on, just treat your Dropbox folder like your My Documents. I’ve actually gone even further and put my entire iTunes library in there, because I am tired of having to reconstruct it from CDs and backup discs, but that might be going a bit too year. Yes, I do spend $99 a year to get an extra 100gb of Dropbox space. It’s totally worth it. If you have multiple computers, Dropbox also keeps the files in sync (which is really the only way that a person can use more than one computer). This has the added benefit of turning your computers into de facto backup drives for each other. It is still worth making a physical backup (on a backup drive) every once in awhile, since it is possible for Dropbox to spaz out and delete the files on your computers (happened to me once, because I did something stupid–was able to pretty easily restore the files using the Dropbox web interface, but still…)

Scrivener Yes, I’ve become one of them. I’m not saying that Scrivener is the greatest thing ever, but it is useful. For those who aren’t in the know, Scrivener is a word-processor that is specifically designed for writing long documents–screenplays, novels, reports, etc. I’ve used it to write two projects now, and I have to say that it is really useful to be able to see the structure of your whole work at a glance and to be able to move things around as needed. Furthermore, I can tell you that doing all the reformatting that was necessary to put This Beautiful Fever into the approved form for submission to contests, publishers, and agents was a nightmare, and I think that Scrivener does all that work for you in a much more efficient way. Scrivener also has a number of outlining tools that I haven’t made as much use of, since I don’t do much outlining, but I think that they’re probably pretty useful to some people, maybe.

The thing about transitioning from one software package (Word) to another (Scrivener) is that it’s never perfect. There’s always that one feature that’s missing. Scrivener is missing a lot of features that I use in Word. The formatting and page layout options aren’t as detailed. The interface isn’t as clean. Doing stuff like alphabetizing data or inserting charts is harder. It’s not easy to make stuff pretty in Scrivener.

But it’s exactly those features which make Word such a disaster. The formatting system that underlies Word is fine for short documents, but in a longer document (even one as simple as a novel), it eventually gets completely snarled up and starts causing weird problems.

I still use Word for most word-processing (including writing short stories). But for novels and longer stories, Scrivener is pretty darn good.

Evernote – Been using it for ages. It’s just a good way to jot stuff down. The main benefit is the easy synchronization between computers and mobile devices (my iPod / iPad). It’s where I put all my random ideas, story notes, lists, etc.