- Facebook Status, 12 Aug 2011
I had my first run in with a critic yesterday ... and I freaked. After a couple of hours and many tears, I calmed down and evaluated what the critic actually said. I then realized that much of it makes little sense. While I respect the time taken to read my novel, CENTERPIECES, and write the review as well as her honesty, I feel compelled to respond to a few of her comments and questions.
A little background:
Despite not being published by a major house, or having a trust fund, other famous creditials, or MFA, I've have been able to obtain quite a few reviews for my novels, ABERRATIONS and CENTERPIECES. I've also received many comments about Aberration Nation from highly creative folks including award winning and bestelling authors Joshilyn Jackson, Lisa See, Darin Strauss, Anneli Rufus, Antwone Fisher, Margaret Weis, Marya Hornbacher, Terri Cheney, Marisa Acocella Marchetto, Melissa Walker, and Susan Cheever. Of all these reviews and comments, only one or two have included anything that could be construed as negative.
Being that I'm a sensitive, borderline drama queen, those couple of negative comments were devastating, but I got over it. Those minor ego setbacks luckily occurred after years of constant rejection from agents and publishers. Those are the folks I cut my teeth on. They thickened my skin and taught me how to barrel through at times when it seemed the world was laughing at my creative efforts.
Despite the pain involved, I'm always willing to hear constructive feedback, assess it, and then apply what I feel is useful to my work moving forward. I have operated that way for years, and have seen my work grow as a result. I respect that approach, and believe it's critical for the creative who wants to continuously improve and evolve.
With that said, in this case I feel compelled to respond:
"The author Penelope Przekop's second novel, CENTERPIECES, is a novel that bravely tries to be a historical fiction about Van Gogh, art and the creative drive, but instead turns out to the a twisted narrative that describes a stifling world of corporate ladder climbing."
According to the CENTERPIECES press release, "Penelope Przekop takes readers on a thought-provoking journey as corporate executives follow their creative urges in 'Centerpieces.'"
CENTERPIECES is not marketed as historical fiction. The novel is categorized on Amazon as Fiction / Alternative History. This is defined as:
Alternate history or alternative history is a genre of fiction consisting of stories that are set in worlds in which history has diverged from the actual history of the world.
My intent was not to write a historical novel. The intent was to write fiction based on the interesting facts of Van Gogh's death, and what transpired afterwards. My idea was to weave those facts with his creative temperament and my own observations about corporate life and creativity.
"Przekop herself, a 'global quality director,' for the pharmaceutical industry--a title as vague and important-sounding as many of the details in her book - is a business woman who 'stepped back' from her career to become a writer and painter."
My title was Director, Global Quality Management, with the global Johnson & Johnson pharmacovigilance organization. This is a common type of title within not only the pharmaceutical industry but also in many other service and manufacturing industries. Further, I don't believe the details of my novel are generally vague or important sounding (whatever that means). Those details that are vague were made to be so purposefully.
Of note, my current title is Senior Director, Global Quality Assurance & Training. Maybe she will like that one better.
"Chapters set in the latter part of the 19th century, however, in Van Gogh's actual time period (of which there are thankfully very few) are, however, written in an awkward style and are filled with odd thematic sentiments."
I spent months reading all available literature about Vincent and Theo van Gogh, including the lengthy letters they wrote to one another over many years. The writing style and thematic sentiments in the chapters set in the late 19th century were closely based on the style of written communication that Vincent and Theo used in their own personal writings to one another. This was fully my intention so while the comment is quite negative, I am happy to know that I succeeded in mimicking their awkward, overtly sentimental communication style.
"CENTERPIECES as speculation historical fiction feels misleading, as readers will not learn about the artist, his life or work, from reading it."
Again, the primary intention of the novel, clearly communication in the Press Release and jacket description, was not to teach readers about the life or work of Van Gogh. I'm not sure how the critic has misunderstood the entire intent of the novel. She states that the novel's few informative facts are listed chronologically in an afterward. The entire novel takes place after Van Gogh's actual death so the facts listed in the back of the book are those that occurred after his death. The novel is fiction woven around those facts. Again, alternative history ....
"Ironically, both men seem as miserable in their extended lives as they were in their real ones." (meant negatively)
This is like saying, "Ironically, she seemed as miserable in her later years as she was in her younger years." I don't see any irony in this. Long term happiness is never guaranteed. We all make choices based on the facts and situations that are presented to us. Of course, we should look to future outcomes as part of our decision making. Often we believe we are making the best choice at the time, only to learn later that we didn't realize all of the implications.
"Following the revelation that Ellis and Tom are Vincent and Theo, come a series of implausible and confusing events that lead us to believe that the brothers are vampires, or are at the very least vampire-like. This assumption is based on vague but foreboding dialogue about 'living in the light,' not wanting to 'return to the darkness,' a drug called 'teperaquin' that they supposedly need to stay alive and too much biting and killing to go unnoticed - though it does go unexplained."
The vagueness around their being vampires was intentional as my goal was not to write a "vampire" novel. Of course being a vampire is implausible. It's fiction. Teperaquin is a drug that enables them to be in the light, not to stay alive. There is very little biting and killing in the novel, and the details around how those were covered up was relevant to the novel.
"Przekop doesn't seem to realize she has on her hands an interesting novel about the mentalities, professions, and industries that unnecessarily stifle creativity, and created as a distraction too many artificial moments of interest."
I do realize what I created. Apparently, the critic didn't realize what she was reading. As for "artificial moments of interest" that is the critic's opinion. From my perspective, every detail and scene in the novel served a specific purpose, althought every reader may not "catch" every detailed, complex connection upon first reading.
"Is Mimi a stripper simply so Przekop could write a juicy chapter describing Mimi's sexuality?"
No. The novel includes one scene about Mimi's stripping. Mimi's being a stripper is important for her characterization and the plot. It is how she knows Ellis and Tom, and why she does not tell Holly that she knows them. This night job is part of her characterization, which ties into her telling everyone that she's a vampire. All of this is necessary to the plot with regard to what happens at the end of the novel.
"Why does Holly, who longs for emotion, color and life, turn away from Van Gogh when he reaches out to her with the truth about his unnatural life?"
Her disbelief and assumption that he is mentally ill is realistic. I deeply long for emotion, color and life, but if someone told me they were Vincent van Gogh, I wouldn't jump for joy and accept it with no questions or hesitation. If I were already involved in a romantic relationship with that person, their belief that they are Vincent van Gogh would be both disturbing and conflicting.
"Why would Vincent, who ended his own life, wish to be immortally unhappy?"
See my response above regarding the choices we make in life. Why would a woman marry a man who then made her unhappy for the rest of her life? On the wedding day, I'm sure she though all her dreams would finally come true. Despite our best intentions with choice making, there are often negative outcomes that we didn't foresee.
"Why would he become immortal only to allow himself, for 200 years, to be ordered never to paint again by his brother?"
The initial decision that he would not paint was part of the plan that he, Theo and Johanna created together. The evolution of that decision is based on many factors that are clearly explained in the novel. Theo's power over Vincent in the novel is based on the dynamic that evolves due to Vincent being responsible for making Theo a vampire (without his consent) and thus making him lose the woman he loves. I believe that the dynamic is based on realistic physcological and emotional relationship factors that are true to life, and follow the actual personalities and dispositions of Vincent and Theo van Gogh (based on my extensive research).
"Why would Vincent keep alive the brother who stifled him with his faith, devotion and lack of understanding?"
If the critic is referring to Vincent making Theo a vampire, her assessment about their relationship is inaccurate. Theo was Vincent's primary support throughout his life, and his closest friend and relative, despite any relationship difficulties they may have had.
On another level, no matter how much a sibling might drive you nuts, would you let them die if you had the chance to save them? Further, if you were both healthy, would you just kill them off because they were causing you trouble? I think not. Should we all just kill our relatives and spouses during tough times?
In conclusion, it appears that this critic has misunderstood CENTERPIECES on multiple levels. Perhaps that is my fault as a writer, and perhaps it's unprofessional to respond to the review. However, based on the reaction of my other reader, I'm confident that the book, press release, and actual novel are not as misleading as she found them to be.
And I am not as dumb as she has assumed.
I admit that I'm highly emotional, sensitive, impulsive, and sometimes immature. However, I have diligently worked for years on my craft, and am proud of my accomplishments. I stand by my novel, CENTERPIECES, and believe I've succeeded in accomplishing my goals with the project.
If you're interested in reading the novel to decide for yourself, I'm posting the entire book here on Aberration Nation over the next few weeks. Links to the available chapters can be found on the sidebar. I'm not promoting the book as much as I could due to my current focus on art, but I do hope that a few folks will read and enjoy it.
One critic wasn't crazy about my novel. So what?
You can read her review here.
To read the CENTERPIECES press release and back cover copy, go here.
To start reading CENTERPIECES on line, go here.
When I was in college, I was obsessed with writing schedules of what classes I would take each semester during each year of my education. I can't explain it, but it gave me bizarre pleasure and satisfaction to write it down over and over and over again. I couldn't stop. It was a harmless obsession and compulsion.
Others weren't so harmless.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder is an anxiety disorder in which people have unwanted and repeated thoughts, feelings, ideas, sensations (obsessions), or behaviors that make them feel driven to do something (compulsions).
It took quite a few years, but I finally accepted that I'm likely borderline obsessive compulsive. Now I know when it's happening and when it's getting out of control; I monitor myself and channel my obsessive nature in positive directions. Doing so has enabled me to flip a weakness into a strength. It's driven me to accomplish quite a bit.
My guest today, critically acclaimed, bestselling author Julianna Baggott, has published 16 books over the last ten years. She writes under the pen names Bridget Asher and N. E. Bode. Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) runs in Julianna's family. She views writing as part of both the disease and the cure.
I can relate.
The primary thing that seems to keep my racing brain occupied enough to keep me out of trouble is art, whether it's writing or painting. Creativity never ends. It never stops feeding my ravenous, racing mind that craves baseline occupation.
Maybe I shouldn't admit to this issue; but it is what it is. I've come to embrace the way I am because I know that it's enabled me to achieve many of my creative and professional goals. I don't know what full fledged OCD sufferers feel like or how close or far I am from their world. Unlike Julianna, I will stand by an idling vehicle. In fact, I've come dangerously close to being hit by cars.
I'm lucky I have observant folks in my family who watch out for me. They know that my issue is one of being too much inside my head to remember to put kitchen utensils away in their proper places, wipe door handles, or pay attention to how much money I'm spending on any given day. I have more important things to think about ... I forget to eat. I tend to be messy. Just last week, I got caught in slamming subway doors because I wasn't listening to the loud voice that was saying, "The doors are now closing!" Being me can be quite the challenge.
Like Julianna, many creative folks are lucky in that we have the ability to mine our disease and discover a cure within. This blogger, author, artist, professional, mother, wife, nutcase, etc. is finding a way to make it work. It's not always easy, but it's worth the effort.
Many creative folks struggle for years to achieve some sort of success. Your work was first published when you were relatively young. How did that mold your writing goals?
I published my first short story at twenty-two and sold my first novel before I turned thirty. Still, young for this game. What I love about writing is that you get better as a function of living, surviving. Of course, there is also dedication to craft. You have to be devout to get better. I knew I wanted to be a writer young and was deeply invested at an early age. I had some talent, lots of hours, but it took a while before I could actually have things to say. Hopefully my work is more insightful now.
Was there someone in particular who inspired you to love books and/or take an interest in writing?
My parents dragged me to countless plays as a kid. By ten, I'd seen more plays than movies. Just the way it was for me. And that had a huge impact on my writing life, early on.
THE PROVENCE CURE FOR THE BROKENHEARTED is filled with events that happened to my own family. It starts where we now live in Florida. The narrator, Heidi takes her 8-year-old son and 16-year-old niece to the family's home in Provence, to renovate it after a fire. We lived in Provence as a family--with our four kids and my niece in tow--for a month. The injured swallow, the robbery, the warthogs, snails, vineyards, archaeological dig, the paper lanterns on Bastille Day--all of it came from our own experiences.
With regard to your new novel, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?
There were so many. I knew the first half of the novel and where they were headed--the small village of Puyloubier--but I had no idea what was going to happen there. One of the characters had a huge secret--so secret that I didn't even know about it. When that was revealed, it fit. It was an ah-ha moment--in that sometimes you must follow your characters and truly let them live their lives beyond you, as creator. An important lesson to relearn and relearn.
Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both? How so?
Obsessive-compulsive disorder runs in my family, on my mother's side. We don't bare-hand doorknobs, eat sushi, stand near idling cars, etc. The strange brain patterns of obsessions and compulsions play into my work. I'm also compulsive about writing, which means I spend a lot of time at the page. Writing is part of the disease, but because it allows me to escape into another existence, it's part of the cure. The 8-year-old in THE PROVENCE CURE FOR THE BROKENHEARTED has a mild case of OCD. My first time writing about an OCD character. He gets better.
Have you ever had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?
Have you developed a specific creative process that enables you to meet your writing goals? If so, can you tell us about it, and also share any thoughts you may have on the role the discipline and organization play in reaching creative goals?
I believe, deeply, in really seeing the world around you, seeing people as real people with as many needs, wants, desires as I have. This way, if you don't see people as cliches, you won't write them as cliches. Also, practice plotting, muse when you're going through your daily life. I call this "writing while not writing." It's crucial.
You've written under different names, and have also written various types of fiction. Why did you chose not to use your real name, and what are your favorite types of writing projects?
To be allowed to be prolific, contractually.
To build audiences for certain kinds of work.
I see myself as an artist with some projects and an entertainer with others. But only I can see the difference. When writing art, entertainment happens, and vice versa. This is my job, too. It's an industry. I believe it's my job to try to understand it.
What is your primary motto or mantra in life? Why is this important to you?
I try to be kind--honest and kind. I believe in empathy. I think these things should be important to everyone.
My latest novel, Dust, is dedicated to my mother. If you follow me on Facebook, you know that she has refused to finish reading the manuscript after having read just 26 pages. Although she holds the opinion that those pages are beautifully written, and that the story is a page turner, it's just "too hard" for her to continue. She can't seem to digest the truth in it, and the thought-provoking questions it poses about religion, death, parenting of adult children, prejudice, and love.
She begged me not to publish it, to set it aside, to essentially bury it. This is a form of censorship.
The best literature is not only entertaining, it's also a window into the realities of life, which can make some folks uncomfortable. Although unofficial, I can now count Dust among the following books, all of which have been victims of censorship:
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Twain)
As I Lay Dying (Faulkner)
Catch 22 (Heller)
Catcher in the Rye (Salinger)
Fahrenheit 451 (Bradbury)
From Here to Eternity (Joyce)
Grapes of Wrath (Steinbeck)
Dust (Przekop) ???
Each of these novels caused some level of discomfort simply by incorporating truth, whether it was a word, scenario, or thought-provoking question. I dream that my writing may some day reach the level of these great literary works. Burying what I believe to be my best effort yet isn't going to get me there. I just wish my mother could muster the strength and love to digest it.
John Gilstrap says he also has relatives who haven't read his novels. Is it just me, or is this downright bizarre? If one of my relatives wrote a book, especially one that made it to the hallowed New York Times list, I'd be the first to read it.
Perhaps these folks are simply not into reading. My mother's a reader; she loves fiction. In her case, my novel is "painful" because it hits too close to home. In addition, it's "appalling" because she doesn't believe it fully supports her religious views. Interestingly, when I set out the write the novel, I vowed that, once and for all, I was not going to let my mother's unyielding opinions influence my craft. I was not going to censor myself.
John, a habitual observer of people, funnels this keen ability into numerous aspects of his life, and straight into his thrilling fiction. One of the cool aspects of writing fiction is that all those motivations we as writers recognize or imagine come to life. Day to day, we don't often know if we're right about why someone said this or that, why they took a certain action, or chose not to. In fiction, we can mold all those tiny or gigantic motivations into something cohesive. When we get it right, truth glues it all together.
I choose to push forward with my writing; I believe it's a battle I can win. As for pleasing my mother, I'm trying to quit.
What's your writing story? How long did it take to establish yourself as an author? Was the journey on a straight or twisted path? Are you surprised by your success?
My path is as twisted and meandering as any career could be. I started out in college wanting to be a journalist, but after a couple of years at a trade journal--that was the best I could do with a History degree--I realized it wasn't for me. It wasn't until I followed an entirely different path--safety engineering and 15 years in the fire and rescue service--that I finally found my way back to writing.
As for establishing myself as a writer, I'm not entirely sure that I've done that yet, even after seven published books and an eighth and ninth scheduled for the next two years.
I think that any artist who doesn't confess to some level of surprise to any commercial success is being disingenuous. This is a very capricious business. Like any other business, though, luck resides at the intersection of talent and hard work.
With regard to your current creative focus, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?
My current focus is in creating my new series character, Jonathan Grave, a freelance hostage rescue specialist. The ah-ha moment, such as it was, came while researching my nonfiction book Six Minutes to Freedom, which introduced me to the world of covert operators. I met many fine people who do unspeakably heroic things while rarely getting credit outside of their closed community. Dealing with them, and with the operations they perform on foreign soil, I got the idea of creating a character who would show the same dedication to hostage rescue outside of the military environment. I'm thrilled to report that the two Jonathan Grave novels, No Mercy and Hostage Zero, are both doing very well.
For you, is writing more about creation or expression? It could be both, but does one dominate with regard to your need/urge/desire to be a writer and why?
I think writing is defined by equal parts of both. I can create merely by thinking. We all do that every time we have a dream or play a what-if game in our heads. It's the expression of those thoughts that allows a writer (or any artist, for that matter) to share the experience with others. My need to write is fueled by my desire to entertain people by introducing them to the vivid figments of my imagination.
I don't believe in writer's block. I view the situation like priming a pump. If you just keep pumping, the water will eventually start to run. Do you ever run out of things to say, or do you experience an endless river? What are your thoughts on this?
I don't think I believe in writer's block either. That said, creativity frequently stops flowing for me, albeit temporarily. Usually, it has something to do with losing my way in a story. The only way to get through those rough times, though, is to sit down and muscle my way through.
Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both?
Creativity has posed far more solutions for me than problems. As a habitual observer of people my whole life, I feel that I understand motivations and reactions better than most, and that ability (whether its actual or merely imagined) has always given me confidence in my interactions with people. It's a skill that served me equally well in the fire service, the corporate world, and in the creative communities that I inhabit in the real world, and the ones that I create in my head.
During difficult or challenging times in your life, does writing sooth or inspire you? Is it therapeutic in any way?
To tell the absolute truth, I've never used writing as therapy--at least not directly. I don't keep a journal, and never have. In troubling times, I find writing to be a burden that can pull me away from what seem like more important matters. For me, the act of writing, when it's going well delivers the rush that I would imagine a concert pianist while practicing alone. It brings a great sense of satisfaction to know that your skills are improving all the time, and as days turn into years, you begin to take solace in the fact that maybe--just maybe--you're beginning to understand what you're doing.
Have you ever had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?
Artistic success easily destabilizes fragile relationships--even more so if the success is both critical and financial. I think that most people on the sidelines of such success believe that artists who "make it"--however you want to define that--do so more because of luck than talent, and there's a tendency to discount the years of work and perseverance that allowed the luck to occur. I've lost track of the people who have told me over the years that they would write a book, too, if only they had the time. As if it's that easy.
In my own life, I have family and acquaintances who ostentatiously never read my books, or who go out of their way to say something dismissive or cutting in the presence of others. I think it's a defense mechanism, akin to dismissing a friend's weight loss, or diminishing a terrific grade point average by making fun of the course load or the school at which it was earned.
As for how to cope, I smile as appropriate and then take them off the guest list for my very cool book launch parties.
Successful writers often focus on the same genre. Have you ever grown tired of working on similar types of projects, and if so, how have you dealt with that?
This is actually a tough question because I write thrillers, and that is hardly a confining genre. That said, at this point in life, the only stories I want to tell are exciting ones. I like imagining people in jeopardy and and pretending that they have to fight their way to safety. Thus, I haven't had anything negative to deal with there.
Have you developed a specific creative process that enables you to meet your writing goals? If so, can you tell us about it, and also share any thoughts you may have on the role discipline and organization play in reaching creative goals?
As a professional writer--defined for the purpose of this question as one who has signed a contract to deliver two books in two years--writing goals are met exclusively through discipline, professionalism and perseverance. If I waited for my characters to speak to me, or any of the other BS motivations I hear at conferences, I would never get a single word onto the page. The trick is to write as often as you can, and to never miss a deadline. In my own case, I know that for every book, I will be a much slower writer for the first hundred pages than I will be for the last three hundred. It's just the way my process works, and I plan accordingly.
What is your primary motto or mantra in life? Why is this important to you?
I tell writers groups all the time that no one can thrust defeat on another party; that defeat can only be declared by the one who has given up. I don't believe in failure, and I don't believe in most forms of victim hood. If I don't succeed, it's because I screwed something up, and it's my job to fix whatever I broke and then try again. There's no shame in declaring defeat--I stopped attempting home repair projects years ago when I realized that I didn't want to do the work that would teach me the skills--but we should call it what it really is: quitting. People need to pick their battles accordingly.
That's a long mantra, I suppose, but it's important to me because it makes my world make sense. It gives me the confidence and the courage to keep hammering away at a business where success is judged largely by how well you perform this time. That's how we judge all professionals.
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