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My quest to write the book that your kids'll have to read in eighth grade.

Haven’t felt very much like a writer lately

Posted by R. H. Kanakia on July 27, 2014

What with all the moving around and getting sorted out, I haven’t done much writing. And I also haven’t been terribly interested in reading. I also, for the first time in a long time, don’t have a big new project on the horizon. In fact, if I was to start a novel now, I don’t even know what it’d be. I actually have an idea for a young adult novel that’s been simmering for about a year (it’s about really rich gay kids) but with all my contract stuff still being sorted out, I’m not sure if it makes sense for me to write a book that might not, potentially, come out for another three and a half years.

I dunno. Anyway, I have so much stuff that I need to revise.

But I do have the persistent feeling that right now is the calm before the storm. Eventually, my edit letter will come in, and then it’ll be rush rush rush to turn in edits and then to revise / edit / finish the second book in my contract.

So I feel like I should use this time productively. Which is what I’m going to do. Err…starting tomorrow.

I need stability in order to work. I was actually weirdly productive in New Orleans. In some ways, I felt much more settled there than I do right now. I didn’t have any friends, so my social life was very orderly (I just went to Meetup groups). And I had my gym and sometimes I’d go to a new restaurant. But mostly I was in my room, and I had plenty of time to work.

Now I feel very dislocated. There’s much more of a sense of possibility. I lived a life here once, but the life I live now will be different from that one.

If I’ve learned anything, though, it’s that I eventually settle into a routine. And when I’m in the routine, it feels so natural and fluid and eternal. And then something comes along and destroys it. And when I have to pick up the pieces, it always feels like I’m cranking up a big, heavy machine again. There’s no slipping into and out of the routine. Either I’m in it or I’m nowhere.

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Why are some long novels so much harder to read than others?

Posted by R. H. Kanakia on July 26, 2014

count-of-monte-cristoI think I might read The Count of Monte Cristo*. I don’t know. It is still up in the air. I am seriously considering it however. The book looks pretty interesting, and I’ve had numerous people recommend it to me. One of my students at Johns Hopkins even said it was his favorite book! Now that is a recommendation.

The downside is that it is long. Like, Game of Thrones** long. The book has to be at least half a million words.

But there’s long-and-hard-to-read and long-and-easy-to-read, and I have a feeling that CMC might be the latter? I mean, it never took me particularly long to blow through a GoT book. I think I went through A Dance With Dragons in a few days. Les Miserables was long and easy to read too. Man, that was one very readable book.

Dickens, on the other hand (much as I love him), takes a bit longer. I’m not sure why. I think it’s just because there’s always a certain amount of tedium with Dickens. There’s plenty of good stuff, but then for 50-100 pages it’ll be extremely boring (before eventually coming back to life again). I don’t think there are many authors from whom I’d accept that kind of behavior, but Dickens gets a pass because the rest of it is so unique.


*Other options: The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Emile Zola’s The Ladies’ Paradise, or one of those other Balzac novels that I’ve had lying around on my Kindle for ages.

**I suppose I should technically call them A Song of Ice And Fire books, but I think that title is pretty much dead. I’m in this to actually communicate with people: I’m not gonna use the official title just so that I can look like I have nerd-cred.

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Am relieved that I finally feel like reading again

Posted by R. H. Kanakia on July 25, 2014

coverIt took me like three weeks to read Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Admittedly, it’s long, but it’s not THAT long. And it wasn’t the fault of the book, either. I tried, on a few occasions, to switch books, but nothing was really catching my attention. I think the only reason that I defaulted to Piketty’s book was because I could read it even without being thoroughly invested in it.

But now my reading anhedonia has dissipated! This morning, I read two Simon Rich collections: Free-Range Chickens and The Last Girlfriend on Earth. It was pretty fun! However, being exposed to so much Simon Rich at one time made me see things that aren’t normally apparent when I’m just reading a three-page story in Shouts and Murmurs. Mostly, it’s that there’s a weird sexist vibe that comes off of a lot of his stories.

Simon Rich’s characters are all mid-twenties slacker guys–the sort of person who thinks of a woman as a black box that needs to be manipulated in precise and difficult-to-master ways if you’re going to convince her to have sex with you–and to a large extent, he’s making fun of them. But there’s an extent to which the stories can’t really escape their point of view. For instance, in “Center of the Universe,” God quits his job because his girlfriend keeps nagging him about how they don’t spend enough time together. And in “Last Girlfriend on Earth,” a guy’s girlfriend (the titular last woman on earth) slowly drifts apart from him until another woman appears, and she becomes jealous of the attention that this other woman is receiving. In “Sirens of Gowanus,” an aspiring artist is led to his doom by a siren who croons about her love for the man’s music. In “I Love Girl,” a caveman realizes that the only reason the girl is with the big, hunky, handsome caveman is because the latter is coercing her, and he needs to rescue her by bashing the handsome caveman to death with a rock.

Over and over, I’d get to the end of these stories and be like, “Uhh…okay? What’s the takeaway here?” I don’t know. Sometimes it feels like the story almost doesn’t work unless you think that women are either foolish or out to castrate you.

Anyway, in a few cases, though, the stories did really work for me. For instance, in “Victory,” a guy gets a congratulory call from the President after he (the guy) successfully picks up a woman at a bar and convinces her to sleep with him that night. To me, that’s a really sharp piece, because it’s picking apart something that I’ve never really examined: it’s really, really hard to pick up a strange girl at a bar and convince her to sleep with you, but we have a broader cultural myth that this sort of thing is happening all the time.

ANYWAYS, I’m just really happy that my apathy has been broken. For the last two hours, I’ve been happily immersed in Pere Goriot, by Balzac. It’s one of the two novels (the other is Sense and Sensibility) that Kiketty frequently refers to in his book, which piqued my interest. And it’s a fascinating read! It’s all about how an ambitious person can go about making a fortune in early 19th century France (HINT: you’ve pretty much got to marry it).


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Not sure how brick and mortar stores are ever gonna beat Amazon

Posted by R. H. Kanakia on July 24, 2014

Today, I got a package from Amazon. It contained: a toaster oven; an electric tea kettle; and a box of that one kind of tea that I really like but always have trouble finding in the stores (Bigelow’s Vanilla Chai, in case anyone cares). Tomorrow, I expect to receive a fan and a multi-function printer (finally got tired of going to Kinkos when I need to send in a contract).

And yes, I’m fully aware that it’s a bit ridiculous to buy this sort of stuff off of Amazon, but I don’t care. I’m tired of going to the store. Have you ever walked into Target with the aim of buying something really specific (earplugs, mousetraps, etc)? It’s a huge hassle. Even the store employees often can’t pinpoint the location of what you’re looking for. The store is not designed for precision shopping. It’s designed for you to go in and get a big cart and put all kinds of stuff in it. And that’s not how I shop. It’s not how most people shop, I think.

Amazon caters to how people shop. Not only can you get exactly what you want, you can also verify that you’re getting: a) the lowest-possible price; and b) the highest-rated brand and model.

As a consumer experience, Amazon’s only downsides are that you can’t try before you buy, and you have to wait two days for something to get to you.

Sometimes that’s enough to get me to go out to the store. But more and more, it’s not. I mean, I appreciate that Amazon is an evil corporation and it’ll destroy the world and everything, but…brick and mortar stores are evil corporations too. They’re just inefficient evil conglomerates that provide subpar consumer experiences.

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I have a better understanding of how to write books than how to revise them

Posted by R. H. Kanakia on July 23, 2014

revisingI’ve written first drafts of lots of books, but I’ve only ever brought two books from first draft to submittable form. And in both cases, it was a bit of a haphazard process. With This Beautiful Fever, I did real editing. In fact, I deleted the whole first third of the book and rewrote it. But with Enter Title Here, I did surprisingly little. Most of what I did was cutting stuff. In the end, I cut about a third of the book. Which is hard, of course, but it’s also a very compartmentalized process. I’d wake up and go through it page by page, asking whether this scene, paragraph, sentence, or word really needed to stay.

Now I’m trying to revise my sociopathic mom book, and it’s proving a bit less tractable. This book is a big one, for one thing. It’s 110,000 words and it spans three years and lots of different events. The book is a very complex machine.

Right now, the thing I am wrestling with is the character’s emotional and intellectual development. It’s astonishing how you can write an entire book and yet not be entirely clear about the character’s journey or whether they change. In this case, there’s just something about the mother’s journey that’s not quite sharp enough. She never quite comes to terms with her own behavior. In the end, it’s not even clear if she understands it.

I think I’ve figured out a solution (I’m going to weave on extra thread into the narrative). But it’s a bit exhausting to think about going through the whole manuscript and patting everything into place.

And then after that there’s everything else: the cutting of extraneous words, the revising of awkward sentences, the checks for internal consistency. It’s all such a big production. And I think it’s going to take at least a month.

In the case of at least three novels, I’ve gotten to this point–the place where I’d need to spend serious time polishing the novel–and decided that the underlying product wasn’t strong enough to warrant the effort. In this case, I don’t think that’ll happen…but that still leaves me doing all this work. Sigh.

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Spending my first night in my new room

Posted by R. H. Kanakia on July 23, 2014

Welp, I’m not fully settled in, but I have purchased a bed and a lamp and some new sheets. And I have acquired the wireless password from my landlord. If this was four years ago, this would be enough: I’d just live like this for the next year or so.

However, since I’m actually settling in a bit more than that. I’m actually buying a couch! And it’s not from IKEA! I know. Insane.

I’m glad to have a place again. My time in New Orleans was actually not particularly dislocating. Since I thought I’d be staying indefinitely, I immediately settled in and developed a routine. I even wrote an entire novel while I was there! I keep forgetting about that: lately I’ve been castigating myself for my lack of productivity…but three weeks ago I wrote an entire novel.

However, these last three weeks have been pretty brutal. I left New Orleans on, I believe, the 3rd (to attend a wedding in Detroit). And since then I haven’t really had a home.

I came to the conclusion today that I think I’m going to try to stay put for the next three months. I’m tired of trips. I’m tired of moving around. I want to put my head down and get back into routine and just put in three solid months of work. Otherwise it’s too easy to get my head turned around and make all kinds of plans and fritter away my energies on this and that

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Picked that Thomas Piketty book up again; I’m somewhat surprised that it’s such a best-seller

Posted by R. H. Kanakia on July 22, 2014

Most nonfiction books that catch the public interest have a certain amount of zip to them: The Feminine Mystique, Debt: The First 5000 Years; The Organization Man. These were books that not only bristled with anger, but also were full of tidbits and interesting anecdotes and, most importantly, stories. These books made sure to tell stories.

Capital In The Twenty-First Century isn’t like that at all. It does not tell stories, except in the most broad and abstract way. It deals with generalities–the total amount of capital in a country; the total amount of income that the country produces; the share of income earned by the bottom fifty percent of the population, etc, etc–that are kept purposefully broad so that they can be compared across countries and across centuries. And it does some really fascinating things with those generalities. As far as I can tell, the book is saying that the move towards egalitarianism might’ve been a fragment of the twentieth century. And that the factors which caused it–external shocks that destroyed vast amounts of capital, combined with high economic growth that allowed growth in labor income to keep up with growth of capital–might not hold true in the twenty-first century.

But he doesn’t go the extra distance and talk about what that might means: a return to a hereditary aristocracy. I’m not saying he’s dry and colorless. He illustrates things just as much as he needs to in order to make sure that you understand (for instance, he loves bringing in examples from Austen and Balzac). But those illustrations are functional. He doesn’t let himself spin flights of fancy.

All of which makes the book kind of tedious at times.

Still, it also means that you don’t need to fall into it and become absorbed by it: you can just read the words. As such, the book requires less engagement than most books. Which makes it perfect to read during odd moments and bits of left-over time.

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Is it possible to buy the good life?

Posted by R. H. Kanakia on July 21, 2014

wrought-iron-patio-furniture-2Today, I had a sudden urge to buy new curtains from Crate and Barrel. Not sure why I fixated on Crate and Barrel (which is a store that I’ve never shopped at in my life), but for some reason no other store would do.

So I hopped in my car and drove up to Berkeley, where my phone told me there was a Crate and Barrel.

And I encountered a paradise! A breezy, beautiful three-block stretch, anchored at one end by an Apple Store and an Anthropologie and at the other end by the Crate and Barrel. And in between there was every kind of little artisanal boutique that Corporate America has managed to produce. There was a store that only sold design and building books! And an open-air store that only sold furniture (most of it made of wrought-iron) for your garden and patio. And a store where all the furniture was silvery and angular, as if an IKEA had mated with an iPod.

And it was sunny and windswept and full of women in high-heeled boots and men pushing strollers that were approximately six-feet long, with undercarriages that jangled ominously (seriously, what were those dudes keeping in there?)

Everything about the place was redolent of the good life.

You know what I mean. I don’t know exactly how we all (at least those of us who were born into or aspire to be in the upper middle class) got the memo, but it’s almost like we instinctively understand the elements of the good life.

The good life doesn’t care about possessions, it only cares about how things feel. The good life is bright and sun-filled. The good life is the light brown of wooden baseboards and the mottled grey of wrought iron and the bright orange of a throw pillow. The good life is sparse: the corridors of the good life are wide, and they are filled with fewer, but higher-quality, items. The good life  smells like incense and sandalwood. The good life wears thin fabrics and drives tiny cars. The good life has been married for four years and has just begun to think about having children. The good life goes on vacation every four months, and it never takes a packaged tour. The good life isn’t about mere relaxation: it only goes to the beach in order to dive down next to the reef so that it can catch a sighting of a very rare, endangered sea turtle.

I used to scoff at this vision of the good life. To me, it’s always seemed shallow, hypocritical, thoughtless, and consumerist. But since coming to the Bay Area, I’ve been thinking a lot about it. And I’m starting to think that, in some way, coming back here represents my attempt to try to accept the good life.

Because we here in America aren’t given that many visions of the good life. I mean, there’s mass-market consumer society (which may or may not exist, except as a bogeyman). And then there’s the manufactured rebellion that corporate America has given us so that we can use our money to feel superior to the plebes. And then…what else is there? There are those who eschew consumption and choose to live in uncomfortable circumstances in some warehouse in a poor neighborhood or underdeveloped city. But it seems to me that those people don’t really reject the aesthetic that makes up the good life; they simply reject the idea of spending a lot of money to acquire it. Sometimes it seems like the essence of radical living is to turn up your nose at Anthropologie and then scour the thrift stores so that you can find a $20 ensemble that looks like it could’ve been purchased from Anthropologie.

I used to think that people who bought into the good life were fooling themselves. I thought they were throwing money at their lousy little lives in order to feed the delusion that they were special. Now I don’t know. There’s an unexamined assumption there, which is that those people in Berkeley were seeking props that would allow them to pretend that their lives aren’t utterly mass-produced.

But were they?

It’s all very confusing to me. Why do we want wrought-iron patio furniture? If it’s so that we can sit in the furniture and engage in some delusional image of ourselves as rustic iconoclasts, then that, to me, sounds extremely distasteful. But if it’s just because we think wrought-iron patio furniture looks beautiful (and is relatively clean and sturdy) and because we enjoy the experience of sitting on our patios and watching a bee crawl into the bud of a flower, then that’s, like, that’s kind of okay, right?

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Today I re-watched several episodes of the television show ENTOURAGE

Posted by R. H. Kanakia on July 20, 2014

And it was exactly as amazing as I remember it being.

The best thing about Entourage is that most episodes involve really no conflict. They’re like, uhh, Vince wants to have sex with some girl. And then he does. Or Vince wants to be in a movie. And then he discovers that the movie sucks. And he doesn’t want to be in it anymore.

The whole thing is just so insubstantial. But, really, the glitz is the point. That’s what you’re watching for. I have no idea if any of it is accurate, but the depiction of celebrity life is compelling because of the ways that it’s both similar to and different from ordinary life. Obviously, celebrities go on TV and have sex with attractive people and can afford nice things. But they also really have to navigate the ordinary world: they go to regular restaurants and stand in line at Starbucks and order towels at Bed, Bath and Beyond.

It’s a very weird dichotomy

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Yeah, if you’re writing literary short stories, you really do need to put up with submission fees

Posted by R. H. Kanakia on July 19, 2014

Baby__disgust1People often forget that the ethical standards in their field are just consensus guidelines. What matters, oftentimes, is not the specific standard, but whether or not a given actor is willing to abide by those standards. An unwillingness to abide by them in one field often signals a certain shadiness and lack of regard in other aspects of their relations with other actors in the field.

In the SF/F field, the standard is that you don’t pay to submit your work, and magazines that charge reading fees are, rightly, laughed at.

That’s not the standard in the field of literary fiction, though. There, a number of magazines charge $2-3 reading fees. And almost every journal runs some contest or another with a $20 entrance fee.

Coming, as I do, from the SF/F field this has always seemed unconscionable to me. Editors of literary journals justify their reading fees by saying that it takes time and money to read the constant influx of submissions that’s coming in. The reading fee both cuts the number of submissions and pays for reading them. But, to me, that is the essence of their jobs. You read submissions so that you can get the good stuff. If you’re throttling back on the influx of submissions, then you’re reducing the amount of good stuff you get. To me, reading fees betray an essential lack of concern for the quality of the product you’re putting out: their prioritize the editor’s convenience over the quality of the output.

However, that’s not how the field thinks. In the field, this is a normal practice. Being published in a journal that requires a reading fee (like The Missouri Review or Narrative) is seen as an honor. Winning contests that require $20 fees (like Glimmer Train or Zoetrope‘s contests) is seen as an honor.

There are still a number of magazines that don’t charge reading fees. Usually the most highly-regarded journals don’t charge, and the journals that are very low on the pecking order don’t charge. It’s the ones on the second tier (oftentimes university-sponsored publications) that tend to charge. And a writer could, conceivably, make a career by just submitting to these.

But, as far as I can tell, most people don’t. Most people pay the fees.

It’s absurd, since you have money flowing from the pockets of graduate students and adjuncts and into the pockets of large universities (The Harvard Review, for instance, charges a reading fee). But there’s a good reason for this. It’s the same reason why academic journals have such onerous requirements (when you place a paper in an academic journal, you actually assign them the copyright to it. From that point onwards, they own it).

It’s because there’s–in comparison to publishing in an SF/F magazine–there’s much more at stake in publishing in a literary journal. If you have sufficient literary journal publications, then you can get a short story collection published. You can get an academic job. You can get tenure. You can earn $60-100k a year until the day you die, without any chance of being fired. If we were to value an academic job as a capital asset, it would be worth between one and two million dollars.

Commercial publishing has nothing that even approaches that kind of reward. How many million-dollar advances go out to unknown authors each year? Maybe one? And publishing in an SF/F magazine doesn’t really help you land that advance. At most, it might get you a few tens of thousands of dollars more than you’d otherwise have gotten.

But every year around 50 poets and fiction writers will get tenure-track positions.

And that gives leverage to the journals: they’re basically giving out lottery tickets.

So yeah, I pay to submit. And if you want to be a literary writer, then you should probably do it as well.

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