Blotter Paper

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

Tired of only liking the books that I’m supposed to like

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

18371381I don’t really think of my book posts as book reviews (in my mind, they’re more like book reactions), because I assume that most people who read my blog will have already heard of most of the books that I read. Generally speaking, I don’t read particularly obscure books. Everything I read is either, in some sense, canonical or is at least really popular. Because, honestly, how else am I going to find out about books? I never just go into bookstores and browse the shelves anymore. And most of the time I hear about a book on the internet, it falls into that weird liminal space where it’s too popular for me to feel like my opinion would really make a difference (in terms of helping it become more popular), but not so popular that I feel like I can learn something about the zeitgeist by reading it.

However, I do think that I lose something by only reading the stuff that the gatekeepers (of whatever sort) have said it’s okay to read, and I’ve been pondering various methods of getting around that. One thing I’ve hit upon recently is NetGalley. which is a website that publishers use to distribute advance copies of books to potential reviewers. I’ve found that the readership of this blog is sufficient enough that many publicists are willing to give me advance copies of the books that I request, and I’ve been going through and trying to flag interesting mainstream and teen fiction titles.

There is something weirdly empowering about reading an unreleased book which has zero Amazon reviews. Like, I could be one of the first people to comment publicly on this book. I could appreciably add or detract from its success.

However, it’s also a bit depressing to request an interesting-looking book and see that it’s nothing special.

So far, my policy is to abandon a book after 20-40 pages (and, since Netgalley encourages you to give feedback, to tell its publisher that I thought it was boring).

However, I have found one book that looks marginally interesting. It’s this one, by Ward Anderson. Only a tenth of the way in so far, but right now it’s good solid fun.

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Like every other person in the kid-lit world, I’m in love with R. J. Palacio’s _Wonder_

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

This cover is also pretty amazing

This cover is also pretty amazing

The book is about a fifth-grader with a severe craniofacial deformity that makes him a very shocking sight for non-deformed people. The book is…err…it’s pretty good. It is (was?) also a huge bestseller.

Gotta say, it’s been a long, long time since I’ve read a book that was targeted at such a young audience. Last summer I think I read one or two middle-grade books, but I think those were young MG, whereas I think this is a bit older. Some things are a bit odd about the book. Like…do fifth-graders really date? I really don’t remember anything like that. I was in public co-ed school up until 6th grade, and I feel there wasn’t really any kind of romance.

The book is also shockingly ambitious. It’s told in seven different first-person points of view, who range in age from 10 to 15 and span both genders (as well as a number of races). Even for an adult novel, this would be a tall order. It works incredibly well. The portrait you get of this kid (and his family) is so complex. Like you learn about all the different ways that his family is good and bad. You learn the subtext behind little incidents that you saw at the start of the book. You first see how solicitous the mother is, and then see the kid’s sister complain about the mother, and then you see the kid’s sister’s boyfriend talk about how much he loves her mother. It is webs within webs.

How does someone even get the idea to tell the story this way? The initial voice–the voice of the deformed kid, Gus–is so compelling, and his conflict is so interesting, that it would’ve made perfect sense to stick with it for the entire novel? How did this author decide that wasn’t enough? How did she decide to move between viewpoints in this incredibly deft and unpredictable way (you don’t switch each chapter, instead the novel is divided into about eight parts and the viewpoints switch with each part).

I really think that no intellectual or rational faculty could’ve told you to write a book in this way. It had to be a scheme that came from deep within the author’s soul. Somehow, she glimpsed something, and the only way to explain it was to write an entire book about it.

Posted in Books | Tagged: , | 3 Comments »

Drawing upon hidden reserves of willpower

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

Look at how happy this couple is. Running doesn't cost them any willpower because it just makes them sooooo happy. Jerks.

Look at how happy this couple is. Running doesn’t cost them any willpower because it just makes them sooooo happy. Jerks.

The Willpower Instinct is a book that just keeps on giving. There’s a section in the book about we have finite reserves of willpower. The more of it we expend, the less of it we have. However, the book also theorizes that our body maintains a hidden reservoir of willpower. Like, it tells us that we don’t have any more, even though we secretly do. In just the same way, our body tells us that we’re tired, even though we could stay awake longer, and that we’re hungry, even though we could go without eating.

This was a fascinating metaphor to me. On the one hand, it’s obvious: we can do more than we think we can. But, on the other hand, I’m used to trusting the signals that my body gives me. It hadn’t occurred to me that there’s a kind of error built in there.

Anyway, this yielded a practical advantage today. You see, I try (as much as possible) to not drink coffee or take any caffeine that’s stronger than tea. However, for some reason, I was very tired this morning, and just had that feeling like I couldn’t face the day without it. Normally, in this situation, I’d cave and drink it and then overdo it and not be able to sleep tonight and feel miserable for the next few days.* However, today I figured that I had some hidden reserves of willpower in me, so I actually managed to just sort of power through the whole day and do everything I needed to do (including write this blog post).


*I call it the five-day coffee cycle: on day one I’m so tired that I drink so much caffeine that I can’t sleep; on day two I’m even more tired and drink more caffeine and still can’t sleep; on day three I’m so tired that even though I drink a huge amount of caffeine, I’m able to manage some sleep; on day four I manage to get enough sleep that by day five I’m not tired at all and end up sleeping very poorly that night (leading me to being extremely tired on the next day, which is when the cycle restarts). This just goes on and on until I finally stop drinking coffee again.

Posted in Background Checks, Books | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

You know, there’s a non-zero probability that I would’ve actually enjoyed being an economist

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

I spent a not-insignificant period of time today assigning project codes to all of the stories and novels that I’ve worked on in the past two years, and then going through my spreadsheet and assigning a project code to each day (since for the past two years I’ve been keeping notes on what I work on each day). Using those project codes, I’m now able to estimate (with a middling degree of accuracy) how many days I worked on something, how many hours I spent on it, and how many words I wrote during the drafting and revision process.

And while I was doing this, I couldn’t help but think…this is not only fascinating, it’s also pretty fun. Ever since I was a lad, I haven’t found it at all difficult to get lost in spreadsheets for hours.

When I was in college, I majored in Economics. That was partly because Economics is a really easy major, but it was also partly because I was (and am) interested in the social sciences. And, of course, I worked as an economist (or at least an economist-type person) for the World Bank for several years. There was a time in my life when I very seriously considered trying to get a PhD in Economics.

I’m not sad that I’ve given up on that. It was always a very vague and inchoate dream. But I do think there is a part of me that could’ve had a very successful career doing some kind of economics-related work.

I think the problem was that I was just never particularly interested in public policy. If you’re a certain kind of person with a certain kind of politics and you grow up in a certain kind of city (i.e. Washington, DC) you kind of assume that public policy should be your natural focus. But, as a subject matter, it was never quite right for me. The essence of public policy is an interest in minutiae: fishing quotas and graduation rates and negative income taxes and district boundaries and all the rest of that stuff. It’s not that I can’t be interested in small things, it’s just that everything in the public policy world felt a bit too fine-grained for me.

However, that doesn’t mean that some other area of economics wouldn’t have been interesting, particularly the more research-based side of it.


On the other hand, I’m not sure that being an economist would’ve been very different from being a writer. It still would’ve meant a lifetime of being by myself, alone, behind a desk.

Honestly, if I wasn’t going to be a writer, I’d much rather be something active and implementation-oriented: a (certain kind of) civil servant or manager or business development guy. Something where you’re: a) dealing with other people; and b) actually constructing or making or doing something concrete that actually exists in the world in touchable form.

Posted in Background Checks | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

There’s something a little bit endearing about right-wing extremism

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

happy-go-lucky-posterPeriodically, my Facebook feed gets riled up when some ultra-rightwinger decries multiculturalism or eulogizes the antebellum South or says that Obama is going to put us all in concentration camps or engages in some other tacky political display. And then everybody will jump in there and be like, “Grr, those people are ruining America.”

Which is totally okay. I don’t support those beliefs, and those people certainly are harming America, and everyone tends to view these things through the filter of their own experience: if I’d had more negative interactions with ultra-rightwingers or with their policies, then perhaps I too would be extremely enthused about bashing them.

But I was recently watching a British movie, Happy Go Lucky (directed by Mike Leigh) that crystallized some of my mixed feelings about right-wing fanatics. In this movie, there’s an abrasive driving instructor who slowly develops a romantic attraction for his pupil, a kindergarten teacher. And this teacher also becomes somewhat fascinating with the driving instructor. She wonders what made him so uptight and abrasive and tries to probe him and figure out whether he was bullied in school.

And then he goes off on this tirade about how school is all about shoving you into a box and making you regurgitate the status quo and how if you do that then you end up successful and happy, but if you insist on thinking for yourself then you end up shunted out and miserable. And I am totally onboard with that…right up until the tirade turns into a racist rant.

I really liked the driving instructor. I admire anyone who really cares about what he does. One of the most charming parts of the movie is where he explains his teaching philosophy to the kindergarten teacher after she laughs at one of the silly mnemonics that he’s trying to make her memorize. He takes his job really seriously, and he honestly believes his instruction will save his pupils’ lives someday. This is a guy who’s schlubby and lonely, but he’s not pathetic. He’s found a way to live, and, to me, there’s something gloriously countercultural about that.

Oh, and he’s also a crazy racist who believes that the government is forcing nonwhite people to immigrate to Britain and shoving multiculturalism down peoples’ throats in order to deprive the noble British people of their heritage. And he also believes in some crazy connection between the American Government and Satanism. The Illuminati might be in there somewhere, too.

Now…are his beliefs deplorable? Yes.

But is he ruining the world?

I don’t know.

To me, it almost feels like he’s part of the solution and not part of the problem. This is a guy who’s obviously very switched on. He thinks for himself. He forges his own path in life. And he’s figured out a way to live in accordance with his own values. And, to me, that’s much more important than what you believe about immigration.

I mean, you just need to look at the medium and the message. The things that the guy says are repulsive. But the way he lives is admirable. During the five minutes per day that he talks about politics, he might be making the world a worse place, but during the whole rest of the day, he serves as an example to all the other sad, lonely, and trapped people who are searching for some way—any way—to live with integrity.

Posted in Movies, Politics | Tagged: , , | 5 Comments »

Oh god, it is so late, why am I still up? Such poor life decisions

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

When I worked for the World Bank, I used to stay up this late (working) soooooo often. And it’d be just like this too. The fact that I knew I was going to be up late meant I’d engage in so much procrastination as well. For instance, I remember during one May crunch period, I stayed up until 4 AM every night, ostensibly to work on a report, but…I also somehow found the time to read the entirety of the Sandman series.

That was actually a pretty fantastic experience. I highly recommend reading Sandman between 1 AM and 4 AM while you’re chain-smoking cigarettes and hopped upon awful-tasting instant coffee and all alone in an empty house. It really makes you feel the intense bleakness of the series.

And then I’d have to go to the office the next day! What a miserable way to live. At least today I know that when I put this assignment to bed, I can sleep for as long as I want.

Posted in Other | 2 Comments »

You know where I had a really excellent time? The Clarion Writer’s Workshop

Posted by R. H. Kanakia on April 17, 2014

How you sometimes feel after a Clarion workshop

How you sometimes feel after a Clarion workshop

Clarion and Clarion West (for those not in the know) are six-week summer workshops for science fiction and fantasy writers. You go, you live in a dorm with twenty other writers, you get instructed by a different professor each week, and every week you write a story and have your story critiqued.

It’s a pretty intense experience, for three reasons: a) it’s not that easy to write a story every week; b) it’s very emotionally trying to finish a story in a flush of inspiration and then, almost immediately, have it be ripped apart by twenty other people; and c) you’re separated from your friends and family, and are forced to live with people who start to, at times, feel like your rivals for the approval of the world-famous writing instructors.

(Oh yeah, the teachers at Clarion are amazing. They’re usually people you’ve heard of and admired. And if they’re not, then they’re people you should have heard of. My year, it was Michael Swanwick, Joe Haldeman, Samuel Delany, Nancy Kress, Kelly Link, and Holly Black. Even when I was a callow and poorly-read twenty year old, that list included several authors whose work I loved.)

Anyway, so, long story short…Clarion can be pretty terrible. The worst thing it can do is tear you down and shake your confidence in your own voice and your own subject matter. My Clarion workshop was much more reductive than most workshops I’ve been in. There was no hesitation about rewriting peoples’ stories and critiquing their core elements. And that’s hard. I mean, I think we were generally fairly decent at spotting when a story was working. But when a story’s not working, it can be for two different reasons: a) it’s trying to do something that shouldn’t or can’t be done; or b) it hasn’t yet figured out how to do the thing that it wants to do.

And I don’t think we were that great at spotting or identifying b).

However, I had a really good time there. I mean, I’m pretty sure I did. Memory is a pretty hazy thing, you know. And I got very sick right after coming back from Clarion. And I wrote nearly nothing for the whole year that came afterwards. But I think it was very good for my writing. Before I went to Clarion, I wasn’t really writing stories–most of my work was missing either plot or character motivation or concept or setting. But when you’re getting your stories torn apart week after week, then you realize that you just can’t get away with that crap. After I left, my stories were much better. I feel like I advanced about two years while I was there.

So I do still recommend it. I would say, though, that I recommend it more for earlier-stage writers than for later-stage ones, because early-stage writers are more likely to actually have the sorts of problems that a workshop is going to try to find. I know a few fairly-advanced writers who’ve gone to Clarion, and I question that decision a little bit, because it feels like they’re almost going there in search of validation. Which is fine and natural…but I think it can be a pretty shattering experience to expect validation and not get it.

(Oh, this post was apropos of two recent online posts. Ferrett posted about getting his novel deal, and how Clarion was the turning point in his writing career. And this queer writer, Nicole Cipri, is hosting an online fundraising campaign [to which I donated] to enable them to go to Clarion).

Posted in Writing | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

How I select the next book I’m going to read

Posted by R. H. Kanakia on April 16, 2014

betweenactsI’m sure that everyone out there has an extremely rigorous “next book” selection process. It’s really something of a necessity for modern life. You can’t just pick up whatever’s at hand, because a book cannot be consumed in a single sitting. You need a book that speaks, not merely to your current setting and mood, but to the current moment in your life. And that takes some serious thought.

Over the years, I’ve developed three rigorous book selection principles:

  • I must actually enjoy reading the first sentence (and the second one and the third one, etc) — If I pick up a book and the first sentence bores me, then I put it down. It doesn’t mean that the book is bad, but it does mean that the book is not what I’m looking for right now.
  • My whim is law - After I finished reading Jenny Offill’s novel, I decided that I kind of wanted to read a book that had something of an atypical form. This led me to consider Padget Powell’s The Interrogative Mood and Tao Lin’s Taipei. But then, I thought to myself, “Hmm…It’d also be really good to read a book by a woman,” so those two options were out.
  • Don’t look too far beyond the current book – It’s very easy to make elaborate reading schemas (for instance, last fall I decided that I’d read ALL OF GERMAN LITERATURE). And there’s something very satisfying about making those schemas. But when you’re following them, they become kind of a straitjacket. I’ve learned to dispense with the planning. It’s hard enough to figure out what book I want to read now, much less what book I might want to read in a week or a month.

Anyway, long story short, when I looked around within my parameters (less-typical form, written by a woman), my mind naturally drifted to Virginia Woolf. I picked up The Years, but the first sentence didn’t interest me. Then I picked up Between The Acts and the first sentence was:

It was a summer’s night and they were talking, in the big room with the windows open to the garden, about the cesspool.

And I found myself intrigued….anyway, that is the book I am reading now. It is good. I am enjoying it. Virginia Woolf really is one of the most powerful writers I’ve ever read. All of human existence is mirrored in her novels. For instance, this one is about some folks in a little country house who’re putting on an amateur theatrical (shades of Mansfield Park, there)…and it’s also about the imminence of World War II. That’s a pretty neat trick. Virginia Woolf is so political and so aware of current events, but she gets no credit for it, because she doesn’t engage with politics in the expected way.

Posted in Books, General Principles | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Even when I can’t get excited about much else, I can get excited about reading

Posted by R. H. Kanakia on April 16, 2014

17402288I’m gonna let you guys in on a little secret: being a writer is not very eventful.

Like, seriously, nothing ever happens. I mean, I get a rejection every other day. And an acceptance every two months, maybe. And every few months there’s also some slow incremental progress on getting my novel published (hearing from my agent, sending him a revision, etc). But other than that, there’s really nothing. It’s actually kind of boring.

I suppose that you publish a novel, there are a few more events: you get requests for interviews and you give readings and you get fan-mail and you engage in Twitter feuds with other up-and-coming writers. But really, I think it’s probably still pretty uneventful.

Most jobs are not as uneventful as writing. Most jobs have meetings! And targets! And deadlines! And crunchtime on a project!

In most jobs, stuff happens every single day.

It’s definitely not that way with writing.

Sometimes when I am doing my writing, I think, “Huh, well. I guess I’m just going to, like…keep doing this. And it’s never really going to be that much different from this…”

It’s a very weird feeling. I think that’s why a lot of writers make their own excitement, by drinking alot or feuding with people or engaging in other crazy shenanigans.

Anyway, you know what is exciting?

All the books that I’ll get to read. Every time I get to the end of a book, I become so overwhelmed with the sheer sense of possibility: I could read any one of miiiiiiillions of books.

I’ve actually become very picky. I will read the openings of ten or twenty books (something that the Kindle makes very easy) before I find the one that I am in the mood for.

Recently, I finished Grahame Greene’s The Quiet American (which I guess is a spy novel? It is a very strange one, though), and began reading Jenny Offill’s Dept. Of Speculation. This is a pretty weird book. There’s sort of a story there–a love story–that’s mixed up with all these strange facts and asides, like the following:

I got a job checking facts at a science magazine. Fun facts, they called them. The connected fibers in a human brain, extended, would wrap around the Earth forty times. Horrible, I wrote in the margin, but they put it through anyway.

Random facts?! That’s all you need to tell a David Markson fan like me (although this sort of collage technique actually dates back at least the citizen chapter of Ulysses, and I’m sure that some nerd out there can find an even older example of it). Actually, I picked up this book after reading about it in the New York Review of Books, because that is just the kind of monster that I’ve become.

But anyway, the book is so short that I already get to think about what else I might read. Fun fun fun.

Posted in Books, The Writing Life | Tagged: , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Coming up on my last workshop at Johns Hopkins (and perhaps my last one for a long time)

Posted by R. H. Kanakia on April 15, 2014

workshopAlready some of the other people I’ve spent the last two years with are figuring out their next steps. And I’m working on my final story for workshop. There is a bittersweetness to it, just as there is to all endings. For the last 20 or so months, our MFA workshop has been a constant presence in our life. Even when we’re not actively in workshop (i.e. during the winter breaks or the summer), I’m still very aware that I am going to have to produce work which is going to need to be subjected to workshop.

I don’t believe that I’ve been harmed by workshop (though I do think that it’s possible for a person to be harmed by it). However, it (and this whole environment) has changed me more than I thought it would. The very first story that I turned into workshop was this one, but I also don’t think I could write a story like that today. It has too much exterior and not enough interior. Nowadays, I prefer to write stories that are a bit quieter, and it’d be hard to say that the MFA environment didn’t have an influence on that. It didn’t operate by making me afraid to turn in certain kinds of stories. It operated by changing my value system: my sense of what kinds of stories were good.

I don’t know, maybe that was a certain kind of harm.

All I can say is that I don’t think the stories I was writing before I came here were particularly great, and I’m happy with my creative evolution.

However, I do wonder what it will be like to write without the influence of workshop. I think there’ll be something about it that’s very freeing. Probably I’ll slide into some bad habits. My practice is to make sure that everything I turn into workshop is as perfect as I can make it. And that makes it very difficult for me to ignore the problems that the workshop finds. These aren’t things I haven’t yet gotten around to fixing; they’re things that I never even noticed. However, when I’m writing on my own, I’m never gonna notice those things.

Still, I’ve written and sold plenty of stories (like…almost every story I’ve ever sold) that didn’t go through a critique process, and I have confidence that I can navigate the world on my own.

The truth is that, on a creative level, every year is very different. I am constantly writing this story or that story and saying, “This is the best thing I’ve ever written.” But even in the moment when I write it, I know that I’ll someday have to write something better. Sometimes I can’t even believe it. Sometimes I look on stories or novels I’ve written, and I don’t even understand how they came out of me: they just don’t seem like things that I could have produced. But what’s even stranger is to know that if I’m ever going to get anywhere, then someday in the future, I’ll need to sit down and produce something that’s even better.

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