Book Review: My Real Children

by Arun on June 30, 2014

I read My Real Children a couple of days ago, and I’ve been thinking about it since. Short summary, as I said on Twitter, it is a remarkable book and I think everyone should read it. It’s certainly the strongest book I’ve read in 2014. As to why, here’s a brief review (spoilers for the book ahead…)

It’s 2014 and Patricia Cowan is in a retirement home; her dementia is making it difficult for her to remember certain key events from her own life. She remembers two distinct pasts. In her life as Pat, she was married to Mark and had four children. In that life she worked as an English literature teacher and was involved in the feminist movement as well as activism for nuclear disarmament. In her other life as Tricia, she met and fell in love with Beatrice (Bee), and they had three children together. In this life, she has a successful career as a travel guide writer and splits her time between England and Italy.

Some days she remembers one or the other, but she can’t conclusively know which reality is real and which is not. The point at which her memories forked was contingent on whether she accepted Mark’s marriage proposal. This framing device at the beginning of the story sets up the starting point for Patricia’s recollection of her two lives. Each chapter alternates between one life or the other, with the events of Patricia’s life being foregrounded against the historical events of the day.  Not only is Patricia’s life different because of the choice she made with Mark, but the world itself is different in both of Patricia’s past lives in subtle ways from our own –a what if? scenario played out against alternative outcomes of major historical events of the 20th century.

Alternate history is the sole speculative element in what could otherwise be read as a mainstream book. Where the events do show up, they are not forcefully relevant to the plot of the story, which would have been the case if the alternate history took precedence to the development of the characters. The most striking example of this is that in Tricia’s world, the 20th century saw a limited nuclear exchange, something that only ever remained a possibility in our own past.   Living under the spectre of nuclear fallout forces the characters to confront their mortality and live meaningfully through uncertain times.

Genre conventions for certain types of fantasy and science fiction give the protagonist a great deal of agency and power to change the world in unexpected ways. The protagonists of My Real Children are not really placed to have a major impact on the course of world events.  Pat and her family are trying to get by in a world that carries on around them, but they can’t help but be acted upon by it in turn. It’s interesting to contrast that to Pat’s thought towards the end of the book, where she recalls the butterfly effect, and whether her decision to marry/not to marry Mark had a corresponding impact on world events. A more painful and unanswerable question arises when Patricia wonders whether committing to one memory of her past will collapse the waveform, if the act of remembering is all that holds reality together.

In the hands of a lesser writer, the alternating timelines could have thrown a reader  right out of the story, but Walton’s intentionally transparent prose and linear story keeps the reader grounded in both worlds. I had no trouble at all managing Pat and Tricia (the names Patricia is known by in either past), and think this is due to how Walton mirrored their lives. Pat is unhappy in her personal life, but the political climate in her version of history remains fairly quotidian.Tricia’s personal life is comparatively happy, despite a more unsafe, unstable world. Yet, it doesn’t last. Pat finds meaning and relative joy in raising her children and involvement in activism, whereas Tricia finds it in her relationship with Bee, in art, and in Florence. Both women experience personal tragedy and both bring up questions about determinism and free will, religion and atheism. Their lives contrast without ever being contradictory to who Pat is, and how  she constructs her identity.

The book invites reflection to this question: are we defined by choices we make in our lives, or is there a self that remains independent of these choices? That in the end, all roads lead to the same destination? The distinction posed by the question as I stated it is overly simple and there are no clean answers, but My Real Children took me on a journey of heartbreak and sorrow, of joy and quiet contemplation, and it made me wonder. The narrator sums it up beautifully with this thought:

“Now or never, Trish or Pat, peace or war, loneliness or love? She wouldn’t have been the person her life had made her if she could have made any other answer.”

 

***

A final note: there were two poems referenced in the book I’d never heard of, both of which I enjoyed after reading in full, and I’d encourage you to read them:

1. Sonnet Against Entropy by: John M. Ford

2. To His Coy Mistress by: Andrew Marvell

Word Log – June 26th, 2014

by Arun on June 26, 2014

So its been six months since I stopped writing progress reports. I haven’t stopped writing overall, but real life got in the way in the form of work and a host of other things, some good and some bad, that I won’t post on the internet. But, the short answer is: I’m still writing.

I started the year with approximately 31,000 on the novel project, which has moved up to 41,000 words and is steadily marching along at an average pace of 350 words a day. That manuscript, The House of Stories, is already looking at a 2nd draft revision later this year.

How’s it been so far? Well…novel writing is a foreign concept to me; its like designing houses (no, sandcastles) for your whole life, and then trying to craft an entire neighborhood, a city, a world, with the same tools. No two are ever the same, and I expect that a huge amount of what I’m writing now will be reconfigured and rebuilt in draft, but I digress.

I’ve had a lot of fun breaking my process over the course of writing; for example, I had to throw away a lot of the outline for the middle of the book and trust that the characters knew what they were doing. And for the most part, they provided cues and prompts, little Chekov’s guns to be placed on mantlepieces and fired at inappropriate intervals throughout the story. It will need work, but I’m pleased that by abandoning the outline, I came up with something cooler than I would’ve thought of when I started writing.

Other than that, my secondary project is “The Afterlife of Objects,” a short story. I’m obsessed with the strange voice and narrative of this story. It’s providing an excellent counterpoint to the voice I’m using to tell the novel, but its so weird that I’ll probably need a dozen or so drafts before I convince myself that beta readers would like it.

I’ll post more on the blog as I bring these projects to completion, as well as what projects I’ll be working on next.

***

In other news of my life, I attended 4th Street Fantasy convention, which was one of the best writing/community events I’ve been to. It was also my first convention, and from what I understand, it’s  unique in terms of both its size and programming. Single panel tracks and relatively small size meant that I was able to meet new writers, catch up with old friends, and attend all of the panels.

I even participated on a panel, Advice from New Writers, which was exhilarating and  a little nerve wracking as well. But I was lucky to participate alongside engaged co-panelists and the whole experience was fun.

There was a moment on Sunday morning, around 3 or 4 am, when quite a few of us were deeply engaged in discussion about writing, I looked around and saw other writers: passionate about craft and geeking out with each other about story, and I knew I was with the Tribe, and I was happy that I made it out. There are too few opportunities in real life for such deep diving, and sometimes you have to refill the creative well in order to keep your energy and enthusiasm available for when the writing gets hard.

I’ll definitely be coming back next year for more conversation and more stories.

***

This month I read two books that everyone should check out:

1. Three Parts Dead by: Max Gladstone. Before reading this book, I never realized it fulfilled a very specific type of fantasy story I was looking for. That is, it is a secondary world urban necromantic steampunk fantasy which uses techniques and  tropes from other genres/visual storytelling to structure and tell its story. I’m not going to give the story away, because half the fun is in discovering the utterly cool world that Max has built, but everyone should go read it.

2. Range of Ghosts by: Elizabeth Bear. This is a historical fantasy (part of the Eternal Sky trilogy) set in a Mongol/near eastern flavored secondary world.   Part of the reason I entirely stopped reading secondary world/core fantasy for a few years was because I couldn’t see any new stories being told about the vast range of human cultures that acknowledged these peoples and their cultures had their stories to tell.

Books like this one, as well as Max’s books above have drawn me back, and I’m foraging further for writers who are actively making an effort to tell these stories. (Thinking about Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon next). To get back to Range of Ghosts, Bear has thought through how someone in this culture and this world would perceive the world, and consequently, has built the story around characters from different cultures in this world.

The story follows Temur, heir to the Khaganate, who escapes from a battle, at which most of his family is killed by Temur’s uncle in a bloody succession bid. Meanwhile, the head of an obscure religious cult is setting events into motion that will lead to civil war, of which the battle for the Khaganate is just the start. We also follow Once-Princess Samarkar who sacrifices her ability to procreate in order to become a wizard of the citadel. She joins with Temur in order to stop the events set into motion by the cult. Along the way they meet Hrahima, a seven foot tall sentient tiger (!) who has an agenda of her own, and a monk who has taken a vow of silence. I appreciated that Bear didn’t make this story about the “chosen one.” Each one of the characters has their own personal story arc that isn’t bent to the narrative of one central character. More importantly, she successfully develops multiple cultures, each with its own unique worldview and outlook.

This book doesn’t take any shortcuts to meaningful development, and the contrast between the characters deepens the richness of the story and the world itself. I haven’t finished the trilogy yet, but I highly recommend it if, like me, you were looking for something different that most fantasy didn’t have to offer.

Writing Process Blog Tour

by Arun on May 29, 2014

I was tagged earlier this week for the Writing Process Blog Tour by the fabulous Casey Blair, so here’s a peek into my writing process/projects:

What am I working on?

Currently, I’m dedicating all writing capacity to my first novel, The House of Stories. It’s a middle grade portal fantasy in which the main character travels to a land peopled by characters from stories he has read. It’s also about family, and about growing up, and what stories mean to those who tell them. I’m actually a little superstitious about giving away too many details before writing the story down in full, so I hope to share more details once I finish the manuscript.

Other than that, I’m writing a short story now and again. Most of my recent output has been fantasy, (which the exception of one story I wrote last October), but I want to stretch out and try my hand at some hard sf. Truthfully, there was a time when I read a lot of hard sf, but my earlier attempts at writing the same were atrociously bad. Recently though, I read Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep, and its reignited (no pun intended) my interest in writing something in a similar vein. We’ll see if that experiment yields any results.

How does my work differ from others in the genre?

I think that no two writers will be the same, regardless of what they write, because a diverse set of literary influence and life experience contributes to the type of writer one becomes.

My work is influenced by the two worlds I grew up in. I was born in India and moved to Canada when I was eight. I’m 25 now, so I’ve spent the majority of my life here, but I’ve retained strong cultural ties through family that influence my worldview. In that sense, my protagonists are primarily POC and my stories to some degree draw on my experience as a member of the diaspora. Representation and diversity are important to me, even though they were never something I sought out or overtly noticed as a younger reader.*

Why do I write what I do?

As I noted last November, fantasy/sf illuminates the way I see the world better than any strictly realistic form of writing.

In the books I read, I could be travelling across the frozen world of Gethen one day, or riding with Temur under the eternal sky, or visiting the Labyrinth of Forgotten Books in 1940’s Barcelona. These are the experiences I read for, and I want to give my readers a similar map to take them where they haven’t gone before.

How does my writing process work?

I write between 3 and 6 drafts of all my short stories. The first draft is usually not readable and consists of me telling the story to myself. Draft 2-3 is where I get my major structural problems fixed, and clear up character motivations. (I have this theory that if I can fix the structure of my stories, half my drafting problems will be solved. It’s a work in progress.)

Draft 4-6 consist of tightening up sentences and agonizing over which lines I should cut out of the final drafts. Around draft 4, I’m willing to show the story to beta readers, after which I’ll send it out on submissions. I use Submissions Grinder to keep track of my short story submissions.

I obsessively track my wordcount in a spreadsheet, with separate columns for short stories and novel projects. Recently, I added a time metric to track how long I write each day. If I’m feeling fancy, I’ll occasionally put together a graph with averages and actual wordcounts. I find that tracking it like this helps me to focus on the day to day act of getting the words down.

I’m using Scrivener for my novel right now, and I’d highly recommend it, if you’re like me, and the thought of keeping anything longer than 10,000 words organized in your head makes you shake. I haven’t nailed down my process for novel writing, but I think I fall around the center on the spectrum between outlining and pantsing.

Pro-tip: movie soundtracks make the best writing music. I’m fond of A.R. Rahman, Ramin Djawadi, and Alexandre Desplat’s compositions.

***

Here’s a list of the other posts in the Writing Process Blog Tour.  Check them out:

Casey Blair

Aliza Greenblatt

Nicole Lisa

Alex Haist

Blair MacGregor

* – There’s so much more I want to speak to on this particular topic, but I will save it for a separate blog post.

Word Log – January 8th-12th 2014

by Arun on January 12, 2014

Had a busy few days with commitments on all sides from work and life outside of writing, so very little progress was made in the word count. However, I did spend time at the computer working at my writing in a conscious way. I developed a revision template with notes and things that I commonly get wrong, and I’ve added this to my writing folder to look over for when I revise. I also read through Damon Knight’s Creating Short Fiction (again) and noted certain important theories on the craft that I missed the significance of on my first read through.

One of my big problem areas is that I write too much by instinct and not enough by craft. Instinct served me well in the past, when I had a vague idea of what was working and what wasn’t. But, now after all the lessons I’ve learned from VP, from writing and critiquing other stories, I need to bring a greater level of intention to bear when going through the second or third draft process. Knight’s writing manual and Jeff Vandermeer’s Wonderbook pose certain questions that a writer should be thinking through on second draft, questions which would improve the story and avoid leaning on cliched tropes. I’ve added these to my revision template and I’m hoping to write stories where a greater degree of the final product was intentional. I also purchased David Madden’s Revising Fiction: A Handbook for Writers after Jeff recommended it in Booklife, as a way to systematically address first draft weaknesses in my stories.

Oh, and I got an acceptance for “Of the Dying Light” in Silvia Moreno Garcia’s Fractured anthology. Found out about it last week. Should be out sometime this fall.

Edit to add: Forgot to mention that my friend and VP classmate T.S. Bazelli will be in the anthology as well.

:D

Word Log – 7th January 2014

by Arun on January 7, 2014

Dead tired today, but got 109 words in on the novel. I don’t think that the scene I’m writing right now will be in the next draft of the novel, but it feels necessary to write it for this draft so I can figure out some points about the story, so I’m keeping it in. I’ll bring out my pruning shears in the second draft once I can see the whole shape of the story.

Word Log – January 5th/January 6th

by Arun on January 6, 2014

478 words on the novel yesterday and 263 today for a grand total of: 31,780 overall.

No words on the short story projects in the last couple of days, but being back at work means I’ll have to fit in some writing time at lunch, so I will work in short story writing during work and novel writing in the evenings.

Word Log – 4th January 2014

by Arun on January 4, 2014

Bit of a productive day today: 374 on a short story project (The Afterlife of Objects) and 354 on the novel project.

Progress on the second half of the novel has been glacial compared to the first half, which is partially due to me not knowing the important parts of the middle in advance. So I’m basically discovery writing my way towards the end that I’ve planned and plotted.

I’ve found that I write more when I’m working simultaneously on a short story and the novel, but its frustratingly difficult to change gears from novel writing to short story writing. It feels like my brain is mired in long-form storytelling from committing to the novel project, which means that when I return to the short story I struggle with the different structures and constraints presented by that form.

It’s all good though, the difficulty means that I’m at the very least using and expanding my creative muscles.

Word Log – January 2nd/January 3rd 2014

by Arun on January 4, 2014

Missed logging my wordcount for the last two days, so here’s a catch up:

January 2nd: 0 words written, despite best intentions. I was at my laptop, going over my ms in Scrivener, but no words got written.  I did some minor plotting/editing but fell short of making my wordcount.

January 3rd: 667 words on the novel. Caught up on the novel today, and met my daily requirement of 300 words. I do have a couple of short stories in WIP right now, and I’ll need to start on them if I want to have one ready to send out by the end of the month.

It still feels weird to write this daily log, but it is motivating me to make sure I don’t miss a day.

A Compilation of Thoughtful Speeches and Essays

by Arun on January 3, 2014

I’ve returned to these essays and speeches time and again for their resonance and ability to make me think differently about art and life. Posting them here so I can look them up and return to them later, and maybe you’ll find something of value in them as well:

1. David Foster WallaceThis is Water

2. Elizabeth GilbertYour Elusive Creative Genius

3. Neil Gaiman –  Make Good Art

4. Kelly LinkBeyond Competent and Accomplished – A Call to Action for Workshoppers

Word Log – 1st January 2014

by Arun on January 2, 2014

This is an informal version of the detailed spreadsheet I keep on my desktop, but summarizes where I’m at with different stories. Jo Walton, Jamie Rubin, and recently Tobias Buckell, have posted similar logs on their blogs. I’m curious to see if this positively reinforces/impacts being able to write every day without breaking the cycle, so I’ll try and post a log every day this year. Even for the days I don’t get any writing done:

The House of Stories (Novel):

Total Wordcount: 30,019

Today’s Wordcount: 290

Estimated Words till Total: 23,000

The Afterlife of Objects (Short Story):

Total Wordcount: 250

Today’s Wordcount: 0

To Neverland (Short Story):

Total Wordcount: 1352

Today’s Wordcount: 0

Other Stats:

Rejections: 1

Stories on Submission: 2