What I read

Monthly Review: April 2023

A month of endings and beginnings.

What I Read:

Proem Vol. 2, 2020. Was impressed by my fellow writers’ range of wordplay and evocative imagery – unusual and effective, and all achieved in very few words. This beautifully-designed book was a pleasure to receive.

Galahad at Blandings (1965). Wodehouse. A fun little read, my first Blandings book if I believe. The plotting and pacing are far inferior to Wodehouse’s masterpiece Joy in the Morning. Reading this book brought to a head a train of thought I’ve been pursuing awhile: my writing needs more humour and also some clever plotting. For the last three years, I’ve been trying to have something like a plot in my stories, but I’ve been content with an arc: something changes from beginning to end. The kind of clever plotting, full of twists and turns unexpected but plausible in hindsight, with which Wodehouse litters his novels, are what I shall aspire to as I try (sometime this year) to write a few comic pieces. Plot and humour are useful hooks on which to hang the weightier things that interest me: social commentary, character studies, and philosophical musings.

Truth vs. Truthiness: Distinguishing Fact from Fiction by Learning to Think Like a Data Scientist (2016). Howard Wainer. A useful book on: the importance of counterfactual thinking, especially in experiments and field experiments (what if the experimental and control groups, or placebo and active compound groups, had been switched? Would the results have been the same), handling missing data (would the scores of the students who missed the exam have been similar to the scores of those who took the exam?), methods of data representation both graphical and tabular; and, above all, the importance of conceptualising what a study would look like that could actually substantiate some of the claims we read about in newspapers. (E.g. what kind of study design could substantiate the claim “All-cause mortality of one-pack-a-day smokers was twice as high as those of people who had never smoked, but this mortality penalty disappeared two years after the smokers quit.”) A clear, and conceptually useful, if somewhat meandering and rather badly-written book.

The Dalhousie Review Summer 2022. Some interesting pieces here, but only one writer whose work I felt like reading more of – Zac O’Yeah, whose piece here was funny, and switched between multiple perspectives smoothly and unostentatiously. Looked for his books on LibGen, where I source all my reading these days; didn’t find them. Most interesting to me was that one of the writers has an MFA, and I could clearly make out, from the first page, which writer this was. The piece by the writer who has an MFA was much more polished linguistically, better-paced, had proper and separate scenes, was set in Britain (thus suggesting the more affluent kind of person likely to travel abroad for an MFA), and had the self-conscious air of capturing a moment of life, subtly but unmistakably framed by a story arc (Will they/won’t they get back together, re: a pair of old friends who’s had sex once). One of the other stories has a larger-than-life character that’s inspired me to do character studies. I read every piece except my “Night” – will have to go over it and do yet more edits, for the collection, soon enough.

What I Wrote:

Went through “The Problem” (10k) and sent it out for critiques. It reads okay, not dull or depressing as I had feared, though it needs a stronger emotional throughline. On later reflection I realised it also needs more plot, a proper arc – it’s actually not very good at all. Created a segment-wise progression of the major plot points; will rewrite it in the next few weeks.

Revised “Shoes” a couple more times, and shortened it a bit – it’s 11.2k now, and reads very well; sent it out for crits.

Planned, and began writing, a number of flash pieces: target word count 500, though several of them have become 1ks or longer. Rationale: (a) There are several excellent markets for very short fiction that I want to break into; (b) I need to improve my ability to write short and pithy and dense: skills I will turn to finishing my short story collection. These short pieces, and then the stories in the collection, will be my focus for all of May at least.

Drafted: “The Streetlamp Under the Teaktree” (500) and got a couple of short, mostly favourable critiques; “Funeral” (500) and collected some pointers for a rewrite; “The Price” in two versions – 500 & 1k – and have decided to rewrite this as a 2k for the collection; began drafting “The Bridegrooms” but realised the story needed another well-developed character, and humour and more dialogue, so will redo the opening and then continue drafting; “Thaw” 1k and got two critiques; “All Creatures Great and Small” (1k); and “Peace” (1,500); also “Absent” (100).

What I Published:

The 1k version of “Shoes” was accepted by NiftyLit. It’s due out in early 2024. I chose the non-NFT payment option. Excited to see what the artist comes up with for an accompanying illustration.

“Time” (350 words) was accepted by Café Lit and published on 14th April 2023. The site looks atrocious so I won’t link to it here. I’m resubmitting this piece to other magazines.

Scribes Microfiction accepted my 100-word stories “Mid-Afternoon,” “Night,” and “Mosquito.” “Change” is out in Issue #28. And last month I omitted to link to “Rage” in Issue #27.

How I Fared:

I’ve quit my university teaching job. Never wanted to teach – wanted to work for conservation and get people to change how they behave towards nature – only reason I got into psychology. I feel excited and energetic. I plan to spend the next couple of months (a) finishing my short story collection, (b) meeting/ringing old friends (long deferred) and visiting new places, and (c) volunteering at an environmental organisation, learning some new skills. Then I’ll resume applying for jobs in conservation psychology.

An eventful month – several outings. A friend’s birthday lunch at Yuki, a Pan-Asian restaurant with good food (but, alas, no stout); a planned hiking trip to Ramnagar that became a jaunt in Cubbon Park (hadn’t visited the place in years, and I remembered that was the Bangalore I fell in love with back in 2005); and a swimming party at the pool recently reopened at out flat complex, and which I’ve been thoroughly enjoying by myself. Further outings and meetups planned for May.

Watched: Tar (2022), The Whale (2022),and All That Breathes (2022). Thoroughly enjoyed all three. Cate Blanchett is sublime, and I enjoyed the film’s ambiguity – did she or didn’t she? I admire her character’s courage in attacking ‘critiques’ of art based primarily on the creator’s or the critic’s identity. Brendan Fraser was moving, though the action was very stagey, the characters a little too volatile, the turns in their mood too dramatic – that might’ve worked for the play this was based on, but this staginess took away from the film. All That Breathes has marvellous cinematography – the long, slow, painstaking studies of all kinds of urban wildlife demand from you the same kind of patience and minute appreciation as nature itself. The pace of the whole film is measured, and the nuanced dynamics between the brothers is captured beautifully. The film is not even a little didactic – something for me to learn from as I continue writing and editing my recent spate of environmental fiction. (I’ve been wanting to write this kind of piece for years, and I did produce a couple of draft pieces a year or two ago, and I wrote a bunch of pieces about poor orphaned wild animals in primary school – but now it’s time to get serious, time to get good at this kind of writing.)


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By Amita Basu

I'm a writer based in Bangalore, India.

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