I have a review! – On File 770

Do you regularly Google yourselves? I still find it awkward to do that, so the only times I end up doing it is on the occasional end-of-the-night/early-morning when I can’t fall asleep but am too tired to do something else more fun. (This doesn’t happen often. There are always more Buzzfeed quizzes to do, which is always more fun than Googling myself.) And that’s how I found out that there was a little one-paragraph review of my Harry Potter essay on File 770 back in December.

This is cool, because File 770 is cool. This also feels more reasonable than the five or so comments that the article got on the original site, all at different points of the scale between splaining and trolling. Online abuse still manages to make me flinch, probably because I haven’t often “put myself out there” in the truest sense of the term, even though I have existed on the Internet for more than a decade. (I existed in networks and communities that were accountable, and in which online identities often led to real-life people.) In the public sense, I am not easily trolled, partly because I absolutely disappear from the site of trollage, refusing to engage. But in the private sense, I also end up wasting an unnecessary amount of time wondering about the kind of human beings who spend most of their life saying unpleasant things to people on the Internet, and what evolutionary turn has brought us to this.

Anyway, here’s a screenshot of the File 770 review, because I would like to keep a record:

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I hope I am not beginning to seem like the obnoxious celebrity who retweets every praise, which is apparently a stereotype, someone pointed out to me recently. This may be helped by the fact that I’m not, in fact, a celebrity. That essay was my only non-fiction publication last year, and this probably my only review. That’s totally okay to feel great about.

The Clarion West 2016 Write-a-thon and Me: Part 3 (Unfinished)

The Clarion West 2016 workshop is ending today as I write (in one of the westernmost time zones of the world, so there are a few hours), two days before it had ended last year, and there’s the end of the Write-a-thon.

I feel a little disappointed in myself.

The imposter syndrome is strong in me. I often write very little, and panic that maybe I’ve run out of imagination; and when I do write a lot, I convince myself that the quality of something written in such bulk can possibly not be very high.

did write a lot in these 1.5 months. I didn’t write 40k words, like I declared on my Write-a-thon page, but I never actually believed I’d write 40k words – that was just to aim as high as I could, so that I got somewhere in the middle. I think I wrote about 25–30k words, and some of them are never going to be published, but that’s not a bad word count. That’s definitely a higher word count than what I’d churned out at the actual workshop last year.

I wrote through days of depression and frequent panic attacks, through a barely trickling Internet connection, and an MS Office crash between Week 4 and Week 5.

Except that I keep thinking I could do better.

Anyway, now I should put up an update for the last two weeks, because sometimes listing out the things you’ve done reminds you that you’ve done enough:

Week 5 (July 16–22):

  • My essay on Indian fantasy fiction from Week 1 got published in Scroll.in! This should actually be a Week 4 update, but I didn’t notice the publication until later. The title of the essay isn’t mine (obviously!), and also obviously you don’t see 2,582 words there, since Scroll.in decided to publish only a section of the original essay. I will probably publish all of it somewhere else – or on this blog – after the Write-a-thon is done.
  • My (older) short story “The Sea Sings at Night” got reprinted in Digital Fiction Pub! Once again, should be a Week 4 update – both of these were published on the same day, in fact – but once again, I didn’t notice until later. This had a remarkably quick turnaround. I think I’d made the submission during the Write-a-thon period itself, although it’s 3.19 a.m. and I’m half-asleep and all these words are too generic and I can’t find the email confirmation for submission now.
  • Received EXTREMELY POSITIVE response from the editor of TBA2 publication about the 842-word first part of Essay 3 (this being an essay on Harry Potter), which I had submitted in Week 4.
  • Proceeded to write complete first draft of the Harry Potter essay, currently at around 4,000 words.
  • Received one more approval from TBA2 publication about said first draft, which I didn’t read until this week, because my Internet connection started being problematic.

Week 6 (July 23–29):

[Ugh, it’s very late, so I’ll finish this post tomorrow. Or something. Just want to publish it already, this being the last day of the Write-a-thon, and all.]

 

The Clarion West 2016 Write-a-thon and Me: Part 2

I always tell myself that I should be writing, instead of writing about writing, i.e. posts like this. I intended to do a week-by-week update of my Clarion West Write-a-thon, as many others are doing, but we’re already in Week 4 and obviously I haven’t. I also haven’t quite kept to my originally declared writing goals, but I’m happy with myself, since I did write a lot these past three weeks, probably more than I’ve written in a whole year since Clarion West, MFA submissions included. I’ve thought more actively about what I want my writing to accomplish, the perspectives I want to embrace or abandon, and did a little bit of necessary cathartic writing that was blocking my creativity otherwise. I made some writing-related contacts, and I always feel triumphant when I manage to reach out to people, especially strangers, because it never stops being difficult.

I realize that I don’t look like someone who has difficulty initiating conversation with strangers, especially when you judge by my years of living away from home, but I’m actually always winging it. Nearly 95% of the people I know were introduced to me by someone else I knew, or circumstances, e.g. I happened to be in the same office or classroom as them. At almost 29, I feel as terrified of saying “Hi, I am…” as I did when I was 15, if I don’t have the convenient wall of “XYZ asked me to go talk to you” to hide behind. I have zero small-talk skills, so I often lose touch with people when I don’t have anything immediately to do with them. High-functioning anxiety is usually invisible, or gets blatantly called lying, which is the line I’ve got all my life from everyone who doesn’t actually know me closely enough see how I live from day to day.

So for me, every act of initiating contact is an achievement, and I achieved some of those in the last three weeks too, which I hadn’t in nearly a year now, more so because the past year had also been an all-time emotional low. So here’s a list of things that I did for the Write-a-thon till now:

Week 1 (June 19–25):

  • Wrote an essay in defence of fantasy fiction written in India, originally of 2582 words, for a specific publication (TBA) but without a specific pitch or word limit, because said publication doesn’t have them
  • Sent essay to publication
  • Did my final revision on the third story from Other People
  • Sent story to my editor, R. Sivapriya, at Juggernaut Books

Week 2 (June 26–July 1):

  • Wrote a flash/short story
  • Got story beta-read, and edited it
  • Submitted the final version of story for publication
  • Read and critiqued a story by a friend
  • Wrote a grant (well, con membership) application, which has now been achieved! Hat-tip to Con or Bust for their incredible generosity to me. If nothing goes wrong (give an anxious person a break, right?), I may be encountered at the World Fantasy Con in October.

Week 3 (July 2–8):

  • Participated in a Write-a-thon sprint, during which I wrote the beginning of a second essay, intended for a specific publication
  • Completed the first draft of this essay, currently at 1634 words
  • Wrote a semi-personal blog post about an emotional crisis I have been suffering for a while now, 2187 words. (I’m not sure if I should be counting this under Write-a-thon writing, since I am not even seeking to publish it anywhere else, but I had started thinking up a story that involved a traumatizing relationship, and I realized that I could not write that story until I wrote out my own.)
  • Reconnected with an ex-employer who sometimes publishes SFF (there are no dedicated SFF publishers in India), and who may have some freelance writing work for me
  • Wrote a query to a publication (TBA2) asking if they’ll be interested in a third essay I’m hoping to write.


Week 4 (July 9–15):

  • Received response and edited version from editor of TBA publication about the essay from Week 1
  • Did minor rewriting to essay from Week 1 and sent it back

And now we’re halfway through Week 4, and TBA2 publication has written back saying they may be interested in the idea (but not sure, since they’ve never seen my writing before), so I will get on with trying to write that essay. Thinking of it, it hasn’t been such an unproductive Write-a-thon, overall.

 

OTHER PEOPLE has started publishing from Juggernaut Books!

 

Earlier this year (on 29 February, specifically, because what other more appropriate date for a book about weirdoes?), I signed a contract with Juggernaut Books for my short story collection Other People. Last week, along with the rest of the first list of Juggernaut Books, the first two stories came out in India.

Other People is a collection I’ve been writing for a long time. I started writing “Other People”, the first story, for my creative writing class at Jadavpur University in 2009. It was supposed to be just one story, but it expanded into a whole world and a cast of characters I loved, and I was so lost in exploring them that I never finished writing the story for the deadline that was breathing down my neck. I wrote another story in that world – a simpler but anachronistic story – for a later submission, but then I kept the project aside for a later time when I could develop it more fully.

Life happened. MA happened. Working at Penguin India happened, followed by Scotland, London, many other thoughts, places, people.

In late 2014 I picked up that world again, dusted it off a little, and started writing more stories in it. I loved it still. Older by five years and made a little wiser by life, unleashed into the world from my cloistered existence at home, I felt like I understood this world better, could see the characters clearly, why they were unlike the people who surrounded them, where they were coming from. In 2009 I was only looking at these people from the outside, observing like a visitor; in 2014 I was finally in the midst of them. Inside their heads – where I wanted to be.

I wrote two stories at home in Calcutta – the first two stories that you can read now. I wrote another at Clarion West, Seattle in the summer of 2015, and two more at Rutgers University–Camden, where I enrolled for an MFA now. I am writing another story as I write this post. Other People is a work in progress. The stories will keep appearing from Juggernaut as I write them, and after a while we will have a whole book.

The reason why Juggernaut Books can publish Other People as a serial is that their primary platform is an app. The Android app is out in India already, and the iOS app is soon to follow. (My mother, who has an ancient Windows phone from Nokia, feels a little excluded from the party.) They are new, and they have a fantastic team – probably the best team in India I could publish with right now. Chiki Sarkar, who is the publisher, was my employer back at Penguin India; and R. Sivapriya, who is now my editor, was a senior colleague I was always too much in awe of. (She used to curate the literary classics and translations list back at Penguin India. How many languages does Sivapriya read in? We junior copy editors back at the office could never stop speculating.) They enjoy literary fantasy, which not many publishers in India do yet. The monsters and other outcasts of Other People feel like they’re in safe hands with them.

Publishing Speculative Fiction (in India): Frequently Asked Questions

I compiled a list of FAQs for those who want to publish their works of fiction. This is mostly for the benefit of clueless first-timers. You are welcome to circulate the list as long as you don’t change or modify it.

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1. What is publishing?

Legitimately, a piece of writing is considered ‘published’ if it has gone through an editorial process of selection – i.e. if someone other than you has independently decided that the writing is worth publishing. This means even a small magazine with only one editor (i.e. Helter Skelter) is a legitimate publisher, as long as it actually selects its publications (i.e. does not publish everything it receives). If you receive payment for such a publication, it is a professional publication. If you do not receive payment, it is an amateur publication. (Sometimes there is an interim stage called semi-professional publication, depending on how much money is paid.) But all of these are legitimate publications. And, if you want, you can put them in your writing CV.

Publishing houses, big or small, are professional publishing companies. (There are no amateur or semi-professional publishing companies.) This means, if you give a publishing house a manuscript which it decides to publish, it will draw out a contract that pays you an advance and enlists a further payment of royalties for your book. The publishing house will give your book an ISBN number and enlist it as its product. The amount of advance or royalty you get may vary according to the size of the publishing house and the potential of profit it sees in your book, but this pattern will not change.

The publishing house will not take your money. If this does not happen, it is not a legitimate publication.

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2. What is vanity publishing?

‘Vanity publishing’ is usually a derogatory term, which falls in the grey area between ‘publishing’ and ‘self-publishing’. It means you publish your book from a publisher that looks like (or masquerades as) a legitimate publisher, but will publish anything you want for your money. A vanity publisher will usually not pay you an advance (rather, you may have to pay it for its services) and may or may not pay you royalties later.

Vanity publishing is a somewhat shady business. It’s hard to find examples of vanity publishers, because most of them don’t use the term. But if you come across a publishing house that looks like a legitimate publisher but asks for money to publish your book, you have found a vanity publisher. Beware of them, unless you know this is exactly what you want. (You probably don’t.) Rather, choose the self-publishing route.

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3. What is self-publishing?

There are no self-publishing houses, only self-publishing platforms and services. Let me explain. Self-publishing is the act of putting up your writing to a wider audience without the intervention of an editor or selector, so the ‘self-publisher’ is the author him/herself. This is not a legitimate form of publishing, but many authors choose this for various reasons – they have not found acceptance at legitimate publishers but nevertheless want to share their works; their writing is groundbreaking or experimental; they’re building an easily accessible and goodlooking resume of work to show to a publisher before getting a contract, and so on.

The most basic kind of self-publishing platform is a blog. You can put up your writing neatly typed in a font you like, against a background you like, and anyone who finds it can access it; but it is not considered a legitimate (either amateur or professional) publication. The same will be true for other, more complex forms of self-publication.

Self-publishing services like Lulu or CinnamonTeal help you do the same in a more organised manner, for which they charge you money. For your money, you can have a goodlooking cover, a copy-edited manuscript, a printed and bound book and even some distribution. If you want, you can put a price on the book and sell it. On Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing, you will be able to put your book on the Kindle Store and sell it. For many self-published authors, this is the perfect system.

But remember, through this system your book will still be a self-published book. What are you missing out by this? For example, your book will likely not have an ISBN number and will not be archived in national libraries. (Did you know that national libraries archive every single book published in a country? The national library of India is in Kolkata.) It will not be cited in an academic paper or article as a ‘real’ book. Besides, many newspapers and professional reviewers only review professionally published books, many distribution networks only carry them as well… and they will give your self-published book a miss. But if you are a self-aware self-published author, these may not be factors you care for. Then, self-publishing is ideal for you.

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4. What really are the problems with self-publishing?

You have to understand, it is not the printing or even the book cover that delivers your favourite book to you – it is marketing and distribution. Once a book is published by a publishing house, it’s the marketing department that takes over, sending the book to newspapers and magazines to be reviewed, arranging for book launches and literary festival appearances and other ways the book becomes visible. Distribution networks send the books to both online retailers and the bookstores in your city or neighbourhood. Without them, even the best books would be simply non-existent to you.

When you self-publish your book, even if it’s a fantastic book, the whole responsibility of marketing and distribution falls upon you. In my opinion (and I’m a humanities student with no knowledge at all of marketing or distribution), writing or publishing a book is far easier than making it visible to a potential reader or convincing them to actually buy it. In today’s world, we are swamped with too many books and too little time or too few people to read them. Why will someone buy your book instead of the latest Dan Brown bestseller? How will you convince a stranger that your book is actually better? I don’t know the answer, and nor does Charles Stross, and this is why neither of us self-publish.

(But some other people do, and get very rich in the process, and manage to get their books published from legitimate publishers as well. If you think you can become one of them, let the force… etc.)

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5. But why won’t a publisher buy the story I put on my blog?

Publishing is a smaller business than you think, and it is very hard to make profit even for large publishing houses. (I worked at one, so I know.) While putting up a story on your blog does not mean a legitimate publication credit, it means a potential loss of profit for any publishing house that prints it in a book that has to be bought for money.

This is not a hard-and-fast rule. Many self-publishing bestsellers – including The Immortals of Meluha by Amish and E.L. James’ Fifty Shades trilogy – were later bought and published as books by professional publishers. How does that work? It does because there is still a large amount of saleablity potential left in the book, despite many people having already read it. If your already available story does not have that much potential, unfortunately a professional publisher will consider it a loss to publish it.

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6. But why won’t a publisher publish my very good novel?

The hard truth is – publishing is a business, and often decisions about which book to publish are made on the basis of the potential of profit rather than the quality of the book. It’s especially hard for writers of speculative fiction to get a good deal out of a publisher, because speculative fiction isn’t a popular or profitable genre in India.

What to do in this situation? Of course, the long-term solution is to buy, read and visibly talk about other writers who are publishing in the genre. In that way, not only are you becoming aware of the current scenario, you are also helping to promote the genre, which will reflect back on your book when you publish it.

Then there is, of course, self-publishing, with all its rewards and its pitfalls.

But if you want to make your book a more attractive proposition for professional publishers, here’s what you can do – make yourself visible and relevant, especially on the Internet. Write short stories and sent them to magazines, both online and print. Write reviews, even on your blog. Write opinion pieces. Write a column. And more than anything, talk to potential readers and fellow fans. Speculative fiction is a wonderfully open community, and you’ll find a lot of people willing to talk if you are. Seek them out. Build a name and an identity. The book doesn’t come first. More often than not, the book is only a culmination of all these things.

Besides, try and get an agent.

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7. What is an agent and how can it help my book?

An agent or an agency is one of the aspects it is worth spending money on. Usually, an agent is a person (and an agency the office this person works at) who evaluates your manuscript and helps you find the appropriate publisher and contract for it. Since most writers don’t know the inner workings of the publishing industry, or the name of every publisher out there, or the standards of advance or royalty, it happens often that you end up with a contract not right for you. Or no contract at all. An agent will help you avoid these things.

Agents were not a part of the Indian publishing industry even a few years ago, but they are becoming increasingly common. You can even have a foreign agent who works with rights in India. Give this aspect a look.

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8. Where can I publish my short stories?

I halted at this question the last time. There are many literary magazines in India, but few of them are amenable to speculative fiction. I will make a list of those I know:

Hindustan Times Mint has published Kuzhali Manickavel in the past and is probably open to publishing more speculative fiction.

Helter Skelter magazine publishes an annual anthology of new writing, which often includes speculative fiction. Keep an eye on the magazine for the call for submissions.

– Kindle magazine (not related to Amazon) has published my own speculative fiction and is probably willing to publish others’.

– Jaggery, which is run by Sri Lankan American author Mary Anne Mohanraj, who is also one of the founder-editors of the speculative fiction magazine Strange Horizons. 

Muse India is currently looking for science fiction and related articles, under the editorial of Sami Ahmad Khan, with a deadline of 1 April 2015.

Breaking the Bow: Speculative Fiction Inspired by the Ramayana, edited by Vandana Singh and Anil Menon, was published in 2012 by Zubaan, a publishing house that often publishes speculative fiction. Keep an eye out for such occasional calls for submissions.

– On the other hand, there are many international magazines which publish speculative fiction, and it’s a good idea to publish in the online magazines, so that you can also share your stories with friends and readers in India. A useful and free guide to the multitudes of such magazines can be found at The (Submission) Grinder.