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.

 

The Clarion West 2016 Write-a-thon and Me: Part 1

Last summer, I went to a science-fiction-and-fantasy writing workshop in Seattle called Clarion West. I was the first among my friends in India to apply for this workshop, although I had heard of a couple of Indian writers here and there (famous people, mostly already NRIs, no one I knew personally yet) who had attended it before. I don’t come from the sort of family background that allows me the luxury of attending creative writing workshops abroad, and neither do most of my friends, so that just wasn’t the level I would naturally think at, although I had known vaguely about Clarion West for years. You cannot avoid it, especially if you’re a reader of contemporary international SFF, because so many of the writers are Clarion West graduates (or graduates of the other Clarion workshop in San Diego), and they’re almost always proud enough to mention it in their author bios.

Honestly, I only applied in December 2014 because I already had a writing sample going out for MFA applications, so what was one more application (or potential rejection)? But I also applied because of the generous language on scholarships on the Clarion West website – the fact that they tried their best to fund anyone who couldn’t attend the workshop without funding. The fact that you didn’t need recommendations to apply, only your writing sample, so it didn’t matter who you knew. It didn’t say going there was easy, and I’ve met writers – strong, talented, dedicated writers – who only got into Clarion West on their second or third attempts, but it felt like this was a place that was fair, encouraging, and filled with genuine goodwill towards nurturing new writers.

If you’re a certain kind of naïve idealist (i.e. like me), a lot of places feel like that from a couple of continents’ distance, and then you turn up there and realize that the “real world” is equally squalid and oppressive everywhere – just one structure of discrimination displaced by another – and that marketing language on websites can be very far from the ground reality. One year down the line, I have no such complaints about Clarion West.

I also learned, in a way that you can probably only learn if you go there and see the workings of it firsthand, that goodwill is really the currency that runs this large and prestigious workshop, hard as that is to believe. Clarion West isn’t attached to any university or other organization with a larger funding system. All the generous scholarships are donations, as are often the bedding, fans, edible treats, toys that are given to the workshop attendees every year. Many of the (incredibly talented and famous) teachers and guest lecturers are alumni, who are happy to pass on their knowledge to new students at I imagine a very small fee. Alumni and friends of the workshop who live in and around Seattle open their houses for weekend parties (I attended parties at the houses of Greg Bear and Nicola Griffith), and drop by at the workshop house with free books and other goodies, or often just to carry stuff, offer rides, clean the common spaces and so on. Alumni who live elsewhere send in little things through Amazon or regular courier. A lot of people pitch in whatever they can, and the result is this abundant and nourishing experience that repeats itself every year. No one is an employee. No one earns anything by offering their time, money, resources or expertise to Clarion West, except maybe the good you do in the world multiplies itself, and that is a reward on its own.

In honour of that spirit and that community, which had helped me and made me one of their own – an amateur writer from a different country, a queer female person of colour with very little inherited privilege in the world – this year I’m doing the Clarion West Write-a-thon.

This is a process in which alumni (but also friends of the workshop) set themselves a number of writing goals for the duration of the current year’s workshop, and appeal to be sponsored for their efforts. The money goes to Clarion West, so it doesn’t make a difference which writer you sponsor. It’s not a competition for honour – the participants aren’t set in a hierarchy according to how much money they bring in; in fact, those individual stats are never released. So there are the really big-shot alumni – writers of bestselling books, writers who have taught at Clarion West in turn – setting themselves up for the Write-a-thon, alongside my class who are the most recent alumni, alongside alumni who’ve not even published anything yet. Some writers offer gifts in return to a certain amount in donation, but there’s no minimum amount anyone can donate, because the idea of crowdfunding is that every single dollar (or rupee, or any other currency) helps.

The way this helps the participating writers is that it sets us goals and deadlines, and a lot of us work better with goals and deadlines, given that “real life” is so endlessly distracting. Sometimes we write with more joy and focus when there are others writing along with us, and there are Write-a-thon events happening at Seattle, New York and California where participating writers can meet and share notes. I am very far from all that, spending my summer at home in Calcutta (there’s no reason why there can’t be a Calcutta event, I suppose, except that there aren’t that many of us here, and we didn’t call to organize an event), but the sense of doing something together is largely online and pervasive, the way it used to be for writers who participated in NaNoWriMo. Except that this is even more flexible than NaNoWriMo (which I always felt too anxious to participate in, because a novel in a month, with constant word-count races, just seemed beyond the capacity of a slow writer like me), because each writer chooses their own goals.

The Clarion West Writing Workshop this year is taking place in Seattle between June 19 and July 29. In the last ten days, I have written:

  • one essay on a speculative-fiction-related topic,
  • one experimental fantasy short story, slightly longer than a flash,

both of which are in the publication queue at different venues, so I may be able to share them soon. I have also sent the third story from Other People to my editor at Juggernaut Books, which is likely to be available on the app in August. You can look at my other writing goals, on which I am working, at my Write-a-thon page.

So, I would love it if you go take a look – at my page, but also of the other writers who are participating – and give Clarion West any amount of money you wish for having enabled the writing career(s) of any (or more) of us. These are genuine, earnest, mad talented people, and the fact that they continue to organize this workshop every year – generous scholarships and toys and parties and all – restores my faith that the collective goodwill of individuals can move things in the world. I’m glad to be participating in this year’s Write-a-thon, even though until the last day of sign-ups I wasn’t sure if I was ready for it writing-wise. But at Clarion West you don’t feel judged or discouraged, and my ex-classmates have continued to hold up that tradition, and that kinda thing alone (if nothing else) is worth putting oneself up on the stage for. And maybe, after all, I will end up writing some fun things that some people will enjoy reading. One can always hope.

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.

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The jitters have started. Finally began packing last night. In another four days, I board a train to Dilli (which used to be the Other City of this blog, except that it’s my other city no longer); in a couple of days from there, I take two flights to Seattle for the Clarion West Writing Workshop. I fly in the direction opposite to the earth’s motion and across the international date line, so a very long flight schedule will still find me in Seattle on the same day. All these things are new.

I have to write six new stories in six weeks. I have been given a very prestigious and very humbling scholarship. I will meet a lot of interesting people, a number of smart and seriously talented people, some of them likely to be so famous that even people back home (where the awareness of contemporary international SFF is surprisingly low) would have heard of them. For a month, I haven’t come up with a single plot that holds beyond a few pages.

Raiding my old steel almirah to start packing has made me realise that I own more clothes than I know what to do with, more clothes than I even know.  I am not really a wardrobe girl, which is sometimes worse. I don’t look through my clothes often enough. So I pick up a nice bit of clothing somewhere and proceed to stuff it into my almirah, and soon I forget all about it. I wear the same five or six staples over and over again, and the nice new thing lies in there, untouched for years.

My long holiday at home is coming to an end. I don’t know if I appreciated it well enough — I recall long periods of being bored out of my mind and feeling stifled for the lack of company in the Home City, abandoned nest of all its children. I wrote more than I had done in years, and read a great deal too. I travelled and went to watch films with Ma, made so many trips into the city with her. I had a car and a driver at my disposal most of the time. I visited Bangalore, Jaipur, Lucknow, Benaras, Bombay, Ajanta-Ellorah-Aurangabad and London. I chilled around in air-conditioned bliss while the rest of the country blistered and sweated its way through what was one of the worst summers in years. Back now again to a life of living out of suitcases, bad cooking (my own), always keeping a budget, and so, so much of the world to see.