Brad R. Torgersen wrote:1. How much writing did you put in, either in hours spent or words accumulated, before you won Writers of the Future?Jay Lake wrote:I worked steadily from 1990 through the time I'd won in 2002, except for a couple of years off on the arrival of my daughter. I've since estimated that's about a million words of first draft over that time. I've spoken elsewhere of psychotic persistence being the key to success in this business, that's an example of what I'm discussing. FWIW, I've probably written at least two million words of first draft since winning the contest, though I'll have to sit down and validate that math at some point. (I do keep pretty good records.)
2. Do you feel like winning Writers of the Future boosted your visibility with editors elsewhere, after your story came out in the WOTF anthology?Jay Lake wrote:Absolutely. Though I'm a bit of a special case. My story in the WOTF XIX Anthology, "Into the Gardens of Sweet Night" landed on the 2004 Hugo ballot for Best Novelette, which drew it, and me, additional attention. It was also a keystone to my being nominate for, and winning, the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer that same year. All three of those events combined to raise my profile significantly.
3. Do you feel like you learned anything unique or valuable at the WOTF workshop when you went?Jay Lake wrote:All kinds of things. It was a fabulous and seminal experience for me as a writer. There was a lot of focus on technique, on research, on the nuts-and-bolts of the industry – to much to list out in a simple answer.
4. What do you think is the biggest key to becoming a successful, professional writer after winning Writers of the Future?Jay Lake wrote:Psychotic persistence. Which is to say, keep writing, keep sending, never quit. If you don't write and send, you can't possibly have a career as a successful, professional writer. Everything else flows from that. How one writes is an entirely different and utterly elastic discussion, of course.
5. What do you think is hardest about transitioning from writing short work, like that which appears in WOTF, to long work, such as your novel "Green?"Jay Lake wrote:I sometimes compare cabinet making and framing carpentry. Both disciplines work with the same raw materials, and use the same or very similar tools. Yet each demands different levels of focus and practice of craft, each delivering different results. Wood, and patience, are the common elements.
So it is transitioning from short fiction to novels, at least for me. I know writers who've only every done one but not the other. There are multiple worthwhile paths. But since WotF is all about short fiction, that's the path presumably of most interest to us.
The hardest part of the transition, at least for me, was growing my 'span of control' – that is, the degree to which I could hold an entire narrative in my head – from a few thousand words to novel length. That took time, practice, and, yes, persistence.
6. Do you have a "five year plan" or anything mapped out for the future?Jay Lake wrote:Not really. I work two to three years out at any given point, but that has more to do with publishing cycles and time lags than with any particular gift for forward planning. It is also true that queue books in my head to be written, so in that sense I suppose I have a plan as well, but not in the sense I believe you intended the question.
In effect, I write what I want to write, somewhat subject to the constraints of what can be reasonably marketed.
7. What do you think are the five biggest mistakes beginning writers make?Jay Lake wrote:Bearing in mind that I have made all of these mistakes, some of them many times over, and also bearing in mind that there are notable or even famous exceptions to every one of these mistakes:
1) Starting stories but not finishing them. When you're first setting out, beginnings seem easy, endings seem hard. (In time, this perception reverses, by the way.)
2) Taking on too many projects at once. It's fun to chase the shiny, but as above, if you keep starting things without finishing them, you wind up having voice and content bleeding from one project to another. Nothing acquires focus or that gleaming edge which sells fiction.
3) Relying on inspiration. We have a strong cultural myth about muses and inspiration in the arts, but the reality of any art – fiction, music, painting, what have you – is that constant practice and continued development are key. Without inspiration, discipline will still produce finished work. Without discipline, inspiration is just a form of self-entertainment.
4) Taking rejection personally. If you cringe and crumbled at every rejection, sending work out will always be a struggle. Find a way to manage rejection in an emotionally neutral fashion. Submit a lot; after a while, they become routine. Or train yourself to recognize rejections as a form of editorial response.
5) Not listening to critique and feedback. Most of us go through the "I'm an unsung genius" phase of aspiring to publication. It's easy to view one's words as sacred. Up to a point, that is healthy. After all, it requires a staggering degree of ego to think anybody else wants to read what you have to say, let alone pay for the privilege. (And on a side note, don't confuse lack of self-confidence, a very common writer ailment, with lack of ego.) But we can never judge our own work as well as others do. For an aspiring or early career writer, accepting that input from others is criticsl.
8. What five pieces of advice would you give to new entrants to the Contest, or those unable to get much more than an Honorable Mention after successive tries?Jay Lake wrote:1) Be persistent. (Sensing a theme here, yet?) Submit every quarter until you're disqualified by reason of success elsewhere, or disqualified by reason of winning.
2) Read the anthologies. Or re-read them. See if you can sort out what characterizes a successful story in the contest. Don't try to copy them, just internalize what you find there.
3) Write new stuff. Experiment with subgenre, style, theme, length, POV. If your vampire unicorn grunge fantasy didn't make the cut, try space opera. Or vice versa.
4) Hang out with other writers trying to hit the same mark. Peer feedback and support will make you feel a lot better. If you can't do it in meatspace, do it online. Here, for example.
5) Hang out with other writers who have won WotF. Or any established pros, really. Being able to do that was huge for me, back in the day.
9. As a cancer survivor, do you feel like your having endured the 9 hells of treatment and recovery have influenced your work written during and after surgery and/or treatment?Jay Lake wrote:Oh, absolutely. And I'll be the rest of my life figuring out exactly how. For example, it didn't occur to me until after I'd finished writing PINION that I'd written my colon cancer directly into the book, in the form of a Solomnic seal lodged in the gut of the brass man Boaz that shrieks to him in a babbling, semi-divine rage. Likewise, I find a greater concern with mortality and parent-child relationships popping up many places in my work. I will never escape cancer's influence, even if I live to be a healthy 120, so I may as well bend it to my will as a driver of fiction.
10. If there is any one thing or particular couple of things you'd like to say to other writers who might be battling illness or disability, what would it be, or what would those things be?Jay Lake wrote:Words are your mark upon the world. Bend your condition to your will, and keep going. Psychotic persistence doesn't stop when the medications kick in, and it survives even the deepest pain.
Best wishes to Jay Lake, who used some plane-ride time to answer the 10 Questions. Jay is arguably one of the Contest's most visible after-win success stories of the last ten years. Thoughtful and outspoken, may he beat the cancer!
Thank you, Jay!