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Lakeshore - [process] The Early Career Writer Cycle
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Jay Lake
Date: 2007-08-22 12:06
Subject: [process] The Early Career Writer Cycle
Security: Public
Tags:links, personal, process, writing
This is a direct followup to paul_m_jessup's post about the newbie writer cycle.

Breaking in is almost as confusing as being an aspiring writer, except with more internal validation. You sell a story, then two more, maybe even to a top-level market you've dreamed of since you were a kid hiding in the library bookstacks during the dodgeball games. Suddenly your writer friends start looking at you funny, while your non-writer friends (and likely family) have no idea what the big deal is.

It feels different when editors write you back personal notes, or recognize you(r name) at conventions. Like, hey, you slipped in while somebody else opened the door to the Cool Kids Club. You've ached for this for years, promising the Universe if you sold just one story, you'd shut up and quit whining and die with a happy smile on your face. As soon as that first check was cashed, you forgot the promise of course — a second story to that market, a bigger market, what about one of those cool anthologies next to some Big Name Authors?

Instead of wondering if you're good enough for this market, you start to wonder if that market is good enough for you. You begin to understand more about publishing as a business, and why a bunch of seemingly random or unfair stuff makes sense, seen in the right light. The self-righteous conspiracy theories which drove your late-night bull sessions after critique suddenly seem callow in the context of your newfound professional status. Then you walk down the hall at a convention and realize that none of the 300 people you can see around you know or care who you are. The External Validation Fairy has become both your closest friend and your most mortal enemy.

Pretty soon you realize that pro-dom has layers. Layers and layers. The BNAs disappear into private suites and unannounced parties at conventions, and you wonder why you weren't invited. Your newbie friends wonder why you're hanging out with the accessible pros rather than being part of the same posse you've always run with. You wonder why people you see every week are being jealous idiots about your rare chance to talk to matociquala or jaylake. You realize matociquala and jaylake are wondering where the hell matt_ruff is.

Everybody looks up to the next layer and forgets about the last one. That's the weird, uncomfortable lesson of becoming a pro. It's not a big happy club of peers, it's just like the rest of humanity — cliques and groups and friendships and feuds and common interests and divergent interests and us and them. Some pros are very nice to you. Some pros talk through you like were made of air. Not much different from high school, really.

And that's the secret of being an early career writer. You realize it's just a big high school. Chess club geeks? They're all writing gaming tie-ins. Band geeks? Over there doing high fantasy. Jocks? Baen authors, mostly. On and on and on. The eerie thing isn't how different things are, it's how familiar things are.

Except things are different. Life is on permanent fast forward. Some of your friendships change. Fewer non-writers, more writers. Some of the writers drift away too, jealous of your success or annoyed at the lack of time you have to devote to them. A bunch of people rearrange their relationships around this point, for good or ill. You begin to have a glimmer of understanding of what you're doing, or think you do, and people who really do know what they're doing begin to focus on you and give you high-level advice, peer-to-peer, without the sugar coating or coup counting of workshoppery.

One day at a con you walk up to a lifelong writing idol to say something, and they smile as they see you coming and ask the person next them, "Do you know who this is?"

But still you go home every night and write, go to the post office every few days and mail out submissions, and hammer endlessly on the door of agents-and-editors in New York hoping for that big break.

Another time, I'll talk about the first time novelist.
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Jo Rhett
User: jorhett
Date: 2007-08-22 20:13 (UTC)
Subject: Thanks.
Just thanks.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-08-22 21:04 (UTC)
Subject: Re: Thanks.
You're welcome, sir.
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User: ex_benpayne119
Date: 2007-08-22 20:41 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I dunno if it's just me but I find this post very depressing.

Not dissing you... it's cool of you to take the time to write it... but it all sounds kind of sad...
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-08-22 20:43 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Actually, it's all kinds of fun. Or has been for me, at any rate. Just, intense and challenging too, in some non-obvious ways that I was trying to talk about.
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User: ullikummis
Date: 2007-08-22 20:49 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
The bitter lesson of life is that it never ceases to be like High School.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-08-22 20:55 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Like high school, except we're older, smarter, more in control of our hormones and better-funded.
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manmela
User: manmela
Date: 2007-08-22 21:02 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Interesting. Sounds like pretty much every element of the entertainment industry. The thing I always found amusing was the way that if you spoke to anyone, you were then considered their friend, when these relationships were as shallow as MySpace friends lists (Myself and my colleague were known for our skills at helping people from various elements of the entertainment industry network - plus everyone in the entertainment industry is a closet geek). What really freaked me out was when I spoke to people and during the conversation they would mention my name, when I had never introduced myself. I once had Sam Jones come running up to me at a party at San Diego Comic Con calling my name, and as he fought through the crowd I remember thinking to myself "The guy who played Flash Gordon is calling my name, it doesn't get any weirder than that!"

The thing I learned from my colleague is that if someone talks to you like you're air (or worse - a fanboy), you just keep on talking. Eventually you'll connect over something (usually something trivial) and then you'll be their best buddy. As for parties, no good at it personally but I have a friend who is a US radio personality who has no shame and can pretty much get us into any party. If ever there's a year you and I are both at San Diego Comic Con or some other event I normally go to, I'll get you into all the cool parties and meet some cool people.

You said in a previous post, it took you 10 years before you got a sale but I see from your biblography that you kinda hit 2002 at a pace and never looked back. Literally in the space of a year you seem to go from a few minor sales to work of yours appearing in several magazines every month. Rather than selling one story then 2 more, it looks like you sold a few and then the floodgates opened.

Was this a product of your growth as a writer? Was 2001 a year you put more effort into your writing? Did the first sales open doors for you? It looks like that was a major turning point in your career, and I'm interested to know what happened to help induce such a turnaround.
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jimvanpelt
User: jimvanpelt
Date: 2007-08-22 21:31 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Everyone's career, and how they got started, is unique, but Jay's strikes me as more unique than most (if you don't mind me modifying an unmodifiable word like "unique"). At least in terms of his run for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, he didn't start with a few publications and then slowly build. He sort of exploded. Julie Czerneda did the same thing when she was a Campbell eligible author. Everyone rises differently.

I think Jay can tell you how he did it, but his advice will be a little like the recipe for grizzly bear stew. It starts with killing a grizzly.
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tambyrd
User: tambyrd
Date: 2007-08-22 21:19 (UTC)
Subject: nice post
I'm not much of an aspiring writer even (maybe some day) but my partner is ... and this sort of thing is encouraging to read -- or at least a good reminder, that yes, this IS reality. Society, in general, is made up of layers on layers of silly* stratification that we have to wade through to get to where we wanna be. And all of us experience some casualties along the way.

Your 'mapping' of HS cliques to SFF subgenre -- funny! (yea, I'm the band geek/enginerd ... love that high fantasy, and some hard core SF too ...)

* editorial comments my own and may or may not reflect the views of jay lake, lol
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User: ullikummis
Date: 2007-08-22 21:27 (UTC)
Subject: Re: nice post
Yeah, so I get a few more sales under my belt and all I have to look forward to is David Weber giving me a wedgie? 8)
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User: eljaydaly
Date: 2007-08-22 21:37 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
This reminds me of martial arts. Only with not as much physical injury.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-08-22 21:43 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
You're obviously not going to the right parties...
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dsmoen
User: dsmoen
Date: 2007-08-22 22:07 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
One of the things I realized is that your first sale (and maybe this continues) puts you in a "club" and people relate to you based on where you sold and who's in there with you.

Like I'm in the Esther Friesner club and the Mike Resnick club.

A friend of mine's only in the Mike Resnick club, and desperately wants to sell to other editors.

Another friend of mine is in the Analog club, but hasn't broken into other markets either.
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User: sclerotic_rings
Date: 2007-08-22 23:03 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Ah, so the high school analogy holds true. What does it say about you when you find yourself in the Back Brain Recluse and Fuck Science Fiction club?
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Yasmine Galenorn
User: yasminegalenorn
Date: 2007-08-22 22:08 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Hey Jay, great post, and pretty dead on accurate. There's always another fishpond that you find yourself landing in, and then one day, you realize that you somehow managed to jump five or six or ten or twenty ponds beyond where you started, and you look back and go, "How the hell did I get here?" And there's no real answer except, "I worked my butt off, and when I looked up, here I was."

Yasmine
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scalzi
User: scalzi
Date: 2007-08-22 22:08 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
If SFdom is like high school, I think I'm the kid who transferred in from overseas.
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tim_pratt
User: tim_pratt
Date: 2007-08-22 22:20 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I'm the kid hiding in the supply closet eating paste! (Some habits from elementary school are hard to shake.)
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User: sarah_prineas
Date: 2007-08-22 22:13 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
promising the Universe if you sold just one story, you'd shut up and quit whining and die with a happy smile on your face.

Oh my dog, so true. I remember that. Thinking, "I sold a story to Realms so I have MADE IT!!!

And there's always another goal after that. Which is one of the things I love most about writing.

Forward momentum!!
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Tiffany Trent
User: tltrent
Date: 2007-08-22 22:17 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
This is so true, it's pathetic. I swore never to go back to high school and here I am. In my corner writing. Again. :P
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-08-23 03:56 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Except this time we have a lot of choices. Think about it -- there's less than 1,500 people actively working as professionals in this field. It's even the *size* of a high school.
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The Texas Triffid Ranch - Odd Plants and Oddities
User: txtriffidranch
Date: 2007-08-22 22:21 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
And then there's the obverse. Quitting writing is like attending a class reunion: you look at yourself and where you've gone, note the people still kicking and stabbing each other for pathetic positions that matter to nobody outside of their cliques, note the pathetic has-been who's still going on and on and ON about his great achievements twenty or thirty years ago, and wonder "And what did I find so interesting about all this shit in the first place?" (Best of all, just as with class reunions, quitting writing means that the only time you see these people again is when they're trying to sell multi-level marketing scams to you, and it's so satisfying to put cigarettes out in their eyes and then sic the crocodile monitors on them.)
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dsmoen
User: dsmoen
Date: 2007-08-22 22:48 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I'm not sure this explains why so many people who'd been to Clarion and quit writing show up at the reunions, though.
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Michael Merriam: Blind
User: mmerriam
Date: 2007-08-22 22:45 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:Blind
This explains why I've been feeling out-of-sorts and pensive about this business lately...
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karenthology
User: karenthology
Date: 2007-08-22 23:06 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I was never popular in high school, but I sure had a hell of a lot of fun doing what I wanted to do.

... so this blog is oddly comforting.
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Jay Lake: jay-laughing
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-08-23 03:54 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:jay-laughing
I'm having a hell of a lot of fun doing what I want to do *now*, which as far as I can tell is rather a victory over allegedly grownup life.
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madkestrel: writing
User: madkestrel
Date: 2007-08-22 23:16 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:writing
Another time, I'll talk about the first time novelist.

I'd love to read that, because I'm one. And this has been the weirdest damn year of my life. *grin*

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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-08-23 03:53 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Amazing, innit? I'll get to it. Write your own, though! As you may note from the comments here, everyone's experiences are different.
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David D. Levine
User: davidlevine
Date: 2007-08-22 23:30 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
So very true.
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User: michael_b_lee
Date: 2007-08-23 00:09 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Jocks? Baen authors, mostly.

This made me laugh so hard I startled the kids in the other room. Thanks for this.

Mike (One of the Chess Club Geeks)
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shay_writes
User: shay_writes
Date: 2007-08-23 01:05 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Great post!
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-08-23 03:53 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Thank you!
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Jason Erik Lundberg
User: jlundberg
Date: 2007-08-23 03:18 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Man, I can't tell you how familiar this all is.
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Nick Mamatas
User: nihilistic_kid
Date: 2007-08-23 04:27 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Can't say it rings a bell at all.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-08-23 04:30 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Overachiever
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Keffy
User: kehrli
Date: 2007-08-23 05:33 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I'm not even close to having a writing career yet, and I already find the non-writers drifting out of my close groups of friends.

Then I end up going to cons and haunting the Livejournals and blogs of published writers just because I like hearing writers talk about anything writing related at all. (Even if that ends up being advice on how to submit a manuscript via garden gnome.)
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User: hkneale
Date: 2007-08-23 14:37 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:wraise babies
Amen.
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frankwu
User: frankwu
Date: 2007-08-23 16:50 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I hated high school, absolutely hated it.

But I think I'm ok now, come into myself, found out who I am. I feel pretty good at myself, comfortable with myself.

That said, my h.s. reunion is coming up, and there's no way in h--- you can drag me over there.
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Steve
User: mroctober
Date: 2007-08-23 18:17 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Hmmmmm.
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Janni Lee Simner
User: janni
Date: 2007-08-23 20:37 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Everybody looks up to the next layer and forgets about the last one.

Except eventually you graduate from high school and grow up and stop doing this and realize you don't care who the cool kids are, you care about the people you care about, and friends a layer or three behind you (if layers can even be so neatly defined) are every bit as precious as friends a layer or three ahead.

And you hang with who you enjoy hanging with, and if there are some BNAs hanging in a private suite somewhere and you're missing out, who cares? Why would you have more fun with them than with the people you actually know and like and already enjoy talking to?
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-08-23 20:54 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
you care about the people you care about, and friends a layer or three behind you (if layers can even be so neatly defined) are every bit as precious as friends a layer or three ahead.

Well, certainly. What else would I do? Or anyone sensible?

One problem I had early career (and this is what I was trying to say) was my friends whom I saw every day (or at least every week) objecting to me not spending all my Con time with them -- when one of the most precious things I do at Cons is spend time with friends I don't otherwise see.
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