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An author of no particular popularity

Jay Lake
Date: 2007-12-27 10:49
Subject: [process] The arc of my career
Security: Public
Location:Nuevo Rancho Lake
Music:lunch break mambo
Tags:mainspring, personal, process, publishing, rocket, writing
Per an interchange with ktempest in comments here, it seems time to return once more to an evergreen topic concerning my own career and my standing in commenting on issues of process, patience and frustration for aspiring writers.

There's a fairly common perception that I sprang as a writer full blown from the forehead of Zeus. I've had people ask me, "So is it true you sold the first thing you ever wrote?"

Um, no.

I have hundreds and hundreds of thousands of words in the trunk, including several novels that will never be seen by human eyes, and probably two to three hundred dead short stories. I started writing short stories with serious intent in 1980, when I was 16. I wrote in a vacuum until 1990, when I joined my first workshop at 26. I wrote and sent out and was rejected regularly all through the 1990s, until I made my first professional sale in 2001, shortly before my 37 birthday.

That's twenty one years of writing short stories, twelve of them with a workshop, before I sold a single story.

Likewise novel publishing. I wrote The January Machine in 1994. Rocket Science was published in 2005. That's an eleven year effort to an independent press appearance. Mainspring was published in 2007. That's a thirteen year effort for a New York trade novel.

During that time, I learned my way around the field and made myself known and created my name recognition by following the same process anyone else is free to follow. I have been to more conventions than I can count. I have spent thousands of hours reviewing, editing, blogging. I wrote for twenty years.

I know it's easy to look at my productivity or my name recognition and say, "He didn't have to work for it. He's one of the lucky ones." Except what almost no one sees is two decades of working in utter obscurity. In that time I gave up television (1994), computer gaming (1998), and tabletop gaming (2002). Frankly, I've mostly given up recreational reading, live theatre and movie going as well, though I'm working pretty hard to keep those in my life.

It's the time commitment of years, and it's the time commitment every day, in and out.

If you think I'm successful, if you wonder how I've managed to have career like I've had so far, look at the time investment, the dedication, and all the things I gave up. I'll wager that most working pros will tell you a similar story.

For the visually inclined, I geeked out and made a chart. (Sue me, I work in marketing.)

Jay Lake born
Efforts at Writing
Poetry published in kid's corner of local paper
Efforts at Pro Writing
First short story written ("The Last Standard")
Joined first work shop, first fanzine credit ("Living on the Edge")
First convention attended (Armadillocon)
First novel written (The January Machine)
First non-fiction credit ("Letters to the Child Within")
Pro Short Fiction Career
First professional short story credit ("The Courtesy of Guests")
First editing project (Polyphony 1, with Deborah Layne)
Pro Novel Career
First independent press novel (Rocket Science Powell's | Amazon ])
First trade press novel (Mainspring Powell's | Amazon | Audible ])
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S. Boyd Taylor
User: sboydtaylor
Date: 2007-12-27 20:47 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Wow. Very sobering, Jay. Thanks for sharing. As one of those wannabes that looks up to you, it definitely puts things in perspective. :)
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calendula_witch: pentacle-moon
User: calendula_witch
Date: 2007-12-27 20:54 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Fascinating. Thanks for doing this.

I also have noticed, from reading your blog and many others, that almost every successful, published, serious writer also has a day job. Which has helped me put my life dreams/plans in perspective, as well. :-)
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J Erwine - writer/editor
User: jerwine
Date: 2007-12-27 20:58 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I've always said that perseverance counts at least as much in this field as talent.

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Brian Dolton
User: tchernabyelo
Date: 2007-12-28 12:15 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I don't think it can count for MORE than talent - i.e., perseverance will not under any circumstances overcome a fundamental lack of ability. However, it is certainly AS important. I know writers more talented than I am but who will never make it because they write a couple of dozen stories, polish one or two, and sub once in a blue moon. It isn't going to happen that way.

I think you need three things to make it in this industry, and without any of them, you're screwed. Talent is one, persistence is another, and frankly, luck is the third - the right manuscript getting to the right editor at the right time is something you can only influence very slightly (and mainly through persistence).
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User: tim_pratt
Date: 2007-12-27 21:36 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Well, sure. I've been writing steadily since I was 8 years old, and submitting to magazines since I was fourteen or so. Didn't publish anything until I was in college, and then only in tiny magazines -- first pro publication was after college.

I was reading the earlier comment thread about how different your career path is from those of other people, and didn't have time to weigh in then, but, well... I'm basically an antisocial hermit, don't self-promote much, and don't even do panels at conventions if I can help it (though I do like readings), and my career is going okay.

Then again, I am acutely aware that I got introduced to my agent through my boss at Locus, which is certainly an element of privilege that others can't reproduce easily. (Though, honestly, any reasonably articulate SF fan could have moved to Oakland and applied for an exceedingly low-paying job at Locus as I did, and beaten me out of the job, and made those same connections.) But basically I see our career paths as fairly similar -- write a bunch, send stuff out, eventually start selling, eventually start selling steadily and to better markets. You do a lot more song-and-dance stuff at conventions than I do, but frankly I'm not sure that makes a big difference in terms of actual publication opportunities (though you won the Campbell while I came in at a gentleman's fourth place, so I'm tempted to think it's good for something! I just don't have the personality for it, myself, as I become unspeakably cranky after too much socializing.)
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User: whafford
Date: 2007-12-28 12:28 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I'm exactly the same way, re: socializing. I'm glad to know it is possible to make it without being overly energetic in that department. I still haven't made it, but maybe one day.
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User: akirlu
Date: 2007-12-27 21:47 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
But Jay, you didn't exist until I noticed you. Which means you sprang full-formed and already published from the brow of Jove in, um, 2002 I think it was. This is how the overnight, instant success thing usually works. Bonny Raitt was an overnight success, too...
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Jay Lake: jay-southpark
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-12-27 22:25 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Wow, that explains a lot about the 1990s.
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Erin Cashier
User: therinth
Date: 2007-12-28 00:34 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I love stories like these, and no matter how many times i read or hear them, they never get old. It's stories like these that keep me sane when the long night of the What Ifs comes along.
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Patrick Swenson: tardis
User: tbclone47
Date: 2007-12-28 02:37 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
That's a great (and sobering) look at the process. It's kind of like the Tardis, isn't it? There's a lot more to it on the inside than anyone sees from the outside!
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jeffsoesbe: sisko arms folded
User: jeffsoesbe
Date: 2007-12-28 04:10 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:sisko arms folded
Well, the "erupting fully formed" meme is probably because the last six years since 2001 have been pretty big for you with all the above (and don't forget WOTF and the Campbell). Everyone sees the time post-2001. No one sees the 21 years before that.

And, dude, you're scaring me. Because my chart would look something like this:
1966 = born
1977-1983 (5th-12th grade) = dabble in writing
1983-2005 (college, etc) = think about writing, talk about writing, etc.
1996-1997 = brief foray into writing (a tv show, three scripts, some stories)
Dec 2005 = Start taking it seriously, aka "I can not turn 40 without doing this"

20 years? Yikes...that's a looooong time from now. Scary.

- yeff
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J.K.Richárd: Aroo?!
User: neutronjockey
Date: 2007-12-28 04:26 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
It is not the destination but the journey that matters.

The big question is: in retrospect, would you have had it any other way (other than 6 figure advances on first novel, movie options, 6 car garage full of euro cars, and a record deal...)?
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Gary Emenitove
User: garyomaha
Date: 2007-12-28 04:39 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Record deal? Jay??? Oh my, that's scary.
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User: leatherzebra
Date: 2007-12-28 04:49 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Well, if you're ever in Louisville consider yourself invited for a good old table top game ;) The hardest thing for me in my career efforts now is this huge, floaty, bright as sun feeling that I'm going to break through, confidence in my work and my ability and drive and effort... and then trying to keep all those good driving feelings when the world seems not inclined to respond, much less respond positively. There are so many small behind-the-scenes victories, like personal rejects, and invitations to submit even if it's rejected in the end, or comments from people who have read and liked what little I have out there, that people never see. I even separated my 2008 goals into "private"(writing, editing and submitting), "public" (keeping a web page, reviewing, blogging) and "publicity" (seeking reviews, contests, driving up web site hits).
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User: hkneale
Date: 2007-12-28 12:13 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:wraise babies
I feel much better. Thanks, Jay.

By the way, what's your typing speed. I'm pretty sure you've told me at one point or another, but I've forgotten.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-12-28 14:21 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
About 65 wpm. My peak throughput is a little under 3,000 words per hour, and even now with the New Model Process, I seem to be consistent at about 2,000 words per hour when I'm in draft mode without having to stop and edit. (That's about a 20% slowdown from the older process, which is not as much slowdown as I had expected.)
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Brian Dolton
User: tchernabyelo
Date: 2007-12-28 12:22 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Interesting graph. I get the following:
1960 - born
1974-ish - writing incredibly bad, childish takes on SF
1987-ish - start taking writing much more seriously, begin world-building, plotting novels, starting (but rarely finishing) short stories, etc
2005 - join an on-line writin community (Liberty Hall) and actually submit first story. It sells, to a pro market. Big w00t day.
2007 - continue submitting, continue trying to grind out more stories, continue selling some of them (mostly to semi-pro markets).

So the step I skipped was years of sending stuff and not getting published, but I was still doing a hell of a lot of work behind the scenes (I've written well over the million-word "apprenticeship" that's sometimes talked about).
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dinogrl: art
User: dinogrl
Date: 2007-12-28 19:40 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Interesting graph. I am starting to wonder about my efforts in anything these days. Quite a kick in the head. Especially after seeing a new exhibition on Leonardo's "Genius". Seems he was plagued with not doing enough at the end of his life, and wrote:
"I have offended God and mankind because my work didn't reach the quality it should have."


BTW: When are your other "graphics" being sold on Cafe Press???? Waiting to get that refrigerator magnet of Jay and the FSM...
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All that Jazz: Starbuck
User: jasminehammer
Date: 2007-12-28 23:06 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
So, although I am entirely too late to weigh in on the first argument, after reading through the comments on the post you pointed to, I couldn't stop thinking about it. It seemed like the commentors disagreeing with you were assigning you too much responsibility. Like every single time you post your thoughts on writing or publishing you are supposed to tell all your readers (just in case they are new to either writing or your blog) how long you had to persevere to get to where you are now and what works for one person might not work for another, etc, instead of thinking that perhaps your readers are smart enough to look at your track record or to take a gander at another author's blog to see how they might do it too. If someone thinks that if they don't write a story a week like Jay Lake then they don't have the secret for getting in, then they're not doing their homework, are they? I don't see why anyone would expect you to pander to the lowest common denominator, and in fact I appreciate that you don't.
It is possible that I didn't completely understand what was being argued (and I know that wasn't the entirety of the disagreement) but I had to write something. I will step away and try to stop frothing now.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-12-28 23:14 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Actually, we're about on the same page here. I mean, I'm not Walter Cronkite or the Pope here. Everything I say is my opinion, my experience, tempered or exacerbated by my mood of the moment. Pretty much by definition, this is my blog.

I know roughly how many people read this blog at least occasionally (ca. 1,000) and how many people read this blog at least daily (ca. 250). I really hope I'm not the Voice of Authority for any of them. If somehow I am, I hope even more the message they're getting is "write often, write more."

Everything else is just stuff. Maybe I should say that more often.

Edited at 2007-12-28 11:15 pm (UTC)
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