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[writing|process] Superpowers, psychotic persistence, and success in writing - Lakeshore
An author of no particular popularity

Jay Lake
Date: 2009-02-04 05:29
Subject: [writing|process] Superpowers, psychotic persistence, and success in writing
Security: Public
Tags:process, writing
At dinner last night, I told one of the Fireside writers that if I was going to have a superpower, being able to write fast isn't a bad one. Which of course got me thinking, as such things do. Then this morning I read James Gurney quoting Arnold Böcklin:
Nothing in art is created without effort, and the painter writer's ideas don't come to him on wings while he dreams, either. The one may be more talented than the other, of course; but without untiring diligence, single-mindedness and a combative spirit, there can't be any good result. All this talk about 'inspiration' is nonsense.

Böcklin was talking about what I call psychotic persistence. And I'm only slightly joking.

Superpowers help. Even now, when I'm drafting at 2/3 to 1/2 the clip I used to write at, I'm still fast by most people's standards. So does talent. For sheer, raw narrative talent, you can't beat kenscholes. There's a lot of bits and pieces to this game which are important, even critical. That's the point of the "hand of cards" theory. Or, as maticoquala calls it, "the box it came in."

But persistence, and discpline which underlies it, is critical. You can work at any speed. You can overcome deficits in talent or skill. But if you don't write and submit, a lot, none of that matters.

I first started thinking of myself as a pro (or at least a neopro) in the 2001/2002 time frame, when I first started selling pro. That was after more than ten years of fairly serious aspirations and a lot of work, but hundreds of rejections and zero sales. By 2004, others had started thinking of me as a pro as well. What I remember vividly from those early days of my career was watching and listening to those who'd come up not so long before me.

I don't mean the long-established writers whose work I'd been enjoying since childhood or young adutlhood. People like Robert Silverberg, Lois McMaster Bujold, Larry Niven, Anne McCaffrey, Harry Turtledove, Gene Wolfe. I've met all those authors and many more besides, am keenly interested in what they have to say, and am privileged even to call some of them friends today.

But the lessons for me lay in writers such as Elizabeth Bear, Tim Pratt, Jeff VanderMeer, Jeffrey Ford. The paths they followed, and continue to follow, aren't so different from my own, because we're nearly of a cohort in our literary generation. I have learned immense amounts from them, and owe debts of gratitude I can never repay.

Now I'm at a point where I can look at the path and watch the people who've broken in alongside me, or slightly after me. People I've seen go from a standing start or a modest, early track record to wonderful books from wonderful publishers. Ken Scholes, Lisa Mantchev, Daniel Abraham, Beth Bernobich (whose ARC I received in the mail yesterday). And many more besides.

What every one of those people has in common is not any particular superpower. What they have in common is psychotic persistence. Almost all successful writers exhibit behaviors which would be unhealthy perseveration in the everyday world, but are critical success factors in publishing.

We don't dream, we do.

At the beginning of the day, we write. At the end of the day, we write more.

What did you write today?

Originally published at jlake.com.

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felicitoussk8er
User: felicitoussk8er
Date: 2009-02-04 14:13 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
ECXELLENT commentary, Jay, and dead-on. Well written, too! ;)

I know others would enjoy it, so am going to go ahead & share it on Shejidan (sff literary site). Thank you in advance.

Edited to add link:
http://z11.invisionfree.com/Shejidan/index.php?showtopic=1612&st=0#entry7990418

Edited at 2009-02-04 02:21 pm (UTC)
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Matthew S. Rotundo: Typewriter
User: matthewsrotundo
Date: 2009-02-04 14:34 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:Typewriter
Amen and hell yeah.
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Zornhau
User: zornhau
Date: 2009-02-04 14:51 (UTC)
Subject: Amen, brother!
>What did you write today?
500 words of technical documentation.

But yesterday I wrote 500 words of outline.
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Sherwood Smith
User: sartorias
Date: 2009-02-04 14:53 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
*cheering*
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Richard Parks
User: ogre_san
Date: 2009-02-04 14:59 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
"Psychotic persistence."

Yeah, pretty much. If you don't have that, it doesn't much matter how talented you are.
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Kelly Green
User: saycestsay
Date: 2009-02-04 15:06 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
"Psychotic persistence." I suppose I should just embrace my insanity.

What did I write yesterday (today's writing is yet to come)? A little something-something that I read and realized was too distancing; shall edit up the words there. Edits on a story that wasn't distancing enough, but at least I got a clue as to the MC's behaviour in the last scene: why she did what she did. Beginning a story and realizing I wanted to put in the kitchen sink, which would only *sink* the straightforwardness of the tale. So I won't. Subbing stories that have been previousy rejected. Rejecting stories that have been subbed. And oh yes, working on A&A site design.

There's not enough money to keep me at this. Must be insanity. Or: that instant gratification, warm fuzzies that don't fade, when a Famous Editor (tm) says in a rejection, You write well; or when an editor says in an ACCEPTANCE!, beautiful writing... is it insane to work for that gratification?

Excuse me, more to do, more to do.
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martyn44
User: martyn44
Date: 2009-02-04 15:53 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Dunno about the ability to write faster. How about the ability to move into a different continuum and do our sleeping there so we have 24 full hours a day to exercise our psychotic persistence
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manmela
User: manmela
Date: 2009-02-04 16:16 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Thank you for a very, very interesting commentary.

I can write, the number of personal rejections I get asking me to submit again tells me this. But I get easily frustrated. I walked into non-fiction. I'm not saying it isn't ever difficult but nearly every piece of non-fiction I've ever submitted from magazine articles, to newspapers to books has been accepted. I never had to struggle with non-fiction, and opportunities tend to come to me rather than I have to seek them out.

So I get frustrated that it isn't happening so quick with fiction. Rejection isn't new to me, but the percentage of rejections I'm getting with fiction is. I've developed an almost bi-polar state where one half of me is saying "look, every rejection says your writing is fine, it's your story that just needs elevating" and the other is saying "I suck".

I've yet to find my kindred souls, those who went before me (and are still alive), who see Fantasy the way I do. I keep reading (although I seem to be doing more reading outside the genre these days) hoping to find a current writer I've missed (the closest seems to be Joe Abercrombie, and I've just bought his first book to see). I grew up on the rhythm and symmetry of myth, and its bastardization by pop culture but trope is very much out of fashion. It is deemed old and tired, or shallow. Yet to me it's a construct with which to tell stories. Haikus enforce a rigid structure yet we've not told all the stories we can with them. Likewise I believe there are still stories to tell with Dwarves and Elves that haven't been told that are every bit as original and character driven as the current batch of brilliant literary SFF novels.

I think (possibly incorrectly) what I need is a mentor (Don't worry, I'm not looking at you Jay, I'm not looking at anyone - this isn't a recruitment drive). I honestly think I write well enough that with a bit of guidance I could be good (dare I say great?) and not be wasting any mentor's time. I need someone who will beat my arrogance and self pity out of me, tell me when I'm being lazy, yet still inspire me and build my confidence in my writing. I'd do Clarion, but as stupid as it might sound, Clarion makes great American SFF writers, I want to be a great British SFF Writer, and we have nothing like Clarion over here.

Or perhaps I'm just using that as an excuse for hard work. Perhaps I just want it all handed to me on a plate (although I genuinely doubt that given how hard I worked in January). I've seen your daily word count and can't do it... yet! I'm someone who works best to deadlines, and at their very best a few hours before a deadline.

I've tried to relax a little lately, to write 'bad' stuff I want to read rather than 'good' stuff I think others want to read. But I'm still far too subconscious of my own writing that it hinders me. Perhaps I take it all too seriously, but this is very much my world right now, and egotistical as it may be, seeing my name on my first non-fiction book last month (I say 'my', I'm the 4th out of 5 co-authors) made me realise how much it means to me, and how much I want to get my stories out there (Is it wrong to stroke the cover of your first book and smile like some sort of James Bond Villian?)

So I have a ridiculous schedule this year. So far I've: researched (including interviews) & written one non-fiction article
Continued work on a novel and written a couple of chapters
Revised 7 chapters and sent them to first readers, one chapter a week
written 80% of a short shorty
Researched another short story by watching hours of documentary on WWI
Prepared and submitted a bunch of existing short stories to various markets.
I've been blogging my process several times a day to get a better understanding of how I tick as a writer.

I have more planned for this year including completing 3 novels, a TV sitcom, a number of writing competitions, a number of short stories and a couple of non-fiction articles (just to see how far up the non-fiction ladder I can sell!)

Whilst I do my fair share of dreaming, I like to think I match that with a fair amount of doing as well. I would just like a fair amount of acceptances to go with it
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manmela
User: manmela
Date: 2009-02-04 16:19 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Apologies my comment mutated into its own mini blog post.
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tim_pratt
User: tim_pratt
Date: 2009-02-04 17:24 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
It's a strange business, and a strange life. I've been writing fiction since I was a third grader, and submitting since I was 14. I didn't sell anything until 1999, when I was 22; I didn't make a pro sale until I was 25. There are hundreds of dead stories left behind me, though at this point, I'm selling most everything I finish and send out (probably because now I can tell which ones aren't worth finishing and sending out). And, yes, sheer stick-to-it-iveness is crucial, and being prolific most certainly doesn't hurt. My own natural skills, I'm told, lie in characters and coming up with cool shit; I'm finally getting the hang of this plotting thing, I think, sometimes.

There's still a lot to learn -- always will be -- but I've been bemused in the past couple of years to hear myself referred to as an established writer in reviews, etc. (As in, "there are stories by new writers like blah and blah, and familiar names like Tim Pratt.") It still feels fairly new from this end. And every day we face an empty page and try to fill it with something worthwhile.

(Well. I'm kinda lazy. So not always every day. But at least a couple/few times a week!)
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Abra SW
User: cloudscudding
Date: 2009-02-04 17:51 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
When working on writingy things, I occasionally have to remind myself that psychotic tendencies can be useful and don't need to be quashed, unlike when I'm, say, grocery shopping.
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User: ext_137244
Date: 2009-02-04 18:05 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Someone once asked me how long it takes to write one of my short stories. Every one of them has taken me all of my life. And every one will.
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bram452
User: bram452
Date: 2009-02-04 19:01 (UTC)
Subject: What did you write today?
1000 words of a collaborative space opera, 500 words of short story (plus polishing of same), analysis and critique of a friend's novella.

But I've got 2.5 hours before I have to get the kid from daycare. So it ain't over yet. . .
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A large duck: bear headlock!
User: burger_eater
Date: 2009-02-04 19:44 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:bear headlock!
This is a good post.

I should mention that I became a pro just as I was about to put my writing aside for several years. After a really tough period that was filled with stress and near-bankruptcy, I looked at my life and realized that I was a grown man and I had nothing.

After several long talks with my wife, I was about to put aside a daily writing schedule to take the GREs and get a real career--I was taking one of those practice tests in a prep book when agents started requesting partial and full manuscripts.

And it was almost exactly one year ago that I posted about my deal with Del Rey.

A sensible person would have given up long ago.

eta: I forgot to answer your question: only a few hundred words. I'm a slow writer on my best day, and today was not that. I'll have to make it up on Saturday.

Edited at 2009-02-04 07:45 pm (UTC)
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Jason Venter
User: honestgamer
Date: 2009-02-04 19:49 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I can say honestly that today I spent midnight to 2AM writing a short story that I rather like. Before that, I hadn't written anything in weeks. I've submitted a total of maybe 4 or 5 stories to publishers, starting with Marion Zimmer Bradley's Fantasy Magazine and going onward (so obviously, those submissions have been spaced out a bit much).

I believe that everything you said is spot-on. A writer really need to have that psychotic persistence you mentioned to make it in this business. I once had that drive and lost it, but now I'm hoping to have it again because there's a part of me that knows I wont' ever be happy until I do.
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crinklequirk
User: crinklequirk
Date: 2009-02-04 20:11 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Part of this reminds me of Holly Lisle's article (http://www.aweber.com/b/eCvd). Don't try, just do.

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