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Jay Lake
Date: 2010-05-05 05:02
Subject: [writing] Once in a lifetime
Security: Public
Tags:cancer, health, personal, process, writing
Yesterday I did a bit of back-of-the-envelope math, and determined that dividing my lifetime earnings into my lifetime hours of working at being a writer mean I've netted about $5/hour since 1990. If I only do the math for the years since I began to sell professionally, leaving off the 10 years of apprenticeship, workshopping and frustration, that number shifts to about $10/hour.

Sobering? Maybe. But then, I haven't ever looked to this to put the beans on the table. And that can be a bit liberating. A Much Bigger Name Author than I told me in private a couple of years ago that they envied me my flexibility to write what I wanted, as they felt stuck writing their Successful Series and working in their Successful Series Subgenre. I pointed out they could weep all the way to the bank while I am hanging on to the low-midlist with a fingertip death grip. We agreed that we envied one another's problems.

Chris York refers to this as "trading up to a better class of problems." I would love to be wrestling with the things that worry and bother Big Name Authors. The things that worry and bother me would have been the subject of deep envy in my self of five, ten and especially twenty years ago. And we all sound like we're complaining about winning the lottery, if you're a hard-working writer waiting on the result of your forty third agent query whilst staring at a pile of short fiction rejection slips.

Sometimes I think I make it look too easy. "Oh, hey, Lake sold another damned story." But for my 250 short fiction sales, I have well over 1,000 rejections, more than 100 of them from Gordon van Gelder at F&SF alone. I've never sold to him, but I keep trying. To this day I have over 200 unsold short stories, virtually all of them permanently and rightly trunked. I have a handful of novels in the trunk, at least one of which will never see the light of day, several more only if I ever feel moved to redraft them from scratch. (As if I have the time...) I really, truly did spend 10 years (1990-2000) workshopping, writing, submitting hundreds of times without any success whatsoever, before my voice matured enough to be worth an editor's trouble.

All that for $5 an hour?

Hell, yes.

And even if the market belly flops and I fall off the bookshelf, I'll keep writing, and submitting, because that's what I do. I'm a writer. Writers write. Even when chemo keeps my fingers away from the keyboard.

It's a once in a lifetime opportunity that happens to take a lifetime to get right.

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User: mikandra
Date: 2010-05-05 12:16 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Good post.

I'm feeling very frustrated at the moment, but, man, 100 rejections from F&SF? Did you ever get any further than the famous 'This tale didn't grab me'? I can probably wallpaper a corner of this room with those.
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Samantha Henderson
User: samhenderson
Date: 2010-05-05 15:15 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Yes, very yes.
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User: jimvanpelt
Date: 2010-05-05 12:19 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Only 100 from F&SF? Sometimes I think Gordon has rejected ALL of my literary output that found homes elsewhere.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-05-05 13:21 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Well, he's rejected half of mine. Literally. Including, I think, pretty much every story that every made a YB volume or honorable mention. Clearly I don't write to his taste.
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User: beth_bernobich
Date: 2010-05-05 12:29 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:book love
The things that worry and bother me would have been the subject of deep envy in my self of five, ten and especially twenty years ago.

Oh yes.

I haven't calculated my hourly income from writing. I do know it's very low, but as you said, we write. That's what we do.
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User: ruralwriter
Date: 2010-05-05 13:01 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
So, doing the math, I assume you've written about 450 stories (you don't mention resales, reprints...are you including those or does that fall into a separate category)? Lifetime output has been a recent discussion topic on my blog. I haven't gotten to the point of drawing any conclusions or deep into questions, such as does increasing output increase the likelihood of sales because of deep inventory or does increasing output correlate to higher quality?

I won a small college poetry award recently and a killjoy asked me, "Did you calculate how many hours you spent to earn that amount?" ...right...
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-05-05 13:15 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Yep, about 450 first draft short stories in the past ten years. Perhaps another 200 in 1990s, though those aren't in my record set. And I think 10 first draft novels in the past ten years. Call it 3.5 million words of first draft. I could go dig out more precise numbers at some point if you really want them.

Didn't mention reprints, which is a whole different issue.

My experience of myself is that increasing output correlated to higher quality, at least insofar as I have been very willing to learn and not get invested in the perfected majesty of my own prose.
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User: ruralwriter
Date: 2010-05-06 03:05 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I want to ask you a very profound question about how you learn about writing, but I'm not sure quite how to phrase that. I would be interested in your discussion of that. It seems to me that your learning process (especially since you strike me as quite analytical about your process) over a span of time would be interesting. Did you ever find yourself trying to follow certain trends that were dong well? How did you make sure you were developing the unique voice of Jay Lake?

Have you talked about resales/reprints before? I...can't remember. Any profound observations or interesting metrics there?
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User: michimusic
Date: 2010-05-05 14:03 (UTC)
Subject: yeah.
I haven't ever done the math on the time spent playing violin.
I do feel that it's paying me back now for all those four-hour sessions I put in every day in high school and college. It's been paying me back for 15 years now, in terms of finances, friends and fantastic experiences.
And I completely get you on the "beans."
When I lived on my music for income, it became less enjoyable - and I actually had less time to practice because I was busy promoting myself. Now, every time I play it's because I want to, not because I have to. I traded down, and I'm ok with it.

Edited at 2010-05-05 02:05 pm (UTC)
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User: valarltd
Date: 2010-05-05 17:08 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Last year, I made about an extra month's pay. Everything helps. Everything counts.

And yep, trading up to a better class of problems. I try not to get pinned down in any genre, and just keep writing.
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seanwilliams: bert
User: seanwilliams
Date: 2010-05-05 22:40 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Great post, Jay. I performed some similar calculations recently, and worked out that, after 20 years writing full-time with more or less steadily rising income (I'm one of the "lucky" ones, touchwood), my average annual income still hasn't reached the average for my own demographic, a white Australian male. That could be a bit depressing, except for my acute awareness that I'm fortunate to be paid *anything at all* to do what I love and would do anyway. The first ten years of juggling shitty parttime jobs around writing provided a lesson I will never unlearn.

Keep up the good work!
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celestialgldfsh: Unicorn
User: celestialgldfsh
Date: 2010-05-06 00:57 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Thank you for putting everything in perspective like this.

I had my first pro short story sale in December and I've been doing my utmost to get sale number two only to confront rejection after rejection. To make things even more frustrating, I had several customized "Oh this is great but not quite right for us" letters. GAAAAAH.

So yeah. I've been feeling down. But I'm still sending my stories out.
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User: keikaimalu
Date: 2010-05-06 02:53 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
But seriously, to make any money at all from doing something that you love -- that's quite an accomplishment.

I love how Andy Duncan keeps it all in perspective. When he sells a new story, he says, "I'm a hundredaire!"
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