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[process] Answering a few questions about writing, self-improvement and reprints - Lakeshore — LiveJournal
An author of no particular popularity

Jay Lake
Date: 2010-05-06 05:54
Subject: [process] Answering a few questions about writing, self-improvement and reprints
Security: Public
Tags:process, stories, writing
ruralwriter and I have been having an exchange in comments on yesterday's post about the profits and process of writing. The conversation has grown sufficiently interesting to deserve its own post.

In answer to a question of theirs, I said:
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,

Their reply was:
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 doing 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?

To break that down....

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.

Well, I've actually blogged about this over the years. For example, my discussions about span of control and the "hand of cards" / "box it came in" theory. The best way to track that is troll through my blog archives with the "process" tag [ jlake.com | LiveJournal ]. Most of the longer posts and essays under that tag are me reflecting on my experiences, or answering questions from readers.

Did you ever find yourself trying to follow certain trends that were doing well?

I'm not quite certain how to read this question. If you mean market trends, no. I write what I want to write, how I want to write it, within certain occasional contractual constraints. If you mean creative or learning trends, absolutely. That was the whole point of my "story a week" practice, for example. Or the period back around 2002 when I wrote a metric ton of flash fiction, because I decided to use flash as a laboratory to hone specific aspects of my craft.

To digress from meta-analysis to content briefly, the point of that was when I learned from Bruce Holland Rogers that flash generally does one thing — character, setting, problem, mood, whatever — and I realized I could therefore use flash to focus on one thing at a time. Plus the work effort was contained, the feedback loop short and sharp, and with luck, I'd have sellable inventory when I was done. So I did a lot of self-directed exploration of aspects of craft which I had identified as weaknesses in myself.

How did you make sure you were developing the unique voice of Jay Lake?

Hah! I never did that. I just wrote what I wanted to write. The voice is just there. But in my case, that's one of the cards I was dealt. If I ever dig out some really ancient work, say from the early 1990s, you'd see it even in those stories.

More to the point, I've averred numerous times over the years that voice is the only aspect of writing that can't be taught. At least by me. A decent instructor, or some strong self-awareness and good books/web sites, can guide an aspiring writer to control over grammar, speech register, plot, structure, character, setting, point of view and all the myriad nuanced aspects of well-crafted fiction. But voice, in my opinion, emerges organically from the sum of all those parts, and if its strong, will exceed that sum.

Of course, in our genre, especially the more classic views of SF, transparent prose has a high value. I submit that transparent prose is not voiceless, but it's a formal kind of voice that is deliberately set behind everything else so that the plot, especially, stands forward. Other writers, critics and teachers surely have very different views of this, but I think the tradition of transparency can cause a lot of confusion when considering voice.

Have you talked about resales/reprints before? I...can't remember. Any profound observations or interesting metrics there?

Not really. I've had about 80 short fiction reprint sales in English, including over a dozen Year's Best sales, and if you want to count foreign rights as a form of reprint, another couple of dozen there. Plus one story that only ever appeared in Greek, and not in English. Not sure how to count that one, but maybe I ought to market it here, huh? (It was about the first Olympics on Mars.)

Reprints are good because, in a pure marketing sense, they're free money, and they give the story extended life. Not a lot of money, generally, though there are rare exceptions. As I write this, I realize I could probably benefit from a more aggressive reprint strategy. I also find myself wondering if there's a market niche for a high-profile Web site that feature entirely reprints. I suspect a lot of authors wouldn't mind getting their favorites from their short fiction backlist some more exposure.

One thing has occurred to me in discussing this topic is the issue of writer self-awareness. I went through a phase, long before I wrote sellable prose, where I considered myself an unsung genius, and thought very, very highly of my prose. I refused to revise, because it was so good. (Note that I did not sell any of this prose.) Basically, I was a real ass about my writing. I have found that being willing to pay attention to input from first readers, critiquers and critics has really improved my ability to improve my writing. Which is not to say I always, or even often, agree with the input at a detailed level. It's more along the lines of trying to figure out why people reacted the way they did, and processing that.

One of the gifts of having done this seriously for twenty years and professionally for ten years is that I've developed a fairly high degree of self-awareness and some facility at self-criticism regarding my writing. I strongly recommend this as a strategy for other writers, but I think you have to take the long road to get to this point. At least I did, but then I can be notoriously stubborn.

Want me to discuss more aspects of publishing, writing or the auctorial life? Post 'em in comments, I'll take them up here on the blog as time, energy and chemohead permit.

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cj_ruby: Manny kitty
User: cj_ruby
Date: 2010-05-06 15:59 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:Manny kitty
Can you talk about your experience with the Writers of the Future contest? How many times did you enter? What was it when you won?
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User: steffenwulf
Date: 2010-05-06 17:53 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
"also find myself wondering if there's a market niche for a high-profile Web site that feature entirely reprints."

There's definitely a niche for that, at least in audio form. The Escape Artists trio (Escape Pod, Pseudopod, and Podcastle) do this very well. They're fairly well known, have a reputation for really great stuff, but they prefer reprints. Podcastle, in particular has only had a single story (if I remember correctly) that was a first-run instead of a reprint.
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User: swan_tower
Date: 2010-05-07 00:49 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:*writing
I'd also love to see more attention given to Anthology Builder, which maintains a database of (author-contributed) fiction that can be bundled into a user-designed POD anthology, with a royalty-style cut going back to the author. It's a way to make the short fiction backlist much more easily available -- and with somebody like Jay, who has enough short fiction out there to make several single-author collections, it would really facilitate things for the completist reader.
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They Didn't Ask Me: Nine-Covers
User: dr_phil_physics
Date: 2010-05-06 18:42 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:Nine-Covers
I amused by your "one story that only ever appeared in Greek, and not in English" as I, too, have two stories which have only been published in Greek -- by Εννέα (Nine).

Dr. Phil
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celestialgldfsh
User: celestialgldfsh
Date: 2010-05-06 20:56 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Noting your publishing statistics, at what point do you stop marketing a story and decide to trunk it? Do you rely on a number of rejections, or gut instinct about the story's worth?
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