With that in mind...
Paul: I noticed that you have won an impressive number of writing competitions. What came first: winning the competitions or getting a publishing deal? Would you say one was integral to the other?
Jay: Depends on how you define "publishing deal". I sold some short fiction in the independent press for a couple of years before hitting First Place in Writers of the Future. My novels didn't start seeing print for a few more years. And no, while neither was integral to the other, they were certainly related events in my writing career. I kept writing, my work improved, it became more attractive to editors as well as judges.
In a sense, this is a "magic bullet" question. The key here isn't that any one set of events unlocked the other. The key is that I kept writing, revising and sending out.
Paul: Where did you look for the competitions? Did you "write to order" or did you send work you'd already produced?
Jay: Ralan.com, through the writers in my critique group, by paying attention on line. For Writers of the Future, I generally tried to write a new story every quarter. That being said, the novelette that won, "Into the Gardens of Sweet Night" (and also appeared on the 2004 Hugo ballot) was originally written for another market that rejected it.
Paul: Do you have the letter you sent to either obtain your first agent or publisher? If so, would you share it?
Jay: There is no such letter. Unless you're talking about the submission cover letter to my earliest short fiction sales, which was extremely pedestrian. My agent and I met through the process of professional networking. Fundamentally, that's why one goes to cons and hangs out with other writers. I never queried her, as our professional relationship evolved from first being introduced in a bar at the 2003 Worldcon in Toronto. My first trade novel was sold via my agent, so no query letter there, either.
Notice that's not a "magic bullet" answer either. What made me interesting to my agent wasn't that I was at the right convention, in the right bar or knew the right people. It's that when we were introduced, and she asked, I had projects to discuss and a publication history she could review to see if she liked my work. There was serendipity in our original connection, but everything else flowed from the years of hard work I'd already put into writing and marketing my fiction.
Paul: In this day and age with many writers struggling to get representation or find publishers, what would be your key advice to climb above the parapet?
Jay: Write more. Listen to critique and feedback. If you're inclined to work in short fiction, do so to build your writing resume. If novels are where your heart lies, write one. Then write another. Then revise the first. Then write the third. Then revise the second. Keep moving, keep working.
Without that base of effort, without that production, all the marketing and networking in the world won't do you any good. You can succeed as a published author without marketing if your work is strong enough. Lacking the work, there is no success as a published author.
Paul: In your biography you say that you came onto the 'scene in late 2001' - is that date when you received your first recognition as a writer, or is that when you started writing seriously? In either case, how long did it take from making the call "I want to do this!" to finding success.
Jay: I first started writing seriously in 1990. Workshopped twice a month, wrote and submitted hundreds of stories without success. I finally made my initial sale in 2001. So, eleven years from making the call to first beginning to find success. Ten years since to build my career. There are still people who seem to think I was some kind of overnight sensation. I find this bizarre, given the 2-3 million words of first draft I've written so far in my career.
Really, it all comes down to the writing. Without that, there is nothing else. The paths to selling are as varied as the people who follow them, but every successful author writes. Everything else follows from that.