Jay Lake: Writer

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[Interviews]

[interviews] Yet another reader interview with me

Answering questions from the most recent reader interview of me [ jlake.com | LiveJournal ]. In addition, a friend sent me a good set of interview questions that I believe I shall address in a separate post some time in the next few weeks.

I hope you enjoy this as much as I did.

The questions, and my answers…

[info]crystalrmartin:

What is your greatest
asset being a parent
to a teenager?

Jay Lake:

teenager at home
needs psychotic persistence
from patient parent

Deboree:

melting spring lake
myriad floating ideas —
scooping the perfect blossom?

Jay Lake:

reaching into self
abundance spread wide before
ideas choose me

Michael Carychao:

arching through the mind
does span of control disperse
shadows out from life?

Jay Lake:

life flows with darkness
words open the door of light
shadows can vanish

Matt H:

After reading many of your shorts and probably half of your novels to date I would say I have a pretty good feel for your “style” or “niche”. Some things I’ve been curious about regarding individual style:

A) Is a unique style something you’ve intentionally set out to develop or is it something that’s evolved organically?

B) Is it something you consciously think about as you develop a particular story or not at all?

C) Has your approach to style changed during the course of your writing career?

Jay Lake:

It’s pretty much been an organic evolution. I’m quite conscious of style, and have certainly directed myself within the context of individual projects, but in a larger sense, I’m very comfortable letting this process flow naturally.

One of my beliefs (this is not Received Wisdom) about why some stories sell is that it comes down to voice. Lots of people have good ideas, lots of people can string together competent, or even excellent prose. And many more of us can learn or be taught those two things. But voice? To me, voice is the inadequate label for the ineffable quality of writing that makes an author or their work distinctive, interesting, captivating. And style is a big component of voice.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t know how to be distinctive, interesting or captivating. The best I can do is satisfy and engage myself. Then, if I’m lucky, other people will follow me there.

And certainly my approach to style has changed over the years. How could it not? Everything else has. But granted that I am a largely subconscious writer — which is to say that my awareness of the details of craft and critique is almost utterly post facto to my drafting efforts — I can’t really offer a good characterization of that approach. The best I can say is that I choose a style that I believe best suits the tone I want for the story, and then I get out of the way and let it flow.

Mark Siegal::

Three related writing questions:

1. When did you get the idea for Original Destiny, Manifest Sin?

2. Did you instinctively know you weren’t ready to write that novel yet, or did you only find out by trying to write it first?

3. How can a newbie writer tell the difference between “I’m not skilled enough yet to write this particular novel” vs. “I’m too scared to try and keep pushing until I’m finished”?

Jay Lake:

Now there’s some tricky questions.

(For context, Original Destiny, Manifest Sin is a magical alternate history of the American West that I’ve been working on [or not] since 2003.)

I’ve had the idea for that book since at least 2003. At least, that’s the creation date on the oldest of my files for the project. Truthfully, it extends rather further back that that.

I started writing it in 2003, managed the first 75 or 80 pages of the novel, and realized it was beyond what I then considered my own grasp. The way I think of this is that you’re walking down a beach, and you lean down to pick up a stick in the sand. Except when you tug on the stick, it won’t come up. You tug a bit more, and scuff some sand, and discover it’s attached to a branch. With a bit more effort, you realize you’ve been trying to lift an entire buried tree with one hand.

So yes, to your question, I didn’t know I wasn’t ready until I tried to write it. Writing Original Destiny, Manifest Sin was like that for me. I was tugging on a tree. One might chalk my stepping away from the project up to a failure of ambition or a crisis of confidence, but honestly I’ve never lacked for either quality. I simply knew I wasn’t ready to lift that tree out of the sand at that point in my development as a writer.

How did I know that? How did I make the distinction between an honest self-assessment of my professional skill and my sense of fear? I don’t have a good answer. This is the only story idea I ever turned away from for that reason. I think it was because though I know ideas are the easiest part of the process, for me at least, every now and then you get one so awesome and special that you have to do it right. I know that’s a not very useful answer, but it’s the one I have.

I’ll also note in passing my recent observation that the massive, complex, messy glory that is the Sunspin project is in effect me clearing my throat for Original Destiny, Manifest Sin. A lot of the craft and control I’ll need for Original Destiny, Manifest Sin is being worked out on the pages of Sunspin. Funny how the world works.

C.S. Cole::

Writing in a vacuum isn’t good for those who aim for publication one day. Sooner or later, the work has to pass before someone else’s eyes for critique/helpful pointers. Regardless, and for any variety of reasons, I often find myself stuck without a single soul to bounce ideas off of or a pair of educated, trust-worthy eyes to evaluate the work (trust-worthy being key here).

Other than throwing up one’s hands and yelling, “Don’t give up looking for a writing community that fits!” What would be your advice to us vacuum-dwellers? (Or have I already answered the question?)

Jay Lake:

Mostly, I think you’ve already answered the question. But, in simplest terms, look for a group or for likeminded people. Most cities and towns have writers’ groups, and some of them will welcome or specialize in genre fiction. Hit the local SF convention(s), go to the writing panels or workshops, and ask the local pros. Find the local bookstore(s) specializing in genre fiction, and ask the SF/fantasy buyer or department manager. Check out the community college or local university’s creative writing program. And of course, there’s always the Internet. Online workshops proliferate from OWW to Critters to… to…

I think my best suggestion is to go to a couple of dedicated genre writing workshops or conferences (as opposed to conventions, which are more general interest) and see who you connect with there. A lot of those have alumni mailing lists of varying degrees of formality, from which you can branch out in a larger number of directions.

[info]Writer_Monkey:

As a writer, what have you learned about the publishing process you wish you’d known before, and that you think other writers seeking should know before navigating the Great Publishing Quagmire?

Jay Lake:

Mostly I’ve learned that the answer to this question changes constantly. I broke into short fiction a decade ago. The lessons and issues of that time are moot now, in the business specific sense. The writing process doesn’t change so much, mind you, but publishing, so very different. Likewise my entry into trade publishing about five years ago. Since then we’ve had the assault of e-books, the Borders bankruptcy (along with several other less prominent ones), the Apple-Macmillan-Amazon kerfuffle.

I think what I’ve learned is that writing wisdom can come from anyone at any career level, but publishing wisdom decidedly has a “sell-by” date. Listen closely to those people just ahead of you on the path. Smile and nod at old farts like me.

[info]fledgist:

Is your cancer going to make its way into your fiction?

Jay Lake:

It already has. Boaz’s problem with the Seal of Solomon in Pinion is a reflection of my primary colon cancer, though I didn’t recognize that until after I was finished with the book. A fair amount of the fatalism and decay of one of the key protagonists in Sunspin arises from the shifts in my own emotional and moral universe from my illness.

And of course, more explicitly, The Specific Gravity of Grief is about cancer.

Even if I am fortunate enough to be considered in remission, and lead a long and healthy life from this point forward, the cancer will always be with me. As I write these words, my surgery scars are aching, and my hands are gloved against the chill of peripheral neuropathy. It is not only interwoven with my body, but also with my heart and mind.

So yes, it will be there. Just like my parenthood is in my fiction, and my own childhood, and all those life experiences of which I am the sum.

[info]mectech:

How has your history of depression affected you as a parent & as an artist?

Jay Lake:

(For context, I will note that I was hospitalized for a suicide attempt at 15, diagnosed with chronic clinical depression, and in counseling continuously well into my 20s. I don’t mention this often, but it’s part of my history, and I don’t conceal it, either. Today, even with the cancer, I’ve never relapsed into the chronic phase, though the situational depression of the last few years has at times been searing.)

My history of depression has done two things for me as a parent and as an artist. First, it has given me a much deeper empathy for silent struggles and hidden illnesses. It’s easy to sympathize with someone who has been in a car wreck, or assaulted, or contracted a serious illness. We don’t tell an accident victim being treated in a trauma unit to “suck it up and deal with it”, for example. But as a society still heavily inflected by the vile judgmentalism of the Calvinist tradition, we have a tendency to judge people with mental disabilities and behavioral disorders as if those were character flaws. Or moral failings.

Having been inside of such a silent struggle myself helps me comprehend the difficulties others face. Not understand the actual internal experience, necessarily — I’ve never contended with PTSD or schizophrenia, for example — but at least what they do to people/

Second, in being treated and eventually overcoming my situation, I’ve acquired much better mental and emotional life tools that in turn have helped me cope with, for example, cancer. That’s been of profound value to me these past few years.

Both the empathy and my own awareness of my coping skills in turn have made me a much better parent to [info]the_child. Her journey has not been easy, for reasons that aren’t mine to recount here, but I’ve been better able to stand by her along the way.

Likewise, I believe my experiences have given me a deeper access to the internal reality of my characters. Which in turn makes me a better writer, and makes them more genuine on the page.

I do not recommend either depression or cancer as methods to improve one’s writing skills or one’s parenting, but I this is the hand I have been dealt, and I continue to play it as best I can.


That was fun. Feel free to ask follow-up questions in comments here. In a month or so, I’ll probably post another call for new reader interview questions. My thanks to those who participated by asking this time.

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