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SFFWRTCHT: A Chat With Author/Editor Jay Lake

Jay Lake is known as a talented and prolific writer. His works have appeared in  venues from Clarkesworld to Analog to Realms of Fantasy and the list goes on and on. His works are often cited in Year’s Best collections, and he’s released multiple collections of his stories, two novel series (Clockwork Earth and Green), and several standalone novels. He’s also edited anthologies like All Star Zeppelin  Adventure Stories (with David Moles) and the Polyphony series of anthologies. A  regular at cons and workshops alike, he’s known for generously giving back to the  speculative fiction community by mentoring and encouraging other writers. He’s  also struggling with cancer, which he’s survived before and has paid him return  visits. Honest to the core about even this, his amazing novella Specific Gravity Of  Grief  came out from Fairwood Press in 2010. He can be found online at, where he is a prolific blogger and social media participant.

SFFWRTCHT: Jay, how do your stories start? With character, question  or situation?

Jay Lake: It varies how I start. Often it’s just with an image or a situation. Visual or language cue, maybe. I can gin up a story from a very small seed. It’s one of the pleasures of the craft for me.

SFFWRTCHT: Your prose is so dense and tight, how many edits does it take to get your sentences throw so much weight around?

JL: Believe it or not, a lot of that happens in the initial draft. Though a novel will have four or five passes.

SFFWRTCHT: How much did your exposure to “other” while growing up as the son of a diplomat effect your writing?

JL: I think growing up overseas in a diplomatic family is a huge part of why I became interested in writing the other. My entire childhood was made of ‘other’. The world is fractally, gloriously complex. Genre fiction re-opens those doors for me.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you use those cultural lessons to create characters, world build? Did you ever want to write something in those cultures you experienced?

JL: I use the cultures all the time in my work. My experiences in China and Africa infuse Escapement and Pinion but I don’t often write about it directly, in naturalistic fiction, no. Couldn’t tell you why not.

SFFWRTCHT:  The third in your Green series just came out. Are the Green books a trilogy? Will there be more books after Kalimpura?

JL: Kalimpura is Green 3 and finishes out this story cycle with a logical close. But there might be more if readers and the market want.

SFFWRTCHT: Your current project is Sunspin. What can you tell us about that?

JL: It’s a massive, ambitious, far future space opera in a second empire setting. I’ve published five or six short stories in the continuity. There are going to be three books in this arc, but I’m writing them as one large project. The universe is very open ended, though. The f irst draft will be 500,000 to 600,000 words. It requires new techniques and tools for me.  I have a 120-page document which tracks characters, planets, backgrounders as well as a plot synopsis.

SFFWRTCHT: Are any of the Sunspin-related shorts incorporated into the upcoming novel or do they all stand separate?

JL: None of the Sunspin shorts are embedded in the novel, but they all feed into it somehow. My muse, Fred, is clever that way.

SFFWRTCHT: When can we expect to see Sunspin out in stores? 2012? 2013?

JL: It’s being written entirely on spec, so I don’t know when we’ll see it out. When I sell it, you’ll hear the whoop.

SFFWRTCHT: Don’t you find inspiration comes from genres diff from what you’re writing, e.g. non-fiction?

JL: Absolutely. That’s why I try to read (and DVD watch) outside my genre. So I don’t grow stale. It’s also why I shoot a lot of photographs and seek out new people and experiences in real life.

SFFWRTCHT: How do you feel about writing/marketing across different genres?

JL: Writing across different genres seems a fine thing to me. I’m not wedded to Fantasy and Science Fiction, it’s just my first and best love.

SFFWRTCHT: You remain very open about your cancer struggles on Facebook and the blog. And one of your departures lately was The Specific Gravity of Grief, a novella about a man going through cancer.  Has that been hard for you to write about?

JL: Cancer is everywhere in my writing, directly and indirectly, but I don’t think it has dominated Primary colon cancer was first diagnosed in April, 2008. Lung metastasis in April, 2009. Mistaken diagnosis of liver metastasis in July, 2010.  I talk openly about the cancer because so many people don’t. I get more fan letters off my cancer blogging than off my fiction. It’s difficult to talk about it sometimes, but it’s also something I can give back/pay forward for all those who have loved me.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you work from outlines or let the story unfold as it comes?

JL: Outlines, for short fiction? Never. I “follow the headlights.” For novels, always. But the process changes every time. The outlines for Sunspin are fantastically more detailed than ever before. The Trial Of Flowers outline was five paragraphs.

SFFWRTCHT: Did you ever consider giving up the day job for full time writing?

JL: No. I need the steady income and the benefits. Cancer means I can never be a full time free lancer.

SFFWRTCHT: What does your writing space look like and do you have any software preferences?

JL: My writing space looks like a MacBook Pro. I can and do write almost anywhere. As for software, I’m a dinosaur. I’ve been using Microsoft Word since it fit on the same floppy as the Mac OS, back in 1985/1986. Or maybe I was using MacWrite back then. But it’s been Word since forever.

SFFWRTCHT: When asked by other writers, what advice do you most commonly offer them?

JL: I like to tell new writers to “write more”. Whatever you’re doing, do more of it. Plus I’m a big fan of putting down the TV and the videogames. Nothing wrong with entertainment, but things that scratch your plot bump will keep you from writing. The question is: do you want to be a producer or a consumer?

SFFWRTCHT: Can you be both?

JL: Of course you can be both. We are all consumers by definition. But to be a producer, you have to shake off some of the habits of being a consumer.  Another comment that comes up a lot is.”Publishing is meritocracy, but it is not a just meritocracy,” which is to say being good is a necessary but not sufficient condition for success.  Writing a lot to learn and grow is exactly how we succeed. Nobody is born a literary genius. You would expect to practice a martial art or a new instrument or a foreign language. Why wouldn’t you practice writing? And write new stuff. Don’t spend years laboring over your Great Work. Trust me, it’s not that great. Go write another one.

SFFWRTCHT: Can’t some consumption lead to inspiration? Read to write idea?

JL: Absolutely. It’s called filling the well. Imagine a chef who never ate anyone else’s cooking. But time is an issue. People complain they don’t have time to write, but they’re in WOW every night, or watching House. Or whatever. That’s a choice.

SFFWRTCHT: What other projects do you have in the pipeline for us to look forward to?

JL: I wrote a mainstream short in February. In novels, my next two projects after Sunspin are marketable as mainstream. Original Destiny is a fantastic history of the American West. Fantasy, but could also be mainstream. After that is Black Tulip, set in 17th century Netherlands, a historical thriller.

SFFWRTCHT: For a while you were doing quite a bit of anthology editing. Any more of that on the horizon?

JL: Maybe another anthology or two on the horizon. Mostly I need to find publishers who want to work with me. I love editing anthos. Great fun. But the administrative side of it is tedious. And I don’t want to fund any more.

SFFWRTCHT: You’re amazingly prolific. Sometimes it seems like everywhere I turn I see a story or book you’ve written. Any advice about dealing with rejection?

JL: Yeah, the million bad words theory. I wrote and submitted regularly from 1990 to 2001 before making my first sale. Probably about 800,000 words of first draft before I broke in. At this point, I’ve probably written close to 3,000,000 words of first draft and sold over 2,000,000 of those words.  I still get rejected all the time. More often than I get accepted, I think. Submitting fiction is kind of like dating. It helps to be cheerful and bullet-resistant. Did I ever want to quit? Lots of times. But I kept going. Because, well, this is what I wanted.  And it’s been years since the last time I wanted to quit. Success is its own reward. It takes an inordinate amount of self-motivation to get this far, though.

SFFWRTCHT: Any thoughts on this year’s Nebula finalists? Any surprises or works you wish had made the ballot?

JL: I’m real pleased with this year’s Nebula ballot. Representation of both women and writers of color is much stronger this year. I don’t think there’s anything odd or surprising about the Nebs. Pleased to see so many of my friends there.

Host Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the forthcoming space opera novel The Worker Prince, the collection The North Star Serial, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter. He can also be found through his website at