Writers of the Future: My Week with Jay Lake

1 Jun

I usually avoid online eulogies. Ever suspicious, I find too many of them insincere, just something simple to tweet about. [“R.I.P. Margaret Thatcher. My heart and prayers go out to her whole family.” Yeah, okay…]  So, to avoid some other pessimistic jerk ever thinking I’m doing that: I usually just say nothing. Also, death sucks.

Jay Lake died today.

If you do not know who that is, you should. He was a good writer. Probably a great writer. Short stories and novellas and novels. Speculative stuff. He won lots of big awards. He got nice contracts. He was deservedly (both in craft and soul) one of the industry stars. He took the profession and his place in it seriously. He was a writers’ writer. And so:

Authors more famous/successful than me will do this better.
Authors more willing/able to share their true heart/gut will also do this better.
And, authors who knew Jay much much better than I did will do this better too.

Their tributes and memories will be easy to find and will continue for, I hope, a long long time.

For what it’s worth — because not a month goes by that I don’t quote Jay directly and not a week goes by that I don’t think of him directly — here’s mine:

I met Jay a decade ago in Hollywood. We’d both won a spot on the Writers of the Future program, an annual international contest meant to seek out and foster the best as-yet-published speculative writers in all the land. The big payoff was publication in the recognized Writers of the Future annual anthology and a week in Hollywood studying with professional speculative authors. So off to Hollywood it was…

Other aspiring authors that week included: Ken Liu, Steve Savile, Myke Cole, Luc Reid, Robert Defendi, Steve Bien, and Carl Frederick. And me. And Jay. Not too shabby, huh? THIS is the group who’d never published before and was sitting around the pool at night figuring out how to write Tim Powers a story in a day, and/or how to become hard-working pros like Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta, just dipping our toes in the water of the possibility that…

Okay, some were up to their knees by then.

My introduction to Jay (other than the realization that, in a true rarity, I did not have the best hair in the room) was when we were all coming back from lunch the first day. As we walked, I eavesdropped as Myke Cole (then an assistant editor with Weird Tales) talked to Jay about some edits that needed to be made to Jay’s story before it appeared in an upcoming Weird Tales. I was like: “huh?” When they were done, I saddled up to Myke and said: “Really, this guy’s got a story coming out in Weird Tales?” (Remember, we were all supposed to be nobodies at this point.) Myke replied: “Are you fuckin’ kidding? It’s Jay Lake. His name is gonna sell this issue” I probably said something like “Oh.”

Turns out before and between being “plucked from obscurity” by Writers of the Future, Jay had already built a huge online following in this new world of these things called online magazines and blogs. Since winning a WOTF nomination, he’d gone on to close on several major print deals and had already nabbed an agent. He was a year or two ahead of me. Not light years ahead like our awesome teachers, but just within reach. A horizon I could almost wrap my head around. Jay was the Threshold Guardian.

For a week, I hung on Jay’s every word.

I watched how HE conducted himself during the writing workshops and have conducted myself the same ever sense. I led a workshop just last month at a writing convention and the first words out of my mouth during were echoes of what Jay taught me:  the notes he took, the comments made, the ease with which he kept quiet throughout when it was his story being work shopped, comfortable in the knowledge it’s not about him/her or what he/she may learn, it’s just material for the other writers to learn. Maybe someone else would teach me this later. But they hadn’t yet. When Tim Powers started outlining the rules of the workshop and seemed pleased with how Jay was handling it, Jay nodded and replied “I’ve done this before.” It was both bragging and awesome. He’d done it before. I watched him the rest of the day like my future writing career depended on it.

Midweek, I got up the nerve and asked specifically how the hell did HE write SO MUCH. His output was absurd. A story a day phase, he was in. Was it a week? I don’t know. I was writing a story a year. Couldn’t finish a book, and I’d submitted two stories my whole life. Jay’s simple reply: “I never start a new story until I finish the one I’m working on.” That’s it. Done. I’ve sworn by it ever since and give this advice at every single writing event I attend (usually giving Jay full credit). Because Jay Lake said that’s how he got it done… and I already trusted Jay Lake. Within six months after WOTF, I’d FINISHED and then sold my first book and half a dozen short stories.

A college English major, I had the patter down for analyzing/criticizing literature but didn’t really appreciate or understand the craft of fiction writing yet. I’d always been on the other side of the book. And as an advertising copywriter, I was pretty good with the nuts and bolts of words but sorely lacking in the particular devices and choices available to writers. Our in-class assignment, this Jay Lake guy was writing in aggressive present tense and I was thinking: who does that? You can’t do that. That’s “too showy.” (This is what I’d been taught in 1980s creative-writing classes.) Jay had other ideas. I’d been out of college for ten years now, stuck in corporate jobs I loathed, and for the first time in a long time, I was in a room of smart fucking people (writers!) talking about fiction and about writing it. And Lake was clearly the king of room. In a room of really well-read and creative guys, HE just always knew more. The heart and framework of classics, all the “In” literary guys many of us had never heard of and he knew… I realized I had a lot, still, to learn. I wanted to be able to talk to guys like Jay Lake. It was not by chance I was back in graduate school within months of returning from California.

After Hollywood, I never really reached out again. Jay ran in different circles and I still had work to do before I thought I could run in such circles and, also, I’m not very good at reaching out to people. So, I bought and read all his books. And I supported his fight with cancer in quiet ways. And I quoted him directly just three weeks ago in front of two hundred young Ohio writers at their annual award show. And, I do send out my heart and prayers to his family and true friends.

I’m sorry his writing future was not longer. Any I have will be in direct result of five days with Jay.

You can find his books online everywhere. Buy one. Or two.

And/or, if you want to make a contribution in Jay’s name, please make it to:

Clayton Memorial Medical Fund
P.O. Box 5703
Portland, Oregon 97228

Peace, Threshold Guardian. And thanks.


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