Writing chat with Jay Lake

I had an incredibly useful writing chat with a month or so ago, in the midst of chatting about something else, and I found the talk so worthwhile that I saved it–and keep looking at it and looking at it. Finally, because I thought that maybe it would help someone else, too, I asked if I could post it. He said he didn’t mind, so here it is. I hope someone else gets as much out of it as I have.

deannaeditor (7:12:47 AM): I need to get the hang of writing no matter what like you do. I fret too badly about things!
jelakejr (7:13:01 AM): it’s the ‘get out of your own way’ thing
deannaeditor (7:13:04 AM): And I get to wondering what’s going on with it, and check on it, or worry…
jelakejr (7:13:11 AM): have you ever tried fast-writing flash fiction?
deannaeditor (7:13:16 AM): Yeah. I really have to overcome.
jelakejr (7:13:23 AM): just to open up those ‘no matter what’ muscles?

deannaeditor (7:13:26 AM): Yeah. I do well at that.
jelakejr (7:13:31 AM): it’s what I recommend as an exercise
deannaeditor (7:13:40 AM): Okay. I’ll try some more.
deannaeditor (7:13:52 AM): Just to try it for so many minutes a day, or what?
deannaeditor (7:13:58 AM): Or just to get yourself started?
jelakejr (7:14:43 AM): well, at one point in my career (not long after I started being publishable) I started writing it by the boatload
jelakejr (7:14:52 AM): for specific developmental reasons
deannaeditor (7:15:02 AM): *listens*
jelakejr (7:15:04 AM): “I’m going to work on smoother dialog tags and patterns”
jelakejr (7:15:10 AM): “I want a good female characterization”
jelakejr (7:15:14 AM): whatever
deannaeditor (7:15:18 AM): Ah..
jelakejr (7:15:19 AM): because a flash piece does one thing and one thing only
jelakejr (7:15:29 AM): it can be almost *anything* but there’s no room for more than one thing
jelakejr (7:15:36 AM): so there’s some idea or image underlying it
deannaeditor (7:15:38 AM): Right. Like my smut snippet I posted the other day.
jelakejr (7:15:46 AM): and there’s one structural or technical thing happening
jelakejr (7:15:49 AM): exactly
jelakejr (7:15:56 AM): the cool thing about flash, though, secondary effect
jelakejr (7:16:05 AM): is almost anyone can write it straight through at one sitting
jelakejr (7:16:15 AM): whether they’re 300 words per hour or 3,000 words per hour
jelakejr (7:16:20 AM): it’s a digestible chunk
jelakejr (7:16:37 AM): so if you can blap out flash without tripping into analysis paralysis and look-back hell
jelakejr (7:16:48 AM): then you can convince yourself to write a 1,500 word piece that way
jelakejr (7:16:51 AM): then a 3,500 word piece
deannaeditor (7:16:55 AM): Ah…
jelakejr (7:17:00 AM): sneak up on the longer bits as a ‘fast writer’
jelakejr (7:17:08 AM): just like training up for a sport or martial art
jelakejr (7:17:22 AM): doesn’t work for everyone, but it works for enough people that it’s worth trying
deannaeditor (7:17:30 AM): Yeah, the most luck I’ve had writing was in NaNo, because I was able to turn off my internal editor, which is what kills me.
deannaeditor (7:17:40 AM): I will! Thank you!
jelakejr (7:17:41 AM): obviously when you jump from flash to 1,500 (or whatever), you’re adding complexity, which tempts that editor
jelakejr (7:17:52 AM): yes and YOU have an amazingly highly-trained internal editor
jelakejr (7:17:55 AM): it’s what you *do*
deannaeditor (7:18:01 AM): I know.
jelakejr (7:18:02 AM): that’s a nigh crippling handicap as a writer
deannaeditor (7:18:10 AM): It is. I have to fight it.
jelakejr (7:18:22 AM): it’s like being a bicycle designer who worries about gyroscopic precession every time they get on a two wheeler
deannaeditor (7:18:30 AM): Heh.
jelakejr (7:18:31 AM): I’m amazed you don’t fall off every single time
jelakejr (7:18:51 AM): one of my cardinal rules is don’t revise while I’m writing
deannaeditor (7:19:04 AM): Yeah, I do that too.
deannaeditor (7:19:09 AM): But what happens with me…
jelakejr (7:19:20 AM): that’s not literal — I’ll back up and fix a broken sentence if it doesn’t lead on — but I never page back, except very rarely to plant a lookback note for later fixing
deannaeditor (7:19:23 AM): Is that I think I can’t write at all. I sit for hours and come up with no words at all.
jelakejr (7:19:23 AM): :: listens ::
jelakejr (7:19:32 AM): ah
deannaeditor (7:19:42 AM): But what I finally realized was happening is that it wasn’t that I wasn’t *thinking* of anything to write..
jelakejr (7:19:53 AM): mmm…?
deannaeditor (7:19:56 AM): It’s that I was *discarding* every single sentence I came up with.
deannaeditor (7:20:07 AM): It was a breakthrough, at least.
deannaeditor (7:20:18 AM): Now I make myself write the sentences down anyway.
jelakejr (7:20:52 AM): yep
jelakejr (7:20:54 AM): you can always cut them later
deannaeditor (7:21:12 AM): Yeah. And actually, once they’re down, I go back and look, and I like them okay!
jelakejr (7:21:19 AM): I think you have another problem, too maybe
jelakejr (7:21:26 AM): one I’ve only recently overcome
jelakejr (7:21:34 AM): I’ll describe mine, then put it in your terms
deannaeditor (7:21:39 AM): But now I’m trying to think of a new book, and that “idea discarding” is killing me.
jelakejr (7:21:41 AM): I broke in through short stories
jelakejr (7:21:47 AM): won Writers of the Future
jelakejr (7:21:51 AM): won the Campbell
jelakejr (7:22:06 AM): hit the Hugo ballot less than three years after my first publication
jelakejr (7:22:16 AM): had my first collection do very well critically
jelakejr (7:22:22 AM): I mean, I went *long*
deannaeditor (7:22:25 AM): *wows*
jelakejr (7:22:33 AM): so when I start noodling with novels for serious
jelakejr (7:22:44 AM): my novel skills (which is a very different art from short fiction, as you well know)
jelakejr (7:22:54 AM): were on a par with my first-publication short story skills at best
jelakejr (7:23:01 AM): while my short fiction skills
jelakejr (7:23:06 AM): while not up to Big Name Pro level
jelakejr (7:23:13 AM): were quite a bit stronger and visibly growing
jelakejr (7:23:32 AM): so my expectations of myself as a writer (from short fiction) were seriously mismatched to my capabilities as a writer (of novels)
jelakejr (7:23:41 AM): and I had to slog hard
deannaeditor (7:23:42 AM): Ah…
jelakejr (7:23:51 AM): I think I’ve finally broken through that
jelakejr (7:23:52 AM): but it’s new
jelakejr (7:24:17 AM): the last two novels (TRIAL OF FLOWERS and DEATH OF A STARSHIP) were the first two of, um, nine or so, that felt ‘right’
jelakejr (7:24:26 AM): so here’s where it enters your world, I think
jelakejr (7:24:34 AM): you’re a top-of-the-field CE
jelakejr (7:24:42 AM): which is a fiction skill, and a very important one
jelakejr (7:25:08 AM): you’ve got a lot of inner wiring that looks at your original fiction (prose, ideas, process) and says “this isn’t up to my standards”
jelakejr (7:25:29 AM): you need to take that wiring, rip it out, and burn it by the dark of the moon in a fire soaked with brandy
jelakejr (7:25:31 AM): or something
deannaeditor (7:25:38 AM): LOL!!
jelakejr (7:25:43 AM): because writer-Deanna is not the same person as editor-Deanna
deannaeditor (7:25:50 AM): Jay, that is so exactly right.
jelakejr (7:25:53 AM): that was very hard for me to learn (in my version of it)
deannaeditor (7:26:26 AM): Yeah, I’m very demanding of myself.
deannaeditor (7:26:49 AM): And because of that, too, it makes it difficult to know when to quit messing with stuff.
jelakejr (7:26:58 AM): yep
jelakejr (7:27:05 AM): you have to give yourself permission to start over
jelakejr (7:27:08 AM): be a newbie
jelakejr (7:27:13 AM): and quit worrying about that
deannaeditor (7:27:13 AM): I may have stopped noodling with my novel *too soon* just because I figured I’d *never* be happy with it.
jelakejr (7:27:30 AM): then, once the mss is finished, you can hire CE Deanna to go back into it with that highly professional eye
deannaeditor (7:27:41 AM): And that I might as well shove it out there sometime.
deannaeditor (7:27:46 AM): Heh.
deannaeditor (7:28:02 AM): CE Deanna has a hard time looking at her own stuff.
deannaeditor (7:28:19 AM): It’s like trying to be objective about your kids…
deannaeditor (7:28:51 AM): “Of *course* Tommy didn’t mean that! He’d *never* do such a thing!”
jelakejr (7:29:10 AM): heh indeed
jelakejr (7:29:20 AM): you’re going to have to learn your way around that one
jelakejr (7:29:25 AM): as for what you said about ideas
deannaeditor (7:29:27 AM): Yeah, I know.
jelakejr (7:29:35 AM): I’ve begun writing book proposals to MYSELF
jelakejr (7:29:49 AM): as short as a few paragraphs, or maybe ten-fifteen pages long
jelakejr (7:29:51 AM): depending
jelakejr (7:30:00 AM): because that way I can capture an idea
jelakejr (7:30:05 AM): and set it in cold storage
jelakejr (7:30:10 AM): maybe it dies there, maybe it comes back out
jelakejr (7:30:26 AM): but if you did that (proposals don’t require much self criticism, they’re just story notes)…
deannaeditor (7:30:29 AM): That’s a great idea.
deannaeditor (7:30:34 AM): True.
jelakejr (7:30:41 AM): then you could let them age a little, like cheese, and pull them out and see if they’re still shiny
jelakejr (7:30:58 AM): your Inner Writer will have gotten more used to that idea (because you already wrote down part of it before)
jelakejr (7:31:05 AM): and you might be able to step around the idea block
jelakejr (7:31:11 AM): just a suggestion
deannaeditor (7:31:21 AM): That might work!
deannaeditor (7:31:43 AM): Like when I make myself write down sentences I’d otherwise discard and then am happy with them.
deannaeditor (7:31:49 AM): Okay. I’ll do that. Seriously.
deannaeditor (7:32:03 AM): Jay, this has been the most helpful writing talk anyone’s ever had with me.
deannaeditor (7:32:18 AM): Thank you. Very, very much.
jelakejr (7:32:27 AM): well, you’re welcome
jelakejr (7:32:29 AM): I hope it helps

20 thoughts on “Writing chat with Jay Lake”

  1. You know, I read this, and it’s like listening to myself. I have these exact same issues whenever I sit down to write anything; I start editing myself before I’ve even gotten anything written, and even though I know I’m shooting myself in the foot, it is, truly, hard to turn off that internal editor, when I spend the vast majority of my day editing other people’s prose. It’s so nice to know I’m not the only editor who does this.

  2. I agree with the “save and put somewhere, for later use” files — I have, however unoriginially, files named excerpt1, excerpt2, excerpt3 and so on, that began as “cut but save” and are now also inclusive all sorts of other notes. Since I use a Mac, I also tend to cut & paste sticky-bits into those excerpt files, since the stickies are there to use without opening a full file, no matter what else I’m doing.

    Writing flash fiction as a way to steamroller through is tough to get into, but I do agree the “write it now and edit later” is very much a way to ride on through. That’s the only way I’ve learned to do it; you write, get it down, polish later. (Besides, polishing as an entire process instead of write/polish/write/polish cuts down on the chances of repeating words & phrases; that seems to happen most amongst writers who write, polish, take a break, write some more, polish — and the break in continuity means they don’t realize that oh-so-nifty phrase has been used in three of the last six sections.)

    loooong post there, maybe behind a cut after the opening lines, perhaps?

  3. I find it so funny that you had this deep conversation around 7:30 AM.

    Thanks for posting it though! Very helpful as I need to kill copy editor-Paul as well!

  4. Not that I’ve gotten much published, nevermind finished but I wrote one or two stories that way — by just forcing myself to write, no matter how badly it sucked, without looking back. I’ve also found that it’s much easier for me to do this longhand than on a computer. On a computer, it’s too easy to select and delete text. And like you said, once finished, I’ve been able to look at it and realize that it didn’t all suck that badly.

    I love the book proposal idea. Thanks for posting this!

  5. Wow, that is really very helpful indeed — just the kind of thing that hits all my issues. Thank you for posting it.

  6. Hi Deanna Hoak

    Thank for the useful information, perhaps next time you could post a live Mp3
    recording of your session with anyone on the topics.

    BTW, can i post this interesting chat over my blog?

    My Blog

  7. elakejr (7:17:52 AM): yes and YOU have an amazingly highly-trained internal editor
    jelakejr (7:17:55 AM): it’s what you *do*
    deannaeditor (7:18:01 AM): I know.
    jelakejr (7:18:02 AM): that’s a nigh crippling handicap as a writer
    deannaeditor (7:18:10 AM): It is. I have to fight it.
    jelakejr (7:18:22 AM): it’s like being a bicycle designer who worries about gyroscopic precession every time they get on a two wheeler

    I found this exchange of particular interest because I also am an editor — have been a pro at that far longer than I have been a pro writer — and I find that the editorial skills help make teh writing better. It isn’t crippling at all, for me, it’s liberating.

    Interesting stuff…..

  8. Ah, but you sir have subjugated your internal editor to your writing process (as I think has as well, for example). A terrible master but a wonderful servant.

  9. There’s a group on-line that I have participated in that does Flash Fiction Challenges.

    On Friday (though sometimes as early as Thursday) a trigger is provided.
    Members log in and access the trigger. At the moment a member views the trigger the count down starts. They have 90 minutes to write (and edit) whatever story idea comes to mind. Before the 90 minutes the member submits the story.

    The trigger is available until Sunday night. Monday, the stories are divided into groups and posted anonymously. At that point people who see their story in one group go critique the other group’s stories and then vote for their favorite stories in one of several “Best” categories.

    It is a great way to have spontaneous ideas and provides wonderful “butt in chair” time for the writers.

    If you are interested, let me know.

  10. I don’t know whether to be more boggled at how useful this conversation is, or that you were having it at 7:30 in the morning.

  11. I, too, have this problem, as well as many other issues of love/hate with writing.

    //insert 45-minute self-pitying psychiatric rant//

    And I, too, hope to wrok them out in time and move past them.

  12. I keep a master file called “Half-Abandoned Bits” and keep excerpts from all my projects there. A nice sentence about a sunset can migrate from the epic fantasy in some other world to the magical realist comedies on the Jersey shore, and all I have to do is run a search on the word “sunset.”

    Before the age of word processing, the poet Ted Roethke used to keep a fishbowl by his desk. One of his revision methods was to take a razor to his drafts, cutting each line to its own slice of page, and then to arrange the lines into their best possible order. Any lines that didn’t make it into the poem he was working on, he put in the fishbowl. If he sat down to write and nothing came to him, or he got stuck halfway through writing something, he’d just reach into the fishbowl for an abandoned line and see what he could do with it. That famous line with the sidelong pickerel smile migrated from poem to poem before landed in the elegy for his student.

    Never throw anything away.

  13. Interesting. I’ve always had to have some semblance of a plot before I start actually writing. That seems to help. Knowing the end helps me drive there from the beginning.

    But then there’s the problem with getting plot or premise ideas. Sometimes I’ll think of something but it’s only an idea, not a story. If I can’t come up with a plot, I’ll just write something. Usually, this leads to what I call a “misfire”, something that’s not revisable. These I put away to look at later.

    –Steve J

  14. I don’t mind if you link to my blog, but I’d prefer that you do not reprint the post in its entirety.

    Thanks for asking!

  15. 1. this is fantastic. thanks for posting it.

    2. ok, so i have never heard of flash fiction. i write what i call “fragments” sometimes, but this sounds more On Purpose. i’ll google around about this, but in the meantime if anyone has more specific info at hand on this, i’d love to read it.

    i’m going to reread this post a few times. i have been trying unsuccessfully to get past the Editing As I’m Writing thing, and i’m not even an editor. but i *am* slowly learning, if for no other reason than it is incredibly painful to have worked on something for a long time and basically gotten nowhere with it.

    thanks again – jonvon

  16. I have a small file of “things that I cut from my other story/stories” — because I, sadly, sometimes love my own prose too much to lose it entirely, even if it’s bad. (Although I re-read my old Mary Sue-esque stories from way back, and… I had a turn of phrase here and there that wasn’t bad at all. Heh.)

    It helps ease the pain if I know the words still live somewhere, in retirement.

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