The Gutters return!
The Gutters are spaces between brag-worthy milestones and achievements, the space where we spend most of our lives.
In this case, the short seventeen-year sojourn between first published short story (2000) and securing my first traditional book deal (2017) for The Brimstone Files (and pre-order HEX-RATED now! I need money for gas!). Consider this column the antidote to the 1001 books telling you how to be a bestseller, an apex achieved by the One Percent while the rest of us are here, in the gutters where, as Oscar Wilde noted, “some of us are looking at the stars.”
Anywho, when we were last here, I’d just graduated the Odyssey writing workshop (2005). I had a phenomenal time, and you can read about it here, where I challenged my friend and colleague Norm Partridge on his dismissal of writing workshops as a waste.
I was only writing short stories because of my dissertation (available now for a cool $36 bucks!). When I returned home, I kept up the Odyssey momentum by getting a story done every couple of weeks. And in researching production and enthusiasm, I came across an essay by a writer who was something of a phenom in the short story world, Jay Lake.
Jay’s Rules of Writing spoke to me. Lake had a drive and attitude that was smart and pragmatic. He, like Ray Bradbury and others of the “Fast Writing” school, held to the belief in the value of getting a story completed a week. Bradbury famously quipped that you could spend all year writing a lousy novel, but he dared you to write 52 stories and have all of them stink. Lake was even more voracious, arguing that constant production would create your voice, not just writing out the bad stuff. He was also one among the “fast writing” school who believed that revisions were both good and necessary (a truth many fast writers deny, stupidly).
So naturally, I read more about his career. His short story output was scary. He sold to tiny markets and major ones. He edited an esteemed anthology series. He won the Campbell Award for Best New Writer (2004) and published a single novel with a small publisher. He had a blog that often discussed the “process” of writing (as well as politics, parenting, reviews, and NSFW stuff on sex that I found perplexing). I found Lake’s dedication to short fiction, writing, and discovering voice through enthusiastic production a siren song. A writer who was so relentless and positive appealed to this perpetual workaholic.
I didn’t like Jay Lake’s fiction. At all. Full stop.
I was actually stunned at how much his work didn’t speak to me, considering how much I appreciated his method. His talent was undeniable, and he clearly loved his work and making it and exploring it. But in a year where I only read short fiction, I never finished his collection. When he switched to novels and became a rising midlist star, I hoped maybe they’d speak to me. But they didn’t. In hindsight, I was a horror and crime guy with deeper roots in realism than the fantastical, and Lake’s canvas dipped heavily into “sense of wonder” territory that left me frigid or bored.
Sadly, this disconnect soured me on Lake’s growing media persona a bit, and, honestly, I was jealous of his success as the fastest gun in the genre world when it came to short fiction. Hell, Lake got to be the “cool fast writer” of his generation first! No fair! Other passions soon consumed me, and Lake’s impact on my life diminished. Still, the fact that I didn’t like his work didn’t mean it was bad, or that he was a bad guy, right? So in 2008 I reached out and interviewed him for an article I wrote with Justin Howe at Clarkesworld Magazine about the influence of role playing games on writers of fantastical fiction. He was nice. His answers fit alongside current gods of genre like Jeff VanderMeer, Catherynne M. Valente, and China Mieville. Cool beans.
Sadly, Lake died in 2014 after a harrowing and public battle with cancer. He left an impressive body of work behind that I will likely never read. But his impact on me as a novice, driven, and relentless writer was deep. Hell, I still use Jay’s Rules in my own writing classes. In a funny way, one of my most profound influences as a young scribe is a guy whose work I didn’t care for. I suspect he’d get a kick out of that.
Instead, I was writing under the influence of dark writers who were also winning awards in short fiction, tiny markets and major ones, and earning mad respect through cult followings just as the small press horror world was recovering from the horror bust of the 1990s. While Lake shot for the stars, I walked into the shadows of East Texas and Cedar Hill, Ohio with pit stops to the Pacific North West and darker spots in between. It was here I learned to write with emotional grit and intensity through a lot of fucking horrible stories.