Jay Lake and the Story a Week Experiment

Jay has often talked about his story a week experiment, and I was intrigued when he went into greater detail last year at Paradise Lost. Here, Jay shares what he learned about writing during that time.

Tamago: Can you explain what the short story a week process is? It may seem obvious (ie you write a short story a week), but how did you decide when you’d done a story? First drafts? Multiple drafts? Give us an insight into the process.

Jay: My definition was a first draft complete every week. I didn’t place word count limits, so it could be anything from flash to novella length work. All I required of my self was to type “the end” by
midnight Saturday night every week. I did this for several years.

Obviously (or perhaps not) I needed to allow time for revisions, edits, workshopping, marketing stories, and so forth. But for me personally, the basic discipline of generating first drafts led naturally to those other steps.

Tamago: Why did you decide to embark on the short story a week challenge?

Jay: It was kind of an accident. In December of 2000, I decided to write a story a week for the month, as I had recently begun attending a weekly workshop, the Wordos in Eugene, OR. That was mostly an effort to kick start myself after the disruption of an interstate move to Oregon earlier that year, and the general chaos of having a small child in the house.

December went pretty well, so I set a similar goal for the first quarter of 2001. That went pretty well, so I double dog dared myself to do it for the entire year of 2001. Eventually, it just became a habit.

Tamago: Under what conditions did you complete a short story a week? For example, some writers might say, “Sure, I could do that if I wasn’t working full time?” Were you? What other responsibilities and obligations did you have? Given those responsibilities and obligations, how did you find time to complete a short story a week?

Jay: Working full time in a white collar job with a high travel commitment. Also having a pre-school age child at home at that point. So, yeah, a lot going on. How I found the time was by not watching television (I cut off my cable in 1994 when I realized it was distracting me from my ability to write), not playing console or online games (gave that up in 1998) and not going to a lot of movies, concerts, plays or parties. I stayed home and wrote whenever time allowed, and I used my downtime
for writing.

Honestly, I think most people would have plenty of time to write if they gave up an hour of television or gaming every day. Usually when I say that folks get pretty irritated with me. That is *not* a value
judgement about television or gaming. It is a comment on personal priorities.

Tamago: How many short stories did you write during this time? Approximately how many of these stories did you publish?

Jay: Between December of 2000 and December of 2001 (13 months) I wrote about 65 stories. I kept that pace up for almost three more years, before novel writing caused me to reset my productivity metrics. It’s kind of hard to write a novel a week, unless you’re Lionel Fanthorpe.

Tamago: What changes did you see in your writing as you progressed?

Jay: Recall that I was working with a weekly workshop. So I was getting constant feedback and direction from both peers and pros. What I saw was enormous growth in a fairly short period of time in most areas of my art and craft.

Think about it this way. If you write a story every month for your workshop, and you’re diligent, you’ll write twelve stories in a year. For most people, that’s a very respectable output. I managed five years of personal and professional growth in one year thanks to my story a week rubric.

I do not recommend this for everyone, or even for most people. It worked for *me*. It would be profoundly destructive to the writing process of some other authors. The best I can say is try it for a month and see. The essential lesson is learning to finish work in a timely manner — every writer needs to understand that. Story a week was just my mechanism for doing so.

Tamago: You now write novels as well as short stories. Are any of the skills you learned from writing short stories applicable to writing novels?

Jay: In a general sense, yes. They really are different crafts. Being disciplined and deadline oriented, creating clean manuscripts, good line editing and revision skills — those apply across the board. On a finer tuned basis, short stories and novels are different in the same way cabinet making and framing carpentry are different. Fundamentally similar tools and materials, being applied in very different ways.

Tamago: Did you ever abandon a story or not make it through a week?

Jay: Oh, perhaps two or three times in the four years or so I did this. The thing is, even when a story feels like it’s going bad or lost its way, finishing the story still requires good discipline.

Tamago: Why would you recommend this process to a writer who is looking to improve?

Jay: I wouldn’t necessarily do so. As I said above, I don’t recommend this for everyone. But if you’re a writer who’s relatively fast, story a week plays to your strengths and allows you to develop new talents. If you’re a writer who sweats bullets to put out two or three hundred words in a writing day, story a week will make you insane. Good judgment is essential!

Tamago: Is there anything about the short story a week process that was a negative?

Jay: A lot of people were critical of me for writing too fast or rushing my work or setting a bad example for other writers. I’ll let my publication and award history speak for itself on that one.

Tamago: Would you recommend this process to a writer at any particular stage of their craft?

Jay: As a thought experiment, absolutely. As a practice, probably not. Like I said, try it for a month and see how it feels. But writing shouldn’t be a death march. If it’s not fun in some emotionally useful fashion, you might want to consider approaching the craft differently. (Granted that for some people struggling is part of the fun.) If you’re going to do it, early career is a good time, when your professional and time investments to date are modest and you’re looking for a boost.

Author: Catherine Schaff-Stump

Catherine Schaff-Stump writes fiction for children and young adults. Her most recent book, The Vessel of Ra, is the first book in the Klaereon Scroll series. She is currently working on its sequel, as well as penning the middle grade adventures of Abigail Rath, monster hunter.

2 thoughts on “Jay Lake and the Story a Week Experiment”

  1. Thanks for sharing this. I want to try something like this, but I’m *not* a fast writer by nature, so it’s good to have a sense of both the potential upside and the potential pitfalls.

  2. Jay, you are an inspiration. I already host a 12×12 short story challenge and have been toying with the idea of doing a story a week, and this wonderful interview has given me the push.

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