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A Writer’s Ambitions

January 20, 2012

Author David B. Coe recently blogged about the topic of writing and ambition on the Magical Words blog community.  It was a thought-provoking post.  As it happens, this is a topic about which I’ve spent some thought, myself.  And as it further happens, when I see a thought-provoking post on a topic on which I’ve already spent some thought, I decided I should subject you, my faithful readers, to the rest of my thoughts on the subject.

Coe suggests three kinds of ambition in his post, and I’m going to address the three types with regards to my own ambitions. 

Fame! Fortune! Critical Acclaim! Bestseller Lists!

The first type he calls “Material Ambition“, by which he means the ambition to win awards, make tons of sales, gain recognition and fame for our work, to make more than a comfortable living on it, and so on.  Of this type I say: what writer doesn’t have this sort of ambition, and in spades?  I’ll tell you at least one who does: this guy.  And by “this guy” I mean me.  Yeah, I’m sure it comes as no surprise.  I want to win awards.  I want to be recognized for my writing.  I want to be a bestseller.  I want to live off the income my writing generates.  But I frankly take this as a given.  Nobody sits down to write and says: “I want to labor in total obscurity and anonymity.  I don’t want anyone to read this, and heavens forbid anybody should praise it as being of value or worth!”  Maybe not every writer sits down and thinks about their material ambitions consciously, but somewhere in the back of most writers’ heads is the unstated assumption that they believe in the merits of what they are doing, or else they wouldn’t be doing them.

For myself, if I don’t believe in a story that I’m writing, I won’t finish it.  And part of believing in what I write is the belief that others who read it will enjoy it.  For instance, I haven’t yet written a single word of first draft for “Book of M” – but I believe that it has the potential to be a very good story.  I believe that it will be powerful, moving, touching, frightening, and epic.  I believe it could be a bestseller, with the right support and polish.  If I have the skill to pull it off.  And that belief feeds the ambition.  If it can be those things, then I want it to be those things.

But this is the type of ambition over which I have the least control to achieve, and on which I spend the least amount f thought.

You Wrote How Much?

The second type Coe describes is “Output Ambition“.  This is the ambition that says “I will write X number of stories, or finish Y number of books, or write Z words of first draft”.  I’ve seen a lot of stuff lately that has led me to believe that a successful writer is, more-often-than-not, a prolific writer.  It’s not a perfect 1-for-1 correlation, mind you, but there’s some evidence to suggest that in general, and especially all other factors being equal, an author with more books/stories/etc. will be more successful than one with fewer.

I believe I’m being very output ambitious this year, subject to the limitations of my circumstances.  In my 2012 Goals post, I indicated that I wanted to produce upwards of over 80,000 words of first draft, combined between “Book of M” and at least two short stories.  In the last two years total I only wrote in the neighborhood of 30,000 worth of first draft – or around 15,000 words per year on average.  If I can achieve 80,000 words, that will be a substantial improvement – an over 500% increase in productivity.

But I also have a fair share of output envy.  There are numerous writers on the web who can boast of producing 80,000 words worth of first draft in only a few months.  These folks are producing two or three novel drafts per year, plus dozens of short stories.    Envy is perhaps not a strong enough word to describe how I feel about that.  (And remember, kids, envy is one of the seven deadly sins, so that’s a pretty strong word.)  Really, it’s not output envy, per se, but time envy.  I could write a lot more, too, if I had the time.  Those planned 80,000 words for 2012: that’s based on an assumption of 1,000 words per hour for two hours per week.  But let’s say I had a more regular, more reliable writing schedule?  Instead of 2-3 reliable hours per week (sometimes more and sometimes less, but generally 2-3 reliably), but instead had 2-3 reliable hours per day, 5 days per week?  If my 1,000 words per hour expectation is accurate, that would be over 10,000 words per week.  With the same 41-week-schedule I’m giving myself in 2012, that would be over 400,000 words.  I’ve noted all this before (and in further detail) in a post on productivity.  In short: I could write a lot more – I want to write a lot more – but I’m constrained in the near-to-medium term.  In the meantime, I think I’m being quite ambitious within those constraints.

Ambition That Means Something

But the third type of ambition is the most interesting: “Creative Ambition“.  And on a day-to-day basis, this is the ambition I think about – and worry about – the most.  Creative ambition is the drive to create something new, something innovative, something complex, something sophisticated.  It’s the ambition to stretch ourselves and our skills and capabilities, to push to our own creative boundaries, and then to break the old barriers.

I’ve spent most of my life, off and on and going back to my early childhood, writing the same book (around here I call it “Project SOA #1“).  It was to be the first in an epic fantasy series.  Throughout my teens and early twenties, my ambitions for this project grew.  Not three books, but five!  Not five books, but maybe ten!  The plot would span a whole world, across five continents with at least two or three major political powers on each continent.  I’d planned to have a number of fully-articulated, functional languages, and an intricate linguistic backdrop that tied the history of the languages together.  The world’s history would span no less than fifteen thousand years, and I’d  have figured out all the major legends and important historical events.  I could go on.  It was going to be epic.  No… it was going to be EPIC!!!!!!111!!ONE!

Creative ambition?  Check.  I got that.

Except, somewhere along the way, I realized that my ambition for the book had far exceeded my capabilities as a writer.  Not by just a little, mind you.  I was a boy scout with a bottle rocket trying to reach the moon.  I simply was not equipped to succeed.  At last I admitted to myself that the whole concept for the story was weighed down by every fantasy trope and cliché that I could possibly throw at the thing.  Orphan boy hero?  Check.  Magic sword? Check.  Princess in peril?  Check.  Hero becomes the true king?  Check and check.  Unaccountably, world-destroyingly evil villain?  Why, check, of course.  Hey, let’s play a game!  Name a fantasy trope/cliché.  I’ll bet I can find an example of it from my planned novel series. 

Not that there’s anything wrong with any of those things, on their own.  But in aggregate, I simply lacked the skill to synthesize all of this into a satisfying and successful book.  I was insufficiently prepared to tackle all those tropes in a way that would be fresh and engaging to readers.  Iwas, I discovered, writing the quintessential “Fantasy Heartbreaker”: that is, a fantasy novel doomed to disappoint not only any reader unlucky enough to come across the manuscript, but to disappoint its author for having failed utterly to match his or her ambitions. 

The scope and scale of my creative ambition was too great.  I knew I had to dial it back.  Not a 9-or10-book-series, but a single, stand-alone novel… or at most, a trilogy. Not a dozen Tolkienesque artificial languages, but one or two half-formed embryonic languages with a consistent phonology but only hints at a morphology and grammar and very little by way of a lexicon. Not the bones of a half-dozen common fantasy races (Elves, Dwarves, and Orcs, etc.) recast in my own molds, but only humans. Not the affairs of many powerful nations and empires spanning five separate continents, but the affairs of only two powerful nations sharing the same continent, and only hints of something else beyond. No magic swords (besides: what, really, do I know about swords?), no horse-steeds (and what, really, do I know about horses?), and so on. Basically: strip out all the typical fantasy clichés and focus on the few things I can write about with authority. (Except, as it turns out, “Book of M” is heavily Steampunk flavored… and what, really, do I know about steam engines? I guess I’ll have to find out.)

As I started work on “Book of M”, though, I began to worry.  Worry that I’d scaled back my ambition too far.  Was I stretching my abilities?  In writing this book, am I addressing serious, mature themes?  Am I courageous enough to put my protagonist through the wringer?  Will “Book of M” pass the Bechdel Test?  Is a single, stand-alone novel sufficiently epic?

Some of these questions nag at me.  But in other cases, I really do feel like “Book of M” is stretching me.  As I ruminate on Coe’s article, though, it becomes clear to me: it’s not stretching me enough.  “Project SOA” was too ambitious.  But “Book of M” is not ambitious enough.  It’s almost there… but not quite.  I’m not sure what I need to do to, yet, to amp up the creative ambition on this tale.  But I know I need to push myself just a little harder, just a little farther, to make this something to be proud of.

What about  you?  Do you have writerly ambitions?  What are they?  How about creative ambition?  Share your thoughts in the comments.

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34 Comments leave one →
  1. January 20, 2012 5:05 pm

    This post had me thinking for a while as well. The first two don’t concern me as much as the last. As with anything, if you take risks, you might also fail spectacularly. On the one hand, many people like things that are familiar, but I think most creatives want to push the boundaries somehow. There’s an intersection point between the two that = publishable, and it’s easy to miss the mark. These are just some nebulous thoughts.

    I wouldn’t worry about a lack of creative ambition. It’s your first novel, which means, at this point, all ambition, and a bar by which you will know what you can accomplish from henceforth. I’m confident you’ll push your limits several times over by the time you’re done.

    • January 23, 2012 11:21 am

      Right you are, I think, at the intersection of “push-the-boundaries” and “familiar”. What’s especially difficult is that the sweet spot of that intersection is a moving target. For different readers, the perfect intersection is different – some want more “push-the-boundaries” and some want more “familiar”. As an artist myself, I struggle in part with where I want to put myself on that intersection not only terms of marketability, but also in terms of my own personal artistic preferences. I read and write fantasy fiction in part because of how strongly myths and legends and stories that have been passed down from ancient days through modern, and I want to reflect that rich history in my own work. Too much reflection of those ancient myths one-way-or-the-other, though, and you get rewrites of “Lord of the Rings” or of the original myths themselves… and there’s little that’s satisfying in that, either for writer or reader. I do worry about the ambition of my current project, though, because I already know I’m perfectly capable of writing 100+ thousand words of tripe. I’m trying to do something more than that, something that’s actually good

  2. January 20, 2012 6:36 pm

    Reading this post of yours is especially timely for me, as I just posted about my own short-term goals. But I didn’t really say anything about my greater long-term ambitions.

    To sum it up in a general way, I’m aiming to be able to make a living writing fiction. That means not only being widely read enough to be on bestseller lists, but to sell movie rights and foreign printing prints to my work. Right now, my plan for accomplishing that is really only as detailed as A) write stuff that’s awesome, B) get said awesome stuff published, C) promote the hell out of it once said awesome stuff is published.

    My overall creative goal is to write fiction in genres I enjoy that’s also enjoyed by a wide enough variety of people that it’s not considered “genre” fiction. Don’t worry, if I ever hit on the alchemical formula for accomplishing that, I’ll let you know.

    Nice post by the way.

    • January 23, 2012 11:28 am

      I appreciate the heads-up on the alchemical formula! If you find it first, that could save me from years of toiling in my own secret underground laboratory… It’s funny, as I’m thinking about your “making a living” goals, it comes to mind that there’s very little wiggle-room in the space between “struggling, starving author” and “fabulously wealthy, multiple-bestseller author”. There are authors who have carved a niche in the “make a comfortable living” space who are neither struggling nor fabulously wealthy (at least by my own personal standards)… but it seems like once you get to the “bestseller” stage, things start snowballing. One bestseller often begets another. And bestsellers often also beget movie deals and other tie-ins, at which point the income stream starts looking in the direction of more than just “comfortable”. It’d be interesting to see an analysis of how these sorts of things break down for different authors at different stages of their careers, and at different career levels.

  3. January 20, 2012 7:46 pm

    Material Ambition? Oh, yes; the usual.
    Output Ambition? Well, as far as I know, I’ll always want to be writing (there’s serious withdrawal to deal with, otherwise), and I tend to crank out drafts pretty fast, so output will necessarily follow.
    Creative Ambition? To write stories that I would want to read even if I hadn’t been the one to write them. In can be tricky to tell if I’m accomplishing that, because I *did* write them, so there will always be that bias. Even so, that is ever my aim. In that same vein, I want to create characters I would love even were they not mine. And of course, feeling that I’ve written something original* is fabulous.
    *New takes on old formula fairytales count.

    • January 23, 2012 11:57 am

      Writng the story you’d want to read is a pretty commong (and I think probably useful) bit of advice given to authors that I’ve seen. It helps on multiple levels: if you wouldn’t enjoy reading it, you may not enjoy writing it. And if you don’t enjoy writing it, you may not believe in it… and so on.

  4. January 21, 2012 12:39 am

    I’m not sure I recognize myself anywhere in this. 🙂

    Let’s start with the easy one. Output Ambition? Nope. I’m trying to write less, not more. I’ve already written a 170,000-word novel, and I’m damn sure not going to write another one. Fewer words for me.

    Material Ambition? Not really. And in your first paragraph in this section, you seem to be conflating worth (artistic) with worth (money). In my experience, these are two different criteria, with no direct relationship. Some good writing becomes popular, but a lot of what’s popular is badly written (we can all think of examples, I know). Some excellent writing is not popular at all. I was thinking about this today. Would Henry James get a publishing contract in 2012? Unlikely. What about Thomas Pynchon? A writer with no public persona, no tweets, no blog, no self-promotion, no photographs, no interviews, in an era when we hear over and over how publishers expect writers to do a lot of that themselves? And a writer who can go for a decade or more between books? Unlikely. but the books are as good as ever.

    I think publication and fame and fortune and other material success are certainly worthy goals, but they’re not an indication of (or a result of) quality.

    So, on one hand, do I want to live off of my writing? I don’t think my writing has that much commercial potential. Do I want to “labor in obscurity”? Well, it’s not “labor” (it’s about the most fun thing I can imagine doing, in fact) and I don’t care one way or the other about the obscurity question. And I certainly do think that my work has merit (if anything, it pleases me more than it really should). So, I don’t think I have Material Ambition.

    Creative Ambition is the one that interests me. Creating “create something new, something innovative, something complex, something sophisticated.” I think that is what I do (I told you my work pleased me), but I don’t “worry” about it, and that’s not how I gauge its success or failure. And I’m not trying to “stretch ourselves and our skills and capabilities, to push to our own creative boundaries, and then to break the old barriers.” I’m still exploring the limits of the thing I’ve been doing for the last 22 years, and I will probably continue to work in that area for the rest of my writing life. That’s enough of a challenge for me (especially at 15 years per novel). It’s like someone asked Eric Idle of Monty Python if he ever considered moving into dramatic acting, and he said, “I’m still trying to figure out comedy.”

    Sorry for going on so long, but these are interesting questions.

    • January 23, 2012 12:26 pm

      I think you maybe misunderstood the thing about “output ambition”, possibly because of poor use of examples on my part. It’s not about producing longer works, but about producing more in general: be that more works in number or longer in size or some combination thereof. I suppose you might want to write less, in general, but anyway… I just wanted to clear up that it doesn’t translate as “write longer books”.

      As for “material ambition”, I did try to include qualifiers like “most” and “many”. I recognize that there are some writers who write mostly or perhaps even exclusively out of non-material motivations: those who write for only artistic reasons, or for self-expression, or simply because they see writing as a necessary qualification for their own sanity. But I think the whole thing flows from what I said about most writers believing in their work, and once that’s established, many writers then start to think about how they can then profit from those efforts. If you believe in it, and think it’s good, maybe others will to? And if they agree, maybe they’d pay money for it the same as they pay money to other authors to read their work. The ambition builds from there. Not every writer will have it, certainly some will eschew it entirely, but few that I know lack that particular ambition at least at some level. Still… I think recognizing a line between the marketability of your work as opposed to the sheer enjoyment you get from writing it doesn’t necessarily disqualify you from having some material ambition. It might be as simple as saying that you’re a realist. (I’m something of a realist, myself, about my chances to achieve anything substantive at a material level. There’s my ambition, but then there’s the part where I square that ambition with what I think is likely to happen. They don’t square very well. That said, like you, I enjoy writing, and I will do it even if I cannot ever hope to match my material ambitions.)

      As for creative ambition… I think you’ve clearly got that. If you’re still exploring the limits of the genre and projects you’ve been working on, that’s pushing a boundary. You haven’t reached the full limits yet, or fully explored it, and it sounds like you’re interested in continuing that exploration. I wouldn’t, for instance, even think to suggest that a Monty Python fellow wasn’t “creatively ambitious” because they weren’t interested in pursuing “drama” over “comedy”. That would be to imply there was something creatively lacking in their work in comedy – that it wasn’t sufficiently ambitious enough in and of itself. And I think that’s clearly not born out in the Monty Python corpus. Limiting yourself to a chosen genre or a chosen story-line does not alone, I think, demonstrate a lack of creative ambition.

      • January 25, 2012 10:51 am

        I’ve been thinking about this, and I guess I might have Creative Ambition. It certainly doesn’t feel like it, though. Mostly it feels like trying to write books that I would be entertained by.

      • January 27, 2012 9:05 am

        Yeah, I think so. Maybe material ambition is fairly particular in what it represents; output ambition is pretty specific: writing more. But Creativity isn’t any one thing; it’s a pretty multi-faceted driver that manifests in many different ways.

  5. January 21, 2012 9:36 am

    A perennially interesting topic. I’m not sure for myself; knowing that I want to write is easy but some days I question how much I want to be published, and why. My actual professional training is potentially much more lucrative, haha, so I don’t think it’s about the money. I think publication would be nice as a signifier of quality and/or recognition (ie, proof to acquaintances that I am a Real Author) and if nothing else, the thought of it encourages me to improve.

    • January 21, 2012 11:03 am

      Kara, I think publication (in some form — web, print, ebook, whatever) is also important because it’s a statement — to the writer and the readers — that a particular work is Done. I think this is important, because otherwise everything is always in a state of perpetual revision, and (at least for me) that can get depressing.

      When I was in my forties I had two unfinished noveds, and that really bugged me, so I decided to finish (and publish) them both by the time I turned fifty. That really felt good, and it freed me up to work on new projects.

      • January 23, 2012 12:37 pm

        That’s an interesting theory/outlook on publication and completion. Publication as a psychological marker of completion, freeing the creator to pursue new creations. It suggests some obligation, compulsion, or subservience on the part of the author/creator to the creation, necessitating a final, authorial completion. Curious… curious idea… A creator subservient to the creation… hmm…

      • January 23, 2012 1:42 pm

        Well, having spent about fifty percent of my writing years on typewriters and fifty percent on computers, this is mostly a reaction to how, on the computer (and specifically on the web), it’s so easy to always go back and fiddle with things, in ways you’d never do if it meant retyping the whole manuscript. Don’t get me wrong, computers are great, but I think they’re why I feel the need o be definitive about being done. I’m not in a hurry to get there, but I like to know when I’ve arrived.

      • January 24, 2012 6:38 am

        I hadn’t thought of it that way before but you’re right, I have definitely been held back from creating new works because old ones were sitting there taunting me. 🙂 Something to keep in mind.

    • January 23, 2012 12:32 pm

      Your points are similarly relevant to me, as well. Like you, my professional training is likely to be more lucrative than publication will ever be. (That said, the upside potential of a writing career is probably at least as good or probably better than the upside of my professional training – and just as unlikely to occur as it is for my profession, though for differing reasons. But the median income on down the line of my professional path is probably higher than the median for authors.) That’s partly why my writing-based “material ambitions” are so high: they’d have to be to recoup the lost real-job income that I’d lose if I went writing full-time. So, of course, I’m not holding my breath on publication. But the recognition: yeah… that would be especially meaningful to me as well. But I can’t feed my family with industry-recognition.

      • January 24, 2012 6:59 am

        >>> But I can’t feed my family with industry-recognition.

        Exactly! Which hampers my “material ambition” somewhat; I always tell myself if I’m after money, there are easier ways to go about it. I know that’s not the right way to go about “material success” in writing, of course, but still.

      • January 24, 2012 10:05 am

        Ultimately… I think, you can’t write for the money. (At least, I can’t.) It’s got to be for other reasons. But wanting to be successful – being ambitious about your work – is a natural extension of wanting to write at our highest possible level. In part I think that’s because we easily equate material success with the success of our favorite books (and with their quality). If what we’re writing is as good as we think it is, then wouldn’t material success flow naturally from that? That’s the way the logic in our lizard brains works, anyway. Anyway… striving to write at our best is, I think, the higher goal, and if we can do that then maybe then we can learn what we need to work the material angle as well.

  6. romancingforthrills permalink
    January 21, 2012 12:22 pm

    I think for me the main driver is creative ambition, although I have to be honest and say there’s an element of material ambition in there too (I do want my book to be published and for people to enjoy reading it, but I’m not fussed on the fame part).

    What I find exciting is following the story from the spark of inspiration to the final, fully shaped, novel – it’s like solving a puzzle and once the characters have me in their power I find that the output is no problem – i have to write everyday, even if it’s at 5.30am before work or by the pool on holiday. I can’t rest until the story is told.

    • January 23, 2012 12:40 pm

      I think creative ambition is probably the main driver for most writers. Material ambition is adjunct to creative ambition, and output ambition further adjunct to both of those. I think it’s worth noting, too, that material success is at least partially contingent on your stated goals for creative success: not resting until the story is told. Finishing the story is not alone sufficient for material success, but it’s a necessary precondition.

  7. January 23, 2012 5:03 am

    Fame! Fortune! Freedom to explore my creativity without being worried about whether doing so will mean my children can’t eat tonight! A shelf (or two) (or six) dedicated to my own books! Recognition that I’ve done something in my chosen genre that no one else has done before!

    Yeah, I’ll take one with the lot, thanks.

    • January 23, 2012 8:54 am

      And don’t forget about the movie deals! And make sure you get script and director approval! 🙂

      • January 23, 2012 12:44 pm

        You know, I’ve seen an interesting case recently made by an author as to why not to push the issue of “script approval” and the like: novel writers are good at novel writing, whereas script writers are good at script writing, and what makes for a successful novel does not necessarily make for a successful movie/teleplay – and that the challenges of writing in the one are sufficient challenge for a career, without adding in learning a new form. I don’t know if it’s a good argument to absolve one’s self, as a writer, from all involvement in non-written-media adapations of one’s work, but it’s an interesting argument.

      • January 23, 2012 1:22 pm

        Oh, from the POV of an ambitous novelist, I might push for script approval. From the POV of a moviegoer, though, I want the screenwriter and directot to be as merciless as necessary with the novel in order to make a good movie. Your point is important (different skill set) , but there’s also the fact that nobody is the best editor of their own work, in any medium.

      • January 23, 2012 1:28 pm

        Indeed. The angle that I’d hoped to work – if I ever get to this point, which is highly unlikely – is that I want a creative consultation gig. Let the scriptwriters and movie directors do their thing (provided I get good folks on those parts, which is not a given; heavens forbid I get the Uwe Boll treatment). But come to me for questions about how the world I’m portraying works, or what things ought to look like. In my mind, a movie adaptation of a book ought to be complementary, covering things movies can do better and leaving out things that books do better, but recognizably in the same world. Alternately, I’ll just demand Peter Jackson.

    • January 23, 2012 12:41 pm

      Check, check, and check! And would you like fries with that? 🙂

  8. January 23, 2012 10:17 pm

    Better to aim high and miss. A book is a lot of work, regardless of pace, and I wish you luck (and fame and fortune) with the whole endeavor.

    • January 24, 2012 9:30 am

      It is indeed a lot of work. I’m trying to take an “aim for the stars, hit the moon” approach on this, which is scaled back somewhat from my “aim for neighboring galaxies” approach before. Thanks!

      • January 24, 2012 8:39 pm

        That’s the key. Every body always talks about how few writers actually get published, but really, most people give up somewhere along the way. And there’s still plenty of room on the moon.

      • January 24, 2012 8:46 pm

        Connor — I couldn’t agree more. People rant and rave about how miniscule your chance is to be published, but the majority of people give up somewhere along the way. But if you were to only look at the people who (a) finish writing their book, (b) finish editing their book, (c) take on board critical feedback from peers/readers and edit their book again, (d) learn the appropriate skills to query an agent/publisher, and (e) be prepared to try and try again, going back to any of these steps as much as necessary, I would suggest that the percentage chance of traditional publication is pretty good.

        Save me some of that moon real estate, hey?

      • January 25, 2012 8:36 am

        You know, that’s an interesting way of looking at it. I’ve performed a thought experiment, before, to estimate the number of aspiring fantasy/spec fic authors (and the number was staggering). But this is an interesting reverse-thought-experiment to unravel that huge number of aspiring writers. And a good argument for perserverance.

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