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.