I made the conscious decision to make a serious go at writing around about ten years ago, during a holiday with my wife (then fiancée), and set about pulling together an epic fantasy that was pretty much 100% ideation, and 0% planning. I had no idea how I was going to approach the task, so set about doing what most would-be writers, particularly of genre fiction, end up doing, and that’s worldbuilding.
But I did eventually get myself around to writing the damn thing, and after about eight drafts I realised it was no bloody good (it had its charms, I suppose, but didn’t really have anything to say), and so I dumped it.
Back then, my writing aspirations pretty much amounted to, “I want to be a writer.” That’s a pretty low-resolution ambition. It’s a strange thing that writers spend a lot of time capturing the thing we want to write, but don’t spend a great deal of time writing about what we want to do with it. I believe that’s a mistake. I’ve come to realise that there’s great utility in capturing, in the same sort of detail that we use in our creative writing, the ambitions we have in which the desire to write nests itself.
Ok, so let’s thrash this out a bit by returning to the phrase, “I want to be a writer.” I reckon 99% of writers start with this, and they go about it by simply writing. That’s a pretty good start, but might not be quite as powerful as it could be by aligning it with a plan, or a sort of roadmap that charts the way from where you are to where you want to be. It gives a greater deal of resolution to the picture. And it attaches some real-world, tangible, measurements by which you can gauge the success of that phrase, ” I want to be a writer.”
For example, what do you mean by it? Do you want to write a first draft? That’s pretty good. Do you want to publish something? Do you want somebody else to publish something of yours? How about having somebody publish your work and it be commercially successful? Or critically acclaimed? Or even both? Ok, now we’re really cooking, but we’re talking orders of magnitude of greater difficulty compared to simply writing something.
The problem with adding these degrees of specificity to your goals is that one also widens the specific criteria for failure. If you’re trying to hit the bullseye of a dartboard, the area of the bullseye compared to the rest of the dartboard is tiny. Hell, even the dartboard itself is pretty small compared to the entire wall on which it hangs – just hitting the board is hard enough. If you’re not that fussed about completing a first draft, then you can write, and sort of claim to be a writer. You’ve not really succeeded but you’ve not really failed either, because your definitions of success remain at their fuzziest level. So there’s a kind of inverse motivation for keeping definitions fuzzy; it means we can keep doing something and never fail.
But why shouldn’t we try to ratchet up the difficulty level of what we’re trying to achieve? Is difficulty a reason not to do something? Evidently not, as tens of thousands of wannabe writers (myself included) subject themselves to the Sisyphean task of submitting manuscripts to agents and publishers. What the vast majority of people don’t seem to have is a plan.
I’ve been as guilty as anyone of this, It was only after I subbed my first round of manuscripts for The Green Man that I decided to stop this madness. I sent out ten subs, got ten rejections, and something in the back of my mind said, No! If you’re serious about this, you can’t just send stuff off into the ether. There are too many external variables way out of your control, any one of which could knock you out of the game. So I stopped subbing, and I began to think.
I started Chronscast with some rather nebulous ideas of what it could be. To talk to some interesting people. Perhaps learn some new things, or get exposed to some new books, films, and ideas that otherwise would have passed me by. Maybe to open a few doors and opportunities. But the most attractive aspect of starting Chronscast was the precise intellectual and artistic control I could take over what I wanted it to be in creating it and then sending it to the outside world, with no gatekeepers or doormen to go through.
I realised something as I went about the process of planning and curating episodes. I wanted to make the best possible podcast I could. Invite high quality guests. Initiate and steer a high-quality discussion of great books and films, taking it seriously. Feature excellent guest spots and additional content. I could control that. I could plan it. And I did plan it.
Ok, so now I’m at the point where I can consider raising my ambitions still more. How about being the best SFF podcast for readers and writers? That’s something to aim for. How about being an award-winning podcast? That would be pretty sweet. How about gaining a million listeners? That really is aiming for the stars. But why not? At least I have a more precise idea of where I’m headed, and can plan my journey accordingly. Writing these things down, capturing the specificity of the ambition is risky, because I’m precisely setting out the conditions for failure. It’s also where the external factors begin to rear their heads; those boggy swamps and treacherous valleys where things can go most awry. But also where the riches are greatest.
I don’t believe we should be frightened of aiming high, and of stating exactly what aiming high looks like in our own sphere of activity. Why not write down what your ambitions are, in as much detail as you can bear yourself to capture? And in public? Why not do it in the comments below?
It’s kind of scary, but kind of liberating, too. The failure may still come, but it shouldn’t be feared, because one thing is certain: failure brings new information. But we’ll deal with that in Part 2 of this essay on writing, next week.