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This Writing Life: More Ambition than Sense (and how that’s a Good Thing)

30 March, 2011

I’ve posted a few times lately about my recent experiment with vegetable growing. How I’ve been planting garlic and radishes, pak choi and squashes and courgettes and herbs. More plants, in short, than our garden really has room to hold. What I haven’t mentioned (I don’t think) are the other plants I’ve bought, ones that may never get planted, or which I’m going to have to give away. The tomatoes. The spinach. The spring onions. The three bloody raspberry canes which I bought because they were cheap, without thinking about where on earth they were going to be planted (there was never going to be room for them, even without the dozen squash plants I’m going to end up with). I have, as I remarked to my mum, got more ambition than space when it comes to gardening.

It’s the same in any number of parts of my life. I’ve always wanted to know something about everything, for a start. It occurred to me a few days ago that, although I’m unlikely to ever complete another degree or even take any more non-publishing related courses, I could still visit the library and delve into all manner of different areas of knowledge. I compiled a list of subjects I’d like to know more about. Not surprisingly, the list isn’t finished yet (and I expect it to be an ongoing thing), but already encompasses everything from astronomy to the history of ancient China, taking in etymology, art history, psychology and botany along the way. It’s a list that you couldn’t get through in a lifetime, at least not if you actually wanted to have a life in between reading.

And so, we move onto writing. I frequently come up with novel ideas – I’m even contemplating one at the moment – that are ambitious. Huge numbers of characters. Whole cultures/histories to invent or research. Vast, intricate plots. Themes that have the potential to be catastrophically misunderstood by readers (I might do a post about this one, at some point). And yet these are the ideas I keep coming back to, that haunt me for years as I work on other projects. I can’t shake them and I’m beginning to think that’s a good thing.

The saying ‘better to have tried and failed than never to have tried at all’ sounds trite, but there’s a great deal of truth to it. It’s often the ambitious novels that I’ve attempted and failed at that have taught me the most. Last year, I got 30k words into a novel with six POV characters before running aground. One day, I might go back to that novel, but even as a failure, it taught me a lot about how I need to approach writing so many POVs, a skill that’s going to be vital for my next novel. There have been abandoned short stories too, that have blossomed into novels even though I never finished the original (failed) story.

And, of course, there is the final, most important thing about ambition. Ambition – trying and failing – not only teaches us. It also has the potential to produce something greater than we ever imagined. Sure, you might be able to knock out another 70k urban fantasy in a couple of months, but if no-one ever reads it, is that really a success? Maybe it’s that multi-volume epic fantasy you’ve been thinking about for the last decade, too scared to write, that will actually get you published.

So, ambition. Yes, it can lead to failure, but it’s also at the heart of the greatest rewards. Dig up more lawn to plant those extra seeds. Make that list of books that you’d have to live to 110 to read. And start that novel, the one that scares you most of all, because failing on a big scale might just be better than minor success.

  1. 30 March, 2011 1:38 pm

    Great stuff. It’s comforting to find someone else with more ambition than they know what to do with. I’ve started far more stories than I’ve finished, and they’ve all taught me something. Funny you mentioned gardening; my wife and I had the same problem with the vegetable plants we bought last season: too many plants, not enough space. I’ll be expanding our garden this year, so now our only concerns will be the squirrels and rabbits.

    • 30 March, 2011 4:34 pm

      It’s pigeons and sawfly we’re worried about this year. I think in a few weeks our garden will be a maze of netting as we try to keep them off the veggies!

      Hah, show me a writer who hasn’t started more stories than they’ve finished! Sheer lack of imagination if they haven’t. Nothing to do with having more willpower than I have, or anything… Ahem. Plenty of mine ARE stories that I started with grand intentions though, only to realise that I didn’t know what I was doing. I wonder if published authors continue to get that, even if they’ve been writing for years?

  2. Brett James Irvine permalink
    31 March, 2011 7:19 am

    Nice post – I know what you mean! I have tons of stories floating around in my head, and even more unfinished shorts and novels lying around. I find if I don’t finish of a short story within around two weeks, the lure of the next idea is too inviting to overcome and I end up abandoning my current project. The curse of the imagination, eh?

    • 5 April, 2011 9:14 am

      Both a blessing and a curse, I think! Though perhaps more of a blessing – self-discipline to get those stories finished can be taught, but imagination is much harder to cultivate. Although, having said that, I do find that the more ideas I come up with, the more productive my imagination becomes, and so on. I think I already have more story ideas than I could ever hope to use in my life!

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