On Writing: The Value of Ambition


“…This hardworking if glum and unambitious debut might just–but only just–keep a nostril above the flood of mediocre fantasy currently sloshing about.” — Kirkus Reviews, on Children of Amarid, by David B. Coe

Okay, not my favorite line from the many reviews I’ve received over the years.  In truth, there was a lot in this review that bothered me, including a comment about the birds of prey in the book (who are the foundation of the magic system) being “merely a nuisance.”  I also didn’t like them calling my book glum, nor did I appreciate the damning-with-ever-so-faint-praise ending.  But to this day, the word that bothers me most is “unambitious.”

Ambition for writers comes in many forms and works on many levels, and I am proud to say that I am ambitious in every way imaginable.  I believe that my various sorts of ambition serve to better my work habits, my process, and the stories that I produce.  The most common meaning of the word, of course, is the one that is most connected to material advancement, so we’ll call it material ambition.  This is also the kind of ambition that is furthest away from what the Kirkus folks meant in that review of my first book.  Yes, I harbor ambitions for my books and for my career.  I want to see Thieftaker on the bestseller lists; I want to see it nominated for awards.  I want to move from my present status as a midlist author to the higher echelons where I might be thought of as a leader in the genre.  I see nothing wrong with that sort of ambition.  It drives me to work, to hone my craft, to edit and polish and fine-tune my manuscripts until they are absolutely as good as I can make them.  But the truth is, I have little control over these things; my ambitions in this regard are subject to the vagaries of the market and, yes, a certain amount of luck.

I am also ambitious in that I set lofty goals for myself when it comes to daily word counts and yearly project goals.  Why don’t we call this output ambition?  As with material ambition, I find that this type of ambition can prove useful in getting me to do more for myself, for my books.  Last year I managed to write two novels, revise two more, and complete four short stories.  And those were goals that I set for myself for the year; when I posted about those goals last January I even made of point of saying that I was being ambitious, perhaps overly so.  But output ambition is what gets me to put butt in chair and get the work done.  And we all know the value of that.

But again, this is not the kind of ambition Kirkus was talking about.  Rather, they were referring to something I call creative ambition.  And the reason I was so bothered when they called Children of Amarid unambitious is that even then, only one book into my career, I knew that they were absolutely right. Creative ambition is what drives us to do things with our story that we’re not sure we’re capable of doing:  deeply complex characters, complicated plot twists, non-linear narratives, exotic settings that require that extra round of research or brainstorming.  In other words, it forces us to stretch as artists, to challenge ourselves, to risk failure by reaching for greatness.  Children of Amarid was my first novel, and for a first novel is was a decent effort.  I remain proud of it, even as I also remain aware of its many flaws.  And I suppose that for a first novel it does show some ambition.  The magic system is somewhat intricate, and the storyline has some twists and turns.

But in other ways it is just as unambitious as Kirkus implies.  My characters are drawn in black and white, rather than in shades of gray.  The worldbuilding is fairly predictable.  The book relies too heavily on established fantasy tropes.  And it didn’t take me long to realize this.  The second and third books in the series are far more complex (and they received better reviews from Kirkus).  In my next series, Winds of the Forelands, I took many more chances.  My characters and worldbuilding in the Forelands books are more subtle and complicated; my plotting is more involved, my themes more mature.  Everything about those books pushed me as an artist. 

And that really is the point.  With every book I’ve written since that first trilogy, I have found myself wondering at the outset if my abilities as a writer are sufficient to create the novel I have imagined.  I believe that is as it should be.  Without creative ambition I expect that I would quickly fall into the rut of creating the same uninspired novel again and again.  My books, and thus my career, would soon be the victims of my own diminished expectations.  I choose instead to risk failure with each novel, to challenge myself with an artistic vision that may lie beyond whatever talent I possess at the time I conceive the book.  Because more often than not, I find that my skills grow and adapt.  I have come to trust that I am capable of rising to the occasion with each new project.

This allows me to grow as an artist.  But perhaps more important, it keeps me engaged with my work.  Despite feeling that each book in my first trilogy marked an improvement over its predecessor, by the time I finished the series I was feeling bored.  I was SO ready to move on to a new project.  Today, I am still drawn to the new shiny, but I also remain passionate about my current projects because they continue to push me, and thus to hold my interest. And I should add here that when a work in progress feels like it’s languishing, it is often because I haven’t reached far enough.  Sometimes I have to push myself to be even more ambitious.

Paraphrasing Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas’s character in Wall Street) Ambition is good.  Ambition is right.  Ambition works.  Material ambition compels us to write the best book we can, in the hope of winning that elusive award or selling our way to fame and fortune.  Output ambition keeps our collective butt in the collective chair, and maybe encourages us to find that extra half-hour per day in which to write.  And creative ambition keeps our art fresh, and pushes us to make each book just a little bit better and more interesting than the last. 

Is there enough ambition in your work right now?  Are you challenging yourself to test the market, to write more, to try new things with your creative work?

David B. Coe

25 comments to On Writing: The Value of Ambition

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter Wright

    David, I LOVED this post. Ambition…in the various forms you mention,is something I think about all the time…especially creative ambition. I still remember sitting next to you on a bed at a party at a convention a few years back and hearing you talk about being frustrated where you were and determine to move higher. I love that kind of ambition…as you say, we cannot control what happens, but we can shoot high!

    (Written from China, where my daughter is acheiving the ambition of returning to visit her friends, and I am gathering lots of materials for fantastic landscape and peoples. When I met the chairman of the school, he wished me as much success as Harry Potter, so I could afford a large house and a bus and adopt all the rest of Ping-Ping’s friends. That sounds like a fine ambition to me. LOL )

  • Such a great post, David. Thank you for your candor and the way you use it to inspire others. This is what MW at its best is.

    I touched on this a little in my new year’s resolutions but you have developed it far more eloquently. I feel that in the last few years I have been ambitious in terms of output (as you nicely put it) but I’m still trying to challenge myself to be more ambitious creatively. Generating a lot of stuff isn’t enough. I need to push myself further, be bolder, more original. It’s hard, but it’s necessary. tahnks for the reminder.

  • MaCrae

    Your post just terrified me. (In a good and bad way, though!) I have been thinking along the lines of this for a while. Do I have enough ambition to get away from the story and look at it with that critical view of reviewers and trudge through the mess of a story I love to much to let go of? And then have the ambition to think out of the box (i.e. my head!) and wring everything I possibly can out of my cranium to give it the best chance ever?

    I really don’t know. But I’ll sure try.

  • I’m going to have to echo MaCrae here about being terrified by that question. For me the past few years, “enough” equals “good enough that someone wants to publish my work”. It’s a frustrating place to be in, because every time I think I’ve reached that point, I learn that I haven’t. It felt like this last piece *was* ambitious, a stretch for me. But then in the last rejection I received (at least I’ve gotten 100% personalized rejections so far, yay), I was told that it “wasn’t high-concept enough”. So I’m starting to worry that maybe this time around is another miss, and I should start something new. I want to be ambitious in all three ways, and I hope I am, but I also find it hard to gauge exactly what is “enough” right now. I like the question because it’s a question I need to ask myself, but I feel like I’m treading a line between being too cocky and selling myself short, and not knowing exactly where I stand. I will keep querying, though, until I exhaust the list of agents. That’s the least I can do.

  • Jagi, thank you. I remain ambitious in the way I was at that con you mention. And I find that as I get older I care less about who knows that I’m ambitious. I’m pushing harder now than I ever have, and it feels good. I hope that your time in China continues to be fulfilling for both of you.

    A.J., thank you. I’ve been thinking about a post on ambition in all its forms for some time, more than a year, actually. I remember your mention of creative ambition in your New Year’s post, and it spurred me to finally sit down and write this one. So thank you for that. I find that my own creative ambitions come in waves. At times they recede, leaving me a bit too complacent for my own good. And then another swell appears on the horizon and I begin to plot and plan once more. That’s where I am right now: getting ready to ride a new wave.

    MaCrae, I certainly didn’t mean to frighten anyone! But I understand what you mean. Part of pushing oneself is stepping away from the comfort of things we have already done and feel comfortable doing again. After I finished that first series that I mention in the post, I was asked again and again why I wasn’t going to write more books in that universe. And the answer I should have given, but couldn’t without damning a series that these readers obviously loved, is that I had done everything I could with the LonTobyn books. They just didn’t have enough scope, enough power, enough ambition, to hold my interest as a writer anymore. I needed something bigger and more exciting from a creative standpoint. Yes, it’s scary to move to the next level, but it is also incredibly rewarding once you do it. Best of luck.

    Laura, see my comment to MaCrae above. This is not an easy question to answer for any of us, whether we’re established pros or still looking for that first big break. You also have to remember that what one person feels isn’t “high concept enough” another might feel is brilliant and fresh and innovative and JUST what the market is looking for. Personalized rejections are a very, very good sign that you’re right on the cusp. Chances are that if you feel you’re pushing yourself, you probably are on the right track. Keep at it!

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Thank you very much for this post, David. In a way I find it sort of reassuring. While I must confess that my material and output ambitions for my writing are pretty low right now, I have worried sometimes that my WIP is too non-standard in some ways to ever work as a story for other people. The main character of my WIP, the one that *I* am focused on, is not a primary POV character, and even has very little screen time in this first book. Instead I follow three very different characters whose lives have been/are being affected by her. Perhaps that’s not crazy ambitious, but for a first book I think I can now tell myself I *am* being *creatively ambitious* and that’s a good thing and move on. Now to work on being a little more ambitious with my day job. 😀

  • David, I feel like cheering. Wonderful post on the various ambitious aspects of the writing life. And wonderful that you can say out loud that you are ambitious. I am so happy to hear you say that, and to recognize that you are still growing as writer and person. Complacency is a dangerous place to be, and I see the effects of that *laziness* in so many writer’s work. But never in yours. Stay hungry, my friend. I’ll see you in the bestseller list.

  • Hep, glad you liked the post. And I think that your novel sounds different and innovative and ambitious. If you can make such a story work (and I have every confidence that you can), I think it would be a terrific achievement. Best of luck with it.

    Faith, thank you. I AM hungry, more now than when I started out. Back then, I just wanted to get published and stay published. I want more now. Part of it is “staying published” has gotten harder, but also I expect more of myself, of my work. So, yeah, I’ll see you on the lists! 😉

  • Boy, if someone called me unambitious that would rankle for the rest of my life. To me that sounds like “didn’t work hard enough” and I’ve always been very susceptible to that kind of criticism.

    But I think you’re right that ambition is good. It keeps us moving forward and taking risks. I was wondering last night if I was being stupid trying to combine certain disparate things in my new shiny, but your article reminded me to reach instead of staying with the norm.

  • This is such an interesting post for me (and for reasons not about me, too) because I’ve never thought of myself as ambitious. I look at what I’m doing and what I’ve done and think I must be at least somewhat ambitious because of what I’ve accomplished and what I want to accomplish. I’ve been thinking about where my series is going, and then “right” ending to it kind of scares me and I don’t know if I can write it or do it justice, but I’m going to try.

    I would like to be able to do more in lots of areas in my life, but I can’t. So selective ambition is necessary. (For example, this is the semester of writing: article/conference paper, novel submissions, revisions, editing jobs, etc. This is not the semester of teaching. I’m not being particularly experimental (though I am being a little bit so), I’m not designing new syllabi, etc. This not the semester of radical home changes: I’m not moving, redecorating, etc. I’m not picking up new hobbies.

    So, while there is A LOT I’d like to do, and be ambitious about, if I tried to do it all, I’d probably fail at most of it. So I’m trying to pick my battles. And to keep my battles related, so that they’re easier. All writing battles, is good. The book I’m reading to write a book review for, about Marian miracles in England in the Middle Ages, just radically informed my WIP in really cool ways. I’m going to “borrow” elements of a Marian Miracle story for my WIP.

  • Sarah, yes, it rankled. But as I say, in part it rankled because I sensed a kernel of truth in the criticism. Good for you for reaching with the WIP. Hope it goes well.

    Emily, I think you have a really terrific outlook on this. Selective ambition is fine. More than fine, really. Ambition doesn’t have to mean “in a hurry.” Better to select our goals as we can than to have too many lofty goals and so not attain any of them. The Marian miracles thing sounds very cool. Best of luck with it.

  • Great post, David! Very insightful.

    What bothers me is when ambition is too high for my current skill level. I have a great story that I have worked on for years but I lack the chops to pull it off. I will say that each time I make a pass at it, it improves, but I can still see that it is not there yet. That is frustrating to a point. Yes, it is a goal, but it is one that is two mountains over. *grr*

  • I totally agree that ambition is important. That ambition and eyes-on-the-goal mentality is often the only thing that keeps me going through the dips on the confidence roller-coaster. I’m personally in somewhat of a slouch right now, since revising HELLHOUND is somewhat making me crazy. A beta reader I asked for “overarching” thoughts turned out to be a bad choice: she decided to nitpick my use of the word “alphabets” rather than “writing systems”, said “in general, it was good. I liked it. I wanted more.” and then follow it up with “You’re not going to want to hear this, but it’s going to be really, really niche.” When I said, “Well, it’s Y.A.”, she responded with: “Oh, thank God!” …like the fact that it’s Y.A. automatically means it doesn’t have to be as good. *cue rage* Needless to say, I will not be asking her to beta read anything again, since I got absolutely nothing I could work with out of her comments.

    Anyway, bad responses, unexpected/unwanted comments, all of those things do get me down. It’s the ambition that keeps me going despite these whiny, despair-soaked moments before the track catches and I start chugging up the roller coaster again. Partly, I think it’s BECAUSE I’m writing something that is ambitious for me that it’s so hard.

  • Thanks, Mark. I know that feeling. I have a couple of book ideas that I want to start working on, but that I know I’m not yet ready to write. Patience, my friend. Patience.

    Lauren, as one who constantly battles doubt, lack of confidence, small, niggling setbacks, I totally get this. Yes, the most ambitious projects are the hardest, and so, in a sense, you are making things more difficult on yourself. But the easy path leads, I believe, to mediocrity, and knowing you I’m sure that is not a place you want to end up. And so we fight the good fight, and we ignore Beta readers who don’t get it, and we bang away at the keyboard. Because giving up just isn’t an option.

  • Megan B.

    Great post. I actually registered just to respond. First of all, you got me thinking about the novel I just started; I have no idea how to structure it. Maybe that’s because the story is ambitious for me, a little beyond what I have done up until now? I like that thought.

    More importantly, you got me thinking about the novel I’ve been working on for a couple of years. I’ve been worried lately that my hypothetical future agent or editor will ask me to cut certain chapters (chapters that I feel are key). The story is not just the main narrative, it’s also the stories of the four characters, including important events from the past. These flashback chapters illuminate the characters and who they are, and inform certain elements of the main story. Nevertheless, they are flashbacks, and I get the impression that flashbacks are viewed widely as something to avoid if at all possible. This has me worried, but your post made me feel somewhat better. Maybe I have just written a story that is ambitious, in that it’s four people’s stories woven into a present plot line that brings them all together. I think I’ll go with that!

  • Thank you, Megan. Glad you liked the post; thanks for joining the conversation here at MW. Flashbacks, like other literary devices, are frowned upon when overused or handled poorly. If they are central to your story (and it sounds as though they are in this project) and you weave them in effectively with the rest of your tale, they shouldn’t raise objections. The bottom line is, you have to be true to your creative vision. Write the story you want and need to write. Yes, you might have to revise in the long run, but you have a better chance of selling a story that is near to your heart, that evokes passion when you write, than you do one that is tailored to other people’s tastes. Follow your ambitions!! And best of luck.

  • James R. Tuck

    Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
    Or what’s a heaven for? – Robert Browning
    Man, you gotta reach. Writing the novel you want to read. I wrote a really damaged man as my main character and have gotten mixed reviews, but the people who love it, they really love it. Some reviewers don’t “get it”, but that’s okay. I can read my book and be satisfied that it was what I wanted to write.

    Great post. Lots of insight. Thank you.

  • Thank you, David. I certainly hope so! I *will* keep at it.

  • James, thanks. I agree with you completely. You have to write the novel that is true to your creative vision. As soon as we stop reaching and try instead to tailor our work to someone else’s tastes, we get in trouble.

    Good, Laura. Hope your hard work pays off soon.

  • Material ambition I have in spades: deep in my heart I want to write for a living, and along the way I want to garner fame, acclaim, awards, and wealth, of course. Output ambition I’m working on: I’m still learning what’s realistic and what I can achieve. Really, I have output envy – I’m deeply envious of any of those who can consistently churn out more than a thousand words a day some five or more days per week. (Most of that output envy is time envy because I could do that to, if I had two to three reliably free hours per day, every day, in which to write. As it is I get instead three or four reliably free hours in a week, total.) Which is funny, though, because I don’t really experience material envy – in that I don’t begrudge a successful writer their successes: they are very clearly earned.

    But I think a lot and worry a lot about creative ambition. I’ve spent most of my writing life – going back to my childhood – working on the same (now-shelved) epic fantasy series. Throughout my teens and early twenties my ambition for this project grew and grew until at last I realized that my ambition for the books had far exceeded my capabilities as a writer, and that the whole thing was weighed down by the long list of fantasy tropes and cliches on which I was relying, and that I was insufficiently skilled to tackle those tropes in a way that would be fresh and engaging to readers. I was, in effect, writing what I’ve seen called a “Fantasy Heartbreaker” – an epic fantasy novel that was doomed to disappoint me as its writer and any reader unlucky enough to encounter it. But the story was still precious to me, and my ambition for the novel unsated. I decided that I needed more time to develop as a writer before I could take this project on and do it justice.

    So I scaled back my ambition. Not a 9-book-series, but a single, stand-alone novel. Not a dozen Tolkienesque fully-articulated artificial languages, but one or two half-langs 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 hints of something else beyond. No magic swords (what, really, do I know about swords?), no horse-steeds (what, really, do I know about horses?), and so on. Basically: strip out all the typical fantasy cliches and focus on the few things I can write about with authority. (Except, as it turns out, what, really, do I know about steam engines?)

    But then I worried I’d scaled my ambitions back too much. Am I stretching myself sufficiently? Am I addressing serious and mature themes, as I intend? Am I courageous enough to put my protagonist through a real wringer? Can I pass the Bechdel test? Is one book sufficiently epic? And so on. I’m still working out how to properly match ambitions with skills.

  • Stephen, I think finding that balance is hard for all of us, experienced professionals and aspiring writers alike. It sounds as though scaling back your project made sense, and it may be that now you need to start reaching again, though perhaps not in those same directions. Take the bones of the story you have now and stretch it in directions and in ways that the young you could never have imagined! Best of luck with it, whatever direction it goes.

  • Scott J Robinson

    I think the danger of creative ambition can be in if you are just _trying_ to be that way.

    I’m giving away a ebook free from my website. One reviewer (of two) said it was an ambitious book for a first time author (ignoring the other books I’ve written but not yet made available). I didn’t think about stretching myself when I wrote it. It was just the story I wanted to tell.

    I think most people who are ambitious creatively are the same way. As you said, David, you planned your story then wondered if you could do it. You didn’t wonder how you could stretch yourself then plan a story with that in mind.


  • David said But the easy path leads, I believe, to mediocrity,… And so we fight the good fight,

    The thing that drives me somewhat mad is looking at my work, comparing it to those writers I want to be like when I grow up, and then worrying that I’ll never have a style that’s mature enough, sophisticated enough, or intelligent enough to even qualify to sit with one of them at the bar.

    And then we have those days in which I come up with complicated, multilayered plots of startling brilliance that I worry won’t fit into a preconceived genre niche, making my book unsaleable.

    I think maybe I worry too much.

  • […] 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 […]

  • Scott, I think you’re right. Ambition for the sake of being ambitious is not going to work in a book or story. It has to be genuine; we have to be true to our vision rather than trying to come up with something wild just to say that we did it. Thanks for the comment.

    Misty, having read your work I do think that your worries are unfounded. But then again, I worry all the time, too. So I’m not sure I’m in a position to say anything!