“…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 http://davidbcoe.livejournal.com http://www.DavidBCoe.com http://www.dbjackson-author.com http://magicalwords.net