When I sat down to write a blog post about ambition, I was sure that I must have written about it before. I searched my blog archives and found nothing, then discovered a Word file from 2012 on my hard drive that I must have abandoned. But before I’d given up, I’d written over a thousand words – so it must have been a subject that really mattered to me! In that almost-blog, I’d covered ambition in many forms: for status, money and creative expression. Perhaps by focusing on just creative ambition today, I’ll manage to succeed where I previously failed. Ironically, my last attempt may have been just too ambitious!
I don’t think any of us would disagree that being creatively ambitious is a good thing. We all want to feel that our work is good enough to be published and read. We all want our work to mature and improve, and not to feel that our best days are behind us. But I think this also needs to come with a slice of realism – an acceptance of your own (current) limits as a writer and the knowledge that what you enjoy writing is not always the most intellectually challenging thing you could be writing.
This creative realignment is something that I’ve been through myself of late. After reaching for the sky and falling short with my previous novel, my recent work has definitely been less ambitious in plot and thematic terms. But (in my opinion) it’s also a lot more fun to read, which is a valid ambition when writing children’s fiction. Simplicity has replaced complexity as my writing goal, although I’m very much discovering that the path to simplicity is not a straight line – it’s sometimes necessary to push through the complexity of a book and out the other side.
Learning to simplify is a skill that takes time to acquire. When we first start writing, it can be hard to separate what we dream of doing from what we’re actually capable of producing. Sure, it’s surprisingly easy to plot out a seven volume fantasy series when you’re really enjoying it, and to fill in reams of backstory for every character, no matter how minor. But all this detail can obscure the story, and we are not all J.R.R. Tolkien or George R.R. Martin (who has himself fallen prey to the lure of too much world-building in recent volumes).
I’ve talked to several fantasy-novelists-in-waiting who are struggling to reconcile the scope of their ambition with the logistics of realising it as a story. The YA fantasy market continues to be series-based, which puts extra pressure on writers to map out a coherent story over several books, and to pepper the first volume with clever foreshadowing of future events. Agents (keen to find the next big thing), sometimes sign up such authors early and put unwitting pressure on them to deliver on their promises. Too much pressure too soon can be a toxic cocktail, which is something I’ve discovered to my own cost. I was only working on a single novel - what can that pressure be like for an author trying to write three books in their head simultaneously?
It’s a definite shame that the publishing trade’s love of launching debut authors with an instant breakout novel leaves less room for the small, frequently autobiographical novels that new writers have traditionally been drawn to. To use a movie analogy, it is as if Christopher Nolan’s first film had been the mind-bogglingly complex Inception rather than the small but intriguing Following (which was shot for virtually nothing in the houses of friends and family). Hilary Mantel is someone else who has benefitted from working up to her greatest work over a period of years, rather than being expected to deliver Wolf Hall out of the gate.
There is a point where healthy creative ambition becomes mania, where the author begins to disrupt their own working processes by worrying too much about the market, or by trying to (in my own words) "write a book so excellent that no-one could possibly say no to it." That way lies madness...