Vaulting ambition

The Grumpy Old Bookman had an interesting post the other day. The subject was ambition in writers. He asserted that all of the writers he had known in the course of his life were all linked by the strength of the ambition they shared.

“They are ambitious in that they yearn passionately for success. They long to be famous, to make lots of money, to be favourably reviewed…”

I’ve always thought my writing ambitions were rather modest; sure I want to be published, but famous? I think I have always been realistic enough to accept that I am unlikely to ever make much money out of it. It’s perhaps unfortunate that I have mid-list ambitions at a time when the mid–list has largely disappeared.

The point made by TGOB, is that an ambition to be published in itself verges on lunacy. He refers readers to a long essay he wrote entitled On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile, which made interesting reading. This clearly demonstrates that one’s chances of being published through submission to the slush pile are, assuming a certain basic competence at writing, essentially down to luck. While I had always suspected this to be the case, to see it in such black and white terms is rather brutal. Our problem seems to be that we focus on the survivors, the published, not the entire population of wannabee writers. We all assume that we share the characteristics of the survivors, rather than those who fell by the wayside. Since my best friend isn’t an editor or an agent, and I’m not as far as I’m aware, a z-list celebrity, I must rely on the slushpile as my best chance. Or, I could follow TGOB’s no doubt excellent advice and give up completely.

Which leads me to a writer whose work I have a great deal of respect for – Steve Kelner. He’s a psychologist, and his book, Motivate your Writing came out a year or two back. His thesis is also very interesting.

He asserts that all humans have three social motives that drive them. These motivations are subconscious and something we have no control over. They are affiliation, power, and achievement. While we have all three to some degree, we tend have at least one stronger than the other two. People who are focused on achievement are all about doing things better, those focused on affiliation are all about friendly relationships whereas those focused on power are all about making an impact on others. We can behave in the same way, but from different motives. So, many people write, but they will do so from different motives. It’s possible through indirect analysis to come to some conclusions about what one’s own motivations are and use that knowledge to focus one’s writing.

Here are some exercises Kelner provided on his blog, to help with this analysis.

    1. List what you like to do for fun, including writing, and why you like it, if possible.

    In other words, if you like to golf, say, do you like it because (a) you like testing yourself against your handicap and bettering it, (b) it’s fun to hang out with your friends, (c) you like trying to beat people, or (d) you like drinking beer and driving golf carts like a maniac? You can do the same behaviour out of different motives (and vice versa).

    If you list “reading,” what genres do you like to read? Different motives relate to different genres.

    2. What do you daydream about? Can you write it down in some detail? Not just “win a prize for my writing,” but “I picture myself going up and picking up the Hugo in front of a room full of cheering fans.” Get past the simple fact and explain what makes this daydream fun, if you can. This is a clue to where your thoughts tend to go!

    3. What would you like written on your tombstone? Or, to put it another way, what would you like to be known for?

    The Big Question: Are there any basic patterns to what you like, what you think about, what you want on your tombstone? The pattern should be about the feelings, or the domain of the goal.

I was surprised to discover that what seems to motivate me is power, which makes me tend to think that I’m unlikely to follow TGOB’s advice and give up, not yet anyway.


7 responses to “Vaulting ambition

  1. This is so interesting. I would have said my biggest motivation was achievement but from doing these exercises, it seems that, in fact, it is affiliation. That’s quite a revelation!

    I’ve noticed that when people hear I’ve written a children’s fantasy book, they assume my aim is to be “like J. K. Rowling”. In fact, worryingly, most people seem to think this is attainable, that upon publication of a novel, the author automatically becomes a billionaire and wildly, internationally famous. I got 35 rejections in 2005, I thought it was quite funny (“You’ve got to be in it to win it!”), but when I made the mistake of telling some non-writers, they advised me, in tones of great sympathy, to give up! I would go insane if I gave up writing, it is not an option. Also, much as I love Harry Potter, I have not even the remotest desire to be “like J. K. Rowling”. Sometimes I feel like having: “No, Not Like J. K. Rowling” tatooed on my forehead. Although that might look odd.

    I’m going to look for Motivate Your Writing, thanks for the recommendation!

  2. Love the motivation information – very interesting indeed. But you should seriously consider getting an agent. It’s very easy to do, and The Writers and Artists Yearbook is the place to start (you may well know all this). Most agents want a sample chapter and a synopsis. If they like you, they do the hard work, and nowadays most publishers don’t touch the slush pile, so the chances of being read are very low indeed. But agents are continually looking for new talent, and are infinitely approachable.

  3. Helen – it’s a fascinating exercise, isn’t it! Before I started it, I thought I was probably strong in achievement, but power/influence makes sense when I think about it.

    Litlove, I’ve been trying to get an agent for the last 18 months, no luck so far, just have to keep plugging away.

  4. I don’t want to be a Grumpy Old Bookwoman but The 35 Rejections of 2005 were mostly from agents. I found that most of them weren’t reading what I had sent them. I may have been approaching them at the wrong time of year, or they were put off by the fact I was in Australia. After a bad experience with an Australian agent, which I’m debating whether or not to write about on my blog, I decided to stop looking. I will continue at some stage in the future, it’s just not the right time at the moment. Out of those 35 rejections, 2 agents most definitely read what I sent them and gave me some great feedback so it is worth persisting.

  5. I’ve not submitted to as many as you yet, but I know at least some of them are reading my material – I’ve had one request the full MS, and very positive comments from several others.

  6. I’m one of those writers who likes to get the Booker acceptance speech sorted well before I start work on the novel. Don’t know where that places me. (Actually, I’m joking. These kinds of fantasies are bitter jokes against ourselves.)

    But I love litlove’s comment ‘You should seriously consider getting an agent. It’s very easy to do.’ Yes. Then make sure you write a book that will become a bestseller. Plenty of people have done that, so that can’t be too hard either can it?

    Well, I’ve had an agent for years, and he is actually my second agent. Having an agent doesn’t guarantee publication, I can tell you. It can make sure that your manuscript gets on the right editor’s desk. But even if you get an editor who is an enthusiastic advocate for your work within the publishing house (as has happened to me in the past) they then have to convince their higher ups that the book has really commercial potential. There is nothing easy about getting published, so it does make you wonder why so many of us persevere.

    A couple of years ago, maybe eighteen months ago, I was told by my agent that my name was meeting with resistance from editors. In the sense that they were saying, when he offered them something of mine, ‘Yes, yes, but we know his stuff, haven’t you got anything by anyone else?’ I have to say, I felt a sickness in the pit of my stomach when I heard that. I began to make a psychological shift at that point, the beginning of the acceptance that I would never get published. The writing was the thing, not the getting published. And actually, the idea of just giving up seemed attractive too. There would be a kind of release in it.

    Paradoxically, once I had begun to make that adjustment, a publisher came along. I don’t know what that proves. I wrote Taking Comfort without any expectation of it being published. It was in many ways the last throw of the dice for me. My “f*ck em” book.

  7. Actually for me, it’s my presentation at the Edinburgh Book Festival rather than the Booker. 😉

    I’m glad you finally made it.

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