(Read Part I here.)
Do or Do Not. There is no Try.
One of my assignments when I was activated to respond to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster was to put worthy sailors in for awards. I had to write the citations for dozens of men and women of assorted ranks, all of whom had been pulled away from their civilian lives and cast into an uncertain and tough situation, and worked tirelessly in spite of it.
I wanted to do right by them (and I was the writer in the unit), so I labored long and hard, banging out a score of citations, eloquently (or so I thought) extolling their outstanding command presence, their devotion to duty, their tireless and herculean efforts.
So I was a little taken aback when my commander plopped the stack of citations on my desk and told me to do them all over again. “Oustanding command presence?” she asked. “Tireless effort? Myke! What the heck does that even mean? What did they do?” Like most writers who have their work questioned, I took it hard.
“Ma’am, spell it out for me,” I said. “I don’t want to have to do these over again. What exactly do you want me to do?”
“I need specifics,” she said. “Numbers. Here you say that this officer coordinated movements for the cutter fleet. How many ships? How many hours a day? How much oil was skimmed as a result? Numbers!”
The military is like that, from award citations to training qualifications to standards of justice and punishment. There are hard lines. There are expected results.
And those standards are binary. They are 0 and 1. You either pass or you don’t. You do or do not do. There is no try. There is no A for effort. The guard doesn’t care that you were really sick or having a hard time at home. If you don’t show up for your shift on the watch, you are derelict. End of story. Your Physical Training officer doesn’t care if you’ve been struggling with your bills. Either you worked out hard enough to make your weigh in or you didn’t, and if you didn’t, you’re probably going to get thrown out on a medical discharge.
Writing is like that. It is an absolutely binary and unforgiving process. The community is full of wonderful people who will smile and make sympathetic noises. They will drink with you and be your friend. All of this is absolutely genuine, and none of it changes the fact that the serious gatekeepers, like military officers, put the mission first.
They must buy manuscripts that will sell and make their companies money. If that means you have to suffer and be in pain, then too bad, so sad. They will again smile and make sympathetic noises, but they were looking for the 1, not the 0, and all the kindness in the world isn’t going to change that one iota.
The universe doesn’t care if you’re sad, or lonely, or having a tough week. You either sit down and put the requisite words on paper to finish your novel, or you don’t. You either take the hard look at your craft and study those writers you admire and make changes as necessary, or you don’t.
In the end, the only thing you have the power to affect are the results of your own labors. The system is beyond you and always will be. Serve the mission before yourself. That mission is to write the best book you possibly can, and you have got to believe it is one hell of a lot more important than your personal comfort.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing I see at conventions (and it’s frustrating because it’s like looking in a mirror) are the questions I hear from aspiring writers at pro panels. “What’s proper manuscript format?” “What are editors buying these days?” “Where can I find out about new markets?” “What’s the best way to chat up an agent?”
None of these questions are about craft. None of them are asking the pros how they construct plot, or make gripping dialogue, or conceive believable characters. There are a few gems, but precious few. Most aspiring writers are putting the accent on the wrong syllable, focusing on marketing, networking and insider ball. Sizzle and not steak. And that’s the problem. You can have all the friends in the world. You can be connected to every major editor in the business. Will it help? Not unless you’ve got a killer book to sell them.
Because it’s mission first. 0 or 1. Specifics. Numbers.
I Am Kill You
When I was going through officer training, they loved to play little games with us. We’d be sitting down to chow and told we had an hour to study for a big test the next morning. That would be cutting it close. An hour was barely enough time to cover the breadth of topics we’d be tested on. We’d eat fast, get out of the chow hall as quickly as possible and head back to our rooms.
Only to find they’d been tossed. Our instructors had emptied our drawers, thrown our clothes all over the place. They dumped our mattesses on the floor. Our study materials were in a heap beside the trash can.
And inspection was at 0600 sharp.
By the time we got the mess cleaned up, our study hour had dwindled to 15 minutes.
Officer training was like that. They heaped task on top of task. They buried you under a million niggling details, sucked up your time deliberately, so that you could never finish it all. And then, when you were at your worst, exhausted, frazzled, panicked, they would test you. They would sit you down to a written exam. They would haul you out onto the parade deck or into the passageway and make you do pushups.
They would push you to the very limit of your endurance and then, only then would they judge you.
And to your utter amazement, you realized that you could do it.
By the time I left the academy grounds, I could run and do pushups on an hours sleep. I could pass challenging tests with only minimal study time. I could make snap judgments with incomplete information, under pressure to make a good decision, and I could do it with confidence.
And after a time, that amazement, that dawning sense of capability gave way to a rush. It became an addiction.
A little cold rage goes a long way. It’s adolescent, sure, but with the misery seeking goes the pride of being the nastiest, toughest, hard as nails bastard in the whole company. Your shipmate does 50 pushups? You do 55. She pulls an 18 hour watch? You do 24.
Why? Because. Screw you. You can’t stop me. No matter what you, oh cruel and unfeeling universe throw at me, I will knock it out of the park. I am a member of the United States military. I have slogged through the worst humanity has to offer and emerged tempered by the experience. Is that all you’ve got? You’ve got to be kidding me.
It’s the Kobayashi Maru. It’s Ender’s final test against the Buggers. It’s the thrill of facing and beating impossible odds. Even more, it’s the rush and adrenaline addiction that makes you seek such impossible challenges.
There’s a saying you’ll hear in boot camps, officer candidate schools and training grounds across the country. “Bring it.”
It’s short for “bring it on,” but the succinct bark gives it an edge uniquely warlike. And that’s what it is, really, a battle cry, a defiant shout.
An industry overwhelmed with aspirants? Fewer companies publishing fewer books each year? Less people reading? Digital piracy? Is that all? Seriously?
Bring it. I’m ready. I was born for this.
See You in the Trenches
Maybe you were cast in iron from your earliest days. Maybe you’re one of the few who naturally eschews your own comfort, or maintains a laser focus on the things needed for success. Maybe you have a natural font of the cold anger necessary to face daunting challenges. If so, I truly admire you.
Because I’m not, and I wasn’t and I don’t. It took military service and three spins in a war zone to hammer those realities into me. I can’t say if they will ultimately take me to the pinnacles I’d like to achieve, but they’ve gotten me off to a start. And that’s something.
So, for what it’s worth, I invite you to join me in the suck. Get down in the mud and start pushing. Strain and grunt and scream until you feel like your muscles are on fire, until your breath burns your lungs. Then look over. You’ll see me there, pushing right along side you.
Because it’s absolute hell.
And there’s no place I’d rather be.
This post originally appeared on John Mierau’s blog, here.
Myke Cole is the author of the military fantasy Shadow Ops series. The first novel, Control Point, is coming from Ace in February 2012.