Life Ambitions, Hugo Awards, And The Writing Of Science Fiction
For as long as I can remember, I’ve struggled to answer the question “What do you want to do when you grow up?”
This is strange, because since I was a child I’ve never struggled to find activities I enjoy. I am, first and foremost, a creative person. For as long as I can remember, I’ve made things. As a child I drew pictures, wrote stories, built things out of Legos, recorded audio productions, wrote scripts, made movies, came up with inventions, and generally constructed realities that I enjoyed, then shared them with others.
As I grew older, these habits came with me. I won an all-school fiction writing contest in the 5th grade. I got pretty decent at art. I borrowed video cameras from anyone I could, and created dramas by drafting siblings and cousins into my casts. In college, I studied radio and television production, where I collaborated on some extracurricular student films, had a radio show, and even had a popular column in the student newspaper. During my semester in Europe, I wrote long, serialized journal entries about my travels. These were sent by my mother (unbeknownst to me) to large groups of family and friends via email. I started to gain a following.
As I neared the end of my college career, people would see me at a wedding or a party and take me aside. “You are really talented,” they’d say. “You need to be a writer.” And I glowed inside, because really, that’s what I wanted to do. Since that time in the 5th grade when I won the writing contest – and was awarded a trip to a major publishing house with my dad – I wanted to write novels, and in particular novels of science fiction. This was the genre I had always enjoyed most. As a boy, after all, I had turned those Legos into spaceships. I spent long evenings in the cold, under the stars, searching the sky for UFOs. I tore into novels about cyberspace and robots, and reveled in stories about the great adventures among the stars. I, too, wanted to create worlds that people would love as much as the ones I enjoyed in the books I read, the video games I played, and the movies I devoured. I wanted my own stories to be made into movies, to some day stand on a set and help them better understand some scene or character as my work was brought to life before me. That was my dream. It was woven through all the various layers of my education and experience.
But at some point along the way, I had decided that it was silly. Impractical. As a young man, I was perhaps unusually committed to my Catholic faith and found that I was rather articulate in writing about it. It wasn’t long before I was writing professionally on these topics for national publications. I was also ghostwriting at work for big executives at client companies. Perhaps, I thought, this was where my gift was of greatest benefit. Entertaining people with escapist fiction never felt as important as evangelizing people, winning the war for souls, or practicing good corporate communications. Not to mention that in my opinion, good fiction was rough around the edges. When I wrote, I wasn’t afraid of coarse language or scenes I knew my fellow Catholics might find a bit scandalous, because they felt right in the story. And I could never escape the idea that all those people whose respect I had earned as a Catholic writer would shake their heads at me and think I had lost my way if I wrote from the gut. I also couldn’t help thinking that the people who would like my fiction would wind up reading all my religious writing out on the Internet and turn their backs on me as well. SciFi and orthodox theology make strange bedfellows. It was like my brain was split into two opposing halves. Would I need to write under a pseudonym? Would I have to hide the work I did on each side of the divide from the people who liked what I did on the other? Not to mention, I kept hearing how so hard it was to become a successful novelist. Writers of fiction have to be really exceptional, and also lucky, just to make a living. Plus, there was the doom and gloom about the “death of publishing.”
So when people would ask me what I wanted to do, I would say, “I don’t know.” Because I couldn’t answer with something that wasn’t viable. That just felt stupid. Who would aspire to that? Who would take me seriously? I convinced myself that I didn’t want to do what I had, in fact, always wanted to do.
As has often been the case in my life, I was killing my chances at success long before I ever took the steps to achieve them. I was giving myself permission to give up, to fail, to never pursue a dream I secretly feared was too hard for me to accomplish. I didn’t want my life’s ambition to turn out to be something I wasn’t capable of doing. So I found endless reasons not to even try. Instead, I did other things. I looked for ways to write at work, or design, or create, but these were always paths that took me in another direction from what I really liked to do. These things, I knew, would make me more money. It didn’t matter how much I enjoyed them, because I was pretty good at them, and that’s how people make a living.
But I was never really satisfied with that answer.
This summer, I will celebrate my 10th wedding anniversary. My wife Jamie is a truly exceptional woman. She is also a uniquely challenging one. I have a big personality. I can run people over when I want to. I’m no slouch in an argument. I’m incredibly stubborn, and I have a temper. I’ve notoriously been what I call a “realist” and others call “negative” or “pessimistic.” I’m also a physically big man, which can be intimidating to some people. All of this is to say, when I’m on a path and have momentum, it’s a bit hard to change my course. My wife, on the other hand, is physically small. She is generally a calm, happy, optimistic person. She lights up a room with her smile, and brings order where I bring chaos. But she is also tenacious, persistent, and focused. She is a fearsome negotiator. When she sets her mind on something, it happens. She can also transform into a warrior queen. This transformation is only brought about by extreme conflict, usually in circumstances where my stubborn self-defeatism meets her indomitable spirit.
In other words: she will not take any shit from me.
Jamie has never stopped pushing me toward success. She has never stopped telling me to find what I love and do it. She is still practical and expects me to hold down a decent job – after all, we are about to have our 6th child. But she knows I am capable of so much more than I give myself credit for, and she won’t let me weasel out of it. And oh boy have I tried to weasel. Always with the making of excuses for why I just can’t. Her, always telling me I need to get the word “can’t” out of my vocabulary.
So for the last two years, I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo. For the uninitiated, that’s short for National Novel Writing Month. The goal is to write 50,000 words in 30 days. I have yet to complete it. Last year, I only wrote about 4,000 words by the end. This year, I wrote 15,000. Not great, but hey – progress. And I haven’t stopped. I’m still working. Still plugging away. At this moment, I have committed 23,143 words to (virtual) paper. By NaNoWriMo standards, I’m almost half-way there.
I don’t like my story all that much, but that’s beside the point. This is a learning adventure. I am writing to the end, and then I’m going to revise, and if a workable story comes out of it, so be it. If not, I will finally understand the scope, scale, pitfalls, and problems of my writing process as applied to such a large, complex task. And I will know, at long last, after 30-some years of writing stories, that I can reach. the. finish. line.
And if it still sucks after I’ve given it a big fat editorial makeover, I will write another one. Because I can.
I received a reminder of why this is worth doing when I got an email this week from a certain novelist whose debut book came out in 2012. It’s a science fiction book, and a good one at that. We’ve corresponded in the past, and he approached me to ask if I’d be willing to nominate the work for a Hugo award.
I was touched by the request. He has reached that next level. I’m still working on Big Scary Challenge #1, finishing the book, but he’s made it to Big Scary Challenge #2, recognition. He’s in the next part of the race, the one I only dream about right now. And I realized that I can help him take this next step. I can be a part of that journey, just as others who have encouraged and assisted me have been a part of mine.
This particular author came to writing fiction at the end of a fruitful career in another industry. When I asked how things were going since the book came out, one thing he said really stuck with me:
I’ve just finished my second novel and I’ve started work on my third. I wish I’d done this earlier – I feel it’s what I was made for.
That. Is. Awesome.
That is a feeling I want to know. To finally be doing what you’re made to do. I’ve been kicking this can down the road my whole life. Avoiding doing the necessary hard work (and believe me, writing a novel is one of the hardest things I’ve ever tried to do) is one of the worst mistakes I’ve made. I see authors out there like Veronica Roth who already has a mega-major-bestselling series and movie deal at age 24, or Larry Correia who has quickly become my favorite writer and has at least one bestseller out of 8 books currently published and 18 more books coming at age 35 (my age), and I wonder what I’ve been doing with myself. Maybe it couldn’t be helped. Maybe I needed to reach this place, this time, this level of experience before I could be ready to do this. Maybe I just wasn’t mature enough before. Maybe I was too damned arrogant and thought I was special and that I’d find some magic shortcut to success without having to really try all that hard. (That last one makes me cringe, but it’s true.) Whatever the case, at long last, I know now that it’s finally time.
I’m done being afraid of my own dreams. I’m over being embarrassed about them. I only get one go round in this world, and I want it to be enjoyable. I want the satisfaction of accomplishing something I can be proud of. In the back of my mind, there’s this voice always telling me to lay it out for everyone, to let them know that yes, I know that I might fail, but this is no time for the hedging of bets. I won’t fail. I will succeed. I may not be good at a lot of things, but the good Lord decided to make it so I could write, and write I shall.
Every morning these days, I have a new prayer. I ask God to give me the strength and courage and ability to be a successful writer of fiction. No more hiding from it. No more feeling like I should be asking Him for something more important, or looking for some greater calling. It’s not my lot in life to cure cancer, but maybe it’s my lot in life to tell the kind of stories that ease the suffering of someone who has cancer, because just for a little while, they can escape their world and go on an adventure in a world I’ve made. I can live with that. That’s a noble enough calling for me.
And with the Hugo awards on my mind, I’ll double down and publicly state another goal: I’m going to get one. I don’t know how long it will take, or when it will happen, but one day I’m going to have that beautiful silver rocket sitting on my shelf, next to the books I’ve written and all the ones that have inspired me, and I’m going look at it every day and grin like a little kid who just made a particularly cool spaceship out of Legos.
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