This week’s guest, talking writers & discipline, is Myke Cole (@MykeCole on twitter). After 3 tours in Iraq & serving at home in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, he’s qualified to talk about discipline.
Control Point, the first in his ‘Shadow Ops’ contemporary fantasy series from Ace Books is out February, 2012. This post will be a hard read, for some, but Myke delivers the goods. Want to make a life as a writer? Fight for it!
You want to be successful in writing and in life? Run, do not walk, to your nearest recruiting station and join up.
Take it away, Mike:
I’ve dreamed of being a professional speculative fiction writer since I was a boy. I struggled mightily for over a decade to make that happen, without success, until all of a sudden, the joint came unglued and I broke through.
I ran with that particular football, quitting an incredibly lucrative and stable job and throwing myself on the mercy of a turbulent marketplace. I wrote a blog entry on the subject.
Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out what it was that made me able to make this move, and I’ve finally come to realize that it was the notion of getting comfortable with discomfort. That notion is second nature to the men and women who serve in the US military.
I’ve gone, quite literally, from riches to rags.
I’ve moved out of my swanky condo in DC into a closet sized studio in a bad part of Brooklyn. I’ve gone from lavish vacations to counting pennies. But I’m finally doing what I’ve always wanted to do. To the extent that my experience is helpful to others, I offer it up here.
Why Every Writer Should Join the US Military
A few months ago, I turned pro.
By “turned pro,” I mean that I got my novel picked up by one of the major publishing houses in a three-book deal.
I don’t want to overstate what that means. It’s the first step on a long road, and future sales and the conditions of the marketplace may consign me to the remainder rack quicker than you can say “Myke who?”
But it is, for me (and I suspect for most aspiring writers) the main line I sought to cross – making the majors, getting picked for the starting lineup.
Put me in coach, I’m ready to play.
Like most of the folks reading this, I was serious and committed, pushing hard for years (all my life dreaming about it, fifteen years seriously pursuing it) with little movement. When I was on the other side of that pane, trying desperately to figure a way in, I grasped at anything I could, looking for the magic formula.
There isn’t one, of course, and everyone told me that, but I never stopped looking.
Now, having reached that major milestone (with so much further to go), I sit and consider what it was that finally put me over the top. Because the truth is that something clicked in the winter of 2008. I sat in Camp Liberty, Baghdad, watching my beloved Coast Guards march past Obama’s inaugural podium on the big screen, and felt it click.
I bitched and whined to anyone who would listen about how unfair life was, about how I just wanted a chance to get my work before an audience, but I knew in my bones that I’d crossed some line. Somehow, going forward, things would be different.
I’ve thought a lot about that time, that shift, and I think I’ve finally put my finger on what changed. The near audible click I heard was my experience in the US military surfacing, breaking the thin skin of ice it had been gathering against for so long. The guy who landed back in the states was different from the one who left. He could sell a book.
We’re all different. We all come at our goals from different angles. I can’t promise that what’s worked for me will work for anyone else. But before I went pro, I wanted to hear what worked for others. I offer this in that same spirit. So, I’ll give you the BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front) as we say in the service: You want to be successful in writing and in life?
Run, do not walk, to your nearest recruiting station and join up.
I’m not kidding.
Let’s put aside the practical benefits that seem tailor made for the full time writer. Forget the fact that I get full coverage health insurance for $50 a month. Never mind the fact that I get discounts on everything from housing to travel to food to buying cars and cell phone plans. Pay no attention to commissary and gym privileges on any base in the country.
My experience in the military (as a contractor, paramilitary civilian and a uniformed officer) facilitated my writing in three important ways: It taught me the value of misery, it made me focus on quantifiable results, and it made me hungry for challenges, the more seemingly impossible, the better.
Are you sitting comfortably? That might be your problem.
Steven Pressfield is an incredibly successful author. His novel The Legend of Bagger Vance became the film of the same name, and his novel Gates of Fire is widely thought to be the definitive work of historical fiction on the Battle of Thermopylae. Pressfield also wrote The War of Art, which is the only self-help I’ve ever read worth the paper it was printed on.
In The War of Art, Pressfield talks about his experience as a US Marine and how it helped him succeed as a writer. The greatest thing he learned in the Corps? How to be miserable.
“Marines derive a perverse satisfaction from having colder chow, crappier equipment, and higher casualty rates than any outfit of dogfaces, swab jockeys or flyboys . . . The artist must be like that Marine . . . He has to take pride in being more miserable than any soldier or swabbie or jet jockey. Because this is war, baby. And war is hell.”
The human condition is to seek comfort. We want to be well fed and warm. We want to be approved of and loved. We want things to be easy. When something is rough on you, the natural instinct is to avoid it.
You put your hand on a hot stove, you pull it away. Who volunteers to alternately shiver and boil in a godforsaken desert, showering in dirty water until you have perennial diarrhea? Who volunteers to get shot at? Who volunteers to give up your right to free speech and free association? To live where and how you want? To willfully place yourself at the whim of a rigidly hierarchical bureaucracy?
But ask yourself this: Who volunteers to labor in obscurity for years with only the slimmest chance of success? Who gives up their nights and weekends, dates and parties, for what amounts to a second job that doesn’t pay a dime? Who tolerates humiliation, rejection and desperate loneliness?
Why the hell would anybody ever do that? Because it’s worth it, of course. When you’re standing at attention in your finest at a change of command, when someone shakes your hand on the subway and thanks you for your service, when you look in the eyes of a person and know they’re alive because of you, it’s worth everything you went through and more.
The same is true of writing. When you see your name in print, when someone reacts to your writing in a way you’d never expected, tells you it influenced them, changed them, transported them, inspired them, it’s well worth it.
But that part is fleeting. It’s the misery that endures. I know writers who’ve published a half dozen novels only to be dropped for mid-range sales. Others, despite dazzling popularity, couldn’t make enough to keep a roof over their heads. I’ve seen commitment to the discipline wreck friendships, marriages, minds. There are dazzling moments, to be sure, as clear and glorious as when the battalion CO pins the commendation on your chest in front of your whole family.
But it’s as brief and fleeting as that, and before you know it, it’s back to the mud and the screaming and the hard calls with no time to think it through. You have to love that mud. It has to define you. You have to be proud to be covered in it. You have to want it bad enough that you can override your desire to seek comfort. When there’s work to be done, you don’t call your friends to go out to drink and bitch. Instead, you sit down and work.
Because if it ain’t rainin’, you ain’t trainin’, and you love that mud. Because you’re a damned marine.
My point is this. Uncomfortable? Miserable? Wondering why you bother?
Glad to hear it.
Because you’re exactly where you need to be. The fire that’s burning you is the crucible where the iron is forged. I can’t promise you that it’ll hold up under the repeated blows waiting for it when it emerges, but there’s only one way to find out.
This is the chief reason I have avoided writing groups and online workshops. There’s a lot of great advice to be had in them, but the temptation to use them as group therapy is strong. In my floundering days, I spent a lot of time seeking ways to comfort myself in the face of the seeming impossibility of writing success. Instead of using fellow writers as sounding boards for questions of craft, I leaned on them to share dreams and pains, to know that I wasn’t alone in my loneliness and fear of failure.
And that’s not going to get you where you need to go. Work will. You relieve the discomfort (usually at the expense of work) and you take yourself out of the zone where your best work is performed and spend precious time that could be dedicated to honing your craft.
Remember Pressfield’s point. This is war. It’s not supposed to be a picnic.
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.
As a security contractor, government civilian and military officer, Myke Cole’s career has run the gamut from Counterterrorism to Cyber Warfare to Federal Law Enforcement. He’s done three tours in Iraq and was recalled to serve during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
All that conflict can wear a guy out. Thank goodness for fantasy novels, comic books, late night games of Dungeons and Dragons and lots of angst fueled writing.
Creative Commons-licensed Photo:
Defense Images flickr account (UK Ministry of Defense).