Bruce Lee, relevant for his being both an athlete and an artist/philosopher, wrote famously: “Don’t fear failure. Not failure, but low aim, is the crime. In great attempts it is glorious even to fail.”
I am an author and also a surfer. The two complement each other better than might be immediately apparent. For example, the quote above definitely applies to surfing. If you search for videos of professional surfers online, you’ll see two things in focus: the most unbelievably successful rides and the most painful wipeouts ever recorded. Mediocrity is just not worth putting into the edits. It is often said among surfers that if you aren’t going to have a exquisite ride you may as well have an exquisite wipeout. More relevant perhaps, is the surfing adage that if you aren’t wiping out often, you aren’t trying hard enough.
When I go surfing, I’m proud of myself for paddling into a large wave (relative to my comfort level), what surfers call a cleanup set — a wave that’s much bigger than the average for a day. When that monster wave comes and I look up at it, it is very intimidating, but still worth going for. Either way something memorable is going to come from it. I will either get the best ride of the day or get thrown into a very violent washing machine.
I’ve written elsewhere that novelists take on the marathon of the arts. How long does it take to finish a painting? A poem? An essay? A song? How long does it take to prepare your lines and act in a play? To do a dance routine? Compare that to how long it takes to write a good novel: many sources say a year is too short.
If writing long fiction is the marathon of the arts, then writing a series is closer to an ultra-marathon. A marathon is about 42km. So your triology is going to feel like a 150km ultra-marathon. Some ultras are 200km. That’s what writing a multi-volume series is like.
I’m currently taking on a series that may run to 20 short books. I estimate, because each volume is not very long, it will run to about 800,000-1 million words. So is this going to be a wipeout so bad its a waste of years of my life? Or will it be my life’s greatest accomplishment?
I don’t know, but that’s exciting isn’t it? We only live once. One life, once chance to do something amazing. To push ourselves to the limit in whatever makes us happy. It’s why people mountaineer, go on polar expeditions, hike the Appalachian Trail, surf waves that might kill them, and do heavy squats for four years just for one chance at an Olympic medal. In death, I think, all failure will be forgotten. So the question is, what if I succeed?
I don’t mean succeed at getting book contracts and movie deals and all the public praise authors dream of. The market for books is kind of like the restaurant market. Most fail. To say it is a tough business is an understatement so misleading as to nearly be a lie. That would be akin to actually winning 1st place in an ultra-marathon. I mean what if I succeed in just finishing the thing to the end?
Imagine the sense of accomplishment any of us would feel if we wrote a multi-book series we at least are proud of. It’s a deed that will remain with us for the rest of our lives. Quite a unique thing to have on one’s shelf. The series I wrote, sitting on my shelf. That’s what I dream of. Thanks to the support and encouragement of the Taipei Writers Group, I’m not the only one who is well on my way to having that.
Bruce Lee is right about this. It will be glorious even to fail.
I saw another quote recently while listening to classical music while writing.
“Don’t only practice your art, but force your way into its secrets, for it and knowledge can raise men to the divine.”-Ludwig van Beethoven
I don’t agree with Beethoven. I don’t think it can make us divine. But the secrets of one’s art are the secrets of life itself.
We can learn something from inside fiction that helps us to create fiction and create a meaningful life. I was just talking to fellow TWG member Jeremy A. TeGrotenhuis about how compelling villains are often more important than compelling protagonists, because tension comes from there being a real possibility that the protagonist could fail. This is a secret of the art of writing that is also a secret of life.
I want to write a 20 book series. I want to take on a pursuit where almost everyone is guaranteed to fail. I want to run the ultra-marathon of the arts. Because what’s my life, what’s my story, without a worthy challenge I have a real chance of failing at?
A theme of my writing is that the cozy sort of happiness, contentment, is overrated. Excitement, tension, and the feeling of being alive — that’s true living for me. I feel it when I see that big wave approaching. I feel it when I go to the coffee shop and sit for hours, knowing I’ll only made millimetric progress towards the massive goal of finishing my series. I get to wonder on a daily basis if I’ll finish it, what it will feel like if I finish it, whether anyone will like it.
A life where each day includes not just happiness, but the thrill of struggling with a challenge I’m not sure I can handle, that’s a life I’m really enjoying living. That’s my secret.
I hope it helps if you’re inclined to start the journey yourself.
By the way the first two books of my series are already available on Amazon, so please check out Chadwick Yates and the Cannibal Shrine and Chadwick Yates and the Forest Labyrinth if you enjoyed this piece and want to see what I’ve been up to.