The last gun analogy I used to mull over my life as a writer met with some praise, so let me mine the same vein here. Stick with me.
I go too fast. It’s a battle I’ve been fighting all my life. I make progress at times, but in the end it’s so constant that it’s thematic. When I decide that a task is before me and that it is right and proper to do it, I become intensely focused and uneasy until it is done. Assign. Plan. Execute.
I can’t stand unread emails in my inbox. I can’t stand a long to-do list. I can’t stand having to wait for others to complete their portion of a group task so that I can complete mine. I’ve got a month to turn in copyedits? I’ll get them done in 2 weeks. Because. If on time is good, then early is better. With a task off my desk, I can move on to the next one with time to spare. I’ve got room to breathe, cushion in case of an unforseen mistake. Gogogogogetitdonegetitdone.
This is a critical failing in a writer.
Sure, it’s good to produce quickly. Many writers have enjoyed great success due to their ability to put out multiple great books a year. I’m a book-a-year-man myself, (book and a half, actually, but only one published and in stores). I feel pretty confident that I’ll be able to sustain that pace for as long as people are willing to pay me to write.
But I’ve said this ad nauseum: all of my favorite writers: Peter V. Brett, Scott Lynch, Mark Lawrence, Joe Abercrombie, George R. R. Martin, Naomi Novik, China Mieville, Daniel Polansky, Patrick Rothfuss, have this in common: They take as long as it takes. They choose perfection over speed. They ruminate and digest and ponder and drive themselves insane. They take 2 or 3 or 6 years between novels. And they produce jewels.
I try so hard to do that, to slow down, to give the work its due. It’s like swimming in molasses. For decades I have tried and managed it only a handful of times. Speed of execution is such an ingrained part of my DNA that Pete jokingly nicknamed me “Ready, Fire, Aim.” I earned the nickname, and accept it with a sort of gallows humor. I’m not proud of it, hate it in fact, but it’s funny because it’s true.
I was engaging in some self-deprecating humor with Tim Akers, Sam Sykes and Howard Tayler today on the subject of outlining. I gave a throwaway line I use to try to get a quick laugh from friends: “Ready, Fire, Aim has been my MO for decades now. Worked out so far. Except when it doesn’t.”
“That’s what we call walking your fire,” Howard replied.
Howard has never served in the military, but you don’t write Schlock Mercenary for as long as he has without learning how we talk. Here’s the thing: with small arms, aiming on your sights is critical. Rounds down range might keep an enemy’s head down for a few seconds, but in the end, you can’t stop threats you don’t hit. Tactical operators live and die by their marksmanship. Close-Quarters-Battle (CQB) is a common discipline whether you’re a SOF operator clearing an insurgent strong point, or a maritime law enforcement officer sweeping a ship for unaccounted-for-personnel. It’s drilled into us. Don’t shoot at what you can’t hit. Aim. Aim. Aim.
But with crew served weapons, the big guns on the hardpoints of our boats and cutters, sight aim is less important. In our gunnery exercises (GUNEXs), we practice on floating targets. Sure, aim is a factor and the big guns have sights, but in the end, gunners often “walk their fire” to the targets, relying on the splashing water churned up by the incoming rounds to see where they are hitting, and then adjusting aim accordingly. Tracers work on the same principle. We sometimes call it “stitching” in the small arms anti-personnel context, a gruesome likening of the line of rounds piercing their target to the puncture of a sewing machine needle as it travels along a seam.
Air strike forward observers walk fire. So do mortar teams.
That is, by definition, Ready, Fire, Aim.
And it’s not wrong at all.
I’ve written a fair bit about PTSD. I’ve tried to be even-handed and honest in my treatment of it. I’ve tried to acknowledge that PTSD is debilitating, but it can also strengthen and enfranchise. Living constantly in Condition Yellow is exhausting and isolating, but it also keeps you safe on the streets of New York just as it did on the streets of al-Adhamiyah. It helps you conquer certain types of fear by immersing you in them, and freedom from fear permits you to take risks. Facing and acknowledging your death is intensely liberating. It allows you to make leaps of faith you never could before. You can ask that attractive person for their number. You can apply for that job you’ll never get in a million years. You can go on that cross-country trip. You can write that novel that’ll never get published. Because. What’s the worst thing that could happen, You’ll die? So? You almost died a half dozen times already. You’re over it. There’s nothing worse anyone can do to you. Rejection? Poverty? Failure? Bring it.
My point is this: even the cracks that war puts in you have an upside. You are a worse person because of how you have changed. But you are also a better one.
Not all ingrained behaviors are pathological. Not all pathological behaviors are uniformly negative. Sometimes you subconsciously stick with a strategy because, through all the bumps and bruises, it’s working.
And the breathless pace with which you execute tasks can be rushing sometimes, but it is also sometimes initiative and competence, the ability to triage and analyze and react, a mind that moves quickly because it’s sharp enough to split a hair.
Sometimes it’s Ready, Fire, Aim. Sometimes, it’s a mistake. Heck, lots of times even.
But sometimes, you’re walking your fire, like you were trained to do, like you drilled so many times that it became coded into who you are, pushing over the line from skill and into instinct. Right’s not perfect. Never was. You keep perfect in your sights, and you never stop shooting for it.
And in the meantime, you keep plugging your targets, because right or perfect, they’re still down, and that’s what they paid you to do.