Training Our Competition

James Scott Bell

I’m teaching at a conference in Florida this weekend. Most of us Kill Zoners show up at the occasional conference, hobnob, teach. I’ve been teaching for nearly a decade and a half, and it’s extremely pleasing to me to see people I’ve taught go on to publication. That’s why I’m putting on my own seminar in June in Los Angeles. Info on that is at the end of this post.
Of course, we’re in the midst of doing first page critiques for brave souls who have submitted to us. All of which raises (not begs!) a question I’ve fielded over the years. People have asked me, “Dude, why would you want to train your competition?”
A few responses.
First, I’m not averse to competition. It’s the engine of achievement. If my teaching means I have to keep working hard on my own books and craft, so much the better for me.
You just can’t become obsessed with competition, to the point where you’re always comparing and stressing about what others do. This isn’t a zero sum game.
The best competition is with yourself.  Keep stretching and working hard. Set goals and go after them. Teaching helps keep me on my game.
Second, I’m all for give back. I have been the beneficiary of some wonderful guidance and advice from writers and teachers who were there for me at the beginning. If I was to hoard whatever I’ve learned from them, it would not be kosher, karmic, Christian or any other spiritual principle you’d care to name.
One of these mentors was Lawrence Block, the crime novelist who was, for many years, the fiction columnist for Writer’s Digest. I would devour his column each month as if it were a holy page. I still have binders of old WDs, all marked up, containing his columns. He had the ability to communicate not only what worked, but how a writer thinks. When I eventually got to write that very same column, I felt like Joshua taking over for Moses.
Another was the novelist Jack Cavanaugh, who became a friend and gave me priceless career advice before I had a career. And so on. In other words, I owe a debt and teaching helps me pay that off.
Third, I enjoy teaching.
Fourth, I’m good at it. As are my fellow Zoners, who are generous with their own comments and professional advice. This place is gold.
Fifth, teaching in person allows me to augment and explain many of the concepts in my writing books. It’s a further way to get this information into the heads of the writers and help them get to that storied next level.
There is nothing more fun for me than being with writers and talking about the craft we love. But even better is seeing people become stronger writers, watching light bulbs going on above heads, and hearing of eventual book contracts.
Learn all you can, write all you can. That’s the only formula for writing success I know.
Who have been some of the teaching influences in your writing journey, via book or live and in-person?  What did you gain from mentors or editors? Or did you get the book writing thing right the very first time? (If your answer is Yes, we’ll talk after class).
My “Sell Your Novel and Screenplay Intensive” is June 4 and 5, in Los Angeles. Info can be found here. (Apparently there’s an occasional IE browser incompatibility with this page, so if you need an alternative link, here it is.) 

20 thoughts on “Training Our Competition

  1. I have to add my kudos to Jack Cavanaugh. Back in 2004, when I decided to get serious about my writing, I took his novel writing continuing ed course at my first ever writing conference in Glorieta. He laid a strong foundation I’ve been building on ever since.

    And goodness, it’s so hard to put in a little comments box all the people who have helped me. Blogs like this one, certain craft books, and sometimes it might just be that certain way someone explains a technique you’ve heard about a thousand times, but when they teach it, things finally click into place.

    I’m very thankful that so many writers give back. It’s truly a blessing.

  2. I teach writing as well, and I do it for pretty much all the reasons you mentioned. My top two: teaching makes me a better writer, and there is nothing more rewarding than seeing a student’s work improve. (By the way, I use your books in my classes, and my students get so much out of them. So thank you!)

  3. Jim, Your mention of Lawrence Block brought to mind the favorite writing volume in my library, his Telling Lies For Fun and Profit. It means even more to me when I find that you were inspired by him as well.
    And, as one of the hundreds you’ve mentored who’ve gone on to publication, let me thank you for the way you give back through your teaching and support.
    Great post.

  4. I realize a lot of people use it, but I think the competition analogy is a really bad one because it tends to put writers at odds with each other when we should be supporting each other. The implication is that people are given a choice between two writers and they will choose the best one, so we wouldn’t want to help another writer become better for fear that they will choose that writer over us. In reality, that isn’t how it works. What is more likely to happen is that someone is going to read a book that makes them say, “Wow!” and then they are going to start looking for another book like it. One writer can’t write fast enough to keep readers happy, so they will look for another author who writes similar books. One the other hand, if a reader picks up a book and doesn’t like it, he might put it down and say, “that’s why I gave up on reading books.” More writers producing good books is good for us all.

  5. I find great inspiration, ideas, and knowledge here the TKZ. I’ve learned to love you all, and have become a fan I think of each one of you by now (how else can I see if you practice what you preach?). I’m also grateful for every teacher I had when I was younger that said, “keep writing, don’t worry about the grammar now, it will come later.” they didn’t stifle inspiration for rules.

    Lani-Diane Rich, fun author, excellent teacher, helpful inspiration. She teaches that each person needs to own their own greatness and my greatness doesn’t impinge upon another’s greatness. I think helping each other out keeps us all sharp, ever learning, and ever improving.

    My dad got me started in writing, inadvertently by getting me started in reading. I didn’t just get Disney stories when I was a kid, I got classic sci-fi: Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, and the like. He read them to me before I could read them for myself. I thought, I’d like to do that, create worlds, visit interesting places, kill off cool people.

    I work with fellow writers too. We help each other out and I’m glad to be an inspiration to my niece… she is doing some amazing things at 16 with her writing and storytelling and I’m hoping to give her the extra legs up, to be further along than me. I think she’ll be able to do really neat things in the future, if she keeps going they way she is.

  6. Competition exists even between close friends who are authors or knife makers, or anything else including preachers. Some authors have very little real competition because they set such high bars or plumb the depths of incompetence.

    Myself, the more authors, the better. That is because I usually read other authors and the better they are, the more I treasure the time I spend in their stories. Me, I know how the stories I write end, so the surprise factor is never there.

  7. Great post, Jim, as always. I view competition in areas where there can be only one answer. Certainly, fiction is not one of those areas. If I suggested to a group of authors the premise that there is a serial killer preying on tourists in a small New England resort town, I wonder how many people would write a book about a great white shark? There is no single answer or right answer, therefore there is no competition, only creativity.

    And I can’t agree with you more that giving back is one of the most rewarding things a writer can do. I’m part of an MWA-sponsored mentoring program for unpublished authors and really enjoy it.

  8. I’ve found that the writing community is very supportive and nurturing. When you attend a writer’s conference such as Thrillerfest, or a chapter meeting of MWA or Sisters in Crime, you meet people who are eager to help fellow writers at every stage of development. When I give a writing workshop, I show a slide that shows a continuum. At one end of the continuum is what I call a “paper scrap writer.” At the other end of the continuum is Shakespeare. We’re all at one point or another on the progression–there is always someone ahead of us, and there is always someone behind us. We encourage each other along the way.

  9. There’s nothing more enjoyable than learning from someone who loves what they do and that’s so evident with you Jim. Thanks for being so open and willing to share what you know and making it FUN at the same time.
    I’ve learned from so many people. I loved Sol Stein’s book on writing, and Ann Lamott, Stephen King, your writing books of course and many others. And I agree that the best competition is the competition we have with ourselves to improve.
    Oh, and I love Writers Digest and The Writer magazines. I look forward to the mail when I see the corner of one of them sticking out of our mailbox.

    Those folks who attend your workshop in June are in for a real treat. Have fun!

  10. BK, nice to know we share Jack as a friend.

    Anna, thanks for the kind words, and the confirmation about why we teach.

    Doc, glad to be of help. Block was truly gifted in thinking like a writer in those books.

  11. Miller, you hit the mark about more authors. We can find more good ones that way, and that’s always a thrill. I met two southern writers down here in Tallahassee whom I hadn’t read before. Cassandra King and Ron Cooper. I’m going to give them each a read.

    And Joe and Kathryn, I couldn’t agree more about the joy of giving back.

  12. Jillian, it’s been a great joy for me to watch you work hard and get better and get published. That goes for Richard Mabry and others I could name. Because the X factor is what YOU bring to the table. The desire to work hard and be patient and keep moving forward.

    Well done, kiddo.

  13. “Learn all you can, write all you can. That’s the only formula for writing success I know.” No matter how much I’ve learned over the past dozen or so years, no matter how much writing I do, it doesn’t feel like enough. I’m not sure what it will take to feel my work is ready.

    I’m thankful for advice from Jessica Morrell; for your books and others written by Julia Cameron, Dwight Swain, Natalie Goldberg, William Zinsser, and Donald Maass, to name only a few; for helpful agents’ and editors’ blogs. There’s no lack of help available, but being able to apply everything I’ve learned is an ongoing challenge.

  14. Carol, its an ongoing challenge at every level. The “keep writing” admonition is the only way to meet it. I like your tenacity. Maybe don’t try to apply “everything” at once. Objectively, try to find the weakest area currently for you. Concentrate on that. I used to design “self study” for myself on various aspects. I’d focus on one area for a couple of months, while still writing every day. This gig is like chess. Easy to learn, a lifetime to master.

  15. I agree writing is a lifelong skill to master and the community is what makes you realize there is no need for competition – when one of us succeeds, all of us succeed.

  16. Competition motivates me to strive for the top. Striving for the top means the I am not at the top, there are many above me. I am competing to stand beside them, not to knock them out of the top…but to stand where they once stood & leave my mark among the greats.

    That being said, my mentors include some here who are in a place I want to be, and authors both living and dead who are or were there as well.

    So while it is indeed a competition, it is not a war.

    do you have what it takes to be one of the few, the proud, the ones who are not weinies

  17. I attended the TWA conference this past weekend and gained a great deal of inspiration (and many notes) from Mr. Bell’s sessions. Thank you!

    Now I would like to know how to submit first page material for comments! ๐Ÿ™‚

    Great site! I’ve been reading the critiques here and I love them. I can see where we can continue learning just by visiting this blog and reading on a daily basis.

  18. I just can’t say enough about the amazing and generous writers I’ve met along my journey who have reached out to help me. I also love helping other writers, and still definitely need help myself. Some of my personal mentors/angels have been wonderful writers like Sharon Sala, Mel Odom, and Jordan Dane (Hi, Jordan!). Also, blogs like this and writing books by such masters as Stephen King are extremely helpful. This blog really is fantastic. Not only entertaining, but a learning tool. Keep up the good work!

Comments are closed.