Competition, Writing and Rocky Marciano

James Scott Bell

For years I’ve bought my Apple products at the big Apple store near my home. It’s located on the second floor of a large shopping mall. It majestically dominates the middle of the mall and, being near the food court and Coffee Bean, has arguably the best location in the whole place. There is even a walkway-bridge that leads strolling shoppers from one side of the mall directly over to the large, open and welcoming Kingdom of Jobs.
The other day my wife and I were walking through the mall when I spotted a sign alerting us that a new store had just opened. It too was located off the food court. I said, “Let’s go over there. I want to see it. It must be near the Apple store.”
Not just near, but directly across from the Apple store, at the other end of that same walkway-bridge.
You may have guessed that it was a new, gleaming Microsoft store.
You would be right.
I could not help noticing how, um, similar the store looks to Apple’s set-up. Lots of tables with laptops and tablets and phones. A help desk modeled after Apple’s Genius Bar. Sales staff in brightly colored tee-shirts like their counterparts across the way, complete with name tags hanging around their necks shaped the same as the Apple crew’s.
A year ago there was a story about Apple going after Microsoft’s bread-and-butter market, business. Now it seems Microsoft is giving Apple a run for its money in the consumer market.
The Microsoft space is just one third the size of the Apple store. But it has shown up. It is here.
Game on.
This is competition. For big stakes. Two giants battling it out.
Hmm, sort of like Amazon and (not Hachette this time!) HarperCollins. On Friday the publisher announced a new program for direct sales. HC already has an e-bookstore. Now they are offering this incentive for their authors: an added 10% royalty when they send customers to the publisher’s website to purchase the book (via “buy buttons” on their website or links on social media).
Game on.
Competition. It’s good. Because it generally makes the free market a better place for consumers.
It also makes for stronger writers.
I grew up playing competitive sports. It taught me some lessons that I’ve carried with me my whole life, including the writing part. Here are three:
1. There’s always somebody with more talent than you
You cannot change what talent or physiology you’re born with. When you get into competition you find that out pretty fast.
I was a great 6’3″ shooting guard on my high school basketball team. What I didn’t have was hops. I could not dunk. If I had been 6’9″, maybe I would have made it to the NBA. At my height, though, I didn’t have enough spring in my sticks. (Below is a picture of Taft High’s Jim Bell going in low for the layup).
So I determined to work as hard as I could with what I had. I managed not only to play at the college level, but for many years after that in leagues and pickup games, having fun.
Same with writing. What talent you have is not up to you. What is up to you is what you do with it. Do you want to be someone who writes and gets paid for it? Then work at your craft. It’s quite common that the harder worker overtakes the more gifted, but indolent, athlete. See Rose, Pete (look for him under “Baseball,” not “Gambling”).
2. When you play, play with all your heart
Once in the game, give it your all. Never quit.
In 1916, the Georgia Tech football team played little Cumberland College. The score was 63-0 after the first quarter. The final score was 222-0. Look it up.
At one point they found a Cumberland player wrapped in a blanket, sitting on the Georgia Tech bench. When they asked him why, he said he feared his coach would put him back in the game.
You’re going to suffer through disappointments. That’s part of the writing life. No matter how bad it gets, though, stay in the game. The great thing about writing is you are the only one who can stop you. So don’t stop you.
Desire and determination trump disappointment. Learn what you can from setbacks. Maybe you need to work on characterization, or dialogue, or plotting. There are abundant resources to help you in every single area. Join a critique group. Go to a conference.
Just don’t wrap yourself up in a blanket and never play again.
3. Your ultimate competition is with yourself
You should not waste any time comparing yourself to other writers, envying their successes (or, secretly, hoping they fail). Wasted energy. Sure, entering your book in an awards competition stacks you up against other colleagues. But don’t let losing (or even winning for that matter) mess with your head.
Instead always concentrate, with all your creative might, on the page in front of you, every writing day.
And forget about luck. I don’t believe in believing in luck. Guys who believe bad luck is the reason for not making it are like that geezer with three-days’ growth of beard at the end of the bar. “I coulda been a contendah, but da breaks wuz against me!”
What good does that do?
Keep fighting.
Rocky Marciano was one of the greatest boxers of all time. Won the heavyweight championship of the world and never lost a fight his entire professional career.
But his start was not so promising. Marciano, nicknamed the Brockton Blockbuster because in his youth delivered big blocks of ice for the Brockton Ice and Coal Company, had incredibly strong arms. But those muscles were heavy, and the muscles used to hold his arms up were not as developed.
The result was that after a few rounds Marciano’s arms began to sag, giving his sparring partners greater access to his face.
Instead of quitting, Marciano came up with his own training routine. He went to the local YMCA pool and practiced

throwing punch after punch underwater. He got a heavy bag that weighed 180 pounds (most heavy bags weigh about 50). He threw punches at that bag for hours…with bare fists. Needless to say those fists became solid granite and his arms become pile drivers.

The result? Marciano’s record was 49-0, 45 by knockout.
He once said, “I was willing to make sacrifices. Even while traveling, when there were no facilities. I would spend hours in my hotel room working on my strength. I wanted more than anything to be a fighter. Then I wanted to be a good one, and after that a great champion.”
What do you want, dear writer? What are you willing to sacrifice?
Not everyone is born with an iron will. But you can develop it. If you take baby steps every day –– writing, studying, editing, writing some more –– soon you’ll be making longer strides.
There’s an old saying in boxing that you have to keep punching, because you always have a puncher’s chance.
So when you get knocked down get right back up. Keep punching that keyboard. You always have another chance.  
How would you rate your determination level? How do you handle disappointment? 


28 thoughts on “Competition, Writing and Rocky Marciano

  1. I’m an optimistic pessimist. If I plan a garden party I’m sure it’s going to rain, but that’s okay because the flowers need it. So disappointment doesn’t bother me.

    Discipline? Not sure I even spelled it right. But I’m doing better than a year ago. And if my book does well, I’m sure it will propel me to greater heights by next year. If it doesn’t do well (as I expect it won’t because a; don’t want to jinx it; and b; see optimistic pessimistic comment), the next one will.

  2. I like the sports analogy, Jim. I tell folks that running was great training for writing.

    Determination? I get anything what I truly want provided it doesn’t violate any of the laws of physics.

    Disappointment? I figure out what I screwed up and fix it. If necessary, I find someone who will smack me between the eyes with the info. If I haven’t made a fundamental mistake, I double down on effort. Effort brings it everyday and is 100 percent under my control.

  3. Yeah, preach it! I have four small children whom I’m homeschooling, and a fifth four year old who I babysit five days a week. My goal is to self pub three books a year.

    I carry my iPod around and write in little bits here and there throughout the day. Right now I’m deep-revising, and I have the book chopped into four text files. Whenever I finish one, I feel great.

    It’s like the analogy of the big and small objects–tennis balls and rice, lets say. If you put the rice–the small stuff–in the bucket first, there’s no room for the tennis balls–the big things. But if you put in the tennis balls first, the rice will fill all the gaps. Writing, for me, is the rice.

  4. Great post, Jim! “It’s quite common that the harder worker overtakes the more gifted…”

    I love that statement. I’ve always been smaller, weaker, slower, and not as quick to learn. I struggled with sports and never excelled…but hung in there. My profession favors those who learn quickly. I just had to study “all the time.” And now, as I study the craft of writing, I am discovering that the class is never completed, there’s always more to learn.

    At first, that was frustrating. But now, as I forget about finishing the race and begin to “just enjoy the journey,” it is exciting to realize that the journey will never be boring.

    My determination level? What do I want? What am I willing to sacrifice? In a profession that easily consumes over 60 hours a week, I’ve discovered that I must set priorities. I’m giving up some things in order to find time to write. I want to write one book a year. When I retire from my day job, I want to write two books a year.

    One additional “sacrifice”: I’m “giving up” a work day, this Friday, to attend a writers conference in Columbus, Ohio to hear Jim Bell speak.

    Looking forward to seeing you there.

  5. Thanks for the pep talk, Jim!

    I’m not working on a writing project at the moment, but there’s plenty of wisdom in here for me as I work to expand my freelance business.

    I’m getting an increasing number of editing clients who want more help with the self-publishing process (and others who aren’t editing clients but looking for help). So I’m working to expand my services to include more self-publishing support.

    Also, I’m working toward a goal of creating presentations that would be suitable for breakout sessions at writers conferences (sort of a personal bucket list item).

    Yet even as I work toward these goals with enthusiasm and some cautious optimism, I’m battling self-doubt and the temptation to focus on everything I DON’T know. Yes, I compare myself to others which makes me feel like I should just go apply for a job at McDonalds.

    I’ll keep this post open in my browser as I tackle my to-do this this next week.


    • Hey, Diane. Before taking out that Mickey D’s application, whenever you find yourself in the comparison trap mutter, “Think inward…think inward.” Just look at yourself and ask what little thing can you do better.

      Our success is not dependent on what others are doing. All we have is our work in front of us.

      Good luck in the freelance and workshop worlds!

  6. How do you handle disappointment?

    Lately, not well. Which is something I am working hard on fixing. But I’ve been knocked down before and gotten back up so I know it can be done and must be done. So….back to that chapter!

  7. It took me 34 years to get a book published. I never gave up because I knew I had good stories in me. I just had to learn the right way to tell them. Guess that makes me a slow, but determined learner. 🙂

  8. For many years I wrote for fun, because it’s how I wanted to spend my Fridays nights. I always dreamed of being published, but as a teenager that felt like something a long way off. I sacrificed time to writing, but it didn’t feel like a sacrifice because I’d rather be writing than watching TV.

    Fast forward to the present, and I have a husband and toddler and many more responsibilities, and writing doesn’t always feel like something I just do for fun. Sometimes I’d rather be napping, or there’s things to clean, and other grown up responsibilities that have a way of popping up.

    I think it’s a good thing, overall, because I take writing more seriously, and treat it like a job. Instead of waiting to “feel” like writing, I make sure I write my pages no matter what. I’m going to work as hard as I can, as long as I have to, because doing otherwise is not an option. I will be writing stories the rest of my life if I get published or acknowledged or paid, so I might as well ignore the other nasty voices of doubt and fear. Fear that I’m terrible and I’ll only embarrass myself if I publish something, doubt that I can ever make this something that helps feed my family.

    Those things are there despite of the love of writing, and it’s just part of the process. Steven Pressfield’s War of Art helps with those voices.

    Wonderful article, as usual! Thanks for the inspirational stories.

  9. I think when you get old (or when you know you are old) is that your rearrange your expectations. So disappointments? Unh. I’m just thrilled to be going for it once more. And I remember watching Rocky fight on those old crappy TV sets in the ’50s.

    Here’s another one for the old Quote Box: “I coulda been a contendah…” Ain’t that the truth?

  10. I’m a Linux / Android person, therefore I have a different way of competing. I make my own path, then slowly divert traffic from the known to the new and unknown, all the while making people think this is the way it has always been.

    Haven’t heard of Linux? Well…we run your bluray, your camcorder, your security cameras, your refrigerator, your house thermostat, your home alarm system, your toaster and your car….we’re everywhere you go, and in everything you do, and you probably don’t even realize we exist but that’s okay…cuz we’re getting paid anyway ….BWAHAHAHAHA!!…ahem….

    I just work nice with everyone…whether they want to or not….mwaha….er….yes.

  11. And ouch, are you talking to me? This is a lecture I needed. I desire to write for sure, to get all the stuff out of my head.

    “Desire and determination trump disappointment. Learn what you can from setbacks” will now be my motto and tattooed on my forearm so I can read it as I throw my head down to cry.

    Seriously, I like this and will remember your advice.

  12. Thank you Mr. Scott for another inspiring post. I want to tell you that my husband and I have ALL your books, we study them daily and as a result my husband just had Windlock Press/Permuted pick up his new 4 book series…he’s signed ! And I’m confident my current project will find a good home. Many thanks to you for the hard work you put into help us newbies along ! Rhue and Craig McDonough

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