Writers and Competition

by James Scott Bell

Fearsome Foursome

The Fearsome Foursome

Being an L.A. boy, I grew up rooting for the Los Angeles Rams.

Roman Gabriel, quarterback. The greatest defensive line in football history, the “Fearsome Foursome” – Lamar Lundy, Rosy Grier, Merlin Olson, Deacon Jones. Coach George Allen. Defensive end Jack Youngblood.

Jack Snow. Eric Dickerson. Hacksaw Reynolds. Fred Dryer.

Heck, even Joe Namath for three games before his knees gave out for good.

Yes, there was another pro team that showed up in L.A. And even though they had my man Marcus Allen, it was hard to adopt them. Although I did meet Al Davis once. He showed me his Super Bowl ring. It was as big as a Volkswagen.

But then, in 1995, the Rams skipped town and parked themselves in St. Louis.

I gradually lost my rooting interest in the team.

But now, now! The Rams are back home (yeah, I know, Cleveland fans, the Rams started out in your fair city. But cheer up. You have the Browns!)

And in the recently concluded NFL draft, the Rams made a bold move, trading away a whole bunch to get the #1 pick. They used it to snag, it is hoped, their franchise quarterback,––one Jared Goff of the University of California, Berkeley.

Now the question is, will Goff be the guy? Or will he be a bust? Or something in between? I’m pulling for him all the way, and initial reports on his leadership and work ethic are good.

But what caught my eye, and leads me to today’s post, is what one of his Cal teammates said about him.

Zach Kline is a senior at Cal, the quarterback who watched Goff from the bench. Here’s what he had to say about Goff but, more importantly, about himself:

“I knew as soon as we were competing … he was a great player. Like, look at him. He’s No. 1 for a reason. There are few guys that are ready to play their freshman year. … Competing with Jared is probably the most beneficial thing that’s ever happened to me in my career. He made me kind of assess my play and all that. Because I know I’m a good player, and to be able to compete with him, it helps you and encourages you. When you play with good guys, you raise your game.”

That makes me like Zach Kline (which I will continue to do except when Cal plays USC). Because Kline demonstrates the heart of a champion. You don’t look at your competition and fold; you let competition push you to get better.

Writers need to hear that. Because it’s quite easy for our ilk to fall into the pit of envy. You see someone from your critique group get a big contract. Or somebody you’ve met at a conference going indie and making crazy sales. You know you’re good, maybe you think you’re better than that person who just hit the jackpot. Envy may sneak up on you and grab the back of your brain. Ann Lamott talks about this in Bird by Bird:

If you continue to write, you are probably going to have to deal with [envy] because some wonderful, dazzling successes are going to happen for some of the most awful, angry, undeserving writers you know—people who are, in other words, not you. You are going to feel awful beyond words. you are going to have a number of days in a row where you hate everyone and don’t believe in anything . . . If you do know the author whose turn it is, he or she will inevitably say that it will be your turn next, which is what the bride always says to you at each successive wedding, while you grow older and more decayed . . . It can wreak just the tiniest bit of havoc with your self-esteem to find that you are hoping for small bad things to happen to this friend—for, say, her head to blow up.

Don’t wish for heads to blow up. Up your own game instead.

The crucial thing is not to compare yourself to another writer, but to see what they do well and try to do the same with your own writing.

Elmore Leonard was a master of dialogue. You read his dialogue and you’re like a second-row cellist listening to Yo-Yo Ma. You give him is due. You nod in appreciation. Then you dig into your own technique and figure out how to improve it.

And how do you do that?

By self-study.

  1. Focus on the area you want to study, one of the seven critical success factors of fiction: plot, structure, characters, scenes, dialogue, voice and meaning.
  1. Select from your collection of writing books (What? You don’t have a collection of writing books, highlighted? Start collecting!) those that have chapters dealing with the area in question.
  1. Select from your favorite novels those that do well what you’re studying.
  1. Schedule concentrated study time for six weeks.
  1. Read and study, writing practice pages doing that thing. Many writers of old used to copy, word for word, examples they admired. It gets the technique into your head.
  1. Look at your WIP. Find places to improve, based on what you’ve learned.
  1. Measure your progress against your own standard. That’s your real competition – you.
  1. Go back to Step 1.

And that’s what a writer should do about competition.

What are you doing to up your game?

Oh, and one more thing: Go Rams!

Rams logo

33 thoughts on “Writers and Competition

  1. Great recommendations, James.

    Even though I’m always studying the craft, once a year, I take a month and focus on nothing else. I don’t copy out passages from great writers, but I do parse them to see what they did and how they did it. And, of course, I have destroyed all my physical books with comments and underlining (those that are worth it, that is), which isn’t such a bad thing because my accountant says I can deduct the cost.

    Sometimes, since I’ve been studying the craft for so long, I think I don’t need to do it any more, or I don’t need to read anything more about a particular element, but repetition helps to really internalize the element. Each ‘teacher’ may say the same thing for the 30th time, but in a different way, the way that speaks to me so strongly that I’ll never forget their teaching.

    As for envy: sometimes when I read particular passages by my favorite authors, I want to cry because I will likely never be able to write like them, but I’m thankful they exist because, without them, I wouldn’t have as much to strive for.

    • You’re so right, Sheryl. Even a slightly different take, or way of expressing, a craft element is the thing that sets off a light bulb.

      And while we all have writers who we wish we could write like, the truth is that’s their voice. We can learn and stretch from it, but then we press it all through our own heart and mind … combine it with our characters … and render it with craft on the page and voila, there is OUR voice.

  2. With my debut novel’s “newness” on the wane from its January release, I appreciate your advice. Great keep-your-chin-up encouragement.

  3. Jim, Love the Ann Lamott quote. I’ve needed it in the past, and I know I’ll need it again. Writers either admit they experience envy of the success of some authors who (to them) are undeserving, or…or they lie about it. Thanks for the figurative kick in the pants.
    And go Cowboys. In football as in writing, this may be the year.

    • The Cowboys did well in snagging Zeke Elliott, Doc. If (and it’s a big IF!) Romo can stay healthy, your boys are looking pretty darn good.

      And envy is like the common cold, isn’t it? It comes to every writer at one time or another. The healthy writer will therefore eat more garlic (meaning,keep thinking up ideas, even if some smell) and take Vitamin C (C for concentration … on the day’s pages).

  4. Always good advice. At least as Christian authors, we know we have a Source to help us deal with envy. In my beginning days of trying to write, find an agent or editor, or anyone who would give me a moment to look at my work, I experienced envy many times. I still do, but not as often. I’ve said (very quietly of course), “If I was a full time writer like JSB, I’d be able to write more.” God reminds me that I’m NOT the next (fill in the blank), I’m the ONLY Jane Daly. 🙂

    • Indeed you are, Jane. And that’s the ticket right there. Keep going!

      And as the Book says, “A sound heart is the life of the flesh: But envy the rottenness of the bones.”

      The joy of writing will keep your heart sound and your bones strong. May you have joy in abundance.

      • Very encouraging.
        I am not much of a sports fan at all. However, the foundations of any exercise is crucial and that is the “basics.” You have to practise! To keep your aim, to maintain equipment, to have good competition; all in order to gain the prize… In other words, being in the game, to win it!

        Anybody can “technically” write a story if they wanted to. Just like anybody can “technically” play basketball if they wanted to. But amateur and professional are two different games all together!

        This encourages me to keep focused on my calling as a writer, run the race of Fiction in order to obtain the prize and keep my heart humbled, never forgetting the basics, and the competition.

  5. I’m upping my game by working with a very astute freelance editor, who is content editing my new novel series. Right now I’m voice editing the first book at her direction.

    Talk about a master class in getting the first person narrator to sound like she should, a 21 year old ex-con trying to make good but getting recruited to by the authorities to become an informant. When I turned in the third draft a few weeks ago, my editor told me before she went any further I had to get my young woman’s voice on the page, rather than my college-educated overly descriptive author voice.

    It’s tough work, but it’s a huge learning opportunity. I’ve got the outline for book 2 waiting in the wings, and it has to continue to wait until I get my hero’s voice right.

    • Boy, Dale, I’ll say it’s tough … which is why it’s so awesome that you’re doing it. I love that challenge. I’m in the middle of one myself, to be revealed later.

      Working with a good developmental editor is aces. The trick is finding one. I was fortunate early in my trad career to work with one of the best. It changed my writing life.

  6. Excellent on all fronts, Jim, as usual. I think this is a silent enemy of so many writers, silent because few fess up to it, nor should they. It’s a quiet toxin, eating away at our motivation, leaving us alone with this sick feeling. I love your advice about studying craft and then looking for it in play within the novels we read and admire, I think that’s one of the most powerful growth strategies you can adopt. Especially relative to structure – so many newer writers (and a few experienced ones who refuse to truly understand why their novels aren’t working) who reject or ignore the principles of structure, in the mistaken belief that “there are no rules!” – are missing the key piece that will liberate their stories.

    Call them principles instead, but they are definitely part of the game.

    By the way, I share your USC fandom… my son graduated there in 2012, I visited often and went to a handful of games. Hasn’t been easy to be a fan these past few years, with no real Big Hope on the horizon, but who knows, they are the Trojans, after all.

  7. I think I’ve mentioned this here before but it bears repeating:

    When I was just starting out, one books under my belt and another in the works, I went to an MWA meeting and sat next to Jan Burke. I had just finished her fabulous book “Bones” and was deeply envious of her great plotting skills. We talked about this at lunch, about envy in general, and awards and movie contracts et al, and how focusing too much on the success of others can eat you up. I will never forget what she said to me:

    “Keep your head down and keep writing.”

    Good advice still, sixteen years later.

  8. I use an inexpensive, but paid, e-mail service.

    It was so new that I have the address “jporter@yyy.com.” (No, it’s not really yyy.) But every jporter after me has had to go with jporter1, jporterokie, and so forth.

    Today, I received a notice that I am approaching the 2gig storage capacity. I began to go back and delete files, some that have been in my account since 1995.

    So, away with business opportunities that no longer exist. (“You can become WEALTHY selling floppy disks.” Or, “We are wealthy. We can make you wealthier.” Or, “Give us $250. We’ll give you back millions.” The last company, from what I heard, has a couple of guys in jail, and others paying back taxes into the next Century.)

    One account I have deleted is The Kill Zone. I had saved every TKZ e-mail since I signed up for the site. But I deleted all of them for this reason: it’s better for me to read TKZ every day of the week. (By the way, in my opinion, it’s the best writers’ site on the internet. Others are nice. The Kill Zone is superb for my needs and interest.)

    So I haven’t killed off the TKZ from my line of vision. I’ve stretched my vision to include it and y’all daily from now on. (I grew up in a bilingual home–English and Okie.)

    So thanks, folks. You are the best. You all may be gone from my e-mail account, but you are in my heart. Daily.

  9. Mr. B;

    Item 7: “Measure your progress against your own standard. That’s your real competition” really hits like like the Fearsome Foursome ~ am I writing like, and/or better than, I want/need to write ~ not like or better than others (some of those from whom I may take notes, encouragement, and examples)?

    One of those near daily reminders to keep focused.

    And Roman Gabriel sent me a check ~ for 25¢ when I was in the fifth(?) grade… for boxtops, or some such~ thanks for reminding of those days and those guys (even if I was a Bob Griese/Dolphins fan in the day – though the Rams were a close second). Glad they’re going “home”.


    • I was at the Rose Bowl when Bob Griese and the Boilermakers beat the Trojans. As I recall, the Trojans could have gone for the tie with a PAT, but chose to try for 2, and the win. But they got stopped. Ack!

  10. Jim, thanks for the post.

    I believe your question today was: What are you doing to up your game?

    I like short story contests as:
    a. a way to try something different
    b. a break from my WIP
    c. something to push myself to compete

    I read two books at a time, a craft book and a novel.

    And most importantly, I follow the posts on this blog.

    Thanks for your teaching.

  11. I’ll go back and read the writing part of this post later, but having grown up in LA when the Rams were The Football Team, I got bogged down in memories. My dad had season tickets, and when he wasn’t using them for business, we got to go to the games. I know all those names.

    • So cool. I remember the first Rams game I went to, with my dad, at the Coliseum. It was against the Vikings, and they had this little scrambling quarterback named Fran Tarkenton. No one had ever seen this before. My dad kept shouting, “Look at him! Look at him go!”

  12. Whenever I’m asked why I write, it is easy to answer. I want to do something that is unique, something totally mine. That, to me, is the beauty of fictional writing, or indeed any writing. No one else has my voice, my heart, or my vision. Writing is an individual endeavor and whenever one shares it, s/he shares a piece of themselves. Thanks for another informative and insightful post. I look forward to reading all of the insight from the bloggers here on TKZ. Happy Mother’s Day to all mothers today!

  13. I’ve never felt envious of another writer’s success. I am keenly aware that whatever writing credits I have, I have DESPITE a deplorable lack of discipline. Inevitably, the people who are very successful (in any field) tend to be driven, hard working people. They deserve every ounce of success that comes their way.

    In general, I’ve a,ways been impressed by how supportive and non competitive writers are as a group. Except in Hollywood, one writer’s success doesn’t narrow the opportunities for anyone else. There’s always room for another book!

Comments are closed.