Running and Writing and Competition


If you want to compete with somebody, run a race.

If you want to change the world, write a book.

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Last week PJ Parrish wrote a TKZ post on Performance Anxiety. I’d like to follow up with a corollary on competition.

Competition is good, right? It gives us a chance to test our mettle against others and see how we stack up. Whatever field we’re in, competition is an opportunity to identify weaknesses in our performance and make a plan to improve. It may even lift us into that rarified atmosphere of winning the prize and basking in the glory.

When thinking about competition, sports always comes to mind. Personally, I believe foot races, specifically the 400-meter races, are the epitome of competition.

The 400-meter race is the longest track event run completely in lanes, so there’s no pushing or shoving. Each competitor runs her own race in her own lane. It’s once around the track, and the winner is easy to identify. She’s not necessarily the person with the best form or the coolest sports gear or even the newest model of Nikes. The winner is the person who crosses the finish line first.

This is obviously an objective decision. The other runners can’t say, “I’m a better runner than she is. I should get the gold medal.” Or “She won just because her coach is famous.” A runner wins a race because she is the fastest competitor in that particular race, and there’s camaraderie and respect among runners no matter where they place.

* * * 

On the other hand, competition can have a dark side. I’ve read recently that writers are a competitive bunch. That’s not surprising, seeing that we’re publishing books that are in competition with millions of other works, and the desire to excel in the field is strong. Writers want to know how they’re doing in the big publishing picture, so we compare ourselves with others, and sometimes it doesn’t go so well.

You’re toiling away to market your self-published masterpiece, which has seen slow sales and mediocre reviews, when you get word your good friend just secured a lucrative publishing contract for his first book. And then another friend posts to every social media site in the world about the big award she just won. That was the contest you entered and didn’t even make the finals! All of a sudden, feelings of competition turn to jealousy and envy.

But you’re a nice person, right? These writers are your friends, and you think you shouldn’t have these feelings. Well, don’t feel bad. Most authors have experienced some form of writer’s envy in their careers.

So what do we do about it? I like the way Erin Fulmer put it in her 2020 article on  professional jealousy 

Publishing isn’t a race.

Even if it were, the person who makes it to the next goalpost first is not necessarily going to make it to the one after that in record time.

But this isn’t a competition. There’s no deadline. Sure, the inevitable heat death of the universe is coming someday but until then, it’s anybody’s game.

And it’s not a zero-sum game. Yes, there is competition in publishing—I don’t want to sugar-coat that—but your friend getting a book deal or agent doesn’t meaningfully reduce your chances of the same, unless you are writing something extremely similar and submitting to the same editor/agent. Even then, it’s just as likely that their success will cause your work to be more in demand. A rising tide often does lift all boats.

If you are seeking a writing career, that journey only ends when you stop writing. There’s no finish line, no lifetime wish achievement that means you won like a good little Sim. There’s just the next book.

* * *

So, there you have it. Publishing is not a fair race. It can’t be since the judges (readers, agents, publishers) assess a writer’s work through the filter of their own backgrounds, tastes, and opinions. For example, I have a friend, a well-known writer, who entered her work in a writing contest some years ago. It was the kind of contest where several judges score the work and the entrant receives the results. Two of the judges scored her work in the 90’s and the third one rated her in the 50’s!

So maybe we need to adjust our perspective. As authors, we’re here to enhance the human experience through the written word, and we each do it in our own way. We’re a community, not combatants. We get to choose the lane we run in and how we want to run the race.

Envy tells us that success is more important than the journey. But if we truly love what we’re doing, we’ll seek success while finding the real joy in the writing. And with each circuit of the track, study and hard work will make us better. And in the long run, maybe that’s where the gold in the gold medal lies.

* * *

We’re fortunate that here at TKZ we have a community of contributors and commenters who go out of their way to offer suggestions and support for each other. A writing community at its best.


So TKZers: Do you feel that you’re in competition with other authors? Have you ever dealt with feelings of envy or jealousy of other writers? How do you handle them? What advice would you give to prospective authors, especially young ones, who may be feeling the same emotions?

35 thoughts on “Running and Writing and Competition

  1. “You’re toiling away to market your self-published masterpiece, which has seen slow sales…” Nailed neatly to the stretching board.

    Self-publishing is a choice, and puts you in the driver’s seat for everything – including not marketing particularly well.

    I belong to some FB writing groups where someone or other out of the thousands of members is always showing a huge success and lots of sales. It is not encouraging to have been at our profession for a long time, having few published works, knowing it’s not something you can alter, but I am disabled, have high standards, am very slow – and am not in competition with anyone over the kind of mainstream fiction I write.

    It would be nice occasionally to have a WIN. It would be nice, on a regular basis, to have a level playing field. Or a small assist.

    But I can’t both be slow and have high standards and expect that to NOT matter: it is the ONLY way I can operate.

    So I support friends and colleagues, remember to congratulate other people for their wins and their hard work and their energetic marketing, and tell the envy to take a hike.

    All the while reading everything that comes my way about indie marketing options – on the remote chance that I find ones I can do which sell my kind of indie writing to the readers I KNOW are out there.

    There is a sea of books available, but only mine are what I want to write – and sell. The writing is the primary job, however I look at it; the marketing has to wait: I can’t market what doesn’t exist. I hope my time will come, and I hope it happens while I’m still around. I’m quite literally doing all I can. It will have to do.

    • Good morning, Alicia!

      “There is a sea of books available, but only mine are what I want to write” I think you hit the heart of the matter. There’s a lot of wisdom in that sentence.

  2. Do you feel that you’re in competition with other authors?
    No. While obviously every book on the market is competing for attention in a busy world, I always knew the books that interest me were not going to be in the highest popularity category and that my niche would be smaller. I’m in this to write the things I enjoy writing. My books will find their niche.

    Have you ever dealt with feelings of envy or jealousy of other writers?
    In the sense of being jealous when people seem to have more free time then I do, yes. I hear about people who write multiple books a year & I’m thinking “They must not have a day job. And who’s doing all their chores like getting groceries & chopping up vegetables and taking the car to the shop?” But then I remind myself that I’m responsible for managing my time and tell myself to get over it. And for any newer authors who are envious of others’ perceived free time, I’d tell them the same thing–manage your time, make writing happen no matter how hard it seems to squeeze it in. One of the hardest lessons to learn is that even if you write just a few minutes each time you sit down to write, it all adds up over time.

    • “I’m in this to write the things I enjoy writing. My books will find their niche.” Excellent perspective, BK!

      You’ve also given young writers some great advice. Every minute spent worrying about how somebody else is doing is a minute that would be better used by writing or studying the craft.

  3. No professional craftsperson or artist is in competition with any other professional craftsperson, ever. A few quotes from someone whose words carry a great deal more weight than my own—

    “Optimism is a perfectly legitimate response to failure. … Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel sh*t from a sitting position. … Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.” Stephen King

    • Good morning, Harvey!

      “Optimism is a perfectly legitimate response to failure.” Optimism is a very good response to a lot of things in life, eh?

  4. My daughter is a triathlete and competed in events. Her competition was the clock, and improving her personal bests. Sure, she liked placing high in her age group, but she never had aspirations of winning overall.
    When I’m writing, I want each book to be a new personal best as far as quality goes, but the market has changed so much since I got into the race that I don’t expect to hit any of the major lists. Being envious of those who do is counterproductive.

    • Good morning, Terry.

      Your daughter is a very wise person. We should all be in competition with ourselves, trying to improve with each new book.

  5. I don’t feel in competition. Mostly. But didn’t place in THE genre contest with my best book. Still walking around, mumbling ‘subjective, subjective, subjective’ under my breath.

    • Good morning, Laura.

      Awards are a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they can provide validation of our work and motivation to keep going. On the other hand, they are the very definition of ‘subjective.’

      Mumbling sounds like good therapy! 🙂

  6. Kay, what a good exploration of a touchy subject. I’ve known writers who were extremely competitive, jealous and envious of others. In the long haul, all wound up bitter, still stuck on their one book they’re sure is the best ever written except the world is against them.

    When writing friends have successes, I’m overjoyed b/c I know how hard they’ve worked and they deserve awards and accolades.

    But I have to confess to a brief squirt of envy when I saw a colleague’s four books in Costco and Walmart. However, I chose the indie path and love what I do (except for marketing!). Would I switch places with the other author? Nope.

    • Good morning, Debbie.

      I had a friend who used to say, “Jealousy is like drinking poison and hoping the other person will die.” Although we may have a twinge of envy when we see a roaring success by another author, that’s different from being stuck in the revolving door of bitterness.

      I know you speak to young, prospective authors, and young people tend to be very sensitive. Do you ever broach the subject of competition?

      • Kay, that’s a great idea. I’ve mentioned it in passing (i.e. you’re the only one you have to compete against) but it’s definitely worth more focus next time. Thanks!

  7. Great post, Kay. Something that is very timely.

    We’ve all dealt with feelings of envy or jealousy. We seek recognition and praise because we think it will bring us happiness, joy, and success. True joy comes with focusing on others.

    I grew up in a time when the hero was modest and self-sacrificing. Now everyone has their phone focused on themselves. “Look at me. Look at me.” I think that’s why I have trouble with marketing. I’ve found that contributing to others’ success is far more fulfilling, and brings more joy.

    My advice: Look for unique ways that you can help others with their marketing and success. You’ll find more joy, and you might even find more success.

    • Great advice, Steve. We can become so focused on self that we miss those opportunities to help someone else. We see a lot of helping hands here on TKZ. For example, your hand-crafted pens have been a huge benefit to some of us as we market our writing.

      Have a great week.

  8. I’ve never been jealous, at least not in the writing world. Maybe it’s a blessing, but even in my writing group where we all write the same genre, I haven’t found a book that I wanted to write or that’s too similar to mine. I do have down days when I believe that no agent will take my stuff, especially before the pandemic when I felt like the “diversity” craze was just that, a limited time craze. But no jealousy or competition.

    In the rest of my life… that’s a different story. More like, why can’t I even compete let alone have a level playing field.

    • Good morning, Jim.

      Thanks for providing the link to the article in The Guardian. It’s frustrating to know there are historians (or anyone else) like Orlando Figes out there. Maybe his job will be history now.

    • The Figes case is atrocious. It reveals behavior of the most unscrupulous sort, not only the pretense of being an unbiased reviewer of his own work, but lying about the quality of works by his rivals. It calls into question everything he has ever published.

      • It is atrocious. I used to think academia rose above the pettiness we often see in the world, but lately I’ve read about scientists publishing fabricated data — and now this. No matter how good his own work is, Figes has destroyed his own credibility.

        • I, too, once naively shared that opinion. I’ll avoid listing further examples because of the quasi-political nature of much of the controversy, but academia may be the worst field for such shenanigans. Papers in some very important subjects show a failure to replicate of greater than 50%!

  9. There IS marketing competition for the lowest rungs on the ladder, I’ll give you that, But from the marketing side it’s how one stays afloat in the rising tide of sewage that has turned Amazon into a flea market where every fifteen year old kid is flogging his or her “series” hoping to be the next Brando Sando.

    I don’t aspire to that kind of competition. It’s unhealthy.

    AI has only made it worse. There’s more to come, unfortunately.

    In my stage of development my competition comes from within. It’s me.

    I don’t often read novels (limited attention span) but I have got two big reading projects underway, Vasily Grossman’s “Life and Fate” and a rereading of Ernie Hemingway’s collected short stories.

    I delve into this stuff, take a 20 or 30 page slice before bed and say “I want to write half this well before I die.”

    • Good morning, Robert.

      “In my stage of development my competition comes from within. It’s me.” Great attitude. It keeps the spirit of competition healthy without any adverse side effects.

  10. I’ve been a workshop member since very early in my writing life. The workshop atmosphere is entirely cooperative, largely aimed at boosting the work of other writers, or at least attempting to. Their success has always been, to some degree, my success: our collective attempts to encourage and improve their writing have borne fruit. Maybe this is why envy hasn’t been part of my writing life. Their success hasn’t harmed me in any way and has proved that it’s possible to succeed, even in this chaotic blend of art and randomness masquerading as a vocation.

    • Good morning, JG.

      I like the idea of the workshop. You give a great example of what Erin Fulmer said: “It’s not a zero-sum game.”

  11. The internet ate my first response…I hope it doesn’t show up again! I’m very competitive when it comes to games…don’t get in my way if I’m headed for the basketball goal or trying to buy Boardwalk in Monopoly. But when it comes to writing, I’ve never wished someone else hadn’t gotten a great contract deal or a lot of sales. That doesn’t mean I don’t want those same things, but not at the other person’s expense. I’ve found most of the writers I’m around tend to cheer other writers on, rather than the other way around.

    • Good morning, Patricia.

      “That doesn’t mean I don’t want those same things, but not at the other person’s expense.” That sums it all up. The pie is big enough for us all to have a slice.

      Have a great week!

  12. Many times, my friends have done much better with book sales or got a contract from the publisher I’ve always coveted, and it’s been hard to be genuinely happy for them, but I pretend I am until I am.

    • Good morning, Marilynn.

      “it’s been hard to be genuinely happy for them, but I pretend I am until I am.” I’ve read that this is a very good way to deal with negative feelings.

      Have a great week.

  13. Terrific post on an issue I think all writers face. It’s how we decide to respond that is key. I prefer to compete with myself, not with others, be it when I ran (before an injury ended my running) or with my writing. Granted, in a sense, our books are competing to be seen and then bought by a reader, but really, I’m focusing on writing my books to the best of my ability, and then working to put them in front of the sort of reader who would enjoy them.

    Of course, I have zero control over whether a reader decides to buy one of my. books, or whether they then decide to read it. I can influence them by doing my best, crafting a book description that evokes interest, commissioning a cover that indicates the kind of book it is, etc etc, but ultimately what a reader decides to do is outside of my sphere of control. What I do control is always working becoming a better writer and a stronger storyteller.

    I’ve only been nominated for a literary award once, but I understand the feelings put into them by writers and others, and how winning an award can be strong (external) validation. I’ve had friends win the Hugo, the Nebula, the British Fantasy Award etc, but for me, especially as an indie, I remain focused on writing my fiction, since not only are awards unlikely, they remain outside of my control. I just finished my prequel novella and am uploading it to BookFunnel. For me, that’s the accomplishment I crave 🙂

    Thanks for today’s wonderful post, and also, to all the commenters. A great thread!

    • Hello Dale!

      “I prefer to compete with myself, not with others” — I think you’ve hit on the essence of it. We can’t control what others do, but we can control our own work.

      Good luck with the prequel novella. I look forward to reading it!

  14. This is a great discussion, Kay.

    I particularly like this: If you are seeking a writing career, that journey only ends when you stop writing.

    Talk about job security! If the journey ends, it’s on me, not some corporate whiz-bang . . . 🙂

    I was reared in a competitive atmosphere, and we (my 3 siblings and I) usually took it to the max. I remember many Monopoly games that could’ve ended in homicide had the parents not stepped in. That kind of competitiveness doesn’t fly well in writing circles, though, plus it’s kind of juvenile anyway.

    I am genuinely happy for author friends who land whatever it is they are seeking. Yeah, I’d like to see my name up in lights someday, but there are consequences to navigate when that happens. Consequences that maybe I can’t see coming at me around the corner.

    If I’m honest, I’m happy where I am as long as I continue to learn the craft, and continue to write stories that no one else can write.

    • Hi Deb,

      I thought I replied to your comment yesterday, but I don’t see it now.

      “If I’m honest, I’m happy where I am as long as I continue to learn the craft, and continue to write stories that no one else can write.” You nailed it. There are stories only you can write, and there are people who need to read them.

      Have a great writing week.

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