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.

* * *

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?

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

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? 

The Comparison Trap

Last week I talked about doubt and the writer. It’s one of those mental obstacles we have to overcome if we’re going to get anywhere in this game.
Here’s another one: the comparison trap.
It’s almost automatic that we writers look at who is on the rungs above us and, in doing so, stay constantly anxious about our own position. Noxious things start popping into the mind: Hey, I’m a better writer than he is. How come he’s selling so much better than me? And what about that guy? He was nothing a few years ago when I taught at a conference. Where does he get off getting that advance? And then, of course, there’s THAT one, the legend, the guy I admire most, the guy I wanted to be like, and it’s pretty clear I’ll never reach his level . . .
And so it goes. A certain amount of this you might chalk up to the competitive urge, which is not, per se, unhealthy. We need a little of that warrior in us. But if you let it fester you’ll be cooked. You’ll start looking and acting like Ebenezer Scrooge in the first act of A Christmas Carol.

I thought of the comparison trap the other day when I read a story about American tennis star Andy Roddick. Ten years ago, this teenage phenom shot to #1 in the world after winning the U.S. Open. Here, it was assumed, was the next great superstar in the game, the new Connors, McEnroe, Agassi or Sampras.
There was just one problem, and his name was Roger Federer. The Swiss superstar came out of nowhere and proceeded to own Andy Roddick. They’ve met 22 times. Federer has won 20 of those matches. Federer has gone on to win a record 16 Grand Slam titles. Roddick is still looking for his second.
Now 28, Roddick’s best tennis may be behind him (aren’t you glad your writing prime isn’t based on athleticism?) He could look back and think that Federer’s record might have been his.
But he’s also accomplished more than most tennis players ever will. He’s won several non-Slam titles, made it to #1 in the world, has a great Davis Cup record, he’s rich and famous, married a model, and has a lifetime ahead as an ambassador for tennis. That doesn’t exactly suck.
Here’s something I tweeted that drew a lot of comments:
Comparison is death to a writer. Don’t look up or down. Look at the page in front of you and nail it.
Every day I can look at another writer’s career or recent success and get bent. Or I can be grateful for the career I have and keep doing what I do, which is write and try to do it better every time out.
There’s something tremendously satisfying about that. I refuse to compare myself to others. Twenty years ago, unpublished, if I’d been shown my present career in a crystal ball I would have said Yes! Let me have that!
Gratitude is the great secret to happiness. Be content with what you have. You’re unpublished? Be grateful you have the ability to learn the craft. Be grateful for new opportunities in the e-world. Your critique group getting you down? Be grateful for the people in your life who love you. Dogs and cats count, too.
And take a tip from Andy Roddick. “You keep moving forward until you decide to stop,” he said recently. “At this point I’ve not decided to stop, so I’ll keep moving forward.”
So what about you? Do you find yourself prone to the comparison trap? 

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.) 

Writer, This is Your Job

by James Scott Bell

Some years ago I was teaching at a writers conference in New Mexico. After lunch I noticed one of the conferees sitting at a back table, looking distressed. I went over and asked her what was up.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Am I ever going to get anywhere? I see all these people, they all want it just as much as I do. How do I know if I’ll ever make it? ” Tears started down her cheeks.

I handed her a napkin for the tears, then took another and drew a pyramid on it. I divided the pyramid into six sections. Inside the pyramid are writers, I explained, with each section representing a different level of achievement.

The bottom, where most of the people are, is the realm of the “want to.” Or “I think I have a book inside me.” But outside of some scribblings, maybe a short story or two, perhaps an unfinished novel, these people never move on to the next level…

…which is where people like you are (I told her). Those who actually try to learn something about writing. Who buy writing books, go to conferences, take classes…and write.

Above that is the level for those who actually finish a full length novel. This is a great place to be. This is where real writers come from.

The next level holds those who write another novel, because the first one is probably going to be rejected. They do this because they are novelists, not just someone who happened to write a novel.

Next are those who get published. Above that those who are published multiple times.

Sitting on top of the pyramid is a Wheel of Fortune. This is where the breakout hits come from. The wheel goes around and lands on a book like Cold Mountain. Or The Da Vinci Code. Or Harry Potter.

No one can control this. No one know how to guarantee a hit, or it would be done every time out.

Your job, I told the young writer, is to keep moving up the pyramid. Each level presents its own challenges, so concentrate on those. As you move up, you’ll notice there are fewer people, not more. People drop out of the pyramid all the time. But if you work hard, you might get a novel on the wheel, and that’s as far as you can go on your own. After that it’s not up to you anymore.

The conference went on and I forgot all about this incident.

A couple of years later I bumped into her at another conference. She told me that this conversation and the diagram had a profound effect on her, and that she was going to keep going, and was finishing her first novel.

Two years after that she wrote to tell me she had landed a book deal. She is now a published author.

Writer, if you want to be published, if you want a hit book, don’t worry about things you cannot control. Don’t grasp at phantoms. Focus on the page right in front of you. Make it the best it can be, and build these pages into a book. And then another.

Keep climbing the pyramid.

That’s your job.

P.S. Adapted from the forthcoming The Art of War for Writers.

It’s Smackdown Day and I need your vote!

By Joe Moore

It’s going to be a short post today because there’s little time to spare. Like any great thriller, the clock is ticking. My co-author Lynn Sholes and I are in a death match with none other than Dan-da-Vinci-Code-Brown. And we’re determined to win.

Don’t get me wrong, I like Dan Brown. At least I like his books. megalithI’ve never actually met him, but I’m sure he’s a great guy you’d want to have a beer with. But today there’s something called the May Madness Thriller Author Smackdown over at a website/blog called Megalith. So a potential Brown-Sholes-Moore warm & fuzzy beer fest is not in the cards right now. This is serious smackdown stuff.

Each day of this month, the Megalith blog is matching up two thriller authors (or teams) to go head to head. The final round and championship will be on May 31. But today, we need your votes.

I mean, when you get right down to it, aside from a small difference of 80 million or so copies in sales, just like Dan’s, our thrillers have secret societies, ancient religious relics, angels and demons, globe-trotting heroes and villains, secret codes, seat-of-the-pants action, inside the Vatican cool stuff, creepy tunnels, dusty tombs, scary castles, and apocalyptic threats galore.

So call your family and friends, use names off headstones and the Chicago voter rolls—whatever it takes. Just get over to Megalith blog and vote. It’s a smackdown, and the future of the thriller world is in your hands.

Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Sandra Brown, Steve Berry, Robert Liparulo, Thomas B. Sawyer, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, Oline Cogdill and more.