What Authors Can Learn From Olympians

If you live in Seattle, it’s been pretty impossible not to think about sports these past couple of weeks. Between the Seahawks winning the Super Bowl and the Sochi Olympics kicking off, sports fans have had plenty to celebrate. You may not think that writing a novel and preparing to compete in the ice luge have much in common, but you, my friend, would be wrong. I’ve been both a writer and an athlete (not an Olympian mind you) for most of my life and in some ways I feel like what I learned on the tennis court has been as helpful as anything I learned in the classroom.

Greatness Is Mostly About Discipline

Some people mistake the act of creating for divine inspiration that descends from the heavens, a muse that lands on your shoulder and whispers in your ear. Some think writing is a natural talent that you are born with. To which I say: pffffftttt. Of course individuals are born with varying degrees of innate talent for writing, ski jumping, singing, clog dancing, or whatever, but that’s only the raw material. The rest is craft, muscle memory, technique. HARD WORK. For writers, this means waking up in the morning and putting your butt in your chair, over and over again, until you have something good. It means reading everything you can get your hands on. It means attacking your writing with the dogged discipline that a skater uses to practice her salchows.

Resilience is Key

One of the most valuable things I learned from sports was how to bounce back. After a devastating loss—one where your teammates or countrymen are counting on you, where the stakes are high and you choke big time—it can be tempting to literally take your ball and go home. For good. Anyone who has been through the process of submitting a novel to agents or publishers will not have to make much of a leap to know where I’m going with this one. Rejection hurts, it can feel like an almost physical blow when you open that email that says, “Thank you for submitting Your Great American Novel, unfortunately…” but you have to find a way to carry on. You have to work to stay in touch with the part of you that says, “I must do this”. Get back up and fight another day.

It’s Not About Recognition From Others

Sure, there are some big-ticket sports in the Olympics, and plenty of people would recognize Shaun White or Apollo Ohno walking down the street. But most of the competitions don’t enjoy the kind of popularity that might lead to a spot on Dancing with the Stars. Many events—biathlon, skeleton, curling—will get a moment’s recognition from people who have it on in the background while they’re doing their laundry. A blip of recognition every four years from the American public wouldn’t be worth devoting your life to, so you can be pretty sure the screen time is not what’s driving most of the athletes at the Winter Games. Sure, the potential glory, the chance to make their friends/ family/ country proud, can be a fierce motivator, just as your dreams of publication can be as well. But ultimately, you have to do it for the love.


It’s Not About Money

Most Olympians do not end up earning big bucks from Subway to promote their Frito Sandwiches. Clients often ask me what their chances are of making money off of their book. Oh, friend, even if your book is beautifully written, perfectly plotted, and masterfully rendered . . . make money? You might want to think about trying something more realistic to earn a living, like raising Arabian horses. Of course, you should do your best to find readers, to sell books, and to promote your work, but it should never be about that. Book sales are capricious at best—it should always come back to love and dedication.

Be a Good Competitor

One of the touching things about watching the Olympics is seeing the intense bonds that form between the athletes, even amongst some of the fiercest competitors. These people often live somewhat isolated lives from the rest of their peers and the savvy ones know that it pays to be supportive. (Olympics aside, don’t even get me started on Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal’s bromance-tinged rivalry). The world of book publishing (especially if you live in a place like New York where everything from dating to riding the subway feels like a competitive sport) can feel ruthless at times. But writers are always better off supporting each other than tearing one another down. First of all, a bad reputation will not serve you. Furthermore, writing can be a lonely life and the more friends you make who can truly empathize, the better. So give blurbs, review and recommend other people’s work, show up to events, support your community. Be the person everyone is rooting for, and keep working hard.