10 Things The Olympics Can Teach Writers

The Olympics have started and London is in party mode!

Olympic runnersThe city has been spruced up and now the hordes have arrived. I never enjoyed mass sporting events until I attended the Sydney Olympics when the penny finally dropped. It was a glorious, patriotic time and now I’m a fan of these brilliant events. So I’ll be soaking up the Olympic vibe as the city goes nuts.

But even if you’re not into sport, there’s still a lot writers can learn from the Olympics.

(1) Open with a hook

The opening ceremony has become a must-watch event showcasing the national pride of the host nation, as well as the march of the competitors around the main arena and the lighting of the Olympic flame.  London’s event is managed by Danny Boyle, famous for directing Slumdog Millionaire and Trainspotting, among other movies. It promises to be a grand spectacular. Our books need to open in the same way. Not necessarily with a massive event, but with something that the reader wants to be part of, that drives them to buy the book and stay with us through the opening chapters. If a reader stays with us through the length of an ebook sample, they are likely to buy the book.

(2) It takes years of practice behind the scenes to make it this far

Athletes don’t just wake up one day and compete in the Olympics. Many of them will have been training for this since they were children. This is not a hobby, this is a lifelong passion. It’s years of practice in the cold, frosty mornings or the muggy heat of the afternoons, when your friends are still in bed or in the bar. It’s practice over and over again until the body knows the moves and then you push it just a little further.

I was at Thrillerfest a few weeks ago, and I was struck by how many years the big name authors have been working to achieve the success they now have. Many of them wrote for years before they ‘made it’, and before that, they worked for years to get noticed. Practice over many years will take us all that far.

Olympic airshow

Olympic airshow above Tower Bridge, London

(3) It also takes discipline, hard work and professional habits

I recently read an article about the professional habits of Michael Phelps, the US swimmer who takes gold repeatedly, and no doubt will continue to do so. His habits and discipline 7 days a week give him an edge over other competitors.

I also wrote recently of how Steven Pressfield’s book ‘Turning Pro’ challenged me with my own writing habits. Being an author is about mastery of the craft but it’s also about writing the words and getting them out there – that means we have to put in the time and the hard work. How professional are your writing habits at the moment? How committed are you?

(4) Success is based on both individual effort and teamwork

Professional athletes don’t work on their own, even if the sport is based on individual performance. There are coaches, team-mates, fans, support crew. Without this team, the athlete cannot compete.

In the same way, writing is (generally) an individual pursuit but we also need a team behind us to succeed. As independent authors, we need pro editors and cover designers, potentially help with formatting and we certainly need our distributors and the marketing platforms we use to spread the word. Traditionally published authors have an agent, editors and the whole team at the publisher. We all need the support of other writers, friends and family. I love to read the dedication and acknowledgements in books, because it honors the support of the team behind the writer.

(5) There will always be rivalry

Not everyone can win gold, even on the same team and so there will always be rivalry. It’s hard not to look at other people’s success and want it for yourself. Some people will even attack the winners and savage their success. Writers see this happen on Amazon with some awful reviews that often turn out to be from other writers.

We need to accept that there will always be some comparison, some measuring. But then we need to celebrate each others success and use it to spur our own efforts towards excellence.

olympic torch london 2012(6) There will always be camaraderie

I don’t think I could ever have written my first novel without the support of my writing friends on Twitter and the NaNoWriMo community. The camaraderie of other people in the same field is indispensable to being a writer or an athlete. For who else understands what we go through? Our partners, friends and family may smile and be supportive but they cannot really know why the hell we do this. Pro athletes need team-mates and so do writers. If you don’t have this yet, get on with some networking!

(7) There will always be people trying to cheat and game the system, but authenticity wins through

Inevitably at the Olympics there are rumors of drug abuse and cheating. Some people will get away with it and no one will ever know, but many are caught out in the process. Everyone feels this is against the spirit of the Olympics, and fair play in general. This is not what we want as professionals.

Authenticity is far more important than trying to win by these other means. So don’t bother following the latest ways to game the Amazon algorithms or get fake reviews. Ignore the hyped so-called bestseller campaigns and the promises of power-friending on the social networks. This is a long journey and a little every day will get you there eventually with your reputation intact. Understanding yourself and being authentic is the only way to make it over the long haul.

(8) There are different sports for different people

Some people want to perpetuate the myth that we are all the same, but in truth, we should celebrate our differences and how much we can all achieve at different things. At the Olympics, beautiful black men will inevitably win the running, both short and long distances (and isn’t it a joy to watch Usain Bolt run?!) In the gymnastics, it will be petite girls, most likely from China or Eastern Europe. There are body types for different sports, and there are also preferences based on long term passion for the chosen arena.

It’s the same for writers. Much as I’d love to write in the top-selling genre of romance/erotica, it’s just not me. Perhaps you feel the same way about sci-fi or fantasy, horror or thrillers. Thankfully writing isn’t based on body type, but it is about excelling within our chosen arena. Yes, some writers span multiple genres but would they win Olympic gold in all of them?

fans go wild(9) Fans are the true gold

Individual effort is definitely worthwhile, but the support of fans help an athlete, or a writer, excel further. I love to get emails from people who enjoyed my books, and I love to get great reviews on the book sites. It is said that an artist can make a living with 1000 true fans, who evangelize their work and ultimately buy whatever they do. We could not pay the bills without our fans, so let’s celebrate them and be grateful for them. In our turn, as fans of other writers, let’s buy their books and leave reviews of books we love.

(10) The human interest story will always capture people’s hearts

Who remembers the names of most of the athletes who competed, or won gold, at the Sydney Olympics? I was there and I remember only a handful. Perhaps you can name a few. But pretty much everyone who was there remembers Eric the Eel, the swimmer from Equatorial Guinea. He had never even seen an Olympic sized pool before arriving and only started swimming 8 months before the Olympics. He got in on a wildcard draw and won his heat as the others were disqualified for false starts.

The story of the underdog always captures the media attention and indeed our hearts. An easy win isn’t as satisfying as an emotional loss. As writers, we need to keep this in mind for our manuscripts. No one wants to know about the nameless masses, the fistfuls of gold. They want to know about the stories behind the hype.

What are your lessons for writers based on the Olympics?

Images: Barcelona Olympic runners from BigStock, Olympic Airshow – Flickr CC by Graham IV Dynamo Kyiv team supporters from Bigstock, Olympic Torch Flick CC by Tim Garlick

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  1. says

    Excellent advice, as always, I really enjoy your blog! And the first one is definitely the most important…and the hardest to achieve! A hook can be, as you say, all sorts of things (and probably not a massive event like the Olympics – unless you have a terrorist attack as they open…Hey, that’s an idea!). The trouble is to decide what sort of thing. Because it has to be connected to the rest of the story. It’s been my experience that you better leave out your hook until you’ve finished with the story – then go back to the beginning and write it. What’s your advice on this? What’s the best way to go about writing a winning hook?

    • says

      There are no rules when it comes to your writing process. I personally have the first scene and the last scene generally worked out before I start the rest of the book. I love a resonant opening in a meaningful setting. For example, in my book Prophecy, a man commits suicide by jumping off the Western Wall in Jerusalem clutching verses of the book of Revelation. That hooks a certain type of person (and I’m that person!)
      So I think a hook is based on what hooks you as a reader – for me it’s setting, generally a death or high stakes and a deeper meaning. What is it for you?

  2. says

    I feel there’s an 11th ‘Thing’ the Olympics can teach us. In fact I know this because I’ve repeatedly paid a high price when I failed to do this: ‘Write about what you know.’ Athletes specialize in one thing they know, understand and have a natural aptitude for. They become meaningful specifics, not everywhere generalities. Writers should write books in a genre for which they have a genuine knowledge and passion.

    In light of this truth, I’m heading back to my writing roots and have started my new illustrated series for children this week. That’s what I’m good at. No point in me trying to be Hemingway. Stand by for two years while I work on it. (Just a little longer than the Olympics.)

    And once again, congratulations on your signing with the NY agent.
    Jonathan Gunson

    • says

      Hi Jonathan, I actually disagree with the ‘write what you know’ idea. It’s more ‘write what you love to learn about’ – in my case anyway! One of my favorite parts of the process is the research that informs the book – I’ve been into some amazingly interesting things in my Exodus research on the Ark of the Covenant. I do “know” thrillers though – I’ve read thousands of them, but perhaps we get to know what we love over time – and then we write based on that?

      • says

        Joanna, we’re on the same page re ‘Write what you know’.

        You say you love to learn, but mostly it will be in areas that truly interest you, in which you already have at least some ‘knowing’. (Not ‘know all’.) My point is that we’re open to learning, but almost inevitably in areas we’re already attuned to, just as the athletes of your Olympic allegory already ‘know’ their area of speciality, but continue to voraciously learn more and increase their powers.

        Ancient magic, pseudo-alchemy and Celtic lore I already knew, but learned far more about during the writing of my book. It was certainly not a case of being a ‘know all’ and resting on existing information!

  3. says

    Fantastic post! I enjoyed Turning Pro too. I am a writer, but I also teach English online, and I think I’ll get my English learners to practise writing something similar – How The Olympics Can Inspire English Learners. Thanks for the inspiration.

    • says

      Like Tara: I’m a teacher, and I’m chomping at the bit to use this metaphor with my comp 101 students! It will be fun to see if they can come up with some of the examples you have provided! Great piece! And it will hopefully inspire the folks for whom writing is NOT a passion to understand that becoming a proficient writer requires a lot of work behind the scenes — at least as much mental energy as they devote physically to their most beloved sports!

  4. says

    Great post Joanna. Very creative. One more thing writers can learn from the Olympics is to never give up. Even when Olympians think they’re going to lose or when writers experience writers block they should never give up.

    Keep propelling yourself forwards as a writer and learn from your mistakes just like an Olympian :)

    • says

      Definitely never give up – although we have something else over Olympians and that’s age :) Most athletes have to give up as they get older, but we can write until we die, or until we lose the will to write – and I hope that never happens.

      • says

        That’s a good point about age. It sucks for athletes that are in the Olympics that have to give up their passion because of their bodies aging. I love that writing can be done ass long as our hands and write and type.

  5. says

    A huge part of success comes from just showing up. The Olympic athletes showed up for training – day after day, after day, until they became the best in their field. The same goes for writers. Nothing beats practice. So show up day after day at your keyboard and you will succeed. Maybe even win gold, if you put your mind to it.

  6. says

    I so loved this post, Joanna. Every single one of your 10 points is such common truth, but ones for which we need to be reminded, over and over again.

    My favorite of your points was #7, in which you describe how authenticity isthe thing that will get us through to the other side, score brownie points with our readers, and pave our roads to success. I could not agree more. I feel that I am writer with that type of genuine feeling where not everything is perfect, but it purports to be analyzed and discussed, even if not undertood.

    Thanks for this great post.

  7. says

    Sometimes you have to keep pushing at it, even when things look bad. I remember watching Karrie Strug when she fell after her vault and injured her ankle. It didn’t look too bad because she could still walk on it. But, at the time, she only had one more shot to score well — and to her knowledge, if she didn’t, the team wouldn’t get the gold medal. So she went again, and we could not tell from the way she ran how badly she hurt her ankle — and she did a perfect vault and nailed the landing on one foot.

  8. says

    Hello, Joanna!

    Thank you very much for this article – I was just going to write something about the Olympics myself. You must be excited to be in London, although the city must be crowded like never before :) I also believe that backstage rehearsals, good habits that are hard to obtain and ever harder to keep and showing up daily are key to good writing.

    Another important thing that is common for athletes and writers is actually performing. Turning up for the Show. What is the point of all that working and sweating if you are not going to turn up for the competition? You need to pluck up your courage, go before the crowds and say: here I am, here’s what I can do. I worked. Is it good, or should I work more?

    You see, I started posting my novel on my blog, chapter by chapter and received a comment about it from a fellow writer. She said it was really brave of me to post work in progress, to have the guts to be judged. I think that a writer who is not showing the work is wasting time. There is no need to be shy. As Jeff Goins says, writers should ship :)

    One thing I love about your blog is how you manage to draw a lesson out of everything :) I’ve learnt that from you and am also incorporating that in my own blog. Thank you for the article and for the lessons!

    • says

      Thanks Roy – I really do try to get a lesson from everything. It’s one of the brilliant things about blogging. It makes me look at things in a new way in order to share them. Hence why I am such a fan of this medium of expression.

  9. LKWatts says

    Hi Joanna,

    Some very good points here – it made a very interesting read. Nobody can be an expert in their field without years of dedication.

  10. says

    A list of great reminders for writers – thanks Joanna! I would add that you also have to have fun, along with the discipline and hard work. This is where point 8 comes in.

  11. says

    (9) Fans are the true gold – such an insightful point, and I love the imagery you use – the fans being the gold medal, the real prize at the end of it all. So many people forget this. Great read!

  12. says

    The spirit behind this piece is admirable, but the “beautiful black men” line threw me off track. I didn’t find that especially appropriate. I understand what your point was, but I think it comes off poorly there.

  13. says

    Love the lessons you drew out! How very true each of them is. In particular, I liked how you pointed out that there will always be both rivalry and camaraderie. Thanks for the reminder!


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