(This article was originally written for the London Olympics but is just as relevant for Rio!)
I never enjoyed mass sporting events until I attended the Sydney Olympics in 2000 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 world 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.
(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.
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?
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?