[Update: the following post is an edited, shortened version of the original which was published during week one of the 2016 Olympic Games. Due to events involving one of the athletes whom I used as an example, I decided to remove mention of other athletes–including Gabby Douglas–as well. Therefore, I have pulled the teeth of this piece and retained only its primary points. Accordingly, you will find comments at the end from readers that refer to the original post and not the version available now.]
Warning: if you’re tired of hearing about the Rio Olympics, please log off because I am enjoying them and intend, in this post, to tie them into writing.
A few years ago, I found myself trapped into participating in a Nielsen phone survey. One of the questions asked what my favorite sports were. I answered “The Olympics” and “The Kentucky Derby.” Granted, I was messing with the survey taker, but I was also being honest. I love the Olympic Games. Some events are my favorites. Some are merely interesting. Some bore me. That’s okay. I like the thrill of competition. I like to see people who have trained themselves to their maximum potential being tested–and sometimes bested.
However, the point of this post is about drawing lessons from champions whether they are on the track, swiveling around a pommel horse, playing beach volleyball, rowing, fencing, cycling, or pounding a keyboard. Elite athletes are all about training, discipline, sacrifice, and courage. They continue despite pain and injury. They give 150 percent, and they believe in their dreams of victory. They also know that no matter how good they are, there is a real possibility that a competitor will be better. They could place 4th or 5th in the race, and go home knowing only that they tried their best and it was not enough to grab glory.
Writing for publication is all about training, dedication, discipline, and sacrifice. It’s all about having dreams–that this story will pull together and be good enough to sell, or this novel might be the bestseller. And it’s all about putting in the long, sometimes tedious hours to make that dream happen. But dreams–no matter how big–need a reality check as well.
I tell my students: “Just because you’ve written something, that doesn’t mean it’s any good. Just because you write something good, that doesn’t mean it will sell. And just because a piece of your writing is published, that doesn’t mean the public will read it.”
Writers, like athletes, need to train for victory but be prepared for defeat. There are no guarantees in the publishing industry. You can write an amazing story, and be rejected because the editor just bought someone else’s work for the last slot of her publishing schedule for that year. It doesn’t mean your story’s no good. It means your timing was slow.
When an amazing athlete who has persevered despite adversity, inadequate facilities, injuries, and financial hardship loses a gold medal by ninety-nine one-thousandths of a point, that’s agonizing. It’s easy to shout, “Unfair! He deserved to win!” Yet in fact, he lost because another athlete was just that microscopic scrinch of a point better.
Consider a runner about to come in third, but achieves silver because she leans forward as she crosses the finish line, and that lean puts her ahead of a competitor that would have otherwise beaten her. That will to win marks the champion spirit. It’s why one horse racing neck and neck with a competitor in the Kentucky Derby will stretch out its nose at the finish, wining by a whisker–always driven by the will to make it, to keep trying.
When Mo Farah of Great Britain tripped and fell in the men’s 10,000-meter race, he got up and resumed the race and won. That is the heart of a champion. And every writer who is trying to break in and stay in needs that quality.
There will be writing disappointments. Getting published is hard, so hard that sometimes writers are too timid even to try. Yet you must try and keep trying, no matter how many rejections you collect or how much they hurt. Evaluate yourself and what you’re doing in your stories–or not doing. Make adjustments.
Sometimes, rejection is not about the quality of your work at all. You write for a fickle public. And public taste changes. You can sell a manuscript to a publisher and, months later, by the time your novel reaches publication, the trend may have shifted to a different genre, leaving you in the dust. Your quality has not lessened. But the world has changed on you.
After you’ve poured months of sheer hard work into a project such as a novel, to have it turned down or picked apart or ignored by an editor hurts. It will always hurt. But you must put it behind you and evaluate why you were turned down so you can move forward, either by fixing the manuscript’s problems, or marketing it elsewhere, or deciding honestly whether it’s worthy of self-publishing electronically.
The latter option should never be a crutch, a safety net, or a refuge of self-deception. Use it–not to dump flawed manuscripts into the public arena–but to offer readers a crack at your story when editors just can’t make a place for you.
Editors do make mistakes. (Think about how many of them rejected J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter story.) Remember that editors are trying to play it safe in the fiction game. They have to answer to corporate bean counters that don’t care two cents for good writing and only want sure winners.
Well, folks, fiction is never a sure thing. We writers are jugglers of words and phrases on the street corner, hoping we have a plot or characters brightly colored enough to catch the eye of passing pedestrians. Sometimes the pedestrians stop and applaud. Sometimes a city bus roars by between our performance and the audience that turns away, disappointed in what they failed to see.
So we try again. And again. And again.
Train yourself. Know your craft. Write to the best of your ability, no matter how hard or challenging it is. Stick with it to the end. Stick with it despite the rejections and barricades between you and publication. Be gracious in disappointment. And use victory to propel you forward to the next challenge, that next and better story that lies within you.