Writers’ Olympics

stadiumSilk’s Post #160 — It’s the middle of the summer, the silly season. All eyes are glued to the Olympics, a welcome relief from political campaigns. The days are hot (at least here on the left coast), the beer is cold, the burgers are on the barbie, and a bit of light-hearted blogging is in order.

Every four years the Summer Olympics reminds the world what dreams, discipline and dedication can get you. Oh, and dollars – did I forget to mention dollars?

As the spectacle of the Games gets ever more entertainingly (even gaudily) ambitious, as the athletic clothing and gear gets slicker (thanks to sponsors), and as the monumental task of hosting this behemoth of a show gets more daunting (thanks Brazil, and good luck with your post-games hangover), the soul of the Olympics endures at the very simplest level, the level where all the rah-rah and glitz doesn’t count.

At its heart, what counts is the stories of the hopeful young competitors. They rock.

Maybe others tune in to indulge their fan patriotism, or to vicariously party on. For me, the draw is the inspiring – sometimes unnervingly perfectionistic – display of physical, mental and emotional grit played out at every sports venue. People putting themselves on the line, holding nothing back, totally exposed to an audience of millions.

The degree of dedication in Olympic athletes is absolutely stunning. There are few other human endeavours, if any, that demand so much, and reward the majority of participants with nothing but personal satisfaction. These may be called games, but they are not play.

At the same time, the Olympics are at the pinnacle of a worldwide sports development system that produces the most superb athletes in history, and they keep getting better. Every Games sees new records set and a higher level of performance achieved.

Ask yourself: in what other fields are human beings progressively getting better at what they do, eclipsing the achievements of their progenitors? Go ahead. Take your time. Dah da dum de dum. No rush. I’m sure you’ll think of something people do better now than they ever have before. People, mind you. Individuals. No ideas yet?

Okay, time’s up. If you did think of something, I’ll bet you the Brooklyn Bridge that it’s some form of technological (or maybe social) progress rather than individual human achievement.

Oh, sure, there are constant advances in technology, and it’s easy to confuse an improvement in the performance of things with an improvement in the performance of people. After all, it’s people who invent these newfangled things. But, sorry, no. The people who invented computers and air conditioning and charter schools and AR-15 rifles and Facebook were very clever, but they weren’t smarter than Aristotle or Galileo or Newton or Tesla or Einstein.

But imagine applying the whole Olympic idea to other kinds of endeavour … writing for instance. Could writers, through lifelong training and obsessive striving, reach literary achievements never before imagined? God knows most of us don’t do nearly enough obsessive striving or disciplined training on our own. No wonder many writers find themselves stumbling over everyday hurdles.

(Oh, I can’t commit to writing 2,000 words a day, I … have a job, have a family, have a vacation coming up, have a headache. So do Olympic athletes. See what I mean?)

Yes, I think this is just what we all need. An Olympic system for developing awesome writers. We need to get into training, people. No more butts on the couch. Get up and put those butts to work, uh, in a chair. Build those vocabulary muscles. Work on your plot spins and twists. And stick those landings at the end.

My modest proposal is to develop an Olympic style system to measure writing performance, because, well you know, what gets measured gets done or something like that. Just for starters, here are some top-of-my-head suggestions for events in the Writers’ Olympics. Please feel free to add your own!

Speedwriting Events
This is a series of sprint and long-distance race events in which writers must sit in a room full of desks and produce a fixed number of words – for example, a 100 word sprint, a 5,000 word marathon, and so on. Points for speed are then adjusted by making deductions for grammatical and syntax errors, as judged by editors. Further deductions are also made for quality deficits, as judged by critics. Note: the writing might be fast, but the judging will be slow, just as in real life.

Vocabulary Weightlifting Events
Giving new meaning to “weighing your words,” these events challenge writers to lift the efficiency and creativity of their work through the power of language. Various exercises, such as short fiction, poetry and essay, are judged on technical points and artistic merit. Originality earns extra credits, but competitors who push too far will receive gibberish deductions.

Writers perform plotting routines in a variety of fiction genres, such as mystery/suspense, thriller, romance, action and sci-fi/fantasy, meeting strict requirements for inclusion of a beginning, a middle and an ending. Technical points are awarded for story structure, plot twists, pacing, reversals and climax. Points for artistic merit are given for originality; story flow; balance of description, action and dialogue; and characters. Deductions are made for awkward transitions, intrusive backstory and unresolved subplots.

Rewrite Hurdles
First draft short fiction manuscripts are submitted in time trials, then edited by an eliminations judging team, with each minor edit deducting one point off a perfect score of 100, and each major edit deducting 5 points. The 10 top-scoring writers continue on to the finals, where they do a time-limited, blind rewrite, and are ranked by their ability to anticipate and clear the original editorial hurdles assessed by the judges, earning points for every correction of an identified fault. This is not only a deadline competition, but also a mind-reading contest.

Unpublished (and even published) writers often bemoan the difficulty of getting published, getting recognized, breaking through, dealing with the emotional trauma of rejection slips. Yes, it’s daunting. And it does sometimes seem like a lottery. I’m as guilty as the next person of thinking this way.

But, seriously, it’s a highly competitive field, just like sports. How many of us can truly say we put the time into training and learning, do the grinding work of writing and rewriting and re-rewriting, build up our strengths and relentlessly work on our flaws the way Olympians do? How much do we sacrifice in anonymity for our craft? What mental toughness do we cultivate to give ourselves the resilience needed to face inevitable failures and rejections – and then carry on anyway?

So, friends and writers, the next time you find yourself struggling with this ambitious goal of writing – a goal you chose for yourself – try thinking a bit more like an Olympic hopeful.

The part-timers, the short-cutters and the half-hearted are – let’s face it – probably not going to get to the big show. They can still enjoy writing recreationally, kind of like the way I enjoy the odd sailboat race. It’s all good. Even if an expectations adjustment may be required.

But really big success – like becoming a bestseller in a highly competitive marketplace – takes really big effort. “Overnight success” is mythical. Yet hard work does pay off: we’re watching it on our screens in Rio right now. Even for the also-rans, pride in the achievement of getting to the elite level of Olympic sports is the reward of a lifetime.

And here’s the good news for writers: in Olympic competitions, there are no do-overs. But in writing, there are. And there’s no age limit.

Skiathlon for writers


Silk’s Post #73 – In the spirit of Sochi, I bring you the inevitable post comparing writing to Olympic sports. How can you be surprised?

Getting sucked in to this spectacle of triumph and heartbreak every two years is virtually unavoidable – or it is for me, especially with the winter games. If you love drama, if you’re fascinated by amazing characters, if you thrive on story arcs that soar like the trajectories of those insane ski jumpers, then you just have to watch. And, if you have a blog post to write in the middle of it all, your topic is a no-brainer.

The question is: which winter Olympic sport best mirrors the trials and the glories of the writing life? For me, this was also a no-brainer. It’s the newfangled event (2003) called Skiathlon. If you’re a writer, see if any of this rings a bell:

Skiathlon Characteristics:

1. It’s an endurance event.
The men’s event is a gruelling 30 km (ladies’ course is half that, though if I were a competitor I might easily be talked into acceptance of this inequality). For the metrically challenged, 30 km is equivalent to 18.64 miles. Almost marathon distance. Except you’re doing it with boards strapped to your feet. If you imagine that the presence of snow underneath those boards enables a smooth glide to victory, you’d be wrong. It’s a brutal course with lots of uphill ‘skating’ work, and dozens of other competitors dogging your every stroke. Most Skiathletes collapse at the finish line, heaving and flopping like newly-caught salmon as they struggle for every molecule of oxygen they can gulp.

2. It’s complicated, has two stages, and requires multiple skills.
As sports writer Cathal Kelly noted in her humorous definition in thestar.com, “Increasingly the purpose of the Olympics is to take something simple and make it needlessly complex. Case in point – Skiathlon, a race that is half ‘classic’ (i.e. done along grooves in the snow); half ‘free’ (i.e. that exhausting-looking lunging that weirds you out every Olympics). In between, the competitors will ‘pit’ at the stadium, and switch gear.” The official Olympics description merely calls it “interesting.” Oh, and did I forget to mention competitors get to go around the whole two-stage course twice? Leave your comfort zone at home!

3. It rewards individual technique and stamina in equal measures.
Skiathlon is not for daredevils – their events are on the big, glamorous slopes. It’s not for artistes – their stunning routines on ice are beautiful but fleeting. And it’s not a team sport – you’re on your own out there. Skiathlon is won by incredibly fit, well-prepared athletes who have mastered all types of cross-country skiing, are capable of changing course in the middle of a race, and have the energy and discipline to stick it out to the end, alone in their agony. That’s discipline and determination. Like all Olympic sports, it starts with a dream and requires a stupendous amount of training and practice. But, as Helga so aptly put it in her post “Unsung heroes – here’s to you!”, the key to winning is steely resolve.

Now, let’s compare …

Writing Characteristics:

1. It’s an endurance event.
I scarcely need to explain this to anyone who’s churned their way through the planning, outlining, writing and re-writing of a 100,000 word novel. Or two, or three. Yes, there are glorious days when you’re gliding across the pages, your fingers flying and the wind in your face. Then there are the brutal uphill climbs where you stroke, stroke, stroke, stroke … and get no glide at all. The finish never comes soon enough for your oxygen-starved brain and your cramped shoulders, and every chapter is a fresh marathon.

2. It’s complicated, has two stages, and requires multiple skills. 
You could argue that writing has more than two stages, what with concept development, planning, research, outlining, writing, re-writing, then the whole can of worms which is marketing your work. But the main events are writing and re-writing, and these require completely different skill-sets. One thing is guaranteed: you will travel the course of your novel multiple times before you have a manuscript ready to pitch.

3. It rewards individual technique and stamina in equal measures. 
Many people have great ideas. Many people are highly creative. Many people are good writers. But most of them never start a novel, let alone finish one – and never mind actually getting published. The ante for a writer to get in the game at all is talent, that’s a given. And no writer gets far without having a burning desire to pursue their calling. But after that, it’s all about technique and skills, along with stamina and endurance. And most of the effort writers pour into their novels is done alone, fuelled almost exclusively by their passion for their work and their belief in themselves. Much else must be sacrificed.

Alright, I admit it. Skiathlon is by no means a perfect analogy for writing. I could have picked at least a dozen different Olympic sports and made a similar case. So call this post an exercise – writer’s practice, if you will.

Because this is what writers do: when we look around us, we’re constantly seeing plots, analogies, character studies, ironies, dramatic struggles, epic tales. We can’t help ourselves. Everything in the world is about writing. About the pursuit of story.

But those writers who successfully challenge themselves to leave a legacy of published work are as dedicated as elite athletes – and as rare. Do I have it in me? Do you?

No matter. Even if we don’t medal, the exercise is good for us. Keep writing!