Writers and Olympians -- Cut From the Same Crazy Cloth


Does your vision of a successful author include six-pack abs, patriotic spandex, thighs as hard as oak trees and lots of medals? Yeah, mine either. But Olympic athletes and writers have plenty in common, including the ability to go the distance, fight through the pain and beat those really bad odds.

What am I telling you? Even if you don't have ten percent body fat and you would describe curling as "that sport with a broom" and ski jumping as "my version of hell in a onesie," basically, you, dear writer, are Lolo Jones. Let me just recline here in my bobsled and tell you why.

Handling the pain

One of my favorite things to do during the Olympics is read the list of ailments each athlete has fought through to get to the competition. "Oh, I broke my foot five times, I cracked my hip, my hand fell off, etc. etc." But they made it through! I'm going to guess writers have less physical injuries than Olympians -- unless you're writing at a treadmill desk on warp speed -- but we have our own bumps and bruises. I call them rejection letters. Those "Hey, thanks for submitting your manuscript. It was the worst 150,000 words I never read. I got to page five and your main character was so poorly developed that she gave me a sinus infection. I've since given your manuscript to my daughter and she's using it for kindling at Girl Scout camp." How many rejection letters can one person take? They are our version of the torn Achilles before the big game, the participation medals and last place finishes. But still, like that flying tomato boy, we go on.

Changing course

Those times when you've written half a book and you look up and say, "What is this book about, exactly?" You may feel pathetic and decide to make a dunce cap out of your rejected pages, but hold that thought. You just need a new plan. When I see an ice skater do a single axle instead of their planned triple, I want to shout, "All is not lost! Throw the triple later!" But they don't need my passionate from-the-couch coaching. Olympic athletes know to change course. Lolo Jones is about to compete in the Winter Olympics in bobsled after two difficult showings in the Summer Olympics in track. She is queen course changer. She basically went from writing alien invader novels where men survive on blood and guts to penning 18th-century historical fiction where women in corsets drink lots of tea.

Writers change course, too. They change genres, they kill off characters, invent new ones, change narrators, go from third person to first person, they take a book set in Turin and move it to Topeka. Basically, they rewrite that long program until it's gold medal-worthy.

Ridiculous costumes

Have you recovered from those ugly Christmas sweaters gone Ralph Lauren patriotic that team USA wore for the Opening Ceremony? They were not good. They were a present from mostly blind Aunt Mildred not good. But sometimes you've got to wear a ridiculous costume to push a product. We authors know that! JK Rowling dressed up as Harry Potter complete with a sad-looking broom. And Anne Rice, back in her goth phase, dressed like she was gunning for a crown at vampire prom when she did a book signing for Memnoch the Devil. Would I wear fingerless lace gloves and more bling than Flo Rida, like Rice did, to sell a few copies? Naturally. Those books don't sell themselves!


The road from zero to a hundred thousand words is a long road. It's also a lonely road. It is one filled with crying fits and ice cream binges and chanting "worthless, worthless, worthless," while you hit the delete button and bang your head on the keyboard. But even if you consume 4,000 calories in an hour and Snapchat countless sad-face selfies to your best friend, you know you must go on.

Olympians pretty much wrote the book on endurance, but writers are definitely in silver medal contention. My publisher told me that the hardest part of writing a book, is writing a book. She was right. And the hardest thing about getting to the Olympic Games is qualifying. In both cases, it can take years. Decades even. The money is bad, the hours are worse, the self-doubt can be deafening, but somehow we keep our eye on the prize.

For the love of the game

It depends on the sport, but the odds of making a U.S. Olympic team are pretty bad. Like 1 in 45,000 bad. Why do those kids do it? Do they all have helicopter moms who strap butter knives to their sneakers and throw them on ice before they learn to walk? Let's hope not. My guess is they do it because they love it. And so do we. Even when we hear things like "Write a blog post an hour!" "Write a 500-page book in six months!", we don't scream, "career change!" while reaching for the gin. We look at a blank page and think of all the possibilities. We buy books in stores and say, "one day I'll buy my book." We analyze The New York Times bestseller list and plan the outfit we'll wear when our book is at the top. We love the writing game, just like athletes love their sports. Except we get to work in our pajamas and the only real physical risks are carpal tunnel and a paper cut. Lucky us.