Borrowing lessons from sports and chess, you can find success as a writer by mastering fundamentals, optimizing your efforts, and meeting the challenges in front of you.
The Internet presents a vexing conundrum for finding success as a writer. Never has it been possible to reach more people across the world through social media, email, eCommerce sites, and multimedia channels. But, as more and more writers and marketers grow their email contact lists, engage in podcasts and vlogging, and compete with increasing legions of other communicators, how much time and energy does it take to feed the beast? After all, you need to continually refine your craft and build a loyal readership — and therein lies the challenge. Many writers try to do it all at once, encouraged by courses, podcasts, and articles that map out a precise set of steps for success. Skip one, and you’re setting yourself up for failure.
Doing everything at once isn’t practical for most of us and a paint-by-numbers approach to building a writing career won’t work for everybody. I don’t have a numbered plan to offer, but I think we can draw some useful analogies from the worlds of sports and games, a world in which competition is foremost and the chosen strategies and tactics usually separate the winners from the losers.
Master the fundamentals
Boston Celtics basketball legend Larry Bird offered this pithy advice to those learning the game: “First, master the fundamentals.” If you apply this axiom to writing, it goes something like this: invest the majority of your energy toward mastering the craft before you start planning marketing campaigns, book tours, and the vacation home you’re going to build in Barbados. Becoming an exceptional writer, or even a noteworthy journeyman writer, takes focus, time, and effort. Don’t rush the process. Don’t skimp on building the necessary skills. As Pablo Picasso said, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”
Economy of motion
Back when I worked as a tech writer for a computer company in Silicon Valley, many of us played at a nearby racquetball club during our lunch breaks or after work. There was a wide diversity of talent and a furious, good-natured, competitive spirit among the participants. The champion, who proved unbeatable on the court, was a most unlikely character: overweight, maybe in his 50s, always a bit disheveled and out-of-place on the racquetball court. Shunning the bright, sport-chic garb worn by most of the players, he wore threadbare, white tee-shirts, beat-up basketball shoes, and oversized boxing shorts that looked as though they had been scavenged from a 1950’s bout. Let’s call him Ray.
Ray beat everyone effortlessly. He would occupy the center court about a foot behind the receiving line, dominating gameplay with precise, economical flicks of his racquet. The trajectory of his shots and his keen anticipation of the angles of the return shot seemed almost supernatural. He would patiently wait for the ball to come to him, not chasing it, not expending energy unnecessarily. Meanwhile, he kept his opponent perpetually off balance and racing from wall to wall trying to recover control. Ray rarely took more than one or two unhurried steps to the right or left and always left his opponent sweating and short of breath, while he looked as though he had been playing a leisurely round of golf.
Whether writing a novel or marketing your work, this precision of purpose and economy of effort offers a useful model. The writing process itself can be approached as an exercise in Zen simplicity, paring sentences and thoughts the way you might pare the skin from an apple. Find clarity and direction in sensing the angles in a narrative and choosing a line of action that fits the situation and conditions.
When marketing, shape your words carefully and make your outreach supremely targeted. Don’t take a lot of excess steps. One strong, well-targeted article on Facebook, Medium, or LinkedIn that gets repeatedly shared is worth more than a hundred random, uninspired pieces spread across multiple media outlets. This might be the telling of an intriguing discovery connected with your book, a source of inspiration that started the writing project, or a backstory that serves as an interesting tangent to the theme you are exploring.
Harness the power of intuition
Chess grandmaster and author Garry Kasparov is often considered the greatest chess player of all time. Kasparov puts a high value on the power of intuition, saying, “This is the essential element that cannot be measured by any analysis or device and I believe it’s at the heart of success in all things: the power of intuition and the ability to harness and use it like a master.”
Given our growing understanding of intuition, rather than thinking of it as something akin to “a hunch,” it’s more about discerning patterns in deep memory and being able to use these submerged patterns as input to decision-making. If you apply this understanding to writing, you can use it to assess the direction of your work. Does the plot make sense and propel the story, or is something off? Does this line of dialogue sound real or contrived? Is this character necessary to the storyline? Is there tension building as the story unfolds? Judgments about the caliber of any aspect of your writing can be put to the test of intuition. According to psychological science research, intuition can even be improved over time.
Take your writing in bold, unexplored directions
The Queen’s Gambit, the Netflix drama about how a young woman overcomes a hellish childhood and soars to the top of the chess world, drew in an amazing 62 million viewers. Even more amazing, it has galvanized the world of chess, generating record-breaking sales of chess sets, escalating memberships in chess-related Internet sites, and propelling enthusiasm for the game worldwide. The series is based on a novel by Walter Tevis, loosely following the Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky championship match in 1972.
The subject matter of The Queen’s Gambit seems like an unlikely choice for a successful series, but it works because the story is well told and sparks interest through well-drawn characters, extremely difficult challenges overcome, and a protagonist — fictional Beth Harmon — competing in a world that had been largely closed to women. Good writing combines a mix of elements (much like a good chess match) and orchestrating these elements harmoniously, bringing them to a resounding finale, is what you need to think about as you shape your storyline.
Choose a career-building path that feels comfortable to you
The direction of your career as a writer might follow innumerable directions, but whatever direction you choose should feel right to you. Writing consultant Jane Friedman says, “For long-term sustainability, it’s best to focus on cultivating stronger relationships and connections to existing fans and partnering with organizations, businesses, and individuals to extend your visibility. Sometimes it’s about creating and pushing out more work — being prolific — which may be preferable for writers who don’t feel like their strength is in building relationships.”
A fitting close to this article comes from Garry Kasparov, who said, “Winning is not a secret that belongs to the very few; winning is something that we can learn by studying ourselves, studying the environment, and making ourselves ready for any challenge that is in front of us.”
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