The Competitive Edge

I think it’s fair to say I’m a competitive person.

Growing up, I constantly challenged my younger sister to silly contests: Who could sing the loudest? Who could build the bigger block tower? Who loved our parents more? I played sports through high school. I got good grades and not so subtly competed against my friends for class rankings. So I’ve always had a sense of who to beat when it came to something I wanted to excel at.

But writing is one of those things – especially when you are apprenticing like me – where a competitive mindset can hurt you. We’re human, so it’s not uncommon to feel jealous of other writers. (See posts by writers James Scott Bell, Leslie Greffenius, Diana Santelli, and Juliette Wade who are more eloquent than I on the subject.)

When we’re just starting out, we need community, not competition. But it can be hard to bury that competitive instinct. It’s how you manage it that’s critical.

For example, I held off sharing my work with others because (in part) my competitive nature could not handle failure. Sucking was not an option, especially at something I loved. I got over that, of course, because we all know there is nothing more humbling than writing for publication. I exchanged my work with a few writing groups and found two wonderful critique partners.

But now that I’ve started work on a new novel-length project, some of those old fears have crept back. How can my new story possibly be as good as my old one? What if my first story was just a fluke? What will my CPs – who have come to expect a certain level of competency from me – think?

But then that competitive edge that kicked in: Not good enough? You will make it better. You’ve done it before; you’ll do it again. Or else.

Ok, so maybe my inner voice didn’t say it quite like that, but the prospect of having someone else’s eyes on this particular story pushed me out of the writing funk I found myself in whenever I thought about the project.

For whatever reason, I couldn’t make myself take initiative – I had ideas on where to take my characters, possible plot lines, even a full draft – but I wasn’t making any real headway in completing the story. But once I decided this would be my next project after my historical romance and consequently the next novel I share with my CPs, I found my motivation again.

Suddenly it was easier to commit to some changes and cut what wasn’t working. With the prospect of someone else reading the story who wasn’t me or even my husband, I found it that much easier to direct my revisions. I have certain expectations of my writing before it’s ready to share with others, and my competitive nature won’t allow for anything less. So I funneled that energy into my story, and so far, I’ve been pleased with the results.

You may have heard the advice: know your audience. This is important, and author Micheal Cunningham has some interesting thoughts on the subject as well. He suggests finding that one person to write for – not yourself, not the world at large – just one person to focus your efforts. I think it’s important to take that concept one step further – write for that one person who forces you to be your best.

For this particular story at this particular point in its development, I’m writing for my CPs. To ensure the quality is there and worthy of their time. They won’t always be my intended audience – at some point I’ll be revising and rewriting for agents and a general reading audience – but for now, while my story is still new and full of possibilities, there’s no one better to write for because my competitive nature will force me to ensure the work is as good as I can make it before I turn it over to my CPs.

If you are competitive like me, how do you harness that energy in your writing? Who inspires you to do your very best?

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3 thoughts on “The Competitive Edge

  1. It's definitely that competitiveness that makes me push forward. I outlined and plotted the crap out of my current manuscript for months but couldn't, for the life of me, START it. And then NaNoWriMo came along and I told myself, 'Okay, Lori, now or never.' The moment I saw that word count bar and compared it to OTHER people's word count bars… well, hell if I was going to get left behind! LOL And then I hit 56k and my sense of victory totally kicked me in the ass b/c it took another few months just to motivate me to FINISH it.

    Now I'm back at square one. Plotting and outlining my next wip and dithering about instead of just WRITING it. But you're right that thinking about other people reading it is a good motivator, especially CPs who I don't want to torture with bad writing LOL

  2. I certainly have that moment, when I read of a brand spanking new exciting deal for a debut author, that whiny “why not me?” moment. But then I think, if that person can do it, I can at least try!

    I love your idea of writing for a specific audience. Writing for the world at large can seem overwhelming.

    Hey Lori – don't necessary discount plotting/outlining time as wasted time. It can be as productive and useful as days spent churning out words. Having an outline made it possible for me to finish my WiP.

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