Olympic writing

Hello, and welcome to our obligatory Olympic-themed post about writing!

We’re loving the Olympics so far, and seeing all that excellence on display got us thinking about writing. Of course, there are a number of metaphors you could use here: the importance of sticking the landing, having a great anchor routine/fast finish, being driven by passion, staying hungry for the prize… And so many sports to choose from for analogies: the precision of archery, the endurance of the 10,000m, the relentlessness of swimming race after race.

But in the end, what really resonated for us was this: degree of difficulty vs. execution.

Yep, we’ve been watching a lot of gymnastics!

And that’s how gymnastic routines are scored. Each competitor has a maximum potential score based upon the difficulty of their routine, while their actual score depends on how flawlessly they execute it. And it struck us: this is exactly how writing works. Readers, consciously or subliminally, tend to respond to books based on brilliant ideas, brilliantly executed.

What does that mean for writers? True, this is an analytical approach: it’s the layer beneath the layer of how people react to books, and why they fall in love with some and not others. But generally speaking, the more thrilling the narrative (and the thrills can be conceptual, emotional, action-based or humor-related), and the more momentum it has, the more you feel engaged with it. You’re much more likely to keep turning those pages.

We all want novels to sweep us up, take us away, make us dream, lose us deep within their worlds.

That can only happen if the author has a high degree of difficulty in their routine, and carries it out flawlessly. Readers are of course judges, issuing deductions based on each error: typos, character inconsistencies, breaking the flow… they all add up, detracting from the overall experience. Too many, and it can all be over. If the author ends up on their butt, the readers will get up off of theirs and go find something else to do.

Degree of difficulty doesn’t just mean twisty plots, or groundbreaking narrative techniques — it can mean those things, but it can also mean creating deeply atmospheric alternate worlds, making us feel, breaking our hearts, changing the way we see the world, and ourselves. Those things are not easy. But when an author makes them happen, we don’t even see them at work — we just get utterly drawn in, hypnotized, “book-whispered.”

YA authors Patrick Ness and Laini Taylor are the reigning champions. They’re at the top of the podium. The degrees of difficulty of their novels are immense: Ness has to take us to another world and make us experience hearing a multitude of other people’s and creatures’ thoughts, while Taylor has to create new magic and make us fall in love with angels while we feel terror and rage and desire in our blood.

Their execution is utterly flawless. Ness’s brilliance in conveying exactly what it feels like to hear the ‘noise’, while also feeling all of Todd’s extreme emotions, is just staggering. He uses the page in extraordinary ways, and creates something entirely, thrillingly new that is also deeply grounded in overwhelming heart and soul. Taylor is bewitching with her richly mystical narrative scorcery. She fills your head and your dreams with magic and desire. It’s spooky, and wonderful.

The behavior of our hearts is a complex and beautiful thing. When writers impact us on this level, it can change our lives. Just like watching someone win an Olympic gold can be deeply inspiring, and can let us know that dreams can be achieved — with dedication and passion.

What does this mean for writers? You have to constantly practice your craft, hone it, obsess over it like those athletes who get up at 4am and train all day, every day, every week, every month, every year. You have to inhabit your writing. Utterly. You have to keep reading, revising… and writing. Always be writing. It takes an extraordinarily high level of obsession to do this.

So while the Olympians keep winning their medals, as writers we take heart and inspiration. Dreams are wonderful things, but they’re made from sweat and tears, from giving yourself entirely to winning that gold.

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