By the time you’re reading this the crown jewel event of bicycle road racing, the Tour de France, will have concluded, but at the time I’m writing this post the outcome is still very much in doubt.
I’ve never been much of cyclist personally, but I do enjoy sports and watching them on television. A few years ago my son drew us into watching road race cycling and I got hooked on it. At first I watched mainly for the gorgeous French countryside and shots of amazing castles and chateaux along the route. But eventually I was drawn into the complexities and intrigues of the race as well.
It’s a sport that was besmirched a few years ago by rampant drug use and cheating, but the powers-that-be in charge have made tremendous efforts to clean it up, including developing some innovative methods for tracking normal performances and expectations from each individual athlete. I don’t fool myself into believing it’s all completely clean but the authorities are trying hard to keep it real and do not tolerate any hint of cheating.
As I’ve been watching the race these last couple of weeks, it occurred to me that there were lessons that everyone, but authors especially, could take from the race.
1. Road race cycling is a team sport. That’s not intuitive on the surface, since it’s a bunch of men or women on bicycles, but as you dig down into it, it comes clear why it’s often the strongest individual on the strongest team that wins the race. Due to the effects of wind resistance and slip-streaming, riders in a group working together can generate more power and speed than one individual can on their own. Plus a grand tour event is three weeks long with a ride of four to five hours every day other than two rest days. Those rides frequently involve climbing mountains, negotiating narrow city streets, and surviving inclement weather, problems with the equipment, and various road hazards. Having teammates around a rider is often the difference between losing serious time in the event of a breakdown and being able to be up and running again quickly.
Novels aren’t created in a vacuum. An author pours his or her soul out onto the paper (or screen) but it then takes critiquers, beta readers, editors, copy editors, formatters, and others to turn that story into a published book.
2. Each man has to peddle his own bike. You can’t be part of the race if you’re not willing to do your part to contribute. It’s a huge effort for even those who don’t get the glory. There are men participating in the tours whose only job is to be a domestique – the person who gets water bottles for the team, guards the team leader and will exchange bikes with them on the spot should the team leader have a problem.
Every author has to write their own book. Some are better at it than others, but every book can be improved by the feedback of beta readers and the work of editors. A team can make your book even better, but it starts with that first draft, and only you can provide that.
3. Winning comes in different flavors – There are a lot of prizes available during the Tour de France and other grand tour events. The maillot jaune (yellow jersey) goes to the overall winner, but there are also competitions for a green jersey (best sprinter), a polka dot jersey (king of the mountains or best climber), a white jersey for best young rider, and each day there is a prize for the winner of that day’s stage.
As an author you have plenty of opportunities to call your own wins. Of course, we’d all like to be hitting those best-seller lists, but I remind myself how excited and triumphant I felt when I actually finished my first novel, way back when. There was the first time I was a finalist in a writer’s contest; the first time I got a call from a publisher; the first time I won a writing contest… I still haven’t hit any lists and maybe never will. But I’ve had my share of wins along the way, and just finishing close to two dozen novels and novellas counts among those.
4. You have to be at the top of your game to compete. The Tour de France attracts the best of the best from cycling’s professional ranks. They’re the top of the heap and they still have to be in primo shape to have a chance in this race.
If you’re going to write a story, you want to do all you can to hone your skills and fine-tune your craft. One of the things I love about writing is that I’m pretty sure I’ll never completely master it, but I try every day to get better. You can never be complacent about your ability to create a good story.
5. And there’s still a large element of luck. Every year a few innocent riders get blind-sided and brought down by another rider taking a curve too tightly or sliding on slick pavement. It’s not their fault but it can still devastate and take out of contention someone who might’ve had a shot. It’s the way of life. Things happen. A solid team around you can help protect you but sometimes lightning strikes. So it is with writing. Many authors who deserve better labor in obscurity because they haven’t hit the right editor with the right thing at the right time, or the book goes on sale at exactly the wrong time, or fails to find its audience for reasons beyond the author’s control. There’s nothing to do but roll with it and try to keep on chugging.
6. You need recovery time – Riding a bike at high speed four to five hours every day for three weeks depletes the body. Cyclists need time to recover. Most can only handle doing one grand tour even per year, though occasionally some try to do two since they’re scheduled with a month between each of them (the Giro d’Italia is in May, the Tour de France in July and the Vuelta a España is in September).
Writing an 80,000-word novel (or even a shorter piece) depletes the soul. Authors need time to refill the bucket. To go out and do things, read, experience other media. Everything the writer takes in becomes part of the mix inside that gets churned and comes out as a story, so the more you have in the bucket to draw on, the richer your stories are likely to be. So, yes, go take a vacation. And if you skip a few days of writing because you do, the world will keep on turning and you won’t forget how to put words together in sentences.
7. You have to give everything you’ve got to the effort. Each day of the Tour de France, the riders put out the ultimate effort they have in them. Nothing less will do in this race. When you’re writing you have to eliminate distractions, concentrate totally and be willing to pour yourself into the effort. In the words of another immortal writer you have to be willing to bleed onto the page.
8. The team will have a plan – Because it is a team sport and there are so many potential prizes available, most teams have some kind of plan for what they want each of their riders to do at the start of each day. And when I sit down to write a scene, I try to have some idea of where I want it to go and what I want it to do to advance the plot.
9. And, like most battle plans, it won’t survive the first contact with the enemy. Every other team on the tour has a plan, too, and they can’t all succeed.
And with most of my outlines, when I actually write the planned scene, the characters tend to take over and go the way they want. Sometimes they’re off on a tangent and I have to rope them back in and get them on topic. But there are times when I give them their head, to see where it leads. Sometimes I’ll end up deleting the whole thing, but occasionally allowing the characters their say will add extra dimensions to a story or take it in a wonderfully unexpected but right direction.
10. There’s always the next race. Close to two hundred men set out to win the Tour de France, but only a few of them end up winners. What do the others do? If they plan to have any future in the sport, they immediately begin preparing for the next race. For an author, finishing one book means getting ready to start the next. Whether this book will succeed and find an audience is mostly out of your hands once it’s published (except for all that promo you have to do), but the important thing is that the next book you write may be the big winner if this one isn’t.
Karen McCullough is the author of more than a dozen published novels in the mystery, romantic suspense, and fantasy genres and has won numerous awards, including an Eppie Award for fantasy. She’s also been a four-time Eppie finalist, and a finalist in the Prism, Dream Realm, Rising Star, Lories, Scarlett Letter, and Vixen Awards contests. Her short fiction has appeared in several anthologies and numerous small press publications in the mystery, fantasy, science fiction, and romance genres. She has three children, eight grandchildren and lives in Greensboro, NC, with her husband of many years.
Her most recent release is a romantic suspense novel, Hunter’s Quest.
Blurb for Hunter’s Quest: Kristie Sandford's vacation is interrupted when a man jumps out in front of her car. She avoids hitting him, but when she stops to see if he's hurt, he demands she help him escape from the people chasing him. Kristie has an odd "gift" - she occasionally gets warning messages, and she gets one saying he needs her help or he'll die. Jason Hunter is an NC SBI (North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation) agent working on his own time searching for a friend, an investigative reporter who disappeared while tracking down rumors of corruption in the bureaucracy of a small mountain town. Jason is grateful to Kristie for rescuing him, but dubious when she insists she has to continue helping him. Kristie is attracted to Jason, but the edge of danger she senses in him reminds her too much of the abusive family she escaped as soon as she could.
Still, the message said he'd die if she didn't help him, and the messages have been right before.
- Kindle: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B06X3Z8VLB
- Nook: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/hunters-quest-karen-mccullough/1125808779?ean=2940157500979
- Smashwords: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/705030
Karen McCullough is the author of more than a dozen published novels in the mystery, romantic suspense, and fantasy genres and has won numerous awards, including an Eppie Award for fantasy. She’s also been a four-time Eppie finalist, and a finalist in the Prism, Dream Realm, Rising Star, Lories, Scarlett Letter, and Vixen Awards contests. Her short fiction has appeared in several anthologies and numerous small press publications in the fantasy, science fiction, and romance genres. She has three children, seven grandchildren (and counting) and lives in Greensboro, NC, with her husband of many years.