I've always longed to be the featured champion on a box of Wheaties. Yeah, yeah, yeah, go ahead and laugh, but when I was a small kid, I possessed an incredible degree of power and strength. I beat every kid in my class in callisthenic, strength and endurance tests in nearly every event, especially those involving running and jumping. And learning dance only provided me with greater agility and breakaway speed—handy when you're playing Wide Receiver BTW. [Yes, of course! Tomboy here.] In 1984, I even beat Gold Medalist, Evelyn Ashford’s time by a hair in a 100-meter dash with 10.63 versus her Gold Medal/World Record time of 10.76.
But all that greatness and potential is lost. No Wheaties box for me. Other than an occasional moment of playtime, I’m not really as sporty as I once was. I certainly can't Jazzercize my way into the champion-seeking hearts at General Mills. And hills STILL own me in my running, sometimes wiping me out more than another two more miles would. Even if I breeze up those monsters with ease, running won't get me there. I'm slower than a slug now, not even close to the blazing flash of lightning I once was. I don't know what happened.
No...I do know.
I never really strove to develop and hone my skills, to increase my strength, to improve. Because it all came naturally, I didn't feel the need to practice or pressure to get better. I beat everyone who ever dared to race me, boy or girl. I WAS a winner...a champion, owning a slightly better time than a World Record holder and Olympic Gold Medalist "Eeee-ven"...sans Snagglepuss from Laff-A-Lympics. "Heavens to Murgatroyd!"
To become a champion, and remain one—in whatever your passion may be—, you need to bring your A-Game every time, carrying the certainty that you can attain your dream and also have it snatched away at any moment by someone else. If you don’t act as though you have heat on your heels, it can all be lost. Writers should approach their passion for words with the same intensity athletes do their games, races, matches, meets and competitions. So, what can you do to be Wheaties-worthy?
LEARN THE RULES: As rules exist in sports, there are many in writing beyond grammar and we hear them plenty: show don't tell, no head-hopping, no passive voice, no abundance of adverbs or adjectives, no be-verbs, no huge blocks of internalization, no breaking the fourth wall, no stopping action for long blocks of description…
Once you understand what the rules are and why they're important, you can learn to break them according to your story's needs. If you know what you are doing and why, then you can demonstrate this deliberateness.
Like with passive voice, let’s say you’re in First Person and your character IS passive or sees everything as a martyr or victim or is unreliable, then a sense of detachment and distance might be appropriate. Or if you understand that hanging three adjectives on every noun creates drag over pretty language, you can then choose to use this technique when you do want to slow things down, maybe increase suspense, like describing a room where everything looks creepy to the observer.
Familiarize yourself with the rules, particularly those regarding narratives and structure. If you don't have a firm grasp of narratives, how will you be able to spot head-hopping when it creeps into your story or know if your work would present better in Omniscience? You need to know the difference.
No matter what your story calls for, you can then demonstrate you're a true player in the game and not just flying by the seat of your pants, doing whatever you want.
PRACTICE, TRAIN & STRETCH: To become excellent, you need to keep working. Push yourself in uncomfortable directions and attempt things you never thought you would do. I tried a celebrity vampire story when I didn't think I could do it, and the story came out great. It didn't win the contest I entered, but I'm so glad I got it done. Choose a difficult task or goal for your character or a crazy outcome and wrestle your way there. Practice and try something new and different like a villanelle or flash fiction. The more you stretch, the better you will become.
GET IN THE GAME: Once you have the playbook in hand, get in the game, what are you waiting for!? You can comb over it again and again, but you’re never gonna know your story’s worth or what you’re capable of if you don’t put yourself out there. Find some critters, adopt a thicker skin and let your baby be ripped to shreds. I know exposure is scary and that it's painful because writing is so soul-baring, but you need to get in the game and risk some injury if you want to become a champion.
When you’re aware of your weaknesses, you can adapt your methods, rid your bad habits and make your work indubitably stronger. Even becoming aware of a little thing like repeat words—“huffed” for me—and fixing that will improve a work. You likely wouldn’t notice such a thing on your own. You need feedback, desperately, so get it. Once your work is polished and shiny, you’re ready to seek expert opinion and publication. Go! Get in the game.
PLAY WITH SPIRIT: In order to enjoy writing and make your pieces as engaging as possible, you need to find your own style and voice. People can help you along, give you guidance, offer suggestions, but only you can tell the story brewing inside you and innately know the best way to tell it. You may need to work and wrestle and dig deep to find your voice, but once you do, your words will string together much more smoothly, your characters will come to life much more easily and your plot turns will surprise you. If you’re just writing to get words down or meet a contractual obligation, it will show. Don’t lose your soul’s fire. It’s normal to have down days, to get disheartened and discouraged, but stay in the game, maintain your energy and excitement, stay focused and be true to yourself.
HAVE A VISION OF SUCCESS: Where do you want to be as a writer? What do you hope to achieve? Visualize that. Don't just picture it in your mind; learn what you need to do in order to make that happen, set goals and work at getting there. There are tons of books and online resources, including agents' blogs, that give you the tools you need to write well and get attention. Seeing yourself as the champion of your dream will help you maintain a positive attitude even when all hope seems lost. Your vision of success may need to change, and that's fine; adapt as you go along.
DON’T QUIT: If your work ends up being not as wonderful or as well-received as you assumed, that’s okay. Start over, change things up or write something else. The first novel I wrote has great elements, especially the romance between the adorable characters, but it depends too much on coincidence, and taking out one thing would collapse the whole rickety thing. It's in a purple folder somewhere and that's likely the only binding it will ever be in. If you write something that isn’t suitable for mass consumption, that’s okay. Try again. Very few people are fabulous on their first go. It can take several efforts before you have a winner. Stay tenacious. Even if you don’t get validation in the publishing world or never sell one self-published book beyond your family members and friends, don’t stifle your creative breath, don’t quiet those characters crying out for birth, don’t put down the pen. Keep doing your best for YOU.
Will I ever be on Wheaties everywhere? Doubt it. Not unless General Mills considers plume athleticism worthy of their boxes. Maybe then I'll land up there for my most awesome excellence. It takes just as much, if not more, determination, wits and skill to be a master of words—words that can stir laughter, draw tears, sooth a soul, infuse hope, empower, change a life—as it does to catch a 4th-and-goal touchdown pass from the 2 to win the Super Bowl.
Don't just write; become a champion, great enough to be on Wheaties.