As someone who wants to make a living off of making things up and writing them down (also see: author, writer, insane, crazy, delusional), it’s important that I stay both physically and mentally fit. I can’t afford to have my brain bogged down with globs of jiggling masses, blocking whatever connectors and receptors that control the flow of information from my brain to my fingers. Plus, science has linked physical well-being to increased mental health. Just 30 minutes of exercise a day can not only prolong your life and make your body work better, but it also makes your brain work more efficiently.
Now, I’ve always been in decent shape. I ran cross country, indoor track and outdoor track in high school, and after that I did what I could to maintain my fitness. Weight training, a bit of P90X and the like. However, nothing got me in better physical condition than when I learned how to box. The constant jabbing, crosses and hooks. Keeping your knees bent all the time. And, probably one of the most difficult tasks: returning for more, especially once defensive training started. One of the worst things I remember about learning to box were the 1:3 drills. You get to throw one punch, and then your partner gets to throw three random punches that you have to defend. And no one likes to be hit, so it’s beyond frustrating.
So you may be asking “what does this have to do with being a writer?” Well, aside from it helping me stay mentally and physically fit, it has more to do with writing than you might think:
Being both a writer and boxer takes a tremendous amount of conditioning. In order to be a boxer, you need to train. Hard. You need to fight through pain and getting hit. You may not want to get up and go a few rounds with your trainer, but if you want to get any good then you have to. Your body may be sore an aching, and you might rather set your gloves on fire than return to the gym. But, if you want to be good, you have to go back.
This is no different from writing. Writing takes just as much conditioning as learning to box. You need to train yourself to be a good writer. You need to write. Every day. There will be days where you don’t want to write, but if you want to be good at it you will. Your brain may be fried, and you might want to dropkick your computer into the deepest depths of whatever fantasy underworld you’ve created, but if you want to succeed, then you’d better plant yourself in that chair and write.
One of the first things you learn as a boxer—after you learn the stance and movements—are the offensive strikes. You learn the proper form for the jab, cross, hook, and uppercuts. You learn how to shadowbox so you can practice almost anywhere. In the bathroom mirror after a shower or when you go to brush your teeth. In your bedroom mirror before you get ready for work. You practice the moves over and over until you get the form perfect, and then you string together combinations. And after that you practice, practice, practice. For months. Until you get it perfect. Until it becomes second nature. And then what? You practice some more.
This is the same as writing. You know how to write words, and you know how to string together sentences and paragraphs. But now you have to learn the proper form. You have to learn how to make your sentences stand out, how to build tension in every chapter, how to build character arcs and how to write a good story. You have to learn how to get out there and write the best story you can the best way you know how until it’s done. And that may take months, even years. And what happens after that? You practice some more on the second draft. You go back through and weed out all the extraneous stuff you don’t need. The extra words, the unneeded descriptions and unnecessary dialogue tags. You keep practicing until it’s perfect. And then what? Just like boxing, you practice some more by doing it all over again with your next piece.
So, you have your offensive training on lock. Your muscles are conditioned, and you’re ready to jump into the ring. Or so you think. Being on the offensive is great, but it’ll get you nowhere if you don’t know how to defend yourself. You start by learning the proper blocks for each punch. There’s a specific way to block your midsection, the jab, the cross, and the hook. And learning those is the easy part. But once something starts flailing and swinging at you, things get much more complicated. You almost freeze up, and eventually you just put your hands in front of your face and hope nothing connects with your head or body. And this can be discouraging. But eventually you get a little faster with your blocks. You start to anticipate your opponent’s movements, and before you know it you’re not only blocking strikes, but you’re learning how to counter them and turn the defensive into the offensive, turning you into a fighting machine. And while it may have been discouraging at first, you’re glad you took the time to learn before someone else did some real damage to you in the ring.
The same goes for writing. You may think your work is perfect. You have it clean and polished and you feel good about it. You’re ready to take on the world and shout that you wrote a book, and it’s ready for the masses. But the problem is, of course you think it’s perfect. You wrote it. But now is where you send the book off to the beta readers. You find some critical people—usually other writers or well-read people—and they read your book (yes, for free, but it’s worth it!) and then give you feedback. This is where defensive training comes in. You may not like what the beta readers have to say. They may not tell you your book is absolute crap and should be used for packing paper, but they will find things wrong. They may find plot holes, or inconsistent characters, or they may suggest you rewrite the ending, entire chapters, or even half of the book. And this is discouraging. This may make you want to hole up in your room and cry for a month or two. But eventually you start to see their point. And you realize that they’re trying to help you make your book the best it can be. So you sit back in your chair and you do the rewrites. You fix the plot holes and characters, and you learn from those mistakes. You figure out what is and isn’t working for next time, and before you know it you’re a writing machine. And you learn that you’ll be happy someone found these problems before you publish or query an agent instead of having them tear you apart in a review or rejection letter.
This is it. You’ve trained and trained, and you’re ready. Or, ready enough, anyway. You’re at your first fight. You’re in the ring staring down your opponent. He’s pretty big, but not too big. The same weight class, at least. But he looks tough. Really tough. And you’re beginning to question just how ready you are. You think back to that one or two practices you may have missed and regret missing them. They would’ve made you that much better. But it’s too late now, and besides, you’re still plenty ready. You know your moves and your counters. You’re ready for the bell to ring. And it does. And a few things may happen. You may get in there and whoop your opponent’s ass, or he may knock you so hard you don’t remember climbing into the ring. Or, you’ll be pretty evenly matched. You’ll exchange a few hits, blocks, and counters, but you’re both skilled enough that you leave it up to the judges to decide. But, no matter what happens, you’ll step out of the ring having learned something. You’ll know more about your strengths and weaknesses as a fighter. You’ll know what you need to work on, and what works well. And you’ll know what to do next time to be better prepared. You’ll be physically and mentally tougher.
Like writing, a similar thing can happen. You’ve primped and polished you book to perfection. Or, as you’ll come to learn, as close to perfection as it can come, anyway. And now you’re ready to publish. (We’ll assume you’ve landed an agent and/or publisher for this section). Your book is ready for release, and you’re on Amazon hitting the refresh button once a second, waiting to see it go live. And it does. And, just like stepping into the ring with another fighter, a few things can happen. Your book may go live and it will do well. You’ll get some sales and some great reviews. Nice! Go you! Or, your book may go live and it will completely flop. You’ll get a few sales and maybe some OK, or even bad reviews. And you may want to hunt those reviewers down and break all their fingers. After all, how dare they talk badly about your book? Don’t they realize how much work you’ve put into it? Don’t they get that this is your baby? This is a part of you? Well, they may or may not get that, and they probably don’t care. They wanted to be entertained. They paid money, and, in their opinion, you didn’t deliver. But that’s OK. You can’t make everyone happy. You can’t write the perfect book. You’ll develop a thick skin, and you’ll keep writing. You’ll have learned something from those bad, or average, and even good reviews. You’ll write more books better, and things will turn around.
One of the best ways I keep from doubting myself when I get a bad or average reviews is to jump on Goodreads or Amazon and look at the one-star-reviews of my favorite books. Books that I absolutely love. And I learn from that. Because that’s what writing is. It’s a learning experience full of trips and falls and stumbles and mistakes and maybe even a few broken bones (metaphorical ones, hopefully). But in the end you’ll be a better writer because of it. And you’ll look back at all of those mistakes and wonder how you ever made them in the first place. But that’s how you know you’re doing something right.