Last night I watched the popular television show The Voice—a singing competition that has been running now for thirteen seasons. I felt impressed at how powerful and poised this season’s lineup of singers was, and by how much the singers have grown in just a few weeks.
The same thing happens with writers of course. I don’t think that it is any accident that Ben Johnson and William Shakespeare both happened to live at the same time, that both had play companies, and that both were the best writers of their century. Simply put, competition brought out the best in them, but I also have to suspect that they rubbed shoulders with and benefited from other influential thinkers and poets of the day, people like Sir Philip Sydney, Edmund Spenser, and others.
The same kind of friendly competition and nourishing interaction existed, I’m sure, among the Inklings—the writing group whose alumni include J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and many other poets and theologians. They met weekly to discuss how one might write fantasy, and thus became the best of their time.
It seems to me that we live in a marvelous age, that with the internet we can exchange information among writers in a global community that is larger than ever. In short, we should be growing and perfecting like never before.
But I wonder sometimes, will we create anything of worth if we don’t engage in competition?
This past couple of weeks, I’ve been editing the anthology L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers and Illustrators of the Future Volume 34. As you probably know, I’m the first reader and lead judge for the Writers of the Future Contest, and so I read thousands of stories for it each year. The competition has grown so much that I suspect that it has become the world’s largest global talent hunt for new writers. We’ve received submissions now from nearly 200 countries around the world, and have recently published works by new authors from the US, Canada, the UK, and Australia, as well as Africa, the Philippines, Finland, and other places.
The competition has become very tight, and in just the past couple of weeks I’ve gotten dozens of letters from new writers who have said, “I’ve set a goal to write a short story every quarter until I win this frigging contest!” I love it when that happens, when authors set a goal to improve their own work until they achieve a desired result.
Competitiveness can push us to new heights, can inspire us to reach lofty goals. But don’t let it go to your head. If you win an award, be happy and grateful, but stay humble. Don’t imagine for one minute that you’re the best in the world.
When you win an award, as one prizewinner once put it, “All it means is that you’re the flavor of the month. Someone new will come along and be the flavor of the month next month.”
As authors, you should always be in competition with yourself. You should analyze your stories and develop new skills, struggle to discover your own hidden talents.
In this industry, it is true that readers and critics will often look at your work and compare it (negatively) with the best there has ever been. They’ll say, “Yeah, that David Farland is good, but he’s no Tolkien.” If you’re really fortunate, they might even think that (according to their own tastes) you are the best.
But I think that comparing yourself to others can be unhealthy. The truth is, as a writer, I don’t want to be the next Tolkien or Rowling or Shakespeare. I want to be unique—me. Ultimately, that’s all that I ever can be, and so I try to gather as much wisdom as I can from other writers as I struggle to become the best version of me ever.
One-day Seminar: Writing Enchanting Prose
I will be teaching a one-day seminar in Provo, Utah on February 14th. The seminar will be a "Writing Enchanting Prose" Seminar, where we will have lessons and even some writing exercises over the course of a day, and it will cost only $99 for the day. I'll be getting a link up this week at mystorydoctor.com so that those interested can register.