Sunday, May 8, 2011


James Scott Bell

What makes a winner?

Is it going on a web cam and shouting Winning?

Is it having a lot of money?

Is it owning a lot of things?

Let me contrast a couple of writers for you. (These writers are composites, BTW, so don't ask me to name names).

The first writer has had a couple dozen New York Times bestsellers in her career. She is not shy in saying she found a formula that sells a lot of books. And she keeps cranking them out, two or three a year now. Her publisher is very happy about this.

But her readers are beginning to feel like she's just "mailing it in." And in secret she'll tell you she can virtually sneeze out a book, and does. She spends a few hours a week writing and never edits her stuff. She just turns it in and lets the publisher do the rest. Which gives her plenty of time to travel to her chateau in Gstaad. Or to go to conference appearances, where she plays the diva in a way that even Joan Crawford would have applauded.

She has money. She owns things.

But is she a winner?

The other writer is someone you probably haven't heard of yet, but those who have read her books have not been able to forget them. While she writes in a certain genre, and is prolific, her novels never have a cranked out feel. That's because she cares about the writing too much. She cares about her readers too much. She could mail it in, but there's something inside her that makes her constitutionally incapable of putting out junk.

She doesn't have as much money as the first writer. Nor does she own as many things.

Is she a winner?

I'll tell you what, you can't get away from ancient wisdom. Buddha, Confucius, The Bible, the great philosophers . . . they have all been telling us that just having money and owning things does not make you a winner. In fact, if you're not careful, they can shrivel you up into a thing that blows away like dried grass in a windstorm.

But this second writer, she can feel things the first writer no longer does (or perhaps never did). She feels the intense pleasure of working and caring and crying and laughing over her writing, of seeing things happen on the page that she knows are worth more than a million cranked out passages that exist just to earn more money so the author can own more things.

Is she a winner? Oh yes. And so is any writer in any genre who does more than just mail it in.

I'm talking about a writer who is courageous enough to have some skin in the game, and who isn't in this business just to make money and own things. If the money comes, that's great, that's awesome. We're not turning that down. But this kind of writer will never let it go to her head or her keyboard. She will refuse to do that to her readers.

In one of my favorite movies, The Hustler, Paul Newman plays Fast Eddie Felson, a pool shark from Oakland who wants to be the best in the world. To do that he'll have to beat Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason), who hasn’t lost a match in fifteen years.

At the beginning of the film Eddie does play Fats, and is winning. But some hubris on his part leads to carelessness. At this point Fats's manager, Bert Gordon (played with Faustian precision by George C. Scott), tells Fats, "Stay with this kid. He's a loser."

Well, Eddie does lose, and he's back to the bottom of the heap. In a bus station he meets a woman named Sarah (Piper Laurie), who is also at the bottom. She drinks. She's been abused. Yet she and Eddie forge a relationship and he moves in with her.

One day he asks her, "Do you think I’m a loser?" He tells her about Bert Gordon's remark. Sarah asks if Gordon is a "winner." Eddie says, "Well, he owns things."

"Is that what makes a winner?" Sarah asks.

Then Eddie tells her how it feels to play pool. How anything can be great, even bricklaying, if a guy knows what he's doing and can pull it off. "When I'm goin', I mean when I'm really goin', I feel like a jockey must feel. He's sitting on his horse, he's got all that speed and that power underneath him, he's coming into the stretch, the pressure's on him, and he knows. He just feels when to let it go and how much. 'Cause he's got everything working for him––timing, touch. It's a great feeling, boy, it's a really great feeling when you're right and you know you're right. It's like all of a sudden I've got oil in my arm. The pool cue's part of me. You feel the roll of those balls and you don't have to look, you just know. You make shots nobody's ever made before. I can play that game the way nobody's ever played it before."

Sarah looks at him and says, "You're not a loser, Eddie, you're a winner. Some men never get to feel that way about anything."

What makes a winner? It's not money and it's not owning things. It's feeling that way about something.

Like your writing. Have you ever shed a tear over it? Have you got some skin in this game?


  1. Thank you. This is a great way of putting it. It also suggests how long and how much work it will take to get to that level of skill. Or perhaps that there's an advantage to not having things come too easily because the trying and the practice can help us reach that state of bliss of the perfect game.

  2. Thanks. I needed this today. This was spot-on in reminding me to stop watching stats & sales and just enjoy creating.

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  4. I'm working on redefining my own understanding of success as well. Like you said, it's not the money or the plunder or the wenches. To be quite honest, I've never really liked wenches, nasty creatures, just can't make myself touch....anyway..TMI. And slaves, I just felt sorry for them.

    So to make a new start, just this week I began taking the heads off the poles on the side of my driveway...and I sold my viking ship.

    I'm going walk away from all the conquest and pillaging, and let my creative hair hang loose.

    Here's a poem to show my true feelings:

    Oh lands of the conquered
    Don't feel so bad
    I didn't rape your mother
    So I'm not your dad

    Oh villages I've burned
    and cities I've sacked
    Fear no more
    Cuz now I think that behaviour's just whack

    Oh I'm a poet on the inside
    Wrapped in a viking shell
    This life of taking other people's stuff
    My own living hell

    So now I'm a good guy
    Writing stuff that's nice
    I hope you like it
    So I don't have to gouge your eyes

    Who Dares, Wins....nicely

  5. "No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader." --Robert Frost

    And I think I can honestly say I have shed tears at some point in every book I have written.

    Well said.

  6. Thanks for writing this, Jim. You're always an inspiration.

  7. I take umbrage with this post, Jim. I feel like you are misrepresenting a few points about The Hustler and success.

    Fast Eddie Felson was a loser because he lacked the self-worth necessary to achieve what he was capable of, not because of coveting. Yes, he coveted. But Robert Rossen makes a point of highlighting, over and over again, that what Eddie's really searching for is his self-esteem. That's why he does all that talking in the first game against Fats. He's trying to convince himself he's the best. Bert sees that, knows that Eddie has talent, and then tries to exploit the situation. While they're in Kentucky, he realizes that Sarah may affect Eddie's confidence positively, so he sleeps with her,and humiliates her while he does it. It isn't until Sarah's suicide, when he's guilt-ridden, that Eddie sees his importance. And once he does, he's able to overcome any obstacle, including Bert's threats and Fats' style of play.

    I also completely disagree with this subjective statement:

    "What makes a winner? It's not money and it's not owning things. It's feeling that way about something."

    It's irrational to say that one person is more a winner than another if they're both content with what they're accomplishing and aren't harming anyone.

    An author who is comfortable "phoning it in," as you put it, is just as much a winner as the one who loves putting their blood sweat and tears into their work. Looking at it any other way is snobbery and a devaluation of another modus operandi simply because it doesn't fit your own life's paradigm.

    I understand that part of your point is that contentment comes from putting forth effort, "having skin in the game." But that is a protestant work ethic methodology. For some, it's not that. It's something completely different. And there's nothing wrong with that.

  8. It helps to know what game you're playing. It the game is about owning things, then selling lots of books and making lots of money is winning, but what we find in the Bible is that that game is pointless. It will all burn up in the end anyway. So we ought to be laying up treasure in heaven instead. It our writing does that, then good writing is winning, but if it doesn't then good writing is no better than making lots of money. In the end, everything we write is going to burn up like the rest.

  9. And don't forget the laughs.

    It's not all tears. It's laughs, loves, broken hearts, tears, joy, failure, and saving the universe. It's all in a day's work. Boy, that makes us kind of sound like super heros- wow.

    Is it possible to actually live - vicariously? Only a real writer will know.

  10. I always tear up at some point in the story as I am so completely immersed in the writing that part of my soul becomes invested in it. That kind of creative nourishment makes me feel like a winner even if many other times I feel like a total loser:)

  11. showinguptowrite, I like your handle. That's what it's all about. I very much agree with you about an advantage to things not coming too easily. I remember when I wrote my first screenplay, how easily it came, how I knew it was genius. But I didn't really "know" yet, in the sense Fast Eddie talks about. That took years. But the effort was worth it.

  12. sharon, thanks for your response here. We can indeed drive ourselves to distraction with too much stat counting, with comparisons. We need much more energy devoted to the page, each day. Yes, there's joy in that.

  13. Basil, what can I say except that's one potential marketing hook for your work: buy it or I gouge your eyes out. Could result in a few more sales.

    Levi, that's one of my favorite writing quotes. Thanks for posting it here.

    And Jordan, I appreciate the kind word. We all need inspiration now and then in this crazy racket.

  14. Fletch, I appreciate your very thoughtful response.

    Re: The Hustler, I'm pleased you know the film. I hope more see it because of this post. An American classic. In my view, this isn't a film about self-worth. It's a film about a man who sells his soul to the devil for the chance to "win." It's Faustian. Rossen subtly makes that point when one of characters refers to a statue of the goat god Pan as resembling Bert Gordon. (The goat god was a stand in for the devil in medieval lit.)

    Eddie doesn't lack self-esteem (indeed, that's the one thing he has too much of) but a part of his own humanity. Alas, he finds it too late. As he admits to Gordon at the end, he loved Sarah but "traded her in on a pool game."

    He tells Gordon that he was right about him, that talent wasn't enough. He had to have "character." That's what Eddie was missing. He admits now he found it, but only after that indecent in the hotel room in Louisville.

    And he sees Gordon for who he is. "You don't know what winning is," Eddie said. "You're a loser, 'cause you're dead inside, and you can't live unless you make everything else dead around you." Eddie failed to see that what Sarah told him about being a winner was where he should have dwelt. He was already a winner and it wasn't a matter of money, or owning things.

    As to winning being subjective, and a matter of contentment with just a material measure, I'm not sure I can agree with that, either. The ancient wisdom I refer to suggests otherwise. And when it comes to writing, I think there is a qualitative difference that emerges between the two composites that is worth noting.

    Nothing here illegal or immoral, of course. This is America, and you are allowed to make money. There's nothing really wrong in that. Cranked out dreck that doesn't hurt anyone, and is offered to the market for an exchange of dollars, has always been part of our economic system, whether we're talking books or Pet Rocks.

    But maybe what I'd counsel to writers seeking to emulate the first model is, be careful what you wish for.

  15. Timothy, you refer to one source of wisdom, and on this point it agrees with the other sources.

    Seneca said, "All those things that delight us by their showy, but deceptive, charm -- money, standing, power, and the many other things at the sight of which the human race, in its blind greed, is filled with awe -- bring trouble to those who have them, stir jealousy in those who see them, and in the end crush the ones they adorn."

  16. Chaco, you are of course correct in this. Laughter is another emotional connection to the work.

    And Clare, all writers who truly care feel, at one time or another, like they're "losers." Those who have skin in the game, as you obviously do, should recall the words of Fast Eddie Felson, American philosopher. You're a winner.

  17. Sometimes writers get burnt out from the pressure to strike while the iron is hot, to produce as many books as possible. Some writers are at their best writing a book every 2-3 years, but the system isn't geared for that, unfortunately. It's a book a year, minimum. So writers get by, by writing on auto-pilot, or using ghost writers. Either way, readers eventually catch on.

  18. Kathryn, they do catch on. Even though, as I said, one can be prolific and still care and sweat over the writing. I loved some of the old pulp writers who could produce but also with great, hard won skill. Cornell Woolrich. John D. MacDonald. Etc.

    Thanks, Amy.

  19. Jim, while I acknowledge that Rossen definitely addressed humanity in the film (I remember that from film class,too), I still contend that Eddie's fatal flaw is a lack of self-confidence. But arguing psychology and film theory can be tabled for another day.

    What Buddhism and Confucianism teach is not lack of desire for material wealth, but lack of desire at all. That true enlightenment comes from satisfaction with the self and nothing else. It has little to do with the western cultural concepts of consumption and coveting.

    Also, history has shown, time and again, that it isn't always the writers who create the heartbreaking works of staggering genius that get remembered for their efforts. In a lot of instances, it's the ones who just crank out "the dreck."

    For example, take Washington Irving, the James Patterson of his time arguably. Was his work considered phenomenal? No. A lot of his contemporaries called it formulaic, racist, and historically inaccurate. Yet, the popularity of his books was so widespread that he effectively changed the way we celebrate Christmas and how we view George Washington (btw, he never chopped down a cherry tree).

    Other examples are PG Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh. Wodehouse was so tired of the critics in his native England that he moved to New York at one point. Regardless, his books sold out every printing. And so did Waugh's, despite being called a papist and a hack by many for a good portion of his life. Both are considered literary giants now.

    So be careful. One man's trash is another man's treasure. And to a person who chose this profession, happened to find a winning formula in doing so, and is working to live and support a family, instead of living to work, your claim that they are a loser, because they don't work at it like some, could be construed as extremely insulting. Moreover, history would be on their side as to who, empirically, is a "winner," more often than not.

  20. Fletch, while I am again appreciative of your rich and thoughtful comment, I think you are reading too much into this. I've not insulted anyone by calling them a "loser", even our first model. I've just asserted that this isn't the profile of a "winner," that money and owning things is not the sole measure. And here, the weight of history's wisdom is on my side. Can you name any great thinker who makes a persuasive case for the opposite? (Note: Ayn Rand might slip in through the back door, but she will be pretty much alone).

    Now, people who earn a living by "cranking out dreck" and are nice to their kids and dogs and neighbors, I have no quarrel with. They are not "losers" and I would never slap that label on them. But that's really not the point of this post, which a second or third reading should make clear. (And the historic merits of Irving, et al. could go back even further, to Rabelais and Swift. We still study these folk, BTW. Why? Well, time mandates we leave that discussion to the classrooms. It's not essential to the current situation I'm describing. Please note, too, I have not named names. You brought up Patterson here, I did not. I actually think Patterson's story sense is remarkable. We're not talking names).

    Also, I'm not at all sure about the "one man's trash is another man's treasure" idea. If so, any talk about quality in art is probably out the window. For example, if a crucifix in a jar of urine is "someone's treasure" I don't think the problem is merely subjective.

    But again, this is all rather tangential to my main point.

  21. Nice job with this post - yeah, I think emotionally connecting with your writing is all that it takes to become a winning writer. Of course, getting published is nice, but some people focus on the money aspect of it all, as you said, writing to please the ever-changing market, and they forget why they started writing in the first place. It's sad, really.

  22. Let me say this again another way: I do not think that writing something entertaining, and doing it quickly, makes it "dreck." I believe in the value of entertainment. I have my own beliefs about how that should be delivered, and that informs my own writing.

    That's not what this is about.

  23. Thanks, Brayden. You're right about chasing the market solely to make money. That can be done, but overwhelmingly it's not going to help the writer get published.

    I do believe in keeping one aspect of the brain on the market side, because that's what publishers have to do. Will what you write be something people will want to buy? We can become too insular with our writing.

    It's a delicate balance, but most worthy things in life are.

  24. Jim, you're right. There is no point in talking about quality in art. What one person likes, another will not. That's life.

    I mentioned Patterson not for the quality of his work, but for the quantity of it. Like Irving, he's been prolific.

    And I don't think I'm overthinking this. If you aren't a winner, then what are you? If you didn't win the race, then what did you do? You lost it. You are a loser, connotation aside. Declaring one person a winner means you've designated someone else a loser.

    I realize that this post was meant to be motivational, but even motivation is relative. Most philosophers would agree that success, winning, being a winner, is relative as well.

    Fundamentally, you and I disagree on our views of the world, and that's why we do not see eye to eye on this issue, I think. I didn't comment to cause offense, merely highlight a viewpoint. Now, I'll call it a day.

  25. The trees are masking the forest in this blog. The quote is a great example of terrific writing and use of dialog. It resonates so well I can hear Newman saying it. Thanks for the post.

  26. Fletch, I assure you, no offense taken. This would be a dull world if we did nothing but agree. I like give and take and debate, because it sharpens the edges of our thinking.

    You and I can certainly disagree agreeably, and trust that we have. I appreciate our little colloquy today.

  27. Rita, the clip where Newman delivers this speech is powerful and well worth watching (as is the whole movie). Newman was such a great actor. And the others in the cast -- Laurie, Scott, Gleason especially -- are outstanding. I can't recommend this film highly enough.

  28. Thanks for a great post James! Passion is what makes our writing come to life, passion is what makes life worth living and passion is where our greatest treasure lies.

    Passion is what makes us winners, the rest is just window dressing for sidewalk traffic.

    Thanks for being such a great inspiration to writers! You're advice is always well-placed and wonderful to receive :)

  29. Hey Gene, thanks for stopping by and for the good word!

  30. It's been said that we don't really fall in love with another person -- we fall in love with how that person makes us feel. The same is true for books. If an author can elicit a similar emotional response in a reader over and over again by using a formula that works, then those books have a place in the market. However, just as an addict builds up a tolerance to a drug, and needs a larger and larger dose to achieve the same high, readers build up a tolerance to the formula. They need new twists and new insights to deepen the emotional experience. Otherwise, they become numb. So the critical question, I think, is whether the author is giving the audience what they want. The number of customers you have is one measure of success, but the level of customer satisfaction is another.

  31. That's an interesting perspective, Andrea. Would apply to anything in pop culture, esp. movies. Do we need more and louder 3-D, CG? Maybe it makes dough. But man, I would rather have more "King's Speech" in the mix. And another "Tootsie."

  32. Wonderful post. A great reminder for all. The path to publication can be a long haul. Unless we stay connected to why we believe in our stories, and ourselves as the best teller of the tale, the path will be quite dismal. Thanks for the inspiration

  33. Jocosa, my pleasure. Thanks for the confirmation.

  34. genelempp said it best for me:

    Passion is what makes us winners, the rest is just window dressing for sidewalk traffic.

    Thanks Jim. Remember the words, "I just can't seem to stop?"

  35. Very thoughtful post, Jim. And good insight on THE HUSTLER. Everyone thinks it's a film about pool and hustling. It's really a very moving story of self-discovery, Eddie finding the character that resided deep within him, and what he had to go through to bring it out.

    To digress for a moment, that's what made the sequel, THE COLOR OF MONEY, such a disappointment for me. Aside from Eddie's prowess at pool, there was hardly any reference whatever to the original movie, and not even a hint of the lessons Eddie learned. It was like watching two completely unconnected films.

  36. It's been a long time since I saw The Color of Money, Mike. I do remember being disappointed, even though I could watch Newman in just about anything.

  37. I just can't seem to stop writing. The struggle to publication was getting a bit daunting. We were talking at conference and I was near giving up but I said I just can't seem to stop.

    I think that's passion for the craft we love. That's winning. :)And for those of us who love the craft of writing, really love it, with all its highs and lows, then we can't help but be winners.

  38. It's nice to think of the passion I have for writing as winning. Your post inspired me because I saw my own struggle to improve, Jim. That's what resonated with me.

    But I've learned to be more introspective with my passion. Before I sold, I asked myself if I would write as much or be as passionate about the effort if I never sold. When I realized my answer was YES, I knew that writing had become more to me. I didnt need to sell to consider myself a success. Merely finding passion for ANYTHING like this was good enough for me. How many people can say they feel true passion for anything these days (sorry to say)?

    Writing elevates my quality of life (makes me a better listener and observer) and has become something I simply have to do. The personal satisfaction I get from all the hours means something to me, whether anyone else reads my work on a grander scale or not. Perhaps this is the way of artists or anyone who creates something from nothing.

    But writing isn't so much a benchmark for my idea of success and I don't care if I measure up to anyone else's idea of success either. I never pursued writing that way. It's just something that has become a part of me like breathing and my push to improve is for my own benefit. I want to strive to do better for personal satisfaction. That's what keeps me going.

    And finding like minded people, such as the folks I've met on this blog and in this industry, has given me new opportunities to meet the same crazy people.

  39. Ah Jillian, that's indeed a moment to remember. I must have loved it when you said that.

    Jordan, that's what the Fast Eddie speech is about, isn't it? There is an "elevation" of life in the effort.

  40. Funny about coincidence. I was just watching the film So Big based on Edna Ferbert's novel. I watched because Sterling Hayden was in it, and I like Hayden. Got caught up, though, in the great performance by Jane Wyman. Anyway, the story is about this incredible woman who makes a go of a farm, but also appreciates beauty, flummoxing most around her. She passes that appreciation on to her son, who, however, chooses to pursue money instead. Wikipedia sums up the ending: In the end, Dirk comes to appreciate the wisdom of his mother, who always valued aesthetics and beauty even as she scraped out a living in a stern Dutch community. Ultimately, Dirk is left alone in his sumptuous apartment, saddened by his abandonment of artistic values.

  41. Exactly, Jim. I'll have to check out The Hustler again. I love anything Paul Newman.

  42. I think it's Newman's best performance, and that's saying a lot. I mean, Hud, Cool Hand Luke. All three could have won Oscars. Fast Eddie should have.

  43. Well said. I can relate. Once upon a time I wrote a book I was passionate about. Once upon a time I wrote a book that many editors and an agent said would never be published. Once upon a time I dared to dream. I found an agent who shared my dreams and invested in them. I definitely cried over that manuscript. I also learned how to let it go. And then, lo and behold, we found somebody who believed in it as much as we did. And Yesterday's Tomorrow was born into publication. Formula may work, formula may be lucrative, but formula does not, and should not always guarantee success. Success comes from the heart, whether that book ever sees the light of day or not. Whether it sells a hundred copies or a hundred million. It is written.

  44. Catherine, fantastic report. Congrats.

  45. So let it be written, so let it be done.

    Great post, Jim.

  46. James,

    So you disagree with what Fletch wrote? So you are not saying that writers with tons of money are necessarily losers?

    What ARE you saying, exactly?

    It seems you're basically saying that it's important to be passionate about your work.

    Wow, real insightful.

    I'm sure every writer who reads this blog, sweats and cries over their own work.

    Does that make everyone winners??

    I guess, if you see things that way.

    It's a trite post. You won't take sides. This is some trivial, motivational rhetoric.

    We're all winners! Every one of us!

  47. Skin, bones and teeth, Jim . . . I'd lose money writing because I love it so much. . . oh, wait. I have! Thanks for putting us back into perspective!

  48. "Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self." - Cyril Connolly