Writing Lessons from the World of Sports
I could be wrong, but it seems to me that a lot of writers don’t care for sports.
Maybe this stems back to painful memories of middle school, when athletes and cheerleaders dominated the social hierarchy and targeted bookish kids for bullying. Maybe it has something to do with the perception (and occasional reality) that the sports world is a well of anti-intellectualism. Maybe it has to do with the fact that a novelist’s craft is often solitary, and the competitor’s craft is often practiced in the context of a team. Maybe it has to do with the publishing’s reputation for tolerating eccentricity and sports’ reputation for demanding conformity.
Whatever the case may be, I think the disconnect between these two worlds is unfortunate. Yes, writing the first draft of a novel is–more often than not–an individual endeavor. But the editing process, the publishing process, and the book promotion process are all team efforts. (Even if you’re self-publishing, you have at least one team mate–Amazon. Likely, you have several others: book cover designers, freelance editors, beta readers, audiobook narrators, etc.) And the world of sports can offer fascinating insights into how groups of people succeed or fail.
Over the next week or two, I hope to share three examples of lessons from sports that apply to writing. So, without any further ado, here’s my first:
Lesson #1. Find a Coaching Infrastructure That Will Maximize Your Talent (Writing Equivalent: Finding an Editor or Publisher Whose Approach Will Maximize Your Talent)
Streaming sites offer some fascinating sports documentaries, and one I’ve enjoyed is The Identity Theft of Mitch Mustain (available for free on Amazon Prime).
Mustain was the star high school quarterback for the Springdale (Arkansas) Bulldogs. He blossomed under his coach Gus Malzahn (whose style was focused on advancing the ball down the field through passing). Mustain garnered a lot of media attention, and became one of the most eagerly recruited players in the country. He planned to attend Notre Dame, whose approach to offense was a good fit for his talents.
At about the same time, the University of Arkansas was coming off a couple of losing seasons. Bigwigs who donated to the University saw Mustain and Malzahn right in the University’s own backyard (so to speak) and began to insist that the school find a way to get Mustain to play for them. Ultimately, Arkansas ended up hiring Malzahn as one of the more powerful coaches on the team (offensive coordinator) and this was one key factor in convincing Mustain and several of his high school team mates to abandon their previous plans and go to Arkansas, instead.
The problem was that the head coach of Arkansas, a man named Houston Nutt, (yes, that’s his actual name) had a completely different coaching philosophy than Malzahn did. Nutt preferred to move the ball by running it, instead of passing it, and placed a greater overall emphasis on defense.
While the combination of Nutt, Malzahn, and Mustain yielded several victories in the early part of the season, it ended up being unsustainable. Upperclassmen were reportedly resentful at the splash made by the freshmen. They also had a loyalty to Nutt. Meanwhile, Mustain and his high school teammates had been assured that the University of Arkansas would start adopting a similar offensive approach to the one they’d had in high school, but a full commitment to that approach seemingly lagged behind their expectations.
There ended up being a great deal of friction and in-fighting. Malzahn and Mustain both left at the end of the year.
According to one of the journalists interviewed during the documentary, none of the actors in this drama really–in their heart of hearts–believed that the amalgamation of personalities and strategies could work well together. But they all convinced themselves it would. They were all trying to shove a square peg into a round hole.
How does this apply to writing?
Well, all has to do with goodness of fit, doesn’t it? Mustain was a poor fit for Nutt’s offensive “system”. He didn’t have as much of a chance to develop his skills there as he would’ve in a different system. And it is my belief that most writers have publication “systems” that they are better suited for than others. This is because writers all have different personalities, different goals, different needs, and different approaches to storytelling. Just as Mustain deluded himself into thinking Arkansas was a place he would thrive, so too can writers delude themselves into thinking that Publisher X is going to be a place where they’ll thrive when in fact Publisher Y would be a better fit.
What, exactly, do I mean by this?
Let me put it like this: it could be argued that both Brian Evenson and Brian Keene write horror fiction. But that label (and the coincidence that they share the same first name) is where the similarity ends. Evenson writes a horror/lit fic hybrid and has had several titles published by Coffee House Press (among others). Keene appeals to the meat-and-potatoes, pulp horror reader and has had several titles published by Deadite Press (among others). This is admittedly an over-simplification. Evenson has written some media tie-in stuff relating to film and video game properties and Keene has sold a thriller or two to the Big Five, appeals to the collectible hardcover audience, and has done a fair bit of comics work for Marvel, DC, and others. But for now, let’s just stick to the Coffee House, Deadite contrast.
Obviously, these publishers have very different approaches. Deadite’s idea of a “good book” is going to be different than that of Coffee House. The editors will have different communication styles, professional backgrounds, and different personalities. The contracts are going to look different. Marketing strategies will be different. Distribution will be different.
But–importantly–each writer seems to be thriving where they are. Their goals are different, and each is taking the route that is a good fit for them. Keene’s work would be a poor fit for Coffee House and Evenson’s would be a poor fit for Deadite.
Different strokes for different folks.
Now, let’s think about your own career. Regardless of whether you’re newly published or been around for a while, you can ask yourself some questions to get a sense of whether or not you’re in the right publishing “system”.
- Is communication with my editor (or publisher, or agent) easy-going and natural? Are we “on the same wavelength”?
- What’s my definition of “a good book”? Is it in the same ballpark as that of my editor (or publisher, or agent)?
- Do I feel my editor, publisher, or agent “gets” me?
- Is my style of writing at the core of my publisher’s aesthetic, or on the fringes of it?
- Is the working relationship a joyful one, an up-and-down one, or one in which we merely tolerate each other?
- Do we share similar definitions of success?
These are just a handful of questions that I think may be helpful. What do you guys think?