A Fantasy Football Draft Plan, Marching to the Beat of Your Own Drum, and–Going Over the Deep End?

I went back to my hometown of Rochester, New York, recently to spend the Labor Day weekend with my parents.  It was a great trip, and the drive across Vermont and upstate New York was pristine.  Town squares in the shadows of the Green Mountains were quiet in the morning hours as I rolled down the windows and listened to the give-and-take of blue jays, grackles, and other assorted early risers.

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Later, driving west through New York State, as morning gave way to afternoon, I passed through old Erie Canal towns, which were brimming with the activity of the holiday weekend–carnivals, farmers’ markets, people enjoying the weather and savoring summer’s golden swan song.  I take this trip back home every year on Labor Day weekend.  It has become something of a personal tradition.

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Another tradition is the annual fantasy football draft.  Way back in the 1990s (Is it just me, or does saying “way back” and the “1990s” in the same sentence strike anyone else as odd?!), my brothers heard about what at the time was a fairly new pastime called fantasy football.  Being a statistical nerd all my life, I eagerly joined them, my father, and some old friends in a fantasy league.  We’ve been playing ever since, now over twenty years strong.  The annual draft is like a reunion every year–getting together with childhood friends, catching up, and, well, drafting our teams!  To this day, we do it the old-fashioned way–everyone gets together in my parents’ front yard, seated around folding tables replete with snacks and other high-calorie fare, pencils and paper in hand, and we hold an in-person event.

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Over the years, I’ve been known ro utilize some extreme draft plans.  Granted, every league participant puts their own special, unique stamp on the team they select, but more often than not, I zig when everyone else zags.  This year, I took that mind-set to another level.  I crafted my most extreme draft plan to date, and was determined to see it through, no matter what.

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Midway through the proceedings, after yet another of my unorthodox picks, my brother John couldn’t resist.  He looked over the players I’d selected to that point, shook his head, and said, “Mike, I think you’ve finally gone off the deep end.  I think it’s finally happened!”  Of course, I enjoyed his jab.  One of the many fun aspects of employing an extreme, almost outrageous draft strategy is gauging the reaction of everyone else at the table.  But more importantly, the plan I incorporated was something I believed in, something I thought would work.

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Regardless of the prevailing opinion of the league or the fantasy football community at large.

*************************

There is a scene in The Eye-Dancers where Mitchell Brant talks with Marc Kuslanski, as they brainstorm over the predicament they are in–marooned in a parallel universe.  Marc, logical and rational to the core, is looking for sound scientific solutions.  But Mitchell, more intuitive and less bound by the “book,” eschews logic and contradicts Marc at nearly every turn, infuriating his data-minded friend to no end.

parallelworldmarooned

 

Trying to explain himself, Mitchell says, “Haven’t you ever just felt something to be true?”  Against all logic, all objective analysis, has there ever been a time in your life when you knew the numbers were wrong, even when two plus two still added up to four?  Has there ever been a time when common sense screamed for you to do one thing, yet you deliberately chose the other?

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This is exactly what Mitchell Brant is getting at.

Going against the grain almost always elicits a strong reaction from others.  “Are you crazy?” they might say, with an eye roll or a head shake.  “Have you lost your mind?”  “Come again?  Did you just say what I thought you said?  Please say it ain’t so!”  As if refuting the counterarguments in our own mind isn’t hard enough, we are now confronted with the disbelief and disapproval of others.  It’s easy to crack at this juncture, to reign things in, get back on the well-traveled path, and return to our comfort zone.  After all, what if everyone else is right?  What if the idea we’ve come up with, the action plan we’ve decided to follow really is doomed to fail?  Conventional wisdom is conventional in part because it’s usually true, isn’t it?  The doubts seep in, the naysayers’ objections rise to a crescendo, and it is so easy to discard the idea we had once felt so passionate about.

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Albert Einstein once said, “The person who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd.  The person who walks alone is likely to find himself in places no one has ever seen before.”

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And Thoreau famously wrote, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.  Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”

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The “different drummer” in question might be a particular job or place to live.  It might be an eccentric date or a loud tattoo, a new diet or an off-the-wall idea for a book.  It can be anything different than or apart from.

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As long as it’s uniquely your own.

*******************

When the fantasy football draft came to an end, as the sun slowly sank in the west, casting long, lazy late-summer shadows that undulated across the ground in the soft breeze, we lingered for a while, talking about everything, and nothing.  It’s a relaxing time–every year, following the draft.  There’s no reason to rush it.  But eventually, inevitably, the participants leave for home, one by one.

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And before he left, my brother pulled me aside and said, “Seriously, Mike–are you deliberately trying to lose this year, though?  Your draft was crazy!”

“Like a fox,” I wanted to say, but didn’t.  All I did was smile.

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When the season ends, we’ll see who has the last laugh.

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Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

From Smartphones to Biscuit Pants and Three Finger Brown

When Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton, and Marc Kuslanski are transported to a parallel universe in The Eye-Dancers, they soon discover that the world in which they find themselves is devoid of computers, cell phones, and digital technology of any kind.  This was not an accident or the result of some spur-of-the-moment detail that manifested itself in the flow of a first draft.  It was something I had deliberately chosen to do.

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At first, in the earliest conception of the story, I toyed with the idea of making the lack of digital technology a key element in the plot, perhaps elevating its importance right up there with swirling, hypnotic blue eyes and dreams and nightmares that seem to come to life.  But I eventually pocketed that notion, and the lack of PCs and cell phones became a smaller piece of the puzzle–still there, still relevant, but not paramount.  Through it all, though, I never once considered removing this detail from the novel.

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The variant town of Colbyville, and the world that surrounds it, was always destined to be a place where smartphones do not exist and cannot function.

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******************

I certainly wouldn’t describe myself as anti-technology.  Far from it.  After all, how could I possibly rail against 21st-century digital innovation when I have published an e-book, readable on a handheld device, and have blogged for four years within the wonderful WordPress community, enjoying every minute of it?  No.  I am not opposed to the electronic wonders of our age.

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But I do fondly recall an earlier period–not so long ago on the one hand, millennia ago on the other.  I grew up in the 1980s, where at-home digital innovation consisted of the Commodore 64 my parents bought for us in 1984, complete with its DOS screens, ’80s-style video games, and pre-Windows platform.  At the time, of course, the old Commodore seemed a marvel, a technological triumph that represented the blossoming and realization of the robotic age.  Today, it is a relic, an artifact, an odd, cumbersome thing more an amusement than a tool of technology.  A twelve-year-old coming face-to-face with this ancient archaeopteryx of the computer world would likely stare at it in disbelief, wondering how such an antique ever worked at all.

archeopteryx

 

It’s not so much that I want us to return to the days of the Commodore 64 (though it’s hard to top such video-game classics as Jumpman, Donkey Kong, and Zork!), eschewing all the digital advancements of the past thirty years.  But sometimes I wonder.  Is there a price we’re paying in our Wi-Fi society, waist-deep as we are in hyper-convenience, where vast pieces of information or merchandise or virtually anything under the sun (and some things beyond) are available at the merest click?  In a world of endless apps, ubiquitous social media, prolific texting, and data overload–is there something missing?

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It is, ultimately, a matter of perspective and opinion, of course.  But as I ponder it, I can’t seem to get away from the specter of Three Finger.

*********************

On a spring day in 1888, a young boy lost parts of two fingers in a farming accident.  As it turned out, though, the boy used the accident as a springboard to greatness.  He took up the game of baseball, learned to pitch, and for over a decade in the early years of the 20th century, Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown baffled opposing hitters.  With two of his fingers on his pitching hand shortened and mangled due to his old accident, Brown was able to put mind-boggling spin on the ball, becoming one of the greatest pitchers of his era.  And the nickname “Three Finger” was a natural.  It stuck with Brown for the duration of his career, and beyond, following him right into Cooperstown, NY, and the Baseball Hall of Fame.

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Indeed, there was a time when virtually ever ballplayer had a nickname–almost a personal brand, something acquired at a young age, never to be relinquished.  Some of the nicknames were original, some were inspired by admiration for the player’s skills, some were downright silly, but almost all were fun.  Here are a few:

Frankie Frisch–The Fordham Flash.

Willie Mays–The Say Hey Kid.

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Charlie Gehringer–The Mechanical Man.

Burleigh Grimes–Ol’ Stubblebeard.

Gabby Hartnett–Old Tomato Face.

Ernie Banks–Mr. Sunshine.

Joe Jackson–Shoeless Joe.

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Bris Lord–The Human Eyeball.

Chuck Klein–The Hoosier Hammerer.

Henry Aaron–Hammerin’ Hank.

Mickey Mantle–The Commerce Comet.

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Al Simmons–Bucketfoot Al.

Luke Appling–Old Aches and Pains.

And these represent just the proverbial tip of the iceberg.  There were hundreds of others, from Arkys to Rubes to Dazzys.  There were even Dizzys!

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And of course Lou Gehrig’s famous nickname–The Iron Horse–was earned due to his remarkable streak of playing in 2,130 consecutive games, over a span of fifteen seasons.  But he was also known as Buster and Biscuit Pants.

In 2016, there are certainly still some amusing baseball nicknames, but they are much fewer and farther between than they used to be.  There just aren’t any Sparkys or Scooters or Slugs anymore.  In their place, we have analytics and digital trends and statistics galore.  If you want to know a player’s batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, or ERA, all you have to do is pull out your mobile device, click on a link or two, and voila.  There you have it.  Some of my friends have apps installed so when their favorite team scores a run, their phone dings to let them know.  We have so much data and knowledge at our fingertips in any given moment, it would surely make “The Georgia Peach’s” head spin.

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And again, this is a great thing.  I am not knocking it.  But then I wonder–would there even be a place for a Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown in our world today?  Or would such a moniker be deemed inappropriate somehow?  Maybe he’d just be called Mordy for short, and leave it at that.  Even if he did play, and thrive, and win, would the majority of fans be enthralled solely by his virtually unhittable pitches, or would his exploits too often be relegated to the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately real-time scoring apps of fantasy baseball leagues?

fantasybaseball

 

I’m not saying there isn’t a place for WHIPs or DIPs or dERAs or any of the other sabermetric markers that are all the rage today in baseball.  We live in a world of constantly evolving digital technology, where last week’s app is suddenly outdated and last year’s Windows update is a dried-out and decaying fossil.  Technological advancement is an ever-changing phenomenon.

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But through it all, I hope we can sometimes take a step back, take a deep breath, and reflect.  Even in this age of smartphones and Twitter, and soon-t0-be driverless cars, there is always a place for Biscuit Pants.

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Thanks so much for reading!

Mike

When a Pee-Wee-Sized Idea Turns into a Bases-Clearing Home Run

It’s happened to me more times than I can remember.  An idea strikes, out of the blue, an inspiration from the creative ether, and I feel energized, inspired, eager to begin a new story.

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But then a funny thing happens.

I realize, sometimes after keying in the first few sentences, sometimes while thinking about the idea more fully, before having written a single word, that my construct, this gift from the muse, is in fact woefully underdeveloped.  Perhaps it represents a situation, a concept, a character’s epiphany, a new twist on an old theme–it is a good starting point for a story, but it is not, by itself and in itself, a story.  Not even close.  Once the white-hot glow of new creation cools to a steady simmer, once I step back and examine things with a cool and analytical eye, I realize I am nowhere close to beginning a story.  There is still much to flesh out.

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This is precisely what happened with The Eye-Dancers.  One night, while still in high school, I had a vivid dream of a girl outside my bedroom window.  She was just a child, maybe seven years old, standing in the light of the street lamp, out in the middle of the road.  But she was no ordinary child–the light went right through her.  She was more ghost than girl, more apparition than flesh-and-blood human being.  She beckoned for me to come outside, and I remember, all these years later, how real it all seemed.  When I woke up moments later, the bedsheets were in a tangle at my feet, and my skin was wet with perspiration.  Immediately I jotted down the essentials of the dream, knowing, instinctively, that this was the germ of a story.  The girl from my dreams couldn’t be wasted, tossed into some discarded literary oblivion from which she might never be heard from again.  She needed to come alive, on the printed page, the centerpiece of a story I was sure I was meant to write.

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The thing is, it took twenty years for that story to materialize, two decades for the pieces to fit together into a coherent and structured whole.  Many times, I doubted if I would ever be able to work this “ghost girl” into a story, but finally, in a far-off and futuristic 21st century, Mitchell Brant and Joe Marma and Ryan Swinton and Marc Kuslanski emerged, one by one, against a backdrop of parallel worlds and nightmares come to life, and the “ghost girl” at last had a home.

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But that’s the way ideas often are.  Every now and then, when we’re lucky, they arrive fully evolved, fleshed out, ready to lead us where they will. Much more frequently, at least in my experience–they come in pieces, bit by bit, at their own pace, and in their own time.  They cannot be rushed, and they cannot be forced.

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They demand our patience.

*******************

Harold “Pee Wee” Reese was so small as a child that he didn’t manage to get onto his high school baseball team until his senior year, and even then it was for only six games.  Nicknamed “Pee Wee” as a boy because of his mastery of playing marbles, Reese weighed all of 120 pounds as a high school senior.  Few talent scouts indeed would have predicted a future in baseball for the diminutive infielder.

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But Reese continued to play the game he loved, and when his amateur church league team played their championship game on the minor league Louisville Colonels field, personnel for the minor league club were impressed by what they saw.  Maybe the small kid with the slick glove and quick feet had a future in the game, after all.

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Within two short years, Reese was playing shortstop for the Brooklyn Dodgers, in the Major Leagues.  His big-league career got off to a rocky start, as he broke a bone in his heel during his rookie campaign of 1940, and then the following year, Reese led the Majors in errors.  But as time went on, it became clear that Pee Wee Reese was a keeper.  The Dodgers never traded him or released him; he would go on to play for the heroes of Flatbush for sixteen years.

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Never a great pure hitter, Reese still managed to get on base with regularity, drawing walks and using his savvy to set the table as the leadoff batter in the National League’s most feared lineup, featuring the power of Duke Snider, Roy Campanella, Carl Furillo, the skill of Junior Gilliam, and the all-around mastery of Jackie Robinson.  It was in regard to Robinson, in particular, where Reese made his most profound mark, helping his teammate along during Robinson’s trailblazing and tempestuous rookie year of 1947.  Reese, the team captain, played such a pivotal role that Robinson later wrote, “Pee Wee, whether you are willing to admit what your being a great guy meant (a great deal) to my career, I want you to know how much I feel it meant.  May I take this opportunity to say a great big thanks and I sincerely hope all things you want in life be yours.”

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Pee Wee Reese retired from baseball as a player in 1958, the year after the Dodgers moved to the West Coast.  (He lost three years of his career in the 1940s while serving in World War II.)  In 1984, deservedly, and long overdue, the Little Colonel, the captain of the Dodgers, was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

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******************

It’s easy to wish that all ideas, when they come, arrive fully formed and ready to go, complete with all major plot developments, character motivations, and even, perhaps, subthemes and story tangents.  And sometimes they do.  In particular, there have been times when an idea for a short story has hit me with such force, such actuality, I knew it was a winner, and all I had to do was sit down at my keyboard and let the tapestry of the idea unravel, word by word.  Ideas like this are the phenoms, the high school superstars who even the most nearsighted of scouts can discern have a bright and accomplished future.

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But you can’t count on them.  They are the Halley’s Comets of the literary world, only coming round once every blue moon, teasing us with a glimpse, a flourish, and then vanishing, like mist, once again into the farthest depths of the cosmos.

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No–most ideas take work, thought, honing, patience.  It’s often easy to become frustrated with such ideas, works-in-progress as they are.  But if we allow these soft-spoken and demure gems the time they need to grow and mature, we may just have a winner on our hands.

Sometimes, even a Pee Wee can make it all the way to the top.

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Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Value of the Junk Pile (Or, Discovering the Right Service Stance)

I was riveted, glued to the television set, watching a sport I had never paid any attention to, and realizing, even though I was just a kid, that sports history was being made.

To put it mildly, it was a surprise I was watching the 1985 Wimbledon Men’s Singles Final. Though I was a big sports fan, at the time my tastes were limited to football, baseball, basketball, and a little bit of ice hockey sprinkled in.  Tennis?  I didn’t know a break point from a deuce point; a baseline from a service line.  But when my older brother John came into the family room on that hot July morning, he turned on “Breakfast at Wimbledon.”

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“What are you doing?” I asked.

“I heard this guy has a huge serve,” he said.  “I wanna watch it.”  This was a surprise, too.  John had recently graduated from high school, and I’d always looked up to him.  Nearly a decade my senior, he was patient with me and rarely told me to get lost when I’d hang around with him and his friends.  He’d been a star athlete in school, but, like me, had never really been a fan of the game of tennis.

Even so, he followed the world of sports enough to know that a significant story was being written on the lawns of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club.  Kevin Curren, a veteran of the professional tennis circuit, was making major waves, beating John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors in succession to reach his first Grand Slam final.  Curren wasn’t regarded as a top player–but he had one of the game’s strongest serves.  This my brother wanted to see.

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Curren’s opponent that day was a seventeen-year-old prodigy named Boris Becker.  Few people knew who he was at that time, apart from tennis aficionados.  I certainly had never heard of him.  But that was about to change.  He shocked the tennis world, instantly becoming a worldwide star, by defeating Curren to become the youngest Wimbledon champion in history.

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I was struck by Becker immediately.  With his daring, net-rushing, athletic style, his charisma and hustle, he was a joy to watch.  And, as it turned out, it was Becker, not Curren, who had the truly dominating serve.

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I was hooked.  I loved the one-on-one aspect of the sport, the geometry of the court, the strategy and tactics, the way the crowd would grow whisper-quiet between points and then erupt when a brilliant stroke was made.

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The very next day, I went to the local public courts, borrowed one of my parents’ old wooden rackets (!), and worked on my serve.  I hadn’t ever served a tennis ball before, so it took some getting used to.  But, first and foremost, I adjusted my service stance to mimic Boris Becker’s.  It was natural enough–he was a right-hander, and so was I, after all.  So, I opened up my stance, just as Boris did, facing the corner of the court where I aimed to hit the ball.

Try as I might, it just didn’t feel right.  I attributed it to my being a beginner.  But as the days moved forward, as summer break rushed toward the inevitable and unwelcome start of another school year, I realized I wasn’t making much progress.  My serve was still not working.

summerbreak

That’s when I understood.  It wasn’t my serve I was practicing.  It was Boris Becker’s.  The stance that worked so well for him felt awkward and uncomfortable for me.  It just took me some time to figure it out.

So I changed my stance, closing it up, with my front foot now to the right of my back one.  I felt the difference right away.  This position felt easy, natural, and fluid.  My serve improved literally overnight.  And to this day, I still serve with a closed stance.

At first, I bemoaned the fact that it took me so long to make the switch.  Couldn’t I have become a better player, a better server, if I had just started in a closed stance to begin with?  But then I saw the truth.  I had to go through the awkwardness in order to pave the way for the finished product.

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By learning what didn’t work for me, it made it easier and clearer to see what did.

**********************

Have you ever written a scene, or even an entire chapter, only to discover, after the fact, that it’s all wrong?  It doesn’t need a little tweaking, or a few minor edits.  It is just . . . wrong.  Awful.  A complete and unequivocal flop.

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I’ve certainly written such chapters.  In The Eye-Dancers, for example, I remember vividly the quagmire that was chapter eighteen.  It was one of the longer chapters in the novel, and, after writing the first draft of it–all twenty or so pages–I reread it, and said, “What was I thinking?  Seriously?  This is horrible!”  I was shocked that I hadn’t noticed this earlier, when I was in the process of writing the chapter.  Admittedly, during the writing of the chapter, I was aware that the words were not flowing, the dialogue not coming smoothly.  But I had no idea just how bad it was until I went back and read the entire thing.

My first reaction was predictable.  I bemoaned the fact that I had just wasted so much time writing such drivel.  I took a breath, shut off the PC, and resolved to keep away from the manuscript for at least a day.  I needed a break.

backsoonneedbreak

When I returned to it two days later, I reread the chapter, this time with more patient and much fresher eyes.  While I still thought the output was atrocious, I was able to focus more clearly and spot where it was I’d gone wrong.  The germ of the idea was fine.  It was the execution that was lacking.  The chapter needed more energy, more gusto, more forward momentum.  By rereading the first draft, the second draft came clear.  The fog lifted, and I felt invigorated.

liftingfog

I rewrote the entire chapter, and this time the words came more easily, the dialogue popped, and the POV character (a tip of the cap to you, Marc Kuslanski!) came into sharper focus.  When I read through it upon completion, I knew it was right–not perfect maybe–no chapter ever is.  But right.  I scrolled to the bottom of the screen, inserted a page break, and keyed the words, “Chapter Nineteen,” into the yawning mouth of the white space.  I was ready to press on.

No doubt, it had been a frustrating and time-consuming experience, but I was thankful for the first draft of chapter eighteen.  It was a necessary part of the process, a sharpening of the pen, so to speak, a way to clear the creative cobwebs and allow the real story, the true story, to come through.

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I have no doubt I’ll have more “chapter-eighteen experiences” in the future.  I’ve had a few already while writing the sequel to The Eye-Dancers.  And, while I may never fully embrace these authorial detours, these mazes through the junk pile to sift out the trash and unearth the jewels, I will always appreciate and acknowledge, however grudgingly, their value.

junkpile

gems

Because, when it comes right down to it, sometimes you just have to serve a few double faults with the wrong stance before you can hit those perfectly struck aces with the right one.

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Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

A Step-by-Step Journey–Or, Words of Wisdom from a Fictional Minor-League Catcher

In the 1988 romantic comedy Bull Durham, there is one sequence when veteran minor-league catcher Crash Davis pulls aside the young pitching phenom Nuke LaLoosh to offer words of advice.  Davis knows talent when he sees it, and he knows that LaLoosh is headed, ultimately, for the Major Leagues.  Though raw, and with much to learn, the young pitcher has a golden arm, blessed with a rocket-like fastball and an off-the-table curve.  He has future superstar written all over him.

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But he’s arrogant, hot-tempered, immature, and, Davis is sure, not at all prepared to handle the fishbowl lifestyle of the Major Leagues.  And so on a road trip, as their minor-league team, the Durham Bulls, gears up for a new opponent, Davis instructs LaLoosh on the fine art of the interview.

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“You’re gonna have to learn your cliches,” he says.  “You’re gonna have to study them.  You’re gonna have to know them.  They’re your friends.  Write this down: ‘We gotta play it one day at a time.'”

As LaLoosh does indeed write this down, he says, “‘Got to play’ . . . it’s pretty boring.”

Davis is quick to respond:  “‘Course it’s boring, that’s the point.  Write it down.”

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He provides two other canned responses to interview questions, as well, both as cliched and dull as the first.  Indeed–how many times have we heard this oft-repeated phrase:  “One day at a time; one game at a time . . .”

“So, are you looking forward to playing the Yankees next month?”

“Next month?  Next month?  This is this month!  We’re not even thinking of the Yankees.  Who are they?  We gotta take this one game at a time.  If we start looking ahead to next month, the series against the Yankees won’t even matter because we’ll have lost the next few anyway.”

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It’s frustrating for the interviewer and the audience alike.  We listen to this, and think, “Can’t they ever be honest?  Of course they look ahead.  They have to.  Anybody would.”

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But maybe, just maybe, it’s not always just a tired cliche.  Maybe sometimes, they’re actually telling the truth.

**********************

Have you ever been there?  You’re writing a novel, or a memoir, or any long work of literature, and you know that just down the road, perhaps as near as the next chapter, a major development beckons.  The protagonist will face a monumental challenge, a huge shift in the plot will occur, perhaps someone instrumental to the story will die.  Regardless of the specifics, it is a crucial development, one of the most important sequences of the entire work.

majordevelopmentcrossroads

 

But it’s not the chapter you’re working on . . .

Speaking of, the chapter you are working on is relatively minor.  There are no groundbreaking events, no epiphanies or “aha” moments, no twists and turns that will create a sea change for the rest of the story.  It’s a quiet chapter, understated, a small hors d’oeuvre before the meal is served, an undercard to kick off an evening where everyone in the audience is breathlessly awaiting the main event.

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When I wrote The Eye-Dancers,  there were certainly moments just like this.  There is a short chapter where Ryan Swinton walks off from the group, needing some space to think and reflect.  Later on, toward the climax of the novel, Marc Kuslanski has a similar conversation with himself, exploring the troubling reality of paradoxes, that not everything can be rationally and neatly explained.

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It’s precisely at such times as these that Crash Davis’s advice to his young teammate most applies.  Because–if we rush through the little scenes, the reflective and subdued chapters, if we slap them together without much effort out of sheer impatience to move forward, it won’t even matter what that earth-shattering revelation will be in chapter 29, or how our protagonist will manage to survive the dangers at book’s end.  Regardless of how mesmerizing the big scenes are, they are built, in large part, by the “small” chapters and interludes that precede them.

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I have found that, when writing a novel, the task sometimes seems so large, so daunting–often literally taking years to complete–that it’s dangerous thinking too far ahead.  Granted, there needs to be some sense of direction.  I know, for me, I like to have an idea where I’m going before I begin the first chapter, and at times, during the course of writing the story, if an idea strikes me for a scene several chapters off, I’ll jot it down to make sure I don’t forget it.

ideawritedowndontforget

 

But if I start worrying too much about scenes as yet unwritten, developments around the bend, as it were, if I spend too much time stressing about specifics five or ten chapters hence, then I am in real trouble.  Suddenly the scenes I am working on become harder to write, and I find it more difficult to concentrate on the task at hand.  I may even get bogged down with doubts, wondering if the novel as a whole will be worthwhile or just some disastrous literary flop.

selfdoubt

 

Indeed, if I am about to begin chapter 17, as I am in the sequel to The Eye-Dancers, even as I write this post, I need to focus exclusively on chapter 17.  Not chapter 18, or chapter 19, or chapter 26.  Even more specific than that, I need to focus on the next word, the next sentence, the next paragraph.  For, when it’s all said and done (a fitting description in a post talking about an old cliche!), a story is indeed built one word at a time, one chapter at a time.

The Yankees next month?  They can wait.

yankees

 

Just ask Crash Davis.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

When in Doubt, Go with Sweetness

Ideas can strike writers at any time, and often without warning.  They can frustrate and baffle, but they can also give us wings as we soar aloft, above mountain peaks and green, lush uplands where our imaginations roam unhindered.  In short, ideas can be magic.

uplands

 

But what if, after the initial euphoria has worn off and you step back to examine your idea with the cold, hard light of objectivity, you realize that it’s not a perfect fit for a particular market; it doesn’t neatly fall into a trendy category; it doesn’t reflect what’s on the bestseller lists or the prime display shelves at the local bookstore.

bestsellerlist

 

Even so, you can’t deny that you feel genuinely excited about the idea, the scope, the characters you can create that will populate the pages.  You feel a connection to the project.  It’s a story you feel meant to write, and you know, you are sure, that once you begin, it will be a genuine labor of love.

laboroflove

 

But who will read it if it’s not in vogue, if it represents an outlier, a literary orphan as it were, searching vainly for a hot genre or category or concept to which it can attach itself?

Do you rework the idea, a few tweaks here, several major plot shifts there, perhaps a new character or two, to give it the best chance to sell?  Or do you leave it as is, determined to write your story as authentically as possible?

whattodowriting

 

Friends and fellow writers, agents and editors may offer advice, hoping to clarify the problem.  But you discover that the more advice you receive, the cloudier the issue becomes.

What to do?

**************

The 1985 Chicago Bears are one of the most iconic teams in NFL history.  The Bears that year compiled a 15-1 regular-season record and demolished the New York Giants and (then) Los Angeles Rams in the NFC playoffs, winning the two games by a combined score of 45-0.  Then in Super Bowl XX, the Bears crushed the New England Patriots, 46-10.  Many people consider the ’85 Bears to be the best single-season team of all time.

85bears

 

The heart and soul of the team, unquestionably, was Walter Payton.  Payton had been a star running back for the Bears since his rookie year of 1975.  For years, while the team around him struggled, Payton set records and reached milestones.  Nicknamed “Sweetness” for his ability to elude defenders with ease, Payton was universally respected league-wide.  As the 1985 season unfolded, analysts, players, and fans were in agreement–finally, after all his years in the league toiling for an also-ran, it was nice to see Payton play on a gifted team overall and have the chance to win a championship.

walterpayton

 

No one admired Payton more than his coach, Mike Ditka, himself a former player for the Bears.  Ditka was not shy in proclaiming Walter Payton the greatest football player he had ever been associated with.  And so, with the Bears running away with Super Bowl XX, the stage seemed set for Payton to cap off his illustrious career–not simply with a Super Bowl win but with the honor of scoring a touchdown in the game.

superbowlxx

 

It would not be easy.  The one thing the Patriots did well in the contest was contain Payton.  They keyed on him relentlessly, and he had no room to run.  Even so, late in the third quarter, with the Bears already winning 37-3, they found themselves at the New England 1-yard line.  Here it was.  Simply hand the ball off to “Sweetness,” and let him score, a fitting reward for one who had done so much for so long for the Bears and the city of Chicago.

paytonchicago

 

Instead, Coach Mike Ditka chose to give the ball to a pop-culture sensation named William “The Refrigerator” Perry, a 308-pound defensive lineman (in an era when 300-pound linemen were rare) who occasionally doubled as a running back when the team got close to the end zone.  Perry was a decent player, but far from a superstar.  What’s more, he was only a rookie.  He had not played for the team through the lean years of the 1970s and early 1980s as Walter Payton had.  He was a solid contributor, it was true, but more than anything, he was trending, the flavor of the moment, one of the top personalities of 1985.  It can be argued, especially when it came to Perry’s scoring touchdowns, that he was a fad, a 300-pound flash-in-the-pan, a one-hit wonder.

williamperry

 

But it was William Perry who scored that Super Bowl touchdown.  Walter Payton never did reach the end zone that day.

perrysuperbowltd

 

Mike Ditka was not the kind of coach who second-guessed himself.  Confident, brash, self-assured, he made his calls and stood by them.  But this was one decision that would haunt him.

Much later, years after the Bears’ emphatic Super Bowl victory, and more than a decade removed from Payton’s death to a rare liver disorder, Ditka, now retired from coaching, admitted in an interview that giving the ball to the Refrigerator, instead of allowing Payton–the team mainstay, its leader who had missed only one game in his entire NFL career–the chance to score in the biggest game of his life was the one lingering regret from his coaching career.

ditka

 

Looking at the expression on the old coach’s face, you could see how much he wished he could go back in time and reconsider his decision.

He should have given the ball to “Sweetness.”

*************

When the idea for The Eye-Dancers came to me, I knew almost immediately that the four main characters, all boys, would be based on some of the friends I knew while growing up.  I further knew that they would be twelve years old over the course of the novel.  Since publishing the book, there have been some who have criticized this decision.  I should have made one of the main characters a girl, they argued, or made the characters a little older, or both.  And from a purely marketing standpoint, they may be right.

eyedancers

 

The thing is, I believe that writing is an act of love.  It is a way–perhaps the best way–for us to share what’s important to us with the world.  It is our chance to tell stories uniquely our own, to infuse them with our experiences, points of view, joys, fears, opinions, and quirks.

I suppose a writer can indeed reshape an original, inspired idea, twisting it, contorting it, redefining it to fit in.  If vampire fiction is hot, then turn the main character into a vampire, even if, in the original conception, he was just a boy, as mortal as any of us.  If dystopian settings are in fashion, then maybe the writer can alter the time and place of the idea and write a tale set against the backdrop of a dark and repressive future age.  Or, if little green aliens with big black eyes are all the rage . . .

greenaliens

 

And by all means, if an idea originally strikes in a form such as this, if it occurs organically on its own, then there indeed is another story to tell about vampires or dytopian societies or little green aliens.

But if the idea that hits, suddenly, jarring you to the core with its power, lighting a creative fuse that can only be unleashed through the words pouring out onto the page . . . if that idea does not contain anything that’s trending . . .

Don’t worry about.  Write it the way it is–the way it’s meant to be.  Who knows?  You may unleash a new trend.

There will always be another “Refrigerator.”

But there is only one “Sweetness.”

writeyourownstory

 

Thanks so much for reading!

Mike

Swinging for the Fences (Or, I Will Not Be Pigeonholed)

On the afternoon of May 5, 1925, in St. Louis’ Sportsman’s Park, legendary Detroit Tiger Ty Cobb sat beside a sportswriter in the dugout before the game between the Tigers and the old St. Louis Browns.

sportsmanspark

 

“I’ll show you something today,” Cobb, then in the twilight of his playing days, at the age of thirty-eight, said.  “I’m going for home runs for the first time in my career.”

This was a bold proclamation for the player nicknamed The Georgia Peach, to this day the all-time leader in career batting average, at .366.

cobb2

 

For years, Cobb had tormented opposing pitchers with his seemingly robotic ability to hit safely and reach base.

cobbprecision

 

One of the game’s great competitors and nastiest personalities, the left-handed batter was almost universally disliked leaguewide.

cobbfierce2

 

Cobb’s reputation even followed him into the film Field of Dreams, a full sixty years after his playing days were over.  In one scene, when Iowa farmer Ray Kinsella talks with the legends of yesteryear, who magically appear in his cornfield, Shoeless Joe Jackson tells him, “Ty Cobb wanted to play, but none of us could stand [him] when we were alive, so we told ‘im to stick it!”

fieldofdreams

 

shoelessjoe

 

Cobb’s batting prowess was legendary.  He led the league in hitting twelve times in a thirteen-year span from 1907 through 1919, and hit over .400 three times in his career.  But while he did have extra-base power–his 724 career doubles rank 4th all time, and his 295 career triples rank second–Cobb was never a home run hitter.  His career best was 12, which he accomplished twice.

cobb1

 

To put that in context, it is important to note Cobb played the majority of his career in the “dead ball era,” where pitchers were allowed to throw spit balls, umpires rarely changed balls during the course of the game, and home runs were an afterthought.  In fact, in 1909, Cobb led the American League in homers with just 9.  It was a different game, one that valued stolen bases and fielding, sacrifice bunts and smarts.  This was the game Cobb grew up in, and the way he loved to play.

deadball

 

By 1925, when he sat in the dugout that spring day and claimed he was going to try to hit home runs for the first time in his career, the game had changed drastically.  Babe Ruth had come along, hitting home runs at a record pace.  In 1920, Ruth had smashed 54 homers; in 1921, 59–numbers that, at the time, seemed superhuman.

baberuth

 

Deep down, The Georgia Peach seethed.  He hated the long-ball game of Ruth.  He didn’t believe that was the way baseball was meant to be played.

But on May 6, 1925, he had a point to prove.  If he wanted to swing for the fences, if he wanted to emulate the Babe–he could.

“Just you wait,” he said.  “Just watch.”

****************

Ernest Hemingway once said, “When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters.  A character is a caricature.”

hemingway

 

When I think of caricatures, I think of one-dimensional characters who, by their very presence, are mere devices to drive a plot one way or the other.  It can be the larger-than-life hero who shows no weakness, cries no tears, and goes through the rigors and dangers of a daring adventure as if strolling through the park on a lazy summer afternoon.

hero

 

It can be the villain, evil to the core, who exists for the sole purpose of sowing seeds of death and destruction–and to serve as the foil for the protagonist.  We can see no shred of light, no ounce of compassion or goodness in this villain.  There is only the dark side–on every page.

bondjaws

 

The trouble with characters like these is obvious.  Real people just don’t operate this way.  Every hero cries at some point and has moments of weakness and doubt, not to mention a closet full of skeletons.  They may not always be tabloid material (though they certainly can be), but they do exist.  Every villain has a gentler side.  No one is 100% rotten to the core.  The same person who commits armed robbery one day does something selfless for someone they love on another.  It’s hard, and unfair, to place people in neat little boxes, labeled “Hero” or “Villain” or “Greedy” or “Altruistic.”

dontlabel

 

To steal a popular title, people are (at minimum) fifty shades of gray.

In The Eye-Dancers, it would be easy to label Mitchell Brant as the liar and storyteller, Ryan Swinton as the comedian, Joe Marma as the fighter, and Marc Kuslanski as the glasses-wearing nerd.  Certainly, at the beginning of the novel, this is how the characters are presented.  But it’s my hope that, as readers get to know them, and enter into their thoughts and fears, their hopes, their insecurities and self-doubts, the characters emerge multi-faceted, not so easily pigeonholed into a tight, snug corner.  Also, over the course of the story, the boys must confront challenges and situations that force them to view the world in a different light, to look in the mirror and determine whether or not they like what they see.

In short, they have to grow and adapt and overcome.  What results, I hope, are real people, not caricatures.

growth

 

******************

Ty Cobb hit three home runs that day, and two more the next–making good on his promise to “show them something.”  It was a brief flourish of power, a blip on the radar screen of his career built on speed, guile, and precision.

cobbspeed

 

Nevertheless, he had proved his point.  He wasn’t going to allow himself to be labeled as a “singles hitter,” a relic of the dead-ball era who couldn’t adapt to the changing conditions of 1920s baseball.  He could adapt if he wanted to.  He just chose not to.  He believed the game should be played a certain way, the old way, and that’s exactly how The Georgia Peach went about it.

cobbfierce

 

But for two days in May 1925, Ty Cobb went against the grain and stepped way outside of his comfort zone, showing a dimension of himself and his abilities previously unseen and unheard of.

A good fictional character should be able to do the same.

ontheedge

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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