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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Just ask Crash Davis.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

At the End of the Day . . .

When I was a graduate student, I had a professor in a creative writing workshop who would occasionally pick apart someone’s story in front of the entire class.  It wasn’t for the faint of heart.  But it was educational.  There were about fifteen of us in the class, aspiring writers all.  We would craft short stories, bring them to class, and share them with each other, critiquing our stories and writing comments in the margins.  For the most part, the professor,  a balding, bespectacled gent originally from London, served only as a moderator, facilitating the discussions and making sure the group stayed on topic.  But every now and then, he would decide to single out a particular story, and use it as an illustration of what not to do.

One day, he chose the topic of cliches.

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“You should never insert cliches in your story,” he said.  “It’s okay to use them in some dialogue.  People, after all, frequently speak in cliches.  But never use them in your narrative description.  Avoid them like the plague.”  (I admit, I nearly raised my hand here to tell him he’d just used a cliche to make his point on avoiding them, but, wisely, I just listened.)

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He then proceeded to eviscerate one young woman’s story, pointing out no less than half a dozen time-worn phrases in her ten-page piece.  I felt bad for her–brilliant as he was, this professor was not known for his tact.  Nevertheless, some of his lessons have stuck with me over the years, and whenever I edit one of my stories, I tend to keep an eye out for cliches.

I can’t guarantee that The Eye-Dancers is cliche-free.  Far from it!  But, with hope, there are very few cliches in the book.  In fact, if anyone can spot a cliche in the first three chapters, which are included on this website, please contact me, and I will send you a copy of the book for free!  Let’s call it The Eye-Dancers cliche challenge.

This gets me thinking about the entire creative process–from typing that first word, to sharing your work with others, to submitting it for publication.  It’s a challenging thing.  Looking out for cliches can sometimes take a backseat to the seemingly more important items on the writing list.

I mean, executing a story idea is no small feat.  It takes time, effort, blood, sweat, and tears.  Inspiration, after all, is 99% perspiration.  And coming up with a new twist for a story isn’t easy.  You have to push the envelope, think outside the box, and make sure you come up with an idea that hasn’t already jumped the shark.

Staring at a blank computer monitor, the cursor blinking, as if taunting you, can be intimidating, but trusting the creative process is essential.

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The key is to type that first word and then keep going, keep working, and keep chopping wood.  If the idea takes flight, you will feel like a kid in a candy store–it’s almost too easy, too much fun!  Putting the pedal to the medal, you may speed right through the story, feeling like a champ.

But then you step back, inhale deeply, and take the time to read through what you’ve written during that whirlwind first-draft cyclone.  You may groan.  The rose-colored glasses are off now, and you see the results as clear as day.  The idea may have been worthwhile, the writing, in general, may even be passable.  But, being a first draft, the manuscript is littered with inconsistencies, poor sentence construction, the works.  The job of turning out a polished, completed story has only just begun.

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Knocking on wood, you hope you can start again at the top, put your nose to the grindstone, go the whole nine yards, and produce a top-notch piece of work.  There is still much to do, but it’s time to roll up the shirtsleeves, raise the bar, and shoot for the stars.  It’s easy at this stage to want to rush through the edits and just say the thing is done.  But patience is a virtue, and, if you’re planning on submitting the story for publication, well–you never get a second chance to make a first impression.  Everything needs to be perfect, and you have to give 110%.

Finally, after a second and third, and fourth edit, the story is finished!  The problem?  You’ve read, reread, edited, and reedited the piece so many times, you’re bleary-eyed and tired of it.  You decide to set it aside for a day or two, then read it one last time before sending it out.

When you read it again three days later, you are satisfied–it’s ready.  It’s time to submit the story, sink or swim, do or die.  Who knows what the editor will think of it?  All you can do is send it off, and let the chips fall where they may.  Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

And then you wait, and wait, and wait, and wait . . . and finally, after five months, a postcard arrives in the mail.

“Dear Writer,” it reads.  “Thank you for sending us your work and giving us the opportunity to read it.  However, we regret to inform you that it does not suit our needs at this time.  Thank you again for thinking of us.  Happy writing!”

You read the note again.  It’s frustrating.  After all the work, all the revisions, you don’t even receive a personal response.  Dejected, you wonder why you bother, but then you realize–there are so many other outlets where you can submit your story.  There are other fish in the sea!  Rejuvinated, you send the story to five other places within the next couple of days.  After all, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade!  Besides, rejection is as much a part of the writing life as, well, writing.  It’s par for the course.  Some of the magazines you’re submitting to inform that they do not want simultaneous submissions–but this doesn’t seem fair.  So you simultaneously submit anyway!  Living dangerously can be fun.  And you need to break a few eggs if want to make an omelet.

Meanwhile, as you wait to hear back from these five new outlets, you are working on a novel–a vast, multi-layered tome that will likely take months, maybe years, to complete.  And then the process will begin anew–perhaps querying agents, publishers, networking.  Maybe you will try the indie author route.  So many options!  Life is a bowl of cherries.

One day, months later, while working on chapter twenty-one, you receive an email from one of the magazines where you submitted your short story.

“Dear Writer,

“We regret to inform you . . .”

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You sigh, print the email, and toss it into a rejection pile on the edge of your desk.  You toy with the idea of wallpapering your room with these slips.  Oh well.  That’s just the way the cookie crumbles sometimes.  The story is still under review elsewhere.  Maybe someone is considering publishing it.  You never know.  Your fortune can change in the blink of an eye.  And truth is stranger than fiction.

A week later, another rejection slip–snail-mail.  But this one has a handwritten note!  “Great prose.  Keep up the good work.”  A rejection never felt so good.  You pin the slip on the wall, and get back to the novel.  There are still a dozen chapters to write, and hundreds of pages to edit, watching out for, among other things, all those pesky cliches!

“The life of a writer,” you say with a smile.

At the end of the day, it is what it is.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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