Photo by Robert Boris
Photo by Robert Boris

I’ve been a baseball fan since I was big enough to reach the TV dials. (Yes, they had dials back then…) Much to my father’s chagrin, I chose to fall for that “other” team, rather than his beloved, pinstriped Yankees.

The soothing voices of the New York Mets’ announcers and the slow, meditative pace of the game appealed to me. And maybe to my budding writer’s mind as well. Watch a pitcher try to hold a notorious base-stealer on the bag. There’s a story behind that dance. The runner tries to rattle the pitcher, throw him off his rhythm. The pitcher tries to catch the batter flat-footed and pick him off base. Watch the tango of catcher and pitcher. A volume goes unsaid as the catcher flashes his signals and the pitcher shakes them off. [Find a copy of Bull Durham if you want a fast lesson in how catchers and pitchers work together.]

Some other lessons I’ve learned from the game speak directly to a professional writers’ career:

1. Lay off the first pitch.

I get the impulse. You’re new up at the plate, a little nervous, and you’re ready to swing for the fences. And, oh, that breaking ball looks so fat and juicy, right in your wheelhouse. This enthusiasm is great when you’re writing your first draft. But crafting it into a novel and joining the publishing game needs thought and finesse. Take a deep breath, look for your pitch, and make your moment happen.

2. The ump’s call doesn’t always go your way.

There will be days when you can’t do anything right. You’ll want to rip the ump a new one for calling that low-and-outside pitch a strike. But that will just get you thrown out of the game. Bad review? Tough critique? Sales in the dumper? Meh. Take what you need, leave the rest, and know that some other day, you’ll get the good calls and someone else will be kicking dirt on the umpire’s shoes.

3. Training to play works a lot better than playing to train.

The best athletes don’t just show up on game day, pop off a few practice swings, and take the field. They train. They lift weights to build those powerful muscles to drive the ball farther; they run and stretch to keep their legs conditioned for the moment they need to break into a dead sprint to catch a pull hitter’s opposite-field fly.

We become better writers by writing, yes, but there are so many other factors at work. Hone your observation skills. Read like mad. Pay attention to the way people speak. Pick up some cues about human nature; learn about other countries and cultures. Learn your OWN culture. Be curious. If a doctor leaves me waiting too long in the exam room, I rummage through all the drawers and cabinets. I want to know what’s in there, and if they didn’t want me to know, they shouldn’t have kept me waiting. I pretend not to pay attention while I’m eavesdropping on conversations. It keeps me sharp.

4. Don’t miss your cut-off man.

You’ve handled that shot off the wall to perfection and you want to wail a strike into the catcher’s glove to catch that runner coming in from third base. You’ll be the big hero, right? But…you could misjudge your abilities or the distance, throwing wild and letting the guy score from second, too. You might also do some serious harm to your rotator cuff. Aiming for the cut-off man will help put that ball where it needs to go with a lot more accuracy than you have from the right-field warning track. Or as Clint Eastwood said, “A man has to know his limitations.” So get some fresh eyes on your work, especially if you know you have problems with grammar or plot threads or using fifteen adverbs in one paragraph. You are allowed to ask for help. Even editors enlist the help of other editors and beta readers when they publish their own work.

5. Even if you’re on the mound, there’s a reason for having seven other guys behind you.

Baseball’s a funny sport that way. You have individual stats, and for a few minutes, the television camera and every eye in the audience are focused on you. With one swing of the bat, one pitch, you can be the hero or you can be the goat. But ultimately, you’re judged as a team. As much as we like to think of writing an individual sport, the team behind you is vital to your success. That means getting a professional cover design, a good line-edit and proofread, and some sharp cookies for beta readers. That also means cultivating a “street team.” These are the people who help keep you motivated while you’re writing and help promote your books once they’re released.

Ready? Play ball!