Metaphor Alert: The Fine Sport of Writing

When I was a youngster, both my father and my grandfather taught me to fish. For a desert state, Utah has a surprising plethora of lakes, streams, and reservoirs, all loaded with a variety of trout, cat fish, bass, pan fish, walleye, and if you’re into that sort of thing, carp. Below the age of 10 I didn’t give a hoot what it was. If it swam and put up a decent fight on the hook, I wanted to catch it. The bigger it was and the more it bent my fishing pole, the more fun I had. So much so I’d typically spend the days leading up to an expected fishing expedition daydreaming about the kind of fish I’d catch: how many, how large they’d be, and how marvelous a time my father and I, as well as my grandfather, and occasionally cousins or friends, would have.

Today while I was making a “trophy” out of my latest story in Analog — I razor off the cover of the issue, then razor out the interior art and/or title page, plus perhaps as much as one page of text, to be laminated broad-sheet style, and tacked up in my office — it struck me that ‘landing’ a publication in a major venue like Analog is a lot like landing a nice big rainbow trout. Takes knowing the bodies of water (the markets) and which lures or bait to use (types and kinds of stories accepted) as well as knowing the seasons and the conditions (reading issues to get a feel for what’s being published) and, finally, going out on a boat or casting off from the shore, over and over and over (submitting stories) until you get bites (personalized rejections) or catch something (sale!)

Having a physical copy of the book or venue in your hand — seeing your words rendered in the pages — is one of the most supremely satisfying moments of being a published writer. Not that different from bringing a massive cutthroat or bass into the net. The level of satisfaction is off the charts.

But the analogy holds for other sports as well. Getting a story sold and seeing it published professionally is like bowling over 250 or making an eagle at the golf course or getting a home run at the ball diamond. It takes a lot of practice and a lot of work to get to the point where you can see yourself sold and published professionally on a regular basis. The level of gratification is tied — in my opinion — directly to the energy, time, and effort devoted to building up one’s craft or skill. Anything accomplished easily, or as a fluke, just doesn’t feel the same. But seeing yourself in print, after long struggle, and knowing that you’ve truly earned your hour in the sun, that’s one of the most magical moments in a writer’s life.

The September 2011 issue of Analog Science Fiction & Fact came to my mail box about ten months after the November 2010 issue — which was the first time I got to see myself in print, even before Writers of the Future. I was a little nervous from January of 2010 (when I sold my first story to Analog) to September of 2010 (when I sold the story that’s now in the September 2011 issue) because I’d not yet established a true “track record” and was painfully aware of the fact that fledgling writers appear and disappear all the time. It happens constantly. The only way to become a known quantity is to keep selling — again, and again, and again, until your bibliography expands accordingly, and your level of recognition grows.

Selling “The Chaplain’s Assistant” was, therefore, a huge relief. I’d been sort of holding my breath up until that sale — wondering if the previous two sales hadn’t been flukes. Was I going to be the one-hit-wonder boy? I’d definitely been getting a better quality of rejection since being able to list pro publications in my cover letter, but then I’d been getting some nice rejections anyway, even before I won Writers of the Future. Was I doomed to suffer what many Writers of the Future winners encounter: a sophomore slump? Months or maybe years spent toiling between the initial break-in sale(s) and those more regular, ‘establishment’ sales that are the hallmark of a functional industry professional?

But now that I’m sitting here with my laminated “trophy” of the September 2011 issue of Analog — knowing I have two more stories coming in subsequent issues later this year — it seems to me that another way in which writing is like sports, is that you’re only as good as your last game, your last day on the water, your last match, your last event. True professionals don’t just accomplish a handful of things, they make a habit out of going back to the course, the court, the range, the lake, the slope, the track, and putting themselves out there again and again, over and over. Regardless of results. Oh yes, the sales I have had are incredibly nice for a guy at my stage of the overall writing game, but when I look at the people with decades under their belts, they all seem to have had the same kind of determination to simply keep doing the work.

When my Dad and I fished regularly, I’d wager we caught fish on just half the occasions we went somewhere to put our lines in the water. There were a lot of way-too-early mornings where we got out of bed at oh-dark-thirty and drove an hour or two to some dam, some bend in a river, some lake shore, and spent the whole day casting, never to catch a thing. I remember trying to introduce fishing to a few friends who didn’t do it much, and they gave up quickly because they didn’t like how much non-success was involved in being a successful fisherman.

Writing is a lot like that. You have to be prepared to keep going to the spots, hitting the water, and not bringing back anything. Again and again. You have to find other ways to make going-through-the-motions meaningful or enjoyable, until, at last, you get those amazing days when the fish come fast and hard, one right after another.

If you’re in the writing game strictly for the fame quotient, or the notoriety quotient, or just because you think it will be impressive to tell other people that you’re a writer — a published writer! — then I suspect you’re in for some rough years. Yes, the end goal is a marvelous thing to reach. But you have to find some satisfaction in the process too — in the small and subtle ways you can slowly teach yourself to get better. “Better” being one of those subjective things that’s tough to nail down, but you know it when it’s happening, because you go back and read something you wrote last year, or two years back, or even ten years back and you recognize how far you’ve come.

And then, bam, it happens. That day (those days?) when the hard work and the tedium and the frustration pay off. And boy, do they pay off! Tangibly, and economically. Suddenly, it all seems worth it. More than worth it, in fact. Because the money is real, and the words in print are real, and you can sit there on your couch or at your desk or curled up in your bed with a copy of your book or your story in your hand, and realize that for the rest of your life nobody will ever, ever be able to take that accomplishment away from you. Ever. It’s yours. The fruition of everything you’ve ever worked for.

Earlier in June I had the pleasure of watching the Dallas Mavericks win the National Basketball Association’s championship, before a packed and hostile crowd. Dallas was the underdog in its showdown with the Miami Heat — especially since the Mavericks had previously folded up and melted down in a prior Finals match-up with the very same team, five years earlier. Dallas was old, while the Heat were relatively young. Dallas had but one big star, the Heat had several. In a certain sense, Dallas reminded me — just a little bit — of my beloved Utah Jazz from their Stockton-to-Malone days. My Jazz of yore never got their championship, but it was a real treat watching the Mavericks get theirs. The underdog, less talented, older team, had won — against the odds, and the predictions of the popular press.

How did they do it?

I think it comes down to one word: heart.

I think writing is a lot like that too. I think it takes heart to be a successful, long-term professional writer. Heart being that somewhat nebulous combination of will-to-win plus the stamina and determination necessary to outlast all setbacks, fight through and jump over all roadblocks. Beat the odds. And just like the Mavericks, it doesn’t just happen for one game. It takes an entire season of games. Or in the case of veteran players like Jason Kidd, numerous seasons stacked on top of each other: the accumulated experience, wisdom, and gut-level feeling a person gets for a thing they’ve been doing relentlessly for a long time.

2011 is half over. I’ve had a string of very nice things happen for me in the last 6 months. Indeed, the last 10 months. But the game keeps on going. I’m only as good as my last sale, and as more time creeps up and adds on — between the last sale and that next, elusive sale — I feel the old familiar suspicions begin to stir. Am I good enough? Can I keep going? Will I run out of heart and wind up on the sidelines of the game while other people keep playing? When that starts to happen I know it’s time to re-tie my shoes, get up off the wood, and dribble back out into the lanes. I may not be the fastest, nor the quickest, nor the most talented. But I think I’ve made it so far with a refusal to quit. That, and having a good support system of family and friends who support me in my dreams. It’s for them, almost more than myself, that I want to keep going. Because I’d hate to let everybody down.

Which is an oft-heard refrain of many sports figures, when asked how or why they keep doing what they do. Everybody’s got mentors, coaches, mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, sisters and brothers and buddies and comrades, all pushing and cheering and hoping for success. With that kind of momentum, it’s almost a sin to quit or walk away.

So I haven’t. And I don’t. Even when other stuff interferes with the expected flow of events, as it has several times now in 2011.

Gotta get back to the lake. Put another line in the water. The fish won’t catch themselves!


6 thoughts on “Metaphor Alert: The Fine Sport of Writing

  1. A very timely note, that applies to any professional endeavor. It’s a damned rough market out there, in any field. Thanks for the encouragement – your timing is perfect.

  2. Crap, I’m not good at fishing. 😛 Let’s hope I’m better at writing than fishing. Thanks for the post. I’ve been thinking the same things. Why don’t I quit it’s easier. Then I remember my alpha readers I’ve already disappointed them enough already.

  3. Pingback: This Week in Mormon Literature, July 8, 2011 | Dawning of a Brighter Day

  4. Thanks Emily! Hah, yup, the Mormon Mafia: taking over the Dell digests, one issue at a time. (grin) I’m behind on my Analog reading and haven’t read anything in the September issue yet, but I will! I am glad you liked, “The Chaplain’s Assistant.”

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