For all of you out there who are not sports fans — in particular baseball fans — forgive me my self-indulgence. But this was just too good a “teaching moment” to pass up.
On Friday, the St. Louis Cardinals and the San Francisco Giants played the fifth game of their National League Championship Series. The Cardinals had battered the Giants in the previous game, taking a commanding 3-1 lead in their best-of-seven series, and heading into the fifth game the Giants seemed to be in real trouble. (I’m writing this before Sunday night’s game, so I don’t know what happened with Game 6. Frankly, it’s not important. You’ll see: This isn’t really about baseball at all.)
Moreover, the Giants’ starting pitcher for Game 5, Barry Zito, was not exactly the kind of pitcher who strikes fear in the heart of opposing batters or fans. At thirty-four years old, Zito is past his prime. He has lost speed off his fastball, and so has become far more hittable than he was many years ago when he won the Cy Young Award while pitching for the Oakland A’s. It seemed likely that the Cardinals would finish off the Giants and head to the World Series.
But a funny thing happened Friday night. Barry Zito pitched a masterful game, holding the Cardinals to a handful of hits and no runs. Most impressive, in an age when it seems like every new young pitcher sports a 98 mile-per-hour fastball, Zito’s fastest pitch of the night was clocked at 86 miles per hour. (The difference between an 86 mph fastball and one that is thrown at 98 mph is huge — like the difference between racing the fastest kid on your local college’s track team, and racing Usain Bolt.) Zito’s slowest pitch floated up to the plate at 69. That’s practically a Bugs Bunny slow ball. But just about every pitch he threw went exactly where he wanted it to. His pitches had movement, making them difficult to hit. And when you set up batters with 70 mph curveballs, that 86 mph fastball suddenly looks much faster than it is.
What’s my point? Why would a Magical Words post begin with a discussion of Barry Zito and his singularly unimpressive pitch velocity?
Because as Barry showed us the other night, there is more than one way to be a successful pitcher in the big leagues. Some pitchers can’t throw the ball 100 mph. A pitcher who can is sometimes said to have “electric stuff, a lightning bolt for an arm.” Barry Zito doesn’t have that kind of arm, at least not anymore. And so he doesn’t go to the mound trying to throw the ball as hard as he can. That’s not his strength. He is more wily than strong. He compensates for his lack of speed by relying on location, movement, and variance in his velocity. He doesn’t overpower hitters; he keeps them off balance.
I do not write as brilliantly as some people I know. My prose is clear, readable — I have moments when I manage to write with grace and elegance. But I don’t have electric stuff; no one will ever confuse me with Cormac McCarthy or Annie Proulx. And so I rely on other strengths. I create believable characters, I handle dialogue well. My settings feel real and speak to all of my readers’ senses. My plotting is good, though not great, but my emotional content is pretty powerful. Now, I would never say that I ignore my shortcomings when I write. Far from it. I work extra hard on polishing my prose, and I take great care with my plotting. But I know that I am going to win readers over with my character work and the emotional arcs I weave into my stories. I write to my strengths.
J.K. Rowling creates memorable characters, her worldbuilding is terrific, and her plotting is complex and effective. Suzanne Collins is a master of voice and writes stunningly good action scenes. Neil Gaiman is terrific at voice and character, and has a magical touch when it comes to blending humor and dark ambiance. Guy Gavriel Kay writes gorgeous prose, creates some of the richest worlds our genre has ever seen, and plays to emotion with a deft hand. I could go on, but I think you can probably fill in your favorite writers and their strengths on your own.
Chances are, you can fill in their weaknesses, too, just as you can fill in your own. I’ve written in the past about our strengths and weaknesses as writers and I believe that knowing what we’re good at and what we need to improve can help us grow as artists.
What I’m talking about today is just a little different. I would never tell you to stop working to improve those areas of your work that need the most work. But I would say this: As you seek to market yourself, as you steer your current projects toward completion, know what aspects of your writing you can rely upon, and which ones you can’t. Handle your work the way Barry Zito handled his pitching assignment the other night. If you don’t have a 100 mph fastball, don’t challenge every hitter with the high, hard stuff. If your off-speed pitches are devastating, use them to their full advantage. In other words . . .
If flashy prose is not your thing, don’t try to write in a flashy way. If you write amazing dialogue, use character interactions to drive your narrative. Yes, I know, this advice doesn’t always work perfectly well. Even if you don’t do action scenes well, you will still need to write some in — they’re part of the genre. But if, say, you’re not so good with the action, but you’re great with description, perhaps there are ways to describe the action that will make your fight/battle scenes stand out from those of others. I’m not that great at action scenes, but I do a good job of writing my action at an emotional level that keeps me firmly in POV and helps make those scenes connect on a visceral level. If you do character well, but your plotting is a bit shaky, try to tie your plot points to your character arcs, and let character development steer your plotting (a good bit of advice no matter your strengths, actually).
In other words, use your strengths to cover for your weaknesses. In baseball parlance, use your curve ball to set up your fastball and make it seem faster. Write the way Barry Zito pitched the other night. Be smart. As a sportscaster might say, stay within yourself; don’t try to write like someone else, someone who has a different (though not better) skill set. Play your game — your book will be better for it.David B. Coe http://www.DavidBCoe.com http://www.dbjackson-author.com http://magicalwords.net
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