Writing To Our Strengths, or What I Learned From Barry Zito


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

18 comments to Writing To Our Strengths, or What I Learned From Barry Zito

  • I am a huge baseball fan, so your analogy works great for me! It’s also quite timely, because I read a book this weekend with beautiful, lyrical descriptions of setting, and a sense of place so strong I felt like I actually lived there. When reading, I kept thinking, “I could never write like this.” Nice to be reminded that while I may not be able to write like that, I might still be able to write something worth reading.

  • I’ve been told I’m good with voice and dialogue. Also a good hand at action. I like to think I’m decent at emotional scenes, plot, and world building too. Where I fall short, but I’m getting better, is in varying structure. The story’s usually there, but I tend to use a lot of the same sentence/paragraph/dialogue structure. I also have to go back in and try to replace repeated words that I use too often. And at times I probably don’t do enough description, scenery dressing, so to speak, and have to go back in and add in revisions–those things I can see in my head but don’t think to add. At least I know where my weaknesses are and can work to fix ’em.

  • My husband is a baseball fan, so he got a kick out of me reading the baseball bits aloud to him in the car on the way to work. 😉 Great post! I think for me, realizing what my voice is, and what it isn’t, has made my writing stronger.

    (I am just coming down from SIWC conference high. Two requests for fifty pages from agents! No full requests this time, but that’s okay. It just means I have to make them damned good partials.) 😀

  • Hepseba ALHH

    While I am probably about as far from a baseball fan as you can get, your analogy still made a lot of sense to me, and actually reminded me very specifically of what my TaeKwonDo instructor likes to say whenever we practice sparring: “Youth and speed are no match for old-age and treachery.” Experience counts for a *lot*.

    I remember once struggling through a terrible book by a new writer (who people praised for gorgeous prose), putting it down, and picking up one of your books. Less than two pages in, I felt a huge sense of relief, knowing that *now* I was reading a book by an experienced storyteller. More recently, I picked up an early book by an author I’ve really enjoyed and liked it well enough (it had some really gorgeous imagery). I then went on to read Lynn Flewelling’s latest book and had the same relieved reaction. Lynn’s book started slower, but I didn’t mind at all, it was richer and more substantial, as though experienced writers simply have the means to provide a more nutritious story than those with less practice.

    Another thing I’ve noticed, though, is that (though your book I mentioned above was the first in the series) often times the non-first books in series get a good portion of this benefit almost by default. If the author uses it properly, there’s already characterization and back-story there to layer in extra richness to books 2 onward.

  • Sisi, thanks. Glad to know the analogy worked. And yes, that’s exactly the point. Maybe the book you’re reading has descriptions that are beyond what you feel you can do right now. But surely your book has qualities that set it apart, and that aspiring writers will one day look at and think, “Wow, wish I could do that.”

    Daniel, knowing our weaknesses and knowing how to address them is probably the most important factor in good writing. I never get a book right the first time through. But I know what to watch for when I’m revising and can usually fix the problems I create the first time through. As you say, that is incredibly important.

    Laura, congrats! That’s fantastic. Hope the agents love the partials. And thanks for the kind words about the post.

    Hep, what you said about my book (and also the fact that you put my work in a similar category to Lynn’s) made my day. Thank you. I like the quote from your TaiKwonDo instructor — great stuff. And I do agree that with second and third books you can build on previous character and setting work, making the books seem richer and more complete than their predecessors.

  • […] creative lessons to be learned from the success of an aging baseball pitcher.  The post is called “Writing to Our Strengths, or What I Learned From Barry Zito.” I hope you enjoy it. This entry was posted in Business of publishing, Character, Novels, […]

  • TwilightHero

    An excellent post, and timely too. I’ve nearly finished the WIP – yay me! – and I’ve been looking back, thinking about what I’ve done best and what I could do better. In general, my strong points seem to be action and plotting, weak points worldbuilding and dialogue. It’s good to be reminded one can help offset the other 🙂

  • David, I am feeling very tenderhearted today and this post brought tears to my eyes. Playing (writing) to my strengths makes life so much easier. Not every step (word/para) has to be a slog through sucking mud. Hugs.

  • Sadly, I honestly don’t think I could tell you what most of my strengths and weaknesses are. I’ve got a vague sense of it, but I can’t nail it down specifically. This probably does not bode well for my continued development as a writer…

  • quillet

    I’m no fan of baseball, but I love your analogy. Write to your strengths! I find that very encouraging. I believe I’m best at characters and dialogue, worst at plot and action; but in an action scene I wrote last week, told in first person, I let the character’s voice and anger guide everything — and it really worked. The result was lean and mean. (Says me. What beta readers might say…we’ll see. 😉 )

  • Razziecat

    David, your timing with this post is eerily perfect. I’ve just been going through a drawn-out period of “I’ll never be as good as…(fill in the blank)..” It’s good to be reminded that the point of telling my stories is just that–to tell my own stories, my own way. And good to remember that we all have our own strengths 🙂

  • sagablessed

    Ditto for me , Stephen. I am not sure what my weakness are in a solid form. So I have a writer’s group to help. I have found that with each WIP, my stregths and weakness change.
    Want to be published.
    “Always a bridesmaid and never a bride. Boo-hoo.” -Bugs Bunny

  • Twilight, thanks. And congrats on your progress with the WIP!

    Faith, I’m sorry to hear you were having a rough day. I’m glad the post helped in some small way.

    Stephen, I think you’re being too hard on yourself. Sometimes these things are clear to us, sometimes they’re not. But that doesn’t mean that your career is doomed. Chin up.

    Quillet, thank you. Using character voice and emotion to guide you through something that comes less naturally, is exactly what I’m talking about. Well done. Hope your Betas love it.

    Razz, glad to hear this reached you at a good time. I go through those periods your describing more frequently than I care to say. I need to remind myself of these things all the time.

    Saga, writing groups can be enormously helpful in this regard. And as I said to Stephen, sometimes we’re clear on our strengths and weaknesses and sometimes we’re not. Keep the faith.

  • Heh, yeah, I try not to be too worried about my career being “doomed”. I just meant it’s hard to figure out how to improve my craft when it’s not entirely clear to me what I do well and what I do poorly. I know I do things well – I consistently get good feedback from readers – but I’d be hard-pressed to put a finger on what those things are. I know I do other things less well (I have ample evidence of the not-published variety), but the same story holds. I also know I’ve improved over time. But it’s only in looking back that I’ve gained any clarity over what things I used to do very poorly and have improved upon.

  • This sounds a lot like something we’ve been working on at my school. A decade ago one of our professors started arguing that “instead of asking what’s wrong with people, we should ask what’s right with them.” He was a psychologist, so naturally he came up with a multipoint rubric of strengths. This lead to a shift in the way we approach teaching; students are helped to diagnose their strengths and then taught how to capitalize on them, instead of focusing on their weaknesses. We do still address areas of weakness, but it’s a much more positive experience for all of us.

  • Stephen, it may be that reading through your older work — stuff you haven’t looked at in ages — will give you a sense of what your writing lacks and exactly how you’ve improved. Just a suggestion.

    Sarah, I like that as a pedagogical approach. It seems much more proactive, and much more likely to yield good results for students and teachers alike. Very cool.

  • Beatriz

    Elegant stuff, this.

    While for me the baseball season ended the night I watched the Nationals get eliminated I may just have to watch Zito pitch. If you can sway me to do something I wouldn’t normally do simply by your description of something, I’d say that’s pretty damned fine writing.

  • Thanks very much, Beatriz. I appreciate the kind words. Zito looked great again last night, and I don’t think he broke 86 on the radar gun even once. Impressive.