One of the most common questions I’ve heard, since the day I launched my actual creative writing career after retiring from the real world (if a life in sports like baseball, soccer, and drag racing can even be considered the real world) is “How did you do that? How did you even know where to start or how to do it?”
My general answer is something along the lines of “Well, I didn’t know. I just thought I could, so I dove in and started swimming. You can do some amazing things if you’re afraid you’re going to sink.”
It’s not really that simple, of course. If I gave the best answer I could come up with, with lots of details and heartfelt feelings, I’d be talking to only myself in short order, after the questioner slowly backed away and sneaked out of the room. Let’s just boil it down to this: Writing good sentences and paragraphs came easy. Turning it all into my first project, a 545-page book about myself, was not. There’s a ton of self-doubt and worry involved. And that was just my autobiography! I already knew the story and the characters going in. I didn’t need to make anything up. I just had to tell the stories.
In How Far? I had my baseball character Brooks Bennett write about his school years, with a focus on the fact that math and numbers just came easily and naturally to him. He was less accomplished on the creative side, but numbers were like puzzle pieces that spoke to him. I felt worthy of putting those words in Brooks’ voice, because I’m the opposite and I truly don’t understand it when I hear guys like him explain how easy math is. I wrote the book (sorry to break this to you, but Brooks doesn’t exist except in our minds) and that allowed me (or forced me) to delve into one concept that has fascinated me since high school.
There are different types of people. There, I’ve said it. OK, what I’m talking about is intelligence as a whole, but specialties in specific. I don’t really know if it’s “left brain” or “right brain” but I’m the creative guy. I knew I could write (horribly at first) as early as sixth grade when I won a St. Louis city-wide essay contest. It came naturally, but like any skill it had to be honed and sharpened. For many years. In different formats and styles. I had some stout DNA to work with, as well. My mother was an amazing writer. She gets the credit for putting me on this path.
Math and I don’t get along. It’s not even a polite detente. It’s quite contentious. It’s oil and water, lawns and weeds, dogs and cats, you name it. Even to this day, I’m forever thankful for the invention of calculators and don’t trust myself with much more than the basic formulas for leaving a good tip and coming up with the new total. Math befuddles me. It makes no sense. It’s HARD! Science fascinates me, but it too is over my head. I struggled in school once we got beyond the periodic table and into more ethereal stuff. But boy oh boy, I could write. I had that going for me.
So how did I know I could write not one, but TWO books in very different styles and genres? I still don’t know a better answer than “I just knew I could. I knew I’d have to master this corner of the writing world, but I’m a quick learner when watching my mentors and seeing how they do things.”
I figured, perhaps with some arrogance and cockiness, that I could figure it out and make it work. But “making it work” wouldn’t be enough. I had to make it work and also make it good. That’s a whole new level. The best part was, I had no trepidation about being up for the challenge. Maybe I was just foolish enough to try it.
To be clear, I think being a writer and being an author are two very different things. I’ve been a writer for most of my life. I’ve written more press releases, proposals, scripts, and Year In Review binders than I care to even come close to counting. And on top of all of that, there’s blog writing in what little spare time I’ve had left. Jumping into the “author world” was a huge leap into a canyon that seemed to have no bottom. You know the cliche. It was a leap of faith, and the faith had to be in myself. No one was going to save me if I failed and no one could do it for me. I couldn’t peer over Joe Shea’s shoulder in high school to copy his math test. I just had to believe.
I’ll never forget January 6, 2016 when I sat at my desk in our home out in Spokane, and typed the first words of Bats, Balls, & Burnouts. That was the leap. It was almost too overwhelming at first. I’ll admit that. It nearly scared me into a sort of writing paralysis. Why? Because it was one of those deals where I had to learn as I went, but I also had to start before I’d learned. Right? Starting was the hardest part, so I gave myself a break and instead started by writing an outline and firmly deciding on the format.
At one point, with Bats, Balls, & Burnouts, I had a lofty idea about making it meander between the past and the present, alternating back and forth as if that would absolutely prove to the world that I was damn special and could do anything.
I tried that for a few “test pages” and I knew it wasn’t right. I had a phenomenal mentor/editor at my instant disposal, in the person of Greg Halling. Greg was my leader, my inspiration for getting better, and the guy who was constantly steering me with gentle pushes and tugs to get me out of my “PR style” and into actual creative writing. With that crazy format, we both agreed I was attempting to pick up a bow and arrow for the first time and hit an apple at 50 yards. I wrote to him, “I think I’m just going to write it straight forward. No tricks. No games. Just linear and chronological.” His instant response was “I’m for that.” I could almost hear his exhale of relief between the words.
I can still go back through that book and clearly see the growth. It happened pretty quickly, actually. I absolutely hate the first chapter, and don’t much like a few right after that, but before long I had hit my pace and picked up enough knowledge from my fearless mentor to sense the growth. All in all, I’m really proud of it, despite Chapter 1. I can pick it up today and randomly read a chapter and smile. It’s like, “Damn. I wrote that. It’s pretty good…”
Then came the next great challenge. I thought Bats, Balls, & Burnouts was hard when I did it. It was. And it was a whole new challenge in my life. With How Far? I was leaping off yet another cliff. Higher still and way more scary. I never really seriously considered that I’d fail at Bats, Balls, & Burnouts. I think I just figured “How bad could it be? It’s my life. I just have to make it palatable.”
How Far? was a whole different animal. Fiction? Historical Fiction? Historical Fiction in a sports setting? Gimme a break. I actually thought I could do that? Who the hell was I to dare even thinking that?
Again, I didn’t know. Perhaps I’m just a combination of reckless, clueless, and arrogantly confident, so I took the dive.
It took a very long time to write it. Mostly because I started with no established deadline. I was going to take as long as I needed. With Bats, Balls, & Burnouts I felt I had a deadline. The reason for that was the Kickstarter campaign I’d done and all the money I raised to actually make the book happen. Writing it was a job and an obligation. People gave me money to do it! I never planned for it to take exactly one year, but that felt like a reasonable deadline from the first day. It was just luck or fate that had me finish the first draft on January 6, 2017. One year. To the day. Possibly to the minute. Weird, but rewarding.
With How Far? I just got started and tried to find my way in this strange new land where I barely spoke the language. There were issues getting started. You probably don’t know this, but almost all of Chapters 1 & 2 were tossed in the trash as failures. I overwrote them, tried too hard, and hated the result. Greg would never admit to hating anything I did, but he gently guided me back to the beginning and I started again, being more efficient and way less wordy and flowery. And the key was to remember to write in my characters’ voices. I had to keep me out of it. That was a very large adjustment, but I was conscious of it every day I wrote.
I decided to clear my head and focus on the two characters for a few weeks. I just wrote about them, for my own sake. I taught myself about them, and how they’d talk, and how they acted, and what they looked like. You can’t write as two fictional people without really knowing them. That was the right approach.
Months went by. I’d write a chapter, save it and share it with Greg, and typically wouldn’t start the next one until he had his comments and edits back to me and I made the adjustments. More time spent. The months were flying by.
And about those edits and comments. Working in Google Docs, Greg could access my drafts and go in there to make tweaks or fix clunky bits, and then I’d get it back and see those edits, along with his comments in the margin. I’ll give myself credit for this: I never took that lightly. I seriously and earnestly tried to learn from every edit and suggestion. My goal was to be a vastly different writer as we went. And, without planning it, that played perfectly into the words I wrote in the voices of Brooks and Eric. If they were real, and if they were athletes who were writing a book for the first time, one would assume they’d have their versions of Greg Halling helping them. They are both smart guys, and very perceptive, but they sounded different from each other and they wrote differently. They would, though, get better at it as they went. I did that too. Which means they did it. It was a natural flow and progression.
But the months were flying by. I’d spent a year and a half and only had about 18 or 20 chapters done. The finish line was not only out of sight, it wasn’t even on my radar.
And here’s another aside about writing projects like How Far? It is VERY physical. It’s intellectually exhausting, creatively tiring, but also really physical. I have no idea how some prolific writers crank out 300-page novels every few months or so. Yes, I am retired and didn’t have to share my time between work obligations and the book, but my body would tell me when to take a break or slow down. I do have some arthritis, and my hands would often start to tell me they’d had enough and needed an hour off. I’d usually go for a calming scenic drive, with the steering wheel heater on to give my knuckles a chance to loosen up and feel better. I have a severely compressed disc in my upper back in the cervical area. Typing on a laptop makes that nerve “buzz” after a while. It’s buzzing right now, just writing this blog. The discs in my lower back are damaged as well, so there’s that. After four hours of nonstop writing, the first challenge is to stand up straight. It’s the price of doing this business.
Finally, around the end of 2020, I knew I had to create a finish line. I had to have a target. I had to have a deadline. Self-imposed, of course, but a deadline nonetheless. I wanted it done by the middle of 2021. My first deadline was March. That became May. I finished the draft on July 4th. And as has been well documented, I spent five days in the hospital not long after that. Like I said, writing this much is very physical. And I stopped taking care of myself. I slept little and sometimes not at all. I alternated between being “locked in” as I wrote to being absolutely useless when I wasn’t. The stress drove everything into hyperdrive. I finished the draft on the 4th of July, and it almost finished me. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but when they told me to get to the hospital in an hour after looking at my CT scan, the doctors weren’t exaggerating. It could have been serious.
All of my charts, results, and doctor’s reports are on a website and I can go back and read all of that whenever I want to. I don’t usually want to but I did a few months back and I could see something in their words that is just “so me” it made me shake my head. Comments like “Patient shows no signs of pain or discomfort and is in good spirits.” This was when I had four different IVs going and serious looking specialist doctors coming and going all day and all night. It was like, OK I might be sick but I’m going in with a positive attitude and I’ll walk out of here just fine. And I did.
And then the book was edited, proofed, and published and off we went into another abyss unlike any leap I’d taken to that point. We were playing in a different league. Fiction is the most popular genre in publishing. Historical fiction is a subsection that is populated by serious “Major League” authors of enormous repute who mostly have awards and accolades to spare. Then there was me.
Why on Earth did I think I could play at that level? I must have been a fool, or I must have convinced myself that I was really SERIOUSLY only doing this for myself. I had to convince myself that I wouldn’t care if nobody read it and I sure didn’t think anyone would like it more than a friend who might typically say something nice just to be supportive. “I read your book. It was good. Congrats.”
Self doubt. Man, when it creeps in it’s a bit like getting the yips when you’re putting for par. The simplest thing you’ve done a million times becomes enormously daunting.
Since the publication of the book I’ve gone through peaks and valleys that would look like a sine wave if charted out. One day I’ll feel an enormous sense of accomplishment, and the next I’ll read some reviews of other books released by my publisher, ones that have won major awards, and I’ll feel myself shrink in size until I’m a tiny little man who can almost stand on his laptop keyboard to step on the keys. It really never fails. I’ll get word from a reader or a truly trusted friend who has just finished How Far? and listen to them shower me with praise and effusive descriptions of how the book made them laugh and cry, all within two paragraphs. That makes it all so worthwhile, but it’s fleeting.
I can describe the praise as some sort of “writer’s high” but it’s fleeting, as I just said. My default setting, when I’m sitting here in a vacuum with no external input, is one of skepticism and doubt. All those other books I see my publisher touting, with feature stories and rave reviews? Those are real. I’m just me. I’m an amateur. I’m glad I did this and I’m proud of it, but it has to rank at the bottom of the big picture, right? It’s just me.
That never really goes away. Is it motivating? It sure doesn’t feel that way, but I suspect it is. Otherwise, why would I have tackled these projects in the first place? Why would I have had the utter audacity to write my autobiography as my first book when my “fame” was contained to a neat little group of family, neighbors, friends, drag racing fans, and blog readers? There’s confidence in there somewhere. Somewhere deep. The doubt just screams louder.
And then I took another giant leap by signing with Ascot Media Group to represent me in a full PR and publicity program. Yes, they represent plenty of retired people (dreamers) who have tried their hands at the author game, but they also represent a good number of established writing stars. Award winners. Best sellers. And I’m just me. We launch the campaign in about three weeks. My doubting brain says to me, “They can’t help you. You’re a fraud.” My confident self says “They play in the big leagues. They will take you to another level. This is REALLY important, so be ready to rock it.”
I’m smart enough to consciously know my confident self is the right one. The doubt is just noise. It’s a bit like the internet and social media. The haters and the jealous scream the loudest and call you names. You have to know the belief that what you’re doing is at least good, and maybe very good. Probably not noble or important, but good. It has to be good.
So that’s me. This “relaunch” with Ascot has me excited. I’m ready to rock. I wish it was starting today.
And I’ve opened my PDF of How Far? quite a few times over the past few weeks. I read the first 12 chapters over the last couple days. I’ve read the middle chapters and the final rush to the finish recently, as well. Like a movie, the book has to start a bit slow just to establish the characters and their backgrounds. As it gets going, the pace picks up. When it comes to the culmination, it’s flying. Writing it was that way. Methodical and careful to start, creating more pace and emotion in the middle, and then absolutely screaming at Mach 1 to the climax, with my own emotions totally on edge as I took Brooks and Eric through it all.
You know what? I really like it. I smile a lot when I’m reading it. The doubt is silenced and sent to the corner. It’s damn good stuff. I really believe that it’s the best work of my life.
When people tell me about laughing and crying when reading it, I often say “I get it and that makes me very proud. Hell, I laughed and cried when I wrote it” and I’m totally serious about that. The characters touched me. I know them. They are my friends. It was my responsibility to bring them to life. I think I did. Whew. This has really been a thrill ride, to say the very least.
Thanks for reading. And thanks, in advance, to any of you who will click on the “Like” button below. Likes beget more likes and more eyeballs. I want to share this book with the widest possible audience. A good PR and publicity agency will do that, and so will word of mouth. I just want to share what I created. Feel free to share this link with your friends if you’re so inclined.
When looking back and analyzing all of this, I often hear the late star relief pitcher Tug McGraw in my head, shouting “Ya Gotta Believe!” or Coach Herb Brooks telling his Olympic team “You were born to be hockey players” but he changes the words to “You were born to be an author.” I do think it was meant to be.
Thanks Mom. And thank you Greg Halling, Phil Burgess, Barbara Doyle, Kelly Wade, Elon Werner, Terry Blake and so many others who challenged me, led me, taught me, corrected me, and drove my passion. There’s a piece of all of you in every word I write. And thanks to Paul Broten, Brian Raabe, CJ Eick, Jeff Morton, Dave St. Peter, Del Worsham and a long list of others who gave me the insight, the feelings, and the truth about what Brooks and Eric would’ve gone through. Those details in How Far? were imparted to me by a long list of people who lived it and knew it. They were so gracious and unselfish with their time. They “bought in” and that still means more to me than they will ever know.
See ya soon. I want to go say hello to Brooks and Eric again before the rest of my day spins out of control…
PS: If you’ve yet to read either one (or both) of my books, you know where to find them. Rhymes with Schmamazon.