Trapped in the Minors Leagues of Writing and Publishing

When I am asked, from time-to-time, to recommend a book on writing advice, I usually refer to Stephen King’s excellent (and aptly-titled) On Writing. The book describes one writer’s approach to the craft of writing, which is about all you can hope for. It is a book especially useful to writer’s who are new to the craft and haven’t yet sold a story, article, or book. There are countless such writers in the world, and it is no wonder that King’s book has been so popular over the years.

But what about the writers who sell stories and articles with decent regularity, but have not yet taken their game to the next level? I often find good advice in strange places. Some of the best books I’ve read on topics like project management are not “how-to” books, but books that demonstrate project management through actual work — like Richard Rhodes The Making of the Atomic Bomb. I recently finished reading another such book, John Feinstein’s Where Nobody Knows Your Name: Life in the Minor Leagues of Baseball. Within the pages of this excellent book, I saw lessons for “minor league” writers. The lessons resonated with me, perhaps because I count myself as a minor league writer.

Feinstein’s book follows players, managers, umpires, and others throughout the minor leagues of baseball. Some of the players have been to the majors only to be sent back down. Some have never made it and are waiting for the call. Some will get there eventually. Others won’t. In reading about the daily anxieties of these players, managers, coaches, and umpires, I found a striking similarity to my own anxieties about life in the minor leagues of writing.

Players in the minor leagues see their friends called up to the majors, or sent down to single-A or double-A ball. When you see a friend called up, you become envious. When you see a friend sent down, you feel relieved and lucky that it wasn’t you. I’ve often feelings like these as a writer. I see a friend do really well — get a major book deal, for instance — and I’m tremendously happy for them. But at the same time, I’m envious. I wish it was me. But I also realize I’m not there yet.

“If you don’t like it here, do a better job.”

Few players and managers want to be in the minor leagues. Ron Johnson, one of the managers in triple-A baseball would remind his players, especially those grumbling about not deserving to be in the minors, “If you don’t like it here, do a better job.”

Hard work by itself is no guarantee of making it to the majors, but it almost certainly one aspect of a successful major league career. For me, the same is true about writing. For many, many years, I didn’t really work hard as a writer. I wrote occasionally, when I felt the urge, and produced perhaps 25,000 words a year — in a good year. I did that year, after year, without much results.

There’s nothing wrong with that if you are writing for the pure fun of it. But I was writing for more than just the fun. I was writing with the vision that some day, I might make it into the majors. And writing 25,000 words a year was not going to get me there. Talent varies from person to person. I know a lot of extremely talented writers, for whom writing brilliant stories seems to come naturally. I am not one of those writers. I need to practice. Like a minor league hitter learning to hit a major league curveball, I discovered that for me, the only way to improve my chances of getting to the majors was to improve my writing. The only way to do that was write a lot more. Or, as Ron Johnson put it, “do a better job.”

The coin of the realm

The hard work has gotten me more playing time in the minors. That is, by writing every day, I have been improving my craft, and people have been noticing this. I’ve sold more stories and articles at a signficantly greater rate than when I was just dabbling in writing. And as any minor league player will tell you, playing time is the coin of the realm. The more playing time you get, the more opportunities you have to show those watching how much you have improved. In baseball, those watching are scouts, coaches, and managers. In writing, those watch are editors and agents. In either case, the fans are also watching, but I don’t think baseball players are trying to impress fans with their skills. They are looking to impress the decision-makers, while the fans enjoy (or disparage) the results. The same goes for a writer, unless you are self-published writer, in which case fans become direct decision-makers.

“You’re going up”

Those are the three words every minor leaguer dreams of hearing from their manager. “You’re going up.” You are headed for the major league. Some players spend their entire career in the minors without ever hearing those words. Some player think they will never hear the words, and are surprised when they do. The anxiety among players in the minor leagues about call-ups is strikingly similar to writers hoping to make it to the big leagues. You send your novel manuscript out to agents or publishers hoping for a bite. Once it is out there, you are at the mercy of chance. Just like a minor league ballplayer.

Skill and talent helps, but if there is no spot for you on the team, that skill and talent goes untapped. I’ve submitted a story to a magazine only to have it rejected because the magazine had recently printed a similarly themed story. My story was good, it was just poor timing. Timing is something that we have little control over as writers. The inordinately long process of getting a book from manuscript to bookstore shelf makes a shambles of timing.

Regardless, I find myself daydreaming of making it to the big leagues as a writer, and that helps keep me focused on improving my craft each and every day.

Be prepared

If I took anything from the experience of the minor leaguers that Feinstein followed for a season in his book, it was the old Boy Scout credo: Be prepared. If nothing else, I want to be a reliable writer, one an editor, whether fiction or nonfiction, can depend on to deliver a good story or article. And, of course, I want to be ready should the call come, and I hear those three words that every ballplayer (and writer) has been waiting to hear since they first started out.

Attitude is important

For many of the players that Feinstein wrote about, attitude was an important factor. Having a positive attitude, even in a less-than-ideal situation was a good trait. Often, but not always, good attitudes got noticed. In addition to looking for physical talent, teams are often looking for leaders, and attitude is a big part of leadership.

Everyone’s situation is different, and that factors into attitude. When I started out writing, I inherited the attitudes of writers I admired. Some of these were not particularly good or productive attitudes to have and I abandoned them as I tried to improve myself. Today, I enjoy being a write. Love sitting down to write every day, the same way a ballplayer loves getting onto the field. I do want to reach the next level, but I know that I am probably not ready yet, and have more work to do before I can get there.

I cringe sometimes when I see writers complaining, not because I am not sympathetic, but because, just like in baseball, people are watching, and attitude it important.

Time is on your side

There is one advantage writers have over minor league baseball players: time. At a certain point, a player simple can no longer meet the physical demands of baseball. They can no longer compete with younger, more athletic players. For a time, experience can trump athleticism, but not forever. At some point your body can no longer do what it needs to do to compete.

This isn’t true for a writer. So long as you can keep writing, you can keep trying to make it to the majors. You can show up to spring training every year ready to display your talents to the those who are watching. If it doesn’t pan out one year, well, you can come back the next year. I started to write when I was 20. It took me 14 years of trying before I sold my first story. In the eight years since, I’ve been bouncing around the minors, but I’ve also been writing more and more each year, and I am just beginning to feel like there is a real chance that one day, I can make the jump into the majors. I haven’t gotten the call up yet, but until then, I’ll keep writing every day, trying to improve my craft.