Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Book Review: The Art of Fielding

             As the Best Books of the Year lists started to surface on the web, the title I saw most frequently was The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach.  Apparently those who are wired into the literary circles of the northeast knew this writer and had been expecting this debut novel from the Harvard grad for some time.   After reading the book’s description on Amazon, I knew I would have to read this book.  The story follows Henry, a young undersized but incredibly slick-fielding shortstop, as he lands a spot on the roster of a small Midwestern Division III college baseball team.  He fields a baseball like Mozart played the piano, but his brilliance is only realized after careful observation because is he so small and scrawny.   
            This sounded familiar. . .           
            For those who  don’t know me, I was a 105 lbs shortstop when I entered high school, and 140 lbs dripping wet when I was fortunate enough to find a college in Middle Tennessee State that would give me a partial scholarship to play ball.   In Fielding, Henry packs on some muscle and becomes a better hitter once at college, enabling him to attract the attention of pro scouts just like yours truly.  Why am I not suing Harbach for writing my tale?  Well, for one, my roommate and fellow teammate was not gay (unless Snyder is a great actor and his current wife and kids are an elaborate sham) like that of Henry’s roomie in Harbach’s book. 
Also Henry is a bit na├»ve and dim, almost oblivious to his skills.  He just knows he loves to play and he does it brilliantly without ever thinking.  This fact becomes an important plot point later.   The upperclassman named Schwartz, who recognizes Henry’s skill and recruits him to Westish college,  becomes the hero of the book.  This hard working, hard living brute is brilliantly portrayed as are most of the ball players in Fielding.  The scenes involving baseball and the off-season weight training are spot on.   There are plenty of laughs and there is plenty of heart throughout.  A good portion of the story leaves baseball in the periphery and becomes more familiar to readers of scholarly fiction that often thumbs its nose at books by the Connellys and Cornwells.
The writer in me was a little bitter as I started reading.  I have written a baseball book that I thought transcended the sport.  I am a much better writer now than when I wrote The Ball Player, but I still feel it is good work.  If Chad Harbach could get a $650,000 advance, as was reported, for The Art of Fielding than surely The Ball Player should have fetched me at least 20K, right?  Wrong. 
So it took a little doing to shrug aside the salty snarl that kept my lips curled through chapter one and two.  But once I forced myself to view Harbach as a kindred spirit, I began to enjoy his masterpiece.  I call it that because it is - a work done with extraordinary skill; a supreme intellectual or artistic achievement (Merriam-Webster’s).  This novel is not for the all-American baseball fan.  If pitched this book, a Hollywood producer might hear, “It’s Bull Durham meets Brokeback Mountain.”   This comparison might seem glib, but it should ward off readers with peculiar sensibilities.
Read The Art of Fielding.  Just don’t expect to loan it from your Kindle or Nook.  The publisher felt it was so impressive that to have it bounce around the world electronically might tarnish it, or at least its ability to earn back the advance.  And if you have read Fielding, next read The Ball Player. Available now at claysnellgrove.com. 

Monday, December 5, 2011

A Look Back on Novel #1

My first foray into writing novel length fiction was more than a decade ago.  In terms of my knowledge of the craft at the time, I was young, dumb, and wildly naive.  I approached the challenge of writing that first novel like a successful middle aged businessman taking up the challenge of running a first marathon.  This newbie runner just buys a pair of running shoes and asks, how many miles must I jog each week to finish 26.2 on race day?  I took half my signing bonus I received from the San Diego Padres, bought a $500 Toshiba laptop, and asked, how many words must I type to fill 300 pages in a mass market paperback?

I had heard some whispers about how difficult it was to compose a novel.  The movies were full of would-be writers struggling into their 30s and 40s to finish their future best-sellers.   English grad students all had a Chapter One saved and tucked away just waiting for that long summer in front of the keyboard when chapters 2-99 would materialize.    I knew many had come before and failed, but that fact alone made the task that much more enticing.  My hubris surely heightened at the time by my envied profession of pro athlete (‘poor’ purposely removed from this title to fuel popular misperception), and by the testosterone that my regular workouts had pumping through my veins.

Three months after I began my first novel, it was complete.  I had saved in My Documents a 100,000-word thriller about a college kid turned vigilante that just needed to be spell-checked.   I bought a book soon after that explained the process of querying literary agents and how to seek their representation (this was 1999 and everything was not yet online).   Eight of the twelve agents I sent my synopsis to actually wanted to see the first few chapters!  At the time I had no idea how rare this was.  A decade later I would send 50 queries out for The Ball Player and only have 3 agents ask to read a sample.

If you are not a writer, I will now break the bad the news… A spell-checked rough draft from a young scribe with little experience writing or reading the kind of novel he is attempting to complete is bound to be fraught with literary missteps.   The sample chapters I sent were quickly rejected, as well they should have been, after what I assume was a quick scan of the novel’s first few paragraphs.  

I actually believed I was sending out good work all those years ago.  I have written several more novels since, and hope to finish another very soon.  I will be contacting agents and publishers with this new work, feeling as confident now as I did back then.  The realization that, my work, while better, is still not worthy of a distinguished agent or publisher’s representation but I’m blind to that fact, can be a bit scary.  All I can really do is get better and keep writing.  And…

I can do that.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Task #1 (homework)

Even before tuition is due for my first semester with Converse College, I was given my first assignment for my low-residency MFA program.   I am to submit a writing sample that will be critiqued by seven other students.  These peers along with a couple of instructors will spend an hour discussing my work during the residency.   The writing sample itself is not homework.  I am not expected to produce 25 pages of new material, but instead I am to select a piece I’ve written previously.  The real work is that I’m responsible for reading seven other manuscripts, writing critiques on each, and preparing opinions in order to discuss them in a few short weeks.

I attacked this first assignment with vigor.  I set aside my recently purchased Kindle and the one book in its que,  I let the protagonist of my current thriller in progress, Detective Lou Knabe, sit ignored with some newly revealed evidence, and I began to reread pages of my own past writings in search of my sample to submit for review.   This was truly an encouraging experience.  As I read chapters of my work written months and sometimes a year before I found I connected with my voice; I got my own characters, and when I came to the end of a chapter, I wanted to read on.

Okay, so I have healthy self-esteem.  And yes, this is why I need readers and editors, and why I must tell myself constantly to heed others’ advice.  But I would much rather feel good about my work in hindsight than feel like hiding my eyes when reading past efforts.  Had I gone back far enough in my journey as a writer, I would have certainly found some paragraphs that could make me cringe and possibly wretch.  But at least in the most recent past and with the sample I chose to send, I feel confident that I have some chops.  And in the end, regardless of the opinion of my future classmates, I know I have one reader that is happy about where my writing has come… Me.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Past, Present, Future

           My story, as it pertains to my writing, starts as it must, with a great read.  Sitting quietly each day after lunch, my fourth grade class listened to our teacher read The Hobbit.   For a few minutes each day I closed my eyes and moved in a world of wizards and trolls.  I followed closely behind Bilbo Baggins on his fated quest ready to help or fight.  I could feel my own sword in a sheath on my hip, often trying to draw it upon hearing that our reading time had expired for the day.   
            Looking back, I realize it was not the fantasy world of Tolkien’s creation that ultimately intrigued me, but it was the realization that wonderful story-telling could captivate, could free the mind and allow it to travel throughout not only our own universe but any that another could imagine.   
            Deadlines and guided analysis pulled most of the joy from the classics that anchored my syllabi in the years to follow.  Save for a few exceptions that included To Kill a Mockingbird and A Separate Peace, my mind accepted the assigned reading much like the body receives medicine, cringing through its ingesting only to become stronger and healthier after each dose is absorbed.   I sought escape from the rigors of traditional studies in my elective classes. 
Journalism, Creative Writing, and physical education were my favorites.  At times I found ways to marry the three, writing editorials about sports that ran in the monthly issue of my high school newspaper.  It was in writing and editing the paper that I was once again reminded of the power of the written word.
Looking back on that time, a part of me wishes I would have attacked the craft of writing then and there, committed myself to the art of storytelling.  However my easy way with words, a glimmer of talent if you will, was overshadowed by my ability to catch and hit a ball.   Baseball had become my platform to shine and a way to offset the cost of college.  Professional status and the Major Leagues became my Everest, a dream that if realized would unleash fame and fortune and allow the use of the moniker “one of the world’s best” to describe me.
After six years toiling away in the minor leagues, my climb to the big leagues ended short of my goal.  However, during the hours of idle time on buses and in hotels, I turned to books to keep my mind from turning to mush.  Grisham, King, Koontz, and Clancy kept me surrounded by an endless supply of mass market treats.  Each new title was like a small bolt of lightning in my soul that stirred that long forgotten passion for story-telling. 
Baseball created within me an appetite for dreaming big and a best-seller was now atop my bucket-list.  Then I read An Instance of the Fingerpost.  Not long after came The Alienist and The Green Mile.  Books like these made me realize I didn’t want to just write a best seller.  I wanted to write a novel that left a mark both in a reader’s heart and mind.  I wanted to eventually be considered “one of the world’s best” writers.
            I hope someday to have a number of stand-alone tales as compelling and heart-felt as those written by Pat Conroy.  A master of capturing the human experience, Conroy seems to place his characters in situations that allow the readers to see clearly their greatness as well as their faults.   I would be thrilled to find a voice as easy as Richard North Patterson.  Like him, I want to be able to effortlessly weave difficult and complex relationships into commercial fiction.
            I have been given opportunity to study in a low-residency MFA program.  I hope to hone my craft, shore up my fundamentals, and achieve a level in my writing that will qualify me to teach others.  I currently own and operate a baseball and softball academy.  I make my living instructing young players, helping them learn the game and improve their skills.   To have the opportunity to play and compete while also teaching and coaching would have been ideal.  Sadly baseball is a young man’s game and every career has an expiration date. 
            I see, in writing, the possibility of playing and teaching.  I’m excited that my path as a writer can continue as long as my mind and heart are willing. 

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Why I Write Fiction

Writing the He said portion of a He said/ She said column for my high school newspaper, I dipped my pen in an ink well filled with satire as thick as maple syrup and proceeded to advocate a few devilish positions including the worthlessness of cheerleaders.  I faced an avalanche of rage from the female population who carried lip gloss on their person 24/7, while a larger, less visible hoard lauded me as a hero.

Suddenly aware of the power of the written word, I later wrote articles for the Appen News Service, features for periodicals, and columns for Game-Day Programs to augment my meager income I earned playing minor league baseball.   Whether reporting news for hundreds of readers or playing baseball games day after day for thousands of cheering fans, I was struck by the need in people’s lives for escape, a desire for more than a quick diversion that most entertainment provides.  I saw parents needing a true journey away from a city that has been home for decades because the high price of air travel makes leaving impossible, lovers silently begging for passage out of relationships stuck in first gear, grinding up steep inclines, and dreamers desiring invitation into a world that can make dormant adrenal glands, once feared dead, fire anew.

I want to write stories and stir these souls.  Feedback from readers of my novel, The Ball Player, confirmed for me that well-written fiction can provide texture to our daily routines and add vivid colors to the backdrop of our lives.  I hope that my brushstrokes will one day stretch across the country and that my voice is one that readers will ask for many times over.