Spring Training for Writers

A few days ago, Major League Baseball began this year’s spring training exhibition games.

Spring training games are a strange experience. It’s still Major League Baseball, and fans still attend, cheer on their team, and buy concessions as they do so. Yet the games don’t officially count. These training games, for all of their similarity to “actual” games, differ in many ways from regular season outings. (And not just in that they don’t count.)

They take place only in one of two perennially warm states: Arizona or Florida.  The stadiums are much smaller than the team’s regular facilities. For much of spring training, the most beloved and famous players play in a game for only a short while before being replaced by their back ups. (And in some cases, by rookie prospects that actually stand no chance of being with the team when the season opens.) Games are allowed to end in a tie in spring training. A player might take a strategic gamble in spring training that would be deemed too risky in a regular season game.

So the essence of baseball is still there, but less shiny. Yet players are getting the training they need, and we the fans, deprived of baseball for four months, can still cheer on these shadows of our team as we watch the games.

Believe it or not, writers can learn from the watered down Major League Baseball experience that is spring training. While there is no official “off” season for a writer, there is nothing preventing us from staying “warm”. Here are a few ways a writer can go through their own spring training any time of the year.

-It doesn’t count.

The first rule of spring training writing is that it mustn’t count. Even when we say we “write for me” there is that pressure, no matter how small,  to consider who will be reading it in the future. Yet we need to stay loose sometimes without the slightest consideration of readers or rules or formulas.

-Stay fit.

A writer must write. As much as possible, so they tell us. When what we’re writing is important to us, or is under a deadline, writing that hard can make us a bit stiff. If we remember to write something that doesn’t count, we keep the writing parts of our mind fresh and moving smoothly, so that when it comes time for the “real” writing, we’re still on a roll.

-Use the big guns sparingly.

You have a certain knack for  description, or dialogue. There’s something distinctive to your writing that makes it memorable. But it can take a hell of a lot of effort to bring it about. As a writer, effort is good. Never lose that ethic. But you need to just keep the gears oiled once in a while. Write a few short stories where you don’t put in each and every last ounce of effort. Aim for coherence, purpose, conflict and such, but don’t aim for your  best. Or if you do, keep it to one line or description. Then go back to basics. Write on auto pilot for a while. You’re keeping the muscles loose, not weight training.

-Take risks.

As I said, during spring training you’ll find batters swinging for the fences more often, and at moments when true strategy would say that making light contact is preferable. Pitchers toss  pitches they’d have no business throwing under regular season attitudes. More runners will try to stretch that double into a triple. Players take more risks in spring training. Not with their bodies, but with their strategies.

You should take great risks in your spring training writing. Forget the style guide. Have more than one point of view in a single paragraph. Start a story with a long flashback. As an author go ahead and butt into the action like you’re not supposed to do. Or here’s a wild one; write a whole story that tells, and doesn’t show a damn thing. (I bet that would come as a wonderful relief!) It doesn’t count, remember? Just see what it feels like to do all of the things with your writing that you’re told not to do all of the time.

-Strange bedfellows.

Teams that don’t often meet during the regular season, (sometimes for years) will play each other in spring training. That’s because the divisions and leagues of the regular season don’t apply. In spring training, you have the temporary Cactus League (made up of teams that train in Arizona) and the temporary Grapefruit League (made up of teams that train in Florida.) Spring training games stay within these unofficial leagues. You have the unique chance to watch your teams play against those they don’t play often otherwise.

As a writer, you can join a Cactus or Grapefruit League by writing a story in spring training that you wouldn’t normally write. If you’re a thriller author, pen a romance for spring training. You literary fiction types might want to toy with a sci-fi tale. Writing is a time-consuming task, and if you are a genre writer, much of your energy and time is going to be taken up with stories within that genre. So give yourself some spring training time, and write a “this doesn’t count” story in a genre totally different from your usual. Do this even if you haven’t read much or anything in that genre.

-Rookie prospects.

You’ll often find rookies that are in the minor leagues playing with the Major League team during spring training. Sometimes this is done to see if the rookie might be ready to enter the Big Leagues. Sometimes it’s to fill a hole on the roster for any given day. Sometimes the rookie knows he will be called up that year at some point, and is given the chance to see some major league level playing in spring training before he actually starts playing against it later in the real season.

You may not realize it in quite this way, but as a writer you also have rookie prospects. Your prospects are the story ideas you have tucked away in your mind, or written in your idea notebook, (you do have an idea notebook, don’t you?) but haven’t begun yet. In other words, a story concept. In some cases perhaps a treatment that’s a few sentences long, or the roughest of all outlines is there, but no prose has been committed to paper or screen yet. It remains a concept because you either don’t have time to pursue it, or you know it isn’t quite ripe yet.

Write a version of it during spring training. A sloppy, broad, perhaps uninspired version of it. Something that isn’t even a rough draft, because a rough draft is the first stage in bringing a story to the forefront of your work. No, this spring training writing is just to try the concept out. See if it has any legs at all.

You can quit this in the middle, or skip the climax and try out just the ending. The point is to just kick the tires a bit on that idea you’ve had for a while. You don’t need to start to take it seriously right now, but if you feel during the test run that it might have some wings, perhaps you can push it up higher in the cue. Or if you start to sense it has nowhere to go, you can cancel it totally, and make room for another idea.

-Have fun.

This may be even more important that “it doesn’t count”. While Major League players aren’t out there just goofing off, the best will tell you that it is a game, and you need to be having fun with it all, or go do something else with your life. The fun-to-work ratio is however probably skewed ever so slightly more towards fun during spring training.

In this, you have the advantage over baseball. You can in fact totally goof off with a spring training piece. You can be silly, write it with one hand tied behind your back, or try to avoid the letter “e” if you want to. For a writer, spring training can be 100% fun, and still accomplish its goal of keeping you sharp, loose and fit for the writing that “counts”.

But remember to have fun with the writing that counts too.






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