Gather Round, Kids. Got Some Wisdom For Ye.
Hey, wanna learn something about writing? No? Then beat it, punk, there’s educatin’ goin’ on here. This is the text of an interview that my pal Eric Angevine (visit his site) did with me. Eric wrote the whole thing into a fine article, but I, uh, kind of lost it. Sorry. Anyway, here’s the raw feed. Enjoy.
What’s the most powerful attribute a writer can develop – style? a thick skin? Sheer, plodding, bloody-minded persistence?
Good question. All three are important, as is a good sense of what makes for a good story, and also what Hemingway called the “bullshit detector”—the ability to know when what you’re writing just sucks, and needs to be put out of its misery. However, of all those, I think persistence is the most important. A writer can get by without a whole lot of style, can get by being overly sensitive—but no writer gets very far without persistence. Even the crappiest Harlequin romance or by-the-numbers spy novel was created by somebody pecking away hour after hour, day after day.
You started out at William & Mary. Did any of your experiences there contribute to your ability or desire to write?
Absolutely. Main thing was writing for the newspaper. I was the sports editor there, and had the freedom to write pretty much whatever I wanted. It was a weekly paper, and I wrote a weekly game-picking column which, now that I think back on it, was really the Cro-Magnon version of what I’m writing these days on Right Down Peachtree—sports knowledge shot through with pop culture references and rampant smartassery. And this was eighteen years ago. Too bad there wasn’t an Internet back then, huh?
You also went to grad school (Memphis?). Do you feel today like that experience honed your skill set?
Yes, and in some unexpected ways. Grad school for writing can have a pretty rigid code of behavior—back when I was there, third-generation Raymond Carveresque nihilistic minimalism was all the rage, and the writing style (fictionally speaking) that I specialize in—black comedy, in the style of Carl Hiaasen—was looked down upon. I spent a lot of time—and wrote a really bad novel—in an attempt to create what I, at the time, thought was “serious” literature. It took me awhile to recognize that just because my talents didn’t run in certain literary directions didn’t mean my stories weren’t worth writing. So, from that side of things, I learned to follow my own voice, even if everybody else wanted me to speak a different language. (Hey, metaphor!)
But that paints grad school in a far too negative light. More than finding my own voice, I got exposed to a full range of others. I dug deep into every kind of literature I could get my hands on, and I got taught its nuances by experts in the field. You might not think that Virgil or Shakespeare or Gabriel Garcia Marquez would have much to do with sportswriting, but it’s all writing, it’s all creation. It’s all using language to craft something out of nothing. It may be an epic tale of love and loss, it may be ten goofball sentences on what Michael Vick and Van Halen have in common. But if there’s truth behind the effort, if there’s style behind the execution, they’ll both pay off. And that’s the kind of insight and instruction that I couldn’t have gotten on my own.
Was your first published piece about sports, or something else?
Technically, my first published piece was in the Atlanta Journal when I was in third grade, but that was part of a school project. (I analyzed school lunches. Deathless prose, it was.)
I think my first published piece outside of school writing (I was on the high school paper) was for a weekly neighborhood paper—one of those kinds that specializes in high school sports scores, garden club meetings, and overheated reports of City Council town halls. I did do sports for them, mainly because the sports editor there was an extremely cool guy and gave me my first lessons in dealing with coaches and players. (Lesson No. 1: They need you as much as you need them. Remember that, even if they don’t. It’s a lesson that’s served me well when dealing with pro athletes.) But I started out writing about high school football and basketball, swimming, track, whatever.
From there, though, I spent an awful lot of time in the “Living” and “News” section of the paper. I spent about six or seven years writing book and music reviews, doing investigative pieces, doing long-form creative nonfiction, stuff like that. Sports always seemed to draw me back, though, and even now it’s the part of my career that’s consistently breaking big.
Good God, this sounds egotistical. I swear I’m not this much of an insufferable bastard in real life.
How much of your daily routine is devoted to contacting editors and pitching stories?
Not nearly enough. I’m fortunate in that I’m at a point in my career where editors come to me with assignments, or I have standing assignments (columns) at multiple locations. And just keeping up with those can be daunting and time-consuming enough that I don’t pitch as much as I should. You’re supposed to spend up to 20 percent of your time pitching for new assignments; I’d say I probably do, at best, half that. God bless the Internet, though; it’s a lot easier dropping an email than the old-style way of mailing a query letter with a SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope) and waiting three, four weeks for a reply…or none.
How much of your daily routine is devoted to interviewing subjects? actually writing?
Depends on the article for interviewing. For a 1,000-word article with three interview subjects, you’re looking at probably 30 minutes for each interview, 30 minutes of prep time, an hour to 90 minutes per interview of transcription and editing, and another 2-3 hours of compiling the whole mess into a readable article. I probably work about 50-55 hours a week and spend about 35 of that actually involved in physical writing tasks (which includes editing, interviewing, rewriting). The rest is pitching or planning. Oh, and scanning the Internet. That counts as work, right?
I have a list of “dream publications” that I would like to see my byline in. Who’s still on your list? Do you feel like those remaining names are attainable?
Hell yeah, I have a list. Rolling Stone is at the top of it. Sports Illustrated. The New York Times. The print versions of ESPN and Esquire (I’ve made it into the .com versions). And yes, I think it’s possible to get in. It’s a matter of combining good timing, good luck, a good pitch, and a good pipeline to the right editor.
I’m having a hard time envisioning the process of writing a graphic novel. Since most of your deathless prose is turned into visual art and word bubbles, how much background and development do you have to write in order to keep the overall story real & coherent?
Depends on the artist and what I’m trying to get across. “Hero punches villain in the face” is pretty straightforward. But if I’m trying to get across a mood, if I have visual symbols that are necessary to the story, I’ll write a paragraph of prose for each panel in a comic page. All of that doesn’t have to be cute and literary; it’s the equivalent of stage directions in a play. The artist is the only one reading that, but he’s in many ways the most important audience of all, because he’s the one who’s got to communicate my vision to the masses.
Comics/graphic novel writing requires a lot more precision than anything else I’ve ever written—you’ve got to compile your story into 22 pages, 4 to 6 panels per page—there’s not a whole lot of room to get flowery in your dialogue.
How did it feel to score the winning touchdown? (sorry, started feeling like a sideline reporter there).
Well, you know, I first have to thank my Lord Jesus Christ. And I wouldna gotten nowhere without my teammates. These guys have the heart of champions, you know, and when everyone was doubting us, we wasn’t doubting ourselves. We took what they gave us, we gave 110 percent, we played ‘em one game at a time, we…you look so cute. I wanna kiss yew.
You are currently writing a book, with a second on the way. Is there much tweaking of the idea during the proposal process, or did your concept come through fairly well unscathed?
I got incredibly lucky—the book I’m writing on the Georgia Bulldogs was suggested to me by my agent. He was having lunch with an editor who noted that SEC books always sell, but there hadn’t been a good Georgia one in awhile. So I got to thinking, and boom, the idea sort of blew out of my head full-grown.
My agent—who friggin’ rules—knew that the editor wanted the book. So he packaged it as a two-book deal—you want the Georgia book, you take another one by my boy. So I sold the entire Braves book on the basis of a single paragraph in an email.
The proposal itself, for both books, hasn’t changed significantly, no, so I was fortunate in that regard. But it did require a lot of prep work before I was ready to show anybody.
Have you always been good at meeting deadlines, or did you have to develop some new skills?
Decent, yeah, not great. I’m always looking for new ways to streamline what I do. And I’m having to resist the many temptations that are out there—the Internet, the TiVo, the Playstation, the whole bit. My major problem is one of overcommitment—taking on too many projects without finishing off the ones I’ve already committed to.
Interviewee’s choice – Your chance to wax poetic about how your family has inspired/enabled you, and stuff.
Hmmm…how about “Why does someone so devilishly handsome chain himself behind a computer in solitude?” No? So we’ll go with the family one. I was lucky enough to grow up in a very stable two-parent family in suburbia—lucky from a “good psychological foundation” perspective, but bad in the sense that I didn’t get that dark, brooding sense of imminent doom that torments and haunts most artists. However, I came from a large family, meaning that I had to be quick, loud, focused , and funny in order to get heard…all elements that have served me well even today.
Now, I’m lucky enough to be married to an insanely talented and driven wife who’s a partner in a law firm. She’s also an ex-UVa English major, so she knows enough to be able to tell me when my writing is just garbage. She’s completely supportive of my work, and there’s no way I could get as far as I have without her. And she doesn’t even know I’m writing this…but she probably should. It’d get me out of trouble once.
My kids love checking out my writing, but they’re spoiled little punks. I shamelessly abused my press pass to get them down close to the field before a Braves game and got Jeff Francoeur to come over and say hello and sign their stuff. Now, they’re pissed that I can’t get John Smoltz to come to their birthday parties.