f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Day 3 of Inspiration--Hitting a Grooved Pitch

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Day 3 of Inspiration--Hitting a Grooved Pitch

A grooved pitch in baseball is a ball thrown right down the middle of the plate without much spin, usually to get a strike when the count is favoring the hitters. These are the pitches that all major leaguers, great or not, are supposed to crush.

One of the more famous “grooved” pitches of recent years was in the 2001 All-Star Game. Cal Ripken Jr., one of the more beloved players in baseball history was up-to-bat in his final All-Star game. The pitcher, Dodger’s Chan Ho Park, in a pitch many still believe to have been a gift (although his more recent career suggests the pitch may not have been so anomalous) fed one right down the pipe and Ripken jacked it into the left field seats at Safeco Field. And we, as Americans, felt as warm and happy as a nation, perhaps as we ever had.

Here’s the thing: regardless of whether the pitch was grooved or not, it’s no small matter to hit a baseball for a home run. It’s certainly much easier, in a lot of ways, than hitting a 93-mile-per-hour Randy Johnson slider, but it’s not exactly simple. Look at the home run derby…these are pitches that are supposed to be hit for home runs and the best players only manage a half-dozen or so per round.

What’s my point in all this? Well, to belabor the metaphor, there’s a lot of ways that coming up with an idea for a genre story is like trying to hit a grooved pitch. You know what’s coming, you know what’s expected of you, and the circumstances are certainly in your favor to succeed. But it’s no mortal lock. There’s still the swing of the bat; the writing of the book. And if you’re good enough, talented enough, chances are you can turn that project into a home run.

My fear here is that I’m being vaguely condescending. I’m not trying to be at all. But I do think there is a difference between Michael Connelly plotting The Narrows (a mystery that serves both as a sequel to his bestselling The Poet and his latest Harry Bosch novel) and Richard Powers writing The Time of Our Singing. That difference is the number of pieces already in place. Connelly has a main character who’s been defined from a dozen or so previous books. He has a villain from The Poet. He has reader expectations for thrills, twists, and at least one lame, mildly violent, sex scene. Powers has the desire to write about a biracial singing prodigy thereby illuminating a century of thought on music, race, and other complex things.

The same is true, to a lesser degree, if you has an unpublished writer decide: “I want to write a chick lit novel.” Or “I want to write a Tolkienesque fantasy.” The genre lines blocks up for you. Chick lit pushes you to female, first person narration, and mentions of clothing labels. Fantasy pushes you to omniscient narration, the use of weird first names, and an increased per capita use of the letter “Y.”

Still, the idea is just a start. The talent and uniqueness and creativity that drives the book from that point are the important things. Because if there’s one thing I’ve realized in my time as an editor it’s that ANYBODY can have a good idea for a novel. Very few have the talent to turn that good idea into a good novel. And even fewer have the courage and dedication to use that talent to turn that good idea into a good novel.

All of us, after all, can swing a bat. But can we make contact when it matters most?

Day 4 of Inspiration - The Tired and True or the Beloved Fan-Favorite