No, I don’t mean a test as in a way to quantify the quality of the written word. What I actually mean to do is compare writing to a 5-day cricket match.
Not many people know that I love test cricket. I not a huge fan of the shorter forms of the game – like 20-20 or one-day matches – but I love the patience, perseverance and skill that it takes to beat a side over the course of five days. Everyone has a part to play because you need excellent batsman to score the runs and then expert bowlers and sharp fielders to take wickets. And it can all turn on the course of the weather or the quality of the pitch. It’s a wonderfully tense, involved game that people often consider boring. But I say it’s a shame for them, because test cricket is really all about the build up of pressure and the slow, but relentless, delivery of ball after ball of determined precision.
And given that the test match has distracted me from my writing for the last few days, it seems apt to try and take a lesson from it. Cricket is about focused persistence – delivering a perfect over time after time, deciding whether to play the ball or not, and waiting for that catch that might be the flicker of a chance. So, in many ways I can see that writing a novel could be seen to be the same.
Delivery of a ‘perfect over’
Writing that ‘perfect scene’ is almost impossible, but when you finally get it right you feel like fist pumping and cheering. And you can often write perfectly good scenes time after time, but they always seem lacking something – as in cricket when the bowler is pounding down the wicket delivering breathlessly spectacular balls that skim the air around the bat but don’t actually make contact. I find that most of my writing is like this now – good but not quite good enough.
Yet, sometimes, after a dozen rewrites or a deep mining of the motives and conflict required I hit that magic moment when what I read out pings off the page and comes alive. It takes a lot of work but it’s worth it in the end.
Of course, there’s also that fluke ball (occasionally delivered by the all-round Yorkshire-man Joe Root in England’s case) where a scene just comes together the first time around and you can’t quite believe it. That’s when I mimic Stuart Broad’s OMG moment in the Ashes of 2015.
Deciding whether to play (or not)
There is so much of this in writing. Deciding which competitions to enter, which characters to include, which story-lines to follow and so on and so forth. But, for me the one that this particular simile brings to mind is during the editing stage when you are soulfully attempting to make your story sing.
Every single sentence, every single word, counts. Just like for a batsman at the crease who has to determine how to move his feet, whether to play at a shot or leave it to fly past the stumps. Even the most tentative of movements can upset the balance – that split second they decide to play a shot, only to realise that it’s the out-swinger and it should be left well alone. Too late – it’s edged and caught at slip and they’re out!
In the publishing world even the smallest jarring of language or misspelled word can be an excuse for an agent or publisher to stop reading. The flow of the writing is just as important as the content in this context, and so you have to know when to hit big and when to be cautious. On a grand scale, this can be the difference between hitting a six/getting that agent or taking that long walk back to the pavilion/being rejected. But sometimes, you also have to know that – in cricket – the bowling was just that good and there was nothing you could have done to change the outcome; and sometimes, we have a lapse in concentration and go for those silly, high shots and get, deservedly, caught out.
Waiting for that catch
It doesn’t take a genius to work out how this analogy applies to writing. As a fielder during the match you stand there and wait, and wait, and wait. Sometimes there’s a bit of chasing the ball but mostly what you’re training your muscles to do is react quickly when the ball comes flying at you. If you’re ready and you catch it, celebrations ensue! Of course, most of the time this is short-lived, because then out comes the next batsman and it starts all over again – and if not the next batsman in this match, the one in the next. Catches are short-lived glory: staying on the team is what matters.
How long the wait can be when you submit writing…occasionally a response might never come. Sometimes there is a trickle of possibility, but then it doesn’t turn out the way you wanted (the review system in cricket emphasises this heartily). The point is, all cricketers have to wait for the catch just like we have to wait for that chance to prove our writing can entertain others. Some days you get lots of catches, other days not so many and then still, others where there are none at all. In test cricket this is just how it is – you are playing the long game and most of that is about hard work, perseverance and patience.