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The Five Things College Football Taught Me About Writing

Like a lot of young men, I was obsessed with sports in my teens. I watched everything except baseball and golf. (I got nothing against baseball or golf, just not my cup of tea.) Basketball, football, hockey, you name it I watched it. I would even pay attention to high school sports in Los Angeles, reading the game summaries in the Pasadena Star News, keeping track of standing and statistics. Oh, and I didn’t want to be perceived as a snob, so I watched tennis, soccer & camped out every two years to watch Olympic bobsledding, downhill skiing, cycling and track & field.

But as I got older, I realized a couple of things.

  • I didn’t really care for a lot of these sports.
  • I was wasting a lot of time on something that didn’t really have a direct effect on my life.

So I stopped. I turned off the NFL draft and the NBA lottery. I stopped buying season tickets for the Colorado Rapids and turned the TV off during the NFL season. It was no longer fun, so I stopped.

 

The One Exception was College Football. I Love College Football.

 I won’t bore you with my apologia on why college football is awesome, just know that it is. When I transitioned to being an aspiring author, I began to see some parallels between professional writing and my beloved sport.

1.) It Is Easy to Get Tunnel Vision

I am a BIG Southern Cal fan. I have been for about thirty years. About six years ago USC was hailed as the premiere college football

Former USC head coach, Pete Carrol

program in the land. They whupped everybody and I loved talking crap.

But there were problems in the Land of Troy. Many of the SC football players were coming to class wearing expensive clothes and driving leased Cadillac SUV’s. Pete Carrol, the head coach, knew a lot of these kids were from poor homes and simply decided not to ask questions. That lead to the university getting sanctioned by the NCAA and Carrol’s resignation. He got tunnel vision, deciding to ignore the things he didn’t want to know about.

The same is true in writing. I see people all the time who ignore really good advice from their peers. Or they don’t want to join a critique group because “They won’t get what I’m trying to do.” Listen, Jeff Goins says “Art needs an audience.” That means you’re going to get criticized – and that’s a good thing! An inspiring writer has to put their egos on the shelf and take criticism. Remember that fiction writing is an art and a business. If you can’t prepare your work for the market, than why are you writing?

 

2.) There is Room Enough for Everyone

Western Michigan in the Cotton Bowl

College football has a great four team playoff system. It’s really increased visibility for the game. However, every year there are thirty plus bowl games going on. This year’s national Champion was the University of Clemson. They had an awesome season and earned every accolade. My beloved Trojans won the Rose Bowl against a resurgent Penn St. in a game for the ages. USC didn’t make the college playoffs this year. That doesn’t there season was a failure. Little Western Michigan University came out of nowhere to receive an invitation to the prestigious Cotton Bowl, where they proceeded to get pounded by Wisconsin. But they won 12 games this year, got on national television and won their conference. Is there season defined by one game? Of course not!

USC wins the Rose Bowl over Penn State

The same thing is true in writing. Just because I don’t have the success of James Paterson or Diana Gabaldon, doesn’t mean I’m a failure. People like to spout statistics about how hard it is to be a professional writer. But success looks different to different people. Local authors Quincy J. Allen and Dave Butler both write steampunk fiction. Yet their audiences are vastly different. One’s success doesn’t mean the other is failing. The scarcity world view is a lie. There is room enough for both of them, for all of them, in the marketplace.

 

3.) The Details Count

Twenty years ago in college football the University of Miami was the Galactic Empire in the sport. Everyone hated them. They were brash, cocky and talented. They were 1 play away from becoming the first back-to-back national champions in twenty years. Conversely, the University of Oregon was in a wilderness of losing. Today, the Oregon Ducks are a perennial winner and Miami struggles. What happened?

Facilities.

Oregon Athletic Facility

See, high school kids are wowed by shiny things. Oregon built a new stadium, a new athletic facility, and made rotating special uniforms a thing. High school athletes ate it up and decided to play for the ducks. Miami thought that kids would want to go to school there because of their winning tradition, so they never upgraded their athletic buildings. Now they struggle to keep Miami kids at home. They didn’t take care of the details.

Many times writers don’t want to do anything but write. They want to immerse themselves in story. But being a professional writer is about more than your book. It’s about sales and marketing. If you want to put food on the table writing, you’ve got to sell your book. You’ve got to meet fans, put together an email list and have a decent looking website. Author Jeff Goins says you must build a tribe.

I know an author who self-published a couple of space opera style Sci-fi books. Really good stuff. I suggested he get a table at the ComicCon in his town. The guy looked at me in horror. He said “I’m not going to be around those wierdos.” I told him, “Who do you think is going to buy your book? Physics professors?”

His discomfort lead to no one reading his book. He thought all he had to do was write something awesome (and it was awesome,) and viola, instant financial success. You gotta take care of the details.

4.) There is a Community of People Who Want to Help.

Did you know that college football coaches go to clinics about coaching every year, put on by other coaches? That they actively teach and network with one another?   Did you know that coaches actively mentor other coaches they compete against? Every year summer Punt, Pass & Kick clinics go on where assistant coaches from many different programs get together, teach high school kids and actively pass on recruiting information to each other. Why? Because they know mentoring is an active part of coaching. Many successful coaches want to give back to the game by taking new people under their wings.

The same is true in writing. I have many new writers seek out and receive mentoring from professional writers who simply want to help. I too, have benefited from this mentoring. Authors like Aaron Michael Ritchey, Quincy J. Allen, Mary Wine and Suzanne Spann have all mentored me and helped me along the way.

There is an old saying, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Sometimes you have to ask for help. This shows a humbleness and a passion for the craft. I have never met people more open, more celebratory of others, or more helpful, than my fellow writers in Denver writing community. Mentorship, guidance, community and fellowship is out there. You just have to ask.

 

5.) Success Entails Hard Work.

You knew I was going to end with this, right? You have to put in the work. Clemson just didn’t recruit super talented football players to win a national championship. It took years of preparation, flying all over the country and talking to skeptical parents about how the coaches were going to guide, teach and mentor their young men. It took hundreds of hours of watching film, guiding kids in the weight room, having hard conversations about dedication, keeping an eye on kids grades, and about a hundred other things I don’t have time to talk about here, before Clemson was in a position to win that championship.

The same thing is true in writing. Research, re-writes, learning grammar, going to critique group, learning marketing, doing more re-writes. It’s all part of the process. If you’re willing to do the work, eventually you will be successful.

When I wrote my first, unpublished novel, I realized that I had made a bunch of stupid mistakes. So in January of 2016 I decided to do a complete re-write from page one. It was daunting. But I did it. I then wrote a second book later that year. A lot of people would have quit, or dragged their feet.

Look, I get it. It hurts to know the labor you put in was not enough. But if you go an extra mile, write a little more, ask for a little more help, you can be successful.

In a lot of ways, it really isn’t about the extra work. It is about this question. If I work harder, will I see the success I think I deserve? I think this is the real reason why people quit. They work hard, pour their emotions into a book and take their failure personally. They give up the fight before the fight is over. But writing is a craft. It’s more about the skills you acquire than the talent you have. As you learn more, you stop making those early mistakes. Your writing gets better.

I will leave you with this. At the University of Southern California, they have a saying. Fight On! To be successful in anything, you have to keep working. When you think you’ve reached your limit and that little, cowardly voice is telling you to quit, you have to simply Fight On!

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