It’s not easy being a new cucumber.
I think about this every time we here at The Kill Zone critique another First Page submission. I really feel for the writers who send in their work for us to comb over because it’s not easy putting yourself out there when you’re just starting out. Which is what a “new cucumber” is. When I was a kid, that is what we called the kid who came into the game last, the one who didn’t know the rules, the one who was smallest, slowest or just plain didn’t get it yet.
I was often a new cucumber. It wasn’t so bad when I played baseball because I can switch-hit. But dodge ball…geez, I’m just thankful I got out of fourth grade alive.
I am a new cucumber at pickle ball. I started playing this game (the fastest growing sport in America!) this summer as a way to get some exercise when my knees started going on me. Pickle ball is a mix of tennis, badminton and ping pong. It’s played on a small-sized tennis court with paddles and wiffle ball-like things. It’s a blast and great for old farts like me. It takes skill, strategy, stamina, heart, patience….and lots of practice.
Pickle ball looks easy, like anyone could do it. Until you screw up your courage, put yourself out there, and try it. Pickle ball is a lot like writing.
I play every day now, 9 to noon, with a group called The Friendly Pickle Ballers. I am, oh, probably the third-worst person on the courts, but all my teammates are kind and patient, teaching me the game, because I think they realize I am determined to learn. Which is sort of what we do here at TKZ with our First Page Critiques and posts. It’s a little community where any new cucumber can find help and solace. One of my favorite partners is Tom, a retiree who can smash and dink with the best of them. The other day, I learned that Tom is trying to write science fiction. He asked for some advice and I told him to come to TKZ, which he does now. I also told him that learning to write fiction is pretty much like learning to play pickle ball. And it’s helped me remember some stuff we talk about a lot here but that’s worth repeating:
- You need to learn the rules. Pickle ball has some funky rules that you need to know before you set foot on a court or you end up wasting time — your own and your fellow players. Ditto for writing, right? Why flail around trying to write a bestseller if you haven’t bothered to even learn the basics of the craft?
- You must be creative. Yes, learn the underpinnings of what makes for good fiction. But don’t be afraid to try something different. You might surprise yourself. Like I did when, being a vertically challenged person, I learned to lob over the tall men.
- Play with folks who are better than you are. I’ve said this a million times, but don’t get sucked into a bad critique group, which can be pity-parties, bad for your self confidence or they just reinforce your worst habits. Find folks who can help you up your game and listen to them. My friend Tom has taught me to…wait for this piece of wisdom!…keep my eye on the ball at all times. Which is what Jan Burke told me once at an Mystery Writers of America meeting when I was grousing about James Patterson.
- Stay out of the kitchen. In pickle ball, The Kitchen is the area just in front of the net and the rules say you can’t smash the ball if you have even one toe in there and you can’t dribble a serve into The Kitchen. I’m not sure what this says about writing except maybe don’t make really stupid mistakes.
- Hit hard along the lines. If you are writing genre fiction (and I don’t happen to think that’s a derisive term), learn everything you can about that type of novel. Read extensively in your genre, be it sci-fi, thriller or YA. Because you need to be smart about what’s going on in the market. But then, learn to play hard at the edges of those lines, because the best genre fiction is the stuff that honors the past but points to something in the future. I have, for the record, a heck of a back hand along the line in pickle ball.
- Don’t always go for the smash shot. Pickle ball attracts a lot of tennis players. Many of them come in thinking they can beat up on the old guys by smashing the ball down their opponent’s throat. (This is sort of like literary types who try to write thrillers and wiff.) Trouble is, the pickle ball has about as much bounce as a dead chicken. And the smashers quickly learn they will be dinked to death (an ultra soft shot that just clears the net) by 82-year-old women named Norma. And yes, I play with a real Norma. She’s a killer. For writers, not going for the smash shot means not trying to hit a home run on your first attempt, ie a bestseller. You’re doomed if you try because you’re aiming at a constantly moving market-target. Just go out there in the beginning and have fun.
- Try the dink. This is a money shot in pickle ball, a sweet little “dink” across the net that causes the smasher-guys (sorry, they are almost always guys) to race desperately to the net and sometimes do a face plant on the asphalt. So, if you feel lost in the middle of your 400-page novel, set it aside and write a short story or even a novella. You might find your rhythm again. It’s good for the confidence.
- Practice, practice, practice. When I first starting playing, I went only once a week. Guess what, I didn’t get any better. I got discouraged and depressed. To say nothing of putting on weight. When my friend Linda came to visit up here in Michigan, she dragged me to the Friendly Pickle Ballers. I was terrible at first. But I am quickly getting better. Why? I go every morning now. Do you write every day? Why not?
- Keep score but don’t obsess about it. Sure, I want to win in pickle ball, but right now I mostly lose. I’m trying to learn that this is okay. For writers, I think the point is you should keep an eye on your sales, your Amazon ranking, your reviews, etc. But you don’t want to let it get to you. Messes with your head…
- And last but not least, don’t beat up on yourself. This has been the hardest thing for me to learn in pickle ball because I am sort of competitive and feel like crap when I let my team mates down. But as my fellow players keep telling me, “there’s no I’m sorry in pickle ball.” So for you writers out there, yeah, you will fail. You’re going to hit a lot of balls into the net. Your serves will go wide. You’re going to get rejection letters. Whatcha gonna do? Pack up your pickle ball and go home? No. You’re going to put on the old sports bra, get back out there and try again. You will get better. You will get good. You will get published. Because even a new cucumber can become a pickle baller.