Sunday, September 15, 2013

Vince Lombardi and Lou Holtz were my writing coaches

I remember the late Vince Lombardi, not for his winning seasons with the Green Bay Packers, or for winning the very first two Super Bowl’s, but for his winning spirit and his ability to inspire those on his teams as well as those of us on the side lines. I remember Lou Holtz for his winning years as head coach of Notre Dame in the late Eighties and early Nineties but also for his keen insight into what it takes to win on the field and throughout life. While I didn’t play for either Lombardi or Holtz, the life lessons they taught inspired me, just the same. As I started writing the principals they taught stayed with me. Following are a few quotes from the greats that I apply to to my novel writing.
1. “When all is said and done, more is said than done.” Lou Holtz. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard the phrase, Show, don’t tell. This was a difficult concept for me in my early writing days. When your character is doing something it shows character, strengths and weaknesses. When all is said and done, say little and do a lot.
2. “Never promise more than you can deliver, but always deliver more than you promise.” Lou Holtz. When you start a story at a breakneck pace, the reader is expecting the pace to increase as the story progresses to the climax. To many stories start out like a dragster on a quarter-mile run and end up low on fuel by the end. Give the reader what you promise.
3. Lou Holtz more than once told his Fighting Irish players. “Ability is what you’re capable of doing. Motivation determines what you do, and attitude determines how well you do it.” Not all have the ability to write great novels, some have the ability, but never do, but if you decide to write, attitude is the  key to how well you do on the next Moby Dick, or Grapes of Wrath.
4. “You are never as good as everyone tells you when you win, and you’re never as bad as they say you are when you lose.” Lou Holtz.  This is so true when you receive a critique on your writing. Not every review you receive is helpful, some are downright painful and some are unwarranted altogether. Treat every review as an opportunity. Honestly assess whether the review was justified. For instance, if someone didn’t like the story because it was poorly researched, poorly edited, or poorly executed, that’s fair criticism. On the other hand, if the complaint is the book is priced outlandishly high and the person wouldn’t buy it until the price was lowered, that’s like saying Picasso wouldn’t go with the furnishings in the room, so don’t buy it. Personally I wouldn’t pay a dollar for a Picasso, but others are willing to shell out millions. What value do you put on a work of art? Art is truly in the eye of the beholder.
4. Vince Lombardi is known for telling his players, “Gentlemen, we will chase perfection and we chase it relentlessly, knowing all the while we will never attain it. But along the way we shall catch excellence.”  No matter how well a book written and edited, there seems to be an error left behind for a reader to discover. This is where an author has it better than a Da Vinci or Picasso. Imagine telling Picasso, “You have an eye out of place,” or “the lips are all wrong.” Even so, as brilliant as Da Vinci was, I doubt he got the Mona Lisa right on the first take. I’ve heard there are many other similar paintings depicting the character in the Mona Lisa, but there is only one that received critical acclaim. We, as authors, can go back and fix what our readers tell us is wrong, up to a point. I take every word left out, or if, and, or but that is out of place seriously, and if the errors are too many, it’s time to get a new editor, and I’ve done that before. After all, I’m paying for a service and I should get the expected value from it. And my objective as an author is to entertain the reader, not make copy critics out of them. The lesson here is to strive for perfection and settle for excellence.
5. A picture is worth a thousand words. Neither Holtz or Lombardi said this, that I know of, and I know it’s an over used cliché, but I needed to throw it in to make a point. The old adage, Don’t judge a book by its cover, just doesn’t cut it in the digital age. I’m beginning to realize the value of a professionally designed book cover, and I am slowly working through my novels, replacing the covers with professional art. The first impression of a book might merit a second glance. Check out the new cover on THREADS OF THE SHROUD, and let me know what you think.

6. “The only place success comes before work is in the dictionary.” Vince Lombardi. There is no better place to let a potential reader know what your story is about than in the brief description of the story often found on the inside flap, the back cover or in the book description. This is where your target audience is captured. If the description doesn’t leave some compelling questions to be answered it probably won’t entice the reader to go to the next step and read the first few pages of the book. It seems no matter how many times a description can be written, one more time makes it better. Work hard on the description.
7.  “The measure of who we are is what we do with what we have.” Vince Lombardi. The first three pages of any story are critical. I remember my mystery writing instructor saying, “If there is a rifle hanging over the fireplace in the first scene, it better have been used to shoot someone before the end of the chapter.” The story needs to build from the start. How a story measures up is dependent on what it is given in the start.
8. “Gentlemen, this is a football.” Vince Lombardi is said to have told his players. I’m sure everyone in the locker room knew what a football was, but Lombardi was illustrating a point that we sometimes forget. When things aren’t going right we may have to start over. A well written book is like a winning football team. The readers are the fans and also our critics. They tell us the value of our work. When a book isn’t winning, we need to know why.  Perhaps it’s time to start over.
Finally Vince Lombardi, left us with this. “The quality of a person’s life is in direct proportion to their commitment to excellence, regardless of their chosen field of endeavor.”