Write a Novel in 18 Holes
Last year I published a book entitled How To Write A Novel in 100 Days. Now I thought I might attempt to tighten that frame of reference (and time) and focus on, How To Write a Book in 18 Holes. Over my writing career, I have published three novels on golf and edited three books of golf instruction. Now I have some advice on how to do both for anyone who writes or plays golf, or both, like myself.
In my mind, playing golf and writing a novel are incongruously connected. I’m not the only writer who would think so. The wonderful novelist, John P. Marquand wrote Life at Happy Knoll (1957) and John Updike Golf Dream (1997); then there’s Herbert Warren Wind who started to play the game at 7 and wrote about golf all his life for The New Yorker, or James Ellroy, author of Brown’s Requiem in 1981. All these writers were players. Each one, I’m sure, used the skills and habits of one craft to help the other. Let me explain.
Many golfers enjoy playing alone, often playing early in the day or late in the evening after the sun has set when it’s cool and quiet and the course is empty. Why? Well, as all golfers know, we have to work on our game without the distractions of others. As John Updike is quoted in Golf Digest, “Basically, I want to be alone with my golf.”
The same is true for writers.
Although some writers can happily work their best in bars and restaurants where they focus by shutting out distractions, for most writers the first task is finding a quiet place to work. A comfortable room where it’s just you and the blank page. Writing a perfect sentence takes as much time and effort as grooving one’s golf swing. You have to do it more than once to get it right.
Nothing is more intimidating to a writer as a blank sheet of paper or an empty computer screen. It sits there in its emptiness. Staring at you as if to ask: Now what do you have to say?
Golfers face similar fears. Standing on the first tee, for example, staring down the empty fairway, they tell themselves:
- Keep it straight.
- Keep it out of trouble.
- And whatever else, don’t top it!
So, staring at a blank sheet of paper or empty computer screen, or standing alone with a driver in your hands on the first tee, the fears and demands for both writers and golfers are similar: Get me off to a good round of golf! I’ll start writing my novel now!
Still, the writer might secretly think at that moment: I’m going to write a best seller!
The golfer might secretly declare: I’m going to break par for the first time in my life.
As a writer your first day is deciding the story you’ll write. Begin by asking yourself: What is the book I’ve always wanted to read? Is it the story of my life? The history of my family? A murder mystery? A love story?
Set a goal for how much you will write each day. Ernest Hemingway wrote his first book, The Sun Also Rises, in seven weeks. But for most of his life, he only wrote 50 words and then went fishing. So set a goal for how many words you’ll write each day. Some days, you won’t make it; other days you’ll double your prose. My goal is 1,000 words.
It is the same for golf. Some days you’re on your game and you par the first hole; other days, you’ll double bogey. See, I told you writing was a lot like golf.
Just as important as deciding how many words to write is deciding when and where to write. Routine is the key to a long and happy writing life.
Carve out a specific time of your day to write. This is important because over the course of writing your novel, you’ll get discouraged, bored, angry, or just fed up. So, when you start feeling that way, you’ll need a clearly defined routine to keep yourself working.
Nothing is more important to golfers than a routine for playing a shot. Watch any of the touring pros. See how deliberately they address the ball. What the pros are doing is focusing themselves on playing that shot. Golf is a game, but to do it right, you need to be serious about how you do it. Same with novels.
Playing the Game
The architecture of golf courses has changed as much as the equipment of the game. Just ask Geoff Schackelford, another fine golfer and writer, who has written Grounds For Golf and a half dozen other books on the history and fundamentals of golf course design. With golf clubs, we have gone from hand crafted hickories, to steel shafts to graphite; from persimmon woods, to Hybrids and Big Berthas and X2.
The courses we play on have evolved from Scottish links to short, tight fairway courses sandwiched between suburban towns, to large southern and western housing developments with extended fairways (necessary because of long hitting players with new high tech clubs), MacManisons facing manicured fairways, and stadiums for cheering fans at PGA tour events.
Novels, too, have gained (or suffered) from new tech devices. We read books now on Kindles and iphones and tablets. We read books in bits and pieces of time. No one has enough leisure to curl up with a thick book in a quiet corner of a room.
Novels are crafted with short chapters that speed the reader through the action. Reading today is like playing eighteen par-3 holes; as a reader or a player, you finish quickly.
For a golfer that means you never need to pull a wood out of the bag. All holes requires is a mid-iron to reach the green.
For writers these short chapters fit the times; novels can be read on any social media device.
No reader today wants to experience the luxury of language, long descriptive paragraphs, endless details and intense character development. For golfers; say good-by to old fashioned traditional course with difficult par fours, long par fives, tight fairways, deep bunkers and postage stamp greens.
Golf, like the written word, has moved with the times.
Half Way Home
We’re in the middle of the round, in the middle of the novel. For golfers that means making the turn at # 10. With writers, it is the turning point of the plot. Now the story is coming together to reach a climax. Golfers? We’re standing on the tenth tee, the front side done and facing the task of trying to figure out what we’ll need to shoot to win a match, make the cut, or justify our handicap.
Players have the advantage of 18 defined holes that determine a round. It’s all predetermined and justified by the USGA. Finishing a novel is less directed. A book has no set number of holes, yardage to walk, or greens to hit.
Nevertheless, the complex geography of a golf course, the entwining of fairways and rough in a zigzag pattern, dotted by bunkers and water hazards, suggest a thickly plotted narrative leading to a climax perhaps not on the final hole, but inside the country club’s 19th hole bar.
Whatever the ‘course’ one takes in a novel’s narrative, what is key, and common to how one plays a round of golf, is to plot the story as if you were shooting an arrow at a target. Or to say it the way a golfer would: hit it dead solid perfect.
Characters, events, descriptions and subplots have to connect to the plot and hit the mark to become a novel, much as a golfer tees off on each hole aims at a target, i.e., the middle of the fairway, the center of the green.
A golfer might, because of a wayward drive or a clever approach play down a parallel fairway, but he or she is still going for the green.
So, a novel can be complexly plotted, but if the author strays too far from the central story, he or she will lose the reader, and golfers are courting disaster if they lose focus on getting the ball to the green.
Coming up the final fairway, with the club house in view, and the front terrace crowded with a gallery of members and guests, friends and family, the player just wants to finish strong regardless of the score. A final fairway approach to the green that covers the flag is all a golfer wants. No matter how he or she played the round, a chip shot that checks up for a tap-in says it all. One last great shot in sight of the club house gallery will bring any player back to play another round.
The same is true of novelists. Let the reader turn that last page and feel a wave of emotion, whether of sorrow or satisfaction. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you–the novelist–knows this reader will read your next book. And so it is written.
End of the Round
End of the Story