Nathan Bransford, Author


Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Sports Novels

Regular readers know that I am really into sports. I approach the NBA Draft like it's a holy ritual and I could rattle off the stats of obscure Sacramento Kings players from the 1980s.

So you'd think that I'd leap at every sports book that came my way. But here's the thing: sports novels for adults are tricky.

All you need to do to see what I mean by that is to look at which sports-related books have been successful. There are very, very few successful pure commercial sports novels. While I'm sure there are exceptions, the ones that tend to make it are [genre] + sports, whether that's suspense plus sports (e.g. Harlan Coben's novels featuring sports agent Myron Bolitar), literary fiction plus sports (e.g. SHOELESS JOE, the basis of the movie "Field of Dreams"), fantasy plus sports (e.g. SUMMERLAND), or John Grisham novel plus sports (e.g. BLEACHERS, PLAYING FOR PIZZA).

On the other hand, there is a thriving market for sports narrative nonfiction, whether it's MY LOSING SEASON, FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, THE BOYS OF SUMMER, etc. etc.

Why would this be?

I think what's behind the difficulty of pure sports novels is that sports already provides so much human drama and narratives and storylines that a straightforward novel about sports is almost redundant. Sports provides a real life narrative experience that makes novels feel almost hollow in comparison.

Thus, in order to give readers something that they can't already find just by following the NFL or NBA or curling, an author has to bring something new to the table, whether that's by introducing suspense or fantasy or literary merit or a real-life behind the scenes look. I also think this is why children's sports novels are successful - they tend to feature kids as protagonists, which offers something different than the real sports world.

So if you're thinking of writing a sports novel: verisimilitude isn't enough or even what you should be aiming for. It's important to bring something else to the field.






59 comments:

MeganRebekah said...

I was just having this conversation with someone yesterday, in regards to sports novels. It's good to see your perspective as well.

TKA said...

You say to bring something else to the field. Like monkeys?

JohnO said...

Alas, I learned this the hard way, despite adding social class friction and satire to a sports novel.

So that part of the sport is right on. Curling, however ....

"We'll explain the appeal of curling to you if you explain the appeal of the National Rifle Association to us." -- Andy Barrie, Canadians to Americans

mendsio said...

Nothing to add other than Skinnybones, a kids' book with a baseball theme, is so funny I cried.

Alan Orloff said...

Can I interest you in a book about basketball-playing vampires in levitating hats? Maybe against the Globetrotters?

Laura Martone said...

Lucky for me, I have no intention of writing a sports novel. I'm having enough trouble trying to sell my literary/commercial work. ;-)

But seriously, folks, who doesn't love a good real-life sports story? I mean, FOR LOVE OF THE GAME is an awesome film - but I was way more moved by the real-life tale of SEABISCUIT (in book and movie form) than I could ever be by something manufactured. I agree with you, Nathan - real-life sports stories have enough drama on their own.

scott g.f. bailey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Thermocline said...

Maybe it's not that the human drama, narratives, and storylines are the problem so much as the idea of sitting on your butt reading about other people exercising.

Bane of Anubis said...

Are there actually any fiction books about curling :)?

Alan Orloff said...

Bane of A:

The Big Sweep

Chris Eldin said...

Sorry, but how can the NBA match Seabiscuit? In terms of number of kleenex, there simply is no contest..
:-)

Ink said...

What about those sports autobiographies? They're mostly fiction...

Rae Bateman said...

I have to add one to your "literary plus sports" list because I am obsessed with this amazing book right now.

"The Art of Racing in the Rain" by Garth Stein

I have been recommending it to anyone who will listen to me; I might as well recommend it here also.

Love the blog Nathan!

Dennis Cass said...

Time to add writing about sports into the "dancing about architecture" category?

Ink said...

Bane,

And here I always thought you were a Black Lab...

Bane of Anubis said...

Bryan - I am - this is my pet boy.

Ink said...

Oh, good. I was worried there for a moment.

Anonymous said...

Nathan

I am definitely NOT into sports, but two sports novels I enjoyed as a kid were "Semi-Tough" (Football)and "Dead Solid Perfect" (Golf)-both by Dan Jenkins.

Lotsa crude humor, with something to offend most anyone looking to be offended.

dylan

nkrell said...

Anybody heard about the World Cup in soccer? No, not THAT World Cup. The one where these guys go around to homeless people in different parts of the world and clean them up, get them off of the street and turn them into actual athletes. They then play their version of the World Cup in soccer. Check it out, it's on YouTube. Pretty inspiring.

Laurel said...

Sports movies seem to fare better but even those have characters and conflict develop around the game. "Chariots of Fire" had anti-semetism, commitment to faith, "Rudy" was a classic underdog story, and issues of prejudice are present in lots of great sports movies.

Real life sports are dramatic but in a visceral, un-drama way (except for the ubiquitous human interest stories with pensive soundtrack that they insist on inserting into everything now). Part of the appeal is simplicity. You can really sink your teeth into the process and the outcome without confronting issues of morality, life lessons, effect on humanity, whatever. Although I still maintain that Florida winning a national championship in football and basketball in the same year represents a violation in the natural order of things and perhaps calls into question the notion of a higher being who cares.

At any rate, I don't want to mix my sports and my fiction. Two separate pleasure centers in my brain. Football chants to the bellicose inner viking while reading sings to the inner monk.

Luc2 said...

I also think sports nowadays is so ingrained as a visual thing (who listens to sports on the radio anymore?) which makes it very difficult to be put into writing.

How about the King's picks this yaar, Nathan? Disappointed that they didn't take Rubio? I'm excited about the Omri Casspi pick though, since I'm half Israeli.

Pamela Hammonds said...

It wasn't a novel, but I loved The Punch by John Feinstein. And, hate to admit, I'm not a big fan of the NBA. Surprised myself by liking this book so much.

Mira said...

Hmmm. I predict a rare male-dominated thread here.

I should say that I have no right to an opinion on this. I not only have never read a sports novel, but I avoid movies about sports and I'm not sure I've even seen a sports game. Wait. I think I went to a baseball game once. I remember liking the hot dog.

But I don't see why that should stop me from offering an opinion, which which will undoubtedly be right. So, here's my opinion. I guess I think of sports more as a topic rather than a genre in itself. So even if it's a pure sports book, I would really think of the genre as that of dramatic fiction or non-fiction.

What I find interesting about your post, Nathan, is you seem to imply that people don't choose it as a topic much....that may have to do with personality types. I think many authors, and I include myself in this, are the type of people who turn avoiding physical activity into an art form. So, they may not be drawn to writing stories about sports. Maybe some authors even had bad sports exeriences growing up (not being chosen for the team, etc.) And not being chosen for the team is a different topic. Lots of writers write about that.

allegory19 said...

It's important to bring something else to the field.

To me that statement summarizes writing genre fiction in general.

Well said Nathan.

-Steph

ryan field said...

I love a good sports novel, but they aren't easy to write and I'd probably never go at it myself.

I wonder if THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN is considered a sports novel. It was a great book and certainly it was different.

Steve Fuller said...

Can someone write a novel explaining why Cincinnati sports teams are cursed?

Marilyn Peake said...

TWILIGHT had a baseball game in it ... baseball game that led to lots of trouble for the main character. :)

Loved the movie, FIELD OF DREAMS. One of my absolutely favorite movies.

Other Lisa said...

I think what's behind the difficulty of pure sports novels is that sports already provides so much human drama and narratives and storylines that a straightforward novel about sports is almost redundant.

Could not agree more. Especially football, which is total soap opera (and which I love). Anybody ever read Skip Bayless' book about the Dallas Cowboys? Hilarious!

Another classic in a different sport: Jim Bouton's "Ball Four."

Ashley said...

Though it could potentially be polarizing, I'll bring it up anyway. One of the best sports-related books I've read is To Hate Like This Is To Be Happy Forever. It's an absolutely hilarious account of the UNC-Duke rivalry that I think any fan involved in a heated rivalry could relate to.

Rick Daley said...

Curling is awesome, I do it all the time. I like 12 oz. curls, great for the arms and it makes you feel all warm and tingly inside.

It's easy, too, because if you do it right the weight goes down with each rep.

Put THAT in the Olympics.

Laura Martone said...

On second thought, I COULD see myself writing a "sports" novel about the Wii Fit. Would that count?

Anonymous said...

Do you consider BLACK SUNDAY to be a sports novel?

My point is that you can have novels in a sports setting which are not really "sports novels."

If JERRY MAGUIRE was a novel, would it be a "sports novel?"

If you got a sub for a novel about an NFL QB who was actually a serial killer who whacked a guy in each city he played in during the season, and his archenemy linebacker catches on to his moonlighting when they go to the superbowl, would you consider that a "sports novel?"

reader said...

Nathan's quote: "...It's important to bring something else to the field..."

When is it not? :)

Margaret Yang said...

Another reason that you have to bring something else to the table when writing a sports book. If the novel is only about the sport, then it is too easy to dismiss as "just a game." There has to be something else at stake. There has to be characters that are changed by this experience, or the stakes have fallen flat.

M. K. Clarke said...

Interesting topic.

I've only read two sports novels--three, if you count Joan Bauer's STICKS--and of those three, one of them would've been a redundancy in today's technology: SOMETHING FOR JOEY, by Richard E. Peck. I loved that read and THE BOYS OF SUMMER, too.

I'm a sports fan on the edges; my husband can rattle off the names of winning teams far back as 1952, rosters, too. But I like sports reads that haven't been told before and along the lines of JOEY or STICKS, yes, Nat\han, gotta agree: If you're going to write it, write it fresh to grab me.

Thank you for the neat read.
~Missye

http://www.mkclarke.net

Anna said...

I like interjecting sport into my novels; recently I foisted the Seattle Seahawks into a manuscript set in the mid 1970's, even placing SF pitcher John Montefusco in a chapter.

Someday Joe Montana and Steve Young will figure prominently, maybe once the Niners have redeemed themselves.

Yeah, maybe....

Kori said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Vacuum Queen said...

You're right about narrative nonfiction being successful. I'm reading A Good Walk Spoiled for the second time. Still good. And I couldn't wait until Rick Reilly's SI essay came out each week. I was sad to see him go. I love that stuff. And I'm a "chick!" :)

Am working on a MG boy book with family themes and baseball as side story. I'm really digging it. Hopefully I can pull it together in a way that MG boys will dig it, too! :)

Linda Shantz said...

Very interesting topic!

I may be biased, but I think horse racing lends itself particularly well to fiction. The movie 'Seabiscuit' was pretty fictionalized.

I think more than most sports, horse racing is a lifestyle more than just a game, and the characters are so diverse. 'Horse Heaven' is perhaps the only novel that tried to cover it effectively, and while I know most people I've talked to loved it, it came up short for me. So I will endeavour to write the perfect horse racing novel...in my closet...where I belong!

Laurie Schneider said...

Interesting post. I've always loved sports stories, fiction and non. One of my recent favorites is Tim Tharp's Knights of the Hill Country. Football is not my sport, but I'd follow Tharp anywhere, even onto the turf.

Other Lisa said...

Oh! I remember reading these really ancient football books that had ended up in our elementary school library - "Five Yard Fuller and the Unlikely Knights." I really am not sure what memory crevice I dragged that from. From these books I learned that a five yards average carry is a good thing. Another life lesson to be sure.

Other Lisa said...

Take a look at these vintage children's sports books!

Michelle Styles said...

I know it is not your genre, but Suzanne Brockmann did well in single title romance with NHS Hockey. Harlequin currently has a hugely successful NASCAR series which is directly linked to the sport (they even have allowed some male romance novelists to write under their own name for the series -- Ken Casper instead of KN Casper). I believe some of the actual drivers do make appearances in the books.
In the UK, the Mills & Boon Modern (sold as Harlequin Presents in the NA market) has had a v sucessful link up with rugby in recent months. The mini series is currently on sale both in the UK and in the US markets.
I am sure there are other examples but these are off the top of my head. So the old adage that romance has nothing to do with sport/women will not read stories where sports stars are the heroes/have a sports back drop is no longer true.
FWIW

Luc2 said...

You're right, Linda Shantz. Horse racing is very suitable for novels. Dick Francis wrote more than 30 thrillers, and most of them centered around the world of horse racing. I've read some of them. They're fast-paced, with good tension and give an interesting view on the world of horse racing (in Great Britain).

Maya / מיה said...

I "read" a book on tape about the three men seeking to break the 4 minute mile, and it was riveting... but it probably wouldn't have been if A) it were fiction (who cares, then?) and B) I wasn't a runner myself. Good points, Nathan!

Nona said...

"Alice Cooper, Golf Monster"

Shock rock plus sports.

Elizabeth Varadan aka Mrs. Seraphina said...

A friend of mine, George Jansen, wrote a really good sports novel called "The Fade Away". I'm not hawking it for him, as it's already published, but it's a really good read. I think you would enjoy it.

Debbie said...

My thesis focused on the sports novel so I love this thread, Nathan. I looked at how the protagonist's connection to sport empowered their characterization as well as the plot's trajectory. Oh yeah....I could go on FOREVER about this topic.

One of the many things I discovered in my research was that there are 3 distinct approaches to writing these stories, all of which I feel reflect the author's personal connection to sport. There is the Sportcaster, the Fair Weather Fan, and the Gamer. The Sportscaster's prose is littered with cliche's and tends to protray game action as central to the plot. The Fair Weather Fan tends to depict the athlete as a flat, undeveloped jock-like character. Now the Gamer, oh yes, the Gamer understands the innate nature of the athletic protagonist and uses that understanding to propel the story forward.

My favorite sports novels, you ask? Well..there's JUMPED, THE MOVES THAT MAKE THE MAN, THE CHOCOLATE WAR, NECESSARY HUNGER, RASH, INNEXCUSABLE, THE CONTENDER, and BAT 6 for starters.

Also, there is an amazing guy at BYU, Chris Crowe, who has done extensive research in this area, as well. Cool topic, Nathan.

I'm cutting this short because I truly could go on forever about this topic. Though it is hard for me to do this...I'll stop here.

For now.

Janny said...

"If you got a sub for a novel about an NFL QB who was actually a serial killer who whacked a guy in each city he played in during the season, and his archenemy linebacker catches on to his moonlighting when they go to the superbowl, would you consider that a "sports novel?"

Maybe Nathan wouldn't want this, but I want to read it! When's it going to be on the shelves?

Janny, who wishes she'd thought of this

P.S. CURLING???

Anonymous said...

"Maybe Nathan wouldn't want this, but I want to read it! When's it going to be on the shelves?

Janny, who wishes she'd thought of this"

Janny,
I'll never write this. I just made it up on the spot to respond to nathan's post. All yours if you want it. I can see how it could either be a "cozy" type of story with a humurous slant, or a dark suspenseful tale filled with graphic sex & violence. I write science/techno thrillers, sports is not my thing. Thomas Harris' Black Sunday got me to thinking about sports-related plots, but I don't know enough about sports to sustain my interest long enough to write a whole novel.

Shannon Ryan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Shannon Ryan said...

I also came here to mention Dan Jenkins. I'm not a golf guy or even a sports guy, but "Dead Solid Perfect" is a wonderful book.

Jo-Anne Vandermeulen said...

Hi Nathan;

I'm a loyal fan of yours. Love your posts...keep up the fabulous job.

I'm playing catch-up with my blog reading, so I apologize for this late comment. After reading this article, I just had to share, as I'm sure you can relate...Enjoy...:).

http://joconquerobstacles.com/2009/03/26/defining-your-niche/

Darren Pare said...

I have just published a sports novel titled 33 Summers. I must admit though that it isn't a pure sports novel as it is more about a relationship between father and son. You can read the first few chapters of my novel at: http://www.darrenpare.com/ Just click on the announcements tab.

mpearson said...

Nathan:

Have you read Outside Shooter by Phil Raisor? If not, you should. It's the kind of nonfiction sports narrative that you mention appreciating. I think Raisor should be with your agency. He's a poet-athlete with the heart of a good reporter.

Michael Pearson
author of Dreaming of Columbus and Innocents Abroad Too

mpearson said...

Nathan:

Have you read Outside Shooter by Phil Raisor? If not, you should. It's the kind of nonfiction sports narrative that you mention appreciating. I think Raisor should be with your agency. He's a poet-athlete with the heart of a good reporter.

Michael Pearson
author of Dreaming of Columbus and Innocents Abroad Too

Naeima said...

Hi i'm newish but i'm completely hooked on your blog. it's useful, entertaining and perfect for procrastination. i love that you mentioned children's sports stories as being a good idea. I've been working on a YA about a young Somali girl on her schools volleyball team. just when she's getting used to her first year of high school she decides she's going to start wearing the hijab (religious headscarf). Her friends at school don't get it and her Somali friends who would don't get why she choose to join the volleyball team anyway. Clearly basketball is the only acceptable sports team.

Tell Them Willie Boy is Here said...

510Yup, Feb 2013 and I'm just a little late to this conversation but it's an interesting subject and I think a lot of guys remember author John R. Tunis and two fellows with the last name of Archibald and Decker. I used to lie in wait at the library waiting for their next book when I was a young boy and hero-worshipping Mickey Mantle, Bob Cousy and Johnny Unitas. Those authors encouraged me to read and encouraged me to harbor the dream of writing my own sports book some day. I did eventually and it is titled: Devon Loch. It is about a man who has fallen, but with the love of his wife and the encouragement of his eight year old daughter he begins his climb back to the top. I don't care if it sounds corny but I dare anyone to read it (ebook at Lulu.com) and not feel the joy of seeing a man who has been knocked down but refuses to stay down. As he staggers to his feet and begins his journey toward the L.A. Coliseum you will be cheering along with the 100,000 spectators who realize that Jack Coyle is back "in the hunt!"

CMalone said...

I just published my first eBook sports book, but from a different take. I joined the all-tough-male dominated boxing thrillers "Fight Card" started by Paul Bishop and Mel Odom, but I did it with a twist. What happens when a bully from a boxing hopeful's past resurrects to cause trouble for the young boxer and his lady love? So now I have a mash-up of boxing, Noir, suspense, mob-action and romance. It is an attempt to bring mesh the boxing realm with the romance dominance and appeal to both hard-core fight fans with lovers of romance. So writing an interesting sports book can be done.

If you like, you can check out "Fight Card Romance: Ladies Night" under the pseudonym of Jill Tunney and all the other "Fight Card" books at http://tinyurl.com/mh4brlz

Thanks for your post.

Related Posts with Thumbnails