When You are on the Bench

by Steve Laube


The NCAA Basketball Tournament is upon us with lots of drama accompanying March Madness.

As you watch a game, of any team sport, the focus is on the players in the contest. The camera follows the stars and their every move. What you rarely do is watch the bench or the players on the sidelines.

I find this to be a fascinating metaphor for the writing and publishing “game.” There are mega-stars with household names. There are the “up and comers” carving out their place. And with each publishing release a new name steps forward displaying their talent.

But what about those who are left on the bench? What do you do when someone else takes what you think is your place in the spotlight? Or what if you used to be on the starting team but can no longer get a new contract or the attention your books deserve?

I observe at least three types of writers who sit on the bench:

The Intentional Critic

I have often observed the sneer of disdain when a famous author is being discussed. “Oh their books aren’t that good. I couldn’t finish even one.” “I can write so much better than so-and-so.” You understand what I’m saying? And I have likely willfully participated in the criticism.

There is a legitimate place for critique and published reviews (both online and print). They provide a valuable service in helping us discover whether a book is worth the time to read. And yet I once looked up every review written by an individual on Amazon out of curiosity (it is easy to look those up). This particular reviewer did not like a single book they had reviewed. Not one. It made me wonder if they were being intentional about their criticism in order to bring other writers down.

If you are on the bench be careful not to let the jealously bug bite and infect you with bitterness. Caustic words tend to burn the giver as well as the receiver.

The Student

Teams practice nearly every day. It creates a “muscle memory” for certain plays and for the interaction with other team members. They learn from each other and from their coaches.

It is the same in the writing world. This season may be one where you are on the bench. Use that time to improve your craft. Watch how other authors market their new books and keep a notebook of ideas. Make note of promotional things that don’t work as well as those that do. Read widely in your genre and outside. Your non-fiction may improve after reading a great storyteller. Or your fiction may have a new layer of fascination because of some non-fiction piece you read.

I have met a number of very famous authors in our industry who have attended a writers conference as a student. They were not there to teach or speak. They were not there to mentor. They were not there to critique. They were there, paying their own way, to sit quietly in the back and learn how to improve their craft.

So even if you are on the bench you can still learn something. And be prepared for the day when your name is called.

The Cheerleader

The video at the end of this piece is absolutely delightful. See how the bench celebrates the success of the other players. It is inspiring. Why?

Because it is a lesson to the rest of us. No pasted smiles on our faces when our friend gets a contract and we don’t. You’ve seen the smile that doesn’t travel up to the eyes. No empty words like “I’m so happy for you” said with gritted teeth.

Instead bring unbridled enthusiasm to the game. This is about changing the world. The non-fiction piece inspires and instructs thousands of people in far flung places. That novel warms a heart or challenges a reader through a character who has come alive on the page. This miracle of the written word is something to celebrate, truly celebrate.

Of course not every book is made equal. That is why there are so many and why our tastes are so varied. But if you find yourself on the bench for whatever reason. Take the chance to send a note of encouragement to that author. Not just gushy fan letters, but a note that only another writer would understand. Use your blog or Facebook page to celebrate those new releases. Let your network know there is an alternative to the drivel found on most TV stations and in movie theaters.

Meanwhile, enjoy the rest of March Madness and this video. Next time a new book hits a home run or scores a touchdown or sinks a buzzer beater or gets past the goalie, celebrate like these guys:

13 Responses to When You are on the Bench

  1. Susie Finkbeiner March 24, 2014 at 5:20 am #

    I was on the bench for years. I spent way too many of those as the sneering critic (especially when Snooki from The Jersey Shore’s novel released). I had no success during that time. Not at all. It was when I decided to be both the student and the cheerleader that I saw my writing improve. When that intentional critic starts creeping up on me again, I work even harder on my attitude. It makes all the difference!

    Thanks for this post. Such a wonderful reminder.

  2. Chris Malkemes March 24, 2014 at 5:28 am #

    It’s hard to sit on the bench. I’m still there. Timing is everything. We just need to stay in the game. Walking away accomplishes nothing and giving up hurts the future reader. Let’s not forget the one on the bench has the best seat in the house. Thanks for a good “read.”

  3. Rick Barry March 24, 2014 at 6:31 am #

    Nice, uplifting post to start the day. Thanks, Steve!

  4. Angie Breidenbach March 24, 2014 at 6:53 am #

    Being a basketball mom, whose son is about to graduate college as a basketball coach, I’m all about team play :D I think it makes us all stronger. Loved this!

  5. Anne Mateer March 24, 2014 at 7:03 am #

    Like Angie, I’m a basketball mom with a son who will graduate college in another year as a basketball coach, so I really get this! But even more so, I needed the reminder desperately today. Thanks!

  6. Richard Mabry March 24, 2014 at 7:14 am #

    Steve, Thanks so much for this encouraging word and the good advice that goes with it. I needed both today.

  7. Loree Lough March 24, 2014 at 7:32 am #

    I’ve never understood snarky, envy-induced comments, whether inspired by somebody’s bigger house, newer car, cooler vacations, kids/grandkids…or publishing successes. Seems like such a waste of time and energy, time I’d much rather spend enjoying God’s grace and the love of my family, honing my craft, and communing with reader-friends.

  8. Martha Rogers March 24, 2014 at 8:57 am #

    Thanks for the reminder that we’re all in this together. We’re not individuals trying to be best everyone else, we are a team that wants to get the word out there to our readers. I’ve been off the bench for several years, but that doesn’t mean I can’t still learn and cheer others on to victory and celebrate achievements knowing that I can be called back to the bench at any given moment.

    Loved the video and the antics of the bench players. It’s been interesting to watch the benches in the NCAA games this past weekend.

  9. Gail Helgeson March 24, 2014 at 9:07 am #

    Loved this! I was at my writers group last evening. (ACFW-MN NICE.) Several are entering writing contests. I hope they all win. I am blessed to be in such a fellowship of writers who all want each other to succeed.
    Jill Elizabeth Nelson was our speaker. She reminded us that “writers write!” Also that education is on going. There are many books out there to help us learn our craft. Who and what are my resources? Critique partners, conferences, memberships…The list is vast. Jill asked our goals. Short term, intermediate, and long term. Long term for me includes a contract with a certain agency! I may be on the bench for a long while, but in the meantime I will cheer on my fellow writers. It is a privilege to share in their joy. Thanks for the fun post.

  10. J.D. Maloy March 24, 2014 at 9:11 am #

    What a great way to start a Monday! Steve, thank you, for that analogy. It was clear, informative and encouraging.

    Keeping our eyes on our test can be difficult in this subjective industry. But as Tamela wonderful reminded us last week, God’s timing for us is 100% perfect.

    And if “…[writing] is about changing the world…this miracle of the written word is something to celebrate, truly celebrate” then I’ll cheer away. Aren’t we all on the same kingdom “team” anyway? For His glory?

  11. Jeanne Takenaka March 24, 2014 at 10:08 am #

    What a great post to begin my week, Steve. I’m still on the bench, and it’s where I need to be right now. I’ve had moments of being the critic of some book I read. Then I had the reality check: that author is published, and I am not. I haven’t taken all the steps yet. And that’s okay. As someone else (Gail, maybe?) said, God’s timing is perfect.

    For now, I focus on being the student and the encourager. These roles are much more pleasant than being a critic. I know I’ll always have something else to learn, even after (Lord willing) I become published one day.

    What a great video. I smiled the whole way through. And, though this is off-topic, I suspect “Omaha” will have a new meaning for a long time to come. ;)

  12. Catherine Hackman March 25, 2014 at 9:11 am #

    I sincerely believe that if all of us authors became each other’s biggest cheerleaders, book sales would rise and individual reading would increase dramatically. We all need to be out there promoting each other as well as ourselves.

  13. Linda Rodante March 26, 2014 at 7:38 pm #

    Good thought. Good video. Needed it. Thanks!

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