Sunday, February 21, 2010

A Sense of Where You Are

James Scott Bell

I've been playing basketball most of my life. When I was a kid, falling in love with the game, I happened across a book called A Sense of Where You Are by John McPhee. It was a profile of Bill Bradley when he was one of the best college hoopsters ever, nearly leading lowly Princeton to the national title.

What impressed me was Bradley's work ethic. He practiced for hours a day, in all sorts of weather, perfecting his shots, his moves. He even spent considerable time on the classic hook shot, in order to have a complete game.

So the summer between seventh and eighth grade I had my dad put up a basket on our driveway. I practiced every day, sometimes in the rain, sometimes into the night with the driveway lit up by a single floodlight.

I got books on basketball technique from the library and taught myself the proper way to shoot a jump shot. I learned you have to keep your elbow in, not flared out. I learned to give the ball a perfect spin. In fact, I became the deadliest shot in the history of Parkman Junior High School. In further fact, I was All League in high school and played a year in college. In furthest fact, had I been a couple inches taller and about five seconds faster, I'd be in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Larry Bird? Pheh.

But I digress.

The other morning, as is my wont, I was shooting around a local park when I got into doing some hook shots. Now that's one shot I worked on a little bit when I was younger, but never really developed into something deadly. My specialty was the 15 - 20 foot jumper, and that's what I practiced most.

But this day, for some reason, it occurred to me that as I had taught myself the proper way to shoot a jump shot, maybe I ought to take another look at the hook. So I started to experiment with a different release point, looking for another feel. And in about five minutes I happened on a slightly modified shot, but that modification made a huge difference. The hooks started to fall.

I felt like a kid again, with the joy of discovering a new technique that works. After all these years, I had a stronger hook shot with only a few adjustments.

I bring this up because I get this feeling as a writer, too. I still get excited when I put a new spin on a technique and it works. That's why I continue to read books on writing, Writer's Digest magazine, blogs and lots and lots of novels, seeing what works, trying stuff out. My philosophy is if I learn just one thing, or get a new view on something I already know, it's worth it.

Don't ever think you have arrived. When you think that, even if you're multi-published, you start to atrophy. There are authors who once cared about the craft but now just mail it in, because they have an established following.

Don't let that be you. Respect the craft, and keep at it.

In his book, McPhee described Bill Bradley's ability to throw up a shot with his back to the basket – no look – and make it most of the time. When he asked Bradley how he could do that, Bradley replied, "You develop a sense of where you are."

Know where you are, writer, and how you can get better. Then practice. That's really the secret to succeeding as a writer. Maybe the only secret: practice –– day after week after year.

What about you? Do you have the same excitement when you learn something about writing that works? Do you practice enough? Even when it rains?


  1. Excellent advice, Jim. It's strange to think of a writer practicing in the same way one thinks of an athlete performing repetitious exercises. But each word that flows from a writer's mind onto the page is just that--teaching our mental muscles how to improve our game.

    Like you, I get exciting with every new turn in the writing process. And it seems, to me at least, that the more I learn, the less I know. And I agree about atrophy. What you don't want to happen is to wind up merrily cruising across the surface of the ocean and forget there are fathoms of knowledge below.

  2. Great sage advice for all of life-- stretching, growing, pushing toward excellence. Thank you, Jim. Love the hook shot analogy.

  3. This is great advice. I am constantly on the lookout for new techniques of craft. I remember the first few pointers I committed to memory, based on a manuscript critique: Vary the sentence structure; keep chapters roughly the same length (until readers get to know you); avoid your personal writing tic (which in my case, was overusing dashes). Since then I have kept adding to my list of do's and don'ts.

  4. Joe, I think if we fail to get excited by writing discoveries we're in the wrong game. And it is true, the more you know, the more you see higher standards. That should be motivating, not frustrating.

  5. Joe, I think if we fail to get excited by writing discoveries we're in the wrong game. And it is true, the more you know, the more you see higher standards. That should be motivating, not frustrating.

  6. Joe, I think if we fail to get excited by writing discoveries we're in the wrong game. And it is true, the more you know, the more you see higher standards. That should be motivating, not frustrating.

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  8. Sorry for the repeat comment. Blogger...Jennifer, I appreciate the kind word.

    Kathryn, good tip about looking for those little, annoying items the recur, and keeping track of them. I usually develop a fondness for a certain word that keeps repeating in a draft. My wife spots these so I can find and replace.

  9. It always seemed odd to me, at first, that you can "practice" writing. But, at the age of 43, BSME and MBA under my belt, I still get a rush when I learn some new writing technique. I often have to rush to my latest work in progress and find a place to use it. I imagine I'll be learning until the day I die. If I'm not learning, what's the point of going on?

  10. Great post, Jim. It almost made me want to pick up a basketball...almost.
    I do the same thing with certain words-and character names. In the first draft of Tunnels, nearly every name started with the letter "J." In Boneyard, it was "D."

  11. I'm always excited by new techniques, either in the actual storytelling or in the invisible processes that get it written.

    And I have recently hit on a great way to weed out those overused words. As language is what I polish last, I keep a note of words I notice are getting more than a fair amount of usage (why do I use 'Suddenly' and 'try' so much!) - then on my language pass I can do a search and replace.

  12. Great advice Jim. I find learning just as fascinating as writing. I believe there is always something new to learn no matter how old a person is or how much one has studied.

  13. Just one more note about Bradley. Look at the photo again, and see the perfect form. He practiced the form first, got that technically right. That's what made him consistent. Learn the craft, get technically right, then you can improvise from there. But if you don't get the form first, you will not be consistent. And you will not sell.

  14. Years ago I spent two weeks laying flat on my belly pulling a trigger on an unloaded rifle pointed at a man shaped dot on a barrel fifty feet away. After the practice putting a bullet dead center on a silhouette at 500 meters was like second nature.

    A friend in Force Recon said they would fire something like 600 rounds a day in the "shoot house" aiming at 3x5 cards on mannequins. They had to have 100% accuracy to stay active, otherwise they'd be killing hostages. Within a year of leaving the unit he said his accuracy was down to about 60%.

    Practice makes perfect for the moment, continuous practice keeps us continuously perfect.

  15. Great analogy with Bradley, Jim. Get the basics down. Everything else will follow with the appropriate amount of work. Provided you read PLOT & STRUCTURE, of course.