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.
One morning a few years ago, 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. But practice with a purpose.
1. Rate yourself in each of the critical success factors of fiction: plot, structure, characters, scenes, dialogue, voice, meaning (theme).
2. Make it your goal to improve by 10% in each area you listed. Give yourself a deadline to do this.
3. Spend a good part of each day or week to read writing books and blog articles that cover the areas you’re improving. Be sure to include practice writing based on what you’ve learned.
You’ll be most pleased with the results. So will your readers.
James Scott BellResident Writing Coach
Jim is the author of the #1 bestseller for writers, Plot & Structure, and numerous thrillers, including Romeo’s Rules, Try Dying and Don’t Leave Me. His popular books on fiction craft can be found here. His thrillers have been called “heart-whamming” (Publishers Weekly) and can be browsed here. Find out more about Jim on our Resident Writing Coach page, and connect with him on