Tuesday, April 18, 2006

JSB: Don't Play it Safe

My favorite time of the sporting year is March Madness, the NCAA basketball tournament. Sixty-four college teams play elimination rounds to try to make it to the storied Final Four, from which will come the national champion.

More great games happen in this tourney than any other, games won on fabulous last second shots or incredible defensive plays. Major powerhouses are upset by little schools with big hearts. Some games go into the category of legend.On March 23, one such game was played. The UCLA Bruins, a young team, went up against one of the country’s leading powers, Gonzaga. The Bruins almost lost in the first ten minutes. At one point in the first half they were behind by 17 points.In fact, with just over three minutes left in the GAME, the Bruins were down by 9 points. The way Gonzaga had been scoring (especially via their All American, Adam Morrison) this deficit seemed insurmountable.

But with one minute to go, UCLA was only down by five.And then what happened? “We dug deep,” Bruin sophomore guard Jordan Farmar said.Behind by one point as the clock ticked off the final seconds, Farmar and another teammate, Cedric Bozeman, put a double team on the Gonzaga big man, who had the ball. Bozeman knocked the ball loose. Farmar grabbed it, saw his teammate under the hoop, passed him the ball for a layup.

It was the last basket of the game, a game nobody thought the Bruins could win at the four minutes-to-go mark. The gutsy Bruins never gave up.But there was another aspect to this game that deserves mention. It was also a game lost by Gonzaga. In those final four minutes, they were outscored 11 – 0. Why? How could that have happened when they were scoring pretty much at will before that?

It happened because their coach decided to play it safe. Instead of staying in their game, Gonzaga tried to run down the clock. Instead of going to the hoop, they dribbled the ball up around the half court line. Result: disaster. The players were out of rhythm, and it showed, and it let the Bruins back in the game.

This lesson should not be lost on writers. Don’t play it safe. That is, don’t be afraid to stretch your writing muscles at every level of your career.

Young writers may try to play it safe in order to get published. Instead of seeking their own voice, they try to imitate that which sells.Even writers who reach a certain measure of success can play it safe, trying not to lose what they have achieved. But “trying not to lose” is not the way to victory. Just ask Gonzaga.Instead, stretch and grow. This doesn’t mean, if you’re a genre writer, that you have to write the first experimental, time traveling, satirical-historical legal thriller in stream-of-consciousness mode. But it does mean digging a little deeper into character or plot or theme, or refusing to settle for the “Okay” when the “Extraordinary” is possible.

What editors look for is that combination of fresh voice and familiar territory, a story that crackles with originality and also with the possibility of being marketed to readers. Put those two things together in your writing, and you’ll definitely be playing to win.

James Scott Bell, author of Presumed Guilty (Zondervan), www.jamesscottbell.com
“The Suspense Never Rests”


At 3:03 PM, Blogger Cara Putman said...

Thanks for the post. My alma mater (I went to the law school) garnered great press when the George Mason Patriots became the Cinderella team. Definitely made for an exciting NCAA tourney.

At 7:11 PM, Blogger James Scott Bell said...

Congrats to your alma mater and...gasp, another lawyer/writer! Welcome to the fold. We'll outnumber all the rest of 'em soon enough...

At 9:47 PM, Blogger Kristy Dykes said...

Last night, my dh and I watched Cross Creek, the story of Pulitzer Prize-winner Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (The Yearling) when she came to Florida in 1928 to live on an orange grove among Florida crackers and write novels. The film became the sensation of the 1983 Cannes Film Festival and "remains one of the most powerful portraits ever of a writer's search for fulfillment as well as the remarkable story of one woman's bold struggle for independence."

I was moved to tears during the movie (as well as during certain parts of The Yearling.) She had been a newspaper reporter, but she wanted to write fiction. Her chosen genre was gothic romance. Editor Maxwell Perkins kept rejecting her stories, and she was ready to quit writing, she was so discouraged. During their correspondence, she told him about the people in Cross Creek and their pathos, i.e., their struggles to live and eat and survive in the backwoods of Florida. One day, he wrote her and told her to put aside her gothic romance and write about what she was experiencing, that it was alive and fresh and real. She did, The Yearling poured out of her, and the rest is history.

What an inspiring story.

Incidentally, we've been to her house in Cross Creek. I have a matted picture of her typewriter in my office.

Oh, to be able to write like she wrote! What deep characterization. What great description. Etc.

At 11:14 PM, Blogger Bonnie S. Calhoun said...

Thanks for the insight. I'm printing the post to add to your Plot and Structure book (gives me a safe place to keep it..LOL)


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