As long as I’m using sports to set the stage for the next phase of this writing journey, allow me to wax metaphoric on the brilliance of Rafael Nadal, the #1 tennis player in the world. Makes no difference that what inspired this analogous stretch was watching him get shellacked in the fourth round of the French Open yesterday – a tournament he’s owned to the extent they should name it after him – to a no-name Swede, something tantamount to Meryl Streep not getting an Oscar nomination. Hey, even Nelson Demille writes a stinker now and then (if you read Night Fall and The Gate House you know what I mean), but he’s still a clinic on what we storytellers should aspire to become.
I won’t bore you with the obvious Nadal metaphors that writers can take to the bank: the intensity of each swing, the careful preparation for each shot and the ritualistic adherence to form, not to mention an intensity that manifests in the senses, from a guttural cry of exertion to the grimaced face, and again not to mention the in-your-face below-the-knee shorts (which gives the stuffy suits at Wimbledon fits) and the greasy headband that reeks of attitude and intimidation. All of these are workshop- worthy examples of playing outside the box in a game that is nothing if not defined by boxes, both literally and culturally. No, those aren’t the points of the day, valid as they are.
The two things I did notice about Nadal’s game that struck me as writer-worthy were both made clear only through the slow-motion replay. Which in itself delivers insight: sometimes you have to slow things down and really examine the nuances to see brilliance at work (when was the last time you really autopsied a novel you loved, just to see what made it brilliant?). There were two examples here of what makes Nadal the current best player in the world, both of which we writers should take to heart. Because if anybody can appreciate a killer analogy, it’s a writer.
First, Nadal breaks the rules of form that the rest of learned at tennis camp. In fact, all the pros do it, and if your tennis instructor catches you trying this stuff she’ll rip the strings out of your racquet. We’re taught to turn so that our feet line up with the trajectory of the arriving ball, much like a golfer aligns the stance to the intended (key word there) line of flight. Then we open our leading shoulder as we strike the ball and follow through. But Nadal – again, all the pros – don’t do it that way. They strike their forehand from the side, with their feet roughly parallel to the baseline as they face the line of flight, rather that align parallel to it. This allows the torque of their body to impart more power, and more importantly, more spin.
The point? Don’t try this at home. At least, not until you’ve mastered the basics of writerly shot-making. Most of us take our cues from the published books we read, which are written by professionals who have earned the right to break the rules. Until you’ve evolved to place where a broken rule serves you better than traditional technique, until you’ve earned the right to do it your way, stick to the game plan and do it by the book.
The second Nadalian insight involves something that’s difficult to see with the naked eye. It’s obvious that the guy is swinging as hard as he can, something that, when we try it, sends the ball into the adjacent playground. What’s less obvious is that the arc of his swing is nearly straight up, rather than angling toward the opposing court (again, if we tried this the ball would go into an orbit requiring a flight plan). This is Nadal imparting topspin, which is the only way a ball traveling at those speeds could descend into the playing court instead of crippling a ballboy twenty-five feet behind the baseline. It’s the topspin, in combination with the velocity, that makes Nadal the best tennis player in the world, and which makes all the other pros orders of magnitude better than the club pro trying to teach you the wretched game.
Telling stories is very much the same game. It’s all about power, certainly, but also about finesse and timing. It’s about combining the power of your story with the spin of your words in such a way that the ball stays in play, without straying into what, in the writing world, becomes a distraction. And if there’s anything that will piss an editor off, it’s distractions that reek of an amateur trying to imitate a polished professional before his or her time.
Postscript, 6-7-09: Federer won it all. Spin works. Spin with power and technique makes you a superstar. Love those sports metaphors.