Alexander Hellene

Writing Advice

By Alexander Hellene

“All right, men: we’re down by 5 with ninety seconds left. You know what to do.”

Power forward Reginald Perkins, number 11, raises two fingers. “Coach.”

“All right, Perk: what is it?” The coach looks over his shoulder at the clock, trying his best to ignore the raucous sounds of the home crowd. To steal a game on the road like this, against a superior opponent . . . that would be something. “Make it quick.”

Perkins clears his throat. “Why don’t we shoot threes.”

“Yeah coach. Come on.” That was point guard Terrence Bradford III, number 5. Good kid. Quick. Hell of a jump shooter.

Coach shakes his head and loosens his tie. He returns his attention to the whiteboard held in his tight hands. He loosens his grip before he breaks the damn thing. He takes the cap of his black marker off with his mouth, holding it between his teeth like the stub of a cigar, and begins to draw. “Bradford, you’re gonna drive in, try to draw a foul. If you can’t, you kick it out to Stubbins—”

“Coach,” Perkins says. “They’ll be expecting that.”

“It’ll work, Perk.”

“It hasn’t worked the last like twenty times we tried it.” He pronounces the number like “twenny,” an endearing trait that Coach, with his flat Midwestern drawl, tries to reproduce to his players’ laughter. Good kids, all of them.

Ahmed Stubbins decides now is the time to chime in. “Why don’t we shoot some threes?”

Annoyed now, Coach takes the cap out of his mouth and recaps his pen. “Come on, men. What’s gotten into you? I’ve been your coach long enough for you to know this. It’s no great mystery. I don’t do threes. I don’t believe in ‘em.”

“And we’ve been sayin’—”

Now is not the time. You know my philosophy. Threes are low percentage shots—”

“Terry hits them at like a forty-five percent clip,” says Stubbins. “That’s like third in the league right now.”

“You’re not gonna change my mind now, God damn it!” Coach has to take a breath, steel himself. There’s so much pressure on all of them. So much. A win brings them one step closer to the playoffs. A loss . . .  “No threes. None. You know my style. I see a player shooting threes, I turn the game off TV. An assistant coaching candidates advocates shooting triples, I don’t hire him. I’ve seen too many teams lose because they shoot too many threes, or they have bad three-point shooters. I’m not gonna take that risk. The three-ball is not worth it. I know Bradford shot well when he played for Oklahoma City. But that was there. This is here. He shoots twos just as well. Better, even. Go for the layup. Kick it out if you have to. But no threes.”

Perkins would not quit. “This situation, Coach—”

“Enough, Perk. Time out’s almost over.”

“They just standin’ around, Coach. On the perimeter. They don’t even cover us ‘cause they know we ain’t going to shoot threes. It’s a joke, Coach. Let us shoot—”

I. Don’t. Care. And that’s it!” Coach punctuates this by throwing his marker on the floor. It bounces high, the cap flying off and spinning onto the court where a ball boy has to run out and pick it up lest someone trip when play resumes. Coach can relate. He started out as a ball boy in Milwaukee, dreaming of playing in the pros. And he did, all the while dreaming of coaching in the pros. And here he is.

He didn’t shoot threes then, and he ended up winning a title with Dallas twenty years ago. The teams he’s coached haven’t yet reached the finals without shooting threes, not yet, but they’ve come close. Coach believes in his philosophy, his technique, his style. Nothing is going to change his mind. He’s right, and all of those other coaches are wrong.

The buzzer rings, bringing the TV timeout to a close. Coach stands and claps his hands. “All right men. You’ve got this. Remember the play.”

His players try to sound enthused, clapping each other on the back, giving exhortations, a few making the sign of the Cross or offering up other prayers. But Coach can feel it. They’re going through the motions. He’s lost them. And with only three games left in the regular season . . .

It’ll work, he tells himself. My style always works. Everyone else just sucks.

It’s a childish expression, but no other words fit.

*     *     *

The preceding story is not about basketball. It is a metaphor for the kind of writing advice you will see in all corners of the internet. Writers of varying levels of success have their idiosyncrasies which might work for them, which is great . . . but they then extrapolate these to everyone else.  

Take prologues, a discussion of which informed this basketball story. I learned that some people advise never to write prologues because they (1) can be too long or (2) have nothing to do with the story that follows, or at the very least don’t tie into it until much later which, I guess, is a bad thing.

The logical fallacies at work here are so monumental, but I understand why they may not be visible. It’s like standing at the foot of a gigantic mountain. A dense forest grows at the peak’s base. You are so focused on traversing that forest, you don’t even acknowledge the mountain looming overhead. But it’s there.

Just because some authors have written some bad prologues doesn’t mean that all prologues are bad.

I even saw someone say that they refused to read a book if they see that it has a prologue. What absurd advice.

If I followed such a stricture, I never would have read Hyperion. I never would have read The Eye of the World. Those are just two fantastic books with excellent prologues I can think of off the top of my head.

But that’s reader behavior. As a writer, you have to make sure you understand the purpose of a prologue, like any other tool or technique, before you use it. It really is that simple.

I’m always astounded at the writing world. Nobody likes to tell other people how to do a thing than writers. Even musicians aren’t this bad—I’ve never heard anyone say “Avoid the Locrian mode like the plague” or “If I hear music with a diminished scale, I’m out, bro.”

Writers enjoy telling other writers that they’re doing it all wrong. That they should never use prologues, or adverbs, or begin a sentence with a gerund, and so on. A lot of writing advice is related to sound mechanics. But other writing advice is unduly limiting; i.e., never write prologues, and degrades the overall quality of the culture we are trying to produce.

You have to understand something before you can use them. You don’t have to deliberately forego a technique just because someone on the Internet told you to. Check it out for yourself, play around with it, go over it with your editor, and trust your own artistic and stylistic judgment.


Someone on the Internet.

– Alexander

2 thoughts on “Writing Advice”

  1. Alexander,

    This reminds me of the basedcon recording about writing by Travis Corcoran and his powerpoint. It’s about writing the novel you can be proud of.

    He also take a bit of an aim at Adam (Lane Smith) about writing like a beast (in the powerpoint)–TcM/edit?usp=sharing

    My writing advice:

    Tell the best story you can, entertain and do so with artistic competency.


    1. Xavier,

      I haven’t listened to Travis’s talk, but I read through his notes. As expected, solid, timeless, technical advice.

      “My writing advice: Tell the best story you can, entertain and do so with artistic competency.”

      That’s the key: you have to tell a story you believe in, but you also have to understand the craft of writing. For the latter, there are no shortcuts.

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