The Little League season has taken a turn. The regular season is gone. My team of 9-, 10- and 11-year olds finished with a strong record, 11-5, good enough for 2nd place. They were my cardiac kids; we lost five games by a total of seven runs. Now I’m coaching a team of 9-year-old All-Stars. We’re practicing every day. And at my local Little League at Magee Park in Delmar, New York, there’s the big championship game tomorrow. The 12-year-olds, the Majors. Two of my friends are the rival managers. I’ll know many of the kids on the field. It is the exact circumstance, recurring annually, that inspired my book, Six Innings.
During the revision process for Six Innings, I cut more than 10,000 words, much of it back story. When I first started writing it, even before I thought about the game itself, I wrote all sorts of stand-alone character pieces that had nothing (and everything!) to do with the championship game, the book’s six innings.
Sometimes when I speak with students, we’ll talk about the importance of character, as well as the maxim, “Show, don’t tell.” In this scene, I wanted to show readers something about Dylan Van Zant, his determination, his stick-to-it-iveness. But also: let them know that he choked under pressure once before, because we’re going to see him in a similar situation one hundred pages down the road. I could have told the reader, “Dylan tenses up sometimes, freezes, but he’s also a very determined guy.” Instead, I invented this little story about a foul-shot contest. Or actually, two contests: The first one, his response to losing it, and then the second contest.
I ended up cutting the whole shebang. But somehow the book is better for it just the same, because by writing I learned everything I needed to know — and show — about this one character, Dylan Van Zant.
The sample below is taken from the middle section, which I labeled at the time, “Headlights.”
Dylan began practicing for next year’s foul-shooting contest on the very next morning.
He was the first in the house to awake. Dylan didn’t brush his teeth, comb his hair, or eat breakfast. He just threw on some shorts, his sneakers, an Under Armour t-shirt, and stepped onto the driveway. The free throw line was already marked off. Dylan walked to it, head down. He bounced the ball rhythmically — boom, boom, bah-boom; boom, boom, bah-boom — alternating hands, remembering the agony of yesterday’s missed shots. Clang, the ball hitting the rim and bouncing away. The tightness in his arms, the dryness in his mouth. That taste of failure.
Dylan took one hundred foul shots. That was the bargain he struck with himself. Every morning, he would go outside and shoot free throws. Most mornings, he kept the promise. Sometimes, life intervened. So he’d shoot in the afternoon.
One particular day, Dylan overslept, raced to school, and worked on a science project late into the night. It was past his normal bedtime. Darkness had fallen, and with it rain; the court was cloaked in velvet. So Dylan asked his mother to please, please, please pull up the car and turn on the headlights. And there he stood at the line in the shimmering dark, knees bent, eyes on the rim, firing up free throw after free throw until he was satisfied, and soaked, and cold. The day’s bargain complete.
The contest would not be for another nine months.
This time, vowed Dylan, I’ll be ready.
A little trivia: the name Dylan Van Zant brings together two of my favorite songwriters, Bob and Townes, who wrote one of my favorite songs ever, “To Live Is to Fly.”