The Value of the Junk Pile (Or, Discovering the Right Service Stance)

I was riveted, glued to the television set, watching a sport I had never paid any attention to, and realizing, even though I was just a kid, that sports history was being made.

To put it mildly, it was a surprise I was watching the 1985 Wimbledon Men’s Singles Final. Though I was a big sports fan, at the time my tastes were limited to football, baseball, basketball, and a little bit of ice hockey sprinkled in.  Tennis?  I didn’t know a break point from a deuce point; a baseline from a service line.  But when my older brother John came into the family room on that hot July morning, he turned on “Breakfast at Wimbledon.”


“What are you doing?” I asked.

“I heard this guy has a huge serve,” he said.  “I wanna watch it.”  This was a surprise, too.  John had recently graduated from high school, and I’d always looked up to him.  Nearly a decade my senior, he was patient with me and rarely told me to get lost when I’d hang around with him and his friends.  He’d been a star athlete in school, but, like me, had never really been a fan of the game of tennis.

Even so, he followed the world of sports enough to know that a significant story was being written on the lawns of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club.  Kevin Curren, a veteran of the professional tennis circuit, was making major waves, beating John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors in succession to reach his first Grand Slam final.  Curren wasn’t regarded as a top player–but he had one of the game’s strongest serves.  This my brother wanted to see.


Curren’s opponent that day was a seventeen-year-old prodigy named Boris Becker.  Few people knew who he was at that time, apart from tennis aficionados.  I certainly had never heard of him.  But that was about to change.  He shocked the tennis world, instantly becoming a worldwide star, by defeating Curren to become the youngest Wimbledon champion in history.


I was struck by Becker immediately.  With his daring, net-rushing, athletic style, his charisma and hustle, he was a joy to watch.  And, as it turned out, it was Becker, not Curren, who had the truly dominating serve.


I was hooked.  I loved the one-on-one aspect of the sport, the geometry of the court, the strategy and tactics, the way the crowd would grow whisper-quiet between points and then erupt when a brilliant stroke was made.


The very next day, I went to the local public courts, borrowed one of my parents’ old wooden rackets (!), and worked on my serve.  I hadn’t ever served a tennis ball before, so it took some getting used to.  But, first and foremost, I adjusted my service stance to mimic Boris Becker’s.  It was natural enough–he was a right-hander, and so was I, after all.  So, I opened up my stance, just as Boris did, facing the corner of the court where I aimed to hit the ball.

Try as I might, it just didn’t feel right.  I attributed it to my being a beginner.  But as the days moved forward, as summer break rushed toward the inevitable and unwelcome start of another school year, I realized I wasn’t making much progress.  My serve was still not working.


That’s when I understood.  It wasn’t my serve I was practicing.  It was Boris Becker’s.  The stance that worked so well for him felt awkward and uncomfortable for me.  It just took me some time to figure it out.

So I changed my stance, closing it up, with my front foot now to the right of my back one.  I felt the difference right away.  This position felt easy, natural, and fluid.  My serve improved literally overnight.  And to this day, I still serve with a closed stance.

At first, I bemoaned the fact that it took me so long to make the switch.  Couldn’t I have become a better player, a better server, if I had just started in a closed stance to begin with?  But then I saw the truth.  I had to go through the awkwardness in order to pave the way for the finished product.


By learning what didn’t work for me, it made it easier and clearer to see what did.


Have you ever written a scene, or even an entire chapter, only to discover, after the fact, that it’s all wrong?  It doesn’t need a little tweaking, or a few minor edits.  It is just . . . wrong.  Awful.  A complete and unequivocal flop.


I’ve certainly written such chapters.  In The Eye-Dancers, for example, I remember vividly the quagmire that was chapter eighteen.  It was one of the longer chapters in the novel, and, after writing the first draft of it–all twenty or so pages–I reread it, and said, “What was I thinking?  Seriously?  This is horrible!”  I was shocked that I hadn’t noticed this earlier, when I was in the process of writing the chapter.  Admittedly, during the writing of the chapter, I was aware that the words were not flowing, the dialogue not coming smoothly.  But I had no idea just how bad it was until I went back and read the entire thing.

My first reaction was predictable.  I bemoaned the fact that I had just wasted so much time writing such drivel.  I took a breath, shut off the PC, and resolved to keep away from the manuscript for at least a day.  I needed a break.


When I returned to it two days later, I reread the chapter, this time with more patient and much fresher eyes.  While I still thought the output was atrocious, I was able to focus more clearly and spot where it was I’d gone wrong.  The germ of the idea was fine.  It was the execution that was lacking.  The chapter needed more energy, more gusto, more forward momentum.  By rereading the first draft, the second draft came clear.  The fog lifted, and I felt invigorated.


I rewrote the entire chapter, and this time the words came more easily, the dialogue popped, and the POV character (a tip of the cap to you, Marc Kuslanski!) came into sharper focus.  When I read through it upon completion, I knew it was right–not perfect maybe–no chapter ever is.  But right.  I scrolled to the bottom of the screen, inserted a page break, and keyed the words, “Chapter Nineteen,” into the yawning mouth of the white space.  I was ready to press on.

No doubt, it had been a frustrating and time-consuming experience, but I was thankful for the first draft of chapter eighteen.  It was a necessary part of the process, a sharpening of the pen, so to speak, a way to clear the creative cobwebs and allow the real story, the true story, to come through.


I have no doubt I’ll have more “chapter-eighteen experiences” in the future.  I’ve had a few already while writing the sequel to The Eye-Dancers.  And, while I may never fully embrace these authorial detours, these mazes through the junk pile to sift out the trash and unearth the jewels, I will always appreciate and acknowledge, however grudgingly, their value.



Because, when it comes right down to it, sometimes you just have to serve a few double faults with the wrong stance before you can hit those perfectly struck aces with the right one.


Thanks so much for reading!


Author Interview with Jessica Wren

When I began blogging three summers ago, little did I realize how much fun and rewarding it would be.  I was, to put it bluntly, clueless when it came to the blogosphere.  So many aspects of blogging are great, but if I had to choose the best of the best, that would be easy–the many virtual friendships I have formed with so many talented and wonderful people throughout the WordPress community.  I am continually humbled by all the support and goodwill that permeates this very special network.

One of those talented and wonderful wordsmiths is Jessica Wren.  Jessica took the time recently to interview me on her great website, and now I am returning the favor, chatting with Jessica about the art of writing and about her engrossing novella, Ice, which I very much enjoyed.



It’s my pleasure introducing Jessica Wren.  I hope you enjoy the interview!


1. Have you always known that you wanted to be a writer? When did you first discover that writing was something you had a passion for?

I have been writing for as long as I can remember. When I was twelve, I wrote a novelette. My seventh-grade English teacher did a serious review, writing on a piece of paper the good and the bad (this was, of course, before the Internet). The fact that someone took me seriously at that time spurred my confidence as a writer. I still have that review; it is one of my most treasured possessions.


2. What, or who, are some of your inspirations as a writer? Do you have any favorite authors? Novels?

Stephen King. I think I have read just about every work written by him, and Ice has been compared to some of his works (most notably, The Shining). I have also drawn inspiration from some of the Latino writers, mainly Isabel Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In fact, Ice was loosely based on One Hundred Years of Solitude. I created Minterville as an American Macondo.


3. If you could offer an aspiring writer any single piece of advice, what would it be?

Don’t listen to negative people. Pay attention to constructive criticism, of course, but if someone is actively trying to work against you, get as far away from him/her as possible.


4. In your novel, Ice, it struck me right away that there is virtually no cell phone presence in the town of Minterville. Of course this is mostly due to the telepathic Minter ability of the residents (more on that in a moment), but I couldn’t help but wonder if, in presenting the town in this way, that you might be making a statement about the smartphone culture we live in? Do you feel that society has gone too far in its dependence on smartphones and digital technology in general?

I never thought about it, but now that you mention it, maybe I was, subconsciously, trying to make a statement about the importance of community and ties, and how technology addiction can be damaging to one’s social skills. Cell phone reception is poor in Minterville because of their location deep in the woods, but the residents there are used to it and have come to rely on the Minter and person-to-person communication.


5.Speaking of the Minter, and the ability of the town residents to communicate on a telepathic level, I was struck by your portrayal of small-town America. Are you from a small town originally? Do you live in a small town today? 

Today, I live in Brunswick, Georgia, which has grown a little too much for my taste. Minterville is modeled after Argyle, Texas (where I did live as a child). In Argyle (at least at that time), everyone knew everyone, there were many community events, and while we couldn’t communicate telepathically, we all knew each other’s phone numbers. It was also virtually crime-free.


6. Ice is written in several Parts, each Part narrated, in a first-person format, by a different resident of the town. That’s a very interesting literary technique, and one that presents the reader with different perspectives over the course of the novel. What inspired you to write the story in this manner, as opposed to a third-person narrative throughout or from the first-person point of view of just one character?

I chose to tell Parts 1 and 5 from Elliot’s point of view because he’s a mainly objective character. He was actually originally going to be my only narrator. However, my editor (who’s also my husband) pointed out that by doing that, I would miss out on the emotional depth that characters directly involved in the events, such as Andy (on the outside) and Carolyn (on the inside), could provide. I finally decided to keep Elliot as the narrator for the beginning and the end (before and after the main crisis) because of his objectivity and because as far as that particular town is concerned, he functions as an “everyman.” To be honest, I wish I had used the third-person.


7. One of the characters in Ice refers to the press as a “group of blood-sucking vultures.” Does this harsh critique of the press mirror your own views at all?

I do believe the media does “spin” stories to generate ratings, but my view is not nearly as harsh as Elliot’s. He is upset because he feels the media presence in Minterville is disruptive and that they are taking advantage of their tragedy to boost their own ratings (and once again, he is pretty much speaking for everyone).


8. There really isn’t a single main character in Ice. In effect, the entire town of Minterville is the main character. This brought to mind certain other works, such as Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson, a short story collection where the stories are not chapters in a single novel, but rather separate, individual stories that are connected through theme, characters, and location. Was it an intentional choice you made before writing the novel not to have one main character? Or did that evolve over the course of writing Ice?

It evolved over the course of the writing. It took me a lot of time and frustration to decide the best way to present this particular story. At one point, I was even planning to do it vignette-style (similar to Winesburg, Ohio). Out of everyone who reviewed Ice, I think you are the only person that got that Minterville itself was the main character. I made it a deliberate point of saying that the populace tends to be of one mind. One thing I deliberately avoided doing was presenting anything from Tom’s perspective, even though he is directly at the center of the action. As a “naturalized” resident, so to speak, he simply does not have the ability to think about things the same way everyone else does.


9. In a similar vein, did anything really surprise you as you wrote the novel? Did some things go in a completely different direction than you had at first envisioned?

Absolutely. For starters, the twist at the end involving Cierra was something I added in a week before publishing. I had to tone down a lot of the characters who were becoming too mean. Stephanie was originally a bully who verbally abused Elliot their whole lives, and Barbara was a lot nastier in the beginning. In one deleted scene, she told several of the other women involved that they deserved to die (for various reasons). Ice was a short story that I started writing for a contest that just kind of grew.


10. Ice is an emotional roller-coaster ride, with a lot of ups and downs as the characters navigate a terrifying situation. In the end, when it’s all said and done, what do you hope the readers of Ice will take away from the novel?

The main lesson is always trust your instincts. When your gut is telling you that something (or someone) is “off” it probably is. The other main things I am hoping readers will take away are compassion and empathy, and taking responsibility for one’s actions. The people of Minterville don’t for a single second blame the person whose long-ago misdeeds caused the whole incident, because when it was all said and done, he had done everything in his power (which included a plan to permanently get rid of the criminals at the expense of his own life) to avert the tragedy, and when he couldn’t, he alone accepted the consequences. I hope readers will notice that he never once blamed Manuela or anyone else for his decisions.


11. Will there be a sequel? What are you working on now?

I’m planning a whole Minterville series. Although it was the first published, Ice is going to be Book 7. Book 8, which I will write when I’m done with my current project (about that in a minute), will be called Chill and it will be a sequel in which Manuela gets a taste of her own medicine. Book 1 will be Blizzard (James Minter’s story), Book 2 is Freeze (Manuela’s story), Book 3 is Snow Storm (Tom Watson’s story), Book 4 is Shiver (Sebastian’s story), Book 5 is Frost (Barbara Jenkins’ story), Book 6 is Winter Winds (more about the events of 1993).

What I’m working on now is a four-part series called the Cadiz Beach Series. The titles will be Earth, Fire, Water, and Wind, which revolve around a criminal defense attorney named Vincent McPherson who tries to rid Cadiz Beach, Florida (another fictitious town), of the Irish Mob. I’m doing the rough draft for Earth now. Vinny (as he is called) defends two young people accused of killing the son of a notorious Irish mobster. This trial unleashes all the fury of the Mob on this small, beachfront community . . .


Jessica Wren is a writer who has published exactly one ebook. She has created this page to share her infinite wisdom with professionals such as herself. A high school teacher in a small Georgia city, she knows everything about being a cop, a lawyer, a drug dealer, a serial killer, a teenage boy, and every other known identity. She gives top-notch professional advice about writing by which she consistently fails to abide. Her other talents include boring teenagers to death, aggravating her husband, driving extra-slow when others are behind her, and dropping food on her blouse. Jessica’s ultimate dream is to retire to a one-room shack with 20 cats, where she will sit on the porch and shout “Get out of my yard!” while swinging a broom at anyone who happens to pass by.



You can connect with Jessica on her website, her Twitter page, and on Goodreads.

Thank you, Jessica, for a great interview, and thanks so much to everyone for reading!


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