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Smash Hit! What Tennis Taught Me About Writing by Barbara Josselsohn

Writing.ie | Resources | Developing Your Craft
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Barbara Josselsohn

My son and I are tennis nuts. In normal summers when there’s no pandemic, we spend days on end at the U.S. Open in New York, and we travel to other major tournaments, both home and abroad, as often as we can. When a snowstorm back east a few years ago left us stranded in California – where we’d gone to watch the Indian Wells Masters tournament – we barely batted an eye. Other travelers felt frustrated or angry; we, however, were simply delighted that our weekend of watching tennis had turned into a week.

Sitting courtside on those sweet and unexpected extra days, I found myself wondering why I never grew bored of seeing Roger Federer, Serena Williams, and the others in action. Why was I so enraptured by serves, lobs, volleys, and backhands? That’s when I realized that it wasn’t the strokes that pulled me in, but the tension and the drama, the close calls and calculated risks. It was the promising beginnings that slipped away, the often-heartbreaking changes of fortune, the endings that felt both surprising and foretold. In short, it was the stories.

The fact is, tennis matches are object lessons in storytelling. Here are the pointers I took away during that exciting tennis tournament.

  1. A great story exploits its hero’s vulnerabilities. While multiple matches occurred simultaneously at Indian Wells, only a few drew large, exuberant crowds – and those were the ones with a hero who was vulnerable. Take Federer, for example – the cool, collected Swiss champion. Yes, his skill and determination had put him in a class all his own, but at almost 36, he no longer had time on his side. How much longer could he stay so good? Or Taylor Fritz, a young American phenom at that tournament, brilliant on the court but lacking the experience and maturity for the inevitable rough patches. Could he reign in his youthful fire when he needed to? Then there was Venus Williams, elegant and athletic,but overshadowed by her younger sister, Serena, and sidelined from time to time with health problems. Would her insecurities hold her back? The most exciting heroes, on the court or in a book, are flawed – and even, at times, defenseless. It’s how they’ll respond when their vulnerabilities are exposed that keeps spectators, and readers, on the edges of their seats.
  2. A great story takes us close in. Yes, it’s fun to see a star like Serena Williams, but she plays in huge stadiums where the only reasonably priced seats are in the nosebleed section. And given the choice between viewing her from a sky-high perch or watching a determined lesser-known player from a seat just yards from the net, I’d choose the latter every time. To truly be moved by a match, you need to hear the labored breathing, to see the twitching eyelids, to practically feel the hot sweat dripping down. You need to absorb the player’s exasperated sigh after she misses a shot, and then experience, with all your senses, the trembling energy in the racquet as it cuts through the air to deliver a bullet-like forehand. I’ve been wildly thrilled watching tennis, much as I’ve been wildly thrilled reading books. And in both situations, it’s because I’ve been drawn so close to the “hero” that her victory is mine.
  3. A great story has the perfect antagonist. At Indian Wells that year, we saw Marin Cilic – then a seasoned 28-year-old champ from Croatia – play Fritz, the up-and-coming American. Cilic had been playing well and was poised to win handily – and had he faced an equally seasoned veteran, he very well might have. But a few unexpectedly stinging shots by the teenage Fritz threw Cilic for a loop. We could see the tension building in his body as he floundered to make sense of the situation: Was his fresh-faced opponent really that good? Was there no way to defend against the newcomer? Was he actually going to be felled by a teenager? Was he not nearly the player he thought he was? Cilic grew uncharacteristically tentative, as Fritz ultimately vanquished him. When the match ended, we all jumped to our feet, flushed and breathless. After all, we had just gotten a stark reminder of what it means to be human.
  4. A great story has tension that builds through to the end. One of the unique and quirky aspects of pro tennis is the scoring system: No matter if you’re going for the game, set, or match, you have to win two points in a row. You can’t score and then take a beat to recover; you have to prevail…and then prevail again, pronto. How great a recipe is that for drama? On our last day in California, we saw Donald Young – then a 27-year-old American who had made headlines as a teenager but never quite fulfilled his youthful promise – take on the talented Frenchman Lucas Pouille. They split the first two sets and Young had a commanding lead in the deciding set – but he just couldn’t earn two points in a row to make the victory his. The crowd watched as Pouille began to close the gap. Where was the spark Young had had as a teenager? Was he destined to always finish one step short? Our hearts were in our throats…and then it happened. Young won the critical two points that gave him the match. The American who so often let his fans down finally proved he could pull out a tough win.

It was a victory that we talked about all the way on our rescheduled flight home. We hadn’t just wanted a match. We had lost ourselves in a story.

(c) Barbara Josselsohn





About The Lily Garden:

She held the letter that she had found in the garden, and noticed the distinctive curls of her father’s handwriting etched on the worn paper. Her life had already been turned upside down by one family secret, would his last words force her to leave her childhood home forever?

When Caroline left Lake Summers thirty years ago, she thought she’d never go back to the place where she lost her parents. But when she finds out that the town’s lily garden lovingly built by her mother is going to be destroyed, she knows fate is calling. Dropping everything at her office in Chicago, she knows she is the only person who can save the garden.

Caroline and her daughter Lee are welcomed home by the warm smile of her mother’s best friend Maxine, and piles of pancakes at her cozy little restaurant in town. And Caroline soon learns that she isn’t the only person invested in saving her mother’s legacy, when she meets handsome historian Aaron. As she gets to know him, strolling along the sparkling lakeshore, she can’t imagine anywhere else she’d rather be.

But then Caroline learns a terrible secret about the day her mother died. And soon the real reason Aaron is in Lake Summers comes to light. Will the truth about the people she loves force her to give up a future with Aaron, and the beautiful town that has always been in her heart?

An utterly uplifting and heart-warming story about forgiveness and family. Perfect for fans of Carolyn Brown, Debbie Macomber and Mary Alice Monroe.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Barbara Josselsohn is an award-winning journalist and novelist who loves crafting stories about strong protagonists facing a fork in the road. Her novels center around second chances, family relationships and, of course, romance. She is the author of the Lake Summers series set in the fictional town of Lake Summers, nestled in the Adirondacks Mountains, which includes the books The Lilac House and The Bluebell Girls. Before joining with Bookouture, she published The Last Dreamer, a women’s-fiction novel from Lake Union Publishing, along with hundreds of articles and essays in major and regional publications about family, home and relationships. She lives just north of New York City and enjoys escaping to the beach or the mountains whenever she can. Other than writing, her biggest passion is her family: husband, her three kids, and her indefatigable shih-poo!


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