Lesson of the Decade

By Mark Alpert

I remember watching the last “Laugh-In” show of 1969. I was only eight years old at the time, and many of the jokes on that TV show sailed way over my head, but I got the gist of it: the world is a crazy psychedelic place, it’s fun to say “Sock it to me,” you can fend off a creepy old man by smacking him with a purse, and many things can be described as “very interesting, but stupid.”

The last “Laugh-In” of 1969 featured a sketch in which the show’s cast (Dan Rowan, Dick Martin, Goldie Hawn, Judy Carne, Arte Johnson, etc.) bade a humorous farewell to the Swinging Sixties. I don’t recall anything specific about the sketch — did they tell jokes? Sing a satirical song? — but I do remember getting the sense that the comedians were marking an important milestone, the end of a momentous decade, and I felt weirdly connected to this event because it had also been the first decade of my life. I was already nostalgic for something I’d barely experienced.

Now it’s fifty years later and “Laugh-In” is long gone, but we’re still making jokes as we say goodbye to another ten-year stretch of history. The 2010s weren’t as swinging as the Sixties, but the decade was full of clowns, pratfalls and gruesome punch lines. And is there a lesson we can draw from the tumult, a pithy moral like “Be careful what you wish for”? It’s too early to say.

So let’s focus instead on lessons for fiction writers, or more precisely, on what I think is the most important lesson that budding novelists should embrace, based on my experience of writing for this blog since 2012 and reading the comments from readers. Aspiring authors come here for advice on how to revise their novels, but once you’ve completed all the revisions and done everything you can to perfect the manuscript, it’s equally important to put the book aside and write another.

In this crazy business, as in so many others, you learn by doing. Unless you’re a literary genius, your first novel is likely to be an apprentice effort, perhaps very promising but inherently and irremediably flawed. That was true of the first novel I wrote, back in the late 1980s. It was also true of the second, third, and fourth novels I wrote in the 1990s. I labored over those books for years, rewriting scenes and reworking plots, and I think those exertions improved the novels, at least marginally. But despite my best efforts, the books weren’t good enough to be published. I was still learning.

I amassed a huge pile of rejection letters from editors and literary agents. Those letters disappointed me, of course, especially the ones that leavened the rejection with some apparently sincere praise. You know, sentences like this: “Alpert writes like a dream, but unfortunately this novel isn’t a good fit for us.” This kind of response, although well-meaning, can actually be harder on an author than a thumping rejection. The disappointment is keener when you miss by inches instead of miles.

In hindsight, though, I realize that those editors and agents were actually doing me a favor. In effect, they were saying, “This book is good, but you’re not quite there yet. Write another novel. Sooner or later, you’ll make it.” And that’s what finally happened to me in 2008, when Simon & Schuster released my first published novel (see image above). It took twenty years, but it was worth it.

The past decade has been a blessing for me. I started the 2010s with one published novel, and now I have ten (including my latest, SAINT JOAN OF NEW YORK). My kids survived high school and now they’re in college. I’m still healthy, still writing. And I wish the same to all of you as we enter the 2020s and confront whatever fresh madness the new decade has in store for us.

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About Mark Alpert

Contributing editor at Scientific American and author of science thrillers: Final Theory (2008), The Omega Theory (2011), Extinction (2013), The Furies (2014), The Six (2015), The Orion Plan (2016), The Siege (2016), and The Silence (2017). His latest thriller, The Coming Storm (St. Martin's Press, 2019), is a cautionary tale about climate change, genetic engineering, and Donald Trump. His website: www.markalpert.com

6 thoughts on “Lesson of the Decade

  1. Mark, lots of wisdom for newer writers in your post. I wrote 10 or 11 novels (I’ve lost count) before one was finally published, and collected hundreds of rejections along the way. We all serve apprenticeships, some longer than others, as we inch our way to publishable proficiency.

    Keep working and never give up.

    Warm wishes for the holidays!

  2. Great story of persistence, Mr. Alpert. On this day of the Winter Solstice (my annual marker for reflection and renewal), and with my second novel of two in the same number of years under my belt, I’m thankful for the inspiration and advice this group offers. Here’s to looking forward to 2020! (don’t those numbers look futuristic? Remember 2001? 1984?)

  3. Saint Joan of New York? The premise sounds interesting. I want to know The Theory of Everything.

  4. Thankyou, Mark. It’s always heartening to hear those tales of determination and persistence. Merry Christmas!

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