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) and The Six (2015). Next books: The Orion Plan (coming February 2016) and The Siege (July 2016). His website: www.markalpert.com

Pride And Fiction

By Mark Alpert

I’m going to participate in the LGBT Pride March in New York City on Sunday. My 15-year-old daughter came out as a lesbian two years ago, and since then she’s become the youngest organizer in the history of the Pride Parade. She’s rounded up dozens of her friends and classmates, some gay and some straight, and they’re all going to march behind a banner saying, “We Identify as Proud.”

In the process, she’s learned some valuable leadership skills. She’s gotten very good at composing mass emails and arranging schedules and assigning duties. One of the challenges she’s faced is that many New York parents are extremely protective and controlling (I plead guilty on both counts!) and are wary of letting their kids go to such a huge event in the middle of Manhattan (the parade organizers are expecting more than two million spectators this year). So she has allayed her friends’ parents’ concerns by securing adult chaperones for her group. Namely, my wife and me.

So on Sunday afternoon I will march down Fifth Avenue with my daughter’s group and wave to the millions of spectators. A generation ago, who could have imagined that a totally square, hopelessly uncool curmudgeon like me would ever get a chance to do something so fabulous?

And I’m happy to report that this sea change in attitudes is also sweeping through the pages of commercial fiction. A growing number of thrillers and mysteries have gay heroes and heroines. For example, in my latest Young Adult thriller, The Silence — which will be published on July 4th — one of the teenage characters comes out as gay. His situation is complicated: he’s part of a team of terminally ill teens whose lives are saved when the U.S. Army scans their brains and downloads all their memories and emotions into weaponized robots. The kids are reborn inside super-powerful machines, but they’re still going through the usual teenage struggles with identity and sexuality. Even though they’ve lost their human bodies, they still have fears and jealousies and desires. And the gender preferences that were once inside their human brains have now been duplicated in their electronic circuits, so some of the robots are gay and some are straight. Hey, welcome to the future, folks.

Now the important point to emphasize here is that I didn’t add this gay character to the novel simply for the sake of diversity. I did it because I thought it would make the book more interesting and entertaining. That’s the same reason why my first science thriller, Final Theory, features an African-American woman as the physicist heroine of the novel. This choice made the relationships between the characters more interesting. They had to struggle with racist attitudes and misunderstandings at the same time that they fought against mercenaries and assassins. It added another level of conflict to the book. And in suspense novels, conflict is a good thing.

But on Sunday, I’m going to take a day off from fictional battles and confrontation. Happy Pride Day, everyone!

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First Page Critique: Enemies Domestic

Critiqued by Mark Alpert

And now we turn to a submission from one of those brave souls who offer the first pages of their novels for the perusal of the Kill Zone community and our constructive criticism. The title is “Enemies Domestic” and here are the opening paragraphs:

Maricopa County, Arizona

A bare, red lightbulb intended for photography darkrooms hung from the rough ceiling inside a small rotting plywood shed, expelled the nighttime darkness immediately beyond the open doorway, and cast Duke and his malicious undertaking in its eerie glow. Seated on an aging, rickety metal stool before a shoddy plywood-and-two-by-four workbench, he carefully placed a soldering iron upon a porcelain tile to avoid burning himself and the rough, splintery surface. At least I won’t hear the boom, he thought.

Wiping his sweaty hands atop his faded, six-color-desert fatigue pant legs, Duke took a deep, calming breath, shut his eyes, and gently opened and closed his hands to relax his unsteady fingers. After several unsuccessful seconds, he decided to break from his deadly efforts to better calm himself; opening his eyes, he carefully scooted the stool back away from the workbench and slowly stood on the unsteady wood floor. The beams strained and creaked beneath his weight as Duke first stretched his lower back, and then removed a small metal case that contained a stash of hand-rolled cigarettes and an American flag-engraved Zippo lighter from his right cargo pants pocket before turning to his right and approaching the shed’s only doorway.

Walking from the stuffy shed and its low, red glow, Duke ignited his last rollup and stiffly strode a dozen steps into the cool darkness of the March desert night to loosen his legs.  Having traded the bulb’s tedious light for a dark and clear, moonlit sky, he deeply inhaled the burned tobacco smoke, stretched his sore shoulders and back, and then exhaled
forcefully, clearing his lungs of the calming toxins. Early spring rains had recently soaked the Sonoran desert landscape, which now emanated the earthy, lightly sweet smells of wet creosote and mesquite. Duke shifted his gaze east; first from the lowly scrub brush before him to the stately saguaros just beyond his reach, to the taller, more distant Palo Verde trees along his parcel’s dry washbed, and, finally, to the White Tank desert mountains backlit by the urban sprawl and nighttime light pollution of the Phoenix metroplex. Working to clear his head, Duke crossed his arms over his chest and stood still, moving his right forearm only as necessary to work the slowly diminishing cigarette.

—————-

“Less is more.” It’s a piece of advice that’s easy to offer but sometimes hard to implement. When you’re trying to establish the setting for a novel’s opening scene, you want to fully describe it, right? You want to provide sights, sounds, smells, evocations. But it’s very easy to go overboard and ruin your efforts with over-description.

Let’s look at the opening paragraph of this submission. First of all, it starts with a run-on sentence. It needs to be broken up. Consider this edit:

A bare, red lightbulb intended for photography darkrooms hung from the ceiling of a rotting plywood shed. Duke sat on a metal stool beside his workbench and lowered his soldering iron, placing it on a porcelain tile so it wouldn’t burn the rough wood. At least I won’t hear the boom, he thought.

Now this paragraph is about half as long as the original, but you’ll notice that I really haven’t omitted much information. For example, I deleted the adjective “small” from the description of the shed, because all sheds are kind of small. And I deleted “rough” from the description of “ceiling,” because if it’s a rotting shed, then all its surfaces are going to be rough, right? I took out “eerie glow” and “malicious undertaking” because those are clichés, and they also don’t add anything. We already know that darkroom lights are eerie, and we’ll soon find out that Duke is doing something malicious. And for similar reasons, I deleted “aging, rickety” and “shoddy plywood-and-two-by-four.” We all know what stools and workbenches look like, so what’s the point of adding these adjectives? It would be a different story if there was something incredibly unusual about the stool or the workbench; then you might want to describe them in greater detail, especially if those descriptions provide clues to Duke’s character or what he’s up to. But if an adjective adds nothing that we don’t already know, then it should be deleted.

But notice also what I’ve retained: the last sentence in the paragraph. It’s brilliant. It’s a shivery intimation of evil and an intriguing first glimpse of Duke’s voice and character. It makes you want to keep reading, right?

I could make similar cuts to the second and third paragraphs, but they suffer from a more fundamental problem: they don’t really advance the story. We have a nice setup here, a mysterious guy using a soldering iron to make a homemade bomb, and all that can be conveyed in the first three sentences. But what do we learn in the next two grafs? Duke is in the desert near Phoenix, he’s wearing desert camo, and he smokes hand-rolled cigarettes lit with an American flag Zippo. But we don’t really get any more glimpses of his character or any clues to what he’s doing. He shuts his eyes and opens them. He walks outside and stretches. He smokes his cig and observes the scenery. But is any of this important? Does it advance the plot or illuminate the character? If it doesn’t, you should get rid of it, or at least compress the hell out of it. Go directly to the next important action or the next revealing insight.

I know this sounds a little harsh. But I’m not being any harsher than a typical literary agent or editor. Remember, folks: the first paragraphs of a novel have to be amazing to get the attention of the publishing industry. They have to feel like the takeoff of a supersonic jet. (I use this metaphor because I once got a chance to fly on the Concorde – it was a press junket – and man, that takeoff really felt like being shot out of a catapult. Whoa!)

————-

A side note: I have a new paperback in bookstores this week: The Siege, the second book in my Young Adult trilogy about teenagers who turn into robots. (Literally robots, and not just sullen kids who refuse to answer friendly questions from their parents at the dinner table.) It’s a fun story, and the book includes a teaser chapter from The Silence, the final book in the trilogy, which comes out in hardcover next month. Check it out! I’ve listed some Buy Links for the book here.

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The Chase

By Mark Alpert

The template for many works of suspense fiction is The Chase. In detective novels and police procedurals, the lawmen (and law-women!) are usually chasing the criminals. In scads of thrillers, the Forces of Evil are chasing the ordinary Joe (and Jill!) across the country, forcing the heroes and heroines to discover their extraordinary hidden talents. (Think of North by Northwest. Or Something Wild. Or anything by Dan Brown.)

The Chase is a useful plot device because it can imbue a manuscript with that magic ingredient that publishers like to call “narrative drive.” If the characters are constantly moving and dodging and pouncing and fleeing, then perhaps the reader will get caught up in the frantic journey, lured by the tease of “What will happen next?” The device works best when the characters are also learning and exploring as they dash from place to place, unearthing clues to the book’s central mystery and maybe discovering a few things about themselves in the process.

The Chase can also give your readers a chance to visit — at least vicariously, through the book’s characters — some exotic, fascinating places. In my first novel, Final Theory, the cross-country chase takes my characters to Einstein’s house in Princeton, N.J., then the Robotics Institute at Carnegie-Mellon, then the hills and hollers of West Virginia, then the infantry training grounds at Fort Benning, and finally the Fermi National Accelerator Lab near Chicago. In my next two novels, The Chase went overseas: to Israel, Iran and Turkmenistan in The Omega Theory, and to Panama, Afghanistan and China in Extinction.

I’ve used this device in my Young Adult novels as well. In my latest book, The Silence (pictured above), I’ve imagined the most far-out chase yet. It goes from the deserts of New Mexico to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, and then it gets really crazy. I can’t even describe it. You just have to read the book.

And right now I’m in the midst of writing yet another chase sequence, but this one is closer to home. My next thriller for St. Martin’s (working title: Superhuman) begins in Brooklyn, specifically Coney Island. My grandparents lived there when I was a kid, and I used to love visiting the boardwalk and the beach and the amusement park. But Coney Island is also one of the parts of NYC that’s most vulnerable to global warming; the neighborhood was inundated during Super-storm Sandy five years ago. Given our inexcusable lack of progress in controlling carbon emissions, it’s just a matter of time before the next super-storm obliterates the place. That’s what I’m imagining now. My childhood dreams are turning to nightmares.

And where will The Chase go from there? Well, there are a lot of fascinating places in Brooklyn. Green-Wood Cemetery. The Gowanus Canal. Junior’s Cheesecake. I’ll let you know when I get there!

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Today’s Lesson

By Mark Alpert

I’m struggling to meet this week’s word quota for the novel I’m writing, so I’ll offer just a short piece of advice to everyone else out there, the same advice I’m muttering under my breath like a mantra as I try to finish the latest chapter:

Write from inside the main character’s head. Not from outside her body.

It’s good advice, but so easy to forget!

P.S.: I’m arranging a little party for the launch of my next book, THE SILENCE, the conclusion to my trilogy of Young Adult novels (see cover above). The party will be at Books of Wonder, Manhattan’s finest children’s bookstore, on the evening of July 6th. If you happen to be in NYC then, stop by!

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Defining Success For Writers

By Mark Alpert

Blogs like The Kill Zone often emphasize the obstacles that writers face. We want to offer helpful advice to fiction writers who may be struggling to start or finish a manuscript or trying to navigate the publishing process, so it makes sense to focus on the hurdles that all aspiring novelists have to confront. But I think it’s also helpful to look at the rewards that lie at the end of the race.

I’m not talking about the rewards of money or fame. For the most part, those are unrealistic expectations. The majority of published novelists earn less than the minimum wage for their fiction, once you factor in all the time they put into it. No, I’m talking about a more subtle and satisfying kind of compensation: the joy of seeing your words have a positive impact on your audience, even if you have only a handful of readers.

I got a chance to experience this joy last weekend when I went to Patchogue, N.Y., to attend an event called Authors Unlimited. It’s organized by Derek Ivie, the youth services coordinator for Suffolk County’s Cooperative Library System, and he leads a great team of librarians from all over Long Island. At this year’s event, they invited eight authors of Young Adult and middle-grade books, and I was proud to be among them (see photo above).

Hundreds of kids gathered in an auditorium on the campus of St. Joseph’s College, and a dozen student volunteers holding pom-poms lined up in front of the stage. Derek introduced the authors in grand fashion: as he announced each name, the honoree dashed down the aisle to the front of the auditorium, like a football player rushing onto the field. At the same time, the student volunteers waved their pom-poms like cheerleaders, and the loudspeakers blared a snatch of music that was relevant to that particular author’s books. (I think they played something spacey or otherworldly when I ran to the stage, but I was so full of adrenalin at the time that I didn’t recognize it.)

All this hoopla might seem a little ridiculous, but I think it sent a powerful message to the kids: that books should be important to their lives, and that the creators of those books deserve the same kind of admiration that most people give only to sports heroes. And I could tell that the students were receiving this message loud and clear. They crowded into the question-and-answer sessions at the Authors Unlimited event and purchased an extraordinary number of books from their limited amount of spending money.

The impact of this message was probably strongest on the student volunteers. They were selected in a rigorous process that even required a letter of recommendation, and as a result they took their responsibilities very seriously. The volunteer assigned to help me — he directed me to the rooms where the question-and-answer sessions were held — was somewhat awed by his selection; he said something like, “I can’t believe that both my sister and me were picked.” This kind of realization can have an enormous impact on a kid; in fact, seeing yourself in a new, positive light can change the course of your life.

This goal, to get kids to look at themselves in a new way, is one of the main reasons why we Young Adult authors write for teenagers. When I was a teen, I loved reading science fiction and nonfiction because the books made me feel smart. When I finished a book by Isaac Asimov, I would say to myself, “Wow, I understood that book and really enjoyed it, so that must mean I’m a genius like Asimov!” I’m not a genius, unfortunately, but at least I thought I was for a while, and that alone had a positive effect on my life. And I can tell that my YA novels are having a similar effect on at least a few of my teenage readers. I can see it in their proud, self-confident eyes.

That’s the kind of reward I’m talking about.

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The Moral of the Story

By Mark Alpert

Now that I’m writing Young Adult novels – the third one, The Silence (pictured above), is coming out this July – I’ve started getting a lot of emails from high-school and middle-school students. My favorite messages are the ones from kids asking me for help with their book reports.

Some of the kids ask for biographical information, which is easy enough to provide. The kids want to know where I grew up, where I live now, how I occupy myself in my spare time, and whether I have any pets. Other kids want to know about influences: what were my favorite books when I was young, how do I come up with the ideas for my novels, and so on.

And some particularly clever kids cut right to the chase and ask the question that their English teachers undoubtedly urged them to explore: what is the theme of your books? Do they have an argument or a moral? In all likelihood, the teachers expected their students to analyze this question on their own, but it’s such a nebulous question that you can’t really blame the kids for going directly to the source.

I admire this kind of resourcefulness, so when kids ask me if my novels have any message or meaning, I try to give them a straight answer. I wrote the books, so I know their themes better than anyone else does. My wife sometimes chides me – “You’re doing their homework for them!” – but I don’t care. Those kids were smart and brave enough to approach an author, so they deserve a little reward.

When I was a kid, my favorite author was Isaac Asimov. I loved I, Robot and the Foundation series. I wish I’d had the courage back then to send him a note and ask a few questions. I almost got the chance when I was an adult; in 1990, when I was a reporter for Fortune Magazine, I set up an interview with Asimov for a special anniversary issue we were doing, “Great Visionaries of the Twentieth Century” or something like that. But Asimov was in poor health by then, and he had to cancel the interview. He died two years later.

But I did interview another idol of my childhood: Olivia Newton-John, the British-Australian singer famous for “Please Mr. Please” and “Have You Never Been Mellow.” This was in 1989, a few years after Newton-John’s star power had begun to wane. She was seeking publicity for a chain of women’s clothing stores she’d started. I didn’t meet her in person; I did the interview over the phone, but it was still a thrill to hear that sweet voice of my adolescent daydreams. Unfortunately, the publicity didn’t help her much — a few years later, her chain of clothing stores went bankrupt. Oh well.

That same year, I also interviewed two men who went on to become President. I talked on the phone with George W. Bush right after his dad’s buddies set him up in business, financing his purchase of the Texas Rangers. Strangely enough, I don’t remember anything he said – the guy made no impression on me at all. But I do remember talking to Trump. Fortune was doing a story about his financial troubles at the time, and I called him up to get some solid evidence that he was worth as much as he claimed. (He insisted, then and now, that he was a billionaire.) Trump promised to fax me a statement from his accountant, but when the statement arrived I saw that it was a year old, and it put his worth at only $640 million. I called Trump’s office to get him to discuss the discrepancy, and I left a message for him. I’m still waiting for him to call back.

What’s the moral of this story? Kids, I just don’t know.

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Jungle Red!

By Mark Alpert

I had a difficult week. Couldn’t write very much. But I cheered myself up tonight by watching “The Women,” the classic 1939 film with an all-female, all-star cast: Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, Paulette Goddard, Joan Fontaine, Hedda Hopper, and Butterfly McQueen!

What a strange movie. In terms of its message, I can’t decide whether it was radical for its time or reactionary. But either way, it’s a great escape.

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Four Ways To Make Your Novels Addictive

By Mark Alpert

Six years ago, after HBO launched the Game of Thrones television series, I decided to read the fantasy novels on which the series was based. I’d loved The Lord of the Rings when I was a teenager, and thirty years later I reread the Tolkien classics with my son, so I was eager to try another author in the fantasy genre. And I wasn’t disappointed — I read all five installments of George R.R. Martin’s series within a few months (and some of those books were lonnnnnggggg). Then, like millions of other fans, I started waiting for Martin to write the sixth book. Out of principle, I refrained from watching any of the HBO episodes, because I didn’t want to spoil my enjoyment of the novels.

Well, a couple of months ago I got tired of waiting. The promised sixth novel, The Winds of Winter, may be published this year — or maybe not. Either way, the hiatus between books was so long that I’d completely lost the thread of the plot. Rather than reread all five of the previous novels, I thought I could refresh my memory more efficiently by watching the television episodes. This was a problematic choice, because the TV adaptation differs from the novels in many significant ways, so there was a chance I’d get more confused rather than less. (The books have a bewildering variety of characters and locales and plot twists.) But I decided to go for it.

And again, I wasn’t disappointed. If anything, I liked the TV series more than I liked the books. The HBO producers streamlined the plot and eliminated inessential characters and added visual and sonic depth to Martin’s imagined world. I watched all six seasons — sixty episodes in all — in about six weeks, which is a little sick when you think about it.

No, not sick. The better word is addictive. I couldn’t stop myself from reading the books or watching the TV episodes. And the defining feature of all addictions is the desire for intense pleasure. So the key to making your novels addictive is injecting moments of pure pleasure into the pages. Here’s how to do it:

  • Create Addictive Characters. In Games of Thrones, it’s Tyrion Lannister. In Confederacy of Dunces, it’s Ignatius Reilly. In All the King’s Men, it’s Willie Stark. In Catcher in the Rye, it’s Holden Caulfield. In Lolita, it’s Humbert Humbert. These are fascinating, perplexing, infuriating characters. Very often they’re not likable, but they’re always riveting. Sometimes they’re like hilarious drinking buddies — you want to spend all night with them, you just can’t get enough. And sometimes they’re like a horrible car wreck on the side of the highway — you don’t want to look, but you can’t turn away.
  • Imagine Addictive Scenes. Let’s talk about the famous Red Wedding in A Storm of Swords, the third book in George R.R. Martin’s series. (Spoiler alert here, although who hasn’t already heard about this chapter?) The scene is constructed with so much delicious foreboding. The reader suspects that something terrible is coming, and so do the characters. That’s why Catelyn Stark immediately calls for bread and salt as soon as she and her son enter Lord Walder Frey’s castle; Catelyn is counting that the sacred traditions of hospitality will stop Lord Frey from harming the Starks after they’ve shared a meal as his guests. Afterwards, Catelyn is reassured and lowers her guard a bit, and so does the reader, but there are more ominous signs to come. The musicians at the wedding are terrible (because they’re not really musicians!) and many of the guests seem to be bulkily attired (because they’re wearing armor under their fancy clothes!) And when the trap finally springs and the knives come out and the musicians start firing their crossbows at the Starks, it’s both a surprise and an awful confirmation of our worst fears. (By the way, the bulky clothing trick figures in another great scene in contemporary literature, the passage in Mystic River where Jimmy Marcus’s goons get Dave Boyle drunk before Jimmy guts him.)
  • Write Addictive Sentences. How can you stop yourself from reading a book that starts like this: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” Or how about this for an opener: “Hans Walther Kleinman, one of the great theoretical physicists of our time, was drowning in his bathtub. A stranger with long, sinewy arms had pinned Hans’s shoulders to the porcelain bottom.” (Okay, I’m bragging here. That’s the first paragraph of my first novel, Final Theory.)
  • Orchestrate Addictive Dialogue. Say what you will about Tom Wolfe, but the man knows how to write funny, realistic talk. Consider this exchange in Bonfire of the Vanities between the anti-hero Sherman McCoy and his unliterary mistress Maria:

“He couldn’t wait to tell me he was a movie producer. He was making a movie based on this play, Doctor Faustus, by Christopher Marlowe, or just Marlowe, I think that was all he said, just Marlowe, and I don’t even know why I said anything, but I thought somebody named Marlowe wrote for the movies. Actually, what I think I was thinking about was, there was this movie with a character named Marlowe. Robert Mitchum was in it.”

“That’s right. It was a Raymond Chandler story.”

Maria looked at him with utter blankness. He dropped Raymond Chandler. “So what did you say to him?’

“I said, ‘Oh, Christopher Marlowe. Didn’t he write a movie?’ And you know what this…bastard…says to me? He says, ‘I shouldn’t think so. He died in 1593.’ I shouldn’t think so.”

Her eyes were blazing with the recollection. Sherman waited a moment. “That’s it?”

“That’s it? I wanted to strangle him. It was…humiliating. I shouldn’t think so. I couldn’t believe the…snottiness.”

“What did you say to him?”

“Nothing. I turned red. I couldn’t say a word.”

“And that’s what accounts for this mood of yours?”

“Sherman, tell me the honest truth. If you don’t know who Christopher Marlowe is, does that make you stupid?”

————-

I think every writer knows, at least on some unconscious level, whether his or her manuscript is working or not. If the book is entertaining the author as he or she writes it, then it’ll probably entertain a large number of readers as well. But if the author dreads writing the novel because it’s become a bore, then readers probably won’t like the book either.

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Spring Training

By Mark Alpert

Last week my wife and I took our son Tommy to the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, the new Major League Baseball facility in West Palm Beach, Florida, where both the Houston Astros and the Washington Nationals are doing their spring training. Tommy was eager to watch Jose Altuve, the Astros second baseman and last season’s American League batting champ. Like Altuve, Tommy is a five-foot-six infielder. He’s captain of his high school baseball team and hopes to play in college next year.

When you go to a spring-training workout, you can get a lot closer to the players than you can during a game. (And the best part? There’s no charge to attend most of the workouts.) At the West Palm Beach facility, the Astros casually strolled from one practice field to another, and fans of all ages had the opportunity to sidle up to the players and start a conversation. And that’s exactly what Tommy did when he spotted Jose Altuve (see photo above). He told Altuve how inspiring it is to see him lead the league in batting averages and stolen bases. This guy beat everyone’s expectations. When Altuve first tried out for the Astros at a training session in his native Venezuela, the scouts told him to go away because he was too short. But he showed up for the next training session anyway and impressed enough coaches to get signed to the Astros organization.

So here’s the first useful lesson for aspiring baseball players (and writers): Don’t let rejection stop you. Just ignore it. Keep on playing.

The second lesson comes from this week’s announcement that Major League Baseball is changing some of its rules for the coming season. Perhaps the biggest change is to the rule governing intentional walks — that is, when a pitcher deliberately walks a batter instead of giving him a chance to hit (usually because the next batter in the lineup is a weaker hitter, or because the pitcher has a better chance of striking out the next guy). Traditionally, in these situations the pitcher would throw the ball several feet away from the plate, far out of the batter’s reach. This would happen four times in a row, and everyone else in the stadium would watch them go through the motions.

But Major League Baseball doesn’t have time for these niceties anymore. Over the past few seasons, the average length of a baseball game has grown to about three hours, which is half an hour more than it was in the 1970s and 1980s, and a full hour longer than it was in the 1930s and 1940s. Throwing four pitches for an intentional walk takes only about a minute, and it happens fewer than a thousand times per season (which works out, on average, to one intentional walk for every two-and-a-half games). But in this era of shortened attention spans, the MLB is fairly desperate to speed up its games. So from now on, if the manager of the team in the field wants to intentionally walk a batter, he’ll simply send a signal to the home plate umpire, and the batter will jog directly to first base.

I didn’t like this new rule when I first heard about it. I’m in the middle of my sixth decade of life — otherwise known as the Age of Crotchetiness — and so I’m not wild about any changes to tradition. All I could think was about were those very infrequent but memorable episodes in past seasons when something crazy and exciting happened during an intentional walk, like when a batter unexpectedly swung at a pitch that veered a little too close to him, or when a pitch sailed a little too far from the plate, forcing the catcher to scramble after the ball and sometimes bringing a base runner home. All those quirks are gone now, ruled out of existence.

But Tommy isn’t upset about it. He sees the bigger picture. He’s passionate about baseball and wants to see it thrive. The sport will lose fans if the games keep dragging on too long, and that’s not good for anyone. In baseball, sometimes you have to make sacrifices.

And the same thing is true when you’re writing a novel. It’s a natural impulse to pack as much incident and spectacle into the narrative, but you also have to keep a close eye on the clock. If a scene stretches for too many pages, readers will lose interest. You have to be ruthless about cutting.

In that spirit, I’ll end this post right here. Play ball!

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Death of a Punk

By Mark Alpert

I missed last weekend’s Grammy Awards broadcast. I recognized the names of some of the winners, but truthfully, I don’t know their music very well. Although I do a pretty good job of keeping up with the latest books and movies and Broadway shows, I’m an ignoramus when it comes to the popular tunes of the past two decades. For better or worse, my musical tastes are still stuck in the late 1970s. I’m a middle-aged punk rocker.

I wrote poetry back then, not fiction, and the lyrics of punk rock were a big influence. For example, consider the lyrics to “It’s a Long Way Back” by the Ramones. It’s one of the songs on the band’s 1978 album Road to Ruin:

You on the phone

You all alone

It’s a long way back to Germany

It’s a long way back to Germany

That’s the whole song. Weird, right? It made me imagine a forlorn Adolph Eichmann sighing despondently inside his hideout in Buenos Aires. That was a transgressive thought for a Nice Jewish Boy like me. But that was the whole point of punk rock — transgression, provocation, shocking your elders and betters. It was very politically incorrect. Here are some other disquieting examples from the Ramones oeuvre:

Beat on the brat

Beat on the brat

Beat on the brat with a baseball bat

Oh yeah, oh yeah, oh oh

 

I’m gonna go for a whirl with my cretin girl

My feet won’t stop

Doin’ the Cretin Hop

 

Sitting here in Queens

Eating refried beans

We’re in all the magazines

Gulpin’ down Thorazines

We ain’t got no friends

Our troubles never end

No Christmas cards to send

Daddy likes men

And the Sex Pistols were even worse. Just look up the lyrics to “Bodies.” (I’m too squeamish to reprint the lines here.) But there’s a strange, appalling poetry in some of the band’s other misanthropic songs:

Hello and goodbye in a Runaround Sue

You follow me around like a pretty pot of glue

I kick you in the head, you got nothing to say

Get out of the way ’cause I gotta get away

You never realize I take the piss out of you

You come up and see me and I’ll beat you black and blue

Punk rock could also be funny. A good example of punk humor is “Love Comes in Spurts” by Richard Hell and the Voidoids. But the song is more than just a dirty joke:

I was a child

who wanted a love so wild

though tight as slow motion

But crazed with devotion

Babe, insane with devotion,

Just a whole other notion

I was fourteen and a half

and it wasn’t no laugh

But my favorite punk rock lyrics were the ones with political overtones. I was in college at the time and I loved the idea of being a rebel, although I never did anything particularly rebellious. For political lyrics, it was hard to beat the Clash:

Taking off his turban, they said, is this man a Jew?

‘Cause they’re working for the clampdown

They put up a poster saying we earn more than you

When we’re working for the clampdown

We will teach our twisted speech

To the young believers

We will train our blue-eyed men

To be young believers

 

When they kick at your front door

How you gonna come?

With your hands on your head

Or on the trigger of your gun?

When the law break in

How you gonna go?

Shot down on the pavement

Or waiting on death row?

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about punk rock was how quickly it burned out. Sid Vicious killed his girlfriend and overdosed on heroin. By the mid-80s, the Ramones and the Clash were pale imitations of their earlier selves, and punk rock gave way to New Wave, which wasn’t nearly as good. I started working for newspapers and stopped spending so much money on records. And now my teenage kids laugh at my ignorance of Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper.

But the spirit of transgression lives on. When I worked for newspapers, I never stopped looking for conflict. I felt like I wasn’t doing my job if no one complained about my stories. And now I like to write disturbing novels. I want to outrage and provoke and exhilarate my readers.

Let’s leave the final words to Elvis Costello:

Some of my friends sit around every evening

And they worry about the times ahead

But everybody else is overwhelmed by indifference

And the promise of an early bed

You either shut up or get cut up, they don’t wanna hear about it

It’s only inches on the reel-to-reel

And the radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools

Tryin’ to anesthetize the way that you feel

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