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

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.

8+

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!

2+

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

2+

The Bar Scene

By Mark Alpert

Ink and alcohol don’t mix so well. I’ve heard a few authors say they write more freely after downing a drink or two, but for me it has the opposite effect: it kills my concentration and makes me sound stupid. Once I’ve had a drink, my writing for the day is over.

But writing about drinking — ah, that’s a different story. It’s always interesting to imagine what your characters will do and say when they’re under the influence. I think that’s why the bar scene is such a popular setting in novels, particularly in suspense novels that feature hard-drinking cops or private detectives. Also, the bar or tavern or pub is an excellent setting for shady deals and rowdy brawls and sexual assignations, all the juicy fundamentals of thriller fiction.

But how do you write a good bar scene? In my personal experience, the particular appeal of a bar has nothing to do with the drinks it serves — Budweiser tastes pretty much the same no matter where you drink it, and the same goes for Grey Goose and Jack Daniel’s. What makes a bar memorable are the personalities of the characters you meet there. With their tongues greased by liberal amounts of alcohol, barflies will let loose all kinds of entertaining bull, as well as the occasional nugget of truth. The Irish have a word for it — craic — which is actually (according to Wikipedia, at least) an adaptation of the Middle English word crak, meaning “loud conversation, bragging talk.” The best pubs in Dublin have a lot of good craic.

Another appealing thing about the bar scene is that it gives a writer the opportunity to warp the perspective of the point-of-view character. If your hero or heroine is getting soused, he or she will see the world differently — sometimes in a better light, sometimes much worse. You can change the pace or diction of the narrative to reflect the altered mental state of the narrator.

I tried to do this in the opening paragraphs of the bar scene presented below. It’s the second chapter of my novel about Southern politics, set in Montgomery, Alabama, in the mid-1980s. (If you’d like to see the very beginning of the book, the first installments are here, here and here.) Please excuse the scurrilous language; because the scene is set in a bar, the dialogue follows the norms of barroom banter (as President Trump might call it).

—————–

Teetering on my stool at the Jubilee Bar, I peered through the fog of cigarette smoke at the loud, manic, overdressed crowd. More than two hundred politicians and plutocrats had crammed into the humid room for Congressman Bledsoe’s campaign kickoff party. It was 10 p.m. on a Friday night, and the ruling class of Alabama was hard at work.

I shook my woozy head, marveling at the hubbub. How many lies were being told right this very minute? How many rumors started, slanders insinuated, bets wagered and reputations assassinated? Just look at all the legislators and lobbyists and fat cats, from every podunk town in the whole damn state, guffawing at their country-dumb jokes and getting drunk off their asses. And look at all the young women navigating through the crowd, making their way toward the bar and climbing onto the leather stools like Aphrodite rising from the wine-dark sea. See them bathed in the tangential yellow light reflected off the neat rows of bottles behind the bartender. How can they keep laughing and drinking for so many hours, raising their glasses to their ever-ready mouths? How in the world can they do it?

They do it because they’re part of God’s dream, just like everything else in the world, past, present and future. The folks at the Jubilee act out God’s dream in great detail, each perfectly ignorant of his role in the drama. Would you approach that young woman at the bar with lust in your heart if you knew that you were merely acting out God’s dream? Would you calmly stroke the soft skin of her forearm if you knew that God was dreaming you and your lust, for His own enjoyment? Or would you stand stock-still, determined to give no more pleasure to a God who dreams of women as beautiful as hand grenades, round-shouldered and smooth and conveying no hint of the violence within?

I was going to be sick. Not now, not right away, but sometime before the night was over, and there was nothing I could do about it. The inevitability of it depressed me. I shouldn’t have had that last shot of tequila.

Evan Pearson had forced it on me. He sat next to me at the bar, bantering mindlessly with two women from Birmingham who seemed to be loosely connected to Bledsoe’s campaign. It amazed me how Evan could pull clusters of women into conversation as soon as they walked through the door of the Jubilee. It also amazed me how quickly those conversations deteriorated. The subjects Evan chose to talk about were so carelessly random and his voice was so idiotically enthusiastic that it immediately put him, and me by association, into the category of circus oddities. The women laughed at Evan’s jokes and flirted with us briefly, but they were gone as soon as they recognized a friend, any friend, in the crowd. Evan was the bar’s unofficial greeter. He performed the verbal equivalent of helping the women take off their coats. But the Jubilee wasn’t paying him anything for this service, so the whole thing seemed a little pointless to me.

“My, my, you two look good enough to eat,” Evan said to the women from Birmingham. “You look so good, I could put you on a plate and sop you up with a biscuit. So how well do y’all know the honorable Congressman Bledsoe?”

The women wore matching black slacks and gold lamé jackets. Each one had a crisp white bow in her hair.

“Not nearly well enough,” said the taller and homelier of the two. I hadn’t caught her name when we were introduced. It sounded like “mail room” or something like that.

“He’s gorgeous,” said the shorter and prettier woman. “I wish I could do something more than just vote for him.”

“Keep back, Suzanne,” Mail Room said. “That boy is mine.”

“I suppose he is somewhat appealing,” Evan allowed. “Tall, dark and handsome and all that. But if you look real close at that Bubba, you’ll see that his arms are too long. They hang down to his knees almost. It’s a sign of a vitamin deficiency, a very serious vitamin deficiency. Besides, that Bubba is happily married.”

“I don’t care if he is,” Mail Room said. “I’ll be his mistress.”

“Yeah, I bet he’s tired of his wife,” Suzanne noted. “I bet he wants some strange.”

“Well, being a kept woman is a very interesting lifestyle, from what I hear,” Evan said. “But it might pose some problems for his campaign. It’s hard to run for governor and sneak around at the same time. Not impossible, mind you, but pretty damn challenging.”

“There he is, Suzanne!” Mail Room suddenly cried, her face becoming almost pretty as it broke into a smile.

Bledsoe was working the crowd on the other side of the room. He went from table to table, shaking hands and asking friendly questions. His jacket was thrown roguishly over his shoulder, as if he were posing for one of his television ads. The women from Birmingham were right; he was a handsome man. He had a full head of thick black hair, sculpted with so much mousse and gel that it looked, and probably felt, like black marble. He wore a white shirt and a gray tie and a gold class ring on his right hand. He looked like an Olympic athlete, like Mark Spitz in Munich in 1972, except Bledsoe was even taller and sturdier and a hell of a lot more earnest. Earnestness ran through his blood like oxygen, reddening his face and quickening his gestures.

“Let’s go see if we can talk to him for a minute,” Mail Room said.

The women picked up the rum-and-cokes that Evan had bought them and headed for the other side of the room.

“It was nice talking to y’all,” Suzanne said over her shoulder.

The same thing had happened to Evan so many times before on so many other nights that it was hard for me to feel very sorry for him. I tried to stay absolutely silent and still, partly because I was tired of entertaining God and partly because I knew that any unnecessary motion would only hasten the inevitable.

“You’re awful quiet tonight, Bubba,” Evan said. “Maybe if you’d talked some more, we might’ve done a little better with those girls.”

“I’m tired of entertaining God,” I muttered.

“What the hell are you talking about, Bubba? I think you need another shot of that Mexican.”

At this point, I figured, it couldn’t make things any worse. Evan ordered another shot of tequila, then grabbed the salt shaker and what was left of a lime. “Now come on, Bubba, I ain’t gonna lick your hand for you. Go ahead and lick it. There you go. Now I’ll shake some salt on it for you. You really are a mess, Bubba. It’s hard for me to believe that this is the same Bubba who writes such trenchant prose for the Advertiser. Think of your readers, Bubba! The millions who love and respect you! Now go ahead and lick the salt off your thumb. That’s it. Now take this little glass in your other hand and pour it down your throat. The whole thing, Bubba. Okay, we’re almost through. Just stick this lime in your mouth and suck on it. There, that wasn’t so bad now, was it?”

The shot made me feel somewhat better. It lay like a coating of oil over the roiling acidic mass in my stomach that would sooner or later send me rushing off to the men’s room.

“There’s a lot of rich Bubbas here tonight,” Evan noted. “If old Bill Bledsoe doesn’t get any big contributions, it won’t be for lack of trying.”

“I hate those rich fuckers,” I slurred.

“Don’t be vulgar, Bubba. It ain’t their fault that they’re rich. If you want my opinion, I’d say that Bledsoe won’t be getting any big checks tonight. Rich Bubbas don’t like uncertainty. Until Fowler says whether he’s going to run for reelection or not, they’ll just sit on their hands and wait. What do you think, Bubba?”

I stared guiltily at my empty shot glass. I hadn’t told Evan about my meeting with Fowler. “What do I think? I think you’re a fucking genius.”

“Thank you, Bubba. I can tell you mean that with all sincerity. I feel exactly the same way about you. We both have some very good qualities, you know. We’re both young, we’re both good-looking, we’re both intelligent, although right now, Bubba, you don’t look very intelligent with your mouth hanging open like that. We both have bright futures ahead of us in the wonderful world of journalism.”

“That’s a fucking joke.”

“All right, I’ll concede that our jobs are more of the dead-end variety. But that doesn’t change my main point. We both have some very good qualities, but none of the women in this bar seem to appreciate them. Now why is that, Bubba? Have you ever considered why that is?”

“Because that’s the way God dreamed it.”

“No, God has nothing to do with it. It’s because of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Not the whole theory, just an itty-bitty part of it which I call the Theory of the Long-tailed Parrots of South America.”

“I think I’m gonna be sick.”

“Try to control yourself, Bubba. You see, there are these parrots in South America that have incredibly long tails. Actually, it’s just the male parrots that have the long tails. The female parrots have short tails, but they’ll do just about anything to have sex with a male parrot who has a really long tail. The longer his tail, the more the lady parrot wants him. Sounds familiar, don’t it? But the strange thing, the really crazy thing, is this: it’s not so smart for a parrot to carry around such a long tail in the South American jungle. It gets in the way when you’re flying between the trees and all the jungle cats try to swipe at it while you’re flying by or just resting on your perch. In fact, a long tail can be a very dangerous thing to have. So why do you think the female parrots find it so attractive?”

“This is fucked up,” I muttered. “You’re talking about a bunch of fucking birds.”

“No, Bubba, I’m giving you some insight into the female mind. The female parrots like the long tail precisely because it’s so dangerous to have. A male parrot with a really long tail is obviously such a phenomenal flyer and such an all-around great bird that he can survive in the jungle despite his big handicap. You see what I’m saying, Bubba? The female parrot wants those same intangible qualities in her own chicks. So she fucks the parrot with the longest tail.”

“So you’re saying that I’m not getting laid because my tail isn’t long enough?”

“Come on, Bubba, use your head. If a dumb old parrot can sense intangible qualities, don’t you think a woman can? Here are the two of us, young, good-looking and intelligent, but when a woman starts talking to you or me, the first question that pops into her head is, ‘If he’s so goddamn great, how come he doesn’t have a wife or girlfriend?’ Then she thinks, ‘There must be some bad intangible thing about this guy, something he keeps hidden, something so terrible that it outweighs all his good looks and jokes.’ And then all your good qualities start working against you, because the handsomer and smarter you are, the more terrible that hidden intangible thing must be. Women get scared shitless when they see all our good qualities, Bubba. So they run to the bathroom or they say, ‘There’s Bill Bledsoe, let’s go talk to fucking Bill Bledsoe.’ ”

Evan shook his head. For a moment he looked truly distressed. But then the bar’s front door whooshed open and he automatically turned to check out the new arrival. “Uh-oh, Bubba. Look over there. I see a fine piece of womanhood heading our way.”

A petite woman in a black dress stepped uncertainly into the miasma of the Jubilee, scanning the bar for familiar faces. She had pretty gray eyes and jet-black hair. The dress was a vampy, strapless number that cupped her breasts and made a smooth black curve running down to her knees.

“She’s looking to see who’s got the biggest tail,” I said.

“Okay, Bubba, follow my lead. We’re gonna tell her that we both have girlfriends and that our intangible qualities are much better than our tangible ones. If we play our cards right, she’ll party with us and get nekkid!”

Evan jumped off his barstool and took two steps toward her. “Excuse me, I was just wondering if you’d like to meet two Bubbas who have some very good intangible qualities.”

“Evan Pearson, what the hell are you blabbering about?”

Her voice rang across the bar, joyously familiar. It was like the opening chord of a song that was popular when I was a child, a song that was playing on my mother’s radio when an incredible ecstasy flooded my five-year-old mind, and now the song is unbearably sad because I can’t remember what caused the ecstasy, or even what the ecstasy felt like exactly, but I know that nothing so powerful will ever hit me again. Then I recognized the intelligence behind the voice, which linked the words to a cadence as unique as a fingerprint, a combination of country drawl and sweet sorority-house purr and the commonsensible amusement you sometimes hear in the voices of truck drivers — hey buddy, where the hell did you learn to drive? Then the anonymous petite woman melted away under the hot glare of memory and became something recognizable, a rather good approximation of what I should’ve expected Cathy Hobbs to look like after seven years.

“Well, what do you know,” Evan said. “It’s the congressman’s wife. I didn’t even recognize you. I was about to hit on you like you were some common tramp.”

Cathy hugged him. Then she spotted me over Evan’s shoulder. “Is that Jack Blanchard?” She disentangled herself from Evan and came toward me. “Bless your heart, I haven’t seen you in ages!”

She felt warm and light in my arms. I held her gingerly, the same way you’d hold a fluted wineglass filled with kerosene.

“Looking good, Cathy,” I said. The room came unglued for a second, spun a nauseous quarter-turn, and then swung back into place. It wouldn’t be long before I’d have to excuse myself. I threw all my will into concentrating on Cathy’s face, specifically the heartbreaking arch of her upper lip.

“Why, you poor thing! You’re as drunk as Cooter Brown!” That was a favorite expression of hers. I hadn’t heard it in seven years.

“Aw, Bubba’s all right.” Evan patted my head. “He’s just a little confused. He’s been raving about God again. He does more raving about God than a Baptist preacher.”

“What are you saying about God?” Cathy asked sternly. “You better not be saying anything bad.”

“No, no, I’m just drunk, that’s all,” I managed to say. “When did you get into town?”

“About half an hour ago. The plane was two hours late getting out of Washington and I missed my connection in Atlanta, so I told Bill I’d meet him at the party. I was so short on time, I had to change into this dress on the plane. You know how hard it is to change clothes in one of those tiny bathrooms? I thought I was going to fall into the john.”

“That would’ve been a story!” Evan crowed. “Congressman’s wife stuck in the toilet at ten thousand feet!”

“Oh, hush, you! I need a drink.” Cathy climbed onto the barstool next to mine and studied the laminated card that listed the Jubilee Bar Specials. “I wonder if they still have those X-rated drinks we used to get here. Jack, remember that time we all had sex on the beach?”

Unfortunately, all the tequila in my stomach was making it hard to concentrate on what Cathy was saying. The only thing I heard clearly was the last sentence, which came as something of a shock. Cathy and I had never gone to the beach together, much less had sex there. Back in the summer when we’d lived together, seven years before, the only place where we’d made love was in my cramped apartment on Eastdale Road. I didn’t have enough money to take her anywhere else. Of course, I couldn’t say all this in front of Evan, so I just gave Cathy a blank look.

“Come on, Jack, you were there! It was my 21st birthday, remember? We’d all just turned legal.”

I was still clueless. But Cathy was staring at me so imploringly that I felt I had to say something. “We never went to the beach.”

“Bubba, you lunatic!” Evan yelled. “She’s talking about a drink! Sex on the Beach! It’s got triple sec in it.”

Cathy laughed. Her laughter was beautiful, even when it was at my expense. It started out low, as low a pitch as her voice could manage, and then it arced upward like a flock of frightened birds. She tilted her head back as if to watch her own laughter rise to the ceiling and she clutched my arm, half to steady herself and half to apologize for laughing at me. “Don’t feel bad, Jack,” she said once she’d caught her breath. “I’ve never had sex on the beach either.”

To cover my embarrassment, I got the bartender’s attention and ordered Cathy’s drink, wording the request very carefully.

“So, Cathy, where are you and Bill gonna stay during the campaign?” Evan asked.

“We’re gonna be living out of hotel rooms for the next few months. Bill is gonna be traveling across the state so much, it didn’t make sense for us to set up house in one spot. Mother and Daddy said I can stay at their place whenever I’m in town.”

“But where’s Bill gonna stay?” Evan persisted. “Your daddy ain’t about to allow Congressman Bledsoe under his roof, is he?”

“How do you like this, Jack? I come into this bar with the simple intention of getting a drink, and as soon as I walk through the door some nosy reporter starts asking pointed questions about my personal life. Where’s your sense of Southern courtesy, Evan Pearson?”

Cathy laughed again, and once more I thought of frightened birds, all of them soaring upward at once. Evan was right about Cathy’s father, though. Alden Hobbs was an old friend of the governor’s. They’d gone to the state university together, and one of Fowler’s first acts as governor was to make Alden adjutant general of the Alabama National Guard. General Hobbs hated Bill Bledsoe worse than he hated Jane Fonda.

The bartender brought Cathy’s drink. She took a sip, a very ladylike sip, and turned back to Evan. “To answer your question, I don’t expect any family squabbles. Bill is gonna be too busy for all that. Even when he’s asleep he’s gonna be running for governor. Before he left Washington he took me out to the fanciest restaurant in town and ordered a two-hundred-dollar bottle of wine. And he said, ‘Cathy, I want us to have a nice romantic evening, because we ain’t gonna see much of each other from now until Election Day.’ ”

“Oh, I think we’ll run into each other every now and then.”

Cathy spun around when she heard Bledsoe’s voice. He’d maneuvered across the room, shaking hands with everyone in his path, and now stood directly behind his wife. He was flanked by two beefy state troopers, his assigned bodyguards for the evening.

“Why, Bill, you scared the hell out of me!” Cathy stood up to kiss her husband on the cheek.

“You started drinking without me, sugar.” Bledsoe’s voice was intolerably cheerful. Beaming, he snaked one of his long arms around Cathy. “That’s not exactly polite.” He glanced at the troopers standing next to him. “What do you say, boys? Is that a polite thing for a lady to do?”

The troopers smiled but didn’t say anything.

“Don’t fuss with me, Bill, I had a hell of a flight.” Cathy grimaced. “Besides, you were too busy electioneering the fat cats. I sure hope you got some compensation for your efforts.”

“Let me worry about that, all right?” Bledsoe’s cheeriness faded for a moment, and he let go of his wife. But he was beaming again by the time he turned to Evan and me. “In the meantime, you better not get too friendly with these reporters. It’s Jack Blanchard, right? From the Advertiser? And Evan Pearson from the Associated Press? I believe I saw both of you boys at my press conference this morning.”

“That’s right,” Evan said, shaking Bledsoe’s hand. “You’ve got a good memory.”

“You need it in this business.” Bledsoe held his hand out to me. “Mr. Blanchard, I’ve been meaning to talk with you for quite some time. We get the Advertiser up in Washington, you know, and I’ve read some of your stories. You’re a damn good reporter.”

“Thank you,” I said as I shook Bledsoe’s hand. Given my inebriated state, I didn’t dare say anything too long-winded.

“Don’t be giving Jack a big head now,” Cathy interjected. “I’ve known him and Evan since high school. He was a miscreant then and he’s even worse now.”

“How long have you been working for the Advertiser, Jack?” Bledsoe asked.

“Seven years,” I said, sticking with my strategy of minimal utterance. I was pretty sure that Bledsoe didn’t want to hear the details anyway. As it so happened, my first months at the Advertiser coincided with the period when Cathy lived with me. We’d slept on an old mattress that lay on the floor because I hadn’t saved enough to buy a real bed yet. Staring at Bledsoe’s earnest face now, I wondered if Cathy had ever told him any of this.

“Seven years? Well, goddamn, that’s a long time. I was still in the D.A.’s office up in Cullman County back then. Did you cover my first campaign for Congress, Jack?”

“No, I was on the police beat then.”

“That was a dirty campaign. I went through hell during that race. Got bomb threats almost every night. My little nephew Jake, he was only six years old then, he came up to me one day and said, ‘Uncle Bill, what’s a homosexual?’ And I said, ‘Why are you asking me a question like that, Jake?’ And he said, ‘Because my friends in school said you were a homosexual and it sounded like a bad thing.’ No one should have to go through that kind of hell, Jack. I just hope this campaign doesn’t get that bad. You need another drink?”

Bledsoe gave my shoulder a companionable slap. I decided then that he knew nothing about me and Cathy. He was acting too much like a typical politician. He’d sized me up in the first few seconds and then selected an appropriate anecdote out of the repertoire of thousands he stored in the back of his head. When a politician is trying to butter up a reporter, the anecdotes flow like water and there’s nothing you can do to shut him up.

“No thanks, Mr. Bledsoe,” I said. “I think I’m drunk enough already.”

“Now listen here, Jack. I want to make one thing absolutely clear. If you’re gonna be covering my campaign for the Advertiser, you’re gonna have to start calling me Bill. You are gonna be covering my campaign, aren’t you?”

I panicked for a moment, thinking that Bledsoe had somehow heard of Fowler’s job offer. “Oh yeah, I’m covering the race.”

“Well, I’m glad to hear it. Even though we’ve talked for only a few minutes, I can already tell that you’re my kind of person. A New South person. You’d rather look ahead than look behind. Am I right?”

“Uh, I guess so.”

“The New South is rising and it needs people like you, Jack. We’ve been asleep for too long, for the past 25 years. The people of Alabama have been living in a deep freeze ever since Jimmy Fowler became governor. That man has been the worst thing to hit this state since the boll weevil. The rest of the country has gone through a whole world of changes since 1962, but in some ways Alabama hasn’t changed a bit. In fact, this state is starting to look like a third-world country. Do you realize that we’re ranked 49th in the country in the amount of money we spend on education? We’re also ranked 49th in literacy and 49th in health care. All I can say is, thank God for Mississippi. If it wasn’t for Mississippi, we’d be 50th in everything!”

Bledsoe laughed at his joke and slapped me on the shoulder again. I think it was the slap that did it. All of a sudden I knew I was going to vomit. God’s dream quickly shifted into nightmare and I had barely enough time to slide off the barstool and mutter “excuse me” to Bledsoe before I stumbled toward the tiled bathroom and the piped-in easy-listening music and the swinging stall door.

It seemed like I was gone for just five minutes, but it must’ve been much longer, because Cathy was the only person sitting at the bar when I returned. I saw her in profile, sipping another Sex on the Beach. There were two empty glasses on the bar in front of her. I felt a momentary urge to sneak up behind her and kiss the taut skin between her neck and shoulder. But there was something wrong with my picture of her, it seemed both clear and fuzzy all at once, and I realized with some dismay that I’d lost one of my contact lenses while I was bent over the john.

Cathy saw me walking toward her. “You all right, Jack?”

“Yeah, I’m fine. At least for the moment.” I reclaimed my seat at the bar.

She smiled. “You sure left in a hurry.”

“I hope I didn’t insult your husband too much.”

“Because you threw up in the middle of his speech? Don’t be silly, Jack. It happens to him all the time.”

“Is he still around?”

“No. After you made your sudden exit, he set his sights on Evan. The two of them went back to the Jefferson Hotel to do some serious drinking.”

“How come you didn’t go with them?”

“Me? No thank you. I’ve heard enough about the New South for one evening.” She raised her glass in a mock toast, then tilted her head back and took a long swallow. No more ladylike sipping for her. “So what about you, Jack? You haven’t said a word about yourself all night. You still like working at the newspaper?”

“It pays the bills.”

“But just barely, as I recall.” Cathy smiled again.

“Yeah, but there are so many other satisfactions to the job. Like getting invited to campaign fundraisers.”

“And what about your love life? Still looking for a girl you can take down to the beach?”

I shivered slightly. Cathy was flirting with me. It was a pleasure just to hear that sly note in her voice again. “You know how it is,” I said, trying to match her tone. “I got a bad reputation. That can kill you in this town.”

“Listen, Jack, you should come over to my folks’ house for supper next week. Mother is planning a family dinner for Thursday night, and a lot of food’s gonna go to waste if we don’t get some company.”

“Will Bill be there?”

Cathy made a face. “Of course he’ll be there. He and Daddy are gonna sit down together and behave like gentlemen. And if they don’t, I’ll horsewhip both of them.”

“Well, I wouldn’t want to miss that.”

“Daddy would get a kick out of seeing you, I bet. Of all the boys I ever dated, you were the only one he could stand.”

“Is that good or bad?”

“It’s neither.” She finished off her drink, then reached for her purse and took out a pack of Kool Lights. I watched her carefully as she lit her cigarette using a Jubilee matchbook. Up close, her face looked a bit older than it did seven years ago — a few more creases in her brow, a few more lines fanning out from the corners of her eyes. But it was hardly noticeable. She shook out the match and blew a long plume of smoke.

“And what about yourself?” I asked. “You like being a congressman’s wife?”

She shrugged. “It’s got its ups and downs. Today was more of a down than an up.”

“How come?”

“Bill found out today that the governor is planning to run for reelection. That man has a death wish, no doubt about it. He doesn’t have a chance of winning, but he’s gonna run anyway and probably kill himself in the process.”

“No kidding,” I said.

Cathy looked at me hard. “Don’t bullshit me, Jack. You must’ve known something about it.”

It was pathetic. I’d never been able to hide anything from her. “Yeah, I knew. I found out this afternoon. The governor offered me a job.”

“What kind of job?” She didn’t miss a beat.

“Assistant press secretary. Booth Taylor’s right-hand man.”

“So when do you start?”

“I said the governor offered me a job. I didn’t say I was taking it.”

“You’d be a fool not to.” She blew out another plume of smoke.

“Are you speaking now as a representative of the Bledsoe campaign or as a disinterested observer?”

“I’m speaking as an old friend. This is a good opportunity for you. There’s no way in hell that Fowler’s gonna get reelected, but that doesn’t matter. Once you’ve worked for the governor, you can write your own ticket. He’s got friends at every business in the state. After he loses the election — assuming he survives it — he’ll get himself a cushy no-show job somewhere, probably at the state university. And he’ll make sure you get a nice job too.”

I shook my head. “That’s not the point.”

“What’s stopping you? The fact that Fowler is an unscrupulous son of a bitch?”

“No, it’s the fact that I used to see him yelling into a bullhorn in front of my elementary school, trying to stop the black kids from getting off the school buses. It’s enough to give you pause, don’t you think?”

“I hear you, Jack. And if it were up to me, I’d hire you to work for our campaign instead. But Bill’s staff is all consultants and communications experts from Washington. He likes the high-priced professionals, even if they aren’t worth a damn.” She gave me an apologetic smile. “But you can become a professional too, if that’s what you want. If you work for Fowler, even for just a few months, it’ll be easy for you to get campaign jobs for other candidates in the future. All you need in this business is a little experience.”

I frowned. Although Cathy’s advice sounded reasonable, I couldn’t stomach it. “No, I can’t work for Fowler. No matter how much experience I’d get. Or how much he’d pay me.”

She shrugged and took a puff on her cigarette. “It’s true, he was a mean old dog twenty years ago. But now he’s a toothless mangy thing, and Bill’s gonna put him to sleep on Election Day. Fowler’s only got a few months left in office, so I don’t see any harm in you working for him. It’ll be like a silver lining in a really dark cloud, you know?”

I shook my head again. Cathy didn’t know the whole story. She hadn’t seen the new version of Fowler, his latest reinvention. “He’s planning a surprise. He’s gonna try to turn things around this time. He thinks he can fix all the bad things he did.”

Cathy’s hand stopped just as she was bringing the cigarette to her lips. “What are you talking about?”

“Fowler’s gonna apologize for what he did in his first years in office. He’s gonna say he was wrong to oppose integration. And he’s gonna promise to make amends.”

For the first time that evening, Cathy looked surprised. “Well, whatever he’s planning, it won’t work.” Her voice was adamant, definitive. “He’ll never get the black vote from Bill.”

“It looks like he’s gonna try.”

“I’m sorry, but it just won’t happen. You think folks are gonna forget about Glen Stubbs?”

Glen Stubbs was the man who’d single-handedly made Bledsoe’s political career. Back in ’79, Stubbs and a few of his buddies in the Ku Klux Klan lynched an 18-year-old black kid in Cullman County. Bledsoe was the attorney in the county D.A.’s office who prosecuted the case. Nobody thought he would get a conviction, because Cullman County is probably the most racist part of the whole state. But through a combination of luck and gumption, Bledsoe managed to put Stubbs and his Klan buddies on Death Row. The next year, the NAACP and the Alabama Teachers Association endorsed Bledsoe for Congress, and he won in a landslide.

Cathy stabbed her cigarette in the glass ashtray on the bar. She seemed agitated now. “Listen, Jack, you do what your conscience tells you to do. But you’re making a mistake if you stay at the Advertiser. You can do better than that.” She put her purse under her arm and climbed off the barstool. “I got a car waiting for me outside. Would you be a gentleman and walk me out the door?”

I was far from a gentleman on that particular evening, but I nodded anyway. “Anything for an old friend.”

We stepped out of the bar. It was drizzling outside, but you could barely feel it. The air was warm and smelled like wet lawns. I escorted Cathy to the Ford LTD that was idling in the far corner of the parking lot. There was a state trooper in the driver’s seat, one of Bledsoe’s bodyguards, but he was facing the street, away from us.

“It’s been a long time, Cathy,” I said as we crossed the lot.

She kept her eyes on the ground. “Yeah, it sure has.”

“You look good. You look like you’re real happy.”

“Well, looks can be deceiving.”

I stopped about twenty feet from the car. “You want to talk about it?”

“Not right here in the parking lot, no.”

I took hold of Cathy’s hand. I meant it as just a friendly gesture, but I guess she got the wrong idea. She pulled her hand back fast. “What the hell are you doing, Jack Blanchard?”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing, hell. I can see you looking at me. I know what’s on your mind when you give me that look.”

“Well, excuse me for looking. You know, Cathy, you never told me why you left.”

“Oh, Jack, please…”

“It’s something I wondered about for a long time. It was this big baffling question in my head, like ‘Is there a God?’ or ‘What are we here for?’ One of those questions you can’t answer, but you keep turning it around in your mind anyway. ‘Why did she leave me?’ I couldn’t answer it.”

Cathy gave me an exasperated look, and for a second I thought she was going to ignore my question and just walk away. But instead she stepped closer and placed her hand on my cheek. “The truth is, I don’t know why myself.” Her voice went quiet, as soft as the rain. “Maybe I made a mistake.”

I stood absolutely still. I didn’t move a muscle. I felt her touch in every nerve in my body. “Cathy, I—”

“I have to go now.” She lowered her hand but kept her eyes on me. They were sad and kind and a little glassy. “It’s wonderful to see you again, Jack. I really mean it.”

She turned around and walked the rest of the way to the car. As soon as the state trooper saw her, he jumped out of the driver’s seat and opened the rear door for her. Then she slid into the backseat, and the LTD took off down Cloverdale Road.

————–

Footnote: The Jubilee is based on a real bar in the Cloverdale section of Montgomery, and Evan Pearson is based on a real raconteur I met at that bar thirty years ago when I worked as a newspaper reporter in Alabama. His actual name, I think, was Dennis Pearson. (Clearly, I didn’t try very hard to protect his identity.) Dennis, if you’re reading this right now, I apologize. You never said any of the things the character says in this scene. But you inspired them.

1+

He Asks The Hudson A Question

By Mark Alpert

“God hates a coward.” I read this phrase in a Stephen King novel not too long ago, and it got me thinking about fiction. Writing novels isn’t for the faint of heart. In addition to the financial insecurity, you have to live with a lot of existential dread. You never know where the next sentence will take you.

For instance, the weather was cold and gloomy today in New York City, and yet I convinced myself to go biking in Riverside Park. It’s a chilly ride but bearable, even in January, as long as you wear two T-shirts under your sweatshirt and a ski hat under your bike helmet. Riverside Park is a sliver of greenery on the western edge of Manhattan, and in the summer it’s packed with joggers and sunbathers, but in the winter it’s a strip of dead grass next to the stinking riverbank, strictly for the lost and suicidal. In May the U.S. Navy parades its destroyers on the Hudson River, but in January there’s nothing to see except tugboats and barges.

In 1980, when I was 19, I wrote a poem titled “He Asks the Hudson A Question”:

Cities fester

up and down gray rivers

that lead to the sea

or so they tell me

but I’m not so sure

what those tugboats

garbage loads

struggle to reach

beyond the sooty maze

of blackened pipes

that is Jersey City.

The poem is outdated; across the river, Jersey City is no longer gritty and decrepit; it’s full of office buildings and condos. But in my heart, the Hudson will always be cold and gray and unfriendly.

My destination today, as usual, was the George Washington Bridge. It’s a five-mile ride from West 72nd Street to the bridge, and although I could ride another two miles north to Dyckman Street, there’s a ridiculously steep slope where the bike path climbs from the riverbank to the shoulder of the West Side Highway, and it’s just not worth the effort. So I usually make a U-turn below the bridge, near the lighthouse that was made famous in the classic 1942 children’s book, The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge. The Parks Department opens the lighthouse one day a year, in the fall, and about ten years ago my wife and I took the kids there, but it’s locked tight for the other 364 days.

I’m not in great physical shape, but I’m super-competitive during these bike rides. I keep careful track of how many bikes I pass and how many pass me. Today, though, there was no one else on the path. The river was choppy and the wind blew from the north. For about half a minute the clouds parted, and a bolt of sunlight fell across the bridge, painting it gold. But then the world turned gray again.

Right now you’re probably wondering where this story is going. Is there a lesson here, a moral? I don’t know. I’m winging it. I’m describing something that happened today, in the hope that it will lead to something else. Most likely it won’t. That’s what I meant by existential dread. Whenever you sit down to write, there’s always a good chance that nothing will come of it.

The Amtrak line also runs alongside the river, not too far from the bike path. There’s an enormous sewage treatment plant at 135th Street, built twenty years ago at a cost of $1.3 billion. Grant’s Tomb is a bit farther south, sitting below the Gothic spire of Riverside Church. I’ve biked down this path so many times, I’ve memorized all its potholes and frost heaves.

You can cross the George Washington Bridge by bike, but I’ve done that only a few times, mostly because it involves climbing that ridiculously steep hill. From there, you take a circuitous route through Washington Heights — where the Father of Our Country hid from the British — to the ramp that curves up to the bridge’s walkway. The path runs parallel to the traffic, under the shadows of the GWB’s cables. It’s more than a mile long and about eight feet wide, and there are beautiful views in every direction: the New Jersey Palisades to the west, the Manhattan skyscrapers to the east, the Hudson stretching to the north and south. And every hundred yards along the walkway is a sign saying, “Feeling hopeless? You’re NOT alone. Asking for help DOES NOT mean you are WEAK or BROKEN.” Below that is the telephone number of the Port Authority cops whose job is to convince the hopeless pedestrians not to climb over the rail and tumble two hundred feet down to the river.

The last time I crossed the GWB I saw those cops in action. Their patrol cars were parked in the lane closest to the walkway, bringing the bridge traffic to a standstill. Two officers were talking to a tall young woman with lustrous red hair and a tear-streaked face. She wore high heels and a long black coat. Two more cops stood nearby, and one of them nodded at me as I biked past. They looked bored but probably weren’t.

The cops were watchful. If the weeping woman lunged for the rail, they were ready to grab her.

(Speaking of hopelessness, I’ll be in Washington DC on Saturday, exercising my free-speech rights, so I won’t be able to answers questions about this post. Which is just as well, because I’m not sure myself what it means.)

2+

First Page Critique: Inside Moves

By Mark Alpert

So far, 2017 has been a good year for the Alpert family. The big news here is that my son finished all his college applications. Also, the third book in my Young Adult trilogy is scheduled for publication in July. And I found some time over the holiday break to critique a first-page submission proffered by a brave, anonymous Kill Zone contributor. Here it is:

—————–

Inside Moves

Chapter One

The ambulance screeched around the corner—its light bar flashing and siren screaming—toward Santa Barbara General Hospital’s emergency-room entrance.

An older couple sitting on the bus-shelter bench at the corner was startled by the sounds of the vehicle, along with the knowledge of what that meant.

The man looked to be in his midseventies. He took the woman’s hand in his; she had been startled more severely than he was. “Sweetheart, since we’ve lived in Santa Barbara nearly all our lives, I’d say there’s a very good chance we might know whoever’s in that ambulance.”

But they didn’t.

Desperate to keep the man alive, EMT David Ortega kept his eye on the heart-rate monitor for any changes to Bobby Wainwright’s vital signs.

“We’re losing him!” he yelled to his partner, Tom, who pushed the accelerator of the ambulance.

David felt the ambulance lunge forward. Tom liked to drive fast when the siren and flashers cleared his path. Regaining his balance, David prepared to do CPR while speaking to Dr. Richard Kiersten through his headset. The doctor was standing by in the OR, awaiting their arrival at SBGH.

“Give him Narcan IC,” he instructed David.

David hated giving intracardiac injections because they could produce complications. Besides that, just the idea of stabbing someone in the heart with a long needle was ugly. But he did it anyway. With nothing to do but watch the monitor and the patient, David read the notes Tom had taken at the accident site.

“Bobby Wainwright. Just a few years older than me. Huh? Owner of Wainwright Erectors. Not from around here. Bet he makes a ton more than me. Accident on the job…Man, something really big fell on this dude.” Goose bumps jumped out on his arms. “No matter how much he makes, I sure don’t want to be him right now.”

At the emergency entrance, David and Tom prepared Bobby for the operating room and Dr. Kiersten. As David jumped out of the ambulance, he saw an elderly couple at a bus shelter watching him. The old lady looked scared to death. “Dear God, don’t let her suffer a heart attack before I get this guy into the OR.”

The first responders had brought Bobby to the hospital closest to the construction site where he had been injured. Right now, it didn’t appear that this hospital was close enough.

————-

First things first: Whatever this novel turns out to be, giving it the title Inside Moves is a bad idea. That’s also the title of a 1980 film directed by Richard Donner, better known for his Superman and Lethal Weapon series (the poster for the film is pictured above). Although the movie wasn’t a huge box-office or critical hit, many film buffs (like me) still remember it, and when I saw the title of this submission, my first thought was, “Something more original, please.” Don’t get me wrong — allusions to familiar artworks can make great titles for novels, especially if the original source is the Bible (The Sun Also Rises) or William Shakespeare (Infinite Jest). But unless this submission is the first page of a novel about basketball, I advise the author to choose a different title.

(Side note: I can’t understand why so many writers – including well-known authors such as Jonathan Kellerman and Anne Rivers Siddons – have published novels titled Heartbreak Hotel. Wake up, people! Elvis owns that title. You’re merely renting it.)

Okay, on to the first sentence of the submission. I’m a big believer in “Less is more.” Every ambulance rushing toward a hospital has flashing lights and a screaming siren, so it’s redundant to mention these details. Better to change the first sentence to: “The ambulance screeched around the corner toward Santa Barbara General Hospital.” (It’s also redundant to mention the hospital’s emergency-room entrance. Where else would a rushing ambulance go?) If the author thinks this description is too spare, then he or she should add details that aren’t unnecessary. For example, maybe the ambulance rushed past a row of palm trees in front of the hospital, or nearly sideswiped a parked car. The aim here is to make the scene less generic and more interesting.

Regarding the elderly couple on the bus-shelter bench: are they going to be important to the plot? If not, why are they in the scene? Ideally, every detail in a novel’s opening scene should serve the story in some way. I suggested palm trees because they might flesh out the description of the setting (at least for people unfamiliar with Santa Barbara), and I suggested the sideswiping because it indicates either the urgency or carelessness of the ambulance driver. The opening scene in a novel is crucial – that’s where you’re going to either hook readers or lose them – so every word of those first few paragraphs should be chosen with care.

Speaking of which, I’m not crazy about the novel’s very first quote, made by the old man on the bench. It doesn’t sound like real conversation. He seems much too calm and reasonable for an elderly gent who’s just been startled by a rushing ambulance. Worse, his statement doesn’t sound truthful. Santa Barbara isn’t a small town — it’s a city of more than 90,000 people — so even if the old couple lived there for decades, they couldn’t know everyone in the city who falls seriously ill.

Yes, I’m being picky, but until the author gives readers a compelling reason to keep reading his or her novel, they won’t be tolerant of these flaws. If something in an opening scene doesn’t make sense, the typical reader is likely to close the book and look for another.

There are more flaws in the next two paragraphs. We learn the full name of one of the EMTs (David Ortega) but only the first name of his partner (Tom), which struck me as odd. We also learn the full name of the ambulance’s patient (Bob Wainwright), but that revelation comes several paragraphs before David reads this name in the notes about the accident. But these errors are niggling compared with the major problem: the scene doesn’t feel real. I’m not getting the details that would convey the urgency inside the ambulance. The scraps of dialogue (“I’m losing him!”) and description (“Goosebumps jumped out on his arms”) sound clichéd. I want to know, in gritty detail, what it feels like to stab a needle into someone’s heart. Do you have to aim to the left or right of the sternum? How do you know when you hit the organ? Is there a slight change in pressure as you push the needle through the pericardium? And what does the patient look like? Is he old or young, fat or thin? What parts of his body were mashed by the thing that fell on him? And how does David react to the gruesome injuries? Is he a consummate professional, or do fear and revulsion threaten to upend his composure?

At the end, the scene returns to the elderly couple on the bench. If they don’t know the patient, what role will they play in the book? Instead of giving me what I want – the visceral fear and alarm of the ambulance call – the author is showing me something that feels like a random distraction.

Fortunately, all these problems can be fixed. I got to know several EMTs when I worked as a newspaper reporter, and most of them seemed eager to answer questions about their work. (In particular, I remember an EMT in New Hampshire saying, “I’ve never pulled a dead body out of a seatbelt.” I think about that line every time I buckle up.) The author can get a ton of great details for this scene simply by talking to the right people.

So please don’t be discouraged! If you want some inspiration, read the opening pages of Stephen King’s End of Watch, which describes the ambulance run to the grisly parking lot where the Mercedes Killer has just plowed into a crowd of desperate people lined up before dawn at a job fair. King does a great job of conveying the horror of the EMTs as they try to save the lives of the mangled victims.

Any other thoughts, folks?

3+

What I’m Reading

By Mark Alpert

f-scott-fitzgerald

How do you become a good writer? First, you become an avid reader.

All the writers I know are also voracious readers. That’s why it’s so much fun to hang out with them. We can talk about the books we love.

Lately I’ve been reading and rereading the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald. In my opinion, his finest novel by far is The Great Gatsby, which is also one of the greatest books in American literature. My second-favorite is Tender is the Night, but in this case I think there’s a big gap between first and second place. Fitzgerald did something phenomenal with Gatsby: he transcended his relentless obsession with money, class and heartbreaking flappers to create a stunning parable of American life.

But I don’t want to talk about Fitzgerald’s novels right now; I want to focus on his short stories. Although Fitzgerald saw greater literary value in his novels, most of his income came from writing short stories for magazines, especially The Saturday Evening Post. He earned as much as $4,000 per story from the Post, which published 60 of the 160 stories he wrote. At one point in the 1920s, after Fitzgerald racked up $5,000 in debt from throwing too many parties, he banged out eleven stories in a matter of weeks and made $17,000. Back then, the Post had an eye-popping circulation of 2,750,000, which meant that during Fitzgerald’s lifetime, far more people read his stories than his novels.

(Although Fitzgerald’s novels sold in the millions in the decades after his death in 1940, only his first novel — This Side of Paradise — did well when it was published. And it’s not a great book. The first half of the novel, which lightly fictionalizes his years at Princeton, is particularly clumsy and amateur. But the book was a commercial hit because it seemed to capture the hectic mood of the youth culture of the Roaring Twenties. In other words, it was the Bright Lights, Big City of its day.)

The classic Fitzgerald story is “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” published in 1920. Nowadays, the story seems a little quaint, but at the time it was really quite shocking. A sophisticated popular girl named Marjorie gives romantic advice to her ugly-duckling cousin Bernice, including a few valuable tips on how to attract the opposite sex at country-club dances:

“Well, you’ve got to learn to be nice to men who are sad birds. You look as if you’d been insulted whenever you’re thrown with any except the most popular boys. Why, Bernice, I’m cut in on every few feet – and who does most of it? Why, those very sad birds. No girl can afford to neglect them. They’re the big part of any crowd. Young boys too shy to talk are the very best conversational practice. Clumsy boys are the best dancing practice. If you can follow them and yet look graceful you can follow a baby tank across a barb-wire sky-scraper.”

Bernice sighed profoundly, but Marjorie was not through.

“If you go to a dance and really amuse, say, three sad birds that dance with you; if you talk so well to them that they forget they’re stuck with you, you’ve done something. They’ll come back next time, and gradually so many sad birds will dance with you that the attractive boys will see there’s no danger of being stuck – then they’ll dance with you.”

“Yes,” agreed Bernice faintly. “I think I begin to see.”

This is good, practical advice even for today, but Fitzgerald was one of the first to put it down on paper, and that’s what made his stories so provocative to his elders and so popular among his contemporaries. And he does an excellent job of conveying Marjorie’s condescension and cruelty. But in the end, Bernice gets her revenge. I won’t spoil it for you – go read the story.

Like his friend and rival Ernest Hemingway, Fitzgerald found it difficult to get away from writing about himself. Born in Minnesota to Irish Catholic parents who slowly frittered away their money, Scott was a struggling, striving outsider among the wealthy scions at Princeton, and though he mastered the social rules and customs of the upper class, his friends and paramours never let him forget that he wasn’t quite “their kind.” He fell in love with a rich debutante who eventually spurned him because he had no money, and he never really recovered from the blow. Then in 1917 he quit Princeton — his grades were terrible because he spent all his time writing for the college’s theatrical club — and signed up for the Army, which was preparing for America’s entry into World War I. He went to a training camp in Montgomery, Alabama (fascinating tidbit: one of his drill instructors was Dwight D. Eisenhower) and during his off-duty hours he wooed a Southern belle named Zelda Sayre, but after the war ended (Fitzgerald never made it to France) she too rejected him when it became apparent that he couldn’t support her. But after Fitzgerald sold This Side of Paradise to Scribner’s, he finally had enough dough to convince Zelda to come to New York and marry him.

So Fitzgerald had a lot of personal experience with the mercenary attitudes of spoiled debutantes, and the subject comes up again and again in his novels and short stories. He used his fiction to compulsively lick his psychic wounds. In This Side of Paradise, Amory Blaine is devastated when Rosalind Connage rejects him. In The Great Gatsby, James Gatz completely reinvents himself in a futile attempt to recapture the heart of Daisy Buchanan. The same drama is also reenacted in “Winter Dreams,” “The Sensible Thing,” “The Bridal Party,” and many other short stories. To be honest, it gets a little repetitive after a while. In fact, Fitzgerald makes fun of his own obsession in “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” a short story that makes the drama absurd by having the striving boy fall in love with the daughter of a man who owns a mountain-size diamond.

The best of Fitzgerald’s short stories move beyond this obsession. In “May Day,” he broadens his perspective to include characters who are neither wealthy nor strive to be. In this story, the paths of rich New Yorkers crisscross violently with those of earnest socialists and penniless World War I veterans. “May Day” represents a leap forward for Fitzgerald, and it prefigures the even more remarkable leap he made with Gatsby. The crux of that novel, of course, is the violent confrontation between the wealthy Long Islanders of West and East Egg and the pathetic Wilsons, the sad couple living above the gas station amid the ash heaps.

And then there’s my favorite Fitzgerald story, “Babylon Revisited.” I can’t think of a better dramatization of the emotional ravages of alcoholism, which Fitzgerald unfortunately knew all too well.

6+

Faces of Death

By Mark Alpert

texas-death-row-cover

I’m writing a thriller that begins with a lethal injection at America’s busiest Death House, located at the prison in Huntsville, Texas. While doing research for the scene, I came across a remarkable resource, a book titled Texas Death Row: Executions in the Modern Era, edited by Bill Crawford.

What makes this book so interesting, and so different from the vast majority of books about capital punishment, is that it contains no analysis or argument or opinion. It’s more like an almanac of executions, containing nothing but plain, unvarnished facts. The opening pages provide some statistics on the people executed in Texas between 1982 (the year when the state resumed executions after an 18-year hiatus) and 2007 (the book was published in 2008, so it’s missing the records from the past decade). The book details the racial backgrounds of those executed during this period: 49 percent White, 36 percent Black, 15 percent Hispanic, and less than 1 percent Other. It names the prisoners who spent the longest time on Death Row (Excell White, 24 years) and the shortest time (Joe Gonzales, 252 days). And it identifies the oldest prisoner at the time of his execution (William Chappell, 66) and the youngest (Jay Pinkerton, 24).

But after this introductory summary, the next 391 pages of the book dive into the particulars. One page is devoted to each of the 388 men and three women executed in Huntsville during those 25 years, presented in chronological order (based on their execution dates). At the top of each page are the mug shots taken when the prisoner arrived on Death Row. Just below the photos are the prisoner’s personal facts: birth date, race, height, weight, education, occupation and county of conviction. Then there’s a paragraph, usually a pretty long one, describing the crime that the prisoner was sentenced to death for. In Texas, capital punishment is reserved for the following crimes: murder of a public safety officer or firefighter; murder during the commission of kidnapping, burglary, robbery, aggravated sexual assault, arson, or obstruction or retaliation; murder for remuneration; murder during a prison escape; murder of a correctional employee; murder by a state prison inmate who is serving a life sentence for any of five specified offenses; multiple murders; and murder of an individual under six years old.

Farther down the page is a description of the prisoner’s last meal. What’s notable here is that the meals requested by most of the Death Row prisoners weren’t fancy. They wanted comfort food, often in large quantities. Here are some examples, selected at random:

— Large double-meat cheeseburger with mustard, and Dr. Pepper (Kenneth Brock, executed in 1986)

— Three pieces of French toast with syrup, baked sweet potato with butter, two sausage patties, and one fried egg (George Douglas Lott, 1994)

— A fried fish fillet, French fries, orange juice, and German chocolate cake (Robert Anthony Carter, 1998)

— Enchiladas, burritos, chocolate ice cream, and cantaloupe (Paul Selso Nuncio, 2000)

— Six piece of fried chicken, French fries, six rolls, tin roof ice cream, strawberry soda, and chocolate cake (Jeffrey Lynn Williams, 2002)

— A whole fried chicken, twelve buttered bread slices, fried onion rings and okra, a six-pack of RC Cola, a large bag of Fritos, salt and pepper, and two tomatoes (Bruce Charles Jacobs, 2003)

— Two chicken-fried steaks, fried chicken strips, fried shrimp, curly fries, one-half gallon of grape juice, a pint of caramel pecan fudge ice cream, ketchup, and a pack of bubble gum (Edward Green III, 2004)

— Fifteen enchiladas, heavy with cheese and onions, onion rings or fries, eight pieces of fried chicken, eight pieces of barbecue chicken, eight whole peppers, two hard-shell tacos with plenty of meat, cheese, onions and sauce, four double-meat, double-cheese, double-bacon burgers, a T-bone steak with A1 sauce, and a pan of peach cobbler (Maurice M. Brown, 2006)

It’s hard to imagine the prisoners finishing such large meals, especially since they’re served at 4 p.m., just two hours before the execution. In fact, very often the prisoners would leave the big meals untouched. In 2011 the Texas Department of Criminal Justice ended the tradition of allowing Death Row prisoners to order anything they wanted for their last meals. Nowadays, the condemned get the same chow as the other inmates in the Huntsville prison.

At the very bottom of each page is the exact time at which the prisoner was pronounced dead, as well as the full text of the last statement he or she made. Inside the execution chamber in Huntsville, there’s a microphone just above the gurney where the condemned prisoner is tied down. After the intravenous tubes are inserted into the prisoner’s arms, the warden asks the condemned person if he or she has anything to say. There are two groups of people who hear this last statement: up to five pre-approved witnesses requested by the prisoner, and up to five immediate family members or close friends of the victim (or victims). The groups stand in separate, side-by-side rooms that face the death chamber and view the execution through barred windows. A handful of journalists are also allowed into the witness rooms, usually reporters from the Associated Press, the Huntsville Item (the local newspaper), and selected media from the area where the crime took place.

Some condemned prisoners decline to make a last statement. Others write long statements in advance. Here are some examples, again selected at random:

— “I’m sorry for what I’ve done. I deserve this. Jesus forgive me.” (Jeffery Allen Barney, executed in 1986)

— “I don’t think so. That’s all. Go ahead. Start things rolling.” [Mouthed “Hi Mom” to his mother] (Jerry Joe Bird, 1991)

— “Let’s do it, man. Lock and load. Ain’t life a [expletive deleted]?” (G.W. Green, 1991)

— “I just want everyone to know that the prosecutor and Bill Scott [an inmate who testified against him] are some sorry sons of bitches.” (Edward Ellis, 1992)

— “I am innocent, innocent, innocent. Make no mistake about this.” (Leonel Torres Herrera, 1993)

— “I would like to say to the family, I regret the pain I’ve put you through and I hope you can get over it someday. Mom and Dad, I love you. Take care. I’m ready.” (T. J. Jones , 2002)

— “Yes, I just want to say I am not sad today or bitter with anybody. Like I’ve said from day one, I did not go in there and kill them — but I am no better than those that did. Jesus is Lord.” (Edward Lewis Lagrone, 2004)

— “Uh, I don’t know, um, I don’t know what to say. I don’t know. [Pauses] I didn’t know anybody was there. Howdy.” (James Lee Clark, 2007)

Once the prisoner finishes the last statement, the warden gives a signal to the executioner, who stands in another room adjacent to the death chamber. There’s a window between this room and the chamber, but it has one-way glass, preventing anyone from seeing the executioner inside. The IV tubes run through a small hole in the wall, near the lower left corner of the window. At the warden’s signal, the executioner uses a syringe to inject the lethal drugs into one of the IV tubes. (The other is a backup.) From 1982 to 2012, Texas used a three-drug protocol for executions: sodium thiopental to sedate the prisoner, then pancuronium bromide to collapse the diaphragm and lungs, and potassium chloride to stop the heart. By 2012, though, the state was having trouble obtaining some of these drugs (partly because the manufacturers forbid the sale of the pharmaceuticals for the purpose of execution), so Texas switched to a one-drug protocol: five grams of pentobarbital, a barbiturate. (It’s the active ingredient in Nembutal, which was once widely prescribed in the U.S. as a sleeping aid, but a capsule of Nembutal contains only 100 milligrams of the drug. So the dose used for executions in Texas is the equivalent of 50 Nembutal capsules.)

In more recent years, the only manufacturer of pentobarbital — a Danish company called Lundbeck — banned its sale for executions, but the Texas Department of Criminal Justice has managed to maintain a supply of the drug by purchasing it from compounding pharmacies, which typically prepare personalized medications for patients who can’t tolerate standard drugs. But compounded drugs aren’t FDA-approved, which means the government can’t verify their potency or purity. Critics of lethal injection worry that the drugs used by Texas and other states could be contaminated, and instead of delivering a quick, painless death they could cause prolonged agony and thus violate the constitutional protection against “cruel and unusual” punishment. What’s more, Texas refuses to identify the compounding pharmacies it buys pentobarbital from, because of the possibility that death-penalty opponents will identify and castigate the companies. So nobody can independently test the drugs to see if they’re contaminated.

As you can tell, I’ve done a lot of research for this opening scene! I probably won’t be able to use most of the information, but now I feel like an expert on the subject, and that makes me confident that I’ll be able to write about it with intensity and emotion.

9+

Interesting Times

By Mark Alpert

trump_securing_the_tower

Although we try to steer clear of politics at the Kill Zone, it’s hard to ignore the seismic surprise of the election we just endured. I had lunch on Thursday in midtown Manhattan, and as I walked home I passed several police barricades that had been set up along the streets surrounding Trump Tower. A dozen TV cameras pointed at the empty sidewalk in front of the building, and hundreds of tourists pointed their phones at the journalists. People were walking around in a daze, gaping at the barricades, wondering if something else was about to happen.

Like a true New Yorker, I focused on fighting my way through the crowd. In this city, we reserve our sharpest contempt for the slowpokes.

Here’s the silver lining, folks: In the long run, this turmoil will be good for American literature. Think of all the great fiction that came out of the Civil War, the Great Depression, World War II and the Sixties. On election night, I told my teenage kids about the infamous curse: “May you live in interesting times.” By the way, everyone seems to think this is an ancient Chinese curse, but according to a little research I did (okay, I’m lazy, so I just checked Wikipedia) there’s no such curse in Mandarin. Here’s what Wiki had to say: “The nearest related Chinese expression is nìng wéi tàipíng quǎn, mò zuò luàn lí rén, which is usually translated as ‘Better to be a dog in a peaceful time, than to be a human in a chaotic (warring) period.’”

Writers in general, and especially writers of suspense fiction, thrive during interesting times. Periods of upheaval can be inspiring because they challenge us to imagine the best and worst things that could happen. In that spirit, I have three observations to make:

1) Why did anyone believe those pre-election polls? I should’ve realized how bogus the polls were. Pollsters typically call you on your landline, and I’m outraged whenever anyone calls my landline, because the callers are invariably robots or scam artists. (All my friends and family know my cell number.) When our landline phone rings, I’m usually in the middle of writing something, and by the time I stomp into the living room to pick up the phone, I’m seething at the interruption. I give the caller a few seconds to identify himself or herself — “Hello, I’m with the Fraudulent Computer Service Center” or “Don’t be alarmed, there’s no problem with your credit card, but did you know you could get better rates?” or “This is the IRS, or at least we’re pretending to be the IRS, because you’re now in the 55-and-over age bracket, and we love to prey on gullible senior citizens” — and then I let loose all my pent-up rage, ordering the poor call-center employee to take us off their calling list right this second, or else I’ll call the New York State Attorney General and my buddies in the Delta Force. A more sensible man might simply get rid of his landline, but I don’t roll that way. I’m borderline insane. Some part of me actually enjoys the confrontation.

But here’s the point I’m trying to make: I wouldn’t give any pollster the time of day — I’m way too busy and frazzled. And I bet millions of Americans feel the same way. The people who actually respond to polls are a self-selecting group, presumably with a lot of free time on their hands, and they’re bound to have all sorts of quirks and distinctions that make them markedly different from the general public. So any poll of their voting preferences will provide a misleading picture. It seems so obvious now.

2) It’s normal for the presidency to regularly swing back-and-forth between Democrats and Republicans. In fact, that’s been the established pattern for the past 64 years. In 1952, control of the White House swung to Eisenhower and the Republicans; eight years later, it went to JFK and LBJ, and after another eight years it swung back to Nixon and then Ford. Carter lasted only four years, and Reagan/Bush lasted for twelve, but then the pattern reestablished itself: eight years of Bill Clinton, eight years of George W., eight years of Obama. So the Republicans were due for a win in 2016.

The more interesting question is, why the eight-year pattern? Why isn’t the typical interval four years or twelve or sixteen? I think I know why it’s not four years — an incumbent president has some strong advantages when seeking reelection. But after eight years, the voters have had enough time to become sick and tired of whoever’s running the country. It’s in our national character: Americans are perpetually dissatisfied. We think of ourselves as an optimistic nation, where any ordinary Joe could make a billion dollars or become president (or both!), but this optimism inevitably leads to disappointment. When you don’t get the promised fortune and fame, what are you going to do, blame yourself? No, of course not. Better to blame the government. So throw the bums out and start over again!

3) You never know what the future will bring. The current political situation reminds me of the period right after Reagan was elected, in November 1980. I was in college at the time, and most of my classmates were panicked. Just like today, there were worries about whether the president-elect was temperamentally fit for the job. Many people were convinced that Reagan would give the order to nuke Iran as soon as he stepped into the Oval Office.

But Reagan turned out to be a lot more levelheaded and pragmatic than anyone expected. Perhaps the best example was his administration’s reaction to the 1983 terrorist attack on the Marine barracks in Beirut. It was the deadliest day for the U.S. military since World War II — the truck bomb killed 241 American servicemen — but Reagan’s response was careful and measured. Instead of sinking deeper into a Middle Eastern quagmire, the White House concluded that Lebanon was a hopeless mess, and within a few months the Pentagon pulled the American peacekeepers out of the country. Reagan didn’t nuke the ayatollah, even though there was some good evidence that Iran had a hand in the Beirut attack. The Gipper saw the big picture and refrained from making things worse.

Reagan benefited from the advice of reasonable Republicans such as George Shultz, his secretary of state. Everyone in Washington is now hoping that Trump follows Reagan’s example and appoints competent people to his cabinet.

But one thing’s for sure: novelists will have plenty of material to work with over the next few years. See you on the barricades!

7+

First Page Critique: Scylla and Charybdis

charybdis

Critiqued by Mark Alpert

Well, I finished the manuscript of my latest novel and sent it to my editor at 10 p.m. on October 3rd, meeting my deadline with two hours to spare. Whew! Since then, I’ve been catching up on various long-neglected duties, such as ordering new checkbooks and fixing the faucet on our kitchen sink. Now, though, I have a more pleasant task: critiquing a first page submitted to the Kill Zone by a brave writer who’s willing to withstand our collective, constructive criticism. So, without further ado, here is today’s submission:

—————-

Untitled

The blade cleaved directly through her face. It curved so easily and viciously that it became lodged in the brittle tree behind her. Splinters of bark sprayed out from the impact and into the cloudy green haze of the forest depths. She’d had no time to react, and stared startled as the shredded leaves flew upwards following the path of the sword’s strike. Apprehension filled her body. Her heart pounded – for suddenly she remembered this day.

Grasping the hilt of the sword emerged a shadowy figure from the thicket; its features illuminated just enough to discern a brow furrowed in mild annoyance. The dark emerald mask it wore blurred its identity as if the mist of the forest was hiding a secret. It analyzed its handiwork, staring straight through the girl, then wiggled the sword out of the weathered tree and turned away as if it hadn’t even seen her.

“I had you!” The figure called out into the darkness around it with a young, female voice. The metal of the blade shimmered from soft rays of light that penetrated through the canopy, cutting the shade as if the sword’s edge could slice through darkness itself. Another voice, hiding in the trees, came from above.

“Almost. See how difficult it is when you don’t cheat?” Came the sly, older reply.

The girl stood with her back to the tree, motionless. A larger figure descended gracefully onto the thick leaf-covered soil. A savage young man now stood before her and the sword-wielding figure, and the girl recognized him as her brother.

“Ureylon!” She cried out and moved in to embrace him.

The smaller figure roared and began to swing its sword once more, but this time in the direction of the man. Alarmed, she lunged towards her brother to protect him. The effort was wasted, however, as Ureylon’s own sword passed straight through her and met its assailant. She stepped back and watched the pair spar with their weapons. From the looks of it, it was a practice duel.

“It’s not cheating,” the female shade insisted as it swung with amateurish precision, “if I can’t help it.”

A vision, it must be – the girl said to herself, looking down at her hands. She reached out towards Ureylon and watched as her hand ran from one side of his chest and out the other as cleanly as his sword had passed through her. She was puzzled. Her touch had gone unnoticed.

—————

All novelists face two looming hazards that could annihilate their manuscripts. They are Boredom and Confusion. If your manuscript is boring, you’ll gradually lose your audience, with the more desultory readers abandoning the novel first and the more dogged types eventually giving up too. But if your fiction is too confusing, you’ll lose all your readers at once. How can you keep reading a book if you can’t figure out what’s going on?

I compare these two hazards to Scylla and Charybdis, the pair of mythical dangers described so wonderfully in Homer’s Odyssey. Scylla was a six-headed sea monster that stood on one side of the narrow Strait of Messina, between the island of Sicily and the mainland of Italy. Charybdis was a whirlpool on the other side of the strait. Ships going through the channel had to carefully navigate their way between the two threats; to avoid Scylla, you had to pass very close to Charybdis, and vice-versa.

When Homer’s hero, the wily Odysseus, approached the strait, he chose to steer his ship closer to Scylla. The sea monster attacked the vessel as it cruised past, and each of Scylla’s ravenous heads gobbled up one of Odysseus’s sailors, but nevertheless it was the correct choice. If the ship had passed too close to Charybdis instead, the whirlpool would’ve splintered the vessel and killed the whole crew.

In my analogy, Scylla is Boredom and Charybdis is Confusion. Boredom picks off your readers one by one, which is bad enough. But Confusion dispatches your audience in one fell swoop.

The first problem with this submission is that its title is Untitled. One of the most important functions of a title is to give the reader at least a vague idea of what he/she is about to read. If the title of this submission had been Kill Blade or something similar, I would’ve expected to read the opening of a gory crime novel. But if the title had been something like Swords of the Gods I would have expected the first page of a fantasy novel. It’s important to set up these kinds of expectations in your readers. They help steer your manuscript away from the Charybdis of Confusion.

So my first piece of advice is to never call anything Untitled, even if you’re just showing the piece to your friends. Even a bad title is better than no title.

Okay, let’s move on to the first sentence. I like it. I’d delete the word “directly,” though. It’s an unnecessary adverb. And now that I think about it, the word “through” is also unnecessary. “The blade cleaved her face.” That’s a great first sentence! The next sentence is pretty good too, although it needs some editing – “It curved so viciously through skin and bone that it lodged in the brittle tree behind her.” I’d shorten the next sentence to “Splinters of bark sprayed from the impact” but everything is moving along really well. I’m intrigued! The murderer must have one heck of a strong swing to actually slice through someone’s skull like that. What could explain such power and viciousness?

But then I get to the fourth sentence, and I’m confused. How can the victim be staring at shredded leaves? How can apprehension fill her body, and how can her heart be pounding? Her head has just been sliced in two! What’s going on? And then those mystifying words at the end of the paragraph — “for suddenly she remembered this day” — what does that mean?

So I move on to the second paragraph, hoping for some clarification. I learn here that the blade — which I’d assumed was an ax or a meat cleaver — is actually a sword held by a shadowy figure wearing a dark emerald mask. Slowly I realize my mistake: this isn’t a gory Kill Blade type of novel. It’s more like Swords of the Gods. But I’m still not sure. The fact that the sword passed right through the victim without hurting her could mean that something fantastical or paranormal is going on. But it could also be a computer game, maybe some kind of virtual-reality battle. Or the whole thing could be a dream. So I’m still confused. I’m swirling toward Charybdis.

Now you see how a title would’ve helped? It would’ve steered me away from my initial assumption that this was a bloody crime novel. And for the sake of clarity, it might be helpful to identify the blade as a sword right from the start. “The sword cleaved her face.” Still a great first sentence.

As I move on to the next few paragraphs, I continue to look for clues that’ll tell me what kind of book this is. The biggest hint turns out to be the name of the brother who descends from the branches (I think) of the tree that the ghostly girl is standing beside: Ureylon. That sounds like the name of a character in a fantasy novel. But I’m still not a hundred-percent sure, and the effort of looking for clues is distracting me from the story. I think the author can make things a little easier for the reader by giving the ghostly girl a mythic, otherworldly name and mentioning it in the first or second paragraph. If this is indeed a fantasy novel, how about calling her Cersei? (Just kidding. I think that name is taken. Notice, though, that George R.R. Martin stole that name from our old friend Homer, whose Circe seduced Odysseus. And according to the legend told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Circe was the sorceress who concocted a vial of poison that transformed a beautiful girl into Scylla the sea monster. It’s all connected, folks.)

For the time being, let’s use Cersei as a placeholder. Imagine if we replaced the novel’s fourth, fifth and sixth sentences with something like this: “But Cersei was still alive. She wasn’t even hurt. The sword passed through her as if she were a ghost.” That’s a lot clearer, right? For extra impact, I’d put these sentences in a separate paragraph.

My point here is that character names are like titles — they help the reader figure out the story. So if this chapter is being told from the ghostly girl’s point of view, give her a name at the first opportunity. That’s a lot less awkward and vague than repeatedly referring to her as “the girl.”

There are several other confusing things that need to be cleared up. How could the figure in the emerald mask emerge from the thicket after she’s swung her sword at Cersei? Would Cersei really rush to embrace her brother Ureylon when the masked figure is standing right there with a sword in her hands? And what exactly is “amateurish precision”? That sounds like an oxymoron to me.

But the good news is that all these problems can be fixed pretty easily. It’s not so hard to clarify a confusing scene. Very often, it’s just a matter of looking carefully at every sentence and making sure that your prose accurately conveys the pictures in your imagination. In contrast, it can be very difficult to inject excitement into a boring scene. I’d much rather revise an exciting but confusing manuscript than a clear but dull draft.

Now let’s broaden the discussion. What are your thoughts about this first page?

5+