Thursday, June 30, 2011

How Long Has This Been Going On?

I've written tweets of ten words, blog posts of fifty to a thousand, articles between 300 and 10,000 words, and books between 20,000 words and 250,000 words. Different genres, different audiences, topics and approaches require different lengths - which isn't even length really. It is time. Write as long as you need the reader's time to tell the story. In regard to books, and in consultation with your editor and according to your contract, you write the book the length it needs to be so when you're done you feel done, with no unanswered questions. Just don't drop a surprise at the end, and dump a book way long or way short on an editor expecting the opposite.

Much the same with chapters - 2,000 words, 15,000 words - write them, as long as they need to be to feel complete and unified. NEVER write a chapter to length just because you're stuck on a number.

The only real regret I have about any book I've written is when I've compromised according to length. As the late great David Halberstam once told a friend of mine "F-'em. It's your book. Your name is on the cover."

I think of chapter breaks like big breaths, where you feel the need to pause, inhale, ponder and move on - and you have to be a reader here, as well as a writer. Be sensitive to when natural transitions occur - an event comes to a close, a conclusion is reached, a character experiences some kind of defining moment, there is a moment of quiet before action, or action before quiet, some contraction in the narrative. Much of it is just learning to listen to your own work.

It helps, when ending a chapter, to find a way to lift it off the page a bit, and cause the reader to reflect a little, just like the end of a long story or magazine piece, where the story turns back on itself a bit, or the way a piece of music echoes earlier themes. Again, if you are just breaking off for the sake of breaking off, don't. And see if a lead for the following chapter comes easily. If it does, you're breaking it at the right place. But if you neither have an end, or a lead, then you simply might not be at the end of the chapter yet, or have already rushed past it. Trust me, it gets easier the more you do it.

It sounds simplistic, but it really helps sometime to scattershoot through your library just reading leads and ends to chapters, or magazine pieces - can help to brainstorm your own. You'll also realize that some writers you may like a great deal use the same strategies over and over. Nothing wrong with that, if it works, but I must admit that ever since I did that to a writer who I had always admired and realized that nearly every story ended with a similar sensory impression, my admiration dropped just a little. So don't abandon your change up and throw fastballs every time.

And use you outline as that - an outline. Maybe I'm the outlier, but I've never worried for a second about abandoning the outline as I write, as long as I make sure I cover the same territory. For the writer the writing process is also a learning process - no matter how much I think I know beforehand, I don't make the connections until the act of writing takes place, and that can cause me to recast the rest of the book entirely. One of the most lasting things I ever wrote came about when I was in the process of telling a small story that I expected to write over quickly, but found first one question that I didn't have an answer to, then another, then another, and all of a sudden not only did I have an entire new chapter, but the info in that chapter informed the remainder of the book and provided a entire logic that wasn't there when I started writing, and that I didn't know was there in my research.

Another reason why you do this.

You Better Be

[This column first appeared in Boston Baseball, July 2011]

You want to believe. I mean you really, really, really want to believe.

He’s your favorite, and your kids’ favorite. And the favorite of about half the 617. John Henry likes him, too.

On a team with little personality, he has most of it.

He’s the kind of story you root for. A childhood of poverty. A long struggle just to reach obscurity, and then he was released. Came here as insurance. Started out as an afterthought, the fourth option. Then fought his way – hit his way – into the lineup, then worked his way up: seventh, sixth, fifth, and finally fourth, cleanup. From obscurity to stardom, the scrap heap to the All-Star, a real life Matt Christopher story.

Then it got worse, which in a funny way, could make it even better now. The swing got slow. The fastballs got swung through. Then there was that report from 2003 . . . then the press conference, the denial, the excuse – they always have an excuse - and the slide. The Yankee fans jeered, made fun of him just like Sox fans made fun of A-Rod and Clemens. He stumbled and fell. Hard. Even the Sox started greasing the skids, sending out the word: “He’s finished. Done.” Rumor was they were preparing the papers for his release. And then . . .

Boom! Pow! Kr –unch! Back like a comic book character, a super-hero. Just when it seemed impossible, came the resurrection, like he turned back the clock.
A few years ago you wouldn’t have thought twice. You would have believed, totally. Absolutely.

But now . . . part of you just can’t. I mean it’s easy to forget and you stand and cheer each hard swing and home run and bat flip, and the way he brings the hugs out in the dugout still makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside, and makes your kid smile, and you can’t wait to hear him talk because he’s funny even when he doesn’t try to be. After all these years, he’s still your favorite, still the one, the one who stood and delivered when they needed it most, the biggest reason no one chants “1918” anymore.

Yet every once in a while, maybe late at night when you’re sitting at the computer, you start to scan the stats, and that little question in the back of your mind, the one you keep pushing away and ignoring, well, it starts to whisper and then it starts to yell, and that pimple on your tongue starts to swell and you just can’t ignore it any longer.

How do you explain it? At his age, how can you explain it? How can he be having a season that by some measures might just be not one of his best, but the very best of his career? How does that happen? Who else did that at his age? What can explain it? There is the answer on the tip of your tongue you are afraid of, and then there are the other ones.

You tell yourself he’s healthy, that he was hurt and didn’t tell anyone and that now he’s healthy, so of course he’s back.

And the weight. Of course – that’s it! All that weight. He loves life and got too heavy and that slowed his bat, but now he’s in shape again. Just like the Babe - too many hot dogs.

That contract didn’t help either. Worries over the option probably gnawed at him all the time, kept him up, distracted him, but once he got the contract he could relax again. That makes sense.

Or else it was Manny’s fault, and that now that Manny is gone, everything is right again, that maybe they didn’t get along or he had a hard time adjusting to the way he was being pitched when Manny was on his way out the door. Yeah, that’s it. It was that bastard Manny.

Or else it’s A-Gone. He’s the Cure-All who fixes everything, floats all boats. Makes total sense. Because A-Gone is here, the big guy is back. He gets those pitches again. He’s got a buddy again, an amigo, a guy he can talk hitting with, another lefty, and some protection in the lineup.

That’s what it is. There’s not just one reason, but a lot of reasons. Add them all up and it makes perfect sense. The logic is irrefutable. And now you can turn off the computer and go to sleep.

But you can’t go to sleep. You stare at the ceiling, still awake, wondering.

You better be. You gotta be. You better be.

You better be clean.

Glenn Stout’s next book, Fenway 1912: The Birth of a Ballpark, a Championship Season, and Fenway’s Remarkable First Season, will be published in October. To order now, visit

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Death of a Ballplayer

Enjoy them, appreciate them, cheer them or boo them. Just don’t think for a second that you know them, that you have any idea whatsoever whether or not a given player is a “nice guy.” And that is as true for those who sit in the press box as it is for those who sit in the stands.

As I write this another old ballplayer had passed, a hero of my youth who I recall fondly from the scratchy black and white images that danced across our TV screen, and from the Technicolor baseball cards I sorted over and over again on my bedroom floor, memorizing his hobbies and statistics, using them to create a persona. Over the past twenty-four hours I have read tribute after tribute attesting not only to his ability as an athlete, but to his character as a human being. While the dimensions of his ability can be roughly measured by the numbers, there is no similar metric for virtue. I hope he was a nice guy, and have little reason to think otherwise, but I’ve read nothing from anyone who has any special insight into what the man was really like, who spent more than the odd hour or two in his company when he was fully aware that he was in the public view.

If one writes about sports, one is inevitably asked “What’s [insert name here] like? Is he a nice guy?” Although I haven’t met a large number of professional athletes, I have met and spoken to more than a few, ranging from guys like Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski and Phil Rizzuto to Jim Lonborg, Bill Lee, and Rich Gedman, and lesser known stars of bygone eras like Boston College football players Charlie O’Rourke and Lou Montgomery, former Celtic John Mahnken and many other players whose names now reside in the memory of another generation. Although all of them – even mercurial Ted Williams, despite the fact I had hair halfway down my back - were “nice” to me and, as far as I could tell, “good guys.” But each also knew that what he said and did was being written down and recorded.

I have no real idea whether any of these guys were, in fact, either nice or good. There can be such a vast difference between the public persona and the private that we might as well be talking about separate individuals, and I think most of us don’t have to look back very far or very deeply into our own lives to know that this is true. When I was a kid I had close friends who had fathers that I thought were terrific, guys that played ball with us in the backyard and took us places and made me wish my Dad had the time to do all those things with me. Of course at the time, despite the fact that I spent hours and hours and countless sleepovers in their homes, I didn’t know that one was regularly terrorizing his family with physical violence, and the other was raping his own daughter.

I’ve had people who have far more contact than I with professional athletes assure me that the guy I thought was good was in fact “a mute bleeping turd,” and that the guy that was supposed to be a horror show was actually “the best ever.” One friend who has regular contact with a Local Legend has told me at various times that the guy is either a nightmare or an altar boy, and there is no way to tell which guy you are going to get on a given day, or even from one minute to the next. The truth is that we do not know them at all, not ever, not really, no matter how many games we watch or how often we visit the locker room or play golf with them or see them in a restaurant or in a nightclub or visiting a hospital room or a sitting at a charity banquet or even standing in line at the grocery store.

All we know, really, is what we see on the field, whether they can run and hit, field and throw – at least if we’re willing to forget that the whole PED thing has cast even those perceptions and everything else that has happened in this game over the last two decades into doubt. The rest of our feelings toward them are only the pure projections of a fan, the fantasy we sell ourselves because he plays for “us,” tries to beat “them,” and wears the right colored cap. It is not the passing of the player that we mourn, but our younger, more innocent and less cynical selves, the kid who believed that baseball cards were true, and that virtue and talent were one and the same.

According to “In the capable hands of Stout, [Fenway 1912] promises to make all other books about Fenway’s construction and first season obsolete.” Glenn’s next book, Fenway 1912: The Birth of a Ballpark, a Championship Season, and Fenway’s Remarkable First Season, will be published in October. To order now, visit This column originally appeared in Boston Baseball.