About Mark Alpert

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

Every Writer’s Dream

By Mark Alpert

Writing fiction is a great way to share secrets. When a writer learns something remarkable — about relationships or human psychology or the nature of society — his or her natural impulse is to write about it. And the impulse is even stronger when the story involves something hidden, a secret place or event or phenomenon that the writer is dying to broadcast to everyone.

Well, I have something to share, something that should particularly appeal to the writers and readers of military thrillers. Last week I visited an abandoned nuclear missile silo in upstate New York. I’m not ready to put this juicy secret into a novel or write about it at length, so for now I’ll tell the story in pictures. The photo above shows the entrance to the silo, which is located in the Adirondack mountains, just a few miles north of the town of Lewis.

I learned about this secret place through my friend Brian Andrews, an author of military and science thrillers. (You should check out his novel RESET, it’s amazing!) In RESET, Brian wrote about a decommissioned missile silo that a survivalist had transformed into a doomsday bunker. He received a letter from a reader saying, “You got most of the details right, but not everything. Want to see the silo that I own?” Brian said yes, of course, and he offered me a chance to tag along.

Before I go any further, I need to provide a little Cold War history. In the late Fifties and early Sixties, America’s nuclear strategists were obsessed with the so-called “missile gap.” They were terrified that the Soviet Union would build so many intercontinental ballistic missiles that they could destroy our own ICBM forces before we could launch them. America’s earliest ICBM was the Atlas missile, whose engines were powered by liquid fuel — RP-1 (a highly refined form of kerosene) and liquid oxygen (LOX). Because oxygen won’t stay liquid unless it’s kept very cold, it couldn’t be stored indefinitely in the Atlas missile’s fuel tanks; the LOX had to be loaded into the rocket just before launch, a process that could take an hour or more. But a Russian ICBM could fly to targets in the U.S. in only 30 minutes, raising the possibility that the Soviets could launch a devastating first strike that would destroy the American missiles before they could be fired in retaliation.

Our first response to this perceived crisis — as it later turned out, the missile gap was overexaggerated — was to throw more money into ICBM development and build a lot more nuclear missiles. But American strategists also reasoned that they could make our ICBM forces more survivable by placing the missiles in underground silos that were so robustly fortified that they could withstand the nearby explosion of a Soviet nuke. (The guidance systems on ICBMs were relatively primitive back then, so the missile might land more than a mile from its target.) So the most advanced versions of the Atlas ICBM — the Atlas-F — were deployed in silos more than a hundred feet deep, each lined with ten-foot-thick walls of steel-reinforced concrete. Each missile stood vertically on a steel cradle suspended from the silo’s walls; that way, the seismic shock from a nearby blast would rock the ICBM but not destroy it. If the missile survived the Soviet first strike, the massive clamshell doors at the top of the silo would open, and the Atlas-F would be raised to firing position.

By 1965 dozens of Atlas-F silos had been built across the country, including twelve in the Adirondacks, all located within a hundred-mile radius of Plattsburgh Air Force Base. But these installations became obsolete almost immediately. The Russians improved the accuracy of their ICBMs and increased the megatonnage of their nuclear warheads, making it much less likely that any of the Atlas-F silos would survive a first strike. More important, the U.S. had developed a better ICBM, the Minuteman, which used solid fuel (aluminum powder oxidized by ammonium perchlorate). Because this missile didn’t need to be loaded with cryogenic liquid oxygen, it could be launched within minutes (hence its name). By then, the U.S. also had a fleet of satellites that could detect Russian missile launches by their distinctive infrared flares, so the Minutemen could be fired well before the enemy missiles reached their silos. Best of all, the Minutemen were much easier and cheaper to build than the Atlas missiles. By the 1970s there were hundreds of Minuteman silos scattered across Montana, Wyoming and North Dakota.

So the Air Force removed the Atlas-F missiles from their fortified silos, which were left to rust and fill with water. And eventually the federal government sold the sites to private investors. An Atlas silo in Kansas, for example, has been transformed into Survival Condo, a giant bunker designed for a community of luxury-minded survivalists. The silo in the Adirondacks that Brian and I visited is in the process of being renovated; the owner has pumped all the groundwater out of the deep hole, but there’s still lots of rusty steel everywhere, making it a very cool and eerie place to explore.

The silo’s owner couldn’t meet us there, but the property manager gave us a great tour of the place. The temperature outside was in the 80s that afternoon, but as we stepped through the silo entrance and descended the first flight of stairs, we felt the temperature drop to the 50s. Then we came to the first set of blast doors:

Considering that the doors were designed to withstand a nuclear blast, they were surprisingly easy to open and close!

Then we came to the launch control center. All the electronic controls for launching the missile had been removed, of course, but there were some reminders of the silo’s original purpose:

Then we walked down an ominous passageway:

And we came to the silo itself, in all its apocalyptic glory:

Here are the silo’s clamshell doors, seen from below:

Here’s a glimpse down into the shaft, where the Atlas-F missile used to stand:

Then we put on hardhats and made our way down the shaft, navigating a spiral stairway and some very rusty ladders. Here’s a picture of the very bottom of the silo:

And here’s another shot of the clamshell doors, but taken from the silo’s bottom:

All in all, it was a thriller writer’s dream. Or nightmare, depending on how you look at it.

And it was a timely visit, given the current geopolitical situation. Thanks to Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Cold War is going strong again. Putin’s spies are murdering his enemies in the West with nerve toxins and radioactive isotopes. Five years ago he wrested Crimea from Ukraine and fomented a rebellion in that country, in the process shooting down a commercial airliner and killing 298 people, mostly from the Netherlands. And now he’s threatening to take over Belarus and the Baltic Republics. Is NATO really prepared to stop Putin if he sends his army into Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia? His forces in that region are so numerically superior that they could occupy the countries before NATO could muster enough troops for a counterattack. And then Putin would put on that sly hangman’s smile of his and say, “What are you going to do about it? Start a nuclear war?”

As Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

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Writing Outdoors

By Mark Alpert

Now that summer is here in full force, I’ve started taking my laptop to Central Park and writing outdoors.

This would be a frustrating endeavor in most parts of the park, which is usually packed with tourists on even the hottest days, but I live near the entrance to the Ramble, an area that’s been left in a more natural state than the Great Lawn or the Sheep Meadow. The Ramble is laced with a confusing tangle of crisscrossing pathways, so most of the tourists avoid the area. (They seem deathly afraid of getting lost.)

In particular, I head for the bird-feeders. They’re in a spot that’s especially hard to find, even for someone like me who’s been visiting the park for 50 years. As you can see from the above photo, the bird-feeders are empty of seed right now; I think the conservancy fills them only during the migration seasons, when the birds are famished. But a lot of species stop by anyway, maybe out of sheer undying hope.

Which, coincidentally, is also what you need to write fiction.

What about you? What are your favorite outdoor writing locations?

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How To Create A Good Leader

By Mark Alpert

Some thrillers don’t need leaders. The novel’s hero might be a lone mercenary, a rogue agent, or a private detective with a business too small or unsuccessful to have anyone on the payroll. But other thrillers feature protagonists who are police captains, military commanders, spy chiefs, or heads of state. If you’re writing that kind of novel and you want readers to admire and avidly follow your characters, you have to know how to create a good leader.

Let’s start with some examples of good leaders in genre fiction. Think of Painter Crowe, the super-competent and compassionate task-force commander in James Rollins’s Sigma Force thrillers. Think of Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter books, Gandalf and Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Duke Leto Atreides in Dune, Queen Serafina Pekkala in The Golden Compass, or Captain Jack Aubrey in Master & Commander. Or, going farther back, think of Beowulf and Shakespeare’s King Henry V. Why do we like these characters so much? What qualities do they have in common?

I’ll try to make a list, although it’ll be far from comprehensive:

A good leader has respect for the people who serve under him or her. I learned this important truth way back in 1984, during the first week of my job as a newspaper reporter for the Claremont Eagle Times in New Hampshire. It was my first real job and I didn’t know what I was doing yet. I completely ignored an important story, or at least it was something that seemed very important in the context of local news. I don’t remember the details, but maybe it was some new business opening or housing development that had been announced at a town meeting? Whatever the details, the story soon appeared in a rival newspaper, and the Eagle’s editor was furious that I hadn’t written about it. But he didn’t blow up and start yelling at me in the newsroom. Instead, he led me to an office upstairs and chewed me out in private. Even though I was just a 23-year-old screw-up, he had respect for me, enough to realize that it wouldn’t be right to embarrass me in public.

A bully, in contrast, has no respect for subordinates and doesn’t receive any in return. We’ve all seen bosses like that, right? They rail at their underlings and treat them like dirt, and then they wonder why nothing gets done right. And they never learn.

A good leader is smart and patient. Remember the TV cop show NYPD Blue? It ran from 1993 to 2005 and was considered pretty daring for its time, especially for its warts-and-all portrayal of Detective Andy Sipowicz, who in the early episodes was an openly racist alcoholic. To Sipowicz’s dismay, the boss of his precinct’s detective squad is a black lieutenant named Arthur Fancy. In one of my favorite scenes from the TV series, Lieutenant Fancy teaches Sipowicz to have some empathy for the black people he interrogates. He takes Andy to dinner at a rib joint that looks a lot like Sylvia’s, the famous soul-food restaurant in Harlem. Nowadays Harlem has become largely gentrified and Sylvia’s is full of tourists and white people, but I remember going there in the early 1990s (when the NYPD Blue episode aired) and being the only white person in the place. Sipowicz finds himself in the same situation, and he squirms uncomfortably in his seat as he eats dinner with his boss. Lieutenant Fancy asks Sipowicz why he seems so distressed: “You’re being served, aren’t you, Andy? They cooked those ribs for you. Maybe they wanted to spit in the plate, but they didn’t. They served your white ass just like they would anyone else who came in here. Even though some of them hate your guts. So why would you feel uncomfortable, Andy? You got your meal. What difference does it make what they’re thinking? That they don’t like you, that’s just an opinion. Why should that bother you?”

Then the lieutenant adds the clincher: “Now what if they had badges and guns?”

This struck me as a very smart leadership technique. Instead of yelling at Sipowicz or giving him a sterile lecture, Lieutenant Fancy takes the time to vividly show him the error of his ways.

A good leader doesn’t lie. This seems like such a no-brainer that I hesitated to include it in the list, and yet so many bad leaders ignore it. How can you trust a parent or boss or politician who has a cavalier disregard for the truth? A good leader doesn’t distort the facts to make himself or herself look good. No, a good leader is honest about setbacks and freely admits mistakes.

Let’s go back to Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings. He was honest with Frodo about the existential threat they faced (i.e., Sauron). He didn’t sugarcoat things. And he didn’t make insincere, pandering promises. He made it very clear that the odds were against them, and that there was a good chance that none of the hobbits would return to the Shire alive. And yet the Fellowship followed him.

A good leader isn’t petty or boorish. This one seems like a no-brainer too, but unfortunately our society is starting to encourage childish behavior among adults. When it comes to fiction, though, readers continue to be disgusted by spiteful leaders and their tantrums. Would we still admire King Henry V if he was a pompous braggart? Or a draft dodger? Of course not. In Shakespeare’s play, the king does a remarkable thing on the night before the Battle of Agincourt: he dresses as a common soldier and goes among his troops to gauge how they’re feeling. This prepares him for the stirring speech he gives to his army the next day. The king acknowledges that the English soldiers are vastly outnumbered by the French, but he proclaims that this is actually an advantage: “The fewer men, the greater share of honor.” I’ll quote the end of the speech just because it’s so good:

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

A good leader appeals to our best instincts, not our worst. Abraham Lincoln was perhaps our nation’s greatest leader, and even his mistakes were noble-hearted. When he became president in 1861, he still hoped to persuade the seceding Confederate states to peacefully return to the Union, as evidenced by the closing lines of his first inaugural address: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” As we all know, Lincoln was unduly optimistic at that time. His peace overtures were rejected, leading to four years of devastating, fratricidal warfare. In his second inaugural address, though, Lincoln was still astoundingly benevolent: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

In real life, this kind of nobility is rare. Contemporary leaders are much more likely to sow division and target scapegoats and play the zero-sum game of “us versus them.” So I think it’s up to the novelists and poets to restore our ideals of leadership. In 1939 W.H. Auden wrote a poem to commemorate the death of the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats, and the final lines reflect his hope that great literature can repair and revive our society:

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

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Leadership, both good and bad, is at the heart of my latest novel, THE COMING STORM. You can learn more about the book here.

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Funniest Book Ever?

By Mark Alpert

My son is home from college for the summer, and my daughter is finishing up her senior year of high school, so it’s a special time for the Alpert household. We were all watching the Raptors-Warriors game tonight, along with three of my daughter’s friends, and in between the amazing displays of basketball virtuosity, we started telling jokes. And that got me thinking about how difficult it is to write a funny novel.

You know what they say: “Death is easy, comedy is hard.” That’s especially true for novels. Think how difficult it must be to keep a humorous voice or situation going for hundreds of pages. It’s like doing a standup routine that lasts for 16 hours. (If you read at a rate of twenty-five pages per hour, then a 400-page novel is equivalent to a 16-hour routine.)

Here’s a rough indicator of the difficulty: When was the last time you laughed out loud while reading a novel? It’s happened to me only a few dozen times over a whole LIFETIME of reading. But those occasions were memorable. I’ll try to recall them as best as I can. (I can’t check the exact wording of the funny books right now because most of our novels are in the living room, and several teenagers are sleeping in there.)

The funniest novel ever written (in my opinion): A Confederacy of Dunces. The book’s hero, Ignatius Reilly, is so absurdly grotesque and brilliant. One moment he’s yelling at his mother to leave his bedroom so he can masturbate, the next moment he’s musing about the Mississippi River and railing at his nemesis, “that dreary fraud, Mark Twain.” He gets a job selling footlong hot dogs from a cart in the French Quarter (while dressed in a pirate’s costume) but he eats the hot dogs instead of selling them, and when his employer docks his pay he tries to negotiate a better price for the wieners he’s eaten (“I am, after all, your best customer.”) I know plenty of people who hate this book because Ignatius is so cheerfully repulsive. But I love it.

Second funniest novel: Portnoy’s Complaint. This book has plenty of masturbation jokes too (and why are they so amusing? Has anyone ever studied this?) but in my opinion the best bits are the descriptions of the narrator’s father, the hard-working beaten-down insurance salesman who suffers from chronic constipation. He’s jealous of his teenage son because he’s spending so much time in the bathroom (the father wrongly assumes that the boy is moving his bowels). “If only I could do my business like that!” the old man cries. “I’d do it in Macy’s windows!” To which his wife responds, “Macy’s doesn’t need your business.”

On the opposite end of the humor spectrum, I also have a great fondness for P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves novels. And Kurt Vonnegut, especially Cat’s Cradle. (“Ah, God, what an ugly city Ilium is! ‘Ah, God,’ says Bokonon, ‘what an ugly city every city is!'”)

What about you? Have you ever dared to write a novel that’s laugh-out-loud funny?

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A Question From My Daughter

By Mark Alpert

Okay, I’m hanging out right now with my daughter, who will be graduating from high school next month and attending Northwestern University in the fall. She’s taking a creative writing course this spring, and she has a question for all you prolific fiction writers:

Do you usually start writing out of a flurry of emotion — that is, only after inspiration hits — or can you sit down at your desk and start telling a story without the need for an emotional trigger?

I thought that was a good question! When I first started writing poetry as a teenager, I usually wrote in a highly emotional state, inspired by some passionate incident (seeing a girl I loved) or traumatic insight (realizing that my parents were crazy). That doesn’t happen to me so frequently now that I’m a 58-year-old novelist, but every once in a while I get stirred up by some strange, beautiful thought that eventually turns into a story.

For example: well, it’s funny, I was going to tell you what inspired me to write my trilogy of Young Adult novels (THE SIX, THE SIEGE and THE SILENCE), but now I can’t remember why I started those books. The things that inspired me were like the scaffolding of the building I was constructing, but the scaffolding came down after the books were published, and now only the novels stand there.

What about you?

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Mixing It Up With Nonfiction

By Mark Alpert

My reading habits are completely out of whack. On average, I read at least twenty novels for every one nonfiction book. This extreme asymmetry isn’t strictly a result of my career choice; although I’m a novelist and I get a lot of inspiration from reading other authors’ fiction, that’s not the reason why I plow through so many novels. I just can’t help it. I read the stuff because I love it.

And here’s what makes the imbalance even more severe: I read so much fiction that it makes me intolerant of nonfiction that’s poorly done. A book about politics or sociology or science or art might have persuasive, important arguments, but I’ll quickly lose patience with it if the author doesn’t tell an interesting story, or if his or her voice isn’t lively and compelling.

I won’t waste your time complaining about nonfiction books I hated. Instead, I’ll talk about the ones that cleared my ridiculously high bar. One of my favorite history books, for example, is Shelby Foote’s three-volume The Civil War: A Narrative. This monster has nearly 3,000 pages in all (1.2 million words!) but it’s riveting. The opening of the book is brilliant: instead of torturing readers with a deadly dull recitation of all the causes of the war, it starts with the tale of how in 1835 a 27-year-old U.S. Army lieutenant named Jefferson Davis (the future president of the Confederacy) fell in love with the daughter of Zachary Taylor, his commanding officer (and future U.S. president). Davis asked for Taylor’s permission to marry his daughter Sarah, but Taylor refused, so Davis resigned his commission, eloped with Sarah, and fled with her to his family’s plantation in Mississippi, where a few months later she died of either malaria or yellow fever. Ten years later, Davis was elected to the U.S. Congress, but he rejoined the army when the Mexican-American War broke out. He held the rank of colonel now, and his commanding officer, once again, was Zachary Taylor.

Awkward, right? But Davis distinguished himself so well at the Battle of Buena Vista that Taylor actually apologized to him: “My daughter, sir, was a better judge of men than I was.”

This opening chapter hooked me. After reading it, I was ready to go wherever Shelby Foote wanted to take me, sloshing through the blood and gore of Shiloh, Antietam, Vicksburg, and Gettysburg. Foote was a novelist too, so I guess it should’ve been no surprise that he could tell the story of the Civil War so well.

Another novelist who wrote excellent nonfiction was David Foster Wallace. As it turns out, the author of the literary bestseller Infinite Jest also wrote Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity. Books about math are usually not known for their wit and verve, but Wallace somehow managed to stir my interest in Georg Cantor, the founder of set theory and the “infinity of infinities.” Until reading this book, I never really understood how one kind of infinity (say, the set of all real numbers) could be larger than another kind of infinity (say, the set of rational numbers). But Wallace presented the mathematical proof in a way that nearly anyone could understand.

Right now I’m reading a nonfiction book about another difficult subject, the current state of theoretical research in fundamental physics (string theory, supersymmetry, all that good stuff). Titled Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray, it was written by a physicist named Sabine Hossenfelder who became well-known in the physics community because of her popular blog that questioned some of the conventional wisdom in the field. Unlike most people who write science books — usually naïve journalists who are way too wide-eyed about the latest theories, or pretentious Nobel Prize winners who love to pontificate — Hossenfelder has a wry, skeptical voice, sometimes sarcastic, sometimes pissed off. Here, for instance, is her summary of one of the book’s chapters: “In which I meet with Nima Arkani-Hamed and do my best to accept that nature isn’t natural, everything we learn is awesome, and that nobody gives a fuck what I think.”

Another thing I like about this book: it’s only 236 pages long. Hey, I love physics as much as the next guy, but I have a big stack of unread novels on my desk!


Here’s a novel about science that definitely won’t bore you: THE COMING STORM

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Five Reasons To Write Short

By Mark Alpert

The first fiction I ever wrote was a short story titled “The Sweet Smell of Parchment.” It was about the Vietnam War, and it was only two-and-a-half handwritten pages long. I’m not sure exactly when I wrote it, but it had to be before the end of the U.S. involvement in the war, so I’m going to guess either 1972 or 1973. I was either 11 or 12 years old.

No copies of this story survived (there was only one), but I remember it pretty well. It had two scenes. The first scene was told from the point of view of a character named Otto, a guard at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Otto’s job is usually pretty dull, but one morning when he comes to work he finds the night-duty guard lying bound-and-gagged on the floor of the Archives lobby. With a sinking feeling in his stomach, Otto rushes over to the glass case where the Declaration of Independence is usually displayed, but now the case is empty except for a note addressed to the U.S. Congress: “Get out of Vietnam, or we’ll burn it.”

The second scene jumps forward in time a few days, and it’s told from the point of view of the Senate Majority Leader. (I gave him a name, but I don’t remember it.) The senator is driving home after a really exhausting afternoon at the Capitol. Congress got into a fierce debate over whether to comply with the demands of the revolutionary group that stole the Declaration of Independence. Some senators said it would be wrong to give in to this kind of blackmail; others argued that it was high time for the U.S. to get out of Vietnam anyway, and this was the perfect opportunity to commit to a withdrawal. When it came time to vote, the Senate split right down the middle, and it was up to the Majority Leader to break the tie. (I didn’t realize at the time that the Vice President is supposed to break ties in the Senate. I was only 11!) But as I described the senator’s drive home, I didn’t reveal how he voted earlier that day. Although I was just starting out as an author, I’d already realized the importance of keeping readers in suspense.

Then the senator parks his car in the driveway next to his house and he notices something burning on his front lawn. He runs over to put out the fire, but there’s nothing left but ashes. The last line of the story was something like, “And the sweet smell of parchment spread across the neighborhood.”

I’m telling you about this fictional debut because I’m working on a short story right now (actually, it’s a “novelette”), and the experience has reminded me how much I love this kind of fiction. So here are five reasons why you should consider writing short:

1) It gives you confidence. When you’re just getting started as a fiction writer, composing a novel can be a daunting proposition. It’s a big commitment of time and energy, and so many things can go wrong. Can you create fascinating characters and put them in exciting situations? Can you keep readers interested in the story by constantly surprising them and raising the stakes? Can you avoid all the pitfalls of novel writing — boring passages, too much explanation, repetitive scenes, ridiculous plot twists? If you don’t feel confident yet about your authorial abilities, then writing a few short stories may give you the practice you need.

2) There’s a quick payoff. It usually takes months to write a novel, but you can bang out a short story in just a few days. I started writing my first novel, THE EMPEROR OF ALABAMA, in early 1988 and didn’t finish revising it until the end of 1989. When I was done with it, I wrote “My Life with Joanne Christiansen,” a quick, funny story about two guys discussing their love lives. I wrote it in two or three days, then sent it off to my agent. Well, the novel didn’t sell; in fact, I wrote three more novels that didn’t sell before Simon & Schuster bought my fifth novel, FINAL THEORY, in 2007. But my agent sold “Joanne” right away to Playboy magazine, and it appeared in the February 1991 issue. I’m sure you can find a copy of it in a cardboard box at a garage sale near you. (Actually, it’s available on eBay, like everything else.)

3) Some stories are meant to be short. Just consider my first effort, “The Sweet Smell of Parchment.” What fascinated me back in the early Seventies was the idea that someone could try to end the war by holding the Declaration hostage. If I had been older and more ambitious, I suppose I could’ve elaborated upon the idea and turned it into a blockbuster novel, with a Jack Ryan-like hero crisscrossing the country in search of the hallowed document and battling hippie terrorists in a climactic showdown in front of the Washington Monument. But I wasn’t interested in all that melodrama. I just wanted to put this cool idea on the page and then get back to eating Ring Dings and watching “The Partridge Family” and doing all the other things I enjoyed at the time.

4) You can actually make some money. That short story my agent sold to Playboy? The magazine paid $3,000 for it. Given the cumulative inflation since 1991, that’s the equivalent of nearly $6,000 in today’s cash. Admittedly, that data point is an outlier, because few periodicals pay as much as Playboy once did. But I did some research last week after I started writing my short science-fiction piece, and I discovered that sci-fi magazines such as Analog and Asimov’s pay about ten cents per word for fiction. That rate is pretty low compared with the already criminally low rate for freelance journalism (where $1-per-word is still the standard), but it compares favorably with the typical compensation for novels. It can be tough to get more than a $10,000 advance for a 100,000-word novel, even from the biggest publishers. And that works out to ten cents per word.

5) There are more options than ever. While leafing through recent issues of Analog and Asimov’s, I learned that those magazines divide their short-fiction offerings into two categories: short stories (under 7,500 words) and novelettes (7,500 to 20,000 words). In addition, Analog will publish longer works (40,000-80,000 words) in installments. I haven’t researched the policies or pay rates for the comparable magazines in the mystery genre (Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, and so on) but I bet some of the TKZers out there are familiar with them. (Please let me know!) And even if you can’t sell a short story to a magazine, you can offer it as an online freebie to show off your writing chops and entice potential readers to purchase your novels.

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Do you enjoy audio books? If so, check out my audible.com page, where you can find audio versions of seven of my books, including my latest novel, THE COMING STORM.

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Black Hole Dreams

By Mark Alpert

Every so often we experience an event that’s so amazingly big, it makes everything else seem petty. That happened on Wednesday. We saw something that introduced us to a whole new concept of bigness. We’re talking billions-of-times-more-massive-than-the-sun big.

I’m referring of course to the glorious picture of the gargantuan black hole at the center of the M87 galaxy (see above). This monster is as big as our entire solar system, and it’s phenomenally far away, more than 50 million light-years from Earth. But an array of radio telescopes was able to capture an image of the stuff swirling around the black hole — the so-called accretion disk — which emits copious amounts of radiation before it spirals into the hole, never to be seen again. The picture brilliantly confirms Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which predicts that space and time can be warped so mightily that not even light can escape.

Is it inspiring for us fiction writers? Definitely! The picture provokes all kinds of existential questions. At the center of the hole — according to Einstein again — an amount of mass equivalent to billions of suns has been crunched into a singularity, an infinitely dense point. Whaaaat??? It sounds crazy, and maybe it’s not true; we don’t yet have a theory that combines relativity with quantum mechanics, so we can’t say for sure how gravity works at the smallest scales. Perhaps the singularity is a rip in spacetime. Or a portal to another universe. Studying the exact shape of the boundary of the black hole — the event horizon — may give us clues to what’s lurking inside. Or maybe not. Maybe God has drawn a curtain between us and the ultimate truth, preventing us from ever seeing it.

On Wednesday night I had a dream about a dying physicist. Did the picture of the black hole trigger that dream? I don’t know. But I’m writing a short story about it. I have three thousand words so far.

———

My latest novel, THE COMING STORM, was featured in the Los Angeles Review of Books this week. Check it out!

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Five Tips For Legal Thrillers

By Mark Alpert

This week I was on a jury that sent a young man to federal prison. In my opinion, he definitely deserved the guilty verdict. But that doesn’t mean I feel good about it.

This was the first time I’d ever served on a jury, even though I’ve been summoned for jury duty on several occasions since the 1980s. New York tightened its jury-duty rules a few decades ago, making it harder for people to slip out of their civic responsibility, so the state and federal courts now have a large pool of potential jurors to choose from. On my previous visits to the various courthouses in Lower Manhattan, there were so many people thronging the juror assembly rooms that I never even got chosen for voir dire, when jurors are asked questions about their backgrounds and possible prejudices. But this time I was selected for a criminal trial in the federal courthouse on Foley Square, a monumental building designed by Cass Gilbert and constructed in the 1930s (see photo above). Massive Corinthian columns loom over the courthouse’s entrance, and carved into the granite portico are portraits of four ancient lawgivers: Plato, Aristotle, Demosthenes, and Moses.

Although my novels feature plenty of police officers and FBI agents, I’ve never written a legal thriller, and now I’m glad I didn’t attempt it, because I surely would’ve gotten it wrong. During my brief exposure to the court system I learned a few surprising things that I never saw on Law & Order or any other TV show. If you want to write a courtroom scene, please pay close attention.

Our trial took place in federal court because the defendant had been arrested by agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. The young man was charged with selling fentanyl, the synthetic opioid that has recently become the deadliest of all illegal drugs, killing more than 28,000 Americans each year. On four occasions during September and October of 2017, the defendant sold hundreds of fentanyl pills to his barber, who’d told the young man that he would resell the drugs to customers he’d found in North Carolina. In reality, though, the barber was a confidential source for the DEA. He was assigned to inform the agency about drug dealing in Manhattan in exchange for payments from the federal government and (in this informant’s case) deferral from deportation.

There was no doubt at all that the defendant had sold the drugs to his treacherous barber. The informant had worn a hidden camera and microphone to record the transactions, and afterwards he’d immediately handed over the fentanyl pills to the DEA agents. (The pills, which we saw in the evidence bags, were bluish, and each was stamped with the label M30.) But the defendant’s lawyers presented an entrapment defense. They claimed that the barber had persuaded and pressured their client to sell the drugs. If not for the informant’s wheedling, they argued, the defendant would’ve never committed such a crime.

Entrapment can be a legitimate defense. No one wants to live under a government that uses secret agents to lure innocent people into committing crimes. And in this particular case, there was some reasonable doubt as to who first suggested the fentanyl sales. The barber testified that the defendant offered to sell large quantities of the drug, and the defendant testified that the barber brought up the idea. There were no recordings of these preliminary discussions in the barbershop; the informant said he didn’t start taping their conversations until he got authorization from the DEA. What’s more, the informant wasn’t an especially believable witness. He’d been convicted of a drug crime twenty years ago, and after serving his sentence he’d been deported to the Dominican Republic. Then he slipped back into the U.S. illegally and faced deportation again. Working as a source for the DEA enabled him to stay in New York with his family, so the defense lawyers argued that he had a motivation to propose and facilitate drug crimes.

But even if the informant proposed the drug sales, that wouldn’t be enough to prove entrapment. According to federal law, the defendant couldn’t be entrapped if he already had a predisposition to commit the crime — that is, if he was ready, willing, and able to sell the fentanyl pills. The U.S. district judge in this case (the Honorable Katherine Polk Failla) outlined the three indications of predisposition in her charge to the jury: the defendant would be predisposed if he’d already committed a crime of this type, or if he’d made plans to commit such a crime, or if he’d promptly responded to the opportunity proposed by the informant.

Much of the evidence for predisposition came from the transcripts of the recordings made by the DEA’s informant. In those conversations, the defendant repeatedly claimed that he wasn’t new to the drug business. He talked about other customers he’d sold drugs to. He advised his barber on the tactics of drug selling — where to hide the pills, when to schedule their meetings, how to communicate using codes and multiple phones. Most damning of all, the defendant seemed to be leading the conversations, clearly in charge. He showed no reluctance to sell fentanyl. On the contrary, he kept urging his barber to buy more. During three transactions occurring over a two-week period, the defendant sold a total of 800 fentanyl pills to the informant, and DEA agents seized an additional 1,100 pills from the defendant’s car when he was arrested during the course of the fourth transaction.

When the defendant appeared on the witness stand, though, he claimed that his recorded statements were lies. He testified that he was simply boasting to his barber, trying to bullshit and impress him. In truth, he said, he had no prior experience in the drug business.

This claim didn’t seem credible to me. But the clincher, in my opinion, was the sheer size of the defendant’s drug sales to his barber. In their very first transaction, the defendant sold 200 fentanyl pills for $3,000 and also provided his barber with a free sample of heroin. The defendant testified that his supplier was a man identified only by a first name, Kelvin, whom he’d met at a disco several months after his barber broached the idea of doing a drug deal. So the defendant was asking the jury to believe that a wholesale fentanyl supplier would sell 200 pills, apparently on credit, to a first-time customer he’d met at a disco. And kick in a free heroin sample as well. For me, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Yes, I could still doubt that the defendant had some prior experience in drug dealing, but it wouldn’t be a reasonable doubt. Any reasonable person would’ve concluded, based on the evidence, that the defendant had a predisposition to sell drugs. Therefore, he couldn’t have been entrapped by the DEA informant.

Eventually, all twelve jurors came to the same conclusion. Each of us signed the verdict form, guilty on all four counts (one for each drug sale). Then we filed into Courtroom 110, and our foreperson announced the verdicts. The defendant, sitting next to his lawyers at the defense table, buried his face in his hands. Later, he was remanded to federal custody.

So what lessons for legal thrillers can be drawn from this experience? Here are five:

1) Not all criminals are criminal masterminds. The transcripts of the informant’s recordings revealed that on at least one occasion the defendant caught the informant in a lie. (The informant said in a phone call that he hadn’t driven to their rendezvous point yet, but the defendant had arrived early and seen the informant’s car.) A truly savvy criminal would’ve scented danger and abandoned the whole enterprise, but the defendant chose to believe it was a misunderstanding and went ahead with the drug deal. Maybe he just couldn’t imagine that his barber would betray him? Perhaps the real lesson here is, “Don’t put too much trust in your barber.” He usually knows more about you than you know about him.

2) A jury must make its decision based on the available evidence. In every trial there are missing pieces. In our trial we wanted to know whether it was the defendant or the informant who’d initiated the drug deal, and when the first conversation about it had taken place. But because no recordings were made before the deal was in motion, the only evidence available to us was the testimony of the defendant and the informant, and neither man seemed reliable. The prosecution introduced the defendant’s phone records from the months before the first drug sale, and several lengthy calls to the informant were listed in the records, but that evidence was far from conclusive. We had no idea what they were talking about during those calls, so the records couldn’t answer our questions. It was frustrating, but we couldn’t waste our time lamenting that we didn’t know everything. We had to make a judgment based on what we DID know.

3) Drug weights can be misleading. To prove that the pills sold by the defendant contained a controlled substance, the government’s lab technicians crushed some of the pills and tested for the presence of fentanyl and other chemicals. (The trial testimony revealed that the defendant actually thought he was selling oxycodone, a different kind of opioid. That was also the DEA’s assumption until the lab results showed that the pills contained fentanyl. Legally, though, it made no difference; both oxycodone and fentanyl are controlled substances, and their use is regulated by the same federal laws.) The lab tests didn’t reveal the purity of the pills, but that’s a moot point for fentanyl, because the drug is so potent. Just a few milligrams can be fatal. The 1,900 pills that the DEA obtained from the defendant weighed nearly 200 grams in all, but the weight of the fentanyl in the pills was presumably much lower. Nevertheless, it’s the overall weight of the pills that the judge will consider when she determines the sentence for the crime.

4) The quality of federal judicial proceedings (at least in New York’s Southern District) is high. I was impressed by the competence and professionalism of everyone involved in the trial. The prosecutors did a good job of presenting their evidence, and the federal defenders (lawyers employed by the government and appointed to represent defendants who can’t afford to hire counsel) did the best job they could with the case they had. Both the defendant and the informant were Spanish speakers, so the defense and prosecution used teams of amazingly skilled interpreters to translate the testimony. Judge Failla was fair and courteous, but also tough when she needed to be; she kept things moving and brooked no nonsense. After we delivered our verdict, she visited the jury room to thank us and answer any questions we had. I can easily imagine her being promoted someday to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which is also based in the Foley Square courthouse and has served as a steppingstone to the Supreme Court. (That was the path taken by Justice Sonia Sotomayor.)

5) Justice is heavy. Legally, I believe we did the right thing. We reached a verdict based on the definition of entrapment. This definition is narrow and a bit ambiguous — what constitutes a “prompt response” to an informant’s proposal? — but if entrapment were defined more broadly, how could the government combat the sale of deadly drugs? Fentanyl and other opioids are devastating this country, and sometimes the only way to nab the dealers is to use informants to deceive them. Just think of all the overdoses, all the opioid addicts collapsing on the street and being rushed to emergency rooms. But as I sat in the jury box of Courtroom 110 and watched the defendant shake with sobs, I thought of another trial that had taken place in that very same courtroom 68 years ago. On March 29th, 1951, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted of espionage in that room. The jurors found the Rosenbergs guilty of conspiring to deliver atom-bomb secrets to Russian agents, hastening the Soviet Union’s development of its own nuclear bomb. (Historians still debate whether this was true, particularly the usefulness of whatever information the Rosenbergs may have handed over to the Russians.) Judge Irving Kaufman commended the verdict: “The thought that citizens of our country would lend themselves to the destruction of their own country by the most destructive weapon known to man is so shocking that I can’t find words to describe this loathsome offense.” A week later he sentenced the Rosenbergs to die in the electric chair.

In that case, the judge and jury also believed they’d done the right thing.

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In other legal news, Attorney General William Barr just announced that he will release the Mueller report — probably with lots of redactions — by mid-April. But if you want to get a sneak peek at the shenanigans of a loose-cannon president, check out my latest novel, THE COMING STORM, now available on Amazon for the low, low price of nine bucks!

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三体 (Three-Body)

By Mark Alpert

After I read an interesting novel, I like to devote some time to thinking about it, contemplating what I liked about the book, what I didn’t like, which characters were the most intriguing, and which plot twists were the most exciting. It’s a useful exercise for a writer. Plus, it’s fun.

This week I finished reading a trilogy of science-fiction novels by Chinese author Liu Cixin: The Three-Body Problem, The Dark Forest, and Death’s End. The novels were published in China between 2008 and 2010, and the English translations came out between 2014 and 2016. The first book in the Three-Body trilogy won the Hugo Award and the third book won the Locus. Former president Barack Obama called the series “wildly imaginative.” (Wow, a blurb from Obama! Very nice.)

I was hooked from the start, because the first chapter was so unusual for a sci-fi novel. It portrayed a scene from the Cultural Revolution, the fanatical anti-intellectual movement that devastated Chinese society during the 1960s and 1970s. Ye Wenjie, a student in Beijing, sees her father, a physics professor, beaten to death in a public square by frenzied Red Guards. Afterward, she’s exiled to the countryside, but soon she’s assigned to work at a military base on a mountaintop where there’s a huge radio antenna. Eventually she realizes that the purpose of this base is to search for radio signals from extraterrestrial civilizations.

(Warning: there are some spoilers ahead, but this sci-fi trilogy is so packed with inventive surprises that I don’t think revealing a few of them would truly spoil a reader’s enjoyment of the books.)

The intended point of the novel’s first section is that Ye is devastated by her father’s public execution and develops a very low opinion of humanity in general, so low that she becomes actively nihilist. To be honest, the author doesn’t quite succeed in this task of showing the character’s development. Ye comes across as somewhat numbed by the traumatic events of the Cultural Revolution, but I never sensed her secret thoughts, the formation of her new moral philosophy. In retrospect, Liu could’ve done a better job of portraying the mental leap that Ye made, the seeds of the radical actions that she would take later in the book. Perhaps the author didn’t want to tip his hand, telegraph the surprise he’d planned? As all novelists know, this is a tricky balance. You don’t want to give away the store, but at the same time you also need to build a foundation for an upcoming plot twist, to ensure that it doesn’t seem to come out of nowhere.

In any case, the surprise is powerful. The radio antenna at Ye’s base receives a signal while she’s working alone on the night shift, a message from the Centauri star system, which is our solar system’s closest neighbor (about four light-years away). The extraterrestrials — called Trisolarans because the Centauri system consists of three stars gravitationally bound to one another — have detected radio transmissions from Earth, and their first response is a dire warning from a Trisolaran pacifist who knows all too well the aggressive intentions of his fellow aliens. He urges Earthlings not to respond to any radio messages from Trisolaris, because doing so will reveal the exact position of Earth’s solar system. But because of Ye’s disdain for the human species, she responds anyway: Come here! I will help you conquer this world. Our civilization is no longer capable of solving its own problems. We need your force to intervene.

This message puts an epic story in motion. Even for a highly advanced civilization, the task of conquering another star system isn’t easy. It’s extraordinarily difficult to accelerate spacecraft to even a small fraction of the speed of light, so it’ll take the Trisolaran invasion fleet hundreds of years to cross the void between their star system and ours. Most of the Three-Body trilogy focuses on the Earth’s desperate efforts to defend itself, building its own space fleet during the 21st and 22nd centuries and concocting various strategies to outsmart the Trisolarans. Those efforts are hindered by a fifth column of traitorous Earthlings who, like Ye Wenjie, believe our planet would be better off under alien control. The motives of the traitors seem perverse, but they’re also strangely familiar. As this week’s events in New Zealand showed, our species has no shortage of deluded fanatics.

The three novels, particularly the first one, have some weaknesses. The quality of the writing isn’t stellar (pun intended), although this might be the result of the translation. Many of the characters aren’t fleshed out; Wang Miao, the main point-of-view character in the first book, is practically a blank. I also didn’t get a good sense of what the Trisolarans are like, which is probably the biggest missed opportunity in the trilogy. The novel’s human characters (and by extension, the reader) learn about Trisolaran culture and biology through a virtual-reality computer game that the traitorous Earthlings play; this game, called Three Body, shows that much of Trisolaran history was shaped by the chaotic movements of the three stars in the Centauri system, which alternately boiled and froze the aliens’ home planet in a wildly random pattern. To mitigate the damage, the aliens tried to learn to predict the orbital movements of their three stars, but they never succeeded; as any physicist can tell you, the Three-Body Problem is notoriously difficult to solve, even with a powerful computer. This dilemma helps to explain why the Trisolarans are so eager to conquer our solar system, which is a stable, orderly paradise compared with theirs.

Unfortunately, this fascinating fictional premise doesn’t apply to the real-life Centauri system, which consists of two sun-like stars (Alpha Centauri A and Alpha Centauri B) that orbit their center of gravity in a predictable way, and a much smaller red-dwarf star (Proxima Centauri) that orbits the other two at a great distance, also very predictably. (Because Proxima is so much smaller than A and B and so distant from them, there are no mathematical difficulties in this particular Three-Body Problem.) The chaotic orbital dynamics might apply to a planet orbiting relatively close to A and B, but not to the stars themselves. This error would’ve been very easy to fix, so it’s a shame that it crept into the novels. I noticed a few other mistakes in the trilogy: a stellar explosion in the Centauri system wouldn’t be visible from Earth’s northern hemisphere; twelve Apollo astronauts walked on the moon, not fifteen; Pluto and its moon Charon are tidally locked with one another, so the moon would appear to be stationary to an observer on Pluto’s surface. (Liu Cixin, if you’re reading this, please allow me to vet your next manuscript. I’m good at spotting these astrophysical errors!)

But Liu’s story is too good to be ruined by a few factual mistakes. The trilogy becomes more and more compelling as the narrative progresses into the 23rd and 24th centuries. The human characters discover that the Trisolarans aren’t the only threat they face. In fact, the whole galaxy is packed with technologically superior species competing for the Milky Way’s resources, and most of these extraterrestrials have no qualms at all about exterminating potential rivals. Any emerging civilization must hide its presence; if it sends out too many radio signals, a more advanced species will swiftly destroy the upstarts’ star system. In the Three-Body trilogy, the universe resembles a dark forest in which hunters are lurking everywhere and the prey must stay silent to survive. This fictional scenario is a clever solution to the paradox named after physicist Enrico Fermi, who famously wondered why humans haven’t observed any signs of extraterrestrials in a galaxy that should (statistically at least) be full of them. We haven’t seen any aliens, Liu says, because they’re all hiding.

Here’s another reason why I liked this trilogy: it shows a future human civilization that blends Western and Eastern influences. In Liu’s novels, China and America remain separate nations, but scientists from both countries team up against the Trisolaran threat. Their cultures intermingle too; people born in future centuries have names that combine English words and Mandarin characters. I visited China several years ago to research one of my novels (Extinction), and I came away with the strong hope that America and China can learn to peacefully coexist. We don’t need extraterrestrials to seal our doom; if we’re not careful, we’ll stumble into an apocalypse all by ourselves.


Want to see another weird connection between fiction and real life? My new novel THE COMING STORM was foreshadowed thirty years ago by a conversation I had with a certain New York real-estate mogul who later decided to run for president. Read this for the details.

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