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

The Cover Reveal

By Mark Alpert

St. Martin’s Press recently unveiled the cover of my next novel, THE COMING STORM, which will be published in January. I’m sharing the image with you now, partly because I’m very happy with it, and partly to make a point: authors can give their books a boost by making smart decisions at every step of the publishing process.

This advice is applicable to all authors, no matter if they self-publish their books or get contracts from traditional publishers. Self-published writers have the most freedom; they choose their books’ titles and covers, and no can overrule them. Working with traditional publishers involves sacrificing some of that freedom; because the choice of the title and cover are crucial to the marketing of the book, the publisher usually has the final say. But all the book publishers I’ve worked with (I’ve had contracts with three so far) have been very amenable to collaboration, so I’ve been an active participant in the selection of titles and covers for all my novels.

Collaboration has its advantages. I’ve benefited immensely from working with professionals who have decades of experience in the book business. For example, the working title of my first novel, a science thriller about Albert Einstein and the quest for the Holy Grail of physics, was “The Theory of Everything.” Back in 2007, when I got the contract for the novel, this seemed like a perfectly good title, and seven years later it became the title of the excellent movie in which Eddie Redmayne played the physicist Stephen Hawking (who was considered by many to be Einstein’s successor in terms of genius and eccentric charm). But “The Theory of Everything” didn’t really work as a thriller title. It sounded a little too staid.

So my editor and I started brainstorming. During one of our discussions I mentioned a nonfiction book that covered some of the same topics described in my novel — quantum physics, string theory, particle colliders, and so on. Written by Nobel laureate physicist Steven Weinberg, the book was titled “Dreams of a Final Theory.” Weinberg referred to the Theory of Everything as a “final theory” because it held out the hope of unifying all the laws of fundamental physics and finally answering many of the questions that prey on physicists’ minds. (For example, why is gravity so weak compared with the other forces?) Luckily for me, “Final Theory” sounded like a pretty good thriller title, and my editor liked it too.

And here was another plus: the longest word in the title has only six letters. Word length is a major concern for book titles. A publisher usually wants to make the title as big as possible on the book’s cover, and it can be difficult to fit the longer words (especially on the four-inch-wide cover of a mass-market paperback) without squishing the letters.

The working title of my next novel, the one that will be published in January, was “Superhuman.” It’s a thriller that explores the promise and perils of new gene-editing technologies such as CRISPR-Cas9, which is a molecular complex that can cut-and-paste the DNA within adult tissue cells and embryos. The complex can be delivered by virus, usually injected into a patient’s tissue; the virus penetrates the cell membranes and then releases the CRISPR-Cas9 components, which rejigger the chromosomes of all the infected cells. The technology is being tested right now as a treatment for muscular dystrophy and certain cancers. But in theory, it could also be used to genetically enhance a person’s muscular coordination or intelligence.

“Superhuman” would’ve been a good title for a science thriller, but my next novel goes farther afield. It’s a political thriller too, because the book’s Machiavellian villains decide to use CRISPR-enhanced soldiers to suppress dissent in a destabilized America. Here’s the two-paragraph description of the book that you can find on Amazon:

New York City, 2023: Rising seas and superstorms have ravaged the land. Food and electricity are scarce. A dangerous Washington regime has terrorized the city, forcing the most vulnerable and defenseless people into the flood-ravaged neighborhoods. The new laws are enforced by an army of genetically enhanced soldiers, designed to be the fiercest and cruelest of killers. Genetic scientist Dr. Jenna Khan knows too much about how these super-soldiers were engineered: by altering the DNA sequence in ways that could change the fabric of humanity.

Escaping arrest and on the run, Jenna joins forces with a genetically enhanced soldier gone rogue and a Brooklyn gang kingpin to resist the government’s plan to manipulate the DNA of all Americans. The race is on to stop the evil experiment before it spreads the genetic changes…and transforms the human species forever.

To figure out the title for this novel, I did some more brainstorming with my editor (a different editor this time). The word “storm” emerged as the key; the novel starts with a literal storm, but the plot is a wild ride too, and a lot of things get smashed over the course of the book. So the title became THE COMING STORM, and that suggested the idea for the cover image as well.

(Another reason why I’m glad we ditched “Superhuman”: a nonfiction book with that same title came out earlier this month. Because so many books are published every year, it can be a challenge to find a title no one else is using.)

I really enjoy this kind of collaboration, and I’m lucky to have the opportunity to work with experienced professionals. But self-published authors can benefit from collaboration too by consulting with other writers and the potential readers of their books. Before settling on a title and cover, gauge the reactions of several people whose opinions you trust.

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The Best States for Writers

By Mark Alpert

Wow, I had a fantastic time last weekend at the annual conference of the Oklahoma Writers’ Federation Inc. (OWFI) in Oklahoma City. The experience was so much fun that I’ve started to wonder: Which states have the best organizations for supporting and nurturing their writers?

I’m not qualified to make that judgment because I don’t go to many writers’ conferences outside New York City. My travels are limited by economic considerations; although I can promote my novels at this kind of event, the total royalties from any resulting sales will be far less than my travel costs, so I usually can’t afford to do it. But in the case of the OWFI conference, the organization offered to pay my airfare and hotel bills, so I gladly agreed to deliver a couple of presentations to the group’s aspiring writers.

More than 300 people attended the conference, and there was a full schedule of workshops, classes, pitch sessions, buzz sessions, luncheons, and banquets. OWFI has a deep bench of volunteers to ensure that everything runs smoothly, and the organization has succeeded in attracting sponsors to defray many of the costs and minimize the fees for conference attendees. Perhaps the best indication of the group’s success is that many writers from outside Oklahoma came to the event, traveling north from Texas, south from Kansas, and west from Arkansas.

It’s enough to make a New Yorker jealous. Writers in NYC have the advantage of living in the hub of the U.S. publishing industry, close to the majority of literary agents and traditional publishers, and many national and international writers’ organizations (such as the Mystery Writers of America and International Thriller Writers) hold their events here. But at the grassroots level, the network of local support and critique groups is patchy. There are nonprofits that offer subsidized workspaces for writers (such as the Writers Room on Astor Place, where I was a member for several years) and many groups for journalists (such as Science Writers in New York, which I also belonged to for a while), but writing fiction in NYC can often feel like a lonely, dog-eat-dog struggle.

So now I’m wondering about the rest of the country. Perhaps all the TKZ-ers out there can help me with this survey; in your neck of the woods, are there strong regional, state or local organizations that help fiction writers enhance their craft and develop their careers? Which are the best states for writers?

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How To Become A Professional Writer In Nine Not-So-Easy Steps

By Mark Alpert

There’s a myth among beginning writers that one’s professional career begins after the publication of the first novel or short story or magazine article. According to this widely held belief, the writer remains an amateur — a hobbyist, a scribbler, a literary dilettante — until some august authority (usually an editor or agent in New York City) declares that the writer’s manuscript is publishable and thus transforms the amateur into a professional, like the Archbishop of Canterbury anointing the Queen of England.

This sequence of events may actually occur from time to time, usually when the writer is preternaturally brilliant. But in the great majority of cases, the sequence is reversed: the writer becomes a professional before he or she is published. By “professional writer,” I mean someone who has adopted a businesslike attitude toward fiction or journalism. A professional has a much better chance of getting published than an amateur does, because a professional can demonstrate that his or her work is worth investing in.

But how does a writer become a professional? I have identified a few common-sense steps:

  • A professional sets goals and follows a schedule. If you’re serious about writing a novel, give yourself a deadline. Figure out how many words you can write in a week. Divide 100,000 (the number of words in a typical novel) by your weekly output. That’s the number of weeks you’ll need to write the book. Mark the deadline on your calendar (maybe give yourself a couple of extra weeks to allow for vacation time, family emergencies, and so on). Then stick to the schedule. If you fall behind, catch up.
  • A professional seeks advice and instruction to get the job done. Take a writing class to learn the basics. Join a writing group to get constructive criticism of your work in progress. If you’re writing a novel, read lots of novels, preferably in the same genre. If you’re pitching an article to a particular magazine, read the magazine.
  • A professional is willing to change course. If the critics in your writing group say your novel isn’t working, determine what’s wrong and fix it. If a literary agent says your book idea is a tough sell, consider new ideas.
  • A professional learns from setbacks. If your first novel turns out to be unsellable, try to figure out why. Then apply those lessons to your next book. Maybe try a different genre, but never stop writing.
  • A professional is polite but persistent. Don’t be a pest when you’re dealing with agents and editors, but don’t be a doormat either. Don’t let anyone keep you waiting forever; follow up your queries and pitches in a timely manner. End every email with a thank you.
  • A professional knows how to network. If you’re looking for an agent, seek help from everyone you know. Order business cards for your writing business and distribute them. Go to writing conferences and make contacts. If you meet someone who can help you, offer to buy lunch for him or her. Learn as much as you can from those meetings. And send grateful follow-up emails.
  • A professional sweats the details. Professional writers don’t make spelling mistakes. Bad grammar is also inexcusable. Be careful with everything you write, even routine emails. A professional writer has respect for the language.
  • A professional keeps promises. If you promise an agent or editor that you’ll finish a manuscript in a certain amount of time, don’t blow the deadline. Before you sign a contract, make sure you can fulfill its obligations. In the publishing business, as in all businesses, the key to success is reliability.
  • A professional prepares for the future. Gain experience and build a platform for yourself so that the publishing industry will take you seriously. Draw attention to your talent by writing op-ed pieces and blogs. Enter short-story contests.

I’m sure that some of the TKZ-ers out there can offer additional tips for amateur writers who want to turn pro. I believe there’s some wisdom in the adage “Fake it till you make it.” If you act like a professional and treat your writing like a moneymaking business, then sooner or later you’ll start making money from it.


I’m going to Oklahoma City next week to speak at the annual conference of the Oklahoma Writers’ Federation (see image above). On Friday May 4th I’ll host the conference’s “WhoDunIt?” luncheon and explain how to write a science thriller; the next morning I’ll talk about “Putting Real Life In Your Fiction.” If you happen to be in OKC and want to stop by, the full schedule is here.

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In Praise of Writing Groups

By Mark Alpert

I’ve been a member of a writing group since 1993. It hasn’t been the same group of people the whole time; members have come and gone over the past quarter-century, too many to recall. But belonging to a critique group was an important part of my journey to becoming a published novelist (which happened in 2008, with the book pictured above) and has continued to inspire me in the ten years (and nine more novels) since then.

The group started as an offshoot from an after-hours fiction class I took at the West Side YMCA in Manhattan. The class instructor was a novelist and clever capitalist who realized that the combined tuition fees of the dozen students in her class were far greater than what the West Side Y was paying her to teach us the basics of fiction writing. So she invited half the students to meet at her home instead. It was a win-win for everyone except the YMCA: we paid her a lower fee for more attention to our work, and yet she ended up earning more money overall because the Y wasn’t getting any of it.

After a year, though, the writers in our group realized that we didn’t need an instructor anymore. The feedback we got from one another was the real benefit of the meetings. So we started gathering in our apartments on a rotating basis (and we managed to stay friendly with our erstwhile instructor, who hopefully thought of us as fledglings who’d successfully left the nest). We usually met once a month, which gave everyone enough time to write about twenty pages of fiction. In the earliest days I guess we must’ve used the U.S. mail to distribute our pages to everyone in the group in advance of the meetings, but that method seems so primitive now that I can’t believe we ever did it. Just think of all the postage we’ve saved since email was invented!

The ideal size for a writing group is probably between four and seven people. If there are too many members, it becomes impossible to read and critique everyone’s work in a reasonable amount of time. But if there are too few, you won’t get the main benefit of a writing-group critique, which is a kind of mass-audience objectivity. If only one or two people are reading your work, you run the risk of getting hopelessly idiosyncratic responses that tell you more about the readers’ tastes than the quality of your writing. But if four out of the five people in your writing group are telling you that something in your novel is bad, then in all likelihood it really is bad and you need to fix it.

Our writing group has had some enviable success. At least six members have become published authors. One won the prestigious Rome Prize, which offers a yearlong fellowship at the American Academy in Rome. And there have been calamities as well; over the years, two members have died tragically young. Others have stopped writing fiction or moved away from New York. But the group goes on. We’re meeting again next week. I just sent out emails distributing a fifty-page chunk of the Young Adult novel I’m working on. (That’s way too many pages, but I’m hoping everyone will forgive me.)

Even more than the constructive criticism, I love the idea of having a regular audience for a work in progress. I know how certain people in the group will respond to something I’m writing, and I can often anticipate their comments and revise the piece accordingly before they even see it. And I’ve made some great friends in the process.

I’m wondering, though, how common these groups are, and how long they typically endure. Has any other writing group out there reached the 25-year milestone? If so, please let me know!

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First-Page Critique: A Mystery Worth Solving

By Mark Alpert

And now, as we exit a cold, dreary March and await the arrival of an exuberant April, we turn to the latest first-page submission from one of our anonymous TKZ contributors:

SHADOWS FOLLOW

“Sherlock has Moriarty. Batman has Joker,” said a voice in Kyle Dunn’s
earpiece. “How come a badass like you ended up with a fluffy white cat as
your arch-nemesis?”

A badass? Kyle smoothed down the dress he wore and flipped a strand of his
wig behind the left ear. He decided fanning his false eyelashes at the
surveillance camera Creepy watched him with would probably be overkill.

“What was that?” Creepy asked. “That…. flick?”

Kyle sighed. “Ditch the word badass. That was that.”

“You could’ve said it.”

“Never mind. Focus now. I have trackers, and you’ve got them connected to
your, your… tracking thingy. Now I’ve gotta find that cat.”

Kyle took a step closer to the crime scene in his pea bed. The cat had
scratched away all the straw mulch and dug out dozens of peas. Seedlings
lay barren under deadly California sun.

He hid a smile. The cat probably watched as he followed the clues through
the garden. That shouldn’t have amused him, but hey, the cat played a human
version of red-dot-on-the-wall with him.

Well played, little vermin.

He looked at the surveillance camera on a six-foot stone wall hovering
above the garden. “Besides,” he said, “stalking the cat is good way to
check a perimeter without looking as if you’re, well, checking a perimeter.”

“Now you ditch that word,” Creepy said. “Gardeners don’t say perimeter. Say
plateau instead. Or hilltop. And speaking of checking… turn away from the
camera. Look towards L.A. and don’t move. I need a clear shot of your
profile.”

Los Angeles spread out beneath them and over the better part of the
horizon, and the direction was too broad, but Kyle didn’t waste time
reminding him of that. He simply turned eastward toward Downtown. Distance
turned the skyscrapers into twigs that danced in an orange mist of smog and
heat.

No smog here. This high above Santa Monica, the air vibrated with dry heat.
Creepy named the plateau a devil’s saucepan. Yeah, sure; all devil’s pans
had a church in the middle of it, along with a garden – his garden – a
luscious green patch of joy bathing in mint scent.

The camera clicked twice, and Kyle returned his gaze to the pea bed.

One side step and he saw it. A white paw poking out from under a broccoli
leaf, followed by a soft pink nose. He held his breath. The cat peered at
him, but he didn’t move, watching it out of the corner of his eye.

It wore a bright blue collar with a medallion. Perfect for attaching the
tracker. Now he only had to think of how to lure the cat to come closer and…

It wasn’t a medallion.

The cat was wearing a small button camera.

————————

Why do we read novels? Why do we listen to stories? Because we enjoy the journey of discovery. We like pondering questions and eventually learning the answers.

That’s why the opening pages of a novel are so crucial, because in the first chapter the author is posing the question that the rest of the book will be devoted to answering. Who killed the defenseless child? Who’ll save the planet from nuclear destruction? Will the couple fall in love? Will they stay together after the scandal? The same principle applies to movies and television too: What’s Rosebud? Who shot J.R.?

So the primary task of a novel’s first page is to present the reader with a journey worth taking, a question worth answering, a mystery worth solving. And I don’t think this first-page submission — in its present form — achieves that goal.

First of all, the tone of this submission puzzled me. The title, “Shadows Follow,” led me to believe that the piece was going to be noir-ish, but the first paragraphs seem comic. We have a point-of-view character, Kyle Dunn, performing some kind of undercover mission in drag. He has a partner named Creepy. Kyle seems pretty new to this kind of work, especially when he refers to the “tracking thingy.” He’s stalking a cat, under the gaze of a surveillance camera that Creepy appears to be remotely operating, and the cat is wearing its own spy camera.

Overall, it’s a good comic setup, but I was too confused to be amused. Instead of presenting a funny, intriguing mystery, the author has given us several baffling questions that may or not be relevant to the story. Why is Kyle in drag? If he’s pretending to be a gardener, as Creepy implies, then how do false eyelashes, a wig, and a dress help his disguise? And whose garden is it? (The text says “his” garden at one point, but I can’t be sure if that means the garden belongs to Kyle or Creepy or the devil or someone else.) Why does Creepy need a shot of Kyle’s profile? Why does Kyle need to apply a tracking device to the cat? And why is the cat wearing a camera? That last question is perhaps the most intriguing one, but I was completely befuddled before I even got to it.

Now, sometimes it’s good to begin a novel with a seriously inexplicable situation. For instance, I loved the beginning of The Maze Runner, the Young Adult novel about a boy who wakes up in a strange kind of prison, with no idea how he got there. He’s greeted by other boys who are equally bewildered by their imprisonment but have managed to create their own little society, totally isolated from the rest of the world. And their prison is walled-in by a constantly shifting maze that’s patrolled by killer blobs called “grievers.”

That’s a great premise, right? And the novel’s author, James Dashner, wrote the first chapter skillfully enough that I felt sure he would answer all my questions in due time. But I didn’t feel the same confidence when I read this first-page submission. The writing wasn’t clear or clean enough. A stone wall can’t “hover” above the garden unless it’s being levitated or lifted by a crane. Comparing distant, shimmering skyscrapers to “twigs that danced in an orange mist” is silly. The description of the setting’s geography was also confusing; Kyle is standing on a “plateau” that seems to loom over downtown Los Angeles and Santa Monica, but calling it a “devil’s saucepan” is the wrong metaphor, because the bottom of a saucepan is lower than its edge. In other words, a saucepan is the opposite of a plateau. It’s more like a valley.

But the good news is that these problems can be fixed. I would start by making it clear whose garden this is, or at least providing a clearer hint. Also, is Kyle pretending to be the owner of the garden? (He doesn’t seem to be masquerading as a hired gardener, because what kind of lawn-care worker or landscaper would wear a dress for that sort of job?) You shouldn’t give away too much in the opening paragraphs, but you don’t want to leave your readers completely baffled either.

What do you say, fellow TKZ-ers? Any thoughts?

3+

Four Lessons From Colson Whitehead

By Mark Alpert

Have you read Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel The Underground Railroad? If not, you should. Anyone who’s serious about writing fiction can learn something from this amazing book.

The novel has won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. The Washington Post called it “a triumph” and NPR said it was “an American masterpiece.” The Underground Railroad even got a blurb from Barack Obama. (“Terrific.”) You can’t get much better than that. (The only thing that could top it, maybe, would be a blurb from God: “I’ve been waiting since the First Day of Creation for a novel as good as this one!”)

I finished reading the book yesterday, and today I thought of four useful lessons that I gleaned from the novel:

Don’t be afraid to write about a subject that’s been written about before. The Underground Railroad is about American slavery and all the agonizing attempts to escape it, which continued long after its abolition. For two centuries, the story of slavery has been chronicled in great detail, thanks mostly to the slaves who escaped their bondage and lived to write about it. Perhaps the best known of these stories is Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, written in 1845 by the famous abolitionist and former slave, but there were many, many others. Fiction about slavery soon followed: Josiah Henson, another former slave, dictated his life story to a fellow abolitionist — Henson hadn’t yet learned to read or write — and his memoir, published in 1849, became one of the major sources for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. This was the top best-selling American novel of the 19th century, and it played an important role in influencing public opinion during the years just before the Civil War. According to one (probably apocryphal) account, when Stowe came to Washington in 1862 and met Abraham Lincoln, the president greeted her by saying, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!” The quote is considered apocryphal because neither Stowe nor Lincoln ever mentioned it, and it didn’t appear in print until more than thirty years later, but it reflects an underlying truth: the novel was a major impetus for social and political change.

Many writers have continued to tell the story of slavery, in both fiction and nonfiction; notable examples include Toni Morrison’s 1987 masterpiece Beloved and the 2013 film 12 Years a Slave, which was based on Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir. Yet Colson Whitehead has added something fresh and new to the literature of slavery. Some parts of The Underground Railroad are conventionally realistic fiction, but other parts deviate from reality in disturbing and disorienting ways. The book’s main point-of-view character is Cora, a young slave born on a cotton plantation in Georgia, and the suffering she endures in the early chapters — the loss of her mother, a violent rape, and a horrible beating inflicted by one of the plantation’s owners — definitely seems realistic. But when Cora decides to flee to the North, the novel veers into a kind of alternative history, a world with fantastical elements that seem to heighten the horror of slavery and illustrate the exhaustingly extreme difficulty of escaping it.

Don’t be afraid to get wildly imaginative. Whitehead’s primary fictional innovation in this novel is to imagine that the Underground Railroad — the informal network set up by abolitionists to help fleeing slaves escape to the North — includes an actual underground railroad. Cora and another fugitive slave named Caesar are taken to a barn in the middle of the Georgia countryside; hidden beneath the hay on the barn’s floor are a trapdoor and a stone stairway leading down to a railroad platform. Steam locomotives speed through tunnels that stretch for hundreds of miles beneath the Southern states, stopping at stations that have to be carefully hidden from the local authorities. Whitehead allows his characters to marvel at the crazy improbability of the railroad in a conversation with Lumbly, the station agent:

Caesar could scarcely speak. “How far does the tunnel extend?”

Lumbly shrugged. “Far enough for you.”

“It must have taken years.”

“More than you know. Solving the problem of ventilation, that took a bit of time.”

“Who built it?”

“Who builds anything in this country?”

The novel gets even more inventive after Cora and Caesar complete the first leg of the journey and arrive in South Carolina. In the book’s alternative history, South Carolina is a state where seemingly kindhearted white people take in fugitive slaves and help them change their identities and give them paying jobs. But the kindheartedness is a sham; the true purpose of the operation is to sterilize the slaves and perform medical experiments on them. It seems as if the novel has jumped ahead in time and conflated the horror of slavery with the horrors that followed emancipation. Cora manages to escape South Carolina and take the Underground Railroad to North Carolina, but the situation there is even worse: the state has outlawed black people entirely. All African-Americans found within the state’s borders are hung from the trees alongside a country road, which is dubbed the Freedom Trail. The image made me think of the lynchings and genocides of the 20th century, as well as the alt-right’s despicable vision of a white-only America.

It’s okay to straddle the line between literary fiction and commercial suspense. Colson Whitehead is no stranger to thriller writing; his best-selling 2011 novel Zone One is a fast and fun zombie-apocalypse story. And many parts of The Underground Railroad are suspenseful and gripping. In fact, the suspenseful parts of the book complement the poetic and thoughtful sections. The novel’s chases and kidnappings and shootouts prevent the story from getting too cerebral and didactic. Conversely, the characters’ brilliantly written musings about slavery and freedom and the history of America elevate the book above most historical thrillers. Whitehead gives the story a universal feel. Its themes are relevant to contemporary society, which is still plagued with racial prejudice and hatred.

It all comes down to caring about the characters. The key to the novel’s success is Cora. She’s a wonderful character. I can’t really do her justice here. You’ll have to read the book to see what I mean.

6+

Sources of Inspiration

By Mark Alpert

I had a great week. First, I received the D&A check for my next novel, which will be published by St. Martin’s Press in January of next year. (In the lingo of publishing contracts, D&A stands for Delivery and Acceptance. A D&A check is the portion of the advance you get after you deliver your manuscript and revise it to your editor’s satisfaction.) This will be my ninth published novel, but the thrill of depositing checks from publishers never gets old. I still can’t believe I’m getting paid to do this.

More important, I made good progress on the book I’m writing right now. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you much about this novel. I’ve written only 6,000 words so far, and I don’t like to talk about the manuscript at this stage. I’m afraid that if I talk about it too much, I won’t write it. I’m superstitious, I guess.

But I can tell you what inspired me: reading Tim O’Brien’s classic short-story collection about the Vietnam War, The Things They Carried. The book came out in 1990 and I read it for the first time shortly afterwards. A few months ago, my wife and I watched the Ken Burns documentary on the Vietnam War, and one of the episodes featured O’Brien — a Vietnam veteran — talking about his experiences and reading from The Things They Carried. This prompted me to reread the book, and once again I was blown away by how good it is. Part of its appeal is the sheer quality of the writing, but I also love the philosophy of the book, its focus on narrative honesty. Here’s an excerpt from one of the stories in the collection, “How to Tell a True War Story”:

You can tell a true war story by the questions you ask. Somebody tells a story, let’s say, and afterward you ask, “Is it true?” and if the answer matters, you’ve got your answer.

For example, we’ve all heard this one. Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast and saves his three buddies.

Is it true?

The answer matters.

You’d feel cheated if it never happened. Without the grounding reality, it’s just a trite bit of puffery, pure Hollywood, untrue in the way all such stories are untrue. Yet even if it did happen – and maybe it did, anything’s possible – even then you know it can’t be true, because a true war story does not depend upon that kind of truth. Absolute occurrence is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth. For example: Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast, but it’s a killer grenade and everybody dies anyway. Before they die, though, one of the dead guys says, “The fuck you do that for?” and the jumper says, “Story of my life, man,” and the other guy starts to smile but he’s dead.

That’s a true story that never happened.

When I’m inspired by a book, I like to read the best parts over and over. I also like to transcribe those wonderful paragraphs, typing them out word-for-word on my laptop, like I just did with the above excerpt. It’s a useful exercise, analogous to the ancient practice of Native American warriors who ate the hearts of their bravest enemies. By typing those paragraphs, I hope to put O’Brien’s finesse into my own fingers. Another superstition.

I had a second source of inspiration this week: I started listening again to “Guitar and Pen,” a song from The Who’s 1978 album Who Are You. What a great song for writers! Just consider this verse:

When you take up a pencil and sharpen it up
When you’re kicking the fence and still nothing will budge
When the words are immobile until you sit down
Never feel they’re worth keeping, they’re not easily found
Then you know in some strange, unexplainable way
You must really have something
Jumping, thumping, fighting, hiding away
Important to say.

The full lyrics are here and you can listen to the song here. Keith Moon lives!

10+

First-Page Critique: The Fantasy Strategy

By Mark Alpert

Today we have a real treat, the first page of a fantasy novel submitted by a talented, anonymous TKZ contributor. Take a look:

Title: The Boy, the Girl and Dark Mother

He hates it when his eye pops out.

He especially hates it when it happens while he’s flying high in the sky. Oh why is he the only crow born with one, stupid, bulging eye? It pops out at the most inconvenient times, like now, while he is scouting for the Dragon Queen.

He dive-bombs down and catches the falling pupil just in time. He shoves it back in its socket. That’s when he sees below what he has been looking for.

A village.

“Oh good,” he squawks. “This town has a lot of children. Dark Mother will be able to find the boy and kill him easy.” He gathers up his old wings and flaps off to where he came from. “Hey, guys. Over here.”

Down below lays the small village of Wild Plum, innocence lying in wait.

Rooster, a big man on the verge of a double chin, scarred from years of battle, steps out on the landing of his tavern. He holds a flask, his fingers bent from seasons with a sword, a sword he never wants to torch up again. Above him, the faded sign ‘Lion’s Head Inn’ dangles in the breeze. A plump woman with a cane sways out, bottle in hand, eyelids
butterflying his way. “Come back in. I’ve got more to share.”

“I’m getting the ‘Rattle’ feeling. Guts are churning. Don’t know why they’re serving up fire. Once I figure it out what’s wrong, I’ll feel better.”

“We’re having a good time. Let go of yourself. Come in. It’s been a year since—”

“Go away.”

She purses up her lower lip. Sighing, she pours some Tangleweed into his flask, looks up and smiles. At getting no response, she swings back in, her too wide hips hitting the doorframe.

Rooster takes a deep draft of his drink. He watches the market before him, waiting to see if the warrior is going to spark back into his eyes.

Children are playing. Adults are abuzz with activity as well, but more to stay alive than anything else, bartering over homegrown products of leather saddles, belts and candles.

A girl with fiery red hair peeks out. “You upset Franchilla. She wants to be with you.”

“Nobody can help,” he says.

“What is this ‘Rattle’ feeling?”

“Worry about customers. Leave me alone.”

—————–

Fantasy is one of my favorite genres. I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings when I was a teenager, and those books had an enormous influence on me. I spent hours poring over Tolkien’s maps of Middle Earth. I read everything else he wrote, including the unfinished Silmarillion. I even memorized the poems he wrote in his made-up languages. I blame Tolkien for the fact that I had no girlfriends in high school. Seriously, I was obsessed.

But when I tried reading other fantasy authors, I was sorely disappointed. I discovered that the quality of fantasy writing, at least circa 1977, was inconsistent and often downright terrible. So I stayed away from the genre for the next two decades and didn’t embrace it again until the advent of Harry Potter and Game of Thrones.

Perhaps the most important decision for a fantasy writer is figuring out how to introduce the book’s fantastical world. One popular strategy is to start the novel in the ordinary world, and then have the characters discover some kind of portal to the fantasy world. Examples of books that use this strategy are C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, in which the Pevensie children enter the magical land through a wardrobe, and Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, in which Quentin Coldwater discovers a hidden entrance to the Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy. The first Harry Potter book follows the same strategy; it begins with Harry’s miserable life with his adoptive Muggle family, the Dursleys, before launching into his adventures at Hogwarts.

The contrasting strategy is to simply drop the reader into the fantasy world right from the beginning. That’s what Tolkien did in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, starting each book in the Shire, the most peaceful and bucolic region of Middle Earth. Philip Pullman did something similar in The Golden Compass, as did George R.R. Martin in Game of Thrones. And today’s first-page submission adopts the same approach, beginning the narrative with a talking crow. (For some reason, it reminded me of the goofy buzzard in the Bugs Bunny cartoon. You know the one I’m talking about? After Bugs asked the bird, “What’s up, Doc?” the slow-witted buzzard sang, “My mama done told me to bring home something for dinner.” Look at the picture above to jog your cartoon memories.)

I love that first sentence: “He hates it when his eye pops out.” How could anyone resist reading further? And I also love how the scene suddenly shifts to the village below and the big, battle-scarred man stepping out of the tavern. There’s an excellent economy of language in these paragraphs, which have very few wasted words. And I adore the expression “eyelids butterflying his way.” The invented names are also great (Tangleweed for the drink, Franchilla for the plump woman).

I have a few quibbles with this submission: you can’t write “down below lays the small village.” The proper verb is “lies,” although the author might want to replace the word with “is” instead, to avoid repetition later in the sentence, which ends with the phrase “lying in wait.” Also, I think the “up” in “purses up” is unnecessary. More important, I don’t like the title of the book; “Dark Mother” alone would be better.

All in all, though, I get the sense that we’re in the hands of a confident, inventive writer who’s not afraid to take risks and have some fun. I would definitely keep reading. In fact, I’d love to see more.

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First-Page Critique: The Key Ingredient of the First Chapter

By Mark Alpert

I’m a big fan of ancient Greek and Roman history, so I was intrigued by this first-page submission from one of our anonymous TKZ contributors. Take a look:

Title:  Lost Scrolls of Archimedes

Ephesus, August 5, 38 BC

Marcus shivered, though the night was warm. His trembling hands gripped the side of the small boat as he studied the river. Much like him, its calm surface masked the turbulent undercurrents below.

“Ready, Marcus?” Hippolytus’ tone was uncharacteristically sharp.

No, I’ll never be ready for this. Marcus swallowed his fear and looked over to Hippolytus standing in the bow, rubbing the silver medallion around his neck.

This was their third attempt to jump tonight. The currents had been too tricky at the first two locations. Based on the stars, Marcus knew they were falling behind schedule.

At a splash behind him, Marcus swung around to see Julianus working the oars to keep the boat pointed into the current. The same medallion peeked out from Julianus’ tunic.

Marcus turned back to the murky water, reluctant to jump. Would he survive the night?

Closing his eyes, he reminded himself that he was a strong swimmer and could easily make it to the riverbank.

One step at a time.

He and Hippolytus had already stripped to their loincloths and blackened their skins with ashes and pigs’ fat. He glanced at his just-visible arms and hands, thinking Papa would kill him if he knew what he was about to do.

Marcus had been taught never to steal, and now he was about to pull off the greatest transgression of all.

“Marcus, it’s time, son.” Hippolytus’ words were clipped, urgent.

“Sorry,” Marcus replied, his changing voice surprisingly steady. He scooped up a leather bag from the floor of the boat.

Pulse racing, Marcus flung the bag over his back and hitched himself over the side of the boat, gasping as the icy water shocked his body. His skin blended into the dark river as he treaded water for a moment before Hippolytus joined him. Julianus then turned the skiff around and headed downstream toward the Ephesus harbor.

With long, careful strokes, Marcus swam alongside Hippolytus to the shore, where they crawled through the shallows until reaching the narrow beach along the bank.

Without hesitation, Marcus scurried across the sand into the shadows, his pounding heart drowning out the river’s soft hiss. When he paused to survey the dark land, his heart quieted.

A crescent moon hung low in the sky, casting a translucent pall over the river and land. Ahead lay their destination—the Temple of Artemis.

—————-

No doubt about it, the time and setting of this scene put it at a critical juncture in ancient history. Ephesus was one of the long-standing Greek colonies along the Aegean coastline of Asia Minor, founded around 1000 B.C. and incorporated into the burgeoning Roman Republic in 129 B.C. (There was an interruption in Roman rule in 88 B.C. when Mithridates the Great, King of Pontus, swept into the area and slaughtered an estimated 80,000 Roman citizens – one of the worst massacres of all time, by the way – but the Roman legions reestablished control of Asia Minor a few years later.) The names of the characters in this scene – Marcus, Hippolytus and Julianus – suggest that they’re Romans. And the Temple of Artemis was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, full of beautiful paintings, sculptures, and gilded columns. The temple was ravaged by rampaging Goths in 268 A.D., and all you can see there now is a sad-looking column made of rubble unearthed at the site (see photo above).

Given this setting, I was looking forward to reading these opening paragraphs. But for some reason, the scene fell flat for me. There isn’t enough here to make me want to keep reading. At first, I couldn’t pinpoint what was missing. But then I looked at the opening of another book, a novel I just started reading, and now I think I can identify the missing ingredient.

The other book is The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, and it won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It’s a spy story set in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. I’ve read only the first thirty pages of the novel, but I’m definitely hooked. The book grabbed me right from the first paragraph. Here it is:

I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides. Sometimes I flatter myself that this is a talent, and although it is admittedly one of a minor nature, it is perhaps also the sole talent I possess. At other times, when I reflect on how I cannot help but observe the world in such a fashion, I wonder if what I have should even be called talent. After all, a talent is something you use, not something that uses you. The talent you cannot not use, the talent that possesses you — that is a hazard, I must confess. But in the month when this confession begins, my way of seeing the world still seemed more of a virtue than a danger, which is how some dangers first appear.

I was impressed by the self-assurance of the narrative voice. And few things are more interesting than the honest confessions of a professional liar. The narrator, as it turns out, is a Viet Cong double agent who infiltrates the South Vietnamese security forces. As the North Vietnamese army floods into Saigon at the end of the war, the narrator travels to America with the fleeing South Vietnamese generals; his communist superiors, wary and suspicious even after their victory, want him to continue to monitor their longtime enemies. The setup is fascinating because of the nonstop dread and danger. The narrator is torn between two worlds and at constant risk of being discovered. You can’t stop yourself from being drawn into the story, mostly because you suspect it won’t end well for anyone.

That’s the key ingredient, that tantalizing dread. In the best thrillers, it’s on the page right from the start. Today’s first-page submission has some suspenseful elements — a hazardous nighttime mission (possibly a heist of sacred artifacts), a frightened protagonist (Marcus), a mysterious conspiracy (symbolized by the silver medallions). But in my opinion, it isn’t frightening enough. It’s clear that Marcus is worried about the mission and very reluctant to do his part, but I don’t get any sense of what’s compelling him to go through with it. What are the consequences if he doesn’t do it? Did his co-conspirators threaten to hurt him or his family if he doesn’t comply? Or do they have some kind of political or religious motivation? I don’t need to know the details at this point in the book – in fact, it’s much more exciting to keep the plot details hidden at the beginning – but I have to be convinced that Marcus is driven by a desperate need that’s strong enough to overcome his fear and moral reluctance. And there are some good ways to convey this desperation. Hippolytus and Julianus should be a lot tenser and less understanding when Marcus appears to be hesitant about jumping into the river. When Hippolytus says, “It’s time, son,” he doesn’t sound very urgent; I’m sure the author could come up with something better. And Marcus’s reply – “Sorry” – also sounds weak.

Also, I want a better sense of the dangers that await Marcus and his companions. What is Marcus afraid of seeing or hearing as he swims toward the Temple of Artemis? Anyone familiar with Greek mythology knows that Artemis was, in some ways, the scariest goddess on Mount Olympus. Even as a child, she knew exactly what she wanted: she asked Zeus, her father, to grant her six wishes, the first being the right to remain a virgin for eternity. She also asked for a bow and arrow and a whole retinue of divine handmaidens to care for her hunting dogs. And Artemis’s chastity was strictly enforced. When the hunter Actaeon stumbled upon her in the woods and saw her bathing in a sylvan spring, Artemis turned him into a stag and sent his dogs running after him. Actaeon’s dogs didn’t recognize their master anymore, so they tore him apart. Artemis also got seriously angry whenever anyone claimed to be a better hunter than she was. She refused to take shit from anybody.

So if Artemis was such a tough customer, one can only imagine the terrifying guardians who would probably be assigned to protect her temple from interlopers like our trio of Romans. Most likely there would be a squadron of keen-eyed archers, all of them accustomed to hunting by the light of the moon (which was one of Artemis’s symbols). And perhaps the archers would be Amazons, the legendary female warriors who had their right breasts amputated to make it easier for them to draw their bows. The novel doesn’t have to start with mayhem, but the anticipation of mayhem should be there right from the beginning. As Marcus swims across the dark river, for example, he should listen carefully for the sound of arrows whistling through the air.

Anything else? What do you think about this submission, dear readers?

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