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

First Page Critique: Where To Start The Story

By Mark Alpert

Hooray! Last Thursday I finished the first draft of my latest novel and sent the manuscript to my editor at St. Martin’s. Now, as I await her comments, I’ll take a stab at editing a first-page submission from one of our anonymous contributors.


Title: The Crichlow Chronicles

On the port

23rd November 2016, 9pm

Crichlow bundled his raven dreadlocks into the woogie from his wrist and
slid his cellphone across the pock-marked kitchen table.  The evening
breeze drew a bead of sweat from his temple and brought into the kitchen
the chatter of people moving through the shanty like ants.  But Crichlow’s
mind was elsewhere.  He narrowed his gaze, struggling not to watch Shenice,
almost naked in her cheap g-string busy at the metal sink that looked out
into the tiny yard.  Her narrow caramel back blossomed into rounded
buttocks so supple the sight of them made Crichlow fidget every time.

But he had to focus.  He tapped out two words on his cell almost
imperceptibly.  Even as she was turned away from his gaze, Crichlow could
tell by the slight shift of her hips that Shenice knew he was watching
her.  The words were: “Moving now”, and with that he hit send and lay the
phone down silently, sliding it under the folded Express newspaper.

Far below, the port lights drench the warped tarmac: a crane light traced
the trajectory of a 40-ft steel container, placing it behind a tumbled wall
overgrown with vines.  On spot you would have heard a fat rat squeal its
way along the cracked concrete.  Crichlow, dressed in navy trunks that were
stretched taut across his onyx thighs, stood and took two lithe steps
across the uneven floor of the board house to stand beside her.  He could
feel the heat coming off her lean shoulders and with a finger he delicately
traced the line of her collar bone.  Out of the corner of his eye he noted
the movement of the port crane light far below and swore silently.  He
would have to get down to Wrightson Road and back before the night was
done.  But there was another more pressing matter: first he would need to
tire Shenice to sleep, and he knew just how.  When he had joined the SIA
field agents, the others had joked:  “Prof – there’s always work to be
done.”  He had grinned to peals of laughter from the other men around the
table.  “Know your priorities,” another had chimed in, “then make sure and
get them all done.”

So, tonight that was his plan.

He turned his head slightly, away from the opening that was their kitchen
“window” to watch Shenice directly, just as she swivelled round…


The first sentence got my attention, mostly because of “woogie.” I love that word! I could tell from the context that it’s a hair tie of some kind, and after a bit of Googling I learned that it’s a British Caribbean term, used in places such as Jamaica and Trinidad. At first I thought this might also be a clue to the geographic location of this scene, but later on there’s a mention of the Express, which is a newspaper in the U.K., so then I began to wonder whether the characters were Caribbeans who’d emigrated to a port city in England? On the other hand, Shenice is doing the dishes in her G-string, which suggests a more tropical location. I usually like to know right away where a novel is set, so unless the author has a very compelling reason to keep the location secret, I recommend that he/she mention the name of the port city at the very beginning of the piece. (Instead of “On the port,” which is maddeningly vague, especially given how specific the time stamp is — 9 pm on November 23rd!)

The second sentence confused me, though. How could the evening breeze “draw” the bead of sweat from Crichlow’s temple? Is the breeze evaporating the drop of sweat or triggering the secretion of a new one? I’d pick a different verb to replace “drew” – maybe “dried” if that’s what the author means. And the second part of the sentence was even more confusing. Maybe that’s because I think of “shanty” as a single dwelling, but the author perhaps intends it to mean the whole neighborhood of shanties where the scene is set. If that’s the case, he/she should replace it with “shantytown” or something similar. And the ant metaphor doesn’t work here, because the author is describing the chatter of the people in the shantytown, and ants hardly make any noise at all when they’re scurrying around. Besides, no metaphor is needed; just change it to “the chatter of people moving through the alleys of the shantytown” or something like that. In the first few sentences, it’s usually best to keep things concrete. Save the metaphors for later.

I’ve always been a huge fan of nudity, but the image of Shenice at the sink in her G-string struck me as a bit odd. I’m not knocking it; I’m just saying it’s not typical dishwashing attire, even in the tropics. Later on, in the second paragraph, Crichlow senses that Shenice is putting on this show for his benefit, but I think he would’ve realized it earlier. If it happened to me, I’d be like “Whoa!” right from the start. Also, why call it a “cheap” G-string? That seemed kind of petty, as if Crichlow were thinking, “Yeah, she put on a G-string, but it’s not the fancy Victoria’s Secret number, so I’m not impressed.” And then there’s the awkward juxtaposition of the cell phone message “Moving now” right after the description of Shenice’s shifting hips. It’s not until the third paragraph that we realize that Crichlow is describing the decidedly unsexy motion of a crane and a shipping container.

Which brings me to what I think is the main problem with this opening: It’s not starting at the right place. One of the best places to start a thriller is at the inciting incident, the event that sets the plot in motion. In the case of this novel, I think the inciting incident is Crichlow’s observation of the moving crane, which is important enough to him that he sends the news to whomever he’s communicating with on the cell phone. But if this is truly the book’s crucial opening event, the author needs to fully describe Crichlow’s reaction to it: was he expecting it to happen now, or is it happening too soon? Does it make him nervous, or is he taking it in stride like a cool, calm professional SIA agent? (That acronym bothered me too. Is it a real intelligence agency? If it’s fictional, why make it so similar to CIA?) Later on, Crichlow looks at the light again and “swore silently,” which made me think that things were going awry somehow, but I’m just guessing. I want to be in his head more. I want to know what he’s feeling.

Perhaps Crichlow is simply upset that he needs to go out and do some spy work, but he’d rather have sex with Shenice right now. But in the end he decides he has time to do both: first sex, then spying. And that also struck me as odd. His hope is that she’ll fall asleep right after sex, and then he’ll be free to go down to the port, but what if she doesn’t fall asleep afterwards? What if she wants to talk instead? It’s been known to happen. And if the movement of the shipping container is truly the momentous, inciting incident of the book, then it should require urgent, immediate action on the part of the narrator. How long is the sex going to take? I assume that Shenice will need to have an orgasm before she can fall asleep, so we’re talking more than two or three minutes. Won’t Crichlow be worried about the shipping container in the meantime? Wouldn’t it make more sense for him to come up with an excuse — “Gotta go, Shenice, there’s an emergency at work” — and take care of business first?

But this is all assuming that the movement of the container is the story’s trigger, an event of utmost importance to Crichlow. If it isn’t, then the story should start somewhere else. Maybe the inciting incident should happen after the sex: the novel opens with Crichlow lying awake in bed next to Shenice, who’s already fast asleep with a big smile on her face, and he sees the movement of the crane out the window. Then he jumps out of bed, throws on his clothes, runs down to the port, etc. It would be a much faster opening, a much quicker plunge into the book’s plot, and that’s exactly what the reader wants at the start of a thriller.


Barnes & Noble is running a special promotion for my Young Adult novel THE SIX (the first book in the trilogy). Until Oct. 23, you can buy a Nook ebook version of THE SIX for only $2.99. They’re practically GIVING IT AWAY! Here’s the link to the special bargain.

P.S.: And don’t worry if you don’t have a Nook reader; apparently, you can download free software that allows you to read a Nook ebook on a smartphone, tablet or computer.

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This Is The End

By Mark Alpert

This will have to be a brief post because I’m very close to finishing the first draft of my next novel, and I can’t really think about anything else.

It’s so much fun to write the last chapters! I don’t know yet if the book is good or bad, but it doesn’t matter. This excitement justifies everything.

I’ve come up with a new analogy to describe a novel’s narrative shape. It resembles a football. It starts at a spiky point and rapidly expands to a thick middle that’s bulging with characters and events and conflict and ideas. Then it tapers back to a point as the conflicts play out and the plot is reduced to its inevitable conclusion.

I’m approaching that endpoint now, tying up the loose ends and killing off characters right and left.

Good luck to everyone else out there who might be in the same position! (And while we’re on the topic of football, the Giants could certainly use a little luck too.)

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A Counterterrorism Story

By Mark Alpert

If I’m going to write a scene that’s set in a real-life location, I like to visit the place before I start writing. Luckily, the novel I’m working on right now is set in New York City, and I’m pretty familiar with most of the book’s settings: Coney Island, the Gowanus Canal, Green-Wood Cemetery, Gracie Mansion, and so on.

But last week, the novel inspired me to visit a new place, one that’s fairly close to home but a little mysterious. In this book, I envision a conflict in the near future (2023) between an aggressive, militarized federal security force (black helicopters, anyone?) and New York City’s police department. I won’t go into the details here, but in this novel the Feds get into a shooting war with the NYPD, and I had to figure out which places would be the natural strongholds for the New York cops. One of them, I figured, would be Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, which is already home to the NYPD’s Aviation Unit and Emergency Service Unit (which in other cities would be called a SWAT team). Another stronghold would be Rodman’s Neck in the Bronx, which is the NYPD’s firing range, and a third would be the new Critical Response Command (CRC), which was set up two years ago by the NYPD’s Counterterrorism Bureau.

The purpose of the CRC is to field a mobile police unit specifically organized to swiftly respond to terrorist incidents similar to the attacks on the Bataclan theater in Paris and the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. The officers are heavily armed (assault rifles, body armor, etc.) and at least a hundred of them are on duty at any time (the CRC has more than 500 officers in all). Their headquarters is in a central location with relatively quick highway access to four of NYC’s five boroughs and both airports: Randalls Island, which is known to most New Yorkers as that overlooked, interstitial place underneath the Triborough Bridge.

I reasoned that the CRC headquarters probably served as an arsenal for the Counterterrorism Bureau, so it would make a good setting for one of the scenes in my novel. But I wasn’t sure of its exact location. I’ve visited Randalls Island dozens of times over the past decade, mostly because of my kids’ athletic activities; there are many soccer fields and baseball diamonds on the island, as well as a track-and-field stadium. The island is also home to a psychiatric hospital, a homeless shelter, a sewage treatment plant, and a firefighter training academy, but in all my visits there I never spotted a police station.

But it was fairly easy to find on Google Earth: it was the brick building surrounded by dozens of parked police cars. I decided to get a closer look at the place, so I took the subway up to East Harlem one afternoon and walked across one of the three spans of the Triborough Bridge, the span that connects Manhattan to Randalls Island. As I approached the CRC headquarters, I was surprised by the lack of security around the place; there was no manned gate at the entrance to the parking lot, no guards in front of the building. There wasn’t even a buzzer on the front door or a metal detector or a desk sergeant stationed at the entrance. I walked right into the building and saw a bunch of heavily armed cops milling around the lobby.

As it so happened, I really needed to go to the bathroom. I noticed there was a men’s room right off the lobby, so I approached one of the heavily armed officers and asked if I could use it. He nodded and went back to his conversation with the other cops. As I stepped into the bathroom, a man standing at the urinal glanced at me and asked, “Hey, are you new here?” This was kind of a ridiculous question, because I’m clearly not Counterterrorism material. I’m a near-sighted, five-foot-six, 56-year-old writer with a bad back and many, many neuroses. (Plus, I was wearing khaki shorts and a polo shirt.) I explained that I was there only because I really needed to use the bathroom, and then I entered one of the stalls.

Once I got out of the bathroom, I realized I was tremendously thirsty. (It was a hot day.) So I went back to the officers in body armor and asked if I could use their water fountain. One of them reluctantly left his buddies and offered to show me where it was. He led me into the station, which didn’t look so different from any other New York police station — linoleum floor, fluorescent lighting, gray metal desks, phones ringing. Along the way, the Counterterrorism officer asked me, “So who are you here to see?” It was another ridiculous question — if I had an appointment with someone, would I really wear shorts to it? I explained once again that I came into the station only because of my bathroom needs.

The officer stopped short and glared at me. “You shouldn’t be here! This is a secure facility!” At which point I wanted to respond, “Oh really? You could’ve fooled me.” But I’m a polite person (usually) so I said nothing of the sort. Instead, I looked apologetic and said, “So does this mean I can’t use your water fountain?”

We were only a few feet away from the fountain, as it turned out, so the officer relented. I decided to take a good long drink, if only to justify the trouble I’d put this guy through, but by this point one of his supervisors was looking at us curiously and making him nervous. So the officer tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Okay, that’s enough, buddy!” and then he escorted me out of the station.

I don’t want to give the wrong impression: I think the NYPD is way ahead of other police departments in readying itself to combat terrorist violence. And they’ve done an amazing job of deterring and thwarting attacks. (Some of the credit should also go to the agents at the FBI’s New York field office.) I feel that NYC is a safe place for me and my family largely because of their efforts. That said, they need to do a better job of securing their counterterrorism facility.

Did the visit help me by providing details or color that I could put into my novel? Not really. Aside from all the heavily armed officers, the place was nondescript. But visiting the station did make me feel more comfortable about writing the scene. And later on, as I strolled the island’s perimeter, I came up with a good idea for the following scene. (A boat chase!)

So, all in all, it was a productive afternoon.

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The Reward

By Mark Alpert

It’s time for a reality check, folks. As I watched the catastrophic floods in Texas this week, I found it difficult to focus on my novel-in-progress. The real-life events came too close to the world I was imagining, a near-future New York City (2023) that’s battered by super-storms that have become more frequent and intense because of runaway global warming.

I felt guilty. How can I sit here spinning yarns about these kinds of disasters? Wouldn’t it be more useful to actually do something about it? Maybe get a job with the Natural Resources Defense Council and contribute to the laudable goal of curbing greenhouse-gas emissions? I even went on the NRDC’s website and checked out their job listings. It turns out that they need a speechwriter and a social media editor.

But then I thought: Who am I kidding? I’ve never written a speech in my life. And I can’t even figure out Snapchat, despite my kids’ many efforts to teach me. (I get too hung up on the semantics. When you put a picture on Snapchat, why do they call it “a story”? That’s not a story, it’s a picture. “Oh Dad, just forget it.”)

So I turned back to my novel. Maybe, I thought, if I make my fictionalized disasters sound compelling enough, it’ll wake people up to the dangers of manmade climate change. But that thought was even more ridiculous than my NRDC fantasy. If a REAL disaster that’s ALL OVER the TV news can’t convince people to change their carbon-spewing ways, how could a novel change anyone’s mind?

Then I just felt helpless, and I still feel that way. But it got me thinking about our expectations for novels and the true rewards of reading and writing them. As you can probably tell, I’m very perplexed by this issue, so I’ll open up the question for discussion: Why do YOU read and write novels?

P.S.: Here’s something I do know: one of the great rewards of parenting is seeing your kid go off to college. My son just started his freshman year at Wesleyan (see college logo above), and so far he seems to like it. (I know this only because he communicates with my daughter via Snapchat.)

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Summer Assignments

By Mark Alpert

I’ve been on vacation for the past two weeks, enjoying the cool weather in northern Michigan, but even when I’m not working on my manuscript, I’m still thinking about writing. For instance, my daughter will take AP English in the fall, and her teacher gave the class a very ambitious summer assignment: reading “The Dead,” the famous James Joyce story that is the climax of Dubliners.

Joyce can be tough going, but Dubliners is his most accessible book, and even high schoolers can tackle it. Ideally, the short stories should be read in order, because Joyce gave a logical structure to the collection. The first three stories are told from the point of view of children — “Sisters,” “An Encounter,” and “Araby.” The next four stories are about the disappointments of young adulthood (“Eveline,” “After the Race,” “Two Gallants,” and “The Boarding House”) and the next seven focus on the even more tragic failures of mature men and women (“A Little Cloud,” “Counterparts,” “Clay,” “A Painful Case,” “Ivy Day in the Committee Room,” “A Mother,” and “Grace”). “The Dead” wraps up the collection by weaving together all the themes explored in the book: the paralysis of Irish society, the frustrating inability to cast off the English colonizers, the horrible toll of alcoholism on Joyce’s countrymen, and so much more.

But my daughter didn’t like “The Dead” very much after the first reading. She and her classmates couldn’t see the connections between the first part of the story — which describes a holiday party hosted by Kate and Julia Morkan, a pair of Dublin spinsters struggling to run a music school — and the second part, which focuses on their nephew, Gabriel Conroy, and a disturbing revelation about his wife’s past. The connections are there, though, and my daughter began to see them after reading the story a second time. The key to seeing them is the story’s title. The spirits of the dead hover over both parts of the story; the partygoers, for instance, talk about monks who sleep in their coffins (“The coffin is to remind them of their last end”) and long-lost singers whose voices are so fondly remembered simply because they’ll never be heard again. The dead stand guard over Dublin in the form of statues whose shoulders and heads are capped with the snow that is “general all over Ireland,” shutting down and paralyzing the country. And at the end of the story, Gabriel realizes that his wife will never love him as much as she loves the ghost of Michael Furey, the delicate seventeen-year-old who refused to go on living without her.

I loved rereading this story with my daughter, but it also disheartened me. How can I go back to my manuscript now? All my sentences look like trash in comparison.

But hey, I’ll give it a shot.

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The Magic 80,000-Word Mark

By Mark Alpert

Whenever I’m writing a novel, I stop and take note of two special mileposts along the way. The first is the 20,000-word mark. Once I’ve written the first 20,000 words of a manuscript, I’m pretty sure it’s a keeper. I’m hooked by the idea and I can’t stop writing. I’m on my way.

The other special milepost is the 80,000-word mark. At this point, I can see the end of the book, and I start racing to the finish.

That’s where I am right now. I can’t think of anything but the novel. Well no, that’s not exactly true. I still have to pay the bills. And get my son a new laptop before he goes off to college. (He starts at Wesleyan next month.) And yes, I did go to a Yankee game this week. (See the picture above.)

But that’s it. All the rest of my mental energy goes into the novel. I’ll come up for air when I’m done!

 

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Lobstah

By Mark Alpert

I’m in Maine this weekend, at a lake house that’s not very far from where Stephen King hangs out during the summers. Tomorrow my wife and I will pick up our daughter from summer camp, but in the meantime we’re having some fun.

Not coincidentally, I’m working my way through the entire Stephen King oeuvre. These are the King novels I’ve read in just the past twelve months: Firestarter, Tommyknockers, ‘Salem’s Lot, Carrie, and End of Watch. In all, I’ve read about thirty of his books, and I still have another thirty to go.

And last weekend I was at ThrillerFest, where I got a chance to personally congratulate James Scott Bell for winning the ITW Thriller Award for Best E-Book Original Novel with his terrific Romeo’s Way. Let’s hear it for Jim!

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Anniversaries and Book Birthdays

By Mark Alpert

I’m at Niagara Falls with my wife this weekend to celebrate our 25th anniversary, but a couple of days ago we threw a party in NYC for the launch of my eighth book, THE SILENCE. It’s the final book in my Young Adult trilogy, which began with THE SIX and THE SIEGE, so we held the party at Books of Wonder, the fantastic children’s bookstore on 18th Street. Also in attendance was our son, an actual Young Adult, who’s going to Wesleyan University in the fall.

Where did the time go?

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Pride And Fiction

By Mark Alpert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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First Page Critique: Enemies Domestic

Critiqued by Mark Alpert

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

Maricopa County, Arizona

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

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

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

—————-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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