About Mark Alpert

Contributing editor at Scientific American and author of science thrillers: Final Theory (2008), The Omega Theory (2011), Extinction (2013), The Furies (2014) and The Six (2015). Next books: The Orion Plan (coming February 2016) and The Siege (July 2016). His website: www.markalpert.com

Four 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.


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!


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.


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?


First-Page Critique: How To Get Your Story Moving

By Mark Alpert

While the so-called “Bomb Cyclone” pounds the East Coast with frigid winds and snow, let’s take a cold, hard-eyed look at a first-page submission from one of our anonymous TKZ contributors:


Checking his phone for the tenth time, Asad al-Mamun (“the Leader” as Asad preferred to be called) paced in his small office, beads of perspiration feeling cold against the light morning breeze.

The call was already nineteen hours late, and Asad festered as he waited. Unable to get any information, he tossed his phone on the table and stared out the open window. With a sigh of resignation, he sat down on his mat, folded his legs, closed his eyes, and tried to review his plan. Unable to concentrate, he made a quick phone call. A welcome “distraction” soon arrived at the door, her frightened expression stirring excitement in Asad’s lustful eyes as he grabbed her by the arm and pulled her inside.

Five hours later, Asad’s phone chirped, startling him out of his almost trance-like state as he pushed the spent woman aside and picked the phone off the floor. The message was simple: “Departed.” Caller ID made it appear the text came from the United States, but Asad knew it had come from a much different place. Replying to that number would be useless, and, even if he could trace it, Asad was sure the phone had already been destroyed.

Asad slipped a robe over his tall, slender frame, staring at his phone while he lit up. The pleasant taste from the cloves and the low crackle as they burned awakened his senses. He reviewed the next stages of the plan in his mind. Timing was tight, with many loose ends threatening to unravel, but Asad had no choice but to act now. Dissatisfaction with Indonesian President Joko Darmadi was at an all-time high, with frequent protests, clashes with police, and calls for his resignation. Striking before things could change would cement Asad’s position of power, even if the majority of Indonesians had never heard of him. Yet.

A low moan came from the woman on the bed—a gift from a client who couldn’t pay his bills. She had been useful for a few hours; Asad’s frustration and tension showed in the bruises forming on her body. She cowered when she saw him staring at her.

“Get out,” Asad ordered.


The title of this submission also serves as a useful one-word critique. As I read the piece, I felt adrift in its opening paragraphs, pushed this way and that by the author’s fleeting and conflicting impulses. I yearned for a stable foothold or handhold, something I could cling to in my confusion.

Think about it: a reader starting a novel is a lot like a swimmer thrown into the middle of the ocean. Unless the author provides a literary lighthouse or lifebuoy, the reader has no idea where she is or which island she should start swimming for. The reader needs specifics right away to get her bearings: Where and when is the story taking place? Who is the character we’re following? What is he thinking? What does he want? Where is he likely to take us?

The best way to learn how to do this is to study the opening paragraphs written by masters of the craft. Fortunately, I have a couple of handy examples. The first is from Smile, Roddy Doyle’s latest novel, which I finished reading earlier this week. Doyle is probably most famous for The Commitments, the 1987 novel about a bunch of scruffy, young Dubliners who start a soul band, but over the past three decades he’s continued to write fantastic books about Ireland, past and present, good and bad. Here’s the first paragraph of Smile: 

I stayed up at the bar a few times but I didn’t want the barman thinking that I needed someone to talk to. I sat in a corner near a window but the barman kept coming over, casually walking past, looking for empty glasses, and asking me if I was alright for a drink or what I thought of Brazil getting hammered by the Germans or of Garth Brooks not coming to Croke Park. I tried to picture myself from where he’d been looking at me. I can’t have looked that bad – that lonely, or sad. Or neglected. It never occurred to me that he might be gay. I was fifty-four. I was too old to be gay back.

You can picture the scene, right? A depressed, lonely middle-aged guy sitting in the corner of a bar. You can guess the geographic location too — the use of the word “barman” instead of “bartender” indicates that it’s somewhere in the British Isles, and the mention of Croke Park puts it squarely inside Dublin. More important, you immediately get a good sense of the narrator. The man is so insecure, he’s worried about what the barman thinks of him. It’s funny and sad at the same time. And there’s also a hint of sexual insecurity, which definitely plays a big role in this book. By the end of the paragraph, the reader isn’t exactly sure where the novel is going, but it’s already getting interesting. And the pure, simple confidence of the writing reassures the reader that the journey will be worth it. With Doyle in charge, we’re in good hands.

Now here’s an example from the thriller genre: Joe Hill’s 2016 novel The Fireman, which I started reading as soon as I finished Smile. (I’m still a long way from finishing Hill’s book – it’s 750 pages long!)

Harper Grayson had seen lots of people burn on TV, everyone had, but the first person she saw burn for real was in the playground behind the school.

Schools were closed in Boston and some other parts of Massachusetts, but here in New Hampshire they were still open. There had been cases in New Hampshire, but only a few. Harper had heard that half a dozen patients were being held in a secure wing of Concord Hospital, looked after by a medical team outfitted in full-body protective gear, every nurse armed with a fire extinguisher.

That’s a brilliant opening. My favorite part is that brief parenthetical statement — “everyone had” — in the first sentence. The reader knows right from the beginning that something apocalyptic has started to happen, and it’s about to get much worse. Again, you can’t help but sense the confidence of the author. He’s like a lifeguard jumping into the water right next to the reader and saying, “Don’t worry, I won’t let you drown. I’m going to guide you to the most amazing places.”

Now that we’ve studied these examples, we can clearly see what today’s first-page submission is missing. Asad, the point-of-view character in this scene, is obviously villainous, but what exactly is he feeling at this moment? At first he’s nervous, sweating, “festering.” Then he sighs in resignation and tries to concentrate. Then he gives up on concentrating and enjoys some brutal sex. The rapid changes in his mood left me feeling whiplashed and unable to learn anything about this man, much less become interested in his predicament.

Then the action jumps ahead five hours – a long time for brutal sex, by the way – and we get the first hint of drama: a one-word text message. But that word, “Departed,” isn’t mysterious enough to pique my interest. The next paragraph provides a bit of explanation: we’re in Indonesia, and Asad reveals that he’s engaged in some kind of political scheme. But I don’t really care. The author hasn’t given me enough in the way of character or plot or writing style to make me want to keep reading.

But all is not lost. The author has the opportunity to rethink the opening scene. My recommendation is to choose a more dramatic moment to begin the novel. Instead of starting the story with a text message, how about a riot? I’d love to see a scene of furious Indonesians rampaging through the streets of Jakarta (see photo above), all of them guided by the devious Asad, who is secretly choreographing the downfall of the Indonesian president. Then the reader would get a chance to see Asad in action, doing his dirty work in the back alleys of the chaotic capital. He could still be just as much of a villain, but at least we’d admire his stone-cold competence and maybe yearn to see more of his cruel maneuvering, especially if he does outrageously evil things like plotting the slaughter of schoolteachers or police officers.

Now it’s time for me to get back to The Fireman.


Four Keys To Creating A Likable Character

By Mark Alpert

Novelists can learn from filmmakers, and vice-versa. For today’s lesson, I’d like to direct your attention to a short film written by Rotem Weiner (see photo above), an actress I met last month at the 2017 Video Art and Experimental Film Festival in New York City.

For the past few years I’ve served as an emcee and panel moderator for this festival, which showcases a wide variety of short, provocative films. The event is organized by video impresario Dan Fine, who receives hundreds of submissions every year from filmmakers around the world. Dan and his team of curators view all the submitted videos and select the best ones for screening at the three-day festival. Many of the works are experimental and abstract — they’re more like artworks than traditional movies — but some are short narrative films that tell quirky stories. A good example of the latter is Rotem Weiner’s film, “Bench,” which was selected for this year’s festival and screened at the Downtown Community Television Center on Lafayette Street.

Born and raised in Israel, Weiner came to the U.S. to study acting at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute, which is famous for teaching and promoting the techniques of method acting. In “Bench,” she plays the role of Emma, an eager young woman trying to find a job in New York City. The film is nineteen minutes long, but I want to focus on just the first three minutes, which show Emma waking up in her apartment and preparing for a job interview. This is really just the introduction to the film; there’s no dialogue during this sequence except for a few curses muttered by Emma while she brushes her teeth and puts on her makeup, and upbeat guitar music plays in the background. But the brief sequence does an excellent job of introducing the character of Emma and making her likable. This is also the primary task of the opening pages of any novel, and as with any other task, there are some basic rules for doing it right. So let’s analyze how Rotem Weiner creates a likable character. (You can view the video here.)

A likable character has to want something very badly. In the introduction to “Bench,” the main things that come across are Emma’s hurry and worry. We see her running late, rushing through her morning rituals, and practicing a businesslike greeting in her bathroom mirror. By the end of the three minutes, it becomes obvious that she’s rushing off to a job interview, but before we even realize what her goal is, we’re already rooting for. That’s because the specific goal doesn’t matter; what makes the character likable is the strength and fervor of her desire. In The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby wants Daisy; in Moby Dick, Ahab wants to kill the eponymous white whale; in The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen wants to save her sister; in Game of Thrones, Daenerys Targaryen wants to sit on the Iron Throne. Some of these desires may be obsessive or irrational, and the objects of the desires may not even be worth all the fuss, but as long as the characters yearn desperately for their goals, readers will yearn along with them. It’s a weird human instinct that probably got incorporated into our DNA during the Paleolithic Era, when a crucial trait for survival was the ability to sense when our fellow hominids had discovered a new source of food; an ape-man who took a lively interest in his comrades’ quests for sustenance could share in the rewards by following his more adventurous companions to the newly discovered berry patches or zebra carcasses. We have evolved to be eager followers of our comrades’ passions.

She has to face obstacles. It wouldn’t be much of a story if the main character gets what she wants right away. And if she achieves her goals too easily, we might even start to resent her. The obstacles make the quest more interesting and involving; when they arise, the reader shares the frustration and disappointment that the character is feeling, thus strengthening the sympathetic bond between them. In “Bench,” Emma’s first obstacle is that she doesn’t have enough time to get ready for her interview, and then her problems multiply: she sticks herself in the eye with her makeup applicator, there’s no coffee left in her kitchen, and when she runs to the neighborhood coffee shop to pick up an iced latte (or whatever), someone bumps into her and spills the stuff all over her shirt. (This last disaster has become a bit of a cliché — didn’t it also happen to Emma Stone’s character in La La Land?) The overall effect is to create a likable character through the viewer’s involvement in her struggles. We know nothing so far about her background or political beliefs or moral qualities, and yet we automatically like her.

She has to overcome those obstacles through her unique skills, resourcefulness, and bravery. The character’s attitude toward her problems is also important. If all she does is complain about her troubles, then the reader won’t want to spend any time with her. If the obstacles subside because of mere luck or assistance from other people, then the reader won’t have any reason to admire her. But if she cleverly overcomes the challenges, ideally in a way that the reader would’ve never thought of, then the admiration for the character will be enthusiastic. We see some of these qualities in Emma in the latter part of “Bench,” when she befriends a homeless man in a park next to her office building. (Yes, she gets the job!) In The Hunger Games, we admire Katniss’s archery skills and impertinence; in Game of Thrones, we admire Dany’s fierce charisma and determination (not to mention the way she rides those dragons). If I may return for a moment to my “hungry ape-man” metaphor: Who would you rather follow on a dangerous hunt across the African savannah? A hapless, hopeless hominid headed for extinction, or a big-brained, tool-using Darwinian winner?

Her challenges have to be relatable. In “Bench,” the viewer has extra sympathy for Emma’s dilemmas because they’re familiar. At one time or another, we’ve all worried about being late to a job interview. And most of us have also experienced that mad “chicken-without-a-head” feeling that overcomes you when you’re running late and making a mess of things because you can’t think straight. But a good writer can also make extraordinary problems relatable by connecting them to more mundane troubles. For example, the young hero of the science-fiction novel Ender’s Game faces an unprecedented galaxy-class challenge: he has to save human civilization from destruction by learning how to vanquish the space fleets of an insectoid alien species known as the “buggers.” His training, though, takes place at a space-station facility that feels a lot like a high school, albeit one with cutthroat competition among the students and a lot of manipulative, tough-love teachers. Ender has to face down violent bullies and turn a group of nerds and losers into a championship-winning team. Sounds familiar, right?

I’d like to wrap up the discussion by addressing an issue that applies just to female characters. Recently, my editor at St. Martin’s Press noticed something odd in my fiction, specifically an early draft of my next novel. The book’s heroine, in a moment of tension, starts “fidgeting.” Although there’s nothing wrong with feeling fear or anxiety, this particular expression of the emotion seemed a little unbecoming. After my editor pointed it out, I asked myself: Would I ever write that a male hero was “fidgeting”? Wouldn’t this physical action make him seem less heroic, less competent, less deserving of admiration? And if it was uncool for a male hero to fidget, why was it okay for a female to do it?

I was being sexist. It doesn’t matter whether the character is male or female — heroes don’t fidget. So I changed the wording in the next draft. (The novel will be published about a year from now. Working title: SUPERHUMAN.)


First-Page Critique: The Allure of World War II

By Mark Alpert

We live in a violent world, and our present-day conflicts distort our memories of past wars. With that in mind, let’s consider this first-page sample submitted by one of our anonymous TKZ contributors:

Title: Jaeger’s Dilemma

War Department Auxiliary Building, Washington, D.C.

10 July 1943

Captain Gregory Maxwell pulled at the starched uniform collar pasted to his 16-½ inch neck as he paced the room. A whirling fan bounced humid stale air off walls the color of Baked Alaska. Blackout curtains stifled the room’s dim light. Four stiff-backed wooden chairs guarded a projector and the table upon which it sat. Sweat dripped down his narrow brow stinging his eyes. He rolled his shoulders, severing the seal of the shirt clinging to his back.

A fly buzzed his right ear. He swatted it away, then checked his watch – fifteen twenty hours. Report at thirteen-thirty he’d been directed. No rhyme, no reason, no reporting official identified.

He glanced at his watch again. He would miss drinks with the Senator if he didn’t leave soon. The fly buzzed him again. He swatted and missed.

The door opened. A petite brunette, her uniform Women’s Army Corps, entered carrying a film canister, a folder, and a glass of water.

“Surviving, Captain?” She handed him the tumbler. “Isn’t cold, had to get it from a tap in the latrine. Drawing water from the hall’s drinking fountain is like a castrated bull fathering calves. Hades will freeze over first.” She grinned a white smile. “At least the war would be over.” She started to wind the film through the projector’s sprockets. “By the way, I’m Corporal Allen.”

“How much longer?” Maxwell sipped the water. Despite the slight taste of rusted iron, the tepid liquid soothed his dry throat.

“Hard to say,” she said, her tone Midwest apologetic. “As usual, the Colonel’s working like a crazed farmer chopping a hundred acres of wheat with a single scythe and only has two days before thunderstorms strike.”

He groaned.

“Not to worry, Captain. Senator Downey’s been given your regrets.” The corporal’s long fingers slipped the film’s edge into the slot of the take-up reel. “Done.”

Maxwell’s brow furrowed. “I didn’t send regrets.”

“I did.” The Texas twang reverberated about the closet of a room. A full bull Colonel, devoid of his military coat, stepped inside.

Maxwell snapped to attention.

“Fuck formality, Captain. I need results. Roll the film, Allen.”


I have to admit: I’m a sucker for stories about World War II. I loved Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse Five. Two of the finest war poems of all time are Randall Jarrell’s “Eighth Air Force” and “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.” And of course there are all the amazing movies about the war, from The Longest Day and The Dirty Dozen to Saving Private Ryan and Inglourious Basterds. (My personal favorite is Twelve O’Clock High, which was considered such a good primer on leadership techniques that at one time it was required viewing at West Point. General Curtis LeMay, the Eighth Air Force veteran who later talked about bombing Vietnam “back into the Stone Age,” was also a big fan of the film.)

But of the 16 million veterans of World War II, only about half a million are still alive, and they’re dying off at a rate of 2,500 per week. Can we still write compelling novels about WWII after so much time? I think we can, but it’s inevitable that the experience of more recent wars will color our stories of the so-called “Good War,” in the same way that the Vietnam War changed the depiction of the Korean War in M*A*S*H. And as all writers of historical fiction know, the author must be constantly wary of anachronisms and clichés.

For example: I grew up during the Cold War, and in my neighborhood in Queens most of the apartment buildings were plastered with yellow-and-black Fallout Shelter signs. When I looked out my bedroom window, I imagined mushroom clouds blooming over the Manhattan skyline. In 1982 I went to the epic “No Nukes” rally in Central Park, and a year later the anti-war song “99 Red Balloons” was playing on all the radio stations. I was in graduate school at the time, studying poetry, and when I tried to write a poem about nuclear apocalypse, the result was a weird mash-up of Twelve O’Clock High and Dr. Strangelove:

I dreamed of the secret bomber squadron,

seventeen jets that would start the war.


I dreamed, in particular, of an airfield in the jungle

on a South Pacific island, on the underside of the world,

where a sudden strike could maim the enemy

(thus spoke our generals, and we believed them).

Hidden in shadow, on the underside of the world,

where the world’s detonation would begin…


We trained for the mission in utmost secrecy,

six weeks that passed so quickly I never even

learned my place in the bomber. The general

asked me, “What’s your position, son?

Tail-gunner? Waist-gunner? Bombardier? Turret-gunner?”

The Plexiglas bubbles, like transparent boils

on the skin of the bomber (and in every airman’s mind

was a vision of cracked and bullet-pocked glass),

the positions of death, all my friends assigned

to one or the other. I told the general,

“I’ll be in charge of the parachutes, sir,”

but my friends didn’t think this joke was funny.

The general scowled at me, his face twisted

in anger, his breath stinking of cough drops.


A dozen times we loaded onto the bus

and rode down the path through the jungle,

heading for the island’s airfield. We were ready

to take flight and complete our mission,

but we turned back every time, our orders

canceled. Once, the general lost his nerve.

Another time, all the officers decided we

couldn’t attack without eating breakfast first.

So we turned the bus around

and headed back to the canteen…


Three women sat across the table from me,

dressed in twill uniforms like the Andrews Sisters,

curly hair spilling from their garrison caps.

I watched them flirt with the enlisted men.

I argued with them. I made a fool of myself again.

Meanwhile, my friends devoured bowls of oatmeal,

drank water from clean glasses, wiped their hands

on paper napkins. They didn’t say grace,

didn’t pat their bellies, didn’t ask for more.


We were waiting, all of us, for the last day

to arrive, when the word would come down

and we’d get our final orders (we were so sick

and tired of all the tests and drills), when the bus

would reach the end of the jungle path

and let us off at the airfield, that broad flat clearing

with the red and green lights flashing maniacally

in the short grass on both sides of the runway.

How many days and nights did we wait?

How many of us prayed for the word to come down?


The dream ended. I sat up in bed, trying to

picture everyone I’d left behind on that island,

all the enlisted men and officers and their scowling general.

The end of the world — why did we pray so hard for it?

And do they still pray for it now that I’ve left them?

Maybe it was my disappearance they were waiting for

and now the planes are taking off, one by one, from the airfield

and in the fishbowl view of every gunner’s glass turret

the red and green lights are fading in the distance…


See what I mean about clichés? I was born in 1961, long after the heyday of the Andrews Sisters (see photo above), and yet they somehow managed to worm their way into my subconscious.

I also thought of World War II clichés when reading the opening paragraphs of this first-page submission. I love the idea of featuring a strong, outspoken WAC corporal in this novel, but Corporal Allen goes a little overboard with her Midwest farm-girl metaphors: “Drawing water from the hall’s drinking fountain is like a castrated bull fathering calves.” “As usual, the Colonel’s working like a crazed farmer chopping a hundred acres of wheat with a single scythe and only has two days before thunderstorms strike.” It’s just too much, too obvious. In this case, less is more. Also, I didn’t like the sentence, “She grinned a white smile.” Better to say something like, “She smiled. Her teeth were perfect.”

The colonel with the Texas twang doesn’t appear until the last few paragraphs of this submission, but I’m worried that he’s going to veer into cliché territory too. First of all, I was a bit thrown by the term “full bull colonel” – I assume that means the same thing as the more common term “full bird colonel” (so-called because of the eagle insignia on a colonel’s uniform), but maybe it carries the extra implication that the man is built like a bull (or full of bullshit)? Either way, I think I’ve seen this guy before in about a hundred World War II movies. In the following pages of the novel, I hope the author develops the colonel into a more original character.

But my biggest complaint with this submission is about the all-important point-of-view character, Captain Maxwell. He’s worse than a cliché — he’s a cipher. We know the size of his neck, but almost nothing about what’s going on inside his head. His main preoccupations seem to be annoyance about a buzzing fly and anxiety over missing a barroom rendezvous with a U.S. senator. From the latter, I assume the captain’s job is to be a liaison officer, a contact between the Army and Congress – why else would a lowly captain have drinks with a senator? – and that would’ve been a pretty cushy posting in July 1943 when thousands of other Army officers were dying in Sicily or the South Pacific. But I’m just guessing, you see. Because the author hasn’t told us what Maxwell is thinking, I have to make guesses, many of which are probably unflattering and unfair and make me dislike the character right off the bat.

That’s not a good way to start a novel. I’m always inclined to like the main character of a book, but the author has to give me at least an inkling of what the character is thinking and what he/she wants. Maybe Maxwell is extremely frustrated about being stationed in Washington. Maybe he’s dying to get away from his desk job and fight Hitler or Hirohito. But the author has to hint at this desire right at the beginning. Otherwise, I’m going to assume that Maxwell is just an irritable goldbricker, and I’ll probably stop reading the novel.

One more thing: Maxwell should kill the fly with a barehanded swat. It’s kind of gross, but also interesting. It would hint that he has fantastic reflexes, which might come in handy in combat scenes later on in the book. As I’ve said before on this blog, competent characters are always more interesting than incompetent ones.

Sorry, yet another thing: Despite Corporal Allen’s overactive farm metaphors, I got the sense that this petite brunette is, in 1940s lingo, “a real peach.” And yet Captain Maxwell doesn’t seem very interested in her. That was disappointing. Part of the allure of World War II stories is that their characters are usually eager to hop into bed with one another, mostly because the threat of death is so near. And giving Maxwell more of a sex drive would help to define the character and make him less of a cipher.


Race Day

Sorry, I had to wake up early this morning to see my daughter run in the citywide cross-country race, and I forgot about TKZ. I’ll save the post for next time!


First-Page Critique: Setting and Character

By Mark Alpert

Autumn has finally come to New York City. The weather is nice and cool, and the trees are starting to change color. At this fateful turn of the season, I’m ready to review another first-page submission from one of our anonymous TKZ contributors, an opening chapter that takes us to the other side of the country:

The Corrupting of Good Cops

Chapter One

The tall man leaned on the railing that ran along the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge.  He didn’t notice the rosy sunset. Instead, he watched the storm clouds gathering over the Taos Mountains to the northwest. A small black cloud had started the whole thing, then grew to an angry force barking thunder and whipping lightning across the sky.

A sun-bleached car rumbled across the narrow bridge. The man didn’t look up. He’d emptied his thoughts to listen to the earth. Many times before, the man had come to this bridge to think through his last case.

The storm clouds darkened as if to display their full menace. A bright bolt of lightning flashed across the heavens. Thunder answered in a low rumble. The man soaked up the force of both.

The tiniest sound of footfalls far down the bridge intruded. Without looking, he knew the person was graceful, maybe even trained as a model. She was confident in an easy way, and right now quite focused. Each footfall grew a tiny bit louder than the last. Then they stopped just short of being within arm’s reach.

“Are you going to look up?” a voice said.

“Why, am I missing something?”

“You should look.”

He turned his head slowly. The woman standing there was six feet tall and wore a black overcoat that fell open. Where he looked worn, she looked honed. Obviously, she had spent time in a gym.  She held up her badge.

“My name is—”

“Marilou Strickland, Santa Fe PD. I read the headlines when you solved the Quintana case. Good photo, by the way. What are you doing all the way up here?”

“Looking for you.”


“There’s been an explosion in Santa Fe. We need your help.”

“I’m not an expert on explosions. You have a very fine one named Cushmann in the Santa Fe Fire Department. Ask him.” The tall man looked back at the storm. “It’s going to rain, maybe snow soon.”

“I know,” she said, then went quiet.

He could feel her mood change. What she was about to say needed more than her usual confidence.

“There are eight people dead. They were all bound and gagged.”

“Sounds like you have your hands full.”

“I need you to take this seriously.”

He faced her again. “Okay. When did this happen?”

“About four hours ago.”


“In an abandoned barn on a dirt road near Aqua Fria.”

“Why do you need me?”


Let’s talk about fictional settings, specifically the setting at the very start of a novel. I’ve been to the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge in New Mexico, and I can confirm that it’s a pretty spectacular place (see photo above). But I don’t think the author of this first chapter has taken full advantage of the setting. Please allow me to explain.

I visited New Mexico in the summer of 1987, a couple of weeks after I quit my job as a newspaper reporter for the Montgomery Advertiser in Alabama. I’d been unhappy at the newspaper for several months, ever since they hired a city editor I didn’t like. The job became so uncomfortable that every afternoon I would escape the newsroom and wander over to the one decent bookstore in downtown Montgomery to leaf through the bestsellers and magazines for an hour or so. I’d already interviewed for a reporting position at one of the magazines I was perusing — Fortune, the business magazine, alma mater of James Agee, my favorite writer at the time — and although the interview had gone well, they hadn’t offered me a job yet. The waiting became intolerable, so one day in July I gave the Advertiser two-weeks notice, even though I didn’t have another job lined up. I didn’t have a lot of money in my savings account either, but I was 26 and single. I could afford to be reckless.

After my last two weeks at the newspaper, I loaded up my car — an ’81 Trans Am, with the infamous screaming chicken on the hood — and headed west. That was a strategy I’d picked up from another of my favorite writers, Robert Penn Warren; when Jack Burden, the narrator of All The King’s Men, hits rock-bottom, he hops into his car and goes west. I’ll let Warren describe the impulse, since he’s a much better writer than I am:

For West is where we all plan to go someday. It is where you go when the land gives out and the old-field pines encroach. It is where you go when you get the letter saying: Flee, all is discovered. It is where you go when you look down at the blade in your hand and the blood on it. It is where you go when you are told that you are a bubble on the tide of empire. It is where you go when you hear that thar’s gold in them-thar hills. It is where you go to grow up with the country. It is where you go to spend your old age. Or it is just where you go.

So that’s where I went. Actually, my precise heading was southwest, because my first stop was New Orleans, where I spent a very enjoyable week. But then I sobered up and drove to Houston, Austin, and San Antonio, and then the long, dry trek to El Paso and Ciudad Juarez. Like Jack Burden, I was troubled. At rest-stop bathrooms along the interstate, I would stare at myself in the mirror and whisper, “What the hell am I doing here?” I was seeking an epiphany, a vision, something final and ghastly, like what Burden experienced at the end of his fictional westward journey:

…and though the mad poet William Blake wrote a poem to tell the Adversary who is Prince of This World that He could not ever change Kate into Nan, the mad poet was quite wrong, for anybody can change Kate into Nan, or if indeed the Prince couldn’t change Kate into Nan it was only because Kate and Nan were exactly alike to begin with and were, in fact, the same with only the illusory difference of name, which meant nothing, for names meant nothing and all the words we speak meant nothing, and there was only the pulse in the blood and the twitch of the nerve, like a dead frog’s leg in the experiment when the electric current goes through. So when I lay there on the bed in Long Beach, and shut my eyes, I saw in the inward darkness as in mire the vast heave and contortion of numberless bodies, and limbs detached from bodies, sweating and perhaps bleeding from inexhaustible wounds. But finally this spectacle, which I could summon up by the mere act of closing my eyes, seemed merely funny to me. So I laughed out loud.

I never experienced any epiphanies like Jack Burden’s, but New Mexico – “Land of Enchantment,” as it says on the state’s license plate — was stunning enough to throw me off my usual mindset. For me, at least, the enchantment had a sinister edge. I drove into White Sands National Monument, where signs warned hikers of the lethal danger of dehydration, and found myself alone in a vast white sea of gypsum dunes. I visited the Trinity test site, where the first atom bomb had been detonated 42 years before. And like all the other tourists, I stopped in the parking lot at the western end of the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, and strolled along the bridge’s walkway to the center of the span so I could stare at the slender river 600 feet below. It’s a striking sight because the Rio Grande cuts through a high desert plain flanked by mountains (the Taos Mountains are actually northeast of the bridge, not northwest). As you drive across the dull expanse of desert scrub, you suddenly come upon this incredibly deep gouge in the earth, this mammoth crack that appears out of nowhere, and as you gaze into the abyss you can’t help but wonder at all the immensities hidden beneath the flat, unsuspecting ground.

Okay, I’m finally getting to the point. (Thank God!) If the author of this first chapter intends to set the scene in such a photogenic location, it seems a shame not to include at least a sentence or two describing its unusual beauty. Otherwise, why pick this bridge for the opening scene? The descriptions of the storm clouds don’t do it justice, because a storm could happen anywhere. Worse, it’s a cliché, one of the hoariest. “A dark and stormy night, etc.” There are better, more original ways to convey a sense of doom.

But in the opening scene of a novel, the most important function of setting isn’t to provide a colorful backdrop to the action or to establish the mood for the book. No, at the very beginning we’re most interested in learning about the point-of-view character (who is identified here only as “the tall man,” which puzzled me — is there a good reason not to reveal his name at this point?) and so the primary function of the setting should be to illuminate him. The author starts to do this by noting that the man often came to the bridge to “listen to the earth” and think about his “last case” (which led me to believe that he’s either a cop, a private detective or a lawyer), but that wasn’t enough for me. I wanted a hint of what the man was pondering as he stood on the bridge. Is he really thinking about a case now, or is he debating whether to jump? As it turns out, the Rio Grande Gorge is a popular place for suicides.

I grew even more concerned about the POV character’s mental balance when Officer Strickland says she came to the bridge because she was looking for him. How did she find out that he was likely to be there? Did she question his buddies at the local police station or courthouse? I can just imagine their response: “The tall guy? Yeah, he’s probably at the bridge. He’s been spending a lot of time there lately.” Really? Does that make any sense? Wouldn’t it be more logical for Strickland to reach out to him by phone beforehand to arrange this meeting?

My favorite line in the opening was Strickland’s statement “I need you to take this seriously.” It’s a nice clue to the POV character’s predicament, because the sentence is really a command — Strickland is able to order him around, and that made me wonder why. Is the tall man obligated to the authorities? Does he have a record, is he on probation? Did he disgrace himself somehow? Readers usually sympathize with characters who are in trouble, and the more trouble, the better.

Here are a few more comments and suggestions:

  • “The Corrupting of Good Cops” is a terrible title. Please come up with a new one.
  • I like the fact that the POV character immediately recognized Strickland from a newspaper photo, and that he knew the best explosives expert in Santa Fe. He has a great memory and solid connections. In other words, he’s competent, and competent characters are always more likable than incompetent ones.
  • I was skeptical, though, that the POV character could deduce so much about Strickland just from the sound of her footsteps. Come on, no one is that good. And later on, when he notes that he could “feel her mood change” — exactly what made him feel that way? Simply her silence? It would be better if he noticed something specific, maybe a twitch, or a change in her breathing.
  • The author describes Strickland’s overcoat falling open, but that begs the question, “What is she wearing underneath it?” Is she carrying a gun, and if so, where? And how can he tell that she’s honed? The reader wants specifics. They make the story come alive.

P.S.: A week after leaving New Mexico, I called Fortune Magazine from a pay phone at a roadside casino in Jean, Nevada. The editor came on the line and said, “Oh yes, I remember you, when can you start?” So I turned back east and headed for New York. And I’ve been here ever since.