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

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.

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“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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The Chase

By Mark Alpert

The template for many works of suspense fiction is The Chase. In detective novels and police procedurals, the lawmen (and law-women!) are usually chasing the criminals. In scads of thrillers, the Forces of Evil are chasing the ordinary Joe (and Jill!) across the country, forcing the heroes and heroines to discover their extraordinary hidden talents. (Think of North by Northwest. Or Something Wild. Or anything by Dan Brown.)

The Chase is a useful plot device because it can imbue a manuscript with that magic ingredient that publishers like to call “narrative drive.” If the characters are constantly moving and dodging and pouncing and fleeing, then perhaps the reader will get caught up in the frantic journey, lured by the tease of “What will happen next?” The device works best when the characters are also learning and exploring as they dash from place to place, unearthing clues to the book’s central mystery and maybe discovering a few things about themselves in the process.

The Chase can also give your readers a chance to visit — at least vicariously, through the book’s characters — some exotic, fascinating places. In my first novel, Final Theory, the cross-country chase takes my characters to Einstein’s house in Princeton, N.J., then the Robotics Institute at Carnegie-Mellon, then the hills and hollers of West Virginia, then the infantry training grounds at Fort Benning, and finally the Fermi National Accelerator Lab near Chicago. In my next two novels, The Chase went overseas: to Israel, Iran and Turkmenistan in The Omega Theory, and to Panama, Afghanistan and China in Extinction.

I’ve used this device in my Young Adult novels as well. In my latest book, The Silence (pictured above), I’ve imagined the most far-out chase yet. It goes from the deserts of New Mexico to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, and then it gets really crazy. I can’t even describe it. You just have to read the book.

And right now I’m in the midst of writing yet another chase sequence, but this one is closer to home. My next thriller for St. Martin’s (working title: Superhuman) begins in Brooklyn, specifically Coney Island. My grandparents lived there when I was a kid, and I used to love visiting the boardwalk and the beach and the amusement park. But Coney Island is also one of the parts of NYC that’s most vulnerable to global warming; the neighborhood was inundated during Super-storm Sandy five years ago. Given our inexcusable lack of progress in controlling carbon emissions, it’s just a matter of time before the next super-storm obliterates the place. That’s what I’m imagining now. My childhood dreams are turning to nightmares.

And where will The Chase go from there? Well, there are a lot of fascinating places in Brooklyn. Green-Wood Cemetery. The Gowanus Canal. Junior’s Cheesecake. I’ll let you know when I get there!

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Today’s Lesson

By Mark Alpert

I’m struggling to meet this week’s word quota for the novel I’m writing, so I’ll offer just a short piece of advice to everyone else out there, the same advice I’m muttering under my breath like a mantra as I try to finish the latest chapter:

Write from inside the main character’s head. Not from outside her body.

It’s good advice, but so easy to forget!

P.S.: I’m arranging a little party for the launch of my next book, THE SILENCE, the conclusion to my trilogy of Young Adult novels (see cover above). The party will be at Books of Wonder, Manhattan’s finest children’s bookstore, on the evening of July 6th. If you happen to be in NYC then, stop by!

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Defining Success For Writers

By Mark Alpert

Blogs like The Kill Zone often emphasize the obstacles that writers face. We want to offer helpful advice to fiction writers who may be struggling to start or finish a manuscript or trying to navigate the publishing process, so it makes sense to focus on the hurdles that all aspiring novelists have to confront. But I think it’s also helpful to look at the rewards that lie at the end of the race.

I’m not talking about the rewards of money or fame. For the most part, those are unrealistic expectations. The majority of published novelists earn less than the minimum wage for their fiction, once you factor in all the time they put into it. No, I’m talking about a more subtle and satisfying kind of compensation: the joy of seeing your words have a positive impact on your audience, even if you have only a handful of readers.

I got a chance to experience this joy last weekend when I went to Patchogue, N.Y., to attend an event called Authors Unlimited. It’s organized by Derek Ivie, the youth services coordinator for Suffolk County’s Cooperative Library System, and he leads a great team of librarians from all over Long Island. At this year’s event, they invited eight authors of Young Adult and middle-grade books, and I was proud to be among them (see photo above).

Hundreds of kids gathered in an auditorium on the campus of St. Joseph’s College, and a dozen student volunteers holding pom-poms lined up in front of the stage. Derek introduced the authors in grand fashion: as he announced each name, the honoree dashed down the aisle to the front of the auditorium, like a football player rushing onto the field. At the same time, the student volunteers waved their pom-poms like cheerleaders, and the loudspeakers blared a snatch of music that was relevant to that particular author’s books. (I think they played something spacey or otherworldly when I ran to the stage, but I was so full of adrenalin at the time that I didn’t recognize it.)

All this hoopla might seem a little ridiculous, but I think it sent a powerful message to the kids: that books should be important to their lives, and that the creators of those books deserve the same kind of admiration that most people give only to sports heroes. And I could tell that the students were receiving this message loud and clear. They crowded into the question-and-answer sessions at the Authors Unlimited event and purchased an extraordinary number of books from their limited amount of spending money.

The impact of this message was probably strongest on the student volunteers. They were selected in a rigorous process that even required a letter of recommendation, and as a result they took their responsibilities very seriously. The volunteer assigned to help me — he directed me to the rooms where the question-and-answer sessions were held — was somewhat awed by his selection; he said something like, “I can’t believe that both my sister and me were picked.” This kind of realization can have an enormous impact on a kid; in fact, seeing yourself in a new, positive light can change the course of your life.

This goal, to get kids to look at themselves in a new way, is one of the main reasons why we Young Adult authors write for teenagers. When I was a teen, I loved reading science fiction and nonfiction because the books made me feel smart. When I finished a book by Isaac Asimov, I would say to myself, “Wow, I understood that book and really enjoyed it, so that must mean I’m a genius like Asimov!” I’m not a genius, unfortunately, but at least I thought I was for a while, and that alone had a positive effect on my life. And I can tell that my YA novels are having a similar effect on at least a few of my teenage readers. I can see it in their proud, self-confident eyes.

That’s the kind of reward I’m talking about.

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The Moral of the Story

By Mark Alpert

Now that I’m writing Young Adult novels – the third one, The Silence (pictured above), is coming out this July – I’ve started getting a lot of emails from high-school and middle-school students. My favorite messages are the ones from kids asking me for help with their book reports.

Some of the kids ask for biographical information, which is easy enough to provide. The kids want to know where I grew up, where I live now, how I occupy myself in my spare time, and whether I have any pets. Other kids want to know about influences: what were my favorite books when I was young, how do I come up with the ideas for my novels, and so on.

And some particularly clever kids cut right to the chase and ask the question that their English teachers undoubtedly urged them to explore: what is the theme of your books? Do they have an argument or a moral? In all likelihood, the teachers expected their students to analyze this question on their own, but it’s such a nebulous question that you can’t really blame the kids for going directly to the source.

I admire this kind of resourcefulness, so when kids ask me if my novels have any message or meaning, I try to give them a straight answer. I wrote the books, so I know their themes better than anyone else does. My wife sometimes chides me – “You’re doing their homework for them!” – but I don’t care. Those kids were smart and brave enough to approach an author, so they deserve a little reward.

When I was a kid, my favorite author was Isaac Asimov. I loved I, Robot and the Foundation series. I wish I’d had the courage back then to send him a note and ask a few questions. I almost got the chance when I was an adult; in 1990, when I was a reporter for Fortune Magazine, I set up an interview with Asimov for a special anniversary issue we were doing, “Great Visionaries of the Twentieth Century” or something like that. But Asimov was in poor health by then, and he had to cancel the interview. He died two years later.

But I did interview another idol of my childhood: Olivia Newton-John, the British-Australian singer famous for “Please Mr. Please” and “Have You Never Been Mellow.” This was in 1989, a few years after Newton-John’s star power had begun to wane. She was seeking publicity for a chain of women’s clothing stores she’d started. I didn’t meet her in person; I did the interview over the phone, but it was still a thrill to hear that sweet voice of my adolescent daydreams. Unfortunately, the publicity didn’t help her much — a few years later, her chain of clothing stores went bankrupt. Oh well.

That same year, I also interviewed two men who went on to become President. I talked on the phone with George W. Bush right after his dad’s buddies set him up in business, financing his purchase of the Texas Rangers. Strangely enough, I don’t remember anything he said – the guy made no impression on me at all. But I do remember talking to Trump. Fortune was doing a story about his financial troubles at the time, and I called him up to get some solid evidence that he was worth as much as he claimed. (He insisted, then and now, that he was a billionaire.) Trump promised to fax me a statement from his accountant, but when the statement arrived I saw that it was a year old, and it put his worth at only $640 million. I called Trump’s office to get him to discuss the discrepancy, and I left a message for him. I’m still waiting for him to call back.

What’s the moral of this story? Kids, I just don’t know.

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