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

Great Beginnings

By Mark Alpert

Here is my favorite first sentence of any novel, the English translation of the opening lines of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s masterpiece, One Hundred Years of Solitude:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

I like this sentence so much, I’ve memorized it. I recite it at parties after I have a drink or two.

What’s your favorite first sentence?

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Sequel Fatigue

By Mark Alpert

Summer is the time for movie sequels, so I went with my wife and daughter this week to see Incredibles 2, the long-awaited follow-up to the blockbuster 2004 animated film about a superhero family. And I was disappointed.

It isn’t a bad movie. Parts of it are funny. And the animation is beautiful. But it just didn’t live up to the original Incredibles. There’s no way it could’ve.

When the original came out, my kids were five and three. We got the DVD, of course, and over the next few years we watched it at least a dozen times. I became convinced that this was a perfect movie. Better than Shrek or Toy Story. Even better than Finding Nemo. (As you can tell, I was watching a lot of animated films back then.)

So the bar for the Incredibles sequel was set very high, almost impossible to reach. And many book sequels face an equally tough challenge. Dune, the first novel in the sci-fi series by Frank Herbert, was far better than any of the books that came after it. The same thing can be said for The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, The Magicians, and Ender’s Game. But it’s not true of all series, of course. The Harry Potter books, in particular, seemed to get better as the series went on. I felt the same way about Stephen King’s Dark Tower books. (It’s hard to make a similar judgment about George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels because he hasn’t finished the series yet. My favorite book so far, though, is the third one, A Storm of Swords.)

I guess you could say I’m suffering from sequel fatigue. I recently wrote a trilogy of Young Adult novels published by Sourcebooks — The Six (2015), The Siege (2016), and The Silence (2017) — and in retrospect it seems that the first book was definitely the best. So now I’m back to writing standalone novels. The Coming Storm, a thriller about our very dysfunctional government, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in January. And right now I’m working on a Young Adult novel about God and faith. It’s kind of a crazy stunt — publishers hate books about religion because they’re bound to offend someone — but I can’t stop myself. At least it won’t have a sequel.

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A #MeToo Story?

By Mark Alpert

Thanks to an interesting anonymous submission from one of our TKZ contributors, we have a chance to discuss the art of writing fiction about important, topical subjects. Here is the first page of the proposed novel:

Title: Cooper’s Loot

As she drove away from the gas station pumps, an odd inspiration yanked Beverly Wikowski into a U-turn toward a neon sign she’d glimpsed in her rearview mirror. She entered the adjoining gravel lot, where “Beer Here” in frosty blue letters blinked like a beacon in the dripping November night. She didn’t need a beer, but a sudden thirst for a shot of misogyny blocked her from starting the sixty-mile journey home.

Not that she would drink it herself. She’d had enough of that beverage.

After parking her ’64 VW Beetle next to the front door, Bev peered out her windshield at the Spar Pole Saloon, which had to have been built not long after Lewis and Clark had paddled by on the Columbia River. Brown planks pocked with paint blisters and bare wood glistened with rain beneath the neon sign. From nearby pulp mills, the odor of boiled cabbage climbed inside her car, rode shotgun, sat in her lap, and filled the backseat.

It took her a minute to unearth from her purse a largely unused maroon lipstick. In the flash-dark light, she applied a thin layer and rubbed her lips together. She imagined the day-shifters would be quaffing at least their third Coors or Hamm’s or whatever they drank in Kelso. They’d notice her right away. Female flesh. Plus, she was from out of town and didn’t exude blue collar.

It would be easy to get them talking. They’d be thinking, hey, city chick, hippy-aged, maybe loose in the skirt, which she happened to be wearing, not a mini-skirt but more an earth momma variation, brown like a buck deer. They’d like her wavy ginger-blonde hair, which she topped with a cream-colored fedora hat. The dim lighting would obscure her hazel eyes, but it would also hide the two little zits on her neck.

Not that she gave a rat’s ass what these men thought of her.


I liked this first-page submission. What I liked most about it was the narrative voice, which seemed full of anger. (Especially that last line.) Strong emotion works really well at the opening of a novel, because it wakes up the reader. It makes you ask questions: Why is Beverly Wikowski so angry? Who or what is she angry at? Lecherous, predatory men? And what sparked this anger? What’s her history? Most important, what is she going to do with her fury? Will she bottle it up or let it rip? The reader wants to know the answers to these questions, and that gives him or her a strong motivation to keep reading. It’s a great hook.

The hook sank into me with the phrase “a sudden thirst for a shot of misogyny.” I didn’t understand what the phrase meant — why did this woman want an encounter with woman-haters? — but it intrigued me nonetheless. The next two sentences (“Not that she would drink it herself. She’d had enough of that beverage”) didn’t really clarify things. Actually, it’s a contradiction; first Beverly says she’s thirsty for the misogyny, and then she says she wouldn’t drink it. So I was confused. I started wondering, “What does the author really mean?” and I made a few guesses. And my best guess was that Beverly hates the misogyny because she’d been badly hurt by misogynists in the past, but she’s eager to see it again at the Spar Pole Saloon so she can punish the perpetrators. In other word, what she’s truly thirsty for is revenge.

Now I could be totally wrong about this. A revenge plot could be the farthest thing from the author’s mind. That’s the problem with making guesses based on a submission of only 300 words. So I apologize to the author if I’m completely off base. But at the same time, I feel compelled to point out that this would make a fantastic plot for a suspense novel.

Think about it. Ever since the disgusting revelations about Harvey Weinstein last year, there’s been a flood of news stories about men treating women with criminally horrible cruelty. Thanks to the #MeToo movement, we’re now all-too-familiar with the arrogant perversions of celebrities such as Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose. The disclosures have also tainted the reputations of several novelists whose books I admired: Sherman Alexie (author of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian), Jay Asher (Thirteen Reasons Why), and James Dashner (The Maze Runner), just to name a few.

I’m stunned by the depth and breadth of this reprehensible behavior. But, as my wife and daughter like to point out, the main reason why I’m so surprised is because I’m a man. Women have to deal with this crap all the time. My daughter is only sixteen but already she has to endure catcalls on the street. She tries to laugh it off, but I don’t think it’s funny. Not one damn bit.

So as I read today’s first-page piece, I started to think about the asymmetry of this kind of aggression. Because I’m a man, I’ve never been catcalled in my life. No man or woman has ever verbally belittled me on the street, despite the fact that there’s no shortage of possible insults that strangers could hurl at me — I’m short, I don’t shave very often, I dress like a slob. There seems to be an iron rule for interactions among strangers, definitely here in New York and probably elsewhere: men can feel free to insult women, but they almost never insult other men. And the reasoning behind this rule is very clear. If one man insults another on the street, there’s a good chance he’ll get socked in the jaw.

We like to think that we behave morally because of lessons that our parents or preachers taught us, or because of an innate sense of honor, or because it just seems more rational to act in a civilized way. But with many people and in many cases — like when entitled college kids get rowdy at frat parties, or when cocky corporate titans invite underlings to their hotel rooms — all the good angels fall silent, and the only thing that can stop despicable behavior is the fear of punishment or retaliation. And that’s why I love the idea of a wronged woman who goes to disreputable bars across the country (or just in her own state, Lord knows there’s enough of them) and actively seeks out misogynists of all types so she can punish and/or humiliate them.

The punishment could be physical and violent, like the kind that Charles Bronson doled out in Death Wish. I got the sense that Beverly Wikowski is someone you shouldn’t trifle with. She’s well aware of the impressions that her clothing and figure will make on the men in the Spar Pole Saloon, so much so that I wondered whether she’d chosen that particular costume to lure the men to their doom. Or perhaps the author has something cleverer in mind, maybe some kind of mental or spiritual torment that Beverly will inflict. Either way, readers will want to see what happens. They might continue to cheer on the protagonist even if her own mental compass starts to go haywire (which is what happens in Monster, the 2003 film, which has a similar revenge plot, now that I think about it).

In addition to being topical, the book might also have a beneficial effect on gender relations. If only one woman out of a hundred blackjacked any man who tried to sexually harass her, I bet the rate of harassment would plummet. And the example of a fictional character can also influence events in the real world. Just think of all the people who stopped swimming in the ocean because they read Jaws. So if “Cooper’s Loot” is published and widely read, maybe it’ll serve as a warning. The next time that some pervert thinks about exposing himself to a bunch of schoolgirls, maybe he’ll remember what Beverly Wikowski did to those men in the Spar Pole Saloon, and he’ll keep his pants zipped.

By the way, there’s a fair amount of good writing in these 300 words. Any writer who uses the verb “quaff” deserves some kudos. And I liked “loose in the skirt” too. A couple of criticisms: The odors of pulp mills and boiled cabbage are not quite the same, and in this case the comparison seems to weaken the sentence. I’d change it to “The odor of nearby pulp mills climbed inside her car, rode shotgun, sat in her lap, and filled the backseat.” That’s better, right? And I wondered about the pair of zits on Beverly’s neck. Is this a random physical trait, or is there some significance to it? It made me think of a vampire’s bite. It’s kind of distracting, so I’d cut this detail unless it’s important to the plot and/or character.

Any other thoughts on this submission, TKZ-ers?

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The Basics of World-Building

By Mark Alpert

Thanks to a plucky TKZ contributor, we have the opportunity today to talk about world-building in fantasy and science fiction novels. First, let’s take a gander (pun intended; see below) at the fictional world being built in the anonymous contributor’s first-page submission:

Havilah Where There Is Gold

Bacon sizzled, but after a rueful glance at the grill Christine pushed the
menu aside. Assistant Ranger Christine Lemin still had a lot to learn about
her job at Wildwood State Park, but she was already well acquainted with
the unhurried pace at Stacy’s Diner. From her perch at the worn counter,
she had a perfect view of the rack of breakfast orders vying for the cook’s
attention. A carryout sandwich would take forever, never mind a full
breakfast, and she had no intention of being late for work during her first
week. The coffee was good, at least, and by resolutely turning her eyes
from the grill she could feast on the view through the diner’s wide
windows. Feathery clouds tickled the whitened shoulders of the Keystone
Mountains, while at their pine-shod feet Lake Wikitaw stretched like a
dozing cat. Her park. Her domain. She still had to pinch herself to believe
it.

A sparrow flashed past her head, a fresh ticket in its beak. The flutter of
wings dislodged a wisp of her hair, but as this was the bird’s third
flyover since arriving this morning she no longer ducked. The heavyset cook
working the long grill snatched the slip of paper in midair and slotted it
in the rack without missing a beat — or picking up her feet, Christine
noticed with a squint.

“What’ll it be, Ranger?” Stacy Nilikut called over the sizzle of frying
sausages, taking notice at last. A colorful toque inspired by the woven
hats of her Nez Perce ancestors capped the chef’s round, serious face. Her
ample contours were clad in an immaculate white tunic.

Christine got ready with her excuse — and willed herself not to look at the
rack of unfilled orders — when a squirrel scrambled over the edge of the
counter. Christine yelped, sloshing her coffee.

“Good morning, Ingrid,” she sputtered, grabbing a napkin. “I love your
apron.”

Some things about the park were still taking a bit of getting used to.

The squirrel flipped her tail shyly and plunged her paws into the apron’s
frilly pink pockets. After a search, she produced a small pad and pencil.
Christine looked into the squirrel’s proud, coal-black eyes and knew she
had to order something.

“I’ll just have a donut this morning, please,” she improvised. “I hear
they’re delicious.”


For readers of fantasy and sci-fi novels, almost nothing is more fun than entering a brilliantly imagined fictional world. I’ve spent many ecstatic hours roaming the fantasy worlds of George R.R. Martin’s Westeros, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, C.S. Lewis’s Narnia, and Lev Grossman’s Fillory. I’ve also been a frequent visitor to the science-fiction galaxies portrayed in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, Frank Herbert’s Dune series, Orson Scott Card’s Ender series, and Vernor Vinge’s novels. I could probably fill a whole zoo with all the marvelous animals I’ve encountered in these books: Martin’s dragons and dire wolves, Tolkien’s giant spiders, Grossman’s Cozy Horse, Herbert’s sandworms, Vinge’s Tines, etc. etc.

Perhaps the trickiest part of constructing a fantasy or sci-fi world is figuring out how to introduce readers to the fictional landscape at the start of the novel. There are two popular strategies for accomplishing this feat. The first strategy is to insert ordinary people from the ordinary world into the fantastical reality and describe their astounded reactions. In Lewis’s Narnia books, for example, the Pevensie children enter the magical world through a wardrobe in a spare room of a country house; in Grossman’s The Magicians, Quentin Coldwater follows a fluttering piece of paper across an abandoned lot in Brooklyn and suddenly finds himself at Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy. The advantage of this strategy is that the reader naturally identifies with the ordinary interlopers.

The second strategy is to abandon the ordinary world entirely and plunge right into the fantastic. Martin, for example, drops his readers into Westeros with no preparation, but it doesn’t take long for them to find their orientation. (Going beyond the Wall is bad. Going to King’s Landing can be even worse.) Asimov’s, Herbert’s, and Vinge’s novels are all set in the far-distant future, so many thousands of years from now that humans have spread across the galaxy and there’s virtually no memory of ordinary life on Earth. You may notice, though, that in many of these books the main characters are relatively innocent souls (like Tolkien’s hobbits or Herbert’s Paul Atreides) who must travel to more dangerous regions (Mordor of Middle Earth, the desert planet of Arrakis) to battle terrible enemies (Sauron, Baron Harkonnen).

Now, with this background in mind, let’s consider the strategy employed in today’s first-page submission, which takes the reader to the aptly named Wildwood State Park. The point-of-view character, Assistant Ranger Christine Lemin, is a newcomer to the park who still has a lot to learn about her job, but this clearly isn’t her very first visit to Wildwood. This halfway approach allows her to show some surprise when she sees the park’s animals performing human tasks at Stacy’s Diner, but she doesn’t need to show any shock or horror, because she’s already become somewhat accustomed to the craziness. This strategy naturally creates a comic tone, especially when Christine tries to act nonchalant when Ingrid the squirrel takes her order.

I felt, though, that the author could’ve started the novel more dramatically by turning the introduction of the intelligent animals into a Big Moment. To demonstrate what I mean, I’m going to refer to a scene in the first episode of the second season of the TV series The Man in the High Castle, which is based on the novel by sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick (although the TV show strays pretty far from the book). The novel is about an alternate history in which Germany and Japan defeat the U.S. in World War II and partition the country afterward. The TV scene shows teenage children entering a classroom in an ordinary-looking American school. The children’s school uniforms look a bit militaristic, but not overly so. They begin their day by facing the front of the room to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, but instead of placing their hands over their hearts they stretch their arms forward in the Nazi salute. They’re pledging allegiance to Hitler. It’s a Big Moment, surprising and horrifying.

In the first-page submission, the Big Moment feels a bit diluted. The first hint of strangeness is the sparrow carrying a ticket in its mouth, but the bird is described in such a desultory way that it doesn’t have much impact. The description of Ingrid the squirrel is better; I liked the animal’s pink apron and tiny order pad. But it also felt a little too cute. It made me think of the helpful mice and birds in Disney movies, such as the ones who sewed Cinderella’s dress. (For a great parody of the garment-making rodents, check out this Saturday Night Live clip.)

I have a suggestion for improving this opening scene and turning it into a really Big Moment. Instead of Ingrid the squirrel, what if the waitress at Stacy’s Diner was a gigantic, fearsome grizzly bear? The scene could show the bear bursting out of the diner’s kitchen and Christine desperately trying to curb her fear as the grizzly lumbers across the room, knocking over all the chairs and tables in its path. Then the bear would rear up on its hind legs and reach one of its enormous paws into its pink apron and growl, “Hey, Christine, what’ll it be today?”

You see what I mean? The bigger the surprise, the better.

Any other thoughts about this submission, TKZ-ers?

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The Cover Reveal

By Mark Alpert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Best States for Writers

By Mark Alpert

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Mark Alpert

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

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

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

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

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


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

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In Praise of Writing Groups

By Mark Alpert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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First-Page Critique: A Mystery Worth Solving

By Mark Alpert

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

SHADOWS FOLLOW

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

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

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

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

“You could’ve said it.”

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

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

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

Well played, little vermin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It wasn’t a medallion.

The cat was wearing a small button camera.

————————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3+

Four Lessons From Colson Whitehead

By Mark Alpert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lumbly shrugged. “Far enough for you.”

“It must have taken years.”

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

“Who built it?”

“Who builds anything in this country?”

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

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

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

6+