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 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.)

5+

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.

4+

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!

1+

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.”

“Why?”

“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.”

“Where?”

“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.

5+

First Page Critique: Where To Start The Story

By Mark Alpert

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


Title: The Crichlow Chronicles

On the port

23rd November 2016, 9pm

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

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

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

So, tonight that was his plan.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

3+

This Is The End

By Mark Alpert

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

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

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

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

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

5+

A Counterterrorism Story

By Mark Alpert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4+

The Reward

By Mark Alpert

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

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

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

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

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

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

4+

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.

4+

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!

 

6+