About Mark Alpert

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

First-Page Critique: The Key to Writing Science Fiction

By Mark Alpert

What a fantastic fall evening! I just came back from a Friday-night college football game at Baker Field in Upper Manhattan, where the Princeton Tigers thrashed the Columbia Lions 45-10. And now, for your critiquing pleasure, here is the latest first-page submission from one of our courageous TKZ contributors:

Title:  Stars

Leon hated Vahrian airships, but since unloading them put beers on his table, he faked a smile as he picked up the last crate.

“Have a good evening, Captain,” he said.

Hope you fall in the sea and drown, Leon thought.

The Captain kept reading his book and reclined further in his chair. Scowling, Leon carried the crate out of the cabin. He stumbled along the jetty. Wooden planks groaned underfoot, and a wave crashed against the rocks, spraying him with water. He fumbled with the slippery crate, but kept hold, staggered off the jetty, and dumped the box beside the others he’d unloaded.

His back twanged and he winced. Back in his Academy days, he could’ve hauled cargo through a swamp for hours, but now he was past forty and those days were behind him.

The Captain strode along the jetty and walked past Leon, whistling. Buttons gleamed on the Vahrian’s jacket, and he swayed like a dancer as he strolled to the harbor office.

Prick, thought Leon.

He watched until the Captain disappeared amongst the harbour’s bustling sailors. It wasn’t enough that Vahria had bombed the hell out of Paya’s Discs in the War, or that the airship’s crates weighed more than an asteroid. No. The worst part was people like him. Young men in starched jackets, who refused to look Payans in the eyes.

Someone tapped Leon’s shoulder. “Leon de Velasco?”

He turned. A young woman stood behind him, wrapped in a bulky, dirt-stained cloak. A cowl cast her face into shadow. She couldn’t be over twenty, and looked odd amongst the rancid-smelling fishers and the greasy-haired merchants who sniffed unattended crates.

Best of all, the girl was a Payan like him — not a Vahrian — which meant Leon didn’t need to hide how pissed off he was.

“What?” he asked.

“My name’s Elena. I need your help.”

Leon raised an eyebrow. With disheveled, shoulder-length hair, a tangled beard, and ratty clothes that reeked of beer, he didn’t get many requests for help, especially by young women.

“Got a ship you need unloaded?” he asked.


Two Vahrian soldiers swaggered past and bumped Elena.

“–we’ll catch them by tomorrow, chaps,” one soldier said.

Elena glared at the Vahrians as they strutted away. Leon frowned. Most Payans looked down when soldiers passed, but Elena’s eyes only grew harder.

“You were saying?” he said.


What’s the key to writing science fiction? I think it’s striking the right balance between the ordinary and the extraordinary. We read sci-fi to give our minds a chance to roam free, to cruise across the Milky Way at warp speed, to delve into the microscopic innards of a DNA molecule, to shatter the invisible barrier between our universe and its neighbors. At the same time, though, we want to see recognizable characters having realistic and believable reactions to all the amazing things they’re experiencing. As sci-fi writer Margaret Atwood put it, “If I was to create an imaginary garden I wanted the toads in it to be real.”

Think of the first book in the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov. The opening chapters are set on Trantor, the capital of the Galactic Empire, a planet that’s entirely covered by a single global building. When I read the book for the first time at the age of thirteen, I was totally fascinated by this idea. It sounded so insane, and yet it also made sense: if people kept constructing new houses and malls and office buildings, then eventually they’d pave over every last parcel of the planet’s surface. It was the ultimate vision of overdevelopment, the real-estate agent’s dream and the environmentalist’s nightmare. But who were the residents of Asimov’s imagined megastructure? They were mostly bureaucrat types, the plodding functionaries who kept the Galactic Empire humming. They were very pleased with themselves and very proud to be living at the center of their civilization, and they had no inkling that their empire was about to collapse. Sounds familiar, right?

Or think of the Dune books by Frank Herbert. Most of the action takes place on Arrakis, a desert planet where gigantic worms burrow underneath the sand and where water is so precious that the fluids in every human corpse are recycled. It’s also the battleground for two powerful dynastic families, House Atreides and House Harkonnen, whose members spy and betray and assassinate each other just like the Borgias and Medicis of Renaissance Italy. The weapons on Arrakis are futuristic, but the motives of the murderers are very familiar.

In today’s submission, titled Stars, I’m not getting a strong enough sense of the extraordinary. I want to be intrigued right away by the planet where the Vahrians have apparently subjugated the Payans, but in this draft I don’t see anything that’s particularly fascinating. One possible source of intrigue is the Vahrian airship, which is mentioned in the very first sentence of the piece but not described in any detail. Is it huge? Is it a space-going ship? Is it hovering beside the jetty or floating in the water? The opening sentences would be so much better if they included some flabbergasting detail such as, “It was one of the smallest Vahrian airships, only a thousand meters long.” Or maybe “Like a sea creature, the Vahrian airship took sustenance from the ocean, its gills extracting oxygen from the water and storing the fuel in the ship’s propulsion fins.” The opening scene needs to grab the readers right away and make them want to learn more about this crazy civilization.

I also wondered if there were any physical differences between the Vahrians and the Payans. It sounds like they’re both humanoid species or races, but are Vahrians generally taller or darker or hairier than Payans? Or maybe every Vahrian has an extra finger on his or her left hand? And what kind of weapons were the Vahrian soldiers carrying? The author should take every opportunity to start creating a whole new world, complete with marvels and mysteries.

Last, I wanted the encounter between Leon and Elena to be more dramatic. After the Vahrian soldiers bumped Elena, she should do more than simply glare at them. Maybe she should make a surreptitious obscene gesture that only Leon notices, an ancient Payan hand motion that means “Screw you” or something similar. It would be the kind of gesture that would get Elena arrested and maybe even executed if the Vahrians had seen it, and so this act of defiance impresses Leon greatly. It makes him think, “Okay, this woman is serious.”

What do you think, TKZ-ers?


Speaking of science fiction, check out my website to see the latest news about my next novel, THE COMING STORM.

“Mark Alpert’s latest nail-biter THE COMING STORM starts with a terrifyingly plausible look at what lies just beyond our political horizon and ends on a note even more disturbing and frightening. This novel isn’t just ripped from the headlines, it’s an alarm bell ringing from the near-future, a prescient warning of where we’re headed next. Read this now—before it’s literally too late.”
— James Rollins, author of New York Times bestseller THE DEMON CROWN


Another Deadline

By Mark Alpert

Me to Editor: I’m writing the book’s epilogue right now. As we speak.

Editor: Really?

Me: Yes! I’m, like, three paragraphs from the end. And I’m pushing aside everything else to get it done. No phone calls, no emails, no social media, no blog posts. I’m not even reading the newspaper.

Editor: So you didn’t hear what happened with Paul Manafort?

Me: Okay, I read that story. I mean, I had to. But nothing else, I swear.

Editor: All right, all right. Just send me the manuscript as soon as you can.



New Favorites

By Mark Alpert

When I think about my favorite authors, I usually divide them into two groups, the Old Favorites and the New Favorites. The Old Favorites are the writers I’ve loved for decades: Hemingway, Steinbeck, Pynchon, etc. The New Favorites are the authors I’ve embraced in just the past few years: Colson Whitehead, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Olen Steinhauer, and so on.

Who are your New Favorites?


Hometown Mysteries

By Mark Alpert

This summer my 16-year-old daughter volunteered to deliver meals to homebound senior citizens in our neighborhood (the Upper West Side of Manhattan). She usually does the route with her best friend — it’s a two-person job, because there are so many meals to deliver — but her friend was on vacation this week, so a few days ago my daughter asked me if I wanted to come along with her. I said yes, of course.

And the experience was an eye-opener. Although I’ve lived on the Upper West Side for most of my life — 32 of my 57 years — it turns out that I don’t know the neighborhood very well. Because the apartment prices and rents are so high here, I’d always assumed that the great majority of the residents range from comfortably well-off to appallingly wealthy. There aren’t any big housing projects on the West Side between 66th and 96th Streets, and most of the buildings are either glitzy high-rises or stately brownstones. What I failed to realize was that you can’t judge a building by its facade. You have to go inside and walk the hallways and ride the elevators to get a truer picture of the neighborhood’s diversity.

The church where the meals are prepared and packaged is on the corner of 86th Street and West End Avenue. The volunteers delivering the meals are assigned to routes that are identified by the names of popular musicians — the Springsteen route, the Madonna route, the Marley route, etc. (I’m not sure why.) On the day that I accompanied my daughter, she was assigned to the Joplin route. Because she studied piano for several years, she’d assumed that the musician being referenced was Scott Joplin, but I argued it was more likely to be Janis Joplin. She didn’t know who Janis Joplin was, so I proceeded to fill this woeful gap in her musical knowledge by belting out snatches of “Piece of My Heart” and “Me and Bobby McGee.” It was very embarrassing for her.

The Joplin route took us to several West Side buildings between 86th and 90th Streets. I pushed a shopping cart loaded with two big insulated bags, a blue bag filled with cold meals and a red bag filled with hot ones. My daughter carried the list of senior citizens and their addresses. Luckily, some of the apartment buildings we visited had more than one meal recipient, and that reduced the amount of walking we had to do. The concentration of seniors in certain buildings was no accident; landlords in New York City can get various government subsidies by reserving a certain percentage of their apartments for senior citizens and/or low-income residents, who generally pay much lower rents than the market-rate tenants.

This strategy helps to keep New York affordable for seniors on fixed incomes, but I discovered that it also triggers occasional flare-ups of class conflict. While delivering meals in one of the mixed-income buildings, my daughter and I had to squeeze into a slow, crowded elevator car filled with exasperated yuppies. A young upwardly mobile woman, obviously one of the building’s market-rate tenants (whom I will call Grace, for no real reason), stood in the corner of the car with her laptop open, trying to get a few extra seconds of work done on her way to the office. (Or maybe she was doing something else on the computer, I really don’t know.) Grace’s boyfriend or husband stood in the opposite corner, looking equally annoyed. I was very polite as I maneuvered the shopping cart into the elevator, but I don’t think anyone appreciated my courtesy. The elevator stopped again on the way down to the lobby, and an elderly woman stepped into the car. Grace let out an irritated sigh; I ignored it, but my daughter stared at her, amazed by Grace’s rudeness. Grace stared back at her and said, very loudly, like a challenge, “What?”

I was oblivious to the exchange, staring straight ahead, still trying to be polite. (For a writer, I’m an incredibly unobservant person.) I heard the rude “What?” but I thought Grace was addressing her boyfriend/husband, directing her irritation at him. Once we were out of the building, though, my daughter explained what had happened. As we continued delivering meals, we tried to figure out why Grace had focused her anger at us. Was it because we were helping the low-income seniors in her building? And perhaps Grace resented the fact that she paid the market rent (probably about $3,000 a month for a one-bedroom apartment) and yet she had to rub shoulders with much poorer people who paid a small fraction of that rent for the same amount of space?

I didn’t fully understand it, but it was interesting. It’s one of the mysteries of my hometown, where millions of people are crammed onto a small island and spend most of their days ignoring, resenting, helping, and amusing one another.

Maybe I’ll work it into a novel.


The Walking Cure

By Mark Alpert

If you’re a writer of fiction, you’ve probably faced this dilemma.

You’re staring at the blank screen of your computer. You want to start a new chapter of your novel, but you can’t think of the first sentence. You go to the kitchen and open the refrigerator. No answers there. Nothing occurs to you while you’re eating your sandwich or drinking your coffee. So you decide to take a shower. You stand under the hot water for the next thirty minutes, trying to focus on plot and character and setting. Still nothing.

Then you give up and take a nap. I know, I’ve been there. Many times.

But if I’m being smart and strategic, I’ll go for a walk. Ideas come to me like magic when I’m walking. The conditions have to be right, though.

First of all, it can’t be raining. And if it’s cold outside, I have to be dressed warmly. I don’t want to be distracted by physical discomfort.

Also, I don’t want to be distracted by traffic. In my neighborhood (the Upper West Side of Manhattan), every time you come to an intersection you have to focus at least part of your brain on the traffic lights, careening taxis, deliverymen on bicycles, etc. And when I’m thinking about my book, I need to devote my whole brain to the task. I want every last neuron working on the problem. So my solution is to choose pedestrian-only routes that aren’t very crowded. There’s a nice oval path that surrounds the Great Lawn in Central Park, and in the winter it’s pretty empty.

Even closer to my apartment building is the superblock that contains the American Museum of Natural History and the Hayden Planetarium. They call it a superblock because it stretches without interruption from 77th Street to 81st Street, a distance of about 320 yards. East to west, it’s shorter — 270 yards (the distance between Columbus Avenue and Central Park West). So the total length of a circumnavigation of the superblock is 1,180 yards, or about two-thirds of a mile. (But my actual route cuts through the small park outside the planetarium, so the total distance is a bit less.)

I don’t go to the superblock when the museum is open, because there’s usually a crowd at the Central Park West entrance, and I don’t want to expend any mental energy on dodging the tourists. But at night it’s perfect. Last night I walked three times around the museum block and figured out exactly what’s going to happen in the last six chapters of the Young Adult novel I’m writing. Although there are a lot of interesting things to see on this particular route — the museum’s medieval turrets, the statue of Teddy Roosevelt on horseback, the giant models of the planets behind the planetarium’s glass front — I’ve seen all of them a million times already, so I don’t have to think about them. I can focus on the book.

Don’t get me wrong: The focus isn’t always laser sharp. Last night I crossed paths with a large roach scuttling down the sidewalk, his carapace shining under the streetlights. I wished him well. (The insect could’ve been female, though. I didn’t get close enough to check.) I also saw a whole family of rats scurry out of a garbage can. I yelled at them, pretty loud, “Hey! I’m walking here!” They didn’t get the movie reference. (It’s Dustin Hoffman’s famously unscripted line in Midnight Cowboy, as pictured above.)

But that’s summer in the big city. I enjoy communing with the local wildlife while I think about my characters. At 10 p.m. I returned to my apartment, turned on the air conditioner, and wrote a paragraph-long summary for each of the final six chapters. Now I just have to write them.


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?


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.


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?


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

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

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?


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.