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Thursday, February 17, 2011


Yesterday I finished the first draft of my third novel. Well, it's not really finished. I left a few blank spaces at the beginning of the book because I didn't start writing until last July and it's due in March and I was anxious to get the thing rolling. So now I have to go back to the beginning and fill in what's missing. But the important thing is, I've written the last sentence. And I added "THE END!" on the last page of the manuscript.

I had fun writing it. I write science thrillers because those are the books I liked when I was a kid -- The Andromeda Strain, The Terminal Man. But I also like mysteries and literary novels, and I love Stephen King and Lee Child and J.K. Rowling, and when I'm in the midst of writing a novel I often face the temptation of abandoning the whole difficult enterprise and reading someone else's book for a while. So I have to be very strict with myself. I tell myself, "If you want to finish this novel, you have to make it the most interesting thing in your life. Writing this book has to be more interesting than any show on television or any article in the New York Times or any movie that's playing." I didn't always succeed, but there were many mornings when I tossed the newspaper aside and thought, "This is boring. I'd rather work on the book."

But my favorite part is writing the last sentence. I love that moment. And I bet lots of novelists feel the same way. Now I finally know how the story will end. The uncertainty was really bothering me. I worked on these characters for seven months, spending just as much time with them as I spent with my family, and for most of that time I didn't know what was going to happen beyond the next chapter. I had a vague goal in mind but no idea how to get there. I would come home at night and tell my wife, "God, I don't know what Jim's gonna do. He's really in trouble." And she would say, "Who are you talking about? Are you talking about your characters again?"

Now the last puzzle piece is in place. I don't know if it's any good. In all likelihood, many sections of the manuscript are confusing or boring or wildly implausible (or all three) and my editor will advise me to rewrite huge chunks of it. But that's okay. During the revision process I'll try to make the story more sensible and entertaining for the reader. But at this point it makes sense to me.


Mark Alpert, a contributing editor at Scientific American, is the author of the international bestselling thriller Final Theory and its sequel, The Omega Theory, which comes out this month (see www.markalpert.com for more information). His third novel, which has no title yet, will be published next year.


Shirley said...

Mark, thanks so much for joining us today. I really enjoyed your comment about reading other peoples' work. I have a problem with that. There are so many good books out there, and it's hard to resist.

Do you write a certain amount, then treat yourself to a book? Or how do you manage to pull yourself away from that temptation?

DeLane said...

Is there a secret or formula to weaving in back story? Do you just mention a past event and then dive right in as though it were a part of the story you are in? Then when you are done relating a past event, how do you pull the story back into the present?
I too have always enjoyed reading in your genera. Love, Love, Love Octavia Butler! I would like to read one of yours. So where do I go to get one?

Wanda said...

I agree with you that it is very satisfying to write "The End". I am currently in my second revision of my first novel and I can't wait till I can write those words again. Do you have a set time you write each day? Or a certain amount of words or pages you must accomplish each time? Do you have a job job? If so how do you find the time and energy it takes to finish a book?
Enjoyed your post!

Beth said...

Good post, Mark. I assume you don't outline since you mentioned you don't know the beginning and also never know what will happen next. I don't outline either (except maybe a few hand scratched notes) and find the characters take over anyway.

I, too, love writing "THE END." Ahhh. There's nothing more satisfying. I can't imagine not knowing the beginning, though.

How did you publish your first novel? Did you use an agent? Query tons of publishers?

Thanks for guest blogging.

Beth said...

BTW, seven months seems really fast to finish a novel. Congrats! Thrillers are usually long, too. How many hours do you write a day? Do you have a set routine, i.e., mornings or afternoons?

Also, how many revisions do you usually go through? I do not enjoy revising after the first couple of passes. By then I start to tire of my novel and want to move on and write a new one. Any advice on getting past this?

Shirley said...

Mark, I hope you remember to stop by and answer our questions. Thanks to everyone who left comments. I'll draw for the free book tomorrow morning.

And thanks to Mark for your time.

StephanieJ said...

Sorry for a late comment. I actually find "the end" somewhat depressing because it means I have to then let the story sit and then the dreaded "e-word" edit.

Thank you for blogging for us, Mark. I can't wait to read your book and thank you for the inspiration.

S.K. Jarkins

Nancy said...

I would never have thought of plunging in somewhere "in the middle,"
finishing the story and then going back to the beginning. Hmmmmm......

Shirley said...

And the winner of the book is...................BETH CARTER|

No clue where our guest blogger is. Hopefully he'll still stop by and respond to our posts.

Congratulations Beth.

Janet Kay Gallagher said...

Hi Shirley and all.
I left a comment this morning and it isn't listed here.

Janet Kay Gallagher said...

Found it under his photo.

Mark said...

Sorry I'm late! I never stop reading entirely. For a writer, that's like refusing to breathe. But while I'm in the thick of writing a novel, I probably read only half as many books as usual. And I neglect a million other things, like lunches with friends, etc.

Back story can be really tough. Very difficult to make it seamless. In the draft I just finished there's a lot of focus on memory, specifically the question of whether a person's identity can be reconstructed if you could somehow collect all their memories. The main character has this terrible memory of how his wife and son died, and throughout the whole book he refuses to talk about it or even mention their names, but at the very end the bad guys are picking through the hero's memories and in the process I finally get to narrate this piece of back story, in the last twenty pages of the book. It's a very backwards approach, so it was interesting to try it. But it's possible that it doesn't work and it may never see the light of day. Still, it's fun to experiment.

I was lucky enough to get a contract that was so generous, I was able to scale back my duties at Scientific American and work on novels full-time. So I treat it like a full-time job and I work at it from nine to five each weekday. Well, sometimes much later than that. And sometimes the weekends too. From the beginning of October till now I've been writing about 5,000 words a week. That's the schedule I knew I had to keep to finish the book, and I kept to it pretty well.

I enjoy the revision process as long as I feel like the book is getting better. Eventually I suppose you reach a point of diminishing returns, but I don't think I've ever hit that point. There's always lots of room for improvement in my books.

How I got published: my agent was a patient of a doctor friend who's in my writing group! It's a classic story of random connections. And I was incredibly lucky, because this agent turned out to be fantastic. I've discovered that the best way to find anything you want -- a spouse, a job, an agent, whatever -- is to tell all your friends what you're looking for. Because a hundred pairs of eyes are better than one, right?

Shirley said...

Thanks Mark. Good to know I don't have to stop reading all together. Not sure I could do that.

Looking forward to reading your books.

Angela Drake said...

Sorry I didn't get in here yesterday, Shirley. Mark, I found one point you made very true. What we're writing has to be more interesting than anything else we could be doing. After all, isn't that what we want our readers to do as well?

Thank you for taking time out of your dedicated schedule to chat

Daniel Escurel Occeno said...

It is a great idea to add to a for writers’ blog. Sorry, I was not able to remember the exact time of the bog. I read all the comments and caught up, another magazine editor becoming a mystery and suspense and thriller writer, interesting. Being an editor first might prepare a writer for success. I wanted to ask questions from the editor points of view, Mark’s editor wanting WHAT for the book or expected of the writer, as an example. I am looking forward to the next guest. Daniel in the Philippines