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Alvarium Co-Creator Tells All

Ken_Pelham picFrom time to time I’ve turned this blog over to a guest in order to introduce you to some of my favorite writers. Today’s guest post is an interview with Ken Pelham, one of the award-winning authors you’ll find in “The Prometheus Saga,” an anthology of short stories examining a single premise from many different angles. Ken is not only one of the authors, but the co-creator of The Alvarium Experiment, our consortium of writers, and recruited me into the hive.

Ken is the author of the thriller Place of Fear and Brigands Key. During the interview, Ken explains how The Alvarium Experiment got started, and where it’s going. Please welcome Ken Pelham.

1. What inspired you to launch/join the Alvarium Experiment?

For years, writers have been hearing, “Avoid the short story! There’s no money and no future in it! Write only novels, dammit!” But there’s been a sea change, caused by online publishing. Short is GOOD again. I’ve always loved short stories and have always wanted to be included in an anthology, so over the last year or two I’d been thinking about submitting work to an anthology somewhere.

I’d been following some of the cool things authors like Hugh Howey were espousing, taking advantage of the amazing flexibility of the Internet as a publishing platform, and it occurred to me that, heck, I didn’t need to search out a multi-author anthology, I could build my own!

I started scratching out some ideas about how it would work. I didn’t want to be “The Publisher,” responsible for everything and seeing that everyone gets paid. So I thought each author should self-publish, simultaneously, with a common premise and common brand. All for one and one for all.

I’d met Charles A. Cornell a few years ago, and had recently read his dieselpunk war novel, Dragonfly, and the related horror short story, “Die Fabrik.” From the lengths he’d gone to build a fully-illustrated universe, even inventing entirely new retro aircraft and war machines, I knew he was a guy that thinks outside the box. Way outside the box. In fact, he’s quite mad. I pitched the idea to Charles and he pounced, and over the course of a couple of weeks, we’d laid the groundwork for both The Alvarium Experiment (the writers’ consortium) and The Prometheus Saga. The next task was to trick other writers into joining.

2. What are some of the benefits and challenges of writing “into” an existing framework for Prometheus as a character? How did that shape your creative process for your story? Is it different from your usual writing process?

We wanted the Saga to be wide open, story-wise. So the challenge for Charles and I was to create a theme and character that essentially had no bounds, but made some sort of logical sense. The character has some limitations, of course. Superheroes are stupid and boring.

I think, for many authors, we already work within existing frameworks we’ve built. Doyle, for the obvious example, built his world for and around Sherlock Holmes, and played by Holmesian rules. We encouraged the Alvarium authors to incorporate their own outside projects and characters into this.

3. Tell me more about your other work(s).

I’ve built my own little universe of characters to populate my suspense fiction. They’ll continue to interact and piss each other off. Brigands Key, my first novel, zeroes in on the fictional Florida island of the same name, and the horrific events that come raining down on it. The prequel, Place of Fear, takes my BK protagonist, Dr. Carson Grant, and plunks him down in the middle of the Guatemalan rainforest. You can see why he’s developed a reputation for surliness. Both of these novels won first-place in the Royal Palm Literary Awards, I’m happy to say.

Brigands Key, the island, kind of got under my skin. So after finishing the novel, I wrote three short stories, “Tales of Old Brigands Key,” set in the past. I have no doubt I’ll write about that island’s dubious and unsavory past again. I released a pair of short writers’ guidebooks in 2014, one on viewpoint and the other on building suspense.

4. Tell me more about your short story in The Prometheus Saga. Why did you pick that episode in history?

Long answer: “First World War” involves our Prometheus very early in life, 40,000 years ago, give or take aPrometheus_First-World-War few days. This gave me a chance to write about the human condition of today through the lens of our Ice Age ancestors. Human evolution is a complex story, and people today seemed surprised to learn that multiple species of hominids existed simultaneously on Earth at that time. I’m not talking about different races; I’m talking actual different species. And yet only one survives. I doubt that the ones that disappeared did so willingly.

Short answer: I like prehistoric stuff, what with the cavemen and all.

5. What are your writing plans for 2015? What does the new year hold in store for you?

Prometheus, obviously. Beyond that, I’ll continue work on my third novel (another Carson Grant thriller), and possibly release a nonfiction book about suspense fiction. The audiobook edition of Brigands Key will be out early in 2015, so I’m quite excited by that.

Following Ken and Charles’ lead, 10 other authors have rallied around “The Prometheus Saga,” and all stories go on sale tomorrow, Monday, January 26 at Amazon.com. To learn more about the authors and their stories, visit the website. And be sure to drop by for the launch party starting at noon tomorrow and chat with the authors. You’ll find the party here. And if you’re so inclined, you can find “The Strange Case of Lord Byron’s Lover” right here.

Many thanks to Ken Pelham. I hope you’ll drop by the launch party for a chat. I’ll give away a free download of my Matanzas Bay audiobook, so come on down.

The Prometheus Saga

frankensteinMost of us know that Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, thought to be the very first science fiction novel. The book was published in 1818, and quickly became a cult classic. But did you know that between 1910 and 1994 there were more than 70 major feature films made based either directly or indirectly on Shelley’s legendary character? You’ve probably seen some of them including, Young Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, but how many of us are familiar with Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster? Or Frankenstein’s Great Aunt Tillie? I kid you not.

My Frankenstein mania came to a head when I was asked to be part of The Alvarium Experiment, which I blogged about last month. Fourteen award-winning authors riffing on a common theme about an alien race visiting earth 40,000 years ago, and leaving behind a human-like probe to keep track of the progress of the crude pre-historic creatures that were our ancestors. Each author had  the freedom to place their story anywhere in that time span up to the present, using the “Prometheus” probe as one of the characters. Maybe because I tend to take things more literally than other people (just ask my wife), I thought about Mary Shelley and her famous story, which is titled Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus.

This led me to dig into the circumstances surrounding how Ms. Shelley came to write Frankenstein. Amazingly, there was a wealth of historical information online about Mary, her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, and their holiday on Lake Geneva with Lord Byron which over many a glass of wine resulted in her story. The meeting of these literary giants was memorable in many ways, and the idea for my story soon blossomed into a fascinating tale I titled The Strange Case of Lord Byron’s Lover.180px-Mary-shelley1

Mary and Percy were not married at the time, though she’d taken to calling herself Mary Shelley, and they were married about six months after that June 1816 gathering at Byron’s Villa Diodati. She was 18 at the time, and quite a progressive woman considering this was the Victorian Age. Here’s one of the many portraits floating about the Internet of young Mary Shelley.

The Strange Case of Lord Byron’s Lover is told in Mary’s voice as she writes in her journal about some rather mystifying events which took place that summer. This is how the story begins:

My memory isn’t what it once was, but my past is written large within these pages. I beg you to indulge me as I recount a series of perplexing events occurring both before and after I wrote the Gothic opus for which I am known. My work achieved popular success, and even the indomitable Sir Walter Scott congratulated me for my “original genius and power of expression.”

            However, lest you believe the story I’m about to share in the final pages of my journal is a prideful, self-congratulatory boast, let me assure you that I, Mary Shelley, have a far stranger tale to tell than the man-made monster of my fiction. And like the creature dredged from my nightmares, these events haunt me to this day.

The story is over 9,000 words in length and will be released for only $0.99 as a Kindle ebook, as will all 14 stories in the collection. Each story will have its own cover created by one of the authors, the singularly talented Charles Cornell. Here’s a sneak peek at the cover so you’ll know what to look for when you search for the story on Amazon.com next month.

Prometheus-Lord-Byron_v5

Until then, here’s wishing everyone the very merriest of Christmases, the happiest of Hanukkahs,  best wishes for us all for a more peaceful 2015, and may all of your monsters be of the literary variety.

Ready for the Beehive?

ALverium Logo

There’s a new reading experience on the horizon. We call it The Alvarium Experiment. An alvarium is a beehive, a colony working toward a common goal. In this case, the goal isn’t sweet honey, but an anthology, a collection of stories built around a common theme.

The stories will begin rolling out near the end of January, 2015, so it’s a bit premature to lift the curtain on all the innovative details. What I can tell you is that I’m excited to be one of 14 award-winning authors selected to participate in this anthology. And when I say award-winning, I mean Award-Winning. We’ve calculated that among the 14 authors we’ve been the recipients of 64 writing awards. That’s an amazing total, but you wouldn’t expect any less from these outstanding writers.

The stories will span many genres, settings, and time periods. I’ve just completed my story, a 34-page mystery in which you’ll learn the secret behind … Sorry, I almost let the cat out of the bag.

GhostlyWhispers_cvr_smallStay tuned for the rest of the story, and mark your calendar for January when these tales begin flying out of the beehive onto an electronic device near you. In the meantime, if you want a taste of my short story writing, some of them award-winning, check out my collection of dark tales titled Ghostly Whispers, Secret Voices. At $1.99, it offers hours of good reading.

How to Write a Novel—Where to Start?

For beginning writers feeling overwhelmed at the thought of writing a novel, here’s some advice I once gave to my sons when they faced the dreaded SCIENCE FAIR PROJECT.

My two sons were nothing like that teen prodigy who invented a revolutionary pancreatic cancer detection tool, but they grew into clever, creative men. There were times though, when I wondered if they’d ever make it past the sixth grade. This was driven home like a sledgehammer to the kneecap when we were faced with the one school assignment every parent has come to dread. I’m referring to a fiendish exercise that stretched parental emotional stability to the breaking point. You know it as the Science Fair Project, a rite of passage in which science teachers encourage their students to expand their minds and test the limits of endurance for their parents.

I’m not sure how it worked in your house, but our oldest son waited until Friday evening to tell us his project was due on Monday. Which meant the weekend was lost in a frenzy of poster boards, Magic Markers, clipping and pasting, and creative plagiarism.

After enduring this painful process with Number One Son, I was determined not to repeat it with his younger brother when he entered the sixth grade. So when he told us his project was on the fungi and mosses of NE Florida, I asked him how much research he’d done.

“Research?” he repeated, looking at me as though I was quacking like a duck.

“Yes, research,” I answered. “We have a complete set of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and a very good library in the neighborhood.”

He continued to stare at me until I thought maybe I was quacking like a duck.

“Also,” I added, “if you walk outside and look at all the trees, you’ll find dozens of examples of fungi and mosses in your own backyard.”

His eyes began to mist as his gaze shifted from me to the bookcase where the encyclopedias were gathering dust on the bottom shelf, and finally out the window where a huge water oak festooned with Spanish moss shaded the backyard so thoroughly no grass would ever grow beneath its mighty branches.

“But … but,” he stammered. “Where do I start?”

I looked down at my son, the child we’d loved and nurtured for over twelve years, and said simply, “Take it one moss at a time.”

This little snippet of  family history came back to me when I recently picked up my well-worn copy of bird by bird, Anne Lamott’s classic book on writing. I believe this was the very first writing book I ever purchased. The pages are yellowing and brittle, but as I reread her deeply personal and humorous insights into the writing life, all the reasons why I wanted to be a writer came flooding back. It’s not about becoming famous and rich. Well, maybe it starts that way until we realize few writers attain such heights. Yet, we keep at it mainly because we don’t have a choice, and the writing becomes a goal in itself.

The title of Lamott’s book comes from a story she tells about her brother’s school assignment on birds. Like our son’s fungi and moss project, her brother was overwhelmed about how to tackle such an all-encompassing task as cataloguing the avian world. Her father stepped in, putting an arm around his son’s shoulder, and told him, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

Lamott tells the story to illustrate how writers, particularly beginning writers, panic when they think about writing a 300-page book. The task does appear to be overwhelming, akin to building a skyscraper, a seemingly magical feat to the rubberneckers watching through the fence.

E. L. Doctorow once said, “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make it the whole trip that way.” My guess is Mr. Doctorow is a seat-of-the-pants writer who doesn’t need to know the route his story is taking or his final destination. That’s one way of writing. The other method is outlining, which I’d recommend for beginning writers who can use a roadmap to help guide them from the beginning to the end of their writing journey.

But let’s go back to the bird by bird anecdote, and my advice to my son about his mossy science fair project. To keep from feeling overwhelmed, break it into bite-size chunks. Lamott writes that she keeps a one-inch picture frame on her desk to remind her to write only as much as she can see through the frame. “Short assignments,” she calls them. That way, even if you’re writing a historical saga spanning three generations, you can build up to it by giving yourself a short assignment: a single page. Maybe even a paragraph. Write just those few feet you can see with the headlights: a description of the charter fishing boat your protagonist owns; the swell of the ocean during a storm; how your character feels when she walks into the room and sees the family dog and her child curled up together on the couch.

Starting with short assignments provides confidence and a springboard to longer assignments. The words will surely flow, and pages will grow into chapters. Before you know it you will have completed the first draft of your Magnus opus. Of course, you know what they say about first drafts. Lamott even has a chapter titled “Shitty First Drafts,” acknowledging that all good writers spin out first drafts of poor quality. “This is how they end up with good second drafts, and terrific third drafts,” she says.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, aren’t we. For now, let’s concentrate on the short assignment. Take it one moss at a time.

Guest Post

From time to time, I like to introduce my readers to fellow mystery writers as guest bloggers. I met JC Gatlin at a writer’s conference several years back. JC lives in Tampa, and has written two mystery-suspense novels, The Designated Survivor and Prey of Desire. He also maintains his own blog about the art  of spinning nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat mysteries at www.jcgatlin.com. I want to thank himJC Gatlin for exchanging blog posts with me (you can read mine by clicking here), and providing writers with some excellent advice on how to kill your novel.

Want to kill your novel? Give it a weak opening

A weak opening is a novel killer. And, there are quite a few suspects standing in the line-up.

The first in line is a serious, serial novel killer: the clichéd “starting with a dream.” It seems like a good thing — kicking the story off in high gear with some dramatic scene that engages the reader, or a daring action scene that has the reader on the edge of his seat. Then the character wakes up and we realize it was all just a dream. This culprit really only serves one purpose and that’s to trick and aggravate your reader.

Next in the line-up is another cliché that describes someone getting out of his car in the first sentence of the book. It’s obvious why this novel killer appears to be helpful and serving to the plot: the main character and the reader are arriving at both the scene and in the story together. There’s action happening, which is also a good thing. Unfortunately, it’s been done too many times and some agents and editors will actually decline a book based on that opening. Why take the risk when the heart of te scene – and probably a great opening line – is just a few paragraphs away?

Cover Design3The third novel killer in the line-up is the lengthy description of the location and scenery. The hazelnut hues of the carpet and the dust aintings of various family members hanging on the wall or the sun peeking through gathering white clouds above the lush forest of majestic pine tres may be pretty sentences and provide many details that you find interesting, but it’s not necessarily interesting to your reader. Scenery description must play hand-in-hand with action and dialogue. It should never stand alone as the opening paragraph(s) of your novel.

The fourth killer is a tricky one, because – like the femme fatale who plays both sides of the law – sometimes it works with the author and sometimes it works against. This deadly tightrope is known as “opening with dialogue.” Strong, dramatic dialogue can be engaging, provide a shocking and memorable first line, and swiftly move the reader from the opening line into the opening scene. It can be a powerful ally. However, be warned. If not used correctly and handled with the utmost care, it will drop the reader into the middle of a muddled, confusing conversation. A confused reader who doesn’t understand who is talking and what they’re talking about will close the book faster than a lid on a coffin, and *BAG* the book is dead.

Finally, in this line up, we have the worst offender to open any book. This is the novel killer that spells certain doom, and that’s “The Boring Opening.” This culprit comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes, including the lengthy back-story, a history lesson about the time period or the location, a flashback or a character biography. Authors generally fall into this trap because they want to provide information that they feel is pertinent to the story. They’re attempting to set it up, and dumping loads of information in the process. And that’s exactly what it is – a process. It’s often the result of hours of painstaking research or worldGatlin Cover 2building on the author’s part. It’s good stuff – to the author – and he doesn’t know what to do with it. Cut it from the opening and skip to the chase.

The opening must hook the reader. It must start with something happening. That doesn’t mean James Bond-style adventure. Nothing has to blow up. It simply means it must be interesting and entertaining to the reader.

The sun peeking through gathering clouds? Boring! A diatribe of the sleuth’s grandparents arriving in America in 1812? Tedious! Recognize these five culprits in the line-up and avoid them as you’re writing. Their job is to kill your novel.

WJXT Channel 4 Interview

Jennifer Waugh was the perfect host, interviewing me on the WJXT Morning Show about the upcoming Novel in a Day Workshop. Click here to watch it.

The In-Tent-tion was Good

I recall fondly my years as a Boy Scout growing up in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. One of the highlights was a special camping trip to Lake Okeechobee, the second largest freshwater lake in the U.S. We set up our tents in a clearing shaded by towering trees bearded with Spanish moss. In the early morning hours we listened to the hammering of woodpeckers echoing through the woods. We fished and canoed, and chased armadillos from one palmetto patch to another. At night we sat around the fire, toasting marshmallows and telling ghost stories.

TentsWhen my son decided to join the Scouts it brought back memories of that Lake Okeechobee campout. I jumped at the chance to relive them when he told me about an upcoming father-son camping trip. The only problem was I hadn’t been camping since I left the Scouts, and we didn’t own a tent or any camping gear. After investing in some supplies, I borrowed a tent and sleeping bags from a friend and we joined the others for our outdoor adventure.

What strikes me now about that camping trip, and still elicits guffaws at family gatherings, is my attempt to erect the tent. After wrestling with it for much longer than any other father-son duo—assembling poles, figuring out where they went, and fighting with the canvas—we looked at the sagging structure and realized something was definitely not right.

Son Greg shook his head, and gazed at the other tents standing tautly around us. “Something’s wrong here,” he offered, and went to find the Scoutmaster.

The Scoutmaster, a veteran of many camping trips, walked around our tent, tilting his head one way and then the other. A slight smile was on his face when he told us, “It looks like this thing’s upside down.”

That may have been a defining moment for Greg. The time when he realized his father was not the most competent person in the world when it came to assembling anything more complicated than a bowl of Cheerios with sliced bananas. And, of course, I’ve been known to slice the Cheerios instead of the fruit.

I tell you this embarrassing bit of family history to illustrate how it relates to writing a novel. There are writers, like Jeffrey Deaver, who spend months plotting and outlining their stories in advance. Other very accomplished writers, like Lee Child and Stephen King  simply take a plot idea and jump in, uncovering their story and characters as they write.

The more structured writers are called Outliners or Plotters. The unrestricted writers who wouldn’t dream of tying themselves to an outline are referred to as seat of the pants writers, or Pantsers. I happen to be a combination of both, starting with a basic outline and making changes as I write and new avenues occur to me. But there is one constant in my process, and that is I know my ending in advance and work toward it.

Now I’m wondering if that’s like erecting the tent upside down. Am I going about it wrong? I’ve thought about it and I don’t think so because it seems to have worked for me.

What I’ve learned is that no two authors approach the process of writing in the same manner. There is no right or wrong. If the road maps we draw in advance, as opposed to following a built-in mental GPS, all lead to a finished product, then the journey has been successful.

Of course, if the road map isn’t followed, or it leads the writer into a confusing wilderness where armadillos run amok, then, like putting the tent up wrong, the story won’t have a happy ending.

 

Parker continues to work on his assembling skills as he writes his third Quint Mitchell Mystery. Look for Hurricane Island in 2014. In the meantime, start your holiday shopping now by purchasing any of his Quint Mitchell Mysteries, Matanzas Bay, Bring Down the Furies, and Blue Crabs at Midnight by clicking on the links. He’s also written the short story collection, Ghostly Whispers, Secret Voices, six dark and surprising tales.

Gold Medal Winner

IMG_0871BRING DOWN THE FURIES, the second Quint Mitchell Mystery took the top spot, a Gold Medal in last night Florida Authors & Publishers Association President’s Awards. Quint knocked out the judges and the competition, and Parker was there to take home the gold, saying he felt like an Olympic champion. “My next goal,” he said, “is to make it on the front of the Wheaties box.”