Blog

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.”

The Suspense is Killing Me

The following first appeared in The Florida Writer, the official member magazine of the Florida Writers Association, in my column, The First Million Words.

 

“I had to force myself to finish it.”

The speaker was a woman I met at a party recently, and she was telling me of a book she’d read that hadn’t held her attention. Gratified to learn it wasn’t one of my books, I began thinking about the difference between the book she had read, and others where the reader just couldn’t put it down. My guess is her book lacked suspense, a key ingredient separating a so-so book from a compelling one.

All novels, no matter what genre, should have a climate of suspense to hold the reader’s interest. Unlike tension (a topic I’ll address in my next column), which comes in sharp, surprising bursts guaranteed to ramp up the adrenaline, suspense should be present from the very first page. Think about some of these opening lines”

“My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.”

This opening from The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold grabs the reader’s attention, piques their curiosity and injects a healthy dose of suspense. How about this one:

“When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident.”

You probably recognize this classic. It’s the opening from To Kill A Mockingbird. Scout Finch teases the reader with this intriguing bit of information about her brother before moving on to describe her little town of Maycomb, Alabama. It isn’t until the very end of the book that Scout tells us about the incident leading to Jem’s broken arm. Author Harper Lee heaped on a healthy serving of suspense leaving the reader craving more information.

You can have memorable characters, snappy dialogue and a unique setting, but if you don’t grab the reader’s attention quickly they may search for another story with more suspense. The trick is to arouse the reader’s curiosity and keep it aroused for as long as possible. All of this adds to a book’s narrative drive, a special blend of pace and style forcing the story forward, adding an element of anticipation. In other words—suspense.

One common way to build suspense into your story is what I call The Bait and Switch Technique. We see this all the time. The author builds toward a dramatic point in the story, extending the action, ramping up the tension and right before the climactic moment when the real killer is exposed, or the meaning of the cryptic note explained, the author jumps to another plotline, typically changing point of view and location.

UnknownIn Alex Grecian’s historical thriller, The Yard, Inspector Walter Day searches for a serial killer in one of London’s deplorable workhouses. At the end of the chapter, he’s warned that the man with the scissors (the killer) is right behind him. The reader is expecting a ferocious battle between the protagonist and the antagonist, but Grecian leaves the reader in suspense while he deals with another crisis situation. And do we see how Inspector Day is faring after that chapter? We do not. Instead the reader is transported to a third dramatic situation. All the while we’re kept in suspense about the fate of brave Inspector Day.

Thomas Harris did the same in Silence of the Lambs when the crazed killer decides he’s going to harvest the Silence of the Lambssenator’s daughter. Chapter 46 ends with Buffalo Bill outlining his graphic plans for the girl and informs the reader of his intentions to do the deed the next day. All of this advances the ticking clock deadline and builds suspense. But instead of satisfying the reader’s hunger for resolution by starting chapter 47 with the killer and his intended victim, Harris cuts back to Clarice Starling and then to her boss, Jack Crawford. And by the time we return to the killer, in chapter 48, there are even more complications since the senator’s daughter has somehow trapped Buffalo Bill’s beloved little dog and is threatening to kill it.

So you see that bit-by-bit, drop-by-drop, the author squeezes out all the tension he can, building the suspense to torturous levels before allowing the reader the catharsis of the climax. Bait & Switch is BringDownTheFuries_LowRes_v03more difficult to pull off effectively if you’re using a first person POV, as in my Quint Mitchell Mystery series. In Bring Down the Furies, I attempted to add more suspense by cutting away at key moments by inserting an anonymous diary entry as a device to break the action. I ended chapter 14 with Quint waking to see smoke seeping into his room. I wanted to build the suspense as much as possible before continuing with Quint’s dilemma, but first person typically locks us into a single POV. I cheated a bit and used the diary entry for that purpose. The diary was tied to the story’s main mystery, but I wrote it as a provocative introduction to an unnamed character who played a big part in the resolution of the mystery. I inserted a different diary entry three or four times within the story, offering few clues to the writer’s identity and, hopefully, adding more suspense to the story.

Here are a few more ways to add suspense to key scenes. Instead of jumping right into the action, you extend the scene by making the character hyper-aware of his surroundings, of the smells and sounds, the feel of the breeze on his face, the birds in the tree. This ratchets up the suspense and adds to the feeling of impending danger.

Don’t forget to use your character’s emotions and insecurities as a way to heighten suspense. The more she worries about the forthcoming event, the more suspenseful it will be when it finally arrives. So get inside your character’s head. How does she feel during these tense moments? Lump in her throat? Pulse pounding? Sweaty? Make the reader feel what the character is feeling.

Placing your hero at a disadvantage always adds to the suspense as the reader wonders how she’ll cope with the new problems you’ve heaped upon her. So think of ways to make more trouble for your protagonist, thwart her at every turn. Take away her support systems. Cast doubts on her friends and allies. Keep the internal conflicts roiling as she faces one challenge after another.

And there has to be a payoff after you’ve built a suspenseful scene. Maybe it leads to a major plot twist at the end of Act One or Two. Maybe it’s the discovery of a body or finding an important clue.

If you’ve made your readers care about your character, created a high level of anticipation, constantly building toward the climax, then you will have gone a long way toward injecting enough suspense to satisfy the reader.

Try it. The suspense won’t kill you.

_______________________________________________________________________________

Look for Parker’s suspense-filled stories.

Cover of 'Matanzas Bay' by Parker Francis

‘Matanzas Bay’ by Parker Francis.

BringDownTheFuries_LowRes_v01GhostlyWhispers_cvr_small

Bring Down the Furies             Ghostly Whispers, Secret Voices

BlueCrabsAtMidnight_SMALL_cvr