Category Archives: Books

Excerpts from “Creative Writing Essentials for Young Writers” by L. Stewart Hearl

When the Going Gets Tough, the Sentences Get Shorter

During an action sequence, this would be a big mistake: “As we came around the corner of the damp and poorly-lit dungeon barricade, the thousand-pound, yellow and sickly green Thoraxy, with its huge eye and giant, pink bunny ears, took a solid stand, which seemed to indicate, to me at least, that it wasn’t going to let us pass no matter what we could do.”

 

Not very exciting, was it? Why? There are far too many words here. Description is important, but a large helping of description during an action sequence completely kills the mood of excitement you are trying to create. Incidentally, try not to use very long sentences anyway. It doesn’t impress anyone except retired English professors. You should use sentences no longer than eight or nine words during an action sequence. No one pontificates when they’re in a gun battle and lives.

 

Add a Chuckle
Humor is something that can spice up almost any story.  Consider the recent film “Guardians of the Galaxy”.  While it is certainly an action/adventure film, it also contains copious amounts of humor.

 

Unfortunately, I cannot tell you how to be funny.  What I can say is that it is not a series of jokes. It must be situational humor.  A good example of this is the hugely popular “Big Bang Theory” – a sitcom (situational comedy). If you can make your reader smile, cool.  If you can make them laugh out loud, perfect! Below is a small example.

 

Roses are red.

Violets are blue.

Some poems rhyme.

This one doesn’t.

from “Creative Writing Essentials for Young Writers” by L. Stewart Hearl (Kindle)

If you’re in the Houston area this weekend and interested in a FREE Writing Workshop, this is your lucky day!

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2015 ~ Peter S. Beagle is Coming!

The Unicorn Run at The University of Houston-Downtown
Presented by: The Final Twist Writer’s Society

Featuring internationally acclaimed author/screenwriter/songwriter
Peter S. Beagle

PeterProfile2

When: Friday, April 17 (show starts at 12:30PM)
Where: Wilhelmina Cullen Robertson Auditorium
Admission: Free

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Why Are Some Book Reviews More Useful Than Others? (Mark and Charlotte Phillips)

The Slippery Art of Book Reviewing
by Mayra Calvani and Anne K. Edwards
Twilight Times Books
Copyright: 2008
ISBN: 1933353228
Format: ebook, paperback
Non-Fiction/How to
Have you ever puzzled over a book review and wondered if the reviewer was a personal friend of the author? Perhaps you’ve read a review and wondered what took place between reviewer and author to prompt such a vicious collection of words. Anyone who reads book reviews is sure to have come across one of he increasing number of lazy reviews – the ones that make you wonder if the reviewer read the book, or just read the back cover.
When I first started writing reviews, I studied work from different professional sources and found examples of all three of these fairly useless review types mixed in with many examples of excellent reviews that delivered the straight forward information I sought. I wanted the reviews I wrote to fall into this latter category. Unfortunately, my honest opinion of my own work was that it was a clumsy imitation of the useful reviews. I needed help.
That’s when Mayra Calvani and Anne K. Edwards came to my rescue with their fantastic guide, The Slippery Art of Book Reviewing. I count my lucky stars this book was published in the same year I started writing reviews. This straight forward, easy to follow guide contains four parts:
  • The Art of Reviewing explains how to be a good reviewer, defines a book review, teaches the reviewer what it means to read critically, different types of reviews, and much more, including how to start your own review site
  • The Influence of Book Reviews discusses the different institutions that use or depend on book reviews – readers, libraries, authors, publishers, etc.
  • Resources is chock full of great resource information for book review writers
  • The appendix contains a sample press release
The stated aim of the book is “to offer some guidelines in a clear manner supported with targeted examples of how to write and publish thoughtful, well-written reviews…” The certainly meet that goal.
The pages of The Slippery Art of Book Reviewing are full of great advice that is backed up by examples. The reviewer is gently, but firmly, reminded book reviews should be written for the reader. The reviewer has an obligation to read the book, to provide an honest opinion of the book, and to support that opinion with examples from the book under review.
Hints and examples of ways to keep your reviews on the professional level are provided throughout. Following is one example on the subject of tact:
“Stating your thoughts tactfully and eloquently while offering examples to support your evaluation will keep the negative review from sounding harsh, mean, or insulting. Your aim is not to offend or humiliate the author, but clearly explain to the reader why this particular book is not worth reading.”
“Avoid statements like, ‘This is a terrible book’ … the harsh phrases mentioned above can be replaced by, ‘This book didn’t live up to its full potential because…”
Using the advice and guidance in this book improved my reviews to the point that strangers began following my reviews in places like GoodReads.
In case there is any doubt, let me say I strongly recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn how to write professional reviews. Others may also find value, such as reviewers seeking new outlets for their work and readers who would like to develop a deeper understanding of the professional reviews.

Mark and Charlotte Phillips
Novels:
         Eva Baum Mysteries – Hacksaw, The Case of the Golden Key
         The Resqueth Revolution (sci-fi)
Short stories included in:
Deadly Diversions (2012)
Underground Texas (2011)
Twisted Tales of Texas Landmarks (2010)
A Box of Texas Chocolates (2009)
A Death in Texas (2008)
Demented (2011)
Sleeping with the Undead
Erotic Dreamspell

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Sorcery vs. Wizardry: The Magical Question (Leif Behmer)

So what’s the difference?

I used to feel the same unnerving frustration most readers become plagued with when they first enter the fantasy scene and discover that there is almost no consistency between different authors’ interpretations of magic (D&D literature aside). Why do some spells work only if you can say “the right words” while others require the right blend of exotic animal parts? (Eye of newt, etc.) And then still, we have magic that invades the storyline, completely unprovoked, to tear down the very backdrop of reality we cling to for understanding. (Time Bandits anyone?)

But this is a good quality in a genre, because it keeps things fresh. It prevents magic from losing its…magic. Sometimes magic is allegorical or an expression of profound emotional desire, and many authors choose to embody these motifs within a single character type, interchangeably called either a wizard or a sorcerer. These are people who have “figured it out”, having attained some sort of cosmic awareness which grants them special knowledge to tap into the secret capabilities of humanity and the universe.

In a broader term, we are describing magicians (or mages for short), but that word makes us think about fancy card tricks, sleek wands with white tips, long-legged disembodied ladies, and emotionally abused white rabbits. So, fantasy writers might look to folklore and call their magic-users shamans, witches, or warlocks. Still, those concepts are specific to a regional or occult-ish context, and are not broad enough titles to substitute for the useful but unimaginative phrase “magic-user”.

To most people’s comforts, wizardry and sorcery are blank enough slates for writers to create their own sandbox and see what castles they can come up with. But as it stands today, concurrent fantasy readers will have an idea of their differences. Where a wizard is seen more as an occupation like “doctor”, involving years of education and study leading to a unique and highly sought for expertise, a sorcerer implies a natural prodigy with the inborn talent and raw will to invoke fantastic phenomena. As a result, the wizard has become a figure with a degree of prestige, using tools (spell book, wand, etc.) and logic-based magic, where the sorcerer is the wild counterpart, emotionally driven with fiery eyes, a death touch, and can grab the moon out of the night sky and slide it into his/her pocket.

Terry Pratchett in particular loves to over emphasize the intellectualism of the Discworld wizards from the Unseen University in Ankh-Morpork, who, in Soul Music, pick apart a new kind of music box that plays “music with rocks in” trying to understand not how the box is playing music but why the sound makes them want to stomp their feet, bang their heads, and paint their bedroom walls black.

Wizardry depends on scientific (if absurd) methods to make magic understandable within a system of phenomena (which allows fantasy to blend into sci-fi). But when sorcery occurs, it has to happen, not simply as a plot device, but because it needs to happen in order to drive at some immediate, persistent, irrational desire that gives the reader a peek beyond the show magician’s curtain, which inexperienced fantasy readers may have become accustomed to taking for granted.

Leif Carl Behmer received his MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Texas–Pan American and his Bachelors in English at the University of Houston–Downtown. His passion for fantasy fiction stems from his exposure to fantasy in both classic fairytale literature and the fantasy role-playing genre of the video gaming industry. His pursuit of the discipline of writing led him to take courses in technical writing and dramatic writing, as well as studying tutor theory. Leif writes dramatic scripts for pop-culture conventions. He is currently a composition and literature instructor at Houston Community College and Lone Star Community College in Houston, Texas.

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The Second Journey (Cash Anthony)

Notes on “character arc”

It’s been more than 10 years since I found “The Hero’s Journey,” by Chris Vogel, as I was looking for writing resources. For many writers, especially screenwriters, it’s one of those books on story structure that are essential references for this craft, the substance of which become ingrained in your mind as part of your writing toolbox.

Chris is a wonderful guy, a frequent speaker at film festivals and a presenter at screenwriting seminars, as well as a former studio ‘reader’ who had to cover two or three hundred scripts a week. Nowadays, he’s a story consultant who’s known for demonstrating how most of the classics of western literature hew to a certain structure that satisfies our need for epic stories. He worked closely with the producers of The Lion King, for example, and he still coaches writers and consults on scripts.

After I read “The Hero’s Journey,” I could see why it was hugely popular, and also why some writers complain that Chris seems to demand that they use his formula if they want to sell their screenplays to Hollywood. I could understand, too, why I had heard people talk about how tiresome and uninteresting movies had become, where such a structure was used yet again. (Chris actually “demands” no such thing, and the people who greenlight studio films these days are not English or comparative lit majors, they’re mainly accountants, which may explain why they keep getting stuck in a rut.) Then other story analysts, such as John Truby and Michael Hauge, came forward with other methods by which writers could improve their screenplays, and these methods had their moments of fame. I studied them all.

By coincidence, my deepening interest in story structure as a writer coincided with a much-needed look at “character” as a concept for actors on a stage. I was directing a play in which a group of men had to show how their characters changed with respect to racial prejudice, each one moving through a character arc that we had to help the audience see and hear and accept as temporarily ‘real’. Understanding and being able to convey to my actors how to start in one place and end up somewhere else wasn’t a theoretical pastime, for the audience members wouldn’t laugh or get a tear in their eye if we didn’t engage their emotions through an authentic conflict that each character faced. The importance of this journey for each one was shown through the relationships known to the audience, each character’s physical movement, and their vocal subtext–knowing what the lines meant in the context of the character’s life, and thus how and when to say them.

We made it through a month-long run of the play with only one revolt (some of the actors ‘got it’ more than others). Soon after that, as I put my writer’s cap back on, I found that Chris Vogel and Michael Hauge were about to begin teaching together, and the topic of their new seminar was “the Hero’s TWO Journeys.” They intended to show how today’s classic stories, as told in movies, consist of characters who change across time from one point of view to another, and what kind of change it is when we speak about “a character arc”. In epic stories, stories that we tell again and again and remember, it occurs by virtue of creating a journey undertaken on the surface, for a clearly visible objective, that is also exactly the best way to show the inner journey needed by the main character, at the same time. That the two stories must intertwine.

I had a huge smile when this seminar ended! It was exactly the answer I had been looking for, just at the time when I needed to put it all together, to get past a formula, or a pattern, or a series of rules. It was a way to understand that there was no limit on the number of stories that people would want to read, even if they dealt with the same issues that we explored via story since the days of the cavemen and the deer they carved in stone, deep inside a dark cave.

Now I see that the hero’s outer objective in a story changes depending on genre, setting, or the original story idea. But his inner objective is almost always going to be “a small step for a man,” a slight shift of perspective, a recognition of past blindness versus a new insight, a more open attitude toward community and a shift to higher-than-selfish values.

This allowed me to see that there are an infinite number of shifts in attitude and perspective that can underlie a character’s interior journey; for each of us makes tiny steps with respect to so many aspects of living in society. Dilemmas arise about where the limits are in almost every aspect of life. I need only pick one that I want to explore, and then come up with the human ‘wrappings’ that illustrate what is blocking or preventing this one shift. It doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that.

The events in the hero’s exterior journey bring the inner problem to light again and again; and if I want to use the Rule of Three, then only when he’s already tried to solve it and failed twice will an insight occur that will allow him to change, to take a leap of faith along his inner journey, and thus change his methods or understand his mistakes. It’s a familiar structure, because we’ve heard it in stories told us since infancy.

Since we all know how it feels to face a dilemma, to refuse to see the obvious because of an unrecognized prejudice or assumption, to stick to constricting habits or attitudes, to allow the low expectations of others to shape our fate—the list of internalized conflict and negativity and pain to remark upon can go on and on—as writers we can find many problems to give our characters, to set up a layer of conflict that interests, even compels a reader to ask “What’s going to happen to him next? What will he choose?”

Since it’s often—usually—extremely difficult for individuals to stop believing that their unsuccessful interior models will work, even fictitious characters require some time and several hard lessons before the way forward is clear. Depending on the genre and audience, a hero may find the exterior objective just that much too hard to reach at the end of the story, but he or she can truly be satisfied with having reached a new perspective that’s far more valuable.

Cash Anthony is an award-winning Houston screenwriter, author, editor, and director for stage and film. Her short stories have appeared in “A Death in Texas”, “Dead and Breakfast”, “A Box of Texas Chocolates”, “Twisted Tales of Texas Landmarks”, “Underground Texas”, and “Deadly Diversions”. She holds a B.A. in Plan II and a J.D. from The University of Texas at Austin.

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Themed Anthologies (Mark H. Phillips)

The Final Twist, a group of Houston writers, has produced a themed anthology each year for the past seven years. The first two anthologies were mystery collections: Dead and Breakfast (2007) set in the wonderful world of Texas Bed & Breakfasts, and A Death in Texas (2008) which got rave reviews. A Box of Texas Chocolates (2009) was our group’s first multi-genre collection—our best seller yet and an award winner (New England Book Festival). It was followed by Twice-Twisted Tales of Texas (2010), a multi-genre collection featuring distinctively Texan landmarks. Underground Texas (2011), featured tales dealing literally or metaphorically with the underground. Deadly Diversions (2012) features hobby and pastime themed stories, while Dead of Night (soon to be published in 2013) stretched our group by dealing with the macabre and occult. The themed anthology process is getting so streamlined that we plan to release a second anthology later this year, a multi-genre collection that features recipes.

Themed anthologies are a great way to get stories published. Such collections allow for targeted marketing. Our book launch for our most successful collection, A Box of Texas Chocolates, was held in a chocolate store just prior to Valentine’s Day. Consignment deals allowed us to display Dead and Breakfast in actual Bed and Breakfast establishments, targeting an audience already interested in our theme. Similar marketing was possible with Twice-Twisted Tales of Texas—tourists could visit a famous landmark and then visit the gift store and buy a short story collection containing a story built around the attraction they had just explored.

Themed anthologies are also an effective spur to creativity, as well as a way to pull a writing group together. The Final Twist prides itself on ushering beginning writers into the profession. Many novice writers have problems with writer’s block or coming up with ideas. A theme helps focus their efforts. During peer-editing they can see the disparate ways other writers handle the same theme. This also brings the group together. Instead of every member off working on their isolated project, editing develops a synergy based on the entire group working on similar stories. Sometimes rules have to be laid down to keep the stories diverse—not all of the recipe stories can involve poison for instance. Our group has been fortunate in finding the proper balance between using the synergy of all working around a common theme and getting a very wide diversity of content.

So far, we’ve also been lucky in reaching easy consensus on our themes. The brainstorming sessions are both raucous and fun. Everyone understands that the theme has to be broad—we want the most diversity and creativity possible within the connecting theme. Texas Underground was inclusive enough to allow both stories that take place literally underground and stories that explore sub rosa clandestine Texan culture. A Box of Texas Chocolates was a multi-genre collection of short stories all having to do with Texas and chocolate (it also helped that a significant majority of the members are chocoholics). There were mystery, suspense, romance, fantasy, and science fiction stories. Dead of Night will feature both literal monsters in macabre occult stories as well as stories containing serial killers and other metaphorical monsters.

Another factor in the success of our anthologies is the thorough professionalism of my fellow Final Twist members. Our writing group is all about getting material out there to our readers. We work on generating, peer-editing, publishing, and promoting our stories. It also helps that our members can produce with a hard deadline in place. Most of us are primarily novelists. Short stories are a refreshing change of pace, an opportunity to keep our fans aware that we are still writing, but never an excuse to stop working on our novels. Usually stories are produced and first-round edited within a sixty day window. If your group members cannot be depended upon to produce quality material in that sort of time frame, themed anthologies could turn into a prolonged nightmare. You have to leave time to pull the project together, get it ready for the publisher, the inevitable last round edits, contracts, cover design issues, promotional engagements, blog tours, etc. Naturally everyone in the group has to be willing to pitch in; otherwise some poor soul will end up saddled with all that work and never get their own novel finished.

If you are looking for a way to make your writing group more productive I can recommend themed anthologies. Just don’t use the title that I’m still trying to get my group to accept: Texas Chili Cook-off Winners and Their Rip-Roaring Tales.

We’d like to share our award winner with one of you. To enter the drawing, hop on over to our publisher’s website, read about the different stories in A Box of Texas Chocolates, then come back here and use the comments to tell us your favorites. Each person leaving a comment will be entered in the prize drawing (one entry per person) and the winner announced here next week – so check back to see if you’ve won!

If you want to be among the first to know who won, come visit the authors at Katy Budget Books on February 9 from 1-3PM. You can register a second entry in the drawing for A Box of Texas Chocolates, register for a second drawing (it’s a surprise), visit with the writers, and of course, shop for books at this wonderful store. You may even choose to be one of the first to own the latest anthology – Deadly Diversions.

Mark H. Phillips has been writing stories and political tracts for as long as he can remember, submitting stories to a magazine at the age of twelve. He grew up in Central Illinois, and holds several degrees in Philosophy. Mark met his wife, Charlotte, ten years ago, and later discovered they shared a passion for writing – they are collaborating on books and short stories – their first novel is Hacksaw. He’s currently teaching pre-calculus, politial philosophy, and the theory of knowledge. He’s been a member of Houston Scriptwriters for three years, and is a member of Sisters in Crime and The Final Twist. His short stories appear in the Final Twist anthologies: A Death in TexasA Box of Texas ChocolatesTwisted Tales of Texas Landmarks, Underground Texas, and the upcoming Deadly Diversions.

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Deadly Diversions is Now Available!

The latest anthology from The Final Twist is now available in paperback and Kindle versions! Solve a mystery today! Houston authors take you into a world of hobbies and pastimes with mysterious, and sometimes deadly, consequences. You can purchase at:

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