Tag Archives: Mark H. Phillips

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
Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under Books, Writing Craft

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.

3 Comments

Filed under Books, Contest, Promo, Writing Craft

Villains (Mark H. Phillips)

Great villains often make great novels. Your protagonist will be measured by the strength and cunning of her antagonist. Indeed, since the villain is often the prime mover of the plot, his motivations become crucial. In The Silence of the Lambs, Agent Clarice Starling must figure out the motivations and thought processes of two different serial killers, Hannibal Lecter and Buffalo Bill. Sherlock Holmes requires a Moriarty; Superman, his Lex Luthor; Batman, his Joker; Bond, his Blofeld; and Luke Skywalker, his Darth Vader. Without the villains, there would be nothing for the hero to do.

Some authors, realizing that their most creative efforts are going into devising a fascinating, complex villain, simply make their villain the protagonist, alá Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. I grew up in the 60s and 70s, the heyday of the anti-hero and the villain-hero. The Man with No Name from Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, the Sub-Mariner and Dr. Doom, Michael Moorcock’s wonderful characters Jerry Cornelius and Elric of Melniboné, are all characters who violate traditional heroic templates or are actual villains. Alex, the evil protagonist of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, comes across as more authentic and stylish than the hypocritical and tawdry culture that surrounds him, a lithe tiger in a culture of pigs (actually this contrast is emphasized more in Kubrick’s film). Alex is heroic in a Byronic, rather than moral sense.

The “rules” for writing a great villain are much the same as writing any other complex character. Their inner motivations must be complex and a believable product of a convincing back-story. They will usually display character traits that would be admirable if their motives were pure. They might display superb self-control over their emotions, or a remarkable stamina, brilliance, focus, or determination. They often spend hard years honing their talents in the service of their ultimate goal of world domination, or overcome hurdles with heroic effort and ingenuity.

From their own perspectives, villains will often see themselves as the true hero of their own story. Ra’s al Ghul (from Batman comics, not the recent movie) sees himself as trying to save the world from ecological disaster, even if it means drastically and violently reducing the world’s human population. Ra’s al Ghul sees Batman as a misguided opponent of limited vision who thwarts R’as’ benevolent plans. William B. Davis, the actor who played the sinister Cigarette Smoking Man on the X-Files, recounts how he came to fully grasp his character only when he realized that, from his own perspective, the CSM was the hero of the series, and Agent Mulder was the one endangering humanity with his foolish quest to expose the “Truth.”

You might invite your audience to see the villain’s downfall as a tragedy. The audience will come to see the villain fall as due to some fatal flaw in an otherwise heroic character, and pity him. Othello’s insecurity and jealousy are the only flaws in an otherwise admirable man, but unfortunately flaws which Iago can use to destroy Othello, a man in all other respects far better than himself.

In the X-Men movies, Magneto, emotionally scarred by the deaths of his parents in the Nazi concentration camps, sees his mission as a defense of Homo superior from the hate and murderous prejudice of non-mutants. His fatal flaws consist of intolerance, arrogance, ruthless cruelty, and an unfamiliarity with the concepts of innocence and non-combatants. His ideological conflict with Charles Xavier is reflected in non-fictional history by the conflict between Menachem Begin and David Ben-Gurion during the fight for the creation of Israel. Was Menachem Begin a terrorist or a freedom fighter or both? A good writer exploits moral complexity. Realism and depth are accomplished when it’s not always clear who the real villain is and who the real hero is. The Watchmen is a near perfect exercise in such complexity as painfully flawed “heroes” successfully prevent the “villain” from saving the world.

Nothing spoils an otherwise competent piece of fiction as a weak or blasé villain. Spend the time creating a villain that readers will love to hate. Learn to see the world through your villain’s eyes. Find his flawed nobility. Explore the tortured inner conflict that drove him to his megalomaniacal quest. Can you write your story so that when the villain asks the hero to join him (perhaps a clichéd, but nonetheless powerful opportunity to explore the ideological basis of their conflict), your audience wavers as the hero does—not because the hero is weak, but because the villain is so convincing, so authentic, so admirable, so committed, so sincere.

Which villains do you love to hate?

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Writing Craft