Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Life in the Bible Belt

Sometimes, the Bible belt is a weird, weird place. (This is going to be a spiritual blog topic. You've been forewarned.)

Courtesy of
I grew up in the Northeast, a place that perfectly illustrates the image of America as a melting pot. The Northeast isn't perfect, but it influenced the way I approach life, and I have a fondness for coastal, Northern, Eastern things like great Italian restaurants, lively parties, the ocean, stone walls built from the stones that you dig up every time you work in the dirt, thickly wooded areas, blunt honesty, sincere laughter, and plenty of non-Christians to liven up a conversation, spiritual or not.

Almost daily, I am reminded that I wasn't born in the Bible belt, and that even though I've lived here seven years, I still don't "get" some of the culture here. Truthfully, I don't want to "get" it either. There are some weird attitudes about life here in the Bible belt.

For one thing, I don't think I've ever met so many people obsessed with conspiracies, political machinations, and judgmental attitudes as I've found in the Bible belt. Maybe I was just fortunate not to see this much back East. Or maybe there are so many people in the Northeast that you just get a large variety of opinions by default. But where I am now, the ideas often seem Xeroxed. It's hard to find a variety of opinions here. There's a lot of lockstepping instead.

Even worse, many people here echo Rush Limbaugh and Ann Colter. It's okay to listen to what you want to listen to. But it is not okay to spit out what you've just heard to everyone else (I mean, ME). There's a reason I don't listen to Rush Limbaugh. And in fairness, I don't listen to Al Franken either. Rabid hate-mongering, complaining, and blaming is of no interest to me, whether it's left or right.

The Bible belt is also home to many doom-and-gloom messages. Perhaps this is because the people here are extremely focused on Bible passages like the book of Revelation, which is about the time in which Jesus will return. It's going to be an ugly time, with all manner of wars, natural disasters, social problems, anti-God messages, and a lack of spirituality. First-century Christians thought it was describing their time under the oppressive Roman emperors. Christians in 2011 think it is describing today. And maybe it is. 

But since the Bible makes it clear that humanity's sin will continue to lead us in a downward spiral in many ways, I don't see how negativity helps anyone find the way out. The Bible's central message is that there is hope in the midst of the downward spiral. His name is Jesus. We all have to decide what we're going to do with Him and what He's done for us. As a Christian, I firmly believe it would be much better to spend my time talking about Jesus and the hope we have in Him, especially when I'm talking with people who need hope. How is it that so many Christians in the Bible belt talk more about the problems than the solution? I find this troubling.

It's even more troubling when I think about the us versus them mentality that seems to pervade the culture of the Bible belt. This isn't only found among Christians here; it seems to be cultural. A friend (who is Native American) and I (a dark-haired, curvy Italian gal) went to a town of about 18,000 people not too long ago. It's a town touted for its museums, antiquing, shopping... In other words, not a little hitching post town with 300 people all related to one another. It's large enough to be open to others, especially since they advertise to bring visitors in. Yet when my friend and I went to a popular local restaurant there, we were practically shunned. It's the only time I've ever felt like maybe I wasn't "white enough" to fit in. I can only imagine how much worse it was for my friend, who is a minority member. It's repellent, especially in 2011, to see that kind of disrespect for others, especially in a place supposedly focused on living like Jesus. Ugh.

The us versus them attitude extends into the Christian community in other ways. It's found in Christianese - terms that only Christians know, which is off-putting to anyone who is outside the group. Christianese leads to some really dumb ways of talking about things. A friend of mine overheard a Christian woman calling her children her "loinfruit." I guess this is a rephrasing of some Scripture verse about the fruit of someone's loins, but honestly, if I were a non-Christian, and I overheard that, I'd think the woman was clueless and self-centered to talk about her kids with a demeaning, dehumanizing term like that. I'd be so turned off. This seems a stupid way to handle conversations, especially since the goal is to find outsiders and bring them in, not keep them out. (Jesus kind of had a thing for outsiders. When we don't, we kind of don't seem like Jesus, do we?)

The us versus them attitude is also found in the clueless self-focus I've noticed in a lot of the Christian community. Like the conversation I heard in Starbucks among church members planning their church anniversary celebration. The focus was on things like how to do a great Powerpoint presentation of the church's history. Oh, and about what kind of potatoes to serve. And worst of all, what food would be better to have sitting and heating up in containers while the service went on. 

I thought, why not just make the service short and get right into the eating, so people could visit? Do you really have to preach that long on a special church day? If I were a guest at that service, I would have hated it. And if I were a member, the service and celebration would have turned into a day-long thing. Don't people already have enough to do on their short weekends? I don't begrudge the church its celebration. But I think the focus was so much on the church that it wasn't focused on the people who make up the church. (If you haven't noticed, Jesus cares more about people than about organizations. But I'm not even sure Jesus Himself was welcome at that church anniversary. He sure wasn't the focus of it.)

Ironically, it may be good that I live in the Bible belt right now. It's making me ask questions I never would have thought of asking when I lived in the Northeast, because the questions weren't relevant there. It's making me wonder how I, as a Christian, can make Jesus Christ seem appealing to those who don't know much about Him. It's not going to be the way the Bible belt does it. I suspect this image of Christians is why much of America doesn't want to talk about God and religion and church. It's hard to blame them. I often think if I were in their shoes, I wouldn't want to talk to Christians either.

There's a solution to this problem somehow... And it's found in being a lot more like the real Jesus, instead of the Jesus we've made up to suit our needs. Perhaps this is why I've been drawn to books like The Hole in Our Gospel and Imaginary Jesus. Christians like me need a relationship with the real Jesus, not a fake one. That's the only way anyone else will ever get to see the real Jesus, right? Through us. I think we owe that to our world.

What do you think? What is it that makes Jesus real to people? I'd love to hear from you about this whole topic, whether you're a Christian or not. In fact, the more viewpoints, the better. So feel free to share, no matter what you think and believe. I welcome your honesty. Thanks for stopping by today!

Copyright (c) 2011 by Michele Chiappetta. All rights reserved.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Muse Reviews: New Orleans

French Quarter
(photo courtesy of
This is a quick and dirty review, because I am behind schedule a bit. You see, I just returned from a trip to New Orleans. Read a great book along the way (Variant by Robison Wells), but I want to give a little more time to writing the review for it. So I thought I'd review the city of New Orleans itself.

In preparing for the trip, I mentioned my destination to a few people, all of whom said they found the city either dirty or smelly, or both. (The French Quarter is a party area, after all, and has a well-earned reputation for being a little wild.) Other people wondered if the city was in good shape or still reeling to recover from Hurricane Katrina. A good question.

Beignets from Cafe du Monde
(photo courtesy of Wikipedia)
When I arrived in NOLA, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the city is very clean these days. Perhaps it's due to hurricane cleanup efforts. Or perhaps it's that NOLA is working hard to be a tourist destination for families, especially during the holidays. Whatever the case... New Orleans was not at all dirty or messy, not even in the French Quarter. Sure, there is powdered sugar on the floor at Cafe du Monde (beignets use a lot of powdered sugar). Sure, Bourbon Street is still seedy, even as early as  6 p.m. But the streets are tidy, and I didn't see anyone vomiting on a corner or relieving themselves in an alley. Perhaps that still happens during Mardi Gras. But apparently not at Thanksgiving.

As far as hurricane recovery, the city looks very good. Much of the repairs have already been made, especially to the areas where a tourist might visit. There's no obvious damage to be seen in the French Quarter or the Garden District, though both of those areas were relatively protected during Katrina's wrath. To be fair, I didn't get down to the Ninth Ward, where much of the worst flooding occurred. But the area has received a lot of attention from FEMA and hopefully is doing much better now.

Overall, New Orleans actually turned out to be a great place to visit during Thanksgiving. I'm already thinking about going next year in December, to see the Christmas decorations that I missed by going just a little too early this year.

Have you been to New Orleans? If so, how long ago? Did you like it? Share your thoughts!

Copyright (c) 2011 by Michele Chiappetta. All rights reserved.

Friday, November 25, 2011

You Deserve a Break Today

It's the day after Thanksgiving. What are you up to? Are you taking a break from writing today? I am. I'm spending the day with family and friends, and will get back to my writing soon enough.

There are plenty of people out there saying we need to "write every day." And in principle, that's true. If you're a writer, it only makes sense to write regularly. But in my world there are, believe it or not, a few things more important than writing. And one of those things is my family. I think it's good to take a day off from time to time just to be with them, not just in body but in mind and spirit too. Giving them my whole attention.

If you're a writer, and especially if you're doing Nanowrimo this month, remember: you deserve a break at times. Maybe you deserve a break today. I'll go against the grain here and tell you that, in fact, it is okay not to write today if you have a chance to spend some time with your friends and family around the holiday. Of course, if you are taking time to write today, I support you. Go for it! But don't beat yourself up if you need a day off. Rest can really help you come back to your writing the next day stronger than ever.

So if you deserve a break today, take it. And then come back and write tomorrow, refreshed. That's what I'm doing. And I have full confidence that it'll all work out.

Hope you are having a great Thanksgiving holiday, however you are spending it. See you back here Monday!

Copyright (c) 2011 by Michele Chiappetta. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thank You, Readers!

It is Thanksgiving time in the U.S., so... Rather than being facetious today (I can do that next week), I just want to say thank you for stopping by and reading this blog. You could have been doing something else...reading the newspaper, eating a donut, washing your hair...but you decided to come visit my blog. 

Whether you're reading this blog for the first time or whether you're a regular reader, I thank you for being a part of the audience. It's my philosophy that a piece of writing isn't truly complete until a reader reads it and responds with their thoughts, their feelings, and their comments. So you, by reading, have made my humble blog posts complete.

Yes, that's right. I'm saying, "You complete me." (I'll never live that Jerry Maguire reference down, as long as I live.)

Seriously, I appreciate you. If I haven't yet visited your blog (if you have one), put a note in the comments here and remind me to stop by. I like to reciprocate the favor.

Have a wonderful, happy, healthy Thanksgiving, and see you back here soon!

Copyright (c) 2011 by Michele Chiappetta. All rights reserved.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Muse Reviews: Iron Man 2

A quick and dirty review of Iron Man 2

Starring the ever-handsome Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, the first Iron Man movie was a successful combination of charm, wit, and pathos, with some great action scenes. But the sequel, Iron Man 2, came out in 2010 to mixed reviews. There was some debate about whether it had the punch of the first movie, complaints were made about the father-son motif, and questions were raised about the casting (Mickey Rourke played the bad guy, while Don Cheadle replaced Terrence Howard as Stark's military friend, Rhodey).

I worried that the sequel would disappoint me, so I didn't rush to see it in theaters. But having finally seen the movie on DVD, I can say I didn't have too much to be worried about. Sure, Iron Man 2 suffers the fate of many sequels; it simply can't be as new as its predecessor, so it loses that element of surprise which, frankly, makes a lot more movies work than you might have noticed. But still. Iron Man 2 was a lot of fun too.

The action scenes were nicely shot, and in a superhero movie, that's half the battle (pun intended). Iron Man 2 didn't disappoint in that arena. The plot had a few bumps in it, but not in the father-son relationship that other reviewers critiqued. I liked that part, actually.

For me, the plot problem (small as it was) came from Stark's industrial rival, Justin Hammerplayed by Sam Rockwell, who has the thankless job to have to portray a lousy Stark-wannabe. Rockwell does a fine job of it, but the character as written is too stupid to be believable. He's a caricature of a jealous spotlight hound, and worst of all, he breaks a psychopath out of prison to help him and then expects loyalty out of the guy. I hate when writers do that to a character. It's so boring.

Good news, though. The bad guy, Ivan Vanko, is played to perfection by Mickey Rourke, and is just different enough to be engaging. Somehow, Rourke makes Vanko a little more than the average psychopath, and his performance balances out the poor writing around the Justin Hammer character.

It was a little hard to get used to Cheadle in Terrence Howard's old role, mainly because the character comes across as so much more serious under Cheadle's performance. It's almost like Rhodey is two completely different people from the first movie to the second. I missed the humor in Howard's acting, though it's hard to fault Cheadle for that, since he has fewer opportunities to show any humor. I fault the writing for that, not the acting.

Some good humor does come from Agent CoulsonClark Gregg should be nominated for supporting actor sometime; he's perfect.

The final bump came with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), who inexplicably seems less self-assured and slower on the take than she did in the first movie. Again, I fault the writers. Or the director. Because Paltrow didn't have a problem in the first film. It was puzzling to see her lose her spark in the second movie.

All in all, Iron Man 2 is a decent sequel. It's not perfect, and it's not better than the original. But it's still pretty darn good, and worth a DVD rental.

Copyright (c) 2011 by Michele Chiappetta. All rights reserved.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Why You Need a Critique Group

Let's face it. One of the most wonderful experiences you can have as a writer is to find a reader who likes your work. And one of the hardest things is to hear from a reader that your writing needs improvement. It can be terrifying to share your work, especially if you think it will be criticized.

But to grow as a writer, it's important to get honest feedback. That's what a good critique group can do for you: give you the feedback you need to improve your writing and get into shape for publication. Trust me, at some point in your writing career you'll want a group of writers who can help you out in this arena. (And yes, think of it as a career even if you haven't published yet.)

There are other writers who speak to how to find a good critique group, when in the writing process to solicit critiques, and how to judge what critiques to accept and which to pass on. I'll simply say that a good group is one is a good fit. I like a group that is both honest and supportive, and that gets what I'm trying to do with my fiction even if it's not the genre or style they normally read.

As for the other two issues, some people say not to share your work too early. You'll have to judge for yourself the definition of "too early," but I'd hold off until you feel like you have a draft ready for review and input. And you can choose to take or leave the input you get based on whether you feel like it is accurate and whether you think that making the change makes sense for what you are trying to do. Taking a critique is as much of an art form as writing itself, and it requires some practice and experimentation to see what works for you.

Let me tell you how a critique can help you by pointing out flaws in your draft. True story: I once wrote a short story for a writers workshop held on a college campus. The group read my draft and told me they couldn't relate to my protagonist because he was so whiny and old. One person suggested, "I wish the old guy would just die already."

I said, "Old? What do you mean, old?"

The group said, "The guy seems like a grumpy old man to us. How old is he supposed to me?"

To my chagrin, I replied, "He's supposed to be a teenager having a pity party."

The group essentially told me, "Um. No. You didn't write a teenager here. This is a grumpy old man."

Talk about a failure to communicate. To say I was embarrassed doesn't quite express how awful I felt about that critique. But what the group said was true. And if they couldn't relate to the protagonist, the story was a failure. So I took their advice, which included a way to make my character sound more like a teen, and it worked fantastically. It's a story I'm proud of, after all these years. And I made it better because of the feedback I got.

That's what makes a good critique group, ultimately. Somehow, your writing gets better because of what the group says. And that's why you need to find a group that fits for you. Those group members and their comments will make you sharper.

Have you ever had an experience like mine? (Or is it just me? Haha!) Tell me about your critique group and what you like about it. Or share when you know your draft is ready for a critique.

And thanks for stopping by the blog today!

Copyright (c) 2011 by Michele Chiappetta. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Flights of Fantasy

Do you like fantasy? Or does it drive you up the wall to even consider reading a novel about vampires, sorcerers, or hobbits?

Whatever you feel about the fantasy genre, apparently you're not alone. People seem to be hard-wired to either love it or hate it, according to a recent psychological study performed at Kansas State University. (The irony of doing a study about fantasy stories in Kansas does not escape me. But if it bothers you, just click your heels together three times and say, "There's no place like the non-fiction shelves at the library. There's no place like the non-fiction shelves...")

As a fantasy lover, I am fully in favor of believing that I am far more imaginative than a non-fantasy person. I also tend to believe I'm prettier than they are, more fun, and more likely to become a millionaire. None of that may be true, but remember, I like to fantasize. *wink*

Seriously, though, the study poses an interesting question: Why do we care if some people like fantasy, while others don't? Loving a good paranormal romance isn't exactly in the same category as drug addiction, murder, or pedophilia. The fantasy genre isn't going to cause the downfall of humankind.

And yet, I do feel cautious introducing my love of The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia to people I've just met, because it can be an invitation to condescension: "Oh, you like those novels, do you? Well, I can't get into them. I prefer [insert pretentious literary novelist here]." This shouldn't happen, but it does, and all too often. Even the study summary describes fantasy fans as the fantasy prone, as though we fit in with the people who are prone to violence, prone to bizarre sexual behaviors, prone to mental problems.

We fantasy lovers are not prone at all; we are up and moving all the time, sometimes physically and sometimes mentally. But life doesn't catch us lying down. I can attest to that personally.

The reality is, some of us do dream of what never was and say, "Why not?" And really, why not? There's nothing wrong with a little fantasy to take a break from your reality. And fantasy can lead to an embrace of life, rather than a flight from it. It's like expecting magic wherever you go. The magic may not always show up, but sometimes it does. If you're looking for it, you won't miss it. What a great way to live!

So, what do you think of fantasy? Do you love it? Hate it? How do you view people who like fantasy? And what do you think of the decision to do a psychological study on the topic? (It was for a student's doctoral dissertation, and I don't mind it. But it seems kind of funny to me. What do you think?)

For more on this topic, read my source article on MSNBC.

Copyright (c) 2011 by Michele Chiappetta. All rights reserved.

Friday, November 11, 2011

A Breakthrough Writers Community: The Scoop on Story Dam

As writers, we have all heard the advice, “Practice your craft. Build your platform. Share your work with a critique group. Find beta readers.” But how do we do that? Where do we turn for help? The folks at Story Dam are answering those questions and more with their online writers group, launched at the beginning of this month. I interviewed Story Dam’s founders, Brandon Duncan and his wife Brandi, to learn exactly what Story Dam is all about.

Welcome, Brandon! Good to have you join me at the Chipper Muse for my first official interview post. Why don’t you share a little bit about what led you to start Story Dam?

Absolutely, Michele, and thank you for this opportunity! Two years ago, I decided to act on my desire to be an author. I wrote when I could and tried to learn about the process. I even tried starting a forum to connect with other writers (which failed rather miserably). I decided to blog instead, which was great for my writing!

Later, I was invited to join an online writing group, and I jumped at the chance to participate. After a while, though, I felt I needed to move on; I think the biggest reason being I started to receive less critiques on my work. I knew I needed the extra practice, but without feedback, I simply didn’t know if I was getting better or worse. The problem was, after leaving the group, I no longer wrote as much.  I didn’t have timelines to keep me honest, but I also missed the community aspect of being in a group. My wife, Brandi, also expressed a desire to write, but she couldn’t find a group she liked; so we started our own!

What are you hoping to accomplish with Story Dam?

We want to create a positive experience for writers by giving them a place where they can learn, talk, improve, and feel comfortable. We do not believe that the competition in the writing industry is so great that you cannot help others. Just as our tagline states, everyone has a story. We want to help people become comfortable sharing those stories and accomplish their goals—whether those are simple creative release, education, or getting their work published. Our whole structure is built on that foundation of helping other writers in a community setting. We are working hard to make sure they love their community.

Do you have any partners helping with Story Dam?

We do not; however, we do offer ways for our community to be more involved in Story Dam operations. Joining the VIP list (or subscribing) puts you on an email list through which we discuss new features, updates, and potential new concepts on a weekly basis.

We also have a volunteer group called the “community watch.” This group acts on our behalf as site moderators and are our eyes and ears on the street. If community members are interested in being a part of the community watch, all they have to do is email us. The bottom line is, this is our community. We should all have a say in how it runs.

What will writers get by participating?

We have designed Story Dam to suit writers at every skill level, so everyone can participate. Having a wide range of experiences and skills  brought to the table will help make the community credible, pleasing, and meaningful.

To foster networking and friendship building, our community hosts four different link-ups throughout the month. We use a “linky tool” that allows us to quickly add a picture link that others click, taking them to the writer’s work. From there, they read, comment, or provide constructive criticism for that writer when appropriate. Two of these link-ups are based on writing prompts we provide. The other two are for sharing other interests or act as “meet and greets” for our members to get to know each other.

Story Dam also provides educational materials! We’ll have weekly original or republished posts from other sites that cover writing and publishing, social media, or various other topics that a community of writers would be interested in.

And finally, traditionally published and/or represented authors have the option of conducting interviews with us that are structured to allow people to connect with them on a more personal level. We publish the interview transcripts as a monthly feature; and we ensure that our authors stop in during their feature month to answer your questions and comments.

There are other online writing groups out there. So tell me… What makes Story Dam unique?

As I learned about various online writing groups, I realized that each had qualities people liked, but none pulled all of those traits together. So, that’s what we did with Story Dam—we brought everything under one roof, so to speak.
Everything about our community has been researched and designed to provide a tangible benefit to our participants. From our prompts, which conform to a stringent creative standard, to the site’s framework, we have kept our community’s best interests in mind every step of the way.

Plus, we’re fun people and we love to help others. That’s always a bonus.

Agreed! Is there anything else you’d like to share?

There’s tons more, but you have to visit the site! We welcome everyone, so please stop by and see if Story Dam fits your writing needs. We’d love to have you!

Well, there you have it, everyone! The scoop on Story Dam. Check it out online at I’ll be there waiting for you! And stop by Brandon’s blog too, found at I think you’ll enjoy what he and Brandi have to share with you.

And when you check out Story Dam, visit here and share your thoughts. I always love to hear from you!

Copyright (c) 2011 by Michele Chiappetta. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Gadgets Galore: Consumer Reports Goes Steampunk

So glad I'm not this kid!
Yes, I'm exaggerating. Consumer Reports isn't going steampunk. But they are celebrating 75 years of testing consumer products, and some of the pictures they have posted on their website right now will have you thinking Wild, Wild West in no time flat.

Hair products are a lot of work...
It is amazing to see some of the old-fashioned products on display on the Consumer Reports website. You have to see them! The vintage photos and timeline are posted on the bottom of their home page. And they just might inspire you to write some steampunk, or at least get some popcorn and rent The Avengers. Come on, who doesn't love Emma Peel?

It's interesting... Fantasy and science fiction are found wherever you look, if you have the right attitude. The 75th anniversary of Consumer Reports is a feast for the imagination. It's a riot of technology, with a love of science and unbridled enthusiasm for improving our experience of life. At its best, steampunk embraces that philosophy too, and the Consumer Reports celebration simply reminds me of the beauty and passion to be found in science and technology.

Steampunk gives a nice balance to the dystopian post-apocalyptic landscapes so prevalent today. The world is filled with bad news, there is no doubt about it. Perhaps it is inevitable that things will go downhill. Things do tend toward chaos. But steampunk is a little reminder that in spite of chaos, in spite of the bad things, there is beauty in man and his mind too. It's not all dark out there. Sometimes, we see some light.

I'm a writer. Of course I included
a picture of coffee makers!
If nothing else, the Consumer Reports spread is fun and fanciful, and it gives you a behind the scenes look at their testing techniques. (You might be surprised at what they do.) So even if you don't love steampunk fiction, you might enjoy 20th century technology history, so stop by the Consumer Reports website and then come by here and tell me what you think.

Oh, and if you like steampunk, give Phoenix Rising by Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris a try. It's a lot of fun. I reviewed it here if you'd like to see my take on it.

Copyright (c) 2011 by Michele Chiappetta. All rights reserved.

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Muse Reviews: The Way of Shadows by Brent Weeks

One of the best fantasy writers of today dazzles in his debut trilogy.

There's a good reason why I'm a huge fan of Brent Weeks. He's writing some of the best fantasy fiction around these days. Good writing, impressive plotting, dynamic scenes, clearly written fight scenes, rich themes woven from start to finish to give the story resonance, and characters that constantly surprise you as a reader...Weeks has a voice in fantasy that I expect to last for a long, long time. It's hard not to love him.

I am definitely not immune to his charms. I fell hard for his writing with The Black Prism, the first novel in a series that he is currently in the midst of writing. (See my review of The Black Prism from April.) In fact, I fell so hard that I couldn't wait until book two came out, which is why I decided to read his debut Night Angel trilogy, beginning with The Way of Shadows.

Before I review the book, I want to share a little story about The Way of Shadows. Before I ever heard of The Black Prism, I remember browsing the fantasy and science fiction bookshelves at Barnes & Noble. A little paperback called The Way of Shadows caught my eye. The cover's white background with compelling character illustration on the front immediately jumped out and said, "Look at me." So I did. It's a beautiful cover, and it perfectly depicts the sense of magic and movement of both the writing style and the story itself.

But one small thing stopped me from buying it at the time. The main characters are assassins and prostitutes.

Okay, to be honest, the problem wasn't that they were assassins and prostitutes. The problem is that there is so much so-called "gritty" fantasy out there, and while I don't mind gritty, I do mind nihilistic, amoral novels because that's not why I read fantasy. If I want nihilistic amorality, I can turn on the news. I turn to fiction for a break from reality and for a reminder that there are places in ourselves and in the world where ethics, values, generosity, and sacrifice matter. My concern about The Way of Shadows was not that I couldn't stand the characters and their actions, but that the author wouldn't tell a story that depicted human nobility in spite of the darkness, or the way that we can look at our surroundings, as terrible as they are, and declare boldly like Maya Angelou, "Still I'll rise!"

But after reading and being tremendously impressed by The Black Prism, I decided to give The Way of Shadows a try. Not only was I not disappointed by the writing, which is as excellent as I've come to expect from Weeks. But also I was amazed at the level of beauty that Weeks is able to convey in the midst of the dark and gritty circumstances that his characters live out. Finally! An author who can use the grit to paint a portrait of the human spirit's ability to rise above filth, even if it's just in the choices we make, no matter how hard they are.

This isn't to say that the novel pussyfoots around the moral depravity you'd expect of assassins and prostitutes. People are killed. Others commit depravities that are disgusting. But you never lose the sense of ethical judgment. Not all acts are created equal, after all. Some are more evil than others. And if you have to choose between the devil and the darkness, it's clear that at least one choice is slightly more moral than the other. It's refreshing to read an author who can write wicked characters believably without either condoning their evil behavior or making them so simplistic that it becomes a morality tale.

Weeks doesn't preach. But he does make you think. And I respect that in an author, because not every author can do that well. You'll take out of his books what you choose to take out of them, but if you don't take anything out of them at all... Well, you're just not trying. In The Way of Shadows alone, Weeks tackles aspects of poverty, child abuse, sexuality, leadership, mortality, the afterlife, and love. Not bad for his debut novel. I hope I can do half as well with the novel I'm writing now.

In any case, I can't recommend The Way of Shadows highly enough. Even if fantasy isn't your "thing," I urge you to pick up this book and give it a try. The writing, the storytelling, the characterization, and the resonant themes make it worth stretching yourself out of your preferred genre. And if you do like fantasy, all I can say is, you must read Brent Weeks immediately. Don't wait another minute.

If you've read Brent Weeks, what did you think of his work? If you haven't, go out and read him, and then come back here. I want to hear your opinion!

Copyright (c) 2011 by Michele Chiappetta. All rights reserved.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Chatting on Twitter to Build Your Writing Toolkit

I love Twitter. I love it with a passion. You may be thinking, "Since you love it so much, maybe you should marry it." And I say to you, "Yes! I would love to marry it, because I really do love it that much."

There really is a Chatty Cathy!
Here's one reason Twitter makes my heart leap for joy. It's such a great way to connect with other writers and to grow in the craft of writing. I'm a firm believer in treating writing like a business. If you build it, they will come and look at it. If you build it and it's awesome, they will come and buy it. If you build it and it's the best product they've ever seen, they will come, buy it, and tell all their friends about it.

They, of course, are readers. We want them to hang around us for all the right reasons. So we need something worthy of putting in their hands. So, it's important to learn all we can about writing and make ourselves better day by day. All with the goal of building a better product for our readers.

A great way to do this in a casual, friendly, but lively setting is to hop on the hashtag chats that occur on Twitter all the time. If you haven't done this yet, give it a try sometime. Here's why: You never know what will come up during the chat, but many times it'll be something you never thought of. And sometimes it'll be someone you never thought you'd get to chat with, and that's always a blast!

This week, I popped onto two scheduled chats, by which I mean that the time to do the chat was scheduled in advance. If you're a planner, you can easily add scheduled chats to your calendar. The first chat took place on #LitChat, which hosts one-hour chats with writers and readers three times a week. (See for their schedule.) I hopped into a conversation about triangles in fiction, and whether they are always romantic, or whether you can find triangles driven by needs other than love and lust. That was great, because it forced me to think in a new way about how to structure conflict into a story.

Then I had the privilege of chatting with Brent Weeks and some of his fans on #sffwrtcht, moderated by Bryan Thomas Schmidt (here's the website link). I'm a Weeks addict. The guy is a very strong writer, with the ability to create character twists and plot twists that surprise and please the reader. And he does it in such a believable way. It's very impressive. I was able to ask him some questions about how he writes, and see how he answered the questions of others too. 

Being on a chat with a writer is a lot like being at a convention, only without the expense or the crowds. In this sense, Twitter is a great equalizer. You can make contacts there that you might not get the chance to make anywhere else. Brent was great to chat with, and a lot of other writers are equally as open during chats like this, because there's something about Twitter than helps create the feel of hanging around the pub with friends.

If you want more information on hashtag chats, you can often find them by studying the hashtags of the other writers you follow. You can ask your Twitter friends for chats they like to participate in. And you can search Google. Here's a beginning place to start: Twitter Hashtag Chats for Writers by Diana Ligaya. She lists several sff genre chats, and since I'm a sff nerd, I'll give her a shout-out here. But if you prefer romance or another genre, try Googling chats for that genre. They are out there.

It's easy to hop on a chat too. Just search for the hashtag and see what people are talking about and join in. This works for both scheduled chats and unscheduled ones. By unscheduled, I simply mean that the conversation is always ongoing, and you take your chances on what the conversation is at the moment. But unlike scheduled chats, people are alert for the unscheduled chats all the time, and whoever is online at the moment is likely to respond to you, which is a great way to meet new people. Some unscheduled/ongoing chats include #MyWANA, #amwriting, and #pubwrite, all of which have some great members.

I also find personally that chatting on Twitter makes me feel more relaxed about the idea of socializing. I'm an introvert, like a lot of writers are. But the positive feedback I've received from Twitter has made me feel confident that I can do this kind of chatting face-to-face at conferences too, and that's important for future success, networking, and connecting with fans. So all in all, hashtags chats actually have great potential to help you build your platform and develop the skills you need to write well and connect with readers.

Let me know what chats you participate in, especially if I haven't mentioned that chat here. I love learning about new things. Share, share, share!

Copyright (c) 2011 by Michele Chiappetta. All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

I Won a Prize!

Literally! I won fifth place from the judges in the Write Campaign's third contest for my flash fiction piece, Strange Vacation (click the title to read it).

Here's the news as posted on Rachael Harrie's website, Rach Writes. She runs the Write Campaign, which is a way for writers and bloggers to connect with one another and build their writing platforms. My entry was chosen from 131 entries, which is pretty cool, if you ask me.

The Write Campaign has been a lot of fun, and I've met some great people through it. If you want to participate, visit Rach's blog for more info. She runs the campaign twice a year, I believe, and she'll announce when it's starting up again.

And if you have time, read the other winners' entries too. There's some good writing out there, and it's interesting to see the different twists that people put on the same set of instructions: 300 words or less, setting on a beach, two people (one female, one male), one of them doesn't want to be there, include sensory details, and include a surprise ending. 

It just goes to prove that you don't need to worry about being original. You can do it. Just filter your story ideas through your own individual sensibilities, and you'll come up with something nobody else thought of. Apparently, I did, and it's a laugh. I can't tell you what the idea was, because it would spoil the surprise ending. But believe me, this story is all me. It fit. It was fun to write. And it worked. You can do this too! I know you can.

Can't wait to see us all grow together in our writing and achieve successes like this little one I have just had. So how about you? What's new with your writing? What brags do you have to share? I'd love to hear about it.

Copyright (c) 2011 by Michele Chiappetta. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Fun With Headlines Again

So, it's National Novel Writing Month, and I'm participating by writing to get 50,000 words done on my novel in the next 30 days. Needless to say, I don't plan on writing any deeply philosophical Wednesday blog posts until at least December. But I don't want to disappoint you, my loyal readers. So I'm back to a little "fun with headlines."

Set Your Inner Nerd Free in the Kitchen
As soon as I saw this headline, I thought, "We nerds do this already. All the time. Haven't you ever seen recipes for Klingon Gagh? (Also known as live serpent worms. Yum.) But seriously, at least this article got it right. You had me at the Millennium Falcon pancakes.

Even Light Drinking Ups Breast Cancer
This new study obviously contradicts the study that says drinking a moderate amount of wine is good for a woman's heart. I foresee a new study in which it is discovered that no matter what you do, one day you're going to die. Morbid, yes. But it's good science.

Bloomin' Bounty! Queen Victoria's Underwear Sold
The big story behind this headline is not that Queen Victoria's underwear sold for approximately $14,000 U.S. in auction recently, but rather that someone kept her underwear for over a hundred years. And you people call us nerds weird. Making Millennium Falcon pancakes weird? No. No. No. Keeping underwear for a hundred years? Now, that's weird.

Any story online about Cain
This isn't about the headline itself, but about me. Because every time I read a headline that says Cain, I think, McCain's running again? And then I realize that, yet again, I read the name wrong. And it's just Cain. I hope that doesn't affect him at the voting booth.

No, crackheads aren't coming to get you
I love this headline. It's about drug criminals being released from prison. But really, why would I worry about crackheads anyway? No one does crack anymore. They do meth. I'm worried that the methheads are coming to get me. Get on the 2011 bandwagon, MSNBC.

Did Kim kill the Kardashian brand with divorce?
I would have thought the Kardashian's reality show had already killed their brand. Have you ever seen the show? It's smuttier than the Playboy channel. I can't even repeat what they say to each other here, because this is a PG-13 blog. If you want to know what I mean, go on YouTube. I'm sure there are some clips there that will make you regret you have eyeballs after you've watched them.

And finally, today's hottest headline...

Bieber slams claim he fathered woman's baby
Ugh. Ugh, ugh, ugh. Now that's an image none of us need in our heads. Besides, isn't he like 12 years old? What's that? He's 17? Really? Because he looks like he's still 12. Oh, well. Maybe he did father the baby then. Or maybe he'll just cover Billie Jean. ("Billie Jean is not my lover, she's just a girl who says that I am the one, but the kid is not my son.")

That's all for today's mischief. Do you ever read headlines and laugh at them, like I do? Or is it just me?

Copyright (c) 2011 by Michele Chiappetta. All rights reserved.