Monday, May 30, 2011

Monday Mention: Tech Talk Podcast

Tech lovers will love the New York Times technology review podcast, Tech Talk.


The world moves fast these days. And technology moves even faster. It's impossible for the average consumer to keep up without some help. And that's where the New York Times Tech Talk Podcast comes in.


In this weekly, 30-or-so minutes of Internet audio, you get a quick and dirty update of the latest in tech news for computers, the Internet, podcasting, your smartphone, GPS devices... If it has technology in it (and what doesn't, these days?), Tech Talk covers it. And at 30 minutes an episode, the information is just enough, delivered quick enough, that you don't get overwhelmed.


How useful is tech news to you, the average person (as in, you're not an IT guy)? Well, last week's podcast covered a long list of apps for both iPhones and Droid phones...apps specifically related to travel. Roadtrip workaround apps. Flight update apps. Things to do with your kids apps. Things to keep your kids from driving you crazy while you drive them to Florida apps. What a range of useful information.


In other episodes, the Tech Talk hosts have covered the latest Internet viruses, email programs, software updates, and more. They even cover computer tips that I'm sure you never knew existed, but that you'll be glad to hear about. Tech Talk is a great resource, and past episodes are available on iTunes.


Bottom line: Tech Talk is a terrific, quick way to find out what's new in technology, as well as things that are not-so-new secrets to making your technology work better for you. Check it out at http://www.nytimes.com/ref/technology/techtalk.html.


Copyright (c) 2011 by Michele Chiappetta. All rights reserved. C'mon, you don't want to steal this anyway. It's just a review.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Friday Update: Balancing Personal Writing and Work

Well, I got very little personal writing done this week. I blame work. Both my day job and my freelance work. I got swamped. And I got frustrated. And so instead of writing in my free time, I mostly played around or zoned out.

Now, there are times to relax. I believe in taking time each night after the day job to have some "me" time. We all need that. It's essential to creativity, because you have to take in before you give out. If you've been giving out, you need to replenish the supply by taking in again. That's what relaxation does for you. Gives you a chance to replenish your supply.

But perhaps I didn't push myself as I should have to get a little more personal writing done. Maybe I couldn't have done a thousand words. But could I have done 200? Yes.

So I'm 'fessing up. I was a bad girl this week, as far as nurturing the artist within. But I'm refocusing on a new goal: to use the long weekend to give some needed time to my writing. Getting back on the horse again, and trotting down the road a little further.

Do you find it a struggle to balance your personal artistry and your day job? What do you find works for you? I would love to hear your views and ideas.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Making the Most of Your Time

As a writer, I'm always challenged to use my time wisely and effectively. I am a procrastinator, first of all, and a perfectionist too, both of which point me away from sitting and writing.

Much of life is like that. If you want to do something other than what you need to get done, a host of reasons will present themselves to you faster than courting Greeks in the halls of the missing Odysseus. (You'd have to be an English major to appreciate that allusion, but take it from me, as soon as it looked like Odysseus wasn't coming home, the entire Greek population descended on the guy's wife like flies on rotten meat.)

Anyway, the point is... It's easy to put something aside and say, "I'll get to this later." The problem is, you don't always have until later. Case in point this week: Joplin, Missouri. You just never know what life is going to bring you, and sometimes it isn't pretty.

Joplin makes me ask myself: "If this were my last day, how would I spend my time?" The answer to that question is probably what I should be doing all the time. I know this: I wouldn't be such a procrastinator, and I'd see perfectionism as a waste of time.

Time, time, time. There's a Bible scripture that says God redeems time for us. Well, that means time is a valuable commodity. And it's too precious to waste.

So, give it some thought. If this were your last day, how would you spend your time? Then make the most of every minute you have. Even if you have a whole lot of minutes left, think about how full your life will be if you maximize your moments. Full and fun.

Sounds good to me.

Copyright (c) 2011 by Michele Chiappetta. All rights reserved. So there, nyeh.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Monday Mention: Widescreen Warrior

A film review podcast that sounds like you and your friends when you get together and chat.

Let me be honest here: I don't mind a highbrow film review once in a while. I'm smart enough to understand them. But when I hang out with family and friends to rehash a film I've seen, I don't talk like a professional film critic. I talk like a person who has seen a film and wants to talk about it.

But I don't mind a little talk about camera angles and directing choices. That's cool too. That's why I like the Widescreen Warrior podcast (on iTunes, or check out their website at http://widescreenwarrior.com/).

The crew of the podcast—Rafe, Margaret, and "Sometimes" Tim (who is there sometimes, duh)—are able to talk about films intelligently, honestly, and in a down-to-earth manner. Listening to their weekly, hour-long show is like hanging out with a group of friends. They all have their unique perspective, so you get a variety of opinions... You get the guy who's a little picky but not overly so, the guy who likes blockbusters, the chick who is seeing films with her daughter.

People like you and me.

I find this refreshing, especially in a world filled with film reviewers who analyze movies to death without ever giving me a sense of whether I (the person with $10 and a free weekend) might find the movie fun. Yes, I know how well it compares to Citizen Kane. But sometimes I don't care about that. I like Widescreen Warrior because it gives me a good sense of whether I'll have fun seeing a film they are reviewing.

And when you want a more in-depth look at film, Widescreen Warrior gives you that too, particularly in their artist of the month segments, which focus on a body of work. This is an intelligent way to approach the more analytical nature of film review.

So check out Widescreen Warrior and see what you think. I'd love to hear your opinion! And I'll bet they would do. If you visit them, let them know I sent you their way.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Friday Update: Distractions

This week has definitely been filled with distractions. How do you write in the midst of distractions? I'm still trying to figure that out. It's one of my biggest struggles. But I'm a fighter! Let me share the techniques that work for me to beat those distractions down.


Distraction #1: Work. This week has been super busy at my day job. And since I write, edit, and proof at my day job all day long, a busy week usually saps me of energy that I'd like to direct toward my own work. 


What helps: A brief timeout period after I get home from work. I deliberately try to make this time quiet (which means no TV or radio) and totally for me (which means reading a book is okay, but doing Twitter or Facebook isn't, because those are "social" media that are about others, not just me). A workout sometimes helps, especially if it's a walk at the park where I can gaze at nature and zone out. Meditation could work too, I suppose. The idea is to totally switch gears and do something you find restful, so you can regather your energy to write.


Distraction #2: Stress. I've had deadlines on top of deadlines at work, and it's been a bit overwhelming. I find that stress of any kind makes it hard to settle in to write. It's tempting to just sit and watch TV and not think too much. It's hard to settle at the computer and be creative. 


What helps: Stubborn determination. I'll say this: If I can get over the hump of reluctance and get into a writing flow, I can get lost in it, which helps a lot with overcoming the stress. I did that last night, and wrote to near midnight. So, the best cure for stress is to push through until you hit that writing flow. If you have to vent on paper for a while, go ahead. If you're like me, you will eventually get out of your stressful thoughts and into an idea that excites you, and you'll be writing.


Distraction #3: "I stink" syndrome. This week was particularly difficult because I got feedback I wasn't expecting to get. Some came from my critique group, and it was true. I just wasn't ready to hear that what I'd worked so hard to get—unique character voices—was actually a weakness in a sense, because I overdid it. It made an important character unsympathetic. Yuck! And that was followed three days later by a critique of a personal essay that friends and writers/editors I trust have loved, but that didn't win a contest because it wasn't good enough. Again, the criticism was accurate. This time, it was hard to take because I can't believe my writer/editor friends in particular didn't pick up on this problem. Argh! It made me cranky. It made me wonder if I'm wasting my time writing.


What helps: A look within, and community. Ultimately, a writer is someone who wants to write, no matter what. So I took a hard look at what I want. And I still want to write. So... I just have to keep working at it, and be realistic that things take time to learn. James Frey says he spent 9-10 years learning to write before he became a hit. Whatever you think of him, you can't argue that he's a good writer. He worked at it. And I have to work at it too. I can do that.


The other thing that helped was community. I mean, you need to find connections to other writers who will support you. I found that support yesterday on Twitter. There's an #amwriting hashtag where you can tell others what you're working on. And I did. I said, "It's either write or procrastinate. So I'm writing," And a fellow writer popped right in with a response that essentially said, "Way to go! You can do it! Climb the mountain! We're with you!" Man, I needed that. A little encouragement goes a long way. I wrote close to 2,000 words last night because of it. Thanks, Gene! (@genelempp on Twitter, if you want to give him a follow.)


So, those are my tips for you. Do they really work? They do if you're willing to work them. Know what I mean? A writer has to be writing... But if you will commit to the words, they will come out onto your page. And they'll get better.


Onward and upward, my artist friends! We're going up that mountain together!


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

Monday, May 16, 2011

Monday Mention: In Our Time Podcast

Looking for a strong, diverse, interesting history podcast? The BBC's "In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg" is a great place to start.


Is it just me, or does the BBC seem to do everything well? Maybe I'm biased because I live in the States, and we get shipped "the good stuff." But I can't remember a time I've been disappointed with a BBC production. And the history podcast, "In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg" is no exception.

The host and producers of this show bring in experts to have a roundtable discussion of a historical topic. As moderator, Mr. Bragg is very adept at making observations and asking questions that bring out the best in his guests. The topics are varied enough to keep any history buff interested. Recent shows have discussed the Dawn of the Iron Age, the Pelagian Controversy, Aristotle's Poetics, the Mexican Revolution, Thomas Edison... Trust me, you won't get bored.

This variety also makes the podcast a great source for fiction writers looking to history for ideas as they plot their novels. That's one reason I listen. As a budding fantasy writer, I need all the resources I can get to help build believable worlds, societies, and cultures in my stories. And a history podcast like this one is a perfect place to start.

In sum:  In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg is a terrific podcast to add to your listening schedule. Find it at iTunes or check out the show's home page at http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/features/in-our-time/.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Friday Update

Plotting takes time. But it works better when you know what drives your characters. I've fought that reality on and off for many years. But the truth is, if you know what makes your character tick, it's easier to figure out situations that will make them uncomfortable, miserable, stressed... And here's the key... READY TO CHANGE.

Because most stories are about change. And dramatic changes are the result of being FORCED into it. That's true for most of us, anyway. And it's certainly true of fictional characters, who after all aren't real people but tools that we are using to tell a story. They should feel real. But they can't be exactly like real people, or we'll get bored and frustrated with them.

I say all this because I'm very excited with the plotting I'm doing for an urban fantasy/horror. Now that I know how my main character thinks and what she wants and fears, I'm really able to see how the story needs to progress, making her more and more miserable, but also forcing her to rise to the occasion in ways she doesn't expect.

Cool.

So that's what I've been up to. Hope your creative endeavors are jetting along happily!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Flies in the Car

Do you ever sit in your car with the windows open? I do this sometimes when I want a break from work, or when I go to the park to write. Sitting in my car creates a pleasant little pocket of solitude. And it works out nicely.

Until the bugs arrive.

There I am, trying to have my peaceful alone time when all of a sudden, I’m molested by wildlife. I don’t mean the cute animals, like happy bouncing bunnies or bashful deer. No, I am accosted by the most annoying of creatures—the common fly.

What is it about flies anyway? I mean, what’s with the incessant buzzing? And the annoying way they hover around my face? And the…well, the flying? What’s up with that? Can’t they learn to relax? It’s like they need a yoga class, or a little practice in Zen meditation or something. I don’t know. That’s what I’d do, if I were a fly. I’d get a fly massage and chill out.

To be honest, I have no problems with flies when they bother someone else, but I have a big problem when they bother me, particularly when I’m trying to relax and read or write in my car. Mainly the problem is this: once the flies get in the car, they don’t get out.

I’m not talking roach motel, where the flies can’t get out. I’m not talking “Hotel California,” where they check in anytime they want, but they can never leave. I’m talking Dumb and Dumber. I’m talking Homer Simpson. The flies can get out, but they don’t, because they’re too stupid. D’oh.

Oh, sure, these insects have the potential to leave my car whenever they want to. They can fly through the window where they came in. The window that is still open. The window that they keep buzzing right up next to. They come very, very close to getting out.

But they can’t quite manage it. Whenever they near an escape route, something odd happens. They bounce against a part of the doorframe, which stops their forward motion. Instead of looking for another way to move forward, they return to where they came from…inside the car where they have been trapped. With me.

In other words, they can’t get out because they don’t keep going in the right direction.

We humans do that too. A lot. We try to make progress. But then we hit a bump, an obstacle, a wall that slaps us in the face and propels us backward. We think, “I guess I can’t go that way.” So we pull back to where we’ve been. Yet we can’t grow and move ahead in life if we insist on going back to where we used to be.

The Bible talks about the futility and danger of going backward instead of forward. Jesus said, A person who puts a hand to the plow but keeps looking back is ineffective for God’s kingdom. Why? Because when you plow, you prepare the soil for planting by making orderly rows for the seeds to grow. If you look backward while you plow, the rows wander. They cross over one another. They don’t actually become rows. They become a churned-up mess of soil where the seeds will not grow as easily, and you’ll have a harder time tending the plants that do grow. You get fewer plants and less fruit. That’s no way to prepare for the harvest you want down the road.

To have the best, you must keep moving forward. It does you no good to return to a place where you’ve been trapped, where your season is up, where there is no more life for you. Don’t be like the fly that hits an obstacle and moves backward, giving up. No wall goes on forever. Eventually, the bricks fade away and there is open sky and free air. You just have to keep hunting for the way forward until you find it.

And you will. The windows of your life are open, especially if you allow God to lead you. He’s not the kind of guy who gets stuck, and His kids don’t have to get stuck either. So, ask the Big Guy for a little help finding your way forward. He knows exactly how to get you around the wall. And He’ll tell you, if you really want to know.

If only the flies in my car could learn this lesson. I’d be willing to help them out. In fact, I’d be delighted. Anything to shoo them on their way and get them to stop buzzing all up in my eyelashes.

And if that’s how I feel about a mere fly, how much more does God, who loves you, want to help you, who are worth much more than a buzzing insect too stupid to figure out how to get out an open window? Trust me, He cares a whole lot. And He has no plans to swat you. So keep moving forward with His help.

Me, on the other hand… I guess I need to buy a flyswatter. Or keep my windows closed.

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

Monday, May 9, 2011

Monday Mention: Imaginary Jesus by Matt Mikalatos

Itching for Christian fiction that is thoughtful, spiritual, well written, and… wait for it… fun? Good news! With Imaginary Jesus, author Matt Mikalatos proves you can have a blast, laugh, and enjoy skillful writing too, even as you ponder spiritual truth that makes you examine how you live and interact with God.

Sometimes, it seems as though Christian publishing settles for putting out things that are second best. This book review isn’t the place to debate why this is true… But I mention it here because for you to understand my review of Imaginary Jesus, you first have to know this: I don’t read Christian fiction much anymore.

I used to. Or at least I tried to. But as a writer and editor, I can be picky. I want good writing, strong characterization, and powerful plots that pull me along to unexpected yet satisfying endings. I find I get disappointed a lot by Christian fiction (see my review of The Heir for an example why: http://thechippermuse.blogspot.com/2011/04/monday-mention-heir-by-paul-robertson.html).

But I wish I didn’t feel that way.

Which is where Imaginary Jesus comes in, and why I’m so excited about it. The premise of Imaginary Jesus is this: Matt is seemingly minding his own business, reading His Bible at a hip cafĂ© in Portland, and being a Christian, when suddenly the unthinkable happens—his “Jesus” turns out to be an imposter! Suddenly, Matt has to get rid of the imposter if he wants to know the “real Jesus.” Which would be great…if only “Imaginary Jesus” hadn’t just taken off and fled into the streets of Portland. Now, Matt has to go in pursuit of the phony Jesus before he can find and connect with the real one.

What a unique, even kooky premise. Yet Imaginary Jesus challenged me like no other Christian fiction book has done in ages. It challenged me to look at my spiritual endeavors, my biases, my expectations… And it did so in a way that was thoroughly entertaining.

And it’s hilariously funny too. I actually laughed out loud throughout the entire first chapter, which is rare for me with any book, Christian or secular. Matt Mikalatos knows how to write satire. That’s where I’d like to file this book—under “Christian satire.” I think this might be the only book in that section of the shelves, but maybe if there were more, I’d read Christian fiction more often.

Anyway, satire is a highly effective way to get people to look at themselves and consider how they live. It works because a good satirist wields his words like a kindly scalpel, lancing the boils of society. The humor is the anesthesia, softening what could otherwise be a brutal blow to a reader’s delicate ego. Imaginary Jesus is very funny, even as it asks a potent spiritual question: Why do we try to make Jesus into who we want Him to be, instead of letting Him be who He is and adapting ourselves to Him?

That question is the crux of Imaginary Jesus, and it’s a powerful one. So is the answer, thought I can’t give it to you without spoiling the book. By approaching this topic in fiction—and funny fiction to boot—author Matt Mikalatos did something bold and beautiful. (If you read his blog, you find out Imaginary Jesus was originally a series of personal essays that his editor wisely suggested be transformed.)

The author’s personal journey is apparent in the genuineness of the struggle being faced by his alter ego character in the book. The conclusion is well done, believable, and cathartic. I look forward to reading more of Mikalatos’ work in the future.

In sum: All in all, it is well worth your time and your money to invest in reading Imaginary Jesus. It’s funny, thoughtful, moving…a great example of what Christian fiction could be if writers aim high enough. (Oh yeah, and you’ll finally learn who “Magic 8 Ball Jesus” is. But you’ll have to read the book to find out, because I’m not giving it away!)

For more about Matt Mikalatos and Imaginary Jesus, visit his blog: http://mikalatos.blogspot.com/

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

Friday, May 6, 2011

Writing Update: Learning from Other Writers

There is a Bible verse that says to follow those who have gone before us, and through their faith and patience have inherited the promises of God. I believe that idea applies to our writing habits as well. Who are the others who have gone before us? Successful, published authors, of course!

The more I think about writers and the craft of writing, the more I realize how much you can learn by studying the writing of others. You can do this in two ways: you can read and listen to advice from people who are in the writing field (authors, editors, agents). There are countless books, conferences, podcasts, and other sources that offer advice gleaned from years of experience.

The other way to learn from fellow writers is to study their work and figure out why it works. Why do you like that particular author? How does he/she keep you turning pages? Their words are powerful... their words are working their magic on you. Why? How?

Answering the questions of why and how can help you hone your own writing skills. Learn what you can from those who have gone before you. And don't limit yourself to the classics, like Shakespeare. Don't feel guilty about pulling out a little Janet Evanovich or Dan Brown or whoever you like. Your goal isn't to decide whether these people are worthy of joining the literary canon. Your goal is to figure out why you don't mind dropping $8 as soon as you see their latest book is out.

Whatever it is you like, you like it for a reason. Figure out why. What's working? How does that author make it work for you? Then do it in your own writing. It'll improve your craft, believe me.

That's what I did this week... I spent time thinking about what works, reading a few scenes by authors I like, and talking about writing with my critique group. And I realized that no matter how small my writing efforts seem to me, I'm learning from them. And that keeps me going.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Why Killing Ain't Politically Correct (But It Is Ironic)

I'm hot on a work deadline, so today's blog will be a little messy. Hope you don't mind.


Some things in life will never be politically correct. Using "ain't" in a title when you're a writer isn't PC. And neither is killing.


Yes, I'm referring to the recent death of Osama Bin Laden. Or perhaps I should spell that Usama with a U. Inconveniently, Osama with an "O" is only letter apart from Obama. It isn't PC (or accurate, frankly) to confuse the two names or interchange them. I'm fortunate that I get to type them. Apparently, news people who work on radio and TV keep substituting one for the other, to their undying embarrassment.


Waterboarding, too, is making its way back into the news. Funny, isn't it? Waterboarding: always wrong....until it works. Too bad Alanis Morissette wrote her iconic song, "Ironic," so long ago. She missed out on the king of ironies, killing a terrorist with information gained through terrorist-breaking tactic that the current president opposes. Oh, I know there are ongoing arguments over whether enhanced interrogation techniques provided the vital information that led to Bin Laden's death, but whatever the exact details may be, it's politically incorrect for our president to say we got our man with techniques he campaigned against.


Speaking of ironic, is there any better time for a president to interrupt broadcast TV than at the time an opposing candidate's TV show is about to end its episode. (Celebrity Apprentice here, folks.) Especially when it takes the president AN HOUR after the interruption to actually give his speech. Why couldn't he interrupt The Biggest Loser instead? I'm just asking.


It's also a bit ironic that the special SEAL team that took out Bin Laden was commissioned by the previous president, who everyone loves to hate...until he proves to the be a genius.


And it's definitely politically incorrect to refer to Bin Laden by the code name Geronimo. Though ironically, the name is apt in that Geronimo waged war against the US for quite a while before he was captured by US forces, a fate similar to Osama in the end.


Killing, frankly, will never be politically correct and always be somewhat ironic. As it should be. It's a necessary evil, emphasis on evil. It's necessary at times because there is evil in the world. And I understand that. But the moment we get comfortable with killing as though it is "good" to kill, we're in trouble.


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

Monday, May 2, 2011

Monday Mention: Today's Headlines

Normally, Monday is dedicated to recommending or reviewing something I've read, seen, or heard to help you choose what you're going to spend your free time on.

But today, with all the news about Bin Laden, I thought it would be interesting to recommend something that a good writer does as much as possible: Let's take a look at what different news outlets are doing with their headlines today. After all, a headline isn't just an attention-grabber (though it certainly has to do that). A headline, though, also has to take an attitude, a tone, an opinion. It mirrors the attitude of those writing it. So, looking at today's headlines is an exercise in discovering how words express our angle on the facts.

Today, the Daily News says: How We Got Bin Laden. An emphasis on "we," probably because this is a New York paper and New Yorkers take the downed Twin Towers personally. And not the simple language: "we got him." No nonsense. We got the job done. Mission accomplished.

MSNBC focuses on the president's role: Obama tells nation: 'Justice has been done.'  The emphasis is specifically on Obama's speech, as though his statement is the most key part of the news. And the bottom line focuses on justice, but in a passive way. "Justice has been done." But by whom? No taking responsibility, as the Daily News did by saying "we" did it.

CNN's lead headline was very factual and neutral: Osama Bin Laden Dead. But the obit headline is Bin Laden, the face of terror. In some senses, that's an analysis of how Bin Laden fits into history. He's the one whose face we know because of all the videos he broadcast. This is actually quite good writing, because it encapsulates perfectly what an obituary is for: to set the person's life and death in perspective.

Fox News focuses on the sccandalous aspect of the story: Hiding in Plain Sight. It certainly is an inflammatory subject. But rightly so, because this is an important issue. How is it that this man was comfortably living in a palace near a military school in Pakistan? And why did our "allies" not tell us about it sooner? Fox is talking on the role of journalist as seeker of truth, not just reporter of it.

BBC's version addresses a slightly bigger picture by mentioning Al Qaeda: Al-Qaeda's Leader Bin Laden Dead.


Al Jazeera is fairly neutral too: Osama Bin Laden Killed in Pakistan. But it emphasizes the fact that someone killed him, and the word "killed" is often used to refer to war deaths, and that tone is continued in the  article.

And the Jerusalem Post emphasizes that the war is not over, which for Israel, it certainly is not: Clinton: US will 'take the fight' to Taliban post-bin Laden.

Interesting, eh?