Wednesday, August 31, 2011

News That Is Not News: Our Sinking Standards

I sometimes wonder which news outlet is the most craptastic. It seems that the definition of what qualifies as newsworthy on the major media outlets has been on a downward slide for a long time. We may not have reached the bottom yet. But we appear to be getting close. It’s disgusting to see this garbage pass for news in America, a country where the freedom of the press has always been valued.

Consider today’s headlines…

MSNBC, as usual, continues its practice of borrowing news from other outlets and not bothering to provide links to the original source. This tactic gives the impression that MSNBC did the work, rather than plagiarizing. And perhaps it hides just how many media outlets are not truly independent, but rather are connected under the umbrella of MSNBC’s ownership. Either way, it’s not good journalism. And it’s not the pursuit of truth.

The article I have in mind, if you want to look it up, is “Airlines That Garner the Most Complaints,” written by Everett Potter for Travel and Leisure Online. Potter is credited for the work, which is good. But the heart of the article is a list of the airlines and their rankings, which isn’t provided. It’s found in the original article, which is found here, if you want to read it.

Unfortunately, if you turn to CNN for better quality coverage, you’re in for a disappointment. Among its features for today are videos of a Malaysian pastor in a same-sex marriage (who cares?), Daryl Hannah arrested at a protest (who cares?), and a dieter who lost 27 pounds on a Twinkie diet (I’m grossed out and wish that picture wasn’t stuck in my mind now.)

Sure, CNN covers other news too. But the most important stories get lost in the long list of words at the bottom of the site. By contrast, controversy and weird news are promoted with pictures that catch a reader’s attention. Yes, I know a website has to capture attention. But I don’t have to like it, especially on a news site.

And finally, we get to FoxNews. I’ve known them to post some lurid topics on their page. Today, they seem rather mild. Perhaps they are attempting to distance themselves from Rupert Murdoch and the phone-hacking scandal in England. FoxNews appears to be on their good behavior for the moment.

Although they’re not above using a misleading title to catch attention. After all, what would you think if you saw the headline: “iPhone Killer Appears in U.S.” You’d think there is some kind of serial murderer on the run. And you’d click on the story to find that it’s about a Samsung smartphone. Yes, some in the industry are calling this new phone the “iPhone killer,” but really, who outside the industry would know that or care? The headline is misleading.

It’s unfortunate that in a day when so much information is available to so many people, the quality of information is sinking to the lowest common denominator. It doesn’t have to be this way. People are remarkably adaptable. We can learn to come up to a higher level. But that takes work. And perhaps that is the real problem here. No one seems to think it’s worth it to maintain the highest standards of the information we share. It’s much easier to borrow the work of others, invest little of our own effort, and pander to the crowd.

But in the end, all we will have is a nation of deceived fools, who think they are well-informed while they actually know nothing. I wonder if that’s the way we all like it.

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

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Muse Reviews: I Am Not a Serial Killer

A YA novel for adults... A supernatural thriller... A look at the path of a budding sociopath (or a budding decent person who gets over his messed-up past)... And a great piece of writing.


How do you categorize a book that doesn't seem to fit neatly into a category? That's the challenge, and the pleasure, of reading Dan Wells' I Am Not a Serial Killer.


The story is set in a small town, and at its heart is 15-year-old John Wayne Cleaver, who may or not be a sociopath in the making. He's had a rough life, with an absentee father, and a dsyfunctional family that fails to maintain strong relationships. He's unhappy, struggling through life, and nothing motivates his interest half as much as the dead bodies that make it into his mother's mortuary.


Oh, and the study of serial killers. John likes that too. He's so fascinated by what they do and why they do it that he gets a ticket straight into therapy. It seems everyone thinks John may end up a very messed-up adult, including John himself. He's so concerned that he might become a serial killer that he lives by a set of rules designed to help himself be "normal."


But then a real murderer shows up in John's town. And John slowly realizes that between his knowledge of serial killers and his own willingness to go beyond boundaries that others wouldn't cross, he is the only person who can stop the killer. Of course, to do that, John is going to have to break his rules...


Author Dan Wells has come up with a very clever premise, no doubt about it. But if all he had was a premise, the book wouldn't be very exciting. What makes I Am Not a Serial Killer work is its relentless characterization of John as a likable but potentially dangerous teen, and its solid, tension-building structure. It is a hard book to put down.


Even the supernatural element, which is a little surprising at first, becomes something that makes a kind of sense. John is so determined not to become what he fears, and yet longs to become, that he wouldn't break his own rules for anything less than a force of nature. And though it probably sounds odd that John is sympathetic, Wells does a good job of making him so. You never forget that though he's smart, and though he's troubled, he's also just fifteen, and he is trying to do the right thing in his own way.


I Am Not a Serial Killer is part YA novel because its protagonist is a teen; yet it is very appropriate for adult audiences too. It's part natural thriller, part psychological thriller, part supernatural thriller. It's not exactly horror, and yet it is. It must have been hard to pitch to an agent.


But obviously someone saw its merit and published it, and rightly so. This is a very good book, worth checking out. And if you like it, there are two more in the series. (I'll be reading them.)


For more about Dan Wells or his book, visit the author's website. And if you read his book, I'd like to hear what you think about it.


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

Friday, August 26, 2011

Let the Writing Fly Free

Last night, I met with my writers critique group. It's a small group, we're all friends, and we are always supportive of one another, even while challenging each other to sharpen our writing. It's a great arrangement, and it works very well.


So why was I so nervous last night to share my writing?


Two reasons: One, I am a recovering perfectionist who is learning to let my writing fly free, even when it's not perfect (which it will never be, no matter how good it is). And two, my best friend came along, and I suddenly got performance anxiety.


This was not my best friend's fault or responsibility at all. She's great, very supportive, and very insightful. A great addition to the group. But I suddenly felt exposed, as I do whenever I show my writing for the first time to anybody, and I started to worry that I was going to look bad. 


(Someday, I may investigate the percentage of folks in therapy who are artists in need of learning to relax and have confidence in their art. Betcha that number is quite high. Yes, I'm talking to you, Mr. Allen.)


It's interesting how writers can suffer performance anxiety over the smallest things and at the oddest times. Oh, I know it's not odd to want your best friend to tell you that you are the next Great American Writer.
I don't want to turn into this guy!


But it's not going to serve your writing if people are petting you and telling you how precious your writing is, yes, precious. (And when I say you, I am talking about me. But maybe this will speak to you also.)


So it's a good idea to stretch yourself in every way possible to become a better writer. And that stretching may include a little practice learning how to release your stories into the wild. Especially when they are drafts, and especially when you have a group of friends who can give you positive, useful, constructive feedback that will make that draft better in the long run.


So I encourage you today, based on personal experience earned over lemonade and salad yesterday, to let go of your desire for the perfect draft. Instead, take your writing and toss it into the air, like a bird that you're setting loose into the blue yonder. Let your work fly free to land where it may. You'll learn something when you do. And you'll strengthen your skin to be resilient when you release that writing into the true wild. Or as I like to call it, Amazon.com. *wink*


Do you have trouble letting your drafts out of the pen to run free? How do you help yourself avoid that perfectionist inside? Let's share ideas!


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



Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Day After: Surviving the Earthquake Jokes

Did you notice a minor rumbling yesterday? No, I'm not talking about the East Coast earthquake. I'm talking about all the Twitter chatter about the East Coast earthquake.


Twitter may very well have trumped every other means of communicating yesterday when a 5.9 temblor stretched its mighty influence from Virginia all the way to NY and reportedly even Toronto. Like many others, I found out about the earthquake within minutes because I happened to be checking my Twitter feed at the time. As soon as I heard the news, I went to check the three major online news sites (MSNBC, Fox News, and CNN), and none of them had a breaking news headline yet. Only Twitter had the news. That was startling.


In fact, the first "news report" beyond Twitter that I saw appeared not on a traditional news site, but on io9.com, a website dedicated to science, science fiction, and the future. (See the io9 report here.)


Photo courtesy of Famous DC
http://jmckinley.posterous.com/dc-earthquake-devastation
Soon after that came the inevitable: the Twitter jokes. Several were quite clever, like the pictures of the so-called "devastation" (see photo at left).


Writer Jeff Heimbuch (@jeffheimbuch) made the apt comment: "MSNBC says the Washington monument is leaning to left. Fox News says its to the right." For bringing the political commentary into the world of natural disasters, Heimbuch was duly punished lauded with ample retweets and a proud mention on NPR.


Kristin from the Geek Girls Network (@geekgirls) was hoping the earthquake meant that "real life transformers" had arrived on earth. (If only. I want to hang out with Bumblebee.)
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia


It was impossible to avoid the Carole King references too... Her famous song "I Feel the Earth Move" is on YouTube (I know you wanted to know this), and so her live performance got tweeted around. Hey, you know the situation isn't all that bad if you have time to tweet Carole King around the Internet.


Then came the lashings from California folks, who couldn't understand why East Coasters would flip out over a mere 5.9 quake. To be fair, this quake was the biggest one to hit the East Coast since 1944 (that's 67 years, for those who don't do math). So the reactions of people on the East Coast are totally understandable.


But oh, the jaded comments from the likes of actor Adam Baldwin:
"Earthquake is a 'CRISIS' in D.C.! Run away and stay away, lawmakers! Cali folks are unimpressed."


You'd think we might get a little sympathy, right? But I suspect Todd Walker, a TV anchorman from Anchorage, spoke for the majority of West Coast folks when he tweeted: "Hey East Coast, the entire West Coast is mocking you right now." Good thing I didn't really want sympathy.


Well, as a former East Coast gal myself, I'll say that an earthquake would have freaked me out. We just don't get them, and we aren't prepared for them. But I am now glad (temporarily) that I live in the middle of the country at the moment. No earthquakes here. I can relax...until tornado season.


Did you feel the earthquake where you live? Did you get a laugh out of the coverage? Share your thoughts!


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

Monday, August 22, 2011

Monday Mention: Disasterpiece Theatre

Today's review is what I call quick and dirty...meaning short and sweet. But if you're a regular reader of the blog, you may have picked up on the fact that I listen to a lot of podcasts. (That's an Internet audio broadcast, for those of you who don't know.)

And I'm really enjoying a new podcast called Disasterpiece Theatre. Hosts Alex White, Stephen Granade, and Brooke Fox kick around ideas to formulate Hollywood movie pitches. They'll build on a theme or a movie type like noir, kick around plot events, and try to cast the movie. What they come up with is often funny, and sometimes they're not exactly safe for work. They get a little zany and out there too, really pushing the envelope on their pretend pitch. Sometimes they come up with ideas so crazy, yet so plausible, that I pray there are no Hollywood producers listening. Some of these films, you wouldn't want to see made, trust me.

But that's really the fun of the podcast. You don't quite know what Alex, Stephen, and Brooke are going to come up with in their brainstorming sessions, but it's entertaining to listen to them. And along the way, you can learn a few things about how to brainstorm a story and maybe even how to put together a Hollywood pitch if that's something you want to do in the future. (Or at least you can learn what not to do.)

To check out the fun for yourself and given the podcast a listen, visit the Disasterpiece Theatre website. And if you do listen, stop by and let me know what you thought of it.

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

Friday, August 19, 2011

Planning Ahead... A Must for Writers

Okay, I confess... I did not plan ahead effectively this week. If I had, this post would have been up this morning instead of this afternoon.


Planning ahead is a must for writers, and this truth applies to a writer's life in many ways. Another way to put it is to make sure we take care of the artist within.


For one thing, writers need a time and place to write. It helps the muse to speak when we give her a little love. So, what does your particular muse like? Does she like hanging out in coffeehouses? Does she demand loud rock and roll, or soothing classical music? Maybe she'd like it if you'd write in the morning instead of at night, or at night instead of morning. But she knows what she wants, and it is best to listen to her. She is the voice inside you reminding you of what works best for you. Give her that time and place.


This is even more important when you have a life outside of writing. (Most of us do, right? I hope we do!) In my case, I have a full-time day job. Then I write my blog and my novel in the evenings. Maybe you do the same. Or maybe you stay at home or work part-time, but you may have a spouse, children, pets, family members, friends, a gym, vacation plans... You see what I mean. We all have lives, and whether it's fun or it's work, there are many demands on our time. And writing should be one of those demands that we make sure to meet.


And it also helps to plan what you're going to write so that when you are pressed for time, you are better able to accomplish something on paper (or on the computer screen). This can be some form of an outline for the novel you're working on. (Full disclosure: I hate outlines. But they do help me stay on course.)


It also helps to have a go-to brainstormed list of topics for, say, a blog that you plan to write first thing in the morning. (Full disclosure: Yes, I mean this blog. But you can extrapolate the principle to whatever you are up to.) Generally, if you have a list, you have something to spark an idea when you need one fast. This has also helped me greatly to write blog posts ahead of time and schedule them, so that they appear seamlessly on time for readers. I did not fulfill that responsibility this week, and it backfired on me today.


That's the point, really... Planning ahead isn't perfect. But it can keep a tiny pothole from turning into a meteor-sized crater. And if you're driving along with your writing, you definitely want to avoid a plunging crash into deadline failure.


So, what say you, my friends? Do you plan ahead? Outline? Brainstorm? Schedule posts? What helps you stay on track with your writing?


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

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Terminal Part 2: Revenge of the Airport

                             Vancouver Airport (via Vancouver Airport's website)


Have you ever seen The Terminal, the movie in which Tom Hanks is stranded at JFK Airport in New York and can't leave?


Apparently, there is a sequel to this movie being made, only it's set in Vancouver, and it's a reality show starring Jaegar Mah, a 29-year-old guy from Vancouver who won a contest to live at the airport for 80 days and nights. Yes, you read that correctly. He won.


Mr. Mah probably wants the attention he'll get for being crazy enough (or perhaps unemployed enough) to spend almost 3 months doing essentially nothing all day long. Well, to be fair, he won't be doing nothing. He'll be going behind the scenes at the airport and finding out how everything works, and then reporting on it via Facebook and Twitter. So, if you're a terrorist and you need some tips, you'll want to follow Mr. Mah. Don't wait; he starts living there today. He starts sleeping there too, God help him.




Why would someone agree to live in an airport for 80 days? Why do people climb Mount Everest? Because it's there. And because they didn't have someone willing to slap them and tell them to "snap out of it."


It probably helps that Mr. Mah gets $15,000 at the end of his 80-day ordeal experience. Plus $50 a day to buy food and snacks...at the airport. Personally, I wouldn't consider $15,000 nearly enough money to compensate me for having to eat at an airport for 80 days. But to each his own. (Mr. Mah isn't really going to suffer; his girlfriend is going to cook for him and bring him meals. Cheater!)


There's a little more cheating going on. Mr. Mah gets to leave the terminal to move about Sea Island, where Vancouver Airport is located. So he gets to hang out at the beach there, and talk to the locals. Maybe 80 days on the beach in exchange for sleeping in an airport is worth $15,000. Maybe.


If you're interested in learning more about this little experiment, or want to lament that you didn't know about the contest until it was too late for you to win, here's the article on MSNBC.


I'm going to get back to my job nowin front of a computer terminal. Hey, wait a second. I have an idea for a new movie...


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

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Muse Reviews: Summer Dream by Martha Rogers

For readers who enjoy a light Christian historical romance, Martha Rogers' Summer Dream might be right up your alley.


Christian historical romance novels are a burgeoning business these days. They line the shelves at bookstores and have a good-sized audience. In many ways, if you've read one, you've read them all. For many romance readers, that tends to be the point. They enjoy the experience of a sweet love story (and for a Christian audience, that means intertwining romance with faith). And they expect certain conventions to be met.


Summer Dream by Martha Rogers fits that bill. Heroine Rachel Winston is ready to marry, but she lives in a small town in Connecticut and there aren't a lot of suitors her age. Until Nathan Reed shows up. Nathan and Rachel are strongly attracted to one another. Unfortunately, Nathan wants nothing to do with God, while Rachel is the daughter of the town's minister. The driving story question is: Will Nathan settle his problems with God and his family, and become a good match for Rachel?


This is the typical plot of most Christian romances. The female lead is usually a kind of everywoman, allowing readers to put themselves in her place and imagine themselves having her romance. While this would not sell me personally on a novel, it is a winning formula for many women. And Rogers follows the formula well enough. She gives a clear, though bland, characterization of Rachel, who as a minister's daughter in 1888 is quite the good and pious young woman.


Nathan also seems fairly bland. I'm not sure why. The idea behind his character motivation is potent enough: He was once religious, but became mad at God after his father revealed a terrible secret about Nathan on his deathbed. That ought to be captivating, but instead it is a passable story line at best. Perhaps Rogers wasn't willing to explore the darkness that such a person would be living in. (I'd have been interested in learning more about how hard it was for him, so I could sympathize with him more. But alas, this is not to be.)


However, it's hard to fault Rogers for her handling of the plot in a delicate manner, because the Christian historical romance market isn't looking for a look at the dark side of life. The convention is to barely touch on it, and very briefly at that. That approach doesn't work for me, I fully admit it, but many other women prefer it to other types of stories. So, if Rogers is giving them what they want, I can't fault her for success in meeting her audience's expectations.


It is fair, though, to discuss the historical aspects of the novel. In some ways, Summer Dream does well. But in other ways, it is disappointing. For one thing, the setting is Connecticut, which is the main reason I read the book (I used to live there). But except for a weather event that is a main plot point, this story could essentially have been set anywhere. The historical details of living in 1888 are present but glazed over, small brushes of color here and there. More details might have been nice, especially in contrast against a light plot. 


Also, a few phrases crept in here and there that felt anachronistic, which became a distraction. The result is that the story could be set in a different time frame as well as a different location without losing anything. That's an unfortunate weakness of the book.


What does the author do well? She ties in the faith element without being overly preachy, which is nice. And since most if not all the readers of Summer Dream will be Christians who want the aspect of faith in romance to be a major part of the story, Rogers is doing exactly what she needs to do. The people who buy her book will, for the most part, be satisfied with the story. And for that, I give Rogers the credit she is due.


Would I recommend this book? Only if you love all the books on the Christian historical fiction bookshelves. If you do, Summer Dream will probably work for you. But if you read romance only rarely, as I do, or if you prefer other genres, as I do, this book will likely be too tame in plot and characterization to satisfy you.


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

Friday, August 12, 2011

Crossing the Streams: Social Media and Writing

If you're a writer or artist managing a social media profile, then you have confronted or will one day confront the dreaded question of all questions: Should you "cross the streams?"


A daunting question, even if you're not a Ghostbuster. 




(Photo from http://www.freestockphotos.biz/stockphoto/8776)


So, how do you communicate on the different social media streams—like Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, Google+, and your blog? Each arena offers you a chance to share your voice. Do you say the same thing everywhere (crossing the streams), or do you make each social media channel unique (keeping the streams separate)?


If you follow Ghostbuster logic, you know that the general rule is, "Don't cross the streams." Why? Because "it could be bad." Egon is the king of understatement. But he's right. It's bad to cross your streams all the time, for two reasons.


One: If you say exactly the same thing everywhere, you risk looking robotic. With social media, you want to be in the moment, responding to what's happening now. And what's happening now is often different on Facebook than it is on Twitter. Et cetera. Think of these outlets like different parties, with different people, and you'll know what I mean.


Two: The different streams have different purposes. The blog is where you flesh out thoughts in detail, while Twitter is for fast and noteworthy sharing with your tribe. Linkedin is business networking. Facebook is for close relationships, family and friends. You'll often have different goals on the different social media outlets, so that means you'll have different things to say.


But like every other rule in the universe, there are exceptions. There are times to "cross the streams" after all. (And no, you don't have to wait until a marshmallow monster threatens to kill you.)


Go ahead and cross the streams when you have something to share that all your contacts will be interested in. But do it uniquely in all streams, so that you still have the semblance of keeping each arena its own place. I do this by phrasing what I have to say in different ways on different social media, and adding tailored content when I can.


Another approach I've adopted is this: Every media stream gets something totally unique from time to time. I share it in that one outlet and nowhere else. Personally, I don't do this to force others to follow me everywhere. It's more a matter of giving something special to each group. Something tailor-made for that group alone and no one else. It takes thought to do this, and it's not something I can do hourly. Sometimes not even daily. But for me, it's worth the effort to do it, and I hope it adds to the lives of those who hang out with me in the different social media arenas.


Now I want to hear from you. How much do you cross your streams? And do you feel that crossing them or keeping them separate plays a major part in how you market your writing and art, or how you communicate with the world?


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

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Dating Disasters: How Not to Win Me Over

There's plenty of advice about dating on the Internet. And seeing how I'm single, you probably shouldn't be listening to me. But you're here now, so stick around! I'm better than eHarmony, because my advice is free.


Seriously, if you know me at all, you know dating isn't my normal blog focus. I'm much more likely to write about how Cheeze-Its are out to get me (they are) and how the world of men is getting feminine. (Just the other day, I saw either an aging cross-dresser buying pantyhose or a manly man who doesn't know about mantyhose. Hard to tell the difference, frankly.)


But I couldn't resist stretching beyond the norm after I read Don't Take A Woman Here!, which is indeed about where not to take a lady on a date. A few doozies are mentioned, like a sports bar (this screams friends with beer, not dating) and paintball (this screams that you might like inflicting pain). But I have a few other things to add to the list. And I swear, these are all true-life experiences for me or for friends of mine.


#1: Going to church is not a date. Usually, this happens in the context of "hanging out" at a church outing or a church singles group. And I'm all for a casual time for a first date. But if it's a religious event, it's not date-worthy. Why not? Because I'm already going to church. And if I'm not, it's because I don't want to go to the picnic or attend the singles hike. So don't ask me to go to church with you. It's too easy for you. It shows no effort. So it doesn't count.


A depressing movie is a depressing date. The article that sparked this blog entry mentions gross-out movies as a big mistake. I have to add depressing movies to the list. They are a downer. And they make me wonder if you really thought out the date before you asked me. I had a guy (nice guy, though not my type) take me to Million Dollar Baby. If you haven't seen it, let me assure you, this is not a date movie. It was so depressing, I ended up angry that my date took me to see it. You want to avoid this kind of situation at all costs. Read reviews and make sure you know what the movie is about before you go.


Nowhere. Because you stood her up. So, the night before, you said something really callous about your father, whom you are angry at because he divorced your mother, and you never got over it, even though it's been 15 years. Yet you're living with him because you have no job, even though you're an adult and should be taking care of yourself. And you're completely ungrateful for the roof over your head. So, I called you on your bad behavior. Your nose got out of joint. I get it. But that's no justification for standing a girl up the next day. Just cancel the date, and show a little class.


Don't call a mutual friend to brag that I said yes to a date while I'm in the car with you, at the start of said date. Yes, you're stoked to be with me, because let's face it, I'm awesome. But my awesomeness runs straight downhill and into a ditch when you turn away from me and call a mutual friend. Especially when she was my friend first, long before she met you. And especially when I'm sitting right there to overhear it. It's like I'm a shirt you just bought, instead of a person with feelings and an ego. Not cool.


If the date isn't a date, but instead an interview, no thanks. This happens in Christian circles, but maybe it happens elsewhere too. It boils down to this: The guy in question is looking for a wife. For some reason, he thinks it's totally appropriate to get out his "My Future Wife" checklist and start reading from it to see the girl's reaction. ("Hmm, her nose wrinkled when I mentioned wanting a lot of kids. Problem? TBD.") The girl probably wants to get married, just like you do, or she wouldn't be on a date to begin with. But she doesn't want the third degree when she just met you. Save it for the third or fourth date, maybe, and give the illusion that you have a little self-control.


So, there you have it, my advice for what not to do when dating a girl. But before I sign off completely, I want to play fair. So in defense of the guys, here is a link to a counter-article on men: 5 dates no guy wants to go on. I've read it myself. Duly noted. I won't ask you to go hiking ever again.


(Have a bad date to add to the list? Tips for guys and girls? Share 'em with me!)


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

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Muse Reviews: Phoenix Rising, A Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences Novel

In the mood for a little steampunk with charming characters and a romp of a good time? Perfect. Because that's what you get with Phoenix Rising by Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris.


If you're a science fiction and fantasy reader, you know what today's shelves are filled with. Sparkly vampires, werewolves, ghostly lovers, and their paranormal, bandwagon-riding cousins. Post-apocalyptic zombies with a sense of humor or a fondness for the late 18th century novel of manners. Never-ending 100,000-page sagas of characters so numerous, it's like the Tribbles multiplied when you weren't looking.


But you can take a break from it all with a breezy, charming little steampunk romp called Phoenix Rising, A Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences Novel by Pip (Philippa) Ballantine and Tee Morris.


The story? In a world where steam engines run incredible inventions a la the famed TV show The Wild West, it's fair to say a lot of odd things are happening in London. The nefarious House of Usher lurks in the wings, an unpredictable threat. Londoners are being killed, their bodies left without bones, sans blood, or in other inexplicable conditions. A government agent investigates and winds up in Bedlam. A mysterious foreign assassin runs amok in the Opera House...


You name it; it happens. This novel is jam-packed with action, all of which will look great on the big screen if Phoenix Rising gets optioned by Hollywood. I hope it does. I'd love to see the special effects, and the characters are loads of fun.


The two protagonists are an odd couple, forced together into a partnership at the secretive government agency where they work to protect Queen Victoria and the British realm from peculiar occurrences. Sort of like The X-Files with tea and scones. Eliza Braun is a female government agent from the colonies (New Zealand to be exact), known for brash action, a fondness for guns and explosives, and her bulletproof corset. She joins forces with Wellington Books, the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrence's very proper librarian (ahem, archivist), who has a brilliant mind but no field experience, to try and bring down a mysterious and sinister organization before it destroys Britain.


Like you'd expect in a steampunk novel, the characters balance good manners and a stiff British upper lip with mayhem, and it is a blast to follow along and see what happens. The romantic tension between Eliza and Wellington is neatly done and never overshadows the action. The writing flows well, keeping you moving steadily forward to the exciting, explosive ending. And there are just enough threads to lead to a second novel. (It's sci-fi. The authors can't afford to throw away the opportunity for a series, and they don't.)


You may recognize one or both authors from other works. Ballantine recently wrote Geist, the first in a series of fantasy novels. Morris created the podcast novel Morevi and the informational how-to book All a Twitter, among other works. Their combined effort on Phoenix Rising is so lively that it's clear they enjoyed working together as coauthors.


Bottom line: Phoenix Rising is certainly worth picking up at your local bookstore (which is still a marker of traditional publishing success). Or if you prefer, get it in e-book form. Plan to read it rather quickly; you won't want to put it down.


For more information, visit the official website for the novel, The Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences. And you can follow the whole gang, authors and the Ministry, on Twitter too.


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

Friday, August 5, 2011

Making the World Sound Pretty (A Look at Description)

Sure, it has a nice beat, but can you dance to it?


That's how the art of description seems sometimes. Sure, it sounds nice. It certainly sounds accurate. But does it make me want to keep reading? A lot of times, the answer is no. Nothing bores me more than description that seems too detailed without some emotional element to drive me forward.


Consequently, my own ability to write description needs work. And it's something that I've given time to, because it's important to readers to know where they are. Not enough description, and the reader floats in the ether, like spacemen set adrift in outer space. Slowly floating away. They have nothing to tether them to the world of the novel.


But too much description leads to overload. It can read like a lawyer's list of assets. "Make sure you get all the items in the house down on paper before we have the estate sale, Fred." The details you choose to focus on have to mean something to the reader. More importantly, they have to mean something to your characters. After all, you don't notice every single thing in a room they enter for the first time, unless you're participating in a psych study that asks you to remember as much as you can about the room. The rest of us notice some stuff...the stuff we care about, find interesting, have never seen before, long to own...


And then there's the problem of using metaphors. You don't want your description to sound trite... Dead as a doornail, white as a ghost, red as a lobster. All overused. But you don't want your description to sound ridiculous either. This is hard work, this descriptive writing.


Here are a few descriptive sentences I have written over the past few months, that just might be better than my usual work. (Or worse. You'll have to let me know what you think.)

  • Clouds rose up tall, dark as smoke from a wildfire, and just as wild. (I don't like the repetition of wild.)
  • The trees crouch small and low to the ground, as though they dare not reach too high and attract unwanted notice. (Maybe small and low to the ground are repetitious?)
  • The trees have skinny arms. (Skinny branches. Is that clear?)
  • The cars whip by like multicolored snakes. (Like a multicolored train?)
  • The dog takes tiny, chunky steps, like a lively but aging old man, full of laughter but not capable of much action. (I like this one, though it may still need polishing.)

So, what do you think? Do you have trouble with description? Or is that an area where your writing shines? Feel free to share an example of a descriptive sentence you like from your own writing. I'd like to see a tiny view of what you're up to!


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

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Who Are You Online?

I'm a firm proponent of the idea that who you are as a person will come across in what you do, whether you intend it to or not. Mask it as you may, the truth eventually gets revealed. This is a concept that I've seen in scripture...the hidden things shall come to light. And it's a reality I've experienced personally, to my own hurt at times. I'm betting you know exactly what I'm talking about.


This issue raised its head for me yesterday in an unexpected way. I came across a blog post by Eden Baylee, "To Follow or Not to Follow." She had a bit of a run-in with an author who was following her account. When he saw that she was not following her back, he sent her a message that could read as a guilt trip. A little emotional blackmail, you know? And she responded back with her own approach to Twitter: she prefers to be in relationship with those she follows, rather than just amassing large numbers of people behind her account, even if she can't possibly interact with them all.


Baylee's blog post raises the legitimate question of how we treat others and how we interact with others online as we build a writer's platform. And since I've been mulling over how I can create meaningful Twitter relationships, the blog post spoke to me. Whether you're a writer yourself, like me, or whether you do something else for a living, the issue of how we interact with other people is always there. It's there even if you don't Twitter and will never Twitter (like my parents).


I'm sure that if you want advice on how to be a Twitter success, there are more than enough resources out there to give you suggestions. But I'd argue that the real goal isn't just to amass numbers. It's what will happen as a result of amassing a following, regardless of its size.


And that's where the issue of being yourself online comes in. Eventually, no matter how many or how few people you connect to, who you are is going to become obvious to everyone. Are you the kind of person who stops following someone, just because they're not following you? Do you only build relationships with people who can do you a favor, ignoring the unwashed masses who have nothing to offer you? 


You're building a platform, all right. But when you stand on that platform with the mics on, what are you saying? Is your message one that adds to the world around you? Or are you just screaming ME ME ME at everyone else? We're all going to know what you're saying eventually. Your motives will eventually become obvious.


I may not be able to change someone else's motives. But I sure as heck can determine my own. That's why I'm growing my Twitter account slowly. When someone follows me, I check out their Twitter account. I do it because I'm curious about other people, and I want to know why they're on Twitter. If they are fellow writers, then I try to follow back because we can and do support each other. I welcome people when they follow me, to see if we can carry on a conversation that will lead to a meaningful Twitter relationship. If you have a blog or website, I visit it. If you're saying something that needs to be heard, I retweet it. And if I mention you as someone to follow, I try to explain why.


Because this is all the stuff I'd do for you if we knew each other in person. In other words, who I am offline is who I am online. This is it, folks. For better or for worse. I say on Twitter what I say to people in "real life." Same for this blog. If it's on here, it's because I think it, believe it, and care about it.


Seems to me there isn't much point in trying to pretend to be someone else online. I'll slip at some point, and the real me will come through. So I'm just being myself. You'll be the judge of whether you respect me or not. But that doesn't bother me online. It doesn't bother me offline either. I trust these things to work out.


I hope you have that kind of trust too. It seems worth it, to me. What do you think?


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

Monday, August 1, 2011

Monday Mention: A Book With an Unmentionable Title

Outrageous title aside, this book will make you think about how you treat others and the consequences of your choices.


So, what is the unmentionable title of this mystery book I'm reviewing today? Well, if you're squeamish, turn away now. But if you're bold, here it is. Today's review is for A$$hole: How I Got Rich and Happy by Not Giving a D*mn About Anyone and How You Can, Too.


Now, I hope I don't have to say this, but I will anyway, just to ease your mind. This book isn't meant to be serious. It's tongue-in-cheek satire. In fact, it's very funny as it examines the alarming tendency in our culture to consider character a detriment. The book looks at what happens when we allow people without character to continue their rampages unchecked. Author Martin Kihn succeeds in raising many questions about what we do and why we do it, making us laugh as we examine ourselves and others.


The book is structured as an experiment in which Kihn, a nice guy, decides to act like the title suggests, and see what the outcomes are. Whether he did or not, I'm not sure, but I suspect he tried at least some of the things he writes about. Either that, or he's a creative genius. The reader follows along on Kihn's journey to see if turning into a jerk is going to earn him the promotion that will make him richer and more successful in life.


The use of obscenity in the title is clearly meant to catch your attention. But it also has two very important purposes that justify its use.


First, Kihn is commenting on the business world's way of rewarding jerks on the job, and the idea (an American failing, certainly) that money and success matter more than how we treat other people. He's not alone in his endeavor. In fact, the book has its genesis in a head-turning Harvard Business Review article by Bob Sutton, in which he discusses why it's not worth it to allow jerks to dominate the workplace. Sutton followed his article with a book, The No A$$hole Rule, and that's what Kihn is referring to in his own title. When you pick up his book, you are meant to immediately think of Sutton's work.


Second, obscenity is a tool that some people use as a bludgeon against others, a point that Kihn brings out clearly in the course of the book. It's a point that needs to be made, and Kihn does it adroitly. At no point did the obscenity become excessive. It takes a needed backseat to other issues that the author wants to address.


For one, what is our obsession with self-help books, if not to find ways to obtain success in the world? But at what cost? If you have to sacrifice your ability to consider the needs of others, then maybe that self-help book isn't helpful after all. If you have any familiarity with the genre, you'll have at least one book in mind that suggests you compromise your morality. If you're not, Kihn provides a few that definitely fit the bill, including Machiavelli's The Prince, the writings of Friedrick Nietzsche, and the books of Ayn Rand.


For another, why do we allow jerks to have their way and run rampant in society? After all, no one likes their bad behavior. But we often put up with it. Kihn examines others can be demeaned and intimidated into silence. How they feel powerless. How they avoid rather than confront, because confrontation rarely seems to work with these problem people. And how whole organizations can refuse to act, instead of getting rid of the bad guy.


Obviously, jerk behavior (as I call it) has its own rewards of a sort for the person engaging in it. And nice guy behavior can have its detriments. The question you are led to ask yourself, if you're a thoughtful reader, is this: What do I value? And am I willing to act on those values, regardless of the cost? In the end, Kihn makes his choice, and he lives with it. That's the ultimate point for all of us.


Bottom line: Read this book. Don't worry about the title. There's not that much cursing. The book is funny. It will make you laugh. And it will make you think about how you treat others, and the motives behind what you do.


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