Friday, December 30, 2011

Time Management for the Busy Writer

Recently, I had the privilege of talking with Lynette Benton as a source for an article she was writing, called When Business and Creative Writing Clash. Lynette posed the question:


Courtesy acus.org/Google Images
"Do you experience any conflicts (creative, time management, isolation vs. collaborating, etc.) between your creative and business writing? What tricks do you use to make it all work? And does your business writing affect the quality of your creative writing for better or worse?"


I answered her question in such detail that she ran my answers as a guest post on her own blog this week. You can read Balancing Your Business and Creative Writing here. In thinking some more about this topic, I decided to touch on it a little more here on my blog.


First, let me tell you how I spend my writing time:
  • I work full-time (40 hours a week) for a nonprofit organization, writing fundraising letters, donor reports, encouraging stories of how the organization is helping people, and so on. 
  • I also freelance anywhere from 1-5 hours a week, both for other nonprofits as well as for-profit businesses. 
  • I write three blog posts a week (3 hours a week).
  • For creative work right now, I'm writing flash fiction stories, as well as the novel I'm currently working on in my spare time. (This is where my time varies greatly, depending on what else I'm doing and whether I "feel" like writing.)
  • I also occasionally teach for the local college, which amounts to 10 hours a week when I do it. It's a fair question to ask when I sleep or spend time with friends. But that's for another blog post.

It's also fair to say that I may over-schedule myself, which makes being balanced a heck of a lot harder. I like to be busy, and perhaps I like it too much. But when it comes down to time management and writing, I have found that the busier I am, the more motivated I am to get things done. It seems to boil down to the deadline. The pressure. If the only time I have to get a blog post done is in the next 30 minutes, then I'm more likely to write it and get it done now, even if I don't have to post until tomorrow. But if I have all night and tomorrow morning too, with nothing pressing, I'm more likely to procrastinate. It seems to be how I'm wired. The busier I am, the better.


But that means I have to be anal with my time management to make my schedule work. I write to-do lists every day, so nothing falls through the cracks. I stay on a blog schedule of three times a week, posting in the mornings, to keep consistency. I carry a notebook and a calendar wherever I go. And I try to make time daily to write for myself, no matter what, even when it isn't easy, which is often.


I'm still learning what works best for my creative writing. As I told Lynette, I give myself a little break between the end of the day job and the start of my evening. The brain needs to clear. But to be most effective, I just have to put butt in chair and write. And it's best to do it when I'm alone. Once my roommate comes home, we tend to start chatting (she's a good friend too). And then I get distracted. So I have to find a good way to stay focused for the creative writing, and that's my biggest challenge.


So... What do you do to manage your time? If you write for a day job and then write creatively in the evening, how do you make it work? And even if you don't write for your day job, do you use a schedule to stay more on task for your creative writing? Share, share, share!


Copyright (c) 2011 by M.A. Chiappetta. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

So You Want to Be Evil...

A while back, I wrote a website review column for a Mensa science-fiction and fantasy group. One of my favorite columns explained Internet resources for those wanting to enter into a career path of becoming evil. It's a fun column, gets a lot of laughs whenever I share it, and generates interest.


Read my original column here and then come back to read a little more on this fascinating subject. 


(Click on the video to the right see Eartha Kitt sing about being evil. I mean, she's convincing.)


Although all the websites were accessible when I first wrote the column, Peter's Evil Overlord list is not up anymore. Apparently, Peter is taking time off from his website to really dig his teeth into becoming an evil overlord. It's hard to fault him for his ambition, I'll tell you that. He links his page to another resource, which includes the delightful dungeon list, with all kinds of good, practical advice for evil overlords in training.


Of course, these websites are genuinely funny, but they are also useful for writers because they highlight stereotypes that you probably want to avoid if you're writing a serious sff story. If you're writing humor, you might want to exploit the stereotypes to ramp up the laughs. Either way, it's interesting to see how plot points or character traits that worked beautifully for the first one or two authors who used them now seem trite and belabored because they've been overdone.


Have fun reading these evil websites. And please let me know what evil name you will be adopting. (You can call me Lady Nightblade from now on. Thanks.)


And why not enjoy a little classic Dr. Horrible (video to the right) before you go out to conquer the world? Even bad guys need a laugh now and then. And a little inspiration.


Happy evil-doing!


Copyright (c) 2011 by M.A. Chiappetta. All rights reserved.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Super-Nerdy Holiday Links


In honor of Christmas, winter, cold, and snow... Here's a link to ten super-nerdy snow sculptures. Just beware of the snowmen army. They're small, but they can still be deadly.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Holiday Happy Tunes

Here's a little holiday fun... A very entertaining mish-mash of Christmas songs, with a small shout out to Hanukkah too. Oh, and Toto. You'll see...




In other news, the winner of the Devil Unknown contest is Jae. Congratulations, Jae! I'll ask Steena to get in touch with you about gifting you her book.

Copyright (c) 2011 by M.A. Chiappetta. All rights reserved.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Holiday Gifts and Cards for the Geek in Your Life

Angry Birds
(yes, they scare me!)
I think we should have some holiday fun this week. And the Internet agrees. There are lots of happy things out there to enjoy if you're a geek or a SFF fan. So, here are some links for you!


You can decorate your tree with these 12 Christmas decorations for geeks from Mashable. (And really, who doesn't want Angry Birds on the tree? You don't mind them, staring at you, with hostile faces while you eat the holiday turkey, right?)


If you've got a geek to buy a present for, you can consult the WikiHow guide to buying for your geek (proving that really, if you just dedicate yourself to doing it, you can use your expertise to write any kind of article and get it published somewhere on the web.


Whether you celebrate the holidays or not, holiday cards can be fun. So, here is a link to the top 11 holiday cards for geeks.
Talk to me, baby!


And rest assured, there are resources for those who celebrate holidays other than Christmas. Here, you can find out PC World's Hanukkah wish list. (I personally love the talking Tardis cookie jar. Because it talks! What a great idea, as long as it doesn't tell me how many calories in the cookies...) 


If you want to do some reading while you eat those cookies that started talking to you from within the Tardis cookie jar, try these 9 best science fiction holiday stories.


And if you want to buy some books for the SFF fan in your life, you could try this list of non-SFF books that SFF fans will love. Interesting choices here.


More holiday fun on Wednesday and Friday this week. (And Wednesday is the Steena Holmes giveaway. If you haven't entered yet, go to the post here and leave a comment for your chance to win.)


Copyright (c) 2011 by M.A. Chiappetta. All rights reserved.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Art of Discipline, Part 2

Quite a while ago, I wrote a post on the art of discipline. I call it an art because it takes creativity and personal conviction to be disciplined, just as it does to write.


Here's my earlier post on the art of discipline, in case you want to read it and come back.


This week, my discipline for writing has gone right out the window. I think it's running wild and playing in the snow somewhere, like an excited puppy that has escaped the yard. Frustrating, to say the least. But I've found that when things are busy at the day job, when the holidays and their emotional baggage roll around, and when I'm feeling a little less than 100% in my body...all at once, mind you...then it's easy to let go of discipline. It's kind of a perfect storm to take me off track.


I hate it when I don't write as consistently as I ought to. But sometimes, life happens. We all face this, and we all have to decide how to handle it. For my part, I kind of pull myself inward to conserve energy, and that can mean I write less. That may not the best way to handle pressure, but it's not the worst either.


The bottom line is: Discipline is not easy to maintain. So let's not expect perfection of ourselves. Instead, we can accept it when we just don't hit the mark like we wanted to. And then we can pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and try again. After all, every day is a new day, giving us a new chance to be disciplined. At least, that's how I see it.


What do you do when your writing discipline tries to escape the yard? When pressures come, do you struggle with staying disciplined to write creatively? Maybe pressure makes you focus all the more and get more done.  (If so, I envy you!) Or maybe you have a trick to help yourself stay on target when things are hectic. I'd love to hear about what keeps you disciplined. Share, please!


Copyright (c) 2011 by M.A. Chiappetta. All rights reserved.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Muse Reviews: Devil Unknown by Steena Holmes

A supernatural thriller about a small town facing a mysterious evil, and the former pastor who doesn’t yet realize he is at the center of it all…


When Devil Unknown begins, Nathan Hanlin is trying to cope with his life, which seems to be spiraling out of control. He used to be the pastor of the small town of Bandit Creek, but after his wife dies in a tragic accident, Nathan just can’t forgive God. He quits his job and tries to manage, but he’s still troubled. His friends are frustrated with his spiritual malaise. Nathan can’t even decide what to do about Rachel, a woman he likes but isn’t quite willing to commit himself to, because he’s still hurting over the death of his wife.

And now, things seem to be getting worse. An evil descends on the town in the form of a mysterious figure that seems to be demonic in nature. Everyone is looking to Nathan for spiritual guidance that he isn’t comfortable offering. He wonders if he is going crazy, just as his mother did. And when he finds out a secret from his mother’s past, he is forced to wonder if crazy would be preferable to the truth.

Author Steena Holmes has written a compelling and intriguing story that touches on love, loss, good and evil, faith and doubt. It resonates with these greater themes, but it’s also a well-written thriller that keeps readers turning the pages. I have to admit, I made it through Devil Unknown in record time. It was hard to put down. I kept wanting to know how the mystery ends.

To give you fair warning, Devil Unknown is the first part of the story. The sequel, Nephilim Arise, will continue the tale. So don’t be surprised when Devil Unknown ends on a cliffhanger that pushes the story in an unexpected direction that makes a lot of sense in retrospect. (That’s how you know the author did her job—when a moment takes you by surprise and at the same time makes you think, “Yes, of course! Why didn’t I see that sooner?”)

Having gone through my own crisis of faith, of sorts, after some sad things happened in my own family, Nathan’s reactions to his mother’s mental illness and his own loss of his wife and the unborn baby she was carrying make perfect sense to me. He’s believable as a man trying to navigate a tragedy of the worst kind. The other characters are also believable, though I would have loved a little more development for Rachel. But that really isn’t much of a problem in the scheme of things.

The plot will keep you interested as you watch Nathan and the others trying to understand and fight the evil that has apparently descended on them. And Holmes’ writing style is a good mix of tangible description, character-driven dialogue, and narration that drops clues to the mystery surrounding Nathan’s life.

The Christian elements in the story make perfect sense because of Nathan’s past role as a clergyman. But they don’t overpower the story. Devil Unknown will appeal to everyone who likes a good supernatural thriller. And let’s face it—the battle between heaven and hell for a man’s soul is a staple of fiction. Steena Holmes has written a strong novel to add to that classic tradition. I’m looking forward to the sequel.

For more information about Devil Unknown, visit the website of Steena Holmes. And learn more about the other authors who are writing stories set in the town of Bandit Creek.


Enter the Giveaway Contest! Steena Holmes has graciously offered to gift her book to one lucky person who reads this blog post. To participate, all you need to do is write a comment below and let me know you’re entering the contest (with your email contact information so I can notify you if you win). Each person who comments will be entered once (and only once), and I’ll choose a winner at random. Contest ends on December 21.

Update:  I intend to use the email info only to notify you if you win. But if you have any concerns about that, feel free to enter by giving me your Twitter handle and following me on Twitter, so I can notify you that way.


Update #2: A winner has been chosen: Jae! Congratulations, Jae! 
Winner was selected through the sequence generator at random.org.

Copyright © 2011 by Michele Chiappetta. All rights reserved.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Where I Get My Ideas: My Crazy, Crazy Ideas

As you've probably noticed, I like to write humor. Not every post is funny, of course, but I do try to be funny more often than not. There are some straightforward reasons why: I like to laugh. I like to make other people laugh. And since people like humor, they will be drawn to my funny posts.

But there's another reason I like to write humor: my ideas often come to me through my slightly bent perspective on life. In other words, I see something. Then I think something funny, and I make myself laugh. And then I realize I could share this idea with others and make them laugh. Hence, the funny writing.

Let me give you a few cases in point.

Courtesy Google Images/gawker.com
I have a repeat feature called Fun With Headlines, a funny take on online news headlines. Here's how these posts got started: I often take a morning break at work to check the news. One day, I went on MSNBC and it had some of the worst headlines I'd ever read. Not just lamely written, but not descriptive of what the story was, and often unintentionally funny.

In the example I tagged here, the attention-grabber for me was the headline "Despite doughnuts, everyone wins on Loser." Obviously, the report was about The Biggest Loser, but not only was it hard to understand what the story was about, the headline also made it sound like the "doughnuts" were alive, sentient, and actively resisting the Loser participants. The words make me think something they weren't intended to make me think, and the incongruity made me laugh. So I thought, great idea, I'll write about that. And I did.

Courtesy Google Images/ramendays.com
Another case in point: my post about how the devil is in your Thin Mints, a funny look at our craving for Thin Mints, lust in general, and spirituality. It's an odd mixture, I admit. This idea came from two ideas that were seemingly unrelated: (1) the Bible verse that tells us we should be developing self-control, and (2) a tweet from a local radio host who said he'd eaten an entire sleeve of Thin Mints in one sitting. I've done that too, or at least I almost have. It is definitely hard to be self-controlled when eating Thin Mints. With a little exaggeration, it's easy to turn these cookies into a tool of the devil to drag you into hell. It allowed me to laugh at my own inability to resist Thin Mints, and also to look at the real human challenge of controlling behaviors that are bad for us. A serious topic, but looked at from a humorous perspective.

Finally, this week's Wednesday post looked at cyberchondria, a form of hypochondria that stems from information overload. I saw an article about it online. But what really gelled the article into an idea for me was the fact that I do, indeed, tend to be a bit of a hypochondriac. It runs in my family. I have to battle the temptation to assume the worst. But I am guilty of running to WebMD to check a symptom, and when I see that it could be related to some form of cancer, I think, "Well, I really should check that out..." Overreaction!

I am making fun of myself in that post. But I also did a little something extra. You see, I teach freshman composition classes at community colleges. And the style for my cyberchondria post is similar to examples of bad essays I have seen in English department discussions on grading standards. It's a kind of hyperbole some students use when they don't know the subject and want to BS their way through it. They start to exaggerate to sound knowledgeable but it sounds just the opposite. For some reason, that style seemed to fit with an attempt to promote cyberchondria as a good thing. And I should mention that I got the idea for "promoting" cyberchondria because the article I read pointed out how watching Oprah actually did save someone's life. (The story in my post is real, though exaggerated and added to, in order to make it funny.)

I should talk about developing a humorous writing style sometime. Suffice it for now to say that I read a lot of satire, and watch a lot of The Simpsons and SNL. If Jon Stewart ever calls me to write for him, I'm ready.


Courtesy Google Images/gericondesigns.com
Last Friday, I posted the bad simile/metaphor contest, where participants had to try to write a purposely so-bad-it's-funny description. Here's a link to all the entries. All the entries were good. Some, I think, would actually work in a published piece. It was hard to pick a winner, but I had to choose. So the winner is:

JP Sloan, for his description which definitely says it all, but would still probably be edited out before final printing:

"She left him standing in the street, dangling like the last scrap of toilet paper on the cardboard tube, fluttering in pale mockery of its erstwhile usefulness."

I do not want to be that guy. JP, I'll get with you to see how I can get the word out about your current projects. To learn more about JP and his fiction, visit his blog Fistful of Fiction. Or look him up on Twitter (@J_P_Sloan). Tell him I sent you!

And stop by on Monday, because I have a book giveaway scheduled with Steena Holmes. You don't want to miss it. See you then!

Copyright (c) 2011 by M.A. Chiappetta. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Confessions of a Cyberchondriac

Hi, my name is the Chipper Muse, and I'm a cyberchondriac. Let me tell you my story...before I am too sick to write.


Courtesy of Google Image
(Facebook.com)
In case you've never heard of a cyberchondriac, don't worry. I hadn't either. In fact, I didn't even know I was a cyberchondriac until just five minutes ago, while I was reading the news online. Thank goodness I read the Internet a lot, or I would never know these things! I feel so much better now that I know how sick I am.


A cyberchondriac is a person who thinks she has sicknesses based on symptoms she hears and reads about through cyber sources, like the Dr. Oz Show and WebMD. (At least, that's what I read on CNN.com, and I believe it, because it's on the Internet, for crying out loud!) 


Cyberchondria isn't just a run-of-the-mill problem. It's one of the most important diseases known to man. It saves the lives of many people each year, people who have odd symptoms like aching legs and indigestion, only it turns out they are really having a heart attack.


Think about it... If they blew off their condition, they could die. But they didn't blow the symptoms off. No, they tuned into Oprah and learned that they might be having a heart attack between listening to stories about Stedman (who is he anyway?) and wondering exactly how many hairstyles Oprah has had over the years (I think it's hundreds, but I've lost count). I admire people who take that kind of initiative about their own health.


I'm proud to admit I have this disease. One day, it's going to save my life. Like today, when I went on WebMD to investigate what it means to have a nosebleed. I didn't bleed much (actually not at all), and my nose is definitely dry because it's so cold out and the air is too dry in my workplace. I mean, I easily could have mistaken my dry nose passages and possible future nosebleed as no big deal. But thank God for the Internet, because now I know I probably have hemophilia. Like the children of Queen Victoria. God bless the Queen! I share something in common with European royalty. I feel so special! And so sick!


Courtesy of Google Images / 02varvara.wordpress.com
If you're feeling really jealous right now, don't! You can become a cyberchondriac too. All it takes is TIVO and a computer, and an obsessive-compulsive need to find desperate illnesses in the aching toe that you just stubbed. I mean, come on. That's not hard at all! You can even use your smartphone to search for symptoms when you're on the go. What a perfect way to spend your time as you wait for your appointment at the doctor's office. When he finally takes you in for your exam, you can tell him how to do his job, and you can certainly ask for the medicines you need, especially if you've been making notes based on the drugs advertised on TV.


Now that I've enlightened you about cyberchondria, I hope you'll be motivated to take action. Pay attention to your body right now, and feel how sick it is. Then look up your symptoms on the Internet so you, too, can start getting treatment for whatever rare disease you have. You know you have one, so why not treat it, starting today? You'll be glad you did.


If you want to learn more about cyberchondria (and who wouldn't?), here's an article on CNN to explain how you can become a cyberchondriac just like me.


And here's a link to WebMD's symptom checker, so you can go straight there after reading this blog post to find out how sick you really are. (Trust me, you are really, really, really sick if you can just learn to look at your life properly.)


Copyright (c) 2011 by M.A. Chiappetta. All rights reserved.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Muse Reviews: Variant by Robison Wells

A strong addition to the young adult bookshelves…


Seventeen-year-old Benson Fisher has had a rough life. Foster care. Problems in school. No real friends. When he is accepted into Maxfield Academy, it seems like a dream come true and the opportunity he needs to build a normal life and have a better future.


Too bad the mysterious people who run Maxfield have other plans…


Variant, the first young adult novel by author Robison Wells, doesn’t waste any time kicking up the tension. Things start off just as Benson Fisher is about to set foot into the jaws of a trap. He doesn’t know it until it’s too late, of course. But he learns soon enough, and he spends the rest of the book trying to navigate his way out.


Along the way, he has to try to figure out who to trust, and it isn’t easy. There are no adults in the school, which is surrounded by a wall that the teens can’t climb. Cameras watch their every move. Troublemakers get punished. Sometimes people vanish. And when they do, the occasional blood left behind makes it appear they leave in a body bag.


Whatever is going on at Maxfield, Benson wants out. You’d think that everyone else would want out too, but not so, and Benson struggles against the tide of other students who don’t want to rock the boat too far. It’s a recipe for conflict, and in Variant, we get that in spades.


As far as stories go, Variant is interesting and effective. There’s definitely a trend in YA fiction to tell dystopian stories. The success of The Hunger Games proves that. What I like about Variant is that within the conventions of dystopian fiction, Wells manages to find a way to make the story both referential and original. What I mean is, as a reader, you can’t help but compare Variant to other classic YA novels about schools and social orders set up by kids, including A Separate Peace and Lord of the Flies. That’s not a problem; most good fiction makes me think of other books I’ve read. Writers play with ideas and events they’ve read in other books as a matter of course. It’s part of the fun of writing.


What’s especially great about Variant, though, is that Wells gives a nod to other stories without writing like a copycat. He manages to be original. There are elements in Variant that made me think of The Stepford Wives and 1984 (other dystopian stories, though not for young adults). But the end of the book went in a direction that I definitely did not expect. I like it when an author can surprise me, and Wells definitely did. As a result, I can’t wait to read the sequel to Variant when it comes out. (I don’t know when that will be, but I hope it will be soon.)


Wells also does a fine job with the characterization. To an extent, some of the teens seem older than their years, but since most of them have been at Maxfield for a year or more, I assume the environment and its pressures have aged them beyond what you’d expect from a typical teen. Their reactions to life behind the walls are pretty much what you’d expect in a large group of people under pressure; some adapt with conformity while others are violent. It’s all believable.


The writing moves along at a nice clip; it’s a good, fast read, perfect for taking with you on vacation (which is what I did). I had the book finished in less than a week. If I’d been at home in my normal routine, I might have finished it even faster. I imagine teens will enjoy it, but adults will too, giving it crossover appeal that should help Wells sell more books.


Variant is definitely worth a read, especially for the unexpected direction it takes. To learn more about the book or its author, or to find out how to get a copy, visit Robison Wells’ website.


And don't forget to check out Robison's brother, author Dan Wells. I reviewed Dan's book I Am Not a Serial Killer earlier this year. (It must run in the family...)


I’d love to hear your take on Variant if (or should I say, when?) you read it. Let me know what you think in the comments below!


Copyright © 2011 by Michele Chiappetta. All rights reserved.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Writing Humor

It takes skill to write, no matter what genre, style, and tone you take. But I sometimes think that writing humor is the most challenging of all. I manage to be funny sometimes, but it's like either the mood has to strike me, or I have to have a flash of insight that leads to a punch line, or I need time to let the idea stew until it yields a laugh.


Courtesy of mattlmckinney.com
Writing humor isn't always easy.

Which is why it's all the more amazing to read some of the best of the worst descriptions ever written. (Or at least, ever written for a Washington Post contest.) It's not easy to write a purposely bad and funny simile. I admire those who did it well enough to get chosen for the list of the top 56 worst analogies. You can read them all here: The 56 best/worst similes.

My favorite of the bunch tells you a lot about the "character" who gives the description. It's actually a great example of how word choices can help reveal a character's personality. Imagine the person who might say this:

I felt a nameless dread. Well, there probably is a long German name for it, like Geschpooklichkeit or something, but I don’t speak German. Anyway, it’s a dread that nobody knows the name for, like those little square plastic gizmos that close your bread bags. I don’t know the name for those either.

Personally, I found this hilarious! It would be great to include a similar passage in a book. But it also helps me imagine who the speaker is. I picture a person who can't let a cliche like "nameless dread" lie untouched. A person who is precise, even anal, about details, even though at the same time, he/she doesn't have the details he/she needs. And this person is a talker. I'd expect him (or her) to rattle on with useless information, even in the face of a sudden attack by the enemy. In other words, a great comic foil for a humorous epic fantasy tale.

It's fun to see the power of our words. And for writers, we have the power to choose what to put down on the page. What our characters will say. How our narration will sound. Sure, the story dictates our choices to a certain extent. But our skill and our personality gets into the mix, and helps us create that unique voice that is ours alone.

Let's have our own blog contest with words. See if you can come up with a funny description, especially a simile or metaphor like the aforementioned Washington Post contest entries. I'll choose the best one and maybe even figure out a modest prize to award. At the very least, if you win you'll have bragging rights, and I'll post your winning entry and your name on my blog and give you a little extra Twitter love and free advertising for your own blog, Twitter account, book, etc.


Note: If you don't have a blog or book right now, you can still enter. If you win, I'll figure out another little prize for you instead of the advertising. So no worries!


Post your entry in the comments below. And send me a Twitter message if for some reason you can't enter a comment, and I'll enter it for you. I'm @chippermuse.

I'll announce a winner next Friday, December 9.

Until then, may you live long and prosper, like a really rich person who lives an unexpectedly long time.

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