Monday, January 23, 2012

Changing the Mix

Oh, how I love Mr. Miyagi
(courtesy of Google Images)
So... I took last week off from writing the blog. I've been processing what to do with it. And I wanted to post a quick note about it today.

I'll still be writing this blog.. I'll still maintain the same type of content - the reviews, the funny musings, the thoughts on writing and creativity. Those are all things I love, and things that you come here for. That won't change.

But I am going to change the posting schedule. Three days a week is too much for me right now. I'm also writing a novel, and teaching, and freelancing. And I'm deciding to be realistic about it. Balance is a lesson for your whole life, as Mr. Miyagi would say. (Who doesn't love The Karate Kid?)

Seriously... Balancing my life better is what is healthy for me, but it'll be better for the blog too. I'll be able to put my effort into creating one phenomenal post a week, rather than three that have to be up on schedule no matter how good (or meh) they turn out to be.

Plus, I'll have more time to visit other blogs and read them, so we can build relationships. Wouldn't that be nice? It's a goal for me.

Oh, and I'm kicking around the idea of whether to move this blog to WordPress. I have to see if that makes sense. For now, I'll remain here. If anyone reading this post uses WordPress, especially if you've also used Blogger, I'd love to know which service you prefer and why.

Thanks to everyone for your patience! I appreciate every single one of my readers. Thanks to those who have weighed in already on what you like about the blog and what you think. If you haven't weighed in yet or if you think of something to add to what you've already said, please do! I'd love to hear what you all think.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Question for You, Dear Readers

Here's the deal.

I have no Monday review for you today. Most Mondays, this is not an issue. I normally read a lot and usually have something to talk about. But occasionally, like today, I'm just not finished with my next book and don't have a review for you.

So my question for you is: When I don't have a review ready for a Monday, what would you like instead? I could do a quick update on my novel, or share a paragraph or two from it for you to read and give me input. I could do a fun little update about my weekend. I could offer a simple thought for the day. Or I could take the day off.

What do you think? Is there anything specific you'd like to see me do on Mondays when I don't have a review for you?

On a related note: What part of the blog do you like best, and what would you like to see more of? I'll see what I can do to give you more of what you like best.

Thanks for your input. I appreciate it, and I look forward to shaping this blog a little more toward what you come here for.

Copyright (c) 2012 by M.A. Chiappetta. All rights reserved.

Friday, January 13, 2012

An Interview with Novelist Bryan Thomas Schmidt

Recently, I read The Worker Prince, a book by Bryan Thomas Schmidt about a young man raised in a powerful household, only to discover his heritage isn’t quite what he thought it was. As he discovers his true parentage, he is faced with the decision of how he will live his life with the new knowledge he has. It’s a fun science-fiction read with a touch of Star Wars and a touch of the story of Moses in it. 

I had the opportunity to talk with Bryan about his book and his writing. Hope you enjoy what Bryan has to share. 

Tell me, Bryan, how did you develop your idea for The Worker Prince? I heard the idea came to you at a young age. Did you start doing stories, jotting down notes, world-building, etc., from a young age? Or did this idea sit on the back burner for a long time before you decided to pull it out and write it? 

I had the idea of a Star Wars type of Moses saga when I was in my teens and planned it as this giant Centennial-esque TV miniseries for multiple hours, etc. At that time, I also wrote the ideas for characters, including the names Sol and Xalivar. I had a lot more but those and Luna, which became Lura, were the only ones I still remembered when I came back this story later in life. (Somewhere in my garage is a box with those notes from my teenage years, but I didn’t have a clue where to look.)

In any case, I went on to work in TV and film for a while, pursued music, got a Masters, and so on, until one day I had a failed novel under my belt. I was studying craft and knew I wanted to try again but not with that first story. I needed something new, so I went back to the Moses Meets Star Wars idea, and four months later I had a completed novel. That was my first draft, of course, but that was November 2009, and finishing it was a really cool feeling.

What was the easiest part of the writing process for you? What was the hardest part? Why? (For example, I’m great at dialogue, not so great at world-building and description.)

Well, it went surprisingly fast for a guy who didn’t know what he was doing. The hard part was figuring out how much work it needed, what that was and doing it. That and writing queries and synopses. Lord, do I hate those! But I digress. Dialogue has come easy for me since film school. I was always told I have a gift for dialogue. And the characters came easily enough, although they evolved over time, of course.

Description is the part I don’t do well. In screenplays, you’re taught not to write it. But in books you need it all—and it needs to be very visceral, emotional, and visual. Much of the time, that stuff gets added in during the second draft for me. I did it in multiple drafts on The Worker Prince, but now that I’m further along in craft, I can usually add description into the second draft and make just a few tweaks later on. I’m doing that draft now for The Returning, which is the sequel to The Worker Prince.

Second is science. I am not a gifted scientist or mathematician. And I don’t care that much, to be honest. What I want are great characters you care about, a plot that keeps you on a good ride, and writing that makes you laugh, cry, get angry, etc., at the right moments so that you walk away satisfied that you were well entertained. But if you’re writing science fiction, other people will care about the science and math, so I had to get some help. A friend who is good with it helped me work out the details of my solar system—where the planets would be, how they rotated, how much time it takes to travel between them, how their location would translate into geography, and so on. It’s not enough to make it hard science, but enough that people will say okay, that’s a reasonable guess.

What type of plotter are you—seat of the pants, detailed outliner, in the middle? What plotting tools work for you—note cards, snowflake method, etc.?

Pantser. Pants around ankle. Dive in and just see what happens. (Telling people that keeps them from touching my drafts, see?)

I do, however, outline the next chapter as I go—just an idea of what scenes I think will be in it and what order I’m shooting for. I do a single, one or two sentence description, and maybe a character list if I know someone has to be there or someone needs to be revisited who I keep leaving out. That’s pretty much it.

Writing sequels, I’ve had to do a bit more planning, because when you write a series, you have to tie in to the existing stuff and you have to leave loose ends for the next book. But I’m still mostly just seat-of-the-pantsing it.

The Worker Prince weaves science fiction together with the Biblical story of Moses. Did you want to write a SFF story first, then realize that the Bible provided a good story to mirror? Or did you start by wanting to write a Christian novel, and then came to decide on SFF? What kind of challenges or surprises did you face as you wove the Christian elements and the SFF elements together?

The Moses story has been done. And done again. And done yet again. That wasn’t the case when I dreamed it up. Ten Commandments was the big one back then. Now, we have Prince of Egypt, the Superman movies, and a bunch of stuff that all used Moses as models. So, the first decision I had to make was how closely I wanted to follow the story.

I made the decision to tie my story to Earth, with colonists in deep space but originally from Earth. Then I realized if I made one group Christians, the rest of the story would fall into place because the actual Moses story would be part of their prehistory.

But that being the case, I knew if I just followed the Moses story to the letter, my characters would predict it. “Hey, we know this story.” So instead, I started diverging from some of it to mix it up. It kept the characters guessing, upping their tension and the story’s drama, and it keeps the reader (and the pantsing writer) guessing too.

I didn’t have any trouble weaving Christian and SF stuff together, partly because I use so little science and partly because the desire to explore is natural to man. Christian missionaries have gone everywhere and no doubt will one day be sent into the stars. So that motivation is not foreign. And every culture as we know it has religion and faith elements, so that’s not difficult. It fit together nicely.

As far as being Christian, I am NOT a fan of Christian fiction. Way too much of it is crap—preachy crap. Way too much of it is cheesy. I wanted to write about real bad people and real flawed heroes with problems, but I wanted to do it in a way that I’d enjoy and that lots of people who aren’t Christian would enjoy. So I worked very hard to weave in those elements while avoiding preachiness, or even being a proponent of one way of thinking. I thought, just lay it out there, let the characters believe in it, present it well, but let readers do with it what they will or what the Holy Spirit will.

Can you talk a little about the publishing process? How did you go about getting The Worker Prince into print? Any lessons learned that you'd like to share with other writers?

I first hired independent editors at my own expense to help me whip the novel into shape, and then I sent out around 45 queries to various agents. Only three agents requested it, and they all turned it down.

So I wound up sending it out to slush piles at big and small presses. And in mid-2010, I started to get interest from three publishers. All three wound up making me offers and giving me editing notes. Finally, I went with the one offering the best deal.

I studied up to negotiate. When I asked for something, I tried to have something to give back that was good for the publisher. And I approached it as partners, not antagonists, while still sticking to my guns to get the right contract. And I got a really good one. But I have studied books on contract law and specifically book contracts and consulted with IP and other lawyers for a decade before this, so I had some advantages most writers might not have. Most should hire an IP attorney, and in the future if I’m working on bigger deals and I don’t have an agent, I will too.

Tell me about The Returning, the sequel to The Worker Prince. What's it about? Is it the final installment of the story, or do you anticipate writing more in the series? Or perhaps you plan to write different stories in the universe you've created?

The Returning is book two, and there will either be three or four in the series—I’m not sure exactly until I parse the story ideas I have for the next book, The Exodus. In any case, it’s a universe I could do a lot with, so there really is no limit, it’s all arbitrary, but I really do want to have a good cycle that closes. I want to go back and do a YA prequel series, actually. That interests me.

But The Returning is the story of what happens after the fight for freedom in The Worker Prince and how the two societies deal with the aftermath. Some forces are not happy with the previous outcome, and they try to undermine things and seek revenge. It gets very complicated and messy for our hero and his family and friends. In fact, several beloved characters do not survive for Book 3. But that’s all I can say without giving away spoilers for both Worker Prince and The Returning.

Thanks for the interview, Bryan! Readers, if you would like a copy of The Worker Prince or if you’d like to find out more about Bryan, visit his website.

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novel The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. His second novel, The Returning, is forthcoming from Diminished Media Group in 2012. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chatevery Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. He can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog. Bryan is an affiliate member of the SFWA.

Writers, let me know if this interview was useful and interesting to you. And I'm sure if you have other questions for Bryan, we can persuade him to stop by and answer them.

Copyright (c) 2012 by M.A. Chiappetta. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Why I'm the Chipper Muse

I don't think I've ever shared this on my blog before, but there is actually a very good reason why I go by the nickname of Chipper Muse. (As opposed to, say, Lady Nightblade, which is technically my evil villain name but which I don't pull out very often, given that I'm not doing evil very much.)

So, let me explain. A coworker once upon a time started calling me "Chipper." I assumed it was because of my upbeat personality. (I do tend to smile a lot.) But really, he was playing on my last name. I didn't mind. The nickname stuck in my mind because it's fun and happy.

"Muse" comes from my goal to be a muse for others in the creative realm, as well as my pursuit of my own muse, my own creative dreams. That's pretty obvious from the content of this blog.

The Chipper Muse is a great name for a blog. (In my humble opinion, hahaha!) But I also use the name because it expresses my personality and the tone I try to maintain here. Let's be honest: It is far too easy to be snarky, angry, critical, or crotchety on the Internet. I don't want to take the low road. I'd rather be light, funny, kind, and helpful. That's who I am most often anyway, so it's just easier to be consistent.

What's your blog name or Twitter handle and why do you use it? Or what would it be if you had one? I think it'd be fun to talk about names and what they mean to you. So, do share! Maybe it'll give me fodder for another post soon.

Copyright (c) 2012 by M.A. Chiappetta. All rights reserved.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Review of The Bull Years by Phil Stern

The Bull Years, a novel by Phil Stern, is about three people who are turning 40 and facing the questions and challenges that are common halfway through life.

The central character in Stern's novel is Steve Levine, a disillusioned man who wants to be a writer but hasn't made it. He had some past success in the talk radio business before it bottomed out and left him with no job. Now, he's a home water treatment salesman and he's writing a project based on the life stories of two friends from college, whom he lost touch with after a dramatic breakdown in their friendship years earlier. Steve and his two friends write their sides of the story as well as other life experiences that have led each of them to where they are today, at the age of forty.

The story concept is interesting. It's common for people to evaluate their life at middle age, and readers can certainly relate to it. Stern throws in a younger character telling her story at age 23, as a counterpoint to the stories of the older characters. That technique works at times to illustrate the differences in the way we think at different points of our lives. And how hindsight is something you develop only after some bad experiences in life.

It's clear that the whole novel is driving toward one big reveal: what happened to Steve and his friends twenty years earlier to break up their relationships and drive them apart? That scene is well written, though also predictable. After all, there are only so many things that cause a dramatic blow up with your friends when you're twenty. But that plot point is not a problem.

What is a problem is that the characters are largely unlikable. Steve is opinionated and bitter, which fits his character but makes him hard to stomach. His friend Dave is a whipping boy for much of his life; he's more likable but he makes some really stupid decisions. The other friend, Sophia, is a wild child, rebelling through sexual encounters. It's not exactly porn, but it's not enlightening either. The 23-year-old Hayley is a particularly snarky person who has no clue about life, though she thinks she does. As a result, there is no character that I enjoyed coming back to. By the end, I was tired of them all, in spite of the interesting premise.

Novels like this often give a slice of life and make commentaries on society. It's fair to say there are some readers who will gravitate toward The Bull Years and enjoy it. (You can read the positive reviews on Amazon if you like.) For me, though, I didn't come away with a catharsis that might have made the characters' disillusionment, sarcasm, confusion, and despair redeemable. And in the end, that just doesn't work for me.

If you've read The Bull Years, I'd love to hear what you thought of it. If not, what do you think of stories that try to "mirror" real life without providing an a-ha moment to redeem the darkness of the story?

For more information on The Bull Years or to read it for yourself, visit Phil Stern's website.

Copyright (c) 2012 by M.A Chiappetta. All rights reserved.

Friday, January 6, 2012

2012 Kick-off Resources for Writers

It's a new year, and wow, I've seen so much great information on the web to help us writers improve our craft and know more about publishing. So, today's post is a list of links to some great blogs and blog posts. Most of these people are either personal friends, writers I know from local writing groups, or Twitter buddies whose posts are consistently worth reading and sharing. Others are links that are just worth shouting about.

Have fun exploring these resources, and be sure to say I sent you! And then come back here and let me know if you found the links helpful, or share links of your own.

The Write Technology is a blog about learning to use technology to further your writing. Really. It's a good source for the techie issues that most writing blogs don't cover. Author/blogger Richard Beaty updates the blog every 7-10 days, sometimes sooner.

Left Brained Business for Writers by Joan Rhine, is specifically aimed at the left-brained stuff that right-brained creatives like us need help with. Joan normally blogs Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, but also posts in between her regular schedule when something timely comes up.

A classic is Jane Friedman's blog, Being Human at Electric Speed. For those who may not realize it, she's moved on from Writers Digest but she's still blogging great links and industry advice for writers. Here's her post on Best Advice for Writers From 2011.

Ad Astra Center for the Study of Science Fiction is James Gunn's new science fiction resource, sponsored by the University of Kansas. Oh, and they're open for submissions for their July 2012 issue, so if you're a sf lover, you'll want to check this out fast.

Kristin Nador Writes Anywhere is another great source for bloggers, written by Kristin Nador (obviously). On Mondays in January, she's posting about sharpening our blog habits. Kristin is also great about sharing and trumpeting resources she likes (she's done it for me, thank you so much, Kristin!). So if you have something of interest, let her know.

Writing and Rambling is the blog of literary agent Nephele Tempest of The Knight Agency. Nephele is down-to-earth, to-the-point, and encouraging, a good mix for writing advice coming from a professional. She's been posting lately about practical ways for writers to get from that dream of writing a novel to a finished hard copy sitting in their hands. Here's a link to her excellent post this week on how to create story ideas, Starting from Scratch.

Amy Shojai writes Bling, Bitches & Blood, a blog that covers a range of topics, many pet-related (because she writes books about pets). In her Tuesday Tips, she has covered topics such as "kindle-ization" and writing nonfiction book proposals. Plus, she includes lots of pictures of cats. (These are a resource too, as they can soothe you when your writing is not going the way you want it to.)

Between the Sheets is the brainchild of Heather Webb, whose finished first novel is historical fiction. Her most recent tip post, "Breaking Out of the Editing Funk," is a good example of how she mixes personal experience and practical tips that anyone can use.

Radine Nehring recently did an interesting post on her blog, titled Does Branding Hurt? If you're planning to market your book, and yourself along with it, you'll need an idea of what your personal brand should look like, and this post can help you tackle that issue.

Not too long ago, I reviewed Story Dam, an online writing group focused on helping us network as well as improve our writing. In addition to writing prompts, author interviews, and other resources, they also offer weekly link-ups so you have a chance to build your audience and further your reach. Visit Story Dam here. (And definitely tell site builders Brandon and Brandi Duncan that The Chipper Muse sent you, because I like to brag and they know it. Hahaha!)

Over at Black and Dark Night, author Rebekah Loper has plenty of writing posts, including this one on Living on a Writer's Budget. (If you don't need this because you're independently wealthy, please email me privately so we can discuss a loan. Double hahaha!)

Okay, I'm getting silly with the jokes so it's probably time to call it a day. I'm sure I'll be sharing more links in the future as other writers and other sources of good information pop up on my radar. If you hear of anything worth sharing, let me know. Happy writing to you in 2012!

Copyright (c) 2012 by M.A. Chiappetta. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Poetry of Headlines

Book available at Barnes & Nobles, if you want to know.
If a headline is meant to grab you, then it's possible The New York Post writers are geniuses. They never cease to disappoint, as this book covering years of the Post's classic headlines proves.

I know I make fun of bad headlines a lot, as some of my past blog posts have proven. (Here's a link to Fun With Headlines Again, my most recent headlines post.) It's kind of easy to mock bad writing.

But the Post reminds me that while a great headline isn't necessarily "good writing" (whatever that is in the world of journalism), it does have to have a kind of poetry to it.

That's why I love the headlines the Post comes up with. Sure, "Headless Body in Topless Bar" is meant to be shocking; it's a "made you look" statement intended to get you to stop and read, and hopefully buy.

But that headline also has great symmetry (also known as parallel structure for those of you with a grammar fetish). And it emphasizes the irony of the situation. Somehow, that headline rises above being just another crime story in a big city. Instead, it becomes a picture of the strange, the lurid aspects of modern life. It reminds you that those faceless people you walk by, without thinking about them, all have individual lives and stories, just like you do.

Those five words say so much more. They make you wonder. They make you remember. They create pictures in your mind. They demand that you talk about them. In other words, they are a form of poetry.

Perhaps that is why poorly written headlines stand out so much to me. They are as bad as a bad poem written by a lovesick schoolgirl or a jock boy who wrote his poem in the five minutes before class starts, just to have something to hand in. No one wants to read that, do they? I don't.

And maybe this is why it's so hard to write a good headline or a good title. They really are an art form in themselves, separate from the skills needed to write a good paragraph or page. I admire those who write headlines and titles that speak volumes, that sing.

Even if the song is a little risque or impish, like "Headless Body in Topless Bar." You may be embarrassed to say it in front of grandma. But you won't ever forget it, will you?

Copyright (c) 2012 by M.A. Chiappetta. All rights reserved.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Looking Back at 2011: The Review Is In

It's January 2, the start of a new year. Since Monday is my review day on this blog, I thought I'd do a little review of my 2011, and encourage you to do the same. After all, new year's resolutions do no good if they aren't practical and if they don't meet your most important needs for growth. I'd say it takes a good look back at 2011, the good and the bad, before you set your course for 2012.

What worked for you in 2011? How did you meet your goals? And what was the good news?

For me, 2011 has been the year I built up consistency on the blog. I asked myself what I wanted to write about, what I wanted to achieve. More than anything, I wanted to meet a set schedule for posting, and develop a plan for what I was going to talk about. That way, I'd always have something to say, and you as readers would have something stable to look forward to. If you want to know how I'm able to post three times a week, in spite of being busy (see last Friday's post), it's because of my goal to develop that consistent theme and timing for this blog. That's why it's important to have clear goals to meet. They really do help you go somewhere.

I've discovered several things that have helped my writing in 2011. First of all, planning ahead and writing posts ahead of time. When I can manage that, I'm much more effective. 

Second, having a writing group of friends who are also writing has helped me move forward in area where I have trouble, aka procrastination. Knowing that I have people expecting to see my latest writing (accountability) has forced me to buckle down and do more work than I otherwise might. 

Third, setting a goal to get published or win contests and then moving towards it has helped me to move beyond myself to getting my writing out there for others to read. Many people are content to write for themselves, and I think that's great. But for me, it's not enough. Recognizing that I want the recognition has meant that I also need to do something to get that recognition. No one's going to knock at my door to let me know they discovered how great I am through ESP. I have to go find readers and prove I'm worth reading. So I'm doing that.

And it has led to some of my achievements this year. By getting out and taking risks, I've made some good new friends on Twitter. I've been interviewed for articles on writing and been invited to guest post (thanks, Lynette Benton!). I won fifth place in a flash fiction contest. And I've won some great books to review on my blog, some of which are hard copies that I can give away on the blog later.

Knowing what I've achieved (and you knowing what you've achieved) is essential to setting new goals for the new year. Take a look at what worked and build on it. And then consider what didn't work. Is it important enough to tackle it again in 2012? Maybe go about it differently. Is it not worth it? Okay, then drop it and make room for a new goal.

I'm going to build on the success I've had with my blog by working toward exposure to new readers. And I'm going to work harder to bring that same level of consistency to my novel-writing, which frankly is much harder for me, but is something I want enough to tackle it again.

I also want to be much more consistent about Twitter and building relationships there. I'll need to consider practical ways to make that happen.

What successes have you had in 2011? What are you going to build on? And what are you going to jettison as unneeded baggage? What new goals do you have for 2012? Share them here. Maybe we can hold each other accountable for those new goals. Maybe we can swap guest posts or share links to each other's blogs. I'm open to the possibilities. I hope you are too.

Best wishes for this new year to you. As Pedro from Napoleon Dynamite might say, "May all your dreams come true!"

Copyright (c) 2012 by M.A. Chiappetta. All rights reserved.