Monthly Archives: October 2014

Suspension of Disbelief- What “The Walking Dead” can teach amateur writers

large__5597079641Fantasy and Sci-Fi give your imagination a work-out. Which is precisely why we love them. Living in the vanilla of the regular world with mortgage payments, deadlines, taxiing kids, housework, homework, work work can be, well, obviously terrific and fulfilling and challenging, but damn, it can also be boring as hell. This is where and why we turn to entertainment, and where the entertainment industry, by visual or written medium, excels at transporting us into an alternate reality. We thank them. But it comes with a slight cost: in order to enjoy it, we must be willing to give the creators a little creative elbow room.

For instance, unless you are living off the grid and do not communicate with anyone living on the grid, you may have heard of a little television series called The Walking Dead. For demonstration purposes of this post, I’m going to assume you have no idea what I’m talking about, so here goes. The concept of The Walking Dead in a nutshell:

It is present day America and a group of diverse characters are trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic ZOMBIE infested world.

Okay then.

So, if I were an AMC exec, I would have stared down whatever dumbass pitched me this television show, showed them the underside of my shoe, and gone back to playing Castle Story on my iPhone. I would have said, “Screw that stupid idea, because I like my entertainment real, okay? Monsters and especially zombies aren’t real. Or Scary.” We can give a silent amen that I am not a television executive, because I would have been mostly wrong (the show is bloody brilliant) and a little bit right (zombies are merely the second scariest creatures on the show).

Which brings me to my point, and I do have one.

As writers, especially of the fantastical sort, but really anyone who creates fictional life on paper, we need to understand the concept of SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF like a motherfucker.

It means to believe the unbelievable, and people will do just that under the right circumstances. Apparently, a century ago, give or take, a guy named Samuel Coleridge coined the term and said something along the lines of (paraphrasing) “for entertainment purposes, people will go with whatever bullshit you throw at them as long as there is human interest and a semblance of truth mixed in.”

Yeah. What he said. And that’s why this goofy show works:

1.   Despite the concept, the show is really about how regular human beings interact with each other after all shit has hit the fan. Sure, zombies are a pain and an inconvenience, but are mostly manageable. The still living humans are the real troublemakers, because, surprise, even in the zombie apocalypse, people are sometimes lying, conniving cheats and jackasses, often by a factor of ten. This isn’t so hard to believe after all.

2.  There are rules. A dead body, a “walker”, in any degree of decay, can reanimate and walk around and use their regular non-carnivorous teeth to bite into people like they were made of room temperature Jello. Fine. BUT, if the brain stem of said walker is scrambled by either shotgun or toothpick, it is destroyed and can finally rest in disgusting peace. There are some other rules regulating the undead, such as noise attracting zombies, and a loose understanding of how one actually becomes a zombie, but the point is the writers have not created an anything goes world, because that would be stupid. So even in zombie infested America, there are some things that just can’t happen. A zombie that hates noise and scurries away in fear when confronted by it? C’mon, that’s just silly. The audience lives in a world governed by rules of society and physics. We understand rules. As long as the writers live their story by their own rules, we can live with them too.

What amateur writers can learn from crazy awesome shows like The Walking Dead, or Supernatural, or Dr. Who, and all the other shows that I’m not cool enough to know about yet, is that no matter how fantastical and logic defying they are, as long as the writers develop a system to tether their audience to reality, they will fight zombies side by side with them anywhere.

-AV Packard

What I’m reading now:  The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike


First Draft Salvage-The Newly Born Manuscript

photo credit: elm3r via photopin cc

photo credit: elm3r via photopin cc

I finished it, finally. The first draft, that is- wrote the first sentence somewhere in June 2013, finished the last sentence in September 2014, said something like “the end” which sounds a little bit like “amen” and called it done. Then, like all the writing advice says to do, I pushed it aside and didn’t look at it for a few weeks and congratulated myself. It felt good. I wrote a book.

Congratulations felt cheap though. I mistakenly mentioned it to a few of my friends, who reacted the way anyone would act when a friend told them they (finally) finished the book they’ve been working on.

And I told them No, you can’t read it.

Because it’s not ready, that’s why. It’s ghastly.

It’s hard to admit that to those who don’t choose this life. They don’t understand. But I’ll try to explain.

Ninety percent of what I choke up on the laptop is utter crap. The remaining ten percent is workable, sometimes it’s even good- this ten percent is what fuels the rest of the drive to get it done. It’s gonna be great; it’s gonna be a best-seller, it’s gonna make that dipshit I knew back in the mailroom/homeroom/work release puke with envy. Actually, that isn’t true. The only reason I finished it is because my mentor made me finish it. TGFD (thank god for deadlines). The base thought is true enough, though. If it weren’t for the ten percent of the “unh…it’s okay, I guess” work that gets done, there would be nothing, only a sad little woman tangled up in blankets on the couch watching Hell’s Kitchen, and thinking maybe she should have been a chef instead because getting publically humiliated by Gordon Ramsay would be so much better than trying to be a writer.

The first draft is the ugly newborn of the literary world. Unlike mothers, who take prenatal vitamins, avoid sushi and alcohol, and play soothing classical music in hopes of saturating their fetus with the mysterious benefits of orchestral music; writers bathe their creative thoughts in vodka, wasabi flavored almonds, and self-deprecation. Like a newborn baby, the first draft is raw, wrinkled, unable to function beyond expelling shit and spit up. But, like a baby, it’s a miracle in its own right. You can gaze lovingly at the GB space it took up on your flash drive and squeal, “I made this!” Yet as any parent knows, the hard work is yet to come. And oh dear lord, it is going to be hard.

So, I pushed my sleeves up, pulled my rubber hip boots on, and dove in. That is, I downloaded it all to Scrivener and started wading through the piles and piles of metaphorical feces I put into this first draft. It was as bad as I thought, it really was, and is, because that is my life right now, dividing the draft into “what the hell does this even mean?” and “possibly worth saving” sections. I’m half way through it. It’s soul sucking work, and holy shit, the family better be an understanding bunch this phase.

Back to the baby metaphor- LIKE A baby…the first draft needs a lot of love. It may be time to tuck that vodka back into the liquor cabinet because that baby is going to need your full attention now. No more of this “I’ll go back and fix that” stuff, because we’re in the back back outback now. It’s going to need coddling. Muscle development. Encouragement and praise. The thing is going to need medical attention. As unpleasant as it is to watch your newborn baby get five vaccinations in row–it’s downright heartbreaking to see the fruit of your loins cry in pain and confusion as that bitch of a nurse jabs needle after needle into her unsusupecting chubby little legs–you do it because you know the baby will be stronger and healthier because of it. Because you’re a good mom, and that’s what good moms do. Same is true of the first draft. You’re a good writer, and by God, you’re going to give this little bastard of a manuscript the ass whooping it needs to stand on its own feet, lift its head high, and say REVISED and READ ME to the world.

This is what I am telling myself.

-AV Packard

October 20, 2014

What I’m reading now: Coraline by Neil Gaiman

The Long and Short of It – and The First Post

Once upon a time in a rainy and cranky corner of the world called Tacoma, Washington, a little baby girl was born. She grew up in a happy home on the edge of a swamp that was more lovely than it sounds, despite the muck and mud and mosquitoes in the summer. It was quiet and serene, and because there were no other children who lived in the neighborhood, isolated and often lonely.

She grew up with books and barbies and dogs named Sam and Rache. She cut out pictures from magazines and pasted them in handmade books, either stapled or glued together, wrote captions, which were actually stories, and read them to whoever would listen, but no one really did, even though they thought it was cute.

In high school she continued to write, mostly short stories, some poetry, as teenage girls will do, and developed a liking to the encouragement and accolades, though small and unimportant, were really enormous and very important.

She graduated and realized, with an attitude too grown-up to be mature, that writing paid fuck all, and she would never be able to support herself with words.

She saw The Silence of the Lambs in a movie theatre, and decided to be a forensic biologist.

At Seattle University, in the thick of the city of wet pavement and grunge, she failed chemistry and got a “D” in biology. For this pleasure, she paid student loans, at $50 a month for several years. Chalked it up to “life experience” and developed a taste for cheap merlot wine.

She went to vocational school and became a pharmacy technician. For ten years. She still read books, sometimes, but they were often of the self-help kind.

A turn of events, a store transfer, She met the man of her dreams. And got married. And had a baby, and another, and another. For ten more years.

At this point, she wondered, where she went and who she was now. She wrote an essay about it.

She enrolled in an online school, Southern New Hampshire University, and earned a bachelors degree in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing. She applied to and was accepted to the MFA low-residency program from the same school. This required five trips to New Hampshire in two years.

She wrote a novel.

And she started a blog.

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