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Post NaNoWriMo: What I Learned from 30 days of Speed Writing

Thirty days of writing on speed. I mean speed writing. Whatever. The goal is to write 50,000 words in thirty days. The end. That is the only goal. The words don’t have to be wonderful. They don’t even have to make sense. You could literally write “this is the stupidest thing I’ve ever done” and variations thereof, fifty thousand times by November 30th and you, my friend, are a winner.

This is my third year, third attempt, and my first time “winning”. By the by, here’s exactly what it means to win NaNoWriMo- I thought I might get something semi-cool if I crossed the finish line; I wasn’t expecting a medal or money, but I thought it wouldn’t be horrible to get, I don’t know, a free t-shirt, or a coffee mug. A bumper sticker. A pencil? C’mon. Something. Here’s what you get:Winner-2014-Twitter-Profile

That’s a cartoon of me slaying the 50k Word Dragon. It’s a badge. Other prizes: you are invited to shop in their merchandise store. You are invited to donate money, which, sure, is probably worth some karma points, if you’re into that thing, as the donations presumably go to funding creative writing programs for “people”. I’m not really sure what this means or who directly benefits from this as I never got past the “give us some money” button. Turns out, I’m not really into karma.

Also, that’s not really a picture of me in the cartoon.

To be fair, I didn’t participate in this challenge for rewards. It’s something that a few of my writer friends get excited about every year, and the excitement can be contagious. The team that runs the NaNoWriMo promotional campaign know their stuff. They do a good job getting would-be participants pumped up and ready for the event. The time was right, my school term was over, and I thought it would be a fun activity to keep my brain busy, because my brain is a lazy asshole that would much rather watch The Walking Dead and cruise Facebook all day. (Speaking of TWD. Beth. Yeah, I know.)

So here’s what I learned.

What Is Good About It:

The Daily Grind: The best thing NaNoWriMo does is reinforce the ass in chair, get ‘er done, chug, chug, do it, do it, work ethic that is necessary to wrestle down that book idea that’s been floating around in your head since you were a college freshman.You won’t complete the challenge unless you spend A. Lot. Of. Time. at your keyboard throwing up words on the screen. Good writers got that way by paying their dues, that is, spending a gazillion hours at their keyboards or typewriters or notebooks, working it out, one word at a time, until they became awesome. NaNo sets you up to instill good writer habits. And at the very least, it gives you the perspective of the time and effort it takes to write a novel.

Limited Time: You have thirty days to get that story out of your head. There is some pressure here, which is good because it forces you to commit. To yourself. You can now see if that story you’ve been thinking about has any legs. Maybe it does, and grows and evolves into everything awesome you hoped it would be. Maybe it doesn’t, and fizzled out after ten pages and was better suited for a short story. But now you know.

Magic: Here’s my favorite thing. Because of the time limit, if I ever got stuck on something, which I did frequently, I had the power of the “Hell with this, I’ll fix it later” button. It is an awesome tool. Too many times, I’ve come across a problem in a story and let myself get sidelined by it. Here, because you only have X many more days to finish the story, you don’t have the luxury to wait and hope it will magically work itself out (and die by writer starvation in the catacombs of your word processor files). This button gives you permission to skip it and move on to the next scene, or another scene that is more manageable.

And just to be clear, there is no magical button. It’s a metaphor, okay?

What I mean is, although this isn’t a new trick, it’s one that I hadn’t taken advantage of before and I found it incredibly helpful to keep the momentum drum banging.

What’s Not So Good About It:

The Writing Sucks: It’s true. The stuff I copied and pasted into the validation machine to “win”, is first draft chum. Writing as fast as I could and not even slowing down to correct misspellings (Can’t stop! Must get to 5,000 words today!) is not going to be anything worth reading. Maybe not even by myself. Going back to revise is going to be like walking into a hoarder’s house. Piles of adjectives, bad grammar, run on sentences, and, what even is this? There is going to be crap everywhere. I will have to be brave and ready to work hard.  So what’s the preferred method? Taking your time to churn out a first draft that is more refined, or fast purging yourself of the story and then going back later? This is the flip side of that magical button. It may be more work to turn a NaNo first draft into anything salvageable.

It’s Easy to Get Behind: This is why I’ve only finished one year out of three. I was behind the suggested progress chart almost the entire time this year too. Stuff happens. Your mentor emails you and tells you that your essay needs to be redone (grrrrr…). Thanksgiving happens. The Walking Dead marathon happens. I spent a handful of 5,000+ word days, typing like mad in the middle of the night trying to catch up. After several missed days, it gets harder and harder and catching up and can seem almost impossible. Then you start feeling like a failure, which is dumb, because you’re not winning anything. Not even a t-shirt. Damn.

So, judging by my list here, I have three good things vs. two sucky things about NaNoWriMo, so I guess it was a mostly good experience. Will I do it again? Probably. In the end, I can’t begrudge something that gets thousands of people around the world “going for it”, writing their book, and seeing what happens. Even if they never read a word of what they wrote ever again, its not a bad thing to give someone a goal and tell them they’re a winner. And I’ll admit, I kind of like the badge up there. I smiled when I saw it. And then I kept clicking around their website to see if that was all I was going to get.

-Avy Packard

What I’m reading now: Scrivener For Dummies (don’t judge me) by Gwen Hernandez

Also, a good read (advent calendar style, which was fun) to get through NaNoWriMo is 30 Days in the Word Mines by Chuck Wendig


Na na na na na na Hey hey hey…NaNoWriMo

fall14 607I don’t know why this goofy “challenge” calls to me, but it does. This will be my third year that I’m having a go at it, and you know, we’ll see. In 2012, I entered a book titled, “Untitled”, in the Supernatural/Horror genre. I logged in 8,202 words. (In case you don’t know, the goal is to write 50,000 words by November 30. The challenge starts on the first. You’re not supposed to cheat either. Cheating is bad. Also, fifty-thousand words is supposed to be considered a novel length manuscript, though it is a pretty flimsy one.) My success rate in 2012 was a sickly 16%. Looking back on the stats, it looked like I started late (Day 4, already 6,664 words behind) and then by day 15, I realized I was too far gone in the weeds to ever catch up, said fuck it, I want to do other things with my free time, like drink alcohol and watch lots of television. And I quit. I have a vague recollection of what that particular novel was about, but I don’t know what file any of it ended up in, so, enh, I obviously wasn’t too excited about it.

Next year will be so much better, I said. I am going to kick so much ass on nanowrimoexpialidocious.

In 2013 I entered a book titled, “Untitled”, in the mainstream fiction genre. I logged in 499 words. No, I’m not missing a zero. That is 0.99% of the required 50k to “win” (their word, not mine). The nanowrimothafucka organization uses the “winning” word kind of the way that Charlie Sheen would use it, which is to say, you don’t win a damn thing except bragging rights and some low value street cred to other writer nerds. So let’s check out last year’s stats: On Day 9 (that’s over a week late, very bad start already), I wrote 499 words…about something. Who knows what it was about, maybe what my cat was thinking. And then on the very same day, I said, fuck this, I’d rather drink alcohol and  watch a lot of television, and called it a night on the 2013 challenge.

THIS YEAR. I’m doing pretty good. For real this time. I started on damn Day 1 and have contributed every day since (except today. I’m writing this. Why am I writing a blog post? I should be writing my 30 day novel!) I have entered a book titled, “Untitled” in the Thriller/Suspense genre. As of today, Day 8, I’m logging 12,663 words. Not a bad start, eh? My personal best so far. Although the target for today is supposed to be 13,333 words by midnight. That shouldn’t be too difficult, it’s only a difference of 670 words to stay on track (although, that would have been too much for me on any day in November in 2013, but I won’t dwell on my failures).

So, what’s the point of all this, and why is there math involved?

Because there are many arguments for and against this writing marathon.

In example:

For) Why is nanowrimoliscious an awesome way to spend ones free time in November? Well, it gives wannabe authors the mental kick in the ass they need to condition themselves to Write.Every.Day.No.Matter.What. Sounds like good, solid advice, yeah? Because we all know that Great American Novel is not going to get written while waiting for the perfect time to write it (never).

And

Against) Why is nanowrimotimesink the stupidest thing you can do if you’re human? Because 99.9% of what is written during this challenge is unusable. As in pig snot. As in my cat can type out more lyrically beautiful sentences than the potpiss I’m throwing up on my monitor screen. So, why again, do we do this?

I’ll tell you. Listen up.

I am of the school that says you need to write out your mistakes. Kind of like in order to be a teacher, or a nurse, or a minister, or refrigerator repair person, whatever, you need to pay your dues and spend some time safely screwing up. It’s similar to an intern position. You have to be a stupid writer before you can be an awesome writer. If you’re logging a lot of hours, slogging away at your desk trying to write a halfway decent sentence, someday, even if just by accident, you will write a sentence so awesome it will make your keyboard want to cry. Just by the magical process of working everyday on this insanity we have convinced ourselves is “art”, we will become better at it.

Remember when you were a kid and your mom and your piano teacher nagged the shit out of you to practice your scales and arpeggios 500 times before you screwed off for the night? It’s the same thing.. If we practice our scales on the typewriter, we will soon be producing beautiful sonatas and ballads and hell, maybe even the stuff of Elton John or Alicia Key, and why am I talking about music still…

The point it is, do it like your piano teacher told you. You can’t get better until you practice, there’s no getting around it. (The piano teacher in my head has a Russian accent. Scary.) So, that is why I torture myself every year, with mixed results, with NaNoWriMo, because I want to be a better writer. It is my right of passage. If I work hard, and purge myself of all my crappy writing now, sooner or later, the bottle of mediocre will run dry and cease all together.

-AV Packard

What I’m Reading Now:  The Witches of Eastwick (still) by John Updike


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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