NaNoWriMo Update: Poopy First Drafts and Trying to Find a Balance

I have never been one to write a garbage first draft of a short story or novel, going from beginning to end in one long vomit of mediocre writing, with the intention that I can fix it all later.

The very idea of that feels like giving up on craft. Yes, many have advised me, the best thing to do is just to write it all down, get the whole story out, and then fix the bugs later. And perhaps if I were the kind of writer who can churn out a few thousand words a day, this might be a feasible option for me.

But that is not the world I live — or write — in.

I deeply appreciate Anne Lamott’s advice about “shitty first drafts,” that they are children on a playground, carelessly exploring the world of the manuscript to see what treasures lay buried in its leaves. And I fully acknowledge that I have never, in my adult writing life and possibly not even in my adolescent one, given myself permission to write terrible first drafts all the way to the end, and that perhaps this is an error.

But to keep writing away on something I know in my gut is terrible seems an awful lot like wasting time to me, and if there is one commodity I do not have enough of to spend it willy-nilly, it’s time. I write slowly. I have all the usual demands on my attention of the modern wife and mother and career-woman (i.e., with a day job). I write slowly, thoughtfully, paying attention to the words I’m using. Blame it on my being formally trained as a poet. Or blame it on my attention to detail. Or blame it on my taking pride in my work, even my first drafts.

Or blame it on my not wanting to be a writer of crap and on my persistent efforts not to be. (I acknowledge I don’t always get it right, but at least I try.) I see very little value in writing an entire story that I know isn’t going to be good, or in writing an entire draft of a story and then throwing it away and starting over. This might be a viable option if I were immortal and had an eidetic memory. Neither of those being likely, well… I try not to waste any more time or effort than necessary.

When I write a story, I want to make sure to get the foundations of it right, to weave the texture in a way that sets up the rest of it for competence, if not success. Most of my fiction lives in the fantasy genre — magic realism, urban fantasy, literary high fantasy, paranormal steampunk — and I know that if I haven’t done at least a little economical world-building in the first chapter, my story won’t teach its readers how to read it. They won’t know the genre or the rules they’re dealing with, and the story could be confusing and end up a non-starter before we’re even out of the first chapter. (And if anyone thinks an agent or editor reads more than a few pages of a manuscript that appears not to know itself, well, that optimism is worth its weight in gold.)

Getting the voice right takes work. And once you have that, the other narrative vectors (like point-of-view, conflict, setting, pace, etc.) had better be on trajectory. This is a jargony way of saying that you need a strong foundation for a story if you want it to stand on its own. For a succinct explanation of the building-a-house metaphor, read this piece by George Dila; it’s a counterbalance to Anne Lamott’s treatise.

So I’m doing the NaNoWriMo again, or a modified version of it that makes sense in my world. My goal is 350 words a day, because I don’t often have more than thirty minutes a night to work and because the level of my creative energy by then is in in the basement. So I’ve set a generously low bar for myself, and so far I’m exceeding it nightly. (May this ever continue.)

But I realized about two days into November that I had to give myself permission not to write beautifully every time. I’ve been struggling lately with writer’s block — as well as Writer Brain (TM) — and sometimes the thought of sitting down to write stuff that I know isn’t going to be beautiful can paralyze me against writing anything. I’m a literary writer, a poet: words fucking matter. And the way I arrange them for others’ consumption is not a responsibility I take lightly.

So I’m trying to find a balance between shitty first drafts and publishable awesomeness. I recognize that’s a wide spectrum, so I’m feeling pretty good about hitting the mark somewhere in there.

Tonight I wrote about 100 new words on the latest chapter in my WIP. I also edited the whole thing (a good seventeen pages) and sent it off to my critique group. They will workshop it next week, and then I will revise it before I get too far into the next chapter, because I work too hard to weave the elements of a story together to have to unravel that tapestry every time.

After that chapter went on its merry electronic way, I wrote (and revised) this blog post, which is almost a thousand words. That means I’ve exceeded my word count again for tonight. Is any of what I’ve written tonight worth its weight in gold? I sincerely doubt it. But I’m not trying to be a perfectionist in a rough draft or a blog post any more than I’m allowing myself to write crap.

I’m just trying to write. And according to my word counts — and my growing readership — I’d say it’s working. Onward and upward.

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NaNoWriMo: Launch Is Ready For Go

Ready for go? Hardly. But who ever is?

Tomorrow is November 1st, and after what I think I can safely call a successful Hallowe’en in our household, I’m going to tuck in on my writing again tomorrow.

Not gonna lie, the last few months have seen some Serious Writer’s Block, worse than it’s been the whole last year. But I’m tired of that ish and ready to reset. I teach high school full-time and have two children in middle school, so the idea that I will churn out 50,000 words of anything that aren’t work emails or comments on graded papers is utterly bananapants. But I do like to commit myself to my own informal brand of NaNoWriMo every year, and that involves just promising to write something every day: work on whatever is my current WIP, write a poem or a blog post, do some important writerly career stuff, significantly edit. And often I do manage it — last year (when my work came crashing to a horrified halt the second week of November) notwithstanding.

So I’m committing to it again. I’d like to make at least 350 words a day on the new WIP, or more if I hit a stride. I’d also be satisfied if some of those days involved a substantive blog post or a poem or some serious editing. I’m going to try. And because I’m the type of person who needs external deadlines and accountability to really make sure I get it done, you can follow my daily updates on my Facebook page here. (Like the page and turn on notifications to see the updates in your news feed.)

I’ve come to an understanding of myself that there are three things I need in order to keep my stress at bay. (Well, okay, three things other than my excellent marriage.) I need to exercise regularly. I need to read something for fun. I need to write. All of this is most successful when each of them is done every day, or nearly every day. I have found I can handle quite a lot when I have those activities in my routine. So I’m participating in a fitness challenge at school, I have a book picked out that I’m excited to read and which is sitting on my nightstand, and the next chapter of my WIP is outlined and ready for me to draft it.

Let’s hope this works out the way I want it to.

Okay? Okay.

Writer is ready for go.

 

Art Harder*

* The title for this post comes from something Chuck Wendig says sometimes. His version is NSFW.

I have no training in making cakes, in decorating cakes, or in drawing, as this birthday cake I made for Tiny Beowulf's 4th birthday should indicate.
I have no training in baking, in decorating cakes, or in drawing, as this cake I made for Tiny Beowulf’s 4th birthday will indicate.

 

I have been desperately trying to make art my whole life.

When I was a kid, I drew all over the place, including the walls. I wrote on furniture. I filled books — some of them journals — with my scribbles and illustrations. I doodled the hell out of things. And it was never really idle, but always an attempt to make something creative where there had been nothing creative before.

I had my last Art class in fifth grade. When I started sixth grade, at my school, I had to choose one elective. I could take Art, Spanish, Speech, or Continue reading “Art Harder*”

This Ish Just Isn’t Fun Anymore

“You’ll find more cheer in a graveyard.” – Gimli, The Two Towers

***

The thing about porn is that at some point––unless you’re an addict––you have to stop and say, okay, I’m done with this nonsense.

Last night I reached that point with what has become for many people a Sunday night ritual of torture porn, The Walking Dead.

It took me about five seasons to become a regular viewer of this show, and now that habit, I think, is purged. I’ve never been a fan of zombies; unlike vampires or werewolves, they’re just not my monsters. My husband has been with it from the beginning, and though I didn’t like it because inevitably there’d be zombie nightmares involving our children each night I’d watch it, I used to enjoy his humorous recaps of each episode’s highlights. When I first asked him what the show was about, back in the first season, he told me it was a zombie show, yes, but it was also, like most good stories, about the Human Condition.

“It’s about these survivors’ attempts to maintain their humanity in the face of the end of it all around them. It’s a story about whether they will stay human or become zombies, yes, but also about whether they will retain their goodness in the face of other survivors’ becoming monsters.”

Hey, an exploration of humanity in the face of an inhuman threat––sounds like some good science fiction, doesn’t it? It didn’t take long to realize that the true threat of the zombie apocalypse isn’t zombies, who can be stabbed or shot in the head by a kid with enough practice. (And the implications of that detail, in and of themselves, are horrifying to contemplate.) The true threat, of course, is the people who turn on each other. The ones who care about nothing other than power in whatever corner of the world they have left. The ones who aren’t really any better than the bad actors we have in real life, and who aren’t even any worse, they just have more clout in their respective spheres of influence.

This could have been a show about rebuilding society in a way that improved over the calamity of the past. But then I guess it wouldn’t have been horror.

I think one of the problems I have with certain movies and television shows is the lack of creative problem-solving. I’m not learning much if anything from a lot of these stories. I liked The Matrix and even the sequel, but the third movie made the whole trilogy worse. I just felt hollow after watching the end of that cycle, as if the people who had conceived of this fantastic science fiction plot and these engaging characters who could literally bend reality couldn’t come up with anything better than resolving their dilemmas with guns. I liked Daredevil really well until the characters couldn’t get along and everything was just ultra-violence: the first season was compelling; the second one, at times confusing and insensible. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was great for a while, but now it takes longer and longer for a season to get good while half the characters––the ones who get the most plot time––stagnate in a soup of poor choices. The Jason Bourne movies––which have devolved into a cast with only a couple of women (both of whom are caricatures), long masturbatory car chases, and a brooding spy who never answers the question of will he or won’t he––haven’t been good for a while now.

And the violence––good grief, the violence. Probably by now you’ve read a bunch of the commentary on why people are leaving The Walking Dead in droves after last night’s last straw. There was no real character development; no one did anything that wasn’t predictable. And Negan? Seriously? What the fuck is that guy? He delivered on the promise of the last season’s finale, but worse. I suppose, in retrospect, we couldn’t have expected that he wasn’t going to be this way. The episode last night was just a confirmation of our worst, stomach-turning dread, executed in the most unnecessarily assaultive ways. I’m not sure things could have been worse if Lucille had gone after Maggie in her stomach and then her face. I’m really tired of the cheap shock, of the tug on my heartstrings that doesn’t have any heart in it. If a story wants to upset me, it doesn’t have to attempt to be the most brutal, most bloody, most creatively grotesque gore we’ve seen yet. Believe me, I don’t find that stuff creative. Tedious? Yes, sometimes. Insulting? All too often. It’s like they don’t even care that human beings, people with thoughts and feelings and relationships, are in the audience watching.

Dictionary.com defines porn as “television shows, articles, photographs, etc., thought to cater to an irresistible desire for or interest in something.” Yes, we all know it first means this in a sexual context. But we now have food porn, disaster porn, and torture porn (among others, no doubt). I love food but don’t really care about seeing everyone’s dinner on Facebook. I used to love my superheroes and their big-budget action films, but I’m tired of the stakes always being world-calamity-high. I don’t feel connected to those stories anymore, because they no longer feel like they’re about people, not really.

When I think about The Walking Dead––and I’ve thought about this for a while now––I don’t know how much longer the series can go on. At this point the zombies are hardly even a character anymore. The cycle of find a place, meet another group who are assholes, fight that group, find another place, meet another group who are bigger assholes, fight them in an uglier way, lather, rinse, repeat––I just can’t. I no longer care whether that world survives; I’m no longer sure it should. And the thing is, I don’t know what disturbs me more: the content of last night’s episode or the show’s enduring popularity.

Have you been paying attention to what’s going on in our culture right now? If so, then you are probably aware that real life is pretty badly screwed up in a lot of ways. It’s –isms as far as the eye can see. I’m not looking to escape into worse violence when I turn on the television. It doesn’t make me feel better about my own situation; it makes me feel worse about the human race. What’s happening on some of these shows we’ve been watching turns my stomach, but what bothers me more is that I’m not having the zombie nightmares anymore. Even after last night’s episode, which literally nauseated me––and by the way, blood does not make me squeamish––I didn’t have those dreams. This tells me I’m becoming desensitized to it, even if only a little. And that tells me it’s time to pull out while I can.

Game of Thrones, you’re officially on notice. You’ve still got Peter Dinklage and amazing costume design going for you, and I’m genuinely curious to see how a world full of matriarchies plays out, especially since only two of the leaders of the various regions or clans appear to be psychotic––a significant improvement over the life art purports to imitate.

But pull any more sensationally cruel and insulting stunts like the Red Wedding, Sansa’s wedding night with Theon and Bolton’s bastard, and Princess Shireen, and you and your lack of taste and storytelling prowess will probably lose me, too.

***

For another really interesting post about giving up on The Walking Dead, check this out.

Rainy Day Sale

So this morning, as I was packing up to leave for the Sawyer Yards Arts Market, I received a text and an email from the show’s organizer saying it was cancelled. Bummer! But we’re having some rough weather in Houston, so this is probably for the best. Alas.

Never fret, though — I’ve decided to have a Rainy Day Sale here on my social media instead! It will go this whole weekend, starting now, until 8 p.m. central US time Sunday (tomorrow) evening. Here’s what available:

I’m offering 10% off all of these items if you buy them from me directly. (I’m happy to ship them to you for the cost of whatever the postage and insurance you choose will be.) If you buy the books from Amazon or any other bookstore, you’ll pay their price, since they’re not participating in this impromptu Rainy Day Sale. Just post in the comments here or send me a direct email to forest.of.diamonds@gmail.com with “Rainy Day Sale” in the subject line to tell me what you want. Let me know, too, if you want the books signed.

I’ll update here when I know more about the rescheduling of the arts market. Thank you for your support!

Poetry Art Card #1; text copyright Angélique Jamail, 2004
Poetry Art Card #1; text copyright Angélique Jamail, 2004

 

Poetry Art Card #2; text copyright Angélique Jamail, 2014
Poetry Art Card #2; text copyright Angélique Jamail, 2014

 

Poetry Art Card #3; text copyright Angélique Jamail, 2016
Poetry Art Card #3; text copyright Angélique Jamail, 2016

 

Poetry Art Card #4; text copyright Angélique Jamail, 2014
Poetry Art Card #4; text copyright Angélique Jamail, 2014

 

Poetry Art Card #5; text copyright Angélique Jamail, 2016
Poetry Art Card #5; text copyright Angélique Jamail, 2016

 

Poetry Art Card #6; text copyright Angélique Jamail, 2016
Poetry Art Card #6; text copyright Angélique Jamail, 2016

 

Poetry Art Card #7; text copyright Angélique Jamail, 2003
Poetry Art Card #7; text copyright Angélique Jamail, 2003

 

Poetry Art Card #8; text copyright Angélique Jamail, 2013
Poetry Art Card #8; text copyright Angélique Jamail, 2013

 

Poetry Art Card #9; text copyright Angélique Jamail, 2014
Poetry Art Card #9; text copyright Angélique Jamail, 2014

 

Poetry Art Card #10; text copyright Angélique Jamail, 2016
Poetry Art Card #10; text copyright Angélique Jamail, 2016

 

Poetry Art Card #11; text copyright Angélique Jamail, 2016
Poetry Art Card #11; text copyright Angélique Jamail, 2016

 

Poetry Art Card #12; text copyright Angélique Jamail, 2016
Poetry Art Card #12; text copyright Angélique Jamail, 2016

 

Poetry Art Card #13; text copyright Angélique Jamail, 2016
Poetry Art Card #13; text copyright Angélique Jamail, 2016

 

Is It August Already?

I go back to school this Friday. After the last five weeks, I am more than ready. I’ve been on three trips, yes, but we’ve also had quite a few crazy things happen in between them, and I’m eager to get back to a consistent routine which includes my children being in school.

I have not done enough writing, or reading, to satisfy myself, though I concede I’ve done quite a lot of both. And with the way I’m revamping my curriculum this year, I’m hoping to have more time to do both even when the semester is in session. We shall see. (More on that later, perhaps.)

Last week, a short piece I wrote about how what I do in my personal time informs my teaching career came out in my school’s magazine. I was thrilled to be asked to contribute it in the first place, but even more so when I saw the illustrious company I was somehow included in — which was comprised of some of the most talented colleagues I’ve ever worked with.

Because I’m headed back into my classroom at the end of this week, I thought I’d repost (with permission) the piece I wrote for the school’s magazine. I hope you enjoy it, but even more, I hope you enjoy what’s left of your summer (if you still have some).

***

The first time I ever read one of my short stories to an audience, I was in fourth grade. It was a character-building experience.

Even though very few of my classmates had gone on that fantastical narrative journey with me — and my teacher looked at me sideways while trying to figure the story, and probably me, out — my love of writing could not be dampened. By the time I hit middle school, my path to becoming a writer had been paved.

From there, teaching was an easy choice. The ability to share my love of writing with others, to teach them how to do it and to appreciate its value, contributes to my sense of purpose. Through literature we more clearly understand our humanity and our place in the world. The enjoyment and creation of literature is something I hope to instill in my students, and it’s one way I spend my personal time as well.

How can one teach something that one does not also do? If I didn’t need sleep, I would keep reading past my bedtime all through the quiet hours every night. And each break from school finds me writing, writing, writing. This pursuit feeds my creative, thinking self, yes, but also feeds my teaching self. The more I explore different forms and genres in my own work, the better I’m able to teach my students how to do it — and hopefully how to love it as much as I do (though I’ll settle for mastery of skills).

Literature — reading it, creating it, teaching it — guides me always. It gets me out of bed way too early on Saturday mornings to meet other writers and stay on word count. It makes my summer breaks a little hectic, heavy with deadlines. And when school starts up again each August, it motivates me to share with my students everything I’ve learned, too.

 

A Blog for People Who Like Words (and Other Important Stuff)

Near the top of the list of things a writer needs to be successful is a really good critique group. I don’t care if you’re the most talented and dedicated wordsmith around (yes, irony in that word choice intended), you’re only half of what you could be without honest. trustworthy, and knowledgeable outside critiques (and then your own revision). A while back, I wrote a post about etiquette for critique groups and workshops because I’d been asked about what constitutes appropriate interaction so many times over the years, and after working with dozens of people since the late 90s, I’ve come to understand when I’m working with a professional and when I’m working with someone who just doesn’t get it, behavior-wise.

One of my critique group partners, Shirley Redwine, has recently started a blog, and on it you will find a link to my post about the DOs and DON’Ts of being in a critique group as well as Shirley’s commentary on interesting words and phrases — some of which are unique to our part of the country.

Go check out her blog at shirleyredwine.com, and spend a few minutes browsing around. Maybe even leave a comment here or there. (It’ll probably make her day, and she’s the kind of excellent person whose day you want to make.)

But most of all, keep an eye out for her work. She writes really good crime mysteries, and her protagonist Dr. Susanna Lucid is one of my favorites in the genre!