Sunday, September 5, 2004

Shed 250 pages in just 30 days!

In 1999, anything seemed possible. Blame "irrational exuberance." Blame Silicon Valley.

"Back then," Oakland's Chris Baty recalls, "it seemed entirely feasible, nay inevitable, that my friends and I would spend three tiring years in the workforce -- throwing Nerf balls at each other and staging madcap office- chair races -- and then cash in our hard-earned stock options, buy a small island somewhere and helicopter off into blissful retirement."

So why not try to write a novel in a month?

"Being surrounded by pet-supply e-tailers worth more than IBM has a way of getting your sense of what's possible all out of whack," Baty says.

On top of all that, a new millennium was nigh, and surely peace, love and a cure for AIDS were near at hand, Y2K worries notwithstanding.

"We were in our mid-20s, and we had no idea what we were doing," he says. "But we knew we loved books. And so we set out to write them."

Write they did, inviting the whole country to join them by launching, that November, National Novel Writing Month -- or NaNoWriMo -- which continues to this day.

During that first month of noveling, a "heart-fibrillating amount of coffee" was consumed as Baty and 20 friends used every spare moment to write furiously, without taking any time off from work.

Of that group, six made it to the finish line with the obligatory 50,000 words (or 250 pages -- the length of "The Great Gatsby," Baty reminds us). None of them got published, but hey -- this race has no losers. Just participating is an adventure.

"It's a chance to take a 30-day vacation from everyday life," Baty says. "For people who probably don't have a lot of opportunities to tackle huge creative projects, it gives them the structure and adequate levels of deadline- driven terror to take this project and nail it."

Now, what has been learned -- call it survival skills -- is available in a book called "No Plot? No Problem! A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days," just out from Chronicle Books (which is not affiliated with this newspaper).

"Just getting a first draft of a novel can take years and years," Baty says. "But when you accept that the first draft is going to be horrible, you can write through those dismal, despairing moments and really revel in the creative process."

Since 1996, Baty has written five novels. "Two of them are so horribly bad that I'll never look at them again," he says with a laugh.

"But two of them I like, and I've spent this summer rewriting one that I do hope to get published."

It's a comic novel ("very Nick Hornby 'High Fidelity,' " Baty says) involving "an American guy who is a Scottish music nerd who did a year abroad and met a woman there who hated Scotland."

She's a computer programmer. She needs a green card. Somehow, the casual carpool from Oakland alters each of their lives forever ...

We will say no more.

But we will leave you with one choice piece of advice from Baty's book, a useful tidbit for writers of every stripe: "Don't write within view of a bed.".

(To learn more about National Novel Writing Month, visit For a list of writers who have had their 30-day novels published, go to Frequently Asked Questions.)

[Heidi Benson / San Francisco Chronicle]