Sunday, November 14, 2004

The great American novel, written at warp speed

ST. PETERSBURG - Heaven Cacamese will probably never publish Snow Out of Season, a fantasy novel she wrote last year in a single month.

"I ended up running out of plot very early in the story," she said frankly, so "I can't see myself ever letting it out into the world."

But don't think of her as discouraged. She wrote her entire 52,000-word novel last November, when she was only 13. Her sense of accomplishment was "exhilarating, like an absolute, nothing-can-touch-me high."

Now Heaven, a homeschooled ninth-grader from St. Petersburg, is writing a new novel that she says she expects to finish Nov. 30, a month after she started it. So is her mother. So are more than 150 other Tampa Bay-area writers who are meeting weekly in Clearwater and Tampa this month. And so are thousands more around the world.

Inspired by a Web site and their own closely held dreams, dozens of writers across the Tampa Bay area are furiously clattering away at their keyboards every November night, while babies sleep, dishes go unwashed and spouses grumble about the muses who have come to possess their loved ones.

It's called National Novel Writing Month, and it's designed for anyone who longs to write a novel but needs the motivation of a firm deadline.

"I've always wanted to write a book and have started several, but none have come to completion," said Amanda Dwyer of Lakeland, who keeps in touch with the Tampa Bay writers group through an online forum.

Now she says she's trying to complete a paranormal mystery-romance by writing on lunch hours and after her children have gone to sleep. She is trying to ignore a persistent cold, even though she sometimes sneezes on her keyboard, and says she wonders how she'll fit Thanksgiving dinner and Christmas shopping into this same frenzied month.

A novel-in-a-month is "completely, totally, utterly insane - but doable," she said. "I'll finish it because there's a deadline. I have a sign up in my cubicle that says I'm doing this, and I will be publicly humiliated if I do not finish," said Dwyer, 34, a legal secretary.

"Embarrassment is a great motivator."

Here's how the process works:

Aspiring writers log onto the Web site for the National Novel Writing Month, which participants call "NaNoWriMo" for short. (NAH-no-WRI-mo).

To join, they agree to start a new novel in early November and type out enough each day to finish by Nov. 30. Participants get a series of encouraging e-mails throughout the month. They are allowed to participate in several online forums. In the Tampa Bay area, the writers also meet once a week at Barnes & Noble in Clearwater and at a Panera Bread in Tampa.

By Nov. 30, writers will send their manuscripts to NaNoWriMo by e-mail. The words are not read, but counted electronically. Everyone who submits more than 50,000 words is declared a winner.

How can anyone possibly write a whole novel in a month?

Many do it by moving past that old-fashioned literary convention holding that their writing should be, well, good.

Look at the way the NaNoWriMo Web site describes its founder, Chris Baty of Oakland, Calif.: "With his startlingly mediocre prose style and complete inability to write credible dialogue, Chris has set a reassuringly low bar for budding novelists everywhere."

Many NaNoWriMo participants joke about their bad writing. Some embrace it.

Heaven's mother, Mia Scala-Beltran, 35, wrote on one of the forums that:

"I've been looking over some of my stuff, and I realize something - It s----!

And all I could think was, "yea me!"'

Beltran is a freelance writer for various Web sites but said she wanted to write something for the pure joy of expressing herself, with no worries about whether it would please an editor.

"I am succeeding in my goal this year of having a ball writing an ultimately unpublishable" work, she wrote. Many are not troubled by their inevitable lapses into bad writing for the simple reason that bad prose can later be refined into good prose.

Eileen Doll, 27, a bookseller from Seminole, says she dreams of publishing her multigenerational, supernatural saga titled The Good Woman. "It will take an enormous amount of polishing," she said, but she's charging ahead because NaNoWriMo will at least give her a full first draft to work on.

"I think a lot of the problems that writers have ... is just moving past getting things perfect. It's about telling the story and then moving on to revision later on," Doll said.

Under pressure to write so quickly, some of these rapid-fire authors seem a bit desperate for material.

When a St. Petersburg Times reporter recently e-mailed local NaNoWriMo participants to interview them, one admitted, "I am easily distracted and can get sidetracked faster than I care to admit. Right now, for instance, I'm wondering if I can incorporate this e-mail into my word count for NaNo."

Despite these concerns, the thread that most connects these writers is optimism. Some are optimistic about finishing their books, attracting wide audiences and, as one participant put it: "publish it, make a million dollars, retire early and cruise forever."

John and Terri Tumlin, who are 65 and 64 and allegedly retired, both say they hope to get published. They are each writing their own novels on their own laptops, sometimes sitting together at the same kitchen table in their recreational vehicle, which is at a Sarasota RV park. Hers is titled Murder by Hurricane; he said he thinks his will be called Final Act. Both are upbeat about their chances.

Others are optimistic about the writing process itself.

Publishing would be great, but Dwyer, the legal secretary from Lakeland, says she will feel fulfilled just by typing the final chapter.

"It'll mean that all the times I said "Some day I'm going to write a book,' I don't have to say that any more."

* * *
And what happens after Nov. 30?

Well, these writers could always wait until March, which some people have dubbed NaNoEdMo.

That's right: National Novel Editing Month.

But that's a whole different Web site.


To learn more about National Novel Writing Month, go to Parents should be aware that some of the online forum postings contain profanity.

 [CURTIS KRUEGER / St. Petersburg Times]

Monday, November 8, 2004

Put it in writing


Don't disturb Kit Minden. She's writing.

And writing. And writing.

A demanding 1,666 words a day, which she hopes will total 50,000 words by the end of the month.

Minden is one of seven area writers participating in National Novel Writing Month, an annual event for which aspiring authors pull their writing projects from life's back burner and place them squarely on the front by penning a 50,000-word work of fiction.

And, they've got only the 30 days in November to do it.

Quantity, not quality, is the key, said Minden, founder of the Fredericksburg Writer's Workshop, a local writing group that meets twice a month at Tea Tyme & Whatnots on Caroline Street.

"The commitment is just to write it, to do what you didn't imagine you would do," Minden said.

The 30-day effort, nicknamed NaNoWriMo, was started in 1999 by Chris Baty, a freelance writer who is now the author of "No Plot? No Problem," published in October by Chronicle Books.

Back then, Baty was determined to write a novel in a month and encouraged 20 of his friends to do likewise.

"I have a personality where the simplest tasks become exhibitionistic acts, with people looking and monitoring. I thought if I was accountable to someone besides my own lazy self, it would get done easier," Baty said in a telephone interview from California.

Baty and his friends knew their writing wouldn't result in stunning literary accomplishments, but that didn't matter as long as the words were out of their heads and onto a page.

"The ultimate goal was to tell people we were novelists," he said. "No matter how badly the work turned out, we could tell everyone we'd written novels.

"And, we wrote pretty mediocre books, but from having been conjured out of caffeine vapors of a single month's work, we were excited by how well, relatively speaking, they turned out."

Members of the fledgling writing group also learned a lot about personal creativity from their efforts.

"Everyone on the planet Earth has untapped creative ability," Baty said. "Even if we don't know what we're doing, it can still be an enriching process."

The write-a-novel-in-30-days concept caught on. Last year, more than 25,000 writers participated in NaNoWriMo. As of last week, this year's entrants total more than 34,000, Baty said.

Baty's Web site, nanowrimo .org, warns writers that the result of their frenzied month of toil probably will be abysmal. But, better to set the bar too low than expect too much, he said.

"When you shoot for crap, you could get something better than you would when shooting for gold," he said.

Still, most beginning writers are paralyzed by the thought that their prose will prove to be awful, Baty said.

"That's our worst nightmare, to sit down and write and be just lousy, embarrassingly bad," he said.

NaNoWriMo's tight deadline and admonition against editing in the early stages of the manuscript gives writers permission to be that bad.

"You give yourself permission to be in a first-draft state of mind, to relax and make mistakes. By doing that, you can tap into these wonderful parts of your imagination," Baty said.

Even when their muse is in full creative swing, however, amateur authors--who by day are accountants and truck drivers, lawyers and waiters--are quickly discouraged when their work doesn't turn out to be as wonderful as the books they read, Baty said.

"They don't realize how many drafts it took for a great book to become a great book," he said. "So when, by the third paragraph, their writing is not like the great books they've been reading, they think they should stop writing, bury the book in the back yard and pretend it never happened."

There are no prizes for completing NaNoWriMo's 50,000-word goal, other than a mention on the Web site. In fact, no one even reads the hastily crafted sentences. Instead, after officials tabulate the word count on the thousands of computer disks participants send, the disks are discarded.

Even so, by midnight of Nov. 30, many who've yammered for years about penning a novel will enter the sparse fraternity of those who can say they've actually done it.

Very few of the novels that result from NaNoWriMo are of publishable quality, Baty said. So far, only two have been produced by mainstream publishers.

"Your novel won't be Michelangelo's 'David.' More like a chunky block of marble that vaguely resembles David," Baty said.

Minden developed five writing projects to choose from for the event: two ghost stories, two witch stories and a fantasy.

"I'll pick the one that works the most easily," she said.

To encourage herself and others, Minden has invited all area NaNoWriMo participants to come to her Fredericksburg home to write.

"We'll help each other make it through to the end," she said.

An end that, for Minden, is only 38,338 words away.

[MARCIA ARMSTRONG / Fredericksburg]

Friday, November 5, 2004

Cross Bearer: Blogged

By Maggie Lee.

Word warriors: Want to write a novel in 30 days?

For years, Hemingway haunted Thom Mahoney. The author of such books as "The Old Man and the Sea" howled in Mahoney's ears, sweeping through the 49-year-old Greeley man's brain every time he attempted to write his own novels.

Mahoney had the dream and the desire, but he, like many writers, also had the demon. In this case, Mahoney's demon took the form of one of the country's greatest writers who scorned every sentence that Mahoney put on a page.

Then he heard about National Novel Writing Month, and, for 30 days, the demon dissipated.

This month, novelists around the world are attempting to earn that title by punching out 50,000 words by the end of November. Since the program began in 1999, it's exploded from a small dare between founder Chris Baty and his friends to about 35,000 writers around the world this year. Last year 25,000 took part, and more than 3,500 completed the goal.

Emphasizing quantity over quality, the month is meant to encourage all those would-be writers to just do it and subtract the pain from the prose. Sure, the writing might be horrible, but then again, it might not be unreasonably bad.

Mahoney didn't write his novel during November, the official month affectionately called "Nano" or "Nanowrimo" by the writers who participate, and he won't be doing it this year, either. But he took the idea and used last February as his month. He raced past 50,000 words by the middle of the month and finished with 150,000.

"I had a major blast," Mahoney said. "It's really easy to get up at 2 in the morning and just write."

Mahoney, who has written four painstakingly troublesome novels, has big plans. He will be published. He will be on Oprah's book list. He will be sold in Kings Soopers. But none of those dreams have anything to do with fun. The month liberated him. After all, that doubting voice, the Hemingway scream, as Mahoney calls it, gets drowned in the sea of words that writers have to produce to meet the goal. Authors don't write 1,700 words a day for 30 days by listening to those voices, even if they come from a spouse.

"For the first times in 20 years of rejection," he said, "writing was a hoot."

Baty, founder and moral supporter behind, pushed the idea on a few friends five years ago, mostly because he wanted some inspiration to finish a novel. He had dreams, too, but mostly, the impetus came from caffeine.

"None of us were aspiring fiction writers," Baty said in a phone interview. "Actually, most of us weren't writers at all."

But it turned out to be fun. Writers got to talk smack, a macho activity usually reserved for football players. They bragged about how many words they had, even if some of it was the Declaration of Independence, just to get things going. It was so much fun, in fact, word spread. Friends of friends started to join up. And then, in the third year, the blogs started.

Once all those Web bloggers started linking to the site, thousands began to join. He got some press, including a bit on National Public Radio. It used to be a joke, but in that third year, it became real, and for Baty, it became a full-time job just to get everyone signed up.

Now for five months out of the year, Baty promotes the event and his book, "No Plot? No Problem!" NaNo is now a company, with staff members and T-shirts and people who give out bumper stickers and pens to chapter heads in cities across the country. Now his role is head cheerleader, that Richard-Simmons-type guy who tells you how great you are at those self-improvement seminars. He sends out e-mail messages once a week to all the participants, messages of warmth that read, "you are awesome" and "we're all in this together."

"It turns out that writing a novel doesn't take a great idea, or a miraculous gift for pacing or dialogue," Baty wrote in his first message. "It just takes dedication. And a deadline big enough to injure a water buffalo."

This will be Eric Anderson's third year as a participant, and in those first two years, he demolished the deadline, with 56,000 words and 65,000 words. This year, however, may not be as smooth.

"I wrote 300 words this morning," Anderson, 42, of Greeley said Monday, the first day of the event. "And I thought, 'I'm in trouble.' "

So Anderson is looking forward to Thanksgiving. Not just for the turkey and mashed potatoes, but that's a four-day weekend crying out for lots of writing time, enough to sail in under the deadline.

"By just agreeing to play along with the ridiculousness of the gag, you put it aside for a daily routine," Anderson said. "It works for me."

Jeremy Dennis, 21, a senior at the University of Northern Colorado, calls himself the poster child for good ideas. He hopes participating in the event for the first time will help him get those ideas on paper. His novel is about a college-aged werewolf, but it's not a horror novel. He's a nice werewolf. Maybe. Dennis will see where he takes the story. Or, more likely, where the story takes him.

"It's a good kick in the pants," Dennis said. "You can weed out the best stuff later."


Yes, National Novel Writing Month is underway, but there's still time to sign up. Go to to sign up or for more information on writing a 50,000-page novel in 30 days.

 [Greely Tribune]

Thursday, November 4, 2004

My Immortal

By Ginger Voight.

Quantity, Not Quality: National Novel Writing Month

It's the middle of November, and for many of us, that means desperately trying to keep up (or catch up) with our goals for National Novel Writing Month.

For anyone who hasn't already heard about it, NaNoWriMo is a month-long challenge to write an entire 50,000 word (175 page) novel by midnight, November 30. The emphasis is on quantity, not quality, encouraging writers to ignore their inner editors and just get the words out.

In the words of NaNo's creators, "You will be writing a lot of crap. And that's a good thing. By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create."

I talked to some previous NaNo winners, asking them to share their wisdom for reaching the finish line with those of us participating for the first time.

Debbie Ridpath Ohi, a Toronto-based freelance writer who was a NaNo winner in 2002, said keeping focused on the goal and looking for support from friends and other writers was vital.

"Whenever I started falling behind my daily wordcount goal, there was always a temptation to give up," she said. "But one of my reasons for publicly announcing my participation in Nanowrimo was to give myself that extra motivation. Peer pressure is a wonderful thing in a situation like this."

Ohi also stressed the importance of turning off the critic within. "One of the goals of the whole Nanowrimo experience is to allow yourself to write without self-censoring, to get over those pesky writing blocks. Editing can come later, if that's what you want," she said.

S. Jennifer Stewart-Boyd is the municipal liason for Rhode Island, with 75-100 writers participating in her area this year. She was a NaNo winner in 2002 and 2003. She said she tells the writers in her area not to give up in the second week, when most participants are feeling the most fear, doubt and despair.

"If you can make it to thirty thousand words, it gets so much easier. Since I completed it the last two years, I have a lot more confidence now in my ability to see it through, even if I'm behind," she said.

Stewart-Boyd herself was behind in the middle of the second week, but determined not to give up. "I'm still certain I'll make it," she said. "Just before it started this year, I looked over my two previous works, which I'd printed out and put in binders. It felt like a real book, and I thought, 'You did this, and it's a great accomplishment. You can do it again.'"

Most important, most of the writers agreed, was to keep going and see it through to the finish.

"Even if you only write a hundred words a day, keep at it, and see it through," Stewart-Boyd said. "Whatever you do, don't give up. It helps a lot to talk to others who are going through it, and that's why we have write-ins, so that the writers will encourage each other, just by being there and going through the same thing."

In order to motivate herself, Stewart-Boyd said she rewards herself every thousand words or so. "I get a break, to do whatever I want. I play videogames, take myself out, whatever is fun and feels special. I buy this hard-to-find stuff, Republic of Tea's Writer's Chai, and I allow myself a glass about every finished page or so. When I haven't met my goal, I deny myself fun and special things, even make myself eat cold cereal instead of hot food. Every five thousand words, I get ice cream, which is one of my favourite things.

Sebastian Raaphorst, a software developer from Mississauga, Ontario, is in his fourth year as a NaNo participant. He said the key to finishing is to resist going back to delete what you've written.

"If you do that, you'll almost certainly give in to temptation again and again, and you'll fall far behind. Save the refinement for December 1st, or even better, January 1st when you've finished apologizing to your friends and family for ignoring them for a month.

Even worse, Raaphorst said, is resisting the urge to completely scrap your novel and start over.

"It was particularly bad this year, and by day six, my novel very nearly found its way into my PowerBook's trash can; however, I forced my way through it, and cranked out a huge wordcount on days seven and eight, and everything fell into place: the plot, the characters, the dialogue, etc... Perseverance is the key!"

Rich Thomas, a Customer Support Engineer from San Jose, California, said the hardest part is writing every day. His advice is that it's important to know when to be hard on yourself, and when to loosen up.

"Sometimes you need to keep going even if it is not going well. Sometimes it's just a matter of sticking it out," he said.

Thomas's final piece of advice: "done is beautiful."

"Every once in a while you will need to just write something. No matter how bad it is right now, if you keep on going, you will write something good later. That's what your goal really is.

Megan Hoffman, a student at the University of Delaware, is a first-time participant. She said that for her, the biggest challenge is staying close to the computer.

"I go home maybe twice a month to do laundry. I visit my friends for the weekend in other states. It's so easy just to forget about the novel for a few days, and I really have to work hard to get back into writing regularly," she said.

She uses the peer pressure/competition method to keep herself motivated. She also carries around paper to jot down notes for herself during the day.

"You have to budget time and have things plotted out in advance. It makes a world of a difference," Hoffman said.

Stewart-Boyd said that reaching the halfway point without giving up was an important factor in finishing.

"In 2002, I was afraid to tell anyone what I was doing, even my closest friends -- even the person I was dating -- because I didn't know if I was up to the challenge," she said. "But by halfway through the month, I knew I could do it, and I told everyone. After that, I knew I had to finish, because people I knew were pulling for me to do it."

Some final words of encouragement from Ohi:
  • One challenge is the temptation to let Real Work interfere with one's dedication to Nanowrimo. Fortunately I got over that pretty quickly.
  • Don't do housework. Amazing how much extra writing time you can get that way.
  • The microwave is your friend.
  • Keep records of your daily wordcount and cumulative wordcount.
For Ohi, the best motivation was to "think ahead about how wonderful it will be to have actually Finished A Book."

"It's incredibly easy to start writing a book, much more difficult to finish one," she said. "So what if it's not the best quality? At least you've got one under your belt; you can now start editing, or move on to your next project."

[Erin L. Nappe / Toasted Cheese]

Wednesday, November 3, 2004

A Wide Distance

By Lori Richey.

おとぎ話(Fairy tale)

By tama.

Diary of a Huffleduffer

By Aodhfionn: "Rose Zeller just wants to be a Gryffindor, have a cat, marry Ron Weasley, play professional quidditch, and have twelve children. Unfortunetly that's not so easy when you're a first year Hufflepuff who manages to get detention every night. Still you can hope, right?"

Laughing At Nemesis

By DJ Drummond: "A look at the World to come, from the perspective of a slightly unorthodox Fundamentalist."

Monday, November 1, 2004

Chris Baty's Approach to Writing: NaNoWriMo

Not unlike scenes from Fear Factor scripts, if you give details of this upcoming challenge to writers, many might slide their chairs rapidly away from mid-century roll-top desks or kitchen tables where gunpoint-gray laptops stare, electrified, at the rules of this game.

A few writers will scoff. Many will say it just can't be done. Some will be intrigued.

Fifty thousand words.

Approximately 175 pages.

Thirty days.

That's the concept behind Chris Baty's National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)—aspiring novelists are asked to write fifty thousand words (approximately 175 pages) between November 1 and November 30 of each year. Prizes? There are none. Cash awards? Zilch.

Is this man insane?

If Baty is insane, he's not alone: as the sixth annual NaNoWriMo looms closer, an estimated 35,000 to 50,000 writers will sign on with hope, angst, panache, ambivalence, and maybe-just maybe-a hint of insanity.

Baty, a freelance writer and author of the book, NO PLOT? NO PROBLEM! A low-stress, high-velocity guide to writing a novel in 30 days, recently spoke with WordSmitten about NaNoWriMo and what it takes to write a novel in thirty days.


WORDSMIITTEN: What prompted you to start National Novel Writing Month? What prompts you to keep it going?

CHRIS BATY: I think a lot of it was just kind of worshipping novels, and wondering if I could write one myself. I'm an only child, and kids who grow up without siblings often have a pretty intense relationship with books. I remember reading myself into carsickness every year on our annual family drives from Kansas City to Mississippi or Colorado. Without brothers and sisters to help pass the time, you just naturally end up using books to fill that void. They're like little portable friends.

So that explains the "NoWri" parts of NaNoWriMo. The "Na" and the "Mo" parts stem from the fact that I always have a much easier time getting something done when other people are doing it alongside me. It's sort of a classroom mentality: when everyone is working towards the same goal, it's easier to stay focused. Having so many friends on board seemed like it would make the writing process a lot less scary, and it makes the time management aspects of it more appealing. Writing a book by yourself tends to involve a lot of social sacrifice. This is especially true if you have a full-time job, and are trying to write a book on evenings or weekends: just when you're ready to relax and have fun with friends and loved ones, you have to exile yourself to some lonely room where you sit by yourself and type.

By roping all my friends into writing a novel in a month, I kind of avoided that. The writing process became less of an isolated, cloistered misery and more of a book-themed block party. It was pretty neat.

As for the motivation for keeping it going--running NaNoWriMo is the best job in the world. I spend about five months out of my year working on NaNoWriMo, and it's a wonderful, exhausting, and totally inspiring experience. The rest of the year, I'm a freelance writer, which is satisfying as well, but a little lonely. Organizing NaNoWriMo is the exact opposite, and I get a contact high every year from all the people realizing their hulking creative potential. I feel unbelievably lucky to be a part of that.

WORDSMITTEN: In the six years you've been organizing NaNoWriMo, what's surprised you the most? What have you found to be the most frustrating?

CHRIS BATY: I think I've been consistently amazed at just how powerful the human imagination is, and how capable everyone is at churning out a reasonably coherent story in a limited amount of time. When you only give yourself thirty days to write a book, your brain stops fussing so much over each sentence and just goes. Somehow this rush actually improves, rather than detracts from, your writing. It's weird, but when you evaluate each day's output by word count rather than quality, you don't fall into that self-hating despair that tends to sabotage adults' attempts at creative play-which means you are exponentially more likely to see the project through to the end.

The most frustrating thing about running NaNoWriMo is slowly getting phased out. In previous years, I tended to try and do too much of the work myself. Which made October and November kind of a nightmare as I tried to handle all the tech support, general questions, graphic design, fundraising and bookkeeping, pep-talk writing, and store-running myself. I was also writing my own novel on top of this. It got to the point where I wasn't sleeping very much, and having nightmares every night about server hacks and misplaced t-shirt orders.

I'm now able to hire administrative, tech support, bookkeeping, and graphic design help--which means things are much less stressful for me.


WORDSMITTEN: Can you tell us a bit about NaNoWriMo's relationship with Room to Read? Why such an emphasis on social interaction and significance?

CHRIS BATY: For the past couple of years, I've been going back and forth on the idea of making NaNoWriMo a non-profit corporation. From my conversations with directors of Bay Area non-profits, though, I've realized that establishing and running a non-profit takes a dedicated staff, a lot of year-round energy, and much more money than the small amount we raise every year through donations and t-shirt sales.

And as much as I love NaNoWriMo, I don't want to spend all year working on it. But despite the fact that we won't be an official 510(c)(3) anytime soon, I was still keen on channeling all the collective energy of NaNoWriMo towards some form of social good. So last year I spent some time researching literacy organizations that we might adopt-and that's how I found Room to Read.

Room to Read ( is a nonprofit corporation started by a former Microsoft executive who decided he wanted to bring books and reading to kids in poverty-stricken places like Cambodia, Nepal, and Laos. They've not only built libraries-over 1,000 have been established to date-and train library staff, but they also hire local writers and illustrators to produce cool children's books in the local languages. These books are published in-country, using local printers. So Room to Read is not only turning kids onto books and reading, but they're also sending positive economic ripple effects through the entire country. It's kind of an amazing project, and we'll be giving 20% of our net proceeds from site contributions and t-shirt sales to their Cambodian library program this year. Through Room to Read, you can establish a library in an existing school for $2,000; we're hoping to get at least two, maybe three NaNoWriMo-sponsored libraries built in areas that could otherwise not afford them.

WORDSMITTEN: This year, you expect anywhere from 35,000 to 50,000 people to attempt to write a novel within 30 days-what is it about writing that hooks people? Why do people agree to write 50,000 words in no more than 30 days?

CHRIS BATY: I think some of NaNoWriMo's appeal is in its "quick-fix" approach to creativity. Everyone is so busy with work, family, and friends that they don't really have time to work on things that are enriching but not essential. When you barely have time to buy groceries, the idea of signing up for painting classes or French lessons is beyond the pale.

NaNoWriMo, because it only lasts a month, serves as a manageable and satisfying dunk in the old creative juices. However busy someone's schedule may be, they can usually find two hours a day, five days a week, to dedicate to a book. And what a huge pay-off for a relatively small investment! Most of us spend ten hours a week watching TV. To trade a few "Cheers" re-runs and some prime-time couch-potato'ing for a novel seems too good to be true. But that's really all it takes.

I think the other allure of NaNoWriMo is the fact that it gives practical, respectable adults a one-month vacation in novel-land. For one month, we get to step out of our hum-drum lives and just live our fantasies of what it means to be an artist. For me, it means making unbelievable messes in my apartment and drinking so much coffee that my eyeballs twitch. I stay up too late and eat a lot of junk food and throw office supplies around just for the hell of it. But for that month, I also see things with a more enlightened eye. I listen more closely to other people's conversations, and pay more attention to body language and gestures. It's as if you gain a sixth sense while writing a novel, a probing little eyelet that goes out and explores the world to see if any of it can be transformed into novel-fodder. That sixth sense, coupled with the ability to hurl staplers at the wall when you're frustrated, is a real joy.

Finally, I think people sign up for NaNoWriMo for the social opportunities. NaNoWriMo is one of the few non-dating Web sites out there that is based around real-world, face-to-face interactions. Wherever you live in the world, there's a good chance that there's a NaNoWriMo chapter somewhere near you, organizing write-ins, get-togethers, and parties in November.


WORDSMITTEN: What advice would you give to someone who really wants to write a novel during National Novel Writing Month, but is a bit ambivalent?

CHRIS BATY: I would whack them over the head and say, "What are you waiting for? Give it a shot! You have nothing to lose!" And then I would apologize for hitting them, and then recommence my yelling-because you really don't have anything to lose. If you end up writing 50,000 words and hating them all (which you won't) then you've only invested a month in the thing. And you can bury it in your backyard and never think about it again.

But if you end up writing a 50,000-word novel and being kind of surprised by how surprisingly okay it is, then you've leapt way, way ahead in your writing schedule, and gained a host of valuable writing insights that you couldn't get any other way, and you now have this manuscript that you can then revise to perfection. If you so choose. Either way, you can forever after brag about your feat to attractive strangers in bars and coffee shops. What could be better?

WORDSMITTEN: You've written a book entitled No Plot? No Problem: A low-stress, high velocity guide to writing a novel in 30 days. The title seems pretty self-explanatory, but can someone really write a novel in 30 days with relatively low stress and relatively high velocity? And did it take you longer than 30 days to write your book?

CHRIS BATY: It did! It took me about four months to write the book-and it took me five years of struggle and over-caffeinated epiphanies to collect all the questionable bits of strategy and advice that I dispense in it.

Yes, absolutely, I think that the first draft of a novel can be done quickly and without a lot of stress. The key is in leveraging three things:

1) The liberating power of speed.
2) The terrifying accountability of a deadline.
3) The reassuring notion of inherently flawed first drafts.

The first one, speed, means you're staying focused on forward momentum, not allowing yourself to dwell on your writing faults and fears. It's all about output and improvisation, and the measure of success is measured in brute word count, rather than literary aesthetics. It's counterintuitive, but writing for quantity rather than quality actually nets you both.

The second means you're forcing yourself to write daily or almost daily, which gives you intensity and focus that does great things for a book. When writing a novel in a month, your imagination is forced to wade into unknown, frightening plot developments that it would normally try to postpone indefinitely.

The third point means that you just accept the fact that your first draft is going to need a lot of fixing, and that you will do that fixing later, after your entire story has emerged and you have a better sense of what tweaks are needed. In No Plot? No Problem! I encourage writers to not read any more than an orienting paragraph from the previous day's work when sitting down to write. When you read any more than that, you inevitably-and prematurely-start deleting things, which sucks you into this overwhelming process of trying to make everything perfect right then.

When you embrace the idea that you are going to write some really miserable prose at various points during the month, you can just laugh when it happens. And keep going. You'll always be able to fix it later, before anyone sees what a horrible writer you really are.


WORDSMITTEN: Have there been any publishing successes that arose from NaNoWriMo?

CHRIS BATY: There have! In the past few years, the second novel written under the aegis of NaNoWriMo will be coming out: Time Off for Good Behavior, written by Lani Diane Rich and published by Warner Books. Lani's story is pretty great-she hadn't tried novel writing before, but was intrigued when she stumbled on the NaNoWriMo Web site back in 2002. She signed up, wrote a book, and was surprised by how unsucky it was. She edited it and showed it to an agent, who loved it-as did Warner Books, who ended up giving her a two book deal. Her book is coming out in October of this year.

WORDSMITTEN: What made you become a writer?

CHRIS BATY: I just kind of stumbled into it. I have two degrees in anthropology, and hadn't really thought about being a writer until I started doing music reviews for the school paper at University of Chicago, where I was finishing up my master's program. I'm a huge music nerd, and something just sort of clicked with the reviews I was writing. From there, I moved back to the Bay Area to work as an editor at a dot-com. I loved being around words and writing, but after a year and a half at the Web site I decided I wanted to give freelancing a try. That was five years ago. I've been doing a mix of articles on music, travel, and popular culture ever since. It's a weird life, but a pretty neat one. This spring, I got to go live in Singapore for a month to write an article on Vince McMahon and professional wrestling. What other career lets you do that?

Also, on the fiction-writing side, thanks to NaNoWriMo, I have five mediocre first drafts hanging around. I've spent the summer working on a major overhaul of one of them, and hope to have it ready to go out to editors by this November.

WORDSMITTEN: Where do you see NaNoWriMo five years from now? Ten years from now?

CHRIS BATY: These things all have a life span, and at some point NaNoWriMo will become outdated and square. For now, though, it all just feels tremendously exciting. There are so many good novels out there that didn't exist before NaNoWriMo-along with all the friendships that have started at local NaNoWriMo chapters and parties. Hopefully, No Plot? No Problem! will help induce some artistic jubilation into lives far beyond the reach of the NaNoWriMo Web site

I guess the bottom line is that I think we all are capable of so much more than we give ourselves credit for. And it's been great watching that idea spread around the world these past five years.


The National Novel Writing Month Web site can be found at For those writers who face their gunpoint gray computers and say, "Hah! Thirty days is too long, give me three weeks, and give me a stinking novel." We want to hear from you. We want to see the results.

[Tim Ljunggren / WordSmitten]

National Novel Writing Month 2004

National Novel Writing Month was the brainchild of Chris Baty, a twenty-something caffeine-addled writer who wanted merely to "democratize novel-writing, and bring the empowering, hands-on joys of artistic creation to everyday lives around the world."

Achievable Goals.

The idea? Write a novel of 50,000 words in one month. In 1999, at National Novel Writing Month's inception, there were 21 participants all in the San Francisco Bay area. Now, in its sixth year, National Novel Writing Month is an international undertaking with its own web site and 40,000 participants. It is expected that of these, 5000 will succeed in their attempt to finish the 50,000 words between November 1 and midnight on November 30, 2004.

Crazy? Perhaps.

I was fortunate enough to convince a handful of these speed writers to step away from their laptops and their carpal tunnel syndrome long enough to give me the insider's lowdown on this wild undertaking. Due to time considerations, I was only able to choose from those in nearby (USA) time zones for our late night chat, but as you'll see, NaNoWriMo crosses boundaries of age, location, and background.
Anne, 44: Pennsylvania
Richard, 36: California
Colonia, 15: Massachusetts
April, 24: Texas
Teresa, 45: Massachusetts
Sara, 28: Nevada
MF: Have you done NaNoWriMo in previous years?

Anne: This is my fourth year doing NaNo.

Richard: Yep. 2001 and 2003. Finished 50K both years

Colonia: This is my first year.

Teresa: This is my first year.

April: This is my first year.

Sara: Yes, in 2003. Lost miserably. I'm excited to try again.

MF: Have you attempted a non NaNoWriMo novel before?

Anne: I have, but it didn't work out very well. NaNo gave me the motivation to get it finished.

Richard: Yep. I have a couple under my belt. My first, Adventureworld, dates from when I was in 8th grade, about 1982. It's pretty awful. I have another from 1999, LTM, that I never finished.

Colonia: Not really. I've written random fanfictions here and there, and I did write this pretty weird story called The Magic Book when I was in the second grade, but I'd never considered attempting anything that could be considered a novel until I heard about NaNoWriMo.

April: I've completed a few rough drafts, starting in eighth grade, and one novel is finished except for final revisions and editing.

Teresa: I've started one that I haven't yet finished. I think I write in real time - the novel will span 30 years and I'm in about my 5th year of it.

Sara: Always dreamed of attempting, yes. Actually attempted, no. The perfect candidate for NaNo.

MF: What made you want to do NaNoWriMo?

Anne: I knew I had a novel ... or 2 or 6 in me, but I could never manage to finish. I'd just re-write the same chapters over and over. When I heard about NaNo, I thought a word count and a deadline to shoot for would help me finish. And it did.

Richard: The challenge and the opportunity to actually FINISH something. I'd had ideas for novels running around in my head for years that I had never done anything with. NNWM forced me to commit. Just like Anne, I guess.

Colonia: Well, I've always wanted to write a novel, and it seemed like sort of a fun thing to do. I always love doing those crazy things that nobody in their right mind would think are at all possible, which is why I was so attracted to NaNoWriMo.

April: I've been working on the same story on and off since 1995, and wanted to write a second. This is motivating me to take a break from editing and actually get it written.

Teresa: My daughter and her friend signed up to do it and after hearing my daughter discuss it, I decided to give it a go.

Sara: The camaraderie with other people trying to do the same challenge at the same time, as well as the deadline that helps me make the challenge a priority in my life for a while.

MF: What was your pre-writing work? Outlines? Character development?

Anne: I don't use outlines. My characters kind of tell me where the story is going. I have a basic idea of the story, but I never know what's going to happen next. When Nov. 1 rolls around, I just start writing and the rest is a surprise!

Richard: I did some world building and outlining for about four months; though my friends and I have been developing the setting since about 1997.

Colonia: The only pre-writing that I actually did was to think of the characters' names and to think of the basic idea for the novel. I don't think that I actually wrote anything down until

the First, even though it's legal to do that sort of thing before November.

April: I'm writing a prequel to my first story, so much of the plot work was already completed. I am simply fleshing it out and adding more details now.

Teresa: On 11/1, I signed up and saw that I was supposed to start from scratch, so after panicking, I Googled on "Random Plot Generator" and got something. (Six words to turn into a story.)

Sara: Nothing formally organized, but I have pages and pages of notes and I also created some topics related to my story on index cards to use to write about for 15 minutes when I get stuck. Anything to help me keep moving forward.

MF: What is your writing strategy or routine?

Anne: Uh, I don't have one really. I just write whenever I feel the urge. Sometimes I go an entire day without writing anything. Other days I write 5,000 words. My only strategy is to have lots of caffeine on hand ... for the 5,000 word nights.

Richard: I usually sit down after work and churn out about 2,000 words. Sometimes if I have some downtime at work, I'll write a little bit there as well. Yesterday I was able to write 1,000 words at work. No real strategy here.

Colonia: I carry a little notebook around school with me all the time, and I work on my novel during classes, mostly Biology class. When I get home, I type up everything that I've written, and keep going until I meet my 2,500 words per day. I try not to take any days off. I haven't yet.

April: I've broken my plot into scenes, and before writing each scene, I break it down further into steps. If one scene is too short to meet my word quota, I'll do two. I aim a little higher than the minimum because I'll need to devote at least one or two days later in the month to research.

Teresa: Sheer panic, writing, checking my word count, panicking and writing
some more.

Sara: I have written one scene at a time, in whatever order they come. I will be editing them into "proper" story order after November is over. For now, my goal is just to get my ideas out of my head and into actual words.

MF: Is it hard to keep momentum? What energizes you?

Anne: Sometimes it's hard to keep momentum but then I remember I only have until the end of the month so I have to get it done. Caffeine. Caffeine. Caffeine. That and remembering the satisfaction I get from finishing.

Richard: I love seeing the word count go up. Also, I love my story and seeing what happens next. Some days, it's just sheer cussedness that keeps me going. I can't drink much caffeine, unfortunately.

Colonia: Sometimes it's hard to keep momentum, but I know that I'm not going to let myself go to bed until my word quota's finished, so I just try to not procrastinate it too much. Besides, I find my plot fairly interesting, so I'm usually anxious to get it written. Besides, I love to watch the little blue bar get bigger and bigger and bigger...

April: I only had two days where it was hard. Once I set up a routine, it went more smoothly. What keeps my motivation up is that I enjoy to write and have a lot of fun both creating the story and learning for it. And yes... coffee helps.

Teresa: I've convinced a few friends to join me in this challenge and now I will be too embarrassed to tell them I didn't finish, so I keep on going. Also, I want to find out what happens in my story!

Sara: Chris's pep talks are always, always just what I needed to hear that week! He's amazingly motivating and reminds me to keep it FUN. I forget that sometimes in the heat of the frustration.

MF: What is your word count so far?

Anne: 30,0050 ... and, for the life of me, I don't know how I wrote that many words in 10 days.

Richard: 18,892 words.

Colonia: 31,594

April: 22887, but I'm not done for the day.

Teresa: 17600

Sara: 17,916

MF: Can you give me the 20 cent description of your novel?

Anne: Gina, a newspaper reporter, is trying to find out who is kidnapping her online friends and posting porn pics of them on the 'net. In the meantime, her lawyer husband is trying to uncover a mystery about elder abuse.

Richard: A young woman on a distant planet becomes embroiled in a massive conspiracy while investigating the mysterious death of her husband. Meanwhile, civil war is looming.

Colonia: Well, I can't really give too much of a description without giving a lot away, but it's basically about this girl, Anælicia, trying to get to this Land of Truth, called Verdira, and the people that she meets on the way, and their trials and tribulations, and all of the things that they learn about themselves on the way.

April: Essentially, my novel is Biblical fiction, the account of roughly the first half of King David's reign from the point of view of Amnon, his firstborn son. Sort of an insider look at the internal politics and court intrigues.

Teresa: this will be tough, but I think it's something like this: Anya discovers that her family in Burroughs Corners, middle America is far from ordinary and mundane when she slips through time portals in corn mazes and Walmart.

Sara: A recent college graduate lands her dream job as a Personal Reporter / Career Historian for a rising-star musician.

MF: Do you feel like you've hit your stride with your writing? Are you in the groove?

Anne: With this particular story, yes? But I know I still have a lot to learn and I'll keep getting better, as will my stories.

Richard: Absolutely. I have a very firm grasp of the story and where it's going. It's still practice, though; I have many more novels plAnned.

Colonia: Definitely. I've never written anything this long, and I never thought that I could possibly write thirty-one thousand words in just ten days.

April: Yes. I was having a little bit of trouble with the battle scenes that comprise the middle portion of the novel, so I'm saving them for last, and the rest is moving along well.

Teresa: I wish I could hit a faster stride, but this is pretty good.

Sara: Definitely not, but I'm learning so much every day, I'm bound to find it soon. I hope.

MF: How is the rest of your life faring under this duress?

Anne: Other than losing a lot of sleep, I don't have any problems. I only work part-time, so that's an advantage. And I don't have children. Another definite advantage. I don't know how people with children do this!

Richard: Not bad. My work is not suffering, and my wife understands perfectly, having gone through this herself (though she's far too involved in other projects to participate this year). I haven't lost any sleep.

Colonia: A lot more smoothly than I thought. Shockingly, I haven't really been losing that much sleep, and all of my teachers seem to be giving a lot less homework than they did in October, for some odd reason or another.

April: I normally budget 1-2 hours a day for writing and related work anyway, so I'm simply using that time for NaNo this month. I'm single and have no children, so I have enough time.

Teresa: What life? Seriously, though, I usually am writing before my kids get up and after they go to bed with a few minutes grabbed here and there in between. I am not sleeping well.

Sara: Everyone I've told has been so excited for me and supportive. I have people who allow me to send them scenes and encourage me constantly. I've been very lucky.

MF: After NaNoWriMo… what's next?

Anne: Editing! Not just for this story but for two others I'm working on, and hoping to submit to publishers soon.

Richard: Rewriting! Plus outlining a large project I've been planning for several months. And I have several short stories I'm planning on revising or submitting for publication. I want to do this for a living in 5 years.

Colonia: Looking forward to being an active part of NaNoEdMo - National Novel Editing Month (not a real month, by the way). Although, I must admit, I don't think that editing the novel will be nearly as exciting as writing is.

April: Revision and editing. I think NaNo's timing worked out great for me, because this way I can look at both stories together and edit them simultaneously for consistency. And many (more) hours will be spent at the library.

Teresa: I need to start on my non-fiction book. And maybe, finish the novel I started five years ago.

Sara: I hope to have learned to be disciplined to write every day because I want to keep practicing. I dream of publishing a "really good something" someday, so I will always be working towards that.

MF: Thank you all so much! Best of luck!

[Mark Flanagan /]