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]

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