Tuesday, November 8, 2005

Writer's novel idea: Dash off book in month

In the olden days, novels were produced by combining one rickety typewriter, a drafty garret and years of neurotic hand-wringing.

Now meet Chris Baty of Oakland. At 31, he's the brash, friendly inventor of the literary microwave oven called National Novel Writing Month.

"NaNoWriMo," as Baty calls it, is this month.

Since 1999, Baty has spent one month a year furiously pounding out a new 50,000-word novel. With five such efforts under his belt, he readily admits: "None of them have been published. Two have been buried deeply in a hole in my back yard. I just pretend those didn't happen. I have two others that, with a lot of work, could become actual books."

The fifth book – which was actually the first, chronologically – is almost ready to be published, Baty says. In the meantime, he's traveling to promote his nonfiction book, "No Plot? No Problem!" (Chronicle, $14.95), subtitled "a low-stress, high-velocity guide to writing a novel in 30 days."

The book echoes information on Baty's Web site, www.nanowrimo.org, where last year more than 25,000 people registered for the 2003 campaign.

Baty believes that while it might take a while to write the Great American Novel, the Mediocre American First Draft is another matter. The only thing standing between most people and their dream of finishing a novel, he says, is the lack of a deadline. He fixes that by creating an absurdly unrealistic deadline and some devious ways to shame oneself into meeting it. (One participant publicly vowed to commit his life savings to the National Rifle Association, which he loathed, if he failed to make deadline. He reached 50,000 words in the nick of time.)

The NaNoWriMo campaign emphasizes quantity over quality, rejects revision until after the first draft is born and advises writers to fuel up on caffeine whenever they're gripped by the urge to toss their laptops beneath the wheels of a speeding Hummer.

Baty doesn't oppose producing great work – he just thinks that lowering one's standards also sets free creative inhibitions.

He isn't the first to divine ways to avoid the tortuous years of chewing one's own hair to produce a book of fiction. Robert J. Ray's out-of-print guide "The Weekend Novelist" remains popular in resale circles for its tips on managing the mysterious beast called the novel.

In his book "On Writing," Stephen King allowed as the first drafts of his own novels are usually done within a few months.

Still, those who have devoted themselves to fiction say Baty's notion has its limits.

"The idea gives me vertigo," says Neal Chandler, who runs the creative-writing program at Cleveland State University.

"There are people who would advise you just to plow ahead, that revision is the enemy, partly because the great danger with the novel is that it will never be finished. Ever," Chandler says. "There's some real truth that, for the sake of the book, you should keep writing to figure out what the trajectory is."

Mark Winegardner is more blunt. He doesn't consider 50,000 words much of a novel, nor does he think those 50,000 words are likely to be all that useful to their creators.

"I don't believe in people just up and writing their novel any more than I believe in people just up and performing open-heart surgery," Winegardner says.

The Florida writing teacher will watch his latest book, "The Godfather Returns," hit store shelves Nov. 16. Winegardner spent two years writing it.

If he isn't a big fan of the NaNoWriMo notion, he admits that "anyone who devotes November to National Novel Writing Month will be better readers. For which I say, 'Thank you, and on behalf of established novelists, buy our books.' "

But Christine Huth believes Baty's program can help people become better writers. Huth, 38, is a geologist and the Cleveland liaison for the 2004 NaNoWriMo campaign. She completed her first NaNoWriMo work last year. The novel, called "Light Ship," is in revision now.

"I had been a sporadic writer before," Huth says. "I've noticed that since I did this last year, the amount that I write has increased exponentially."

Huth encourages anybody who has ever wanted to write a novel to try the method.

"You might not hit 50,000 words," she says, "but it gets the engines going."

[Karen Sandstrom / San Diego Tribune]

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