Wednesday, October 31, 2007

INTERVIEW: NaNo’s Chris Baty, Part 3

That accelerating metronomic sound you hear is the NaNo clock about to blazon the start of this year’s NaNoWriMo competition. TOMORROW marks the beginning of the 2007 event, which means there’s still time for you to sign up if you haven’t already. (Visit the NaNo site HERE to do so.)

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing NaNo’s founder and fearless leader, Chris Baty, about what NaNo is, how it’s evolved and what’s in NaNo’s future. Missed parts one and two of our interview with him? Click HERE and HERE to catch up, then come on back. In this, the third and final part of our interview, Chris offers some last-minute NaNo advice pulled right out of his inspirational book No Plot? No Problem! and tells us a little more about his stunning philanthropic ventures–all in the name of creativity and personal growth. Enjoy!

Part 3: Interview with Chris Baty

Q: Tell us about your book, No Plot? No Problem! Is it meant only to help people striving to succeed during NaNo month? What prompted you to write it?

CB: I think for me it was the desire to have a book like this when I’d written my first novel. I kind of put everything in it that I’d learned from four years of NaNoWriMo and added advice I’d solicited from people who’d done it for many years at that point. A lot of it was to try to get at those ideas and those counter-intuitive lessons that you learn—that when you turn off your inner editor, you oftentimes end up writing better and this idea that it’s okay to be imperfect as a writer and in fact there’s a real power in imperfection.

Also, NaNo month tends to follow a familiar trajectory for a lot of people. Week one starts, and you’ve gotten your words down on paper, and you feel you’re a god and you have no idea why you haven’t done this your whole life and the world has waited far too long for your eloquent gift. Week two comes and that’s when you feel like a truck has kind of parked itself on your face, and that you are the worst writer who’s ever lived. This is because week two usually means making really difficult decisions about plot: you have characters and not you have to something with them. Even professional novelists typically struggle at that point, and they’re usually dealing with a timeline where that crossroads may not occur until the six month point or the one year point. They write at a more humane pace. It’s just flat-out a tough time, and that’s where a lot of people quit. I think No Plot, No Problem can help walk people through those phases and lets them know week two is going to be miserable and they should just accept and embrace it.

Q: All right, what is a “wearable, writing-enhancing object” anyway?

CB: Well, I think this kind of gets into the psychological realm, or as I like to think of it, the 30-day vacation from everyday living. I think wearing a special thing, like a hat or wig or a special writing jersey, can help to remind you that this is a special and crazy month where maybe the rules of everyday life do not apply. It’s easy to forget that and kind of let demands of life sort of wash in and take time away from writing. But it’s harder to forget that if you’re wearing a Viking helmet! It’s kind of like a memory device that helps you realize that this is anything-goes playtime, where you’re not necessarily taking the content of your writing too seriously but you are taking the process itself very seriously.

Q: How can stress propel a writer forward? Is there “good writer stress” and “bad writer stress”? How can you tell the difference?

CB: Really, there is a kind of “good fear” and “bad fear.” In order to tap into the good fear, you need to give permission to write bad first draft—with problems, with agonized embarrassing moments—and really the only bad thing you can do is actually stop writing. So at that point then you have good fear. You’re telling everyone you know that you are writing your novel, and that your fear is that you will not complete it. That then becomes a motivator, because you don’t want to fail at the task of completion.

Then there’s the task of perfection which sometimes opposes the task of completion. One fear drives you to sit down at computer and write; and the other fear drives you away from the computer as far as you can go because you don’t feel up to that challenge of perfection and you’re not living up to an impossible potential.

Q: Do you participate in NaNo yourself?

CB: Every year, yes, until I die.

The cult of NaNoWriMo

Coffee shops everywhere are loaded with people preparing
for the National Novel Writing Month contest
My first mistake was admitting to National Novel Writing Month founder and director Chris Baty that I had attempted to participate in NaNoWriMo the past two years, reaching a combined word count of zero.

He sounded disappointed in me, but I had my excuses. I had school to attend full-time, a couple jobs to work part time, a high score to beat in Tetris, a lot of email to check and blogs to read.

Baty doesn’t buy any of it. After all, this will be his ninth year and his ninth novel. He runs a non-profit organization and consumes what is certainly an unhealthy amount of coffee, yet he still finds the time. “The difference between people who hit 50,000 words and those who do not is the decision they make,” explains Baty.

Time management skills are learned and honed for many thanks to NaNoWriMo. “When I cut out aimless Internet surfing and spending ridiculous amounts of time checking my email inbox, I have 18 hours a day that I didn’t have before. People end up finding that they have more time in November for things than they did before. They become more conscious with decisions about their time.”

NaNoWriMo was born in July 1999 when Baty and his friends got together and set out to write one novel each in a month. “I was 26 years-old at the time. I had a group of friends in the Bay area who kind of have a hard time saying no to bad ideas,” jokes Baty. “None of us tried to write novels before, none of us were fiction writers or even studied fiction in school. We were doing it because it seemed like it would be fun to do and that it would be fun to tell people at parties that we did it.”

When Baty began the second year of NaNoWriMo, it had shifted to November to better accommodate his friends. “I hadn’t expected a second year, but the first ended up being so much fun,” admits Baty. “That second year when we had 140 people, I was convinced we had peaked. We are the largest writing contest in the world.” Last year, NaNoWriMo brought in over 79,000 aspiring novel writers with almost 13,000 of them hitting the 50,000-word mark. That’s impressive for a contest with no judges or prizes besides self-satisfaction.

Baty first realized how big NaNoWriMo had grown while preparing an order with a photocopy clerk at Kinko’s. “He rings me up and I pay. He says, ‘I only made it to 20,000 words,’” Baty recalls. “It’s just a testament to the power of the idea. Set a goal and follow through. You’ll never read or write the same way again. It’s a life-changing experience.”

Baty didn’t set out to start any of these projects—the world’s largest writing contest; the Young Writers Program, a reading and writing program for individual students and for classrooms; or to start a non-profit organization, The Office of Letters and Light. Baty simply wanted to drink coffee, have a good time with his friends and see if there was a story in his head that he could write down.

Friday, October 26, 2007

INTERVIEW: NaNo’s Chris Baty, Part 2

If you missed part 1 of our interview with National Novel Writing Month’s founder and inspirational leader Chris Baty, click HERE for a quick remedy, then come on back.

In this, the 2nd of our 3-part interview with Chris, we talk about what NaNo ISN’T, why “30″ is a magic number, the secrets to NaNo success, NaNo communities and more. Enjoy!

Part 2: Interview with Chris Baty

Q: Are there any NaNo misperceptions you’d like to dispel?

CB: Yes. One of them gets back to idea that NaNo is basically committing a horrible travesty against the written word. I think you hear that from people who have not taken part in NaNo month. We hear that from people who’ve never tried to write novel before as well. I think some people have the idea that novels are written by a certain species of human, they were born to write novels. I think that first year of NaNo taught me that novels are not written by novelists, that they’re written by everyday people who give themselves permission to write novels. Once you see and realize the truth of that, I think the world becomes a much more magical place. The creative process is important for everybody and is enriching for everybody. The perception that people are wrecking books by trying to write them fast seems laughable. It’s hard for me to wrap my head around it.

Another misperception would be about publishing stuff. Even people who’ve not sold their novels have taken parts of it and have won prizes with it, a couple significant prizes with it. If you do want to publish a novel, there’s no better way than sitting down and knocking out first draft in a month and then going back and starting revision a month after that. At that point you’ve jumped a year ahead of schedule at least, with what I believe is no loss in quality. Your first draft is going to suck no matter if you give it a year or 30 days. I think more and more professional novelists who have book contracts and who do this for a living are taking part in NaNoWriMo because it is this gift from heaven and that is a deadline. It helps give you focus and structure and company, and that is something that has changed over the years—the idea that NaNoWriMo is also for professional writers, and it’s kind of neat to see people who really do make a living at this writing right alongside fourteen year olds who love Harry Potter so much they have to write the 8th book.

Q: So why 30 days? Why not 12 or 45?

CB: I think there are five good reasons for 30 days.

The first one is that you’re able to kind of turn off that editor’s voice for a limited amount of time, and it’s the time limit that turns it off. When you tell your inner editor that you’re going to write first draft of a novel in thirty days, it basically throws up its hands and decides that you’ve gone completely crazy and goes off to haunt somebody else for that long, some newspaper writer or something.

The other nice thing is that your significant other and your friends really get behind a 30-day novel, much more than they do a 5-year novel or 30-year novel. There’s sort of a stunt built into it, and I think that aspect allows people to sort of become your cheering section for a month, which helps to keep you excited about the project, but it also raises the fear of complete personal humiliation should you fail to get it done. People can keep track of you for 30 days—they will ask about it. That’s one of the tips I give people: When you set out to write a 30-day draft, you tell everyone you know you’re doing it and you encourage them to check in on you. It’s both wonderful and horrible. It gets people personally interested and invested in your writing habits, and it also gives you that extra incentive right around week two when what you want to do more than anything else is just pretend the whole thing never started, to keep going. And that’s really all you need. Usually there will be one point in the month, and for most people it’s right around week two, when you loose momentum. You’re exhausted, the novelty has worn off. But having the sense that you do not want to embarrass yourself in front of all these people you bragged to about your novel, really helps you get over that hump when nothing else will.

Then there’s the promise of it. It’s really irresistible—the promise that you can have a novel in 30 days that you didn’t have 30 days earlier. Which kind of sounds like a late-night infomercial: take this pheromone and suddenly you’ll be beating them away with a club! But, I think that’s part of the appeal.

The other part is that you really can have a completely un-horrible first draft of a novel in 30 days. It’s going to be a warts-and-all first draft, but you will be amazed at how much of it you actually really love and the sort of plot twists you come up with in these late night sessions. I have found that when you write for quantity over quality, you end up getting both because you have sort of turned off that inner editor. You can sort of tap into these worlds of improvisation and intuition that you don’t necessarily access when you sort of carefully reach out for each word and comma. For me, that realization was so strange: this idea that you reach for quantity, you also get quality. But it’s true. It also makes the process not hurt as much as it might otherwise.

That’s the other appeal, I think: the idea that writing finally gets to be fun again. I think we associate many words with novel writing. “Bleeding” is a good one, but “fun” should really be in there!

Friday, October 19, 2007

INTERVIEW: NaNo’s Chris Baty, Part 1

If you’ve never heard of National Novel Writing Month, you need to ditch that rock you’ve been living under! NaNoWriMo Fever has swept the nation, with writers renouncing sleep and a good chunk of sanity during the month of November in order to attain a single goal: finish an unimpressive draft of a 50,000 word novel.

Chris Baty, founding father of NaNo, began this writerly venture in 1999 with a few friends, and the NaNo competition has snowballed ever since. (The number of entrants may well hit 100,000 this year.) Chris is an ambitious freelancer and the author of the inspirational guide for NaNo-driven writers, No Plot? No Problem! A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days. And he is the heart behind some philanthropic ventures that have benefited people worldwide and continue to nurture the creative lives of American children.

On a personal note, I’ve got to say that of all the telephone interviews I’ve ever given–for WU and during my over twelve years of nonfic work for hundreds of articles–I’ve never enjoyed an interview more than the one I had with Chris. This guy is full of ironic wit, charisma, intellect and good-karma drive. And, in Chris’s words, “Why the hell not?”

Want to learn more about what NaNo actually is? Read on!

Part 1: Interview with Chris Baty

Q: For folks who may not have heard about it, tell us what NaNo is all about.

CB: It’s based on the somewhat ridiculous idea that everybody in the world should spend November writing a 50,000-word novel from scratch. No judges. Nobody even reads the manuscript you write in our contest. At the end of month, you upload your script, and we have a system that grabs it, counts it for words, then immediately deletes it. You’re basically looking at the worst writing contest in the history of writing contests—spending 30 days toiling away on a novel that nobody ever reads. But the fact that nobody reads it is a really empowering aspect of NaNoWriMo. You can turn off the inner editor that slows so many of us when we sit down to write a first draft. You really do have a chance to free yourself from the inner voice that says you’re a horrible writer and that you have no business doing this. You can run amok in imagination for 30 days. Once you’ve done that, it forever changes the way you write first drafts.

Q: So what does it do? What have you heard? What’s your feedback about this first draft phenomenon?

CB: Well, the problem with being a writer is that you are unfortunately also a reader, and by the time you sit down to write first novel, you’ve read hundreds if not thousands of beautifully crafted, world-abandoning novels that have been edited probably a dozen times by a host of different people. But you never get to see what that thing looked like when that thing first tumbled out onto the author’s page. I mean, they hide those things for good reason. So our expectations for the caliber of our own first drafts are set terminally high. We basically think that if what we are writing is not as good as what we are reading, then there’s something really, really wrong. And when you examine it, you realize how silly that is. You realize that every book that we have loved started out as a deeply flawed first draft. And this is straight out of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird or Stephen King’s On Writing.

Q: So NaNo helps to get that first draft behind you…as fast as possible?

CB: You cannot escape that first draft. The beauty of writing is that you have an opportunity to go back and find the best parts and hone those, and improve and revise and fine tune. As every writer knows, the second draft is often just a world away from what you came out with the first time. But you have to have a first draft in order to get to the second draft. You cannot edit a blank page. Unfortunately! I would love to edit a blank page, it would be so much more practical!

And I think we get so caught up in this crazy notion of competence: that if what we’re writing is not genius, then it’s just another confirmation that we are total failures. But you cannot write a book when you’re basically dragging this rhinoceros of self criticism behind you; it’s impossible.

National Novel Writing Month is based on this very simple idea that the inner editor that we all have is crucial, that it is a very important thing, but that it’s important when you get to the editing phase. But it can be destructive when you’re still in the creative phase to allow that editorial voice to second guess and criticize work that is comprised mainly of loose, still-forming constellations of plots and characters and ideas.

National Novel Writing Month Is Near

A thought for those people who get itchy at the idea of writing. National Novel Writing Month is coming soon.

Every November, for several years running now, large numbers of people have registered online to participate in the project. There’s no cost, unless you want to make a donation to the organization to facilitate the event.

At midnight, on the turn from Halloween to November 1, participants from around the world sit down at their computers and begin writing, with the goal of having 50,000 words written by the end of the month. They send their documents in to the NaNoWriMo web site every now and then, and the documents are checked for the number of words written, but not read. People can, in this way, show their quantitative progress on the site.

Everybody who reaches the goal wins. Everyone who tries is congratulated. There is no promise that any of the works written in the month will be published, or any guarantee that any of the results will be much good. The benefit seems to be in the experience, a kind of endurance run for people who want to prove that they can get words down on a page.

At a time when being entertained is increasingly the dominant American past time, I think that it’s worthwhile to spend one month each year trying to create something for oneself, by oneself.

If the idea of trying to write a short novel in one month awakens something perky inside you, give it a shot. You’ve got nothing to lose but sleep.

[Peregrin Wood / Irregular Times]

Thursday, October 4, 2007

NaNoWriMo - National Novel Writing Month

Have you heard of NaNoWriMo? It's very popular in some circles, and still completely new to others.
Every November, thousands of people attempt to write a 50,000-word novel. This is actually a short novel; some people stretch the definition of "novel" to include other types of fiction or "creative nonfiction." A lot of fanfic writers use it as the inspiration for longer works of fanfic, while other aspiring writers use it to bang out a first draft. (Finishing a first draft is one of the most significant milestones that a new writer can achieve. Many run out of steam after a few dozen pages.)

NaNoWriMo, sometimes just called NaNo, is also a competition. You win by finishing: turn in at least 50,000 words before the end of the night on November 30. Almost one billion words were written, and presumably submitted, for NaNo last year.

But it's not until November!, you say. What are you doing posting about it now? I shake my head. Learn why, when you read more about NaNoWriMo after the break!

The NaNoWriMo site is open for signups for 2007 as of October 1. If you start on November 1st with no idea of what you plan to write about, you'll probably get nowhere fast. While the rule is that you cannot start writing your novel until November 1, you're encouraged to start planning your novel as far in advance as you like... even if that's December 1 of the year before you plan to compete.

Chris Baty, the founder of NaNoWriMo, wrote a book with tips for success: No Plot, No Problem. (Don't miss Debra Hamel's review at that link!) This would be a perfect time to pick up a copy. There is also a No Plot, No Problem Novel-Writing Kit, which does not include the book. It's mostly motivational accessories, like a badge that says "Novelist" and a progress-tracking chart, all of which you could easily make by yourself.

Either version is full of encouragement for first-time writers, as well as writers who have never been able to make it past page 50. You'll learn how to silence your inner critic (your worst enemy, in NaNo terms), abandon economy of phrase, resist the temptation to ensure that your plot makes complete sense, go where your imagination takes you, and generally rock a first draft.

(Seriously: cohesiveness, solid research, and good writing is for the second draft. The first draft is supposed to be the one with all the problems. Get the story out of your head and on paper or screen, get in the habit of working on it every day, and then worry about making it good.

If you're writing for fun and not with an eye to being published, don't even bother with that! But a lot of fanfic writers fall somewhere in between: they're writing for fun, but they often want what they do to be as good as possible because they're publishing online.)

Every participant has a variety of support resources at their fingertips, regardless of whether or not they choose to purchase Baty's extra materials. Sign up, and you'll receive motivational emails through the month of November, have access to forums where you can talk to other writers (dangerous distraction, though!), and possibly have access to meet-ups in your area, depending on where you live. Some local NaNo groups have even gone on writing retreats together! You can devote an hour or two a day to the project, or you can really build your whole November life around it, even use it as an occasion to make new friends.

Since the idea of NaNoWriMo is to finish a novel-length work in a month, without regard to quality, it was inevitable that some people would want to go back over their novels and do something with them. For that reason, NaNoEdMo (National Novel Editing Month: essentially, "a second draft in a month!") is in March. Mark your calendars.

[M.E. Williams / DIY Life]