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!

Q: What keeps people from NaNo success, and how can they roll over those hurdles?

CB: I think lowering expectations is important, as is embracing the concept that there will be ungodly awful prose. But you need that to get to the great stuff as well. You have to just keep writing and allow yourself the freedom to write the horrible page—or 50 horrible pages—but to really not stop writing. It will get better.

Q: How important is it to clear the calendar and TRULY commit?

CB: I think committing to the entire month is important. We typically have 18% of the people who sign up write 50,000 words. I think those who fall short of goal are people who thought they couldn’t do it to begin with, or thought they’d be busy that month but would give it a try anyway. I think that’s the wrong way to approach it.

Why not make arrangements for one month to structure the rest of your life around creative projects rather than vice versa? That’s why the month idea is great. You CAN do that for one month. You can spend a little more money on babysitters than you typically do, or outsource the kids to grandma or grandpa if possible, and the kids can eat some frozen food. You can make trade offs where you hide your dirty dishes under the couch for a month.

There’s a reason why so many self-help books are based on the 30-day idea—30 days till a more powerful vocabulary, or a 30-day diet. I think for our brains, 30 days in the outer limit of what we can do, how long we can break from our routines. We have routines for a reason. None of us really have the luxury of saying they’re not going to work or bathe for six months. But for a month you can arrange for a month of pampered writing within the confines of everyday life.

Q: There are so many ways to link in through the NaNo communities, to find people doing what you’re doing, where you’re doing it. There’s a forum, a blog, and even a chat room this year. And there are always ways to link in and stay in contact with local NaNoers, too. How important is this sort of interconnectivity to the NaNo experience?

CB: That was something I noticed happening around year three, and we put a lot into helping encourage and build the communities. At this point, every decent-sized town in American has NaNo participants in it. I just realized that in terms of motivation, it’s one thing to get these emails from some disembodied voice in Oakland at the start of each week saying, “Write, write, you can do this!” But it’s a completely different thing to have people who, five nights a week, you can meet at your local Starbucks and actually write with. I see novel writing as the perfect social activity, which might sound strange. But it’s very true that you’re so much more likely to do it when you have other people there, quietly typing away. It helps keeps you focused. When everybody else is making that typing sound, you don’t want to be the only one not doing that!

We have local chapters now, headed by volunteers called municipal liaisons, and those chapters hold get-togethers and have parties. We had a “Thank god it’s over” at the end of NaNo last year, with over 130 people attending just in the bay area alone. This kind of socializing makes the entire process less lonely, which makes it more likely you’ll stick with it.

In addition to helping people find each other around the world, we also have resources that can help short circuit procrastination tendencies. I think a lot of people get hung up on research: “The only thing preventing me from doing my novel is that I need to complete 19 years of research on muskets in 16th century Italy.” You don’t need to do that, because there’s a great Q&A section on the site where you can ask anything of the members, like what kind of belt buckles did people wear in Shakespearean England, or how many boxes of Kleenex would a school portraiture artist use in a day, or what would happen if somebody drove a golf cart on mars? Just ask and someone on the site will know it and answer. A whole world of research you can basically do without ever leaving your chair. It’s a remarkable sort of resource to get answers to questions in the age.

I have to add that NaNoWriMo is like a complete stealth dating site for writing nerds. I have been to two NaNo weddings. There are NaNo children in the world. So socializing can be a great way for people to meet other people who are as crazy as they are.

Q: That’s great! Are there any other interesting success stories you’d like to share?

CB: There’s a particular author named Lani Diane Rich who also lives in upstate New York. She took part in NaNoWriMo in 2002 for first time. Lani saw the sight on Halloween—NaNoWriMo eve—and said, “Why the hell not?” and so she signed up and wrote the first draft of a novel that was not bad—it wasn’t great, but it wasn’t bad. And then she revised it and getting an agent, and the agent ended up selling that novel in a two-book deal to Warner Books. And now I think she has five novels out with Warner. She’s basically now a full-time novelist. It’s really so inspiring, those kind of stories where all she needed was that deadline and that focus and that slight push of saying, “Yes, you can do this.” And now she just churns these suckers out, and people are they’re good and people are going crazy about them on Amazon. And it’s just satisfying to know that our organization was what helped tip things in her favor and give her the slight push she needed. There are hundreds of stories like that—of people who just stumbled across the website and thought, “Why not?”

Come back Wednesday–Halloween and NaNoWriMo Eve!–for the third and final part of my interview with Chris Baty, when we’ll chat about Chris’s book No Plot? No Problem! and learn more about the great philanthropic work Chris has done. See you then!

No comments:

Post a Comment