Saturday, November 28, 2009

Chris Baty interviews with Mark McDonald

It was a dark and dangerous night as I walked into the heavily draped Julia Morgan Ballroom near Chinatown, in the heart of old San Francisco's financial district.

More than two hundred darkly dressed shadowy figures hunched over closely packed tables, where eerie lighting from dozens of computers cast a sickly pall upon faces strained with intensity. It looked like a scene out of a film noir; at least one character would die tonight.

It was "A Night of Writing Dangerously" and we were the murderers.

From the mind of Chris Baty comes, "A Night of Writing Dangerously".
I was here to attend "A Night of Writing Dangerously", a party hosted by Chris Baty, who, ten years ago, created the idea of holding an annual Internet event called "National Novel Writing Month", where thousands of aspiring writers try to write a 50,000-word novel during the thirty days of November. This night, more than 200 writers donated $200 ($300 per couple) to attend the party. They raised $34,115.51 to benefit Baty's organization, and its associate organization, the Office of Letters and Light.

National Novel Writing Month began with the idea that people feel they want to write a book someday, but that day never seems to come. For those who sign up for the free internet experience, that day … or more accurately, 30 days, comes on November 1st, when they begin writing their novels, download them to the web site, and attempt to meet the deadline by midnight on November 30th.

Jennifer Anthony reached over 41,000 words.

During the month, they are encouraged to keep the words flowing, not in an elegant, refined, ready-for-publication manner, but in a mad dash to get 50,000 words downloaded in a rough draft of a book they could very well edit and one day publish.

When I walked into the Julia Morgan Ballroom, it took me a few minutes to find an open chair. And before I could sit down, a large school bell was being rung by someone who had just reached 50,000 words. It was about 6:30pm,the party already had writers reaching the 50k finish line, and it was only day 22.

Chris Wentworth of Southern Ontario, Canada celebrates reaching 50,000 words.
I spoke with Chris Baty, the originator of National Novel Writing Month:

"The idea of writing terrifies some people", he said. "But when you just write without being critical, just getting those words down shows you your capabilities. It takes you away from your day to day, and shows what happens when you stretch yourself." Back in 1999, he and a few college friends who thought they might someday want to write a book decided they would probably never get around to actually doing it. He figured if you write 50,000 words, you have a 175-page short novel. He put this idea on the Internet, and today there are over 120,000 registered writers and 600 schools participating in what is known as NaNoWriMo month.

I asked him about the Young Writers Program, part of the Office of Letters and Light, which helps kids and teens get excited about writing. In 2008, there were over 22,000 students taking part in NaNoWriMo's youth program, which provides workbook exercises, promotional materials and encouragement. (Young Writers Program)

"Being a kid has a lot of drudgery, but when they start writing, they build (their) world and come alive," he said.

Chelsea won, saying: "I can't stop crying, I just killed off one of my main characters!"
"About 6% of the participants who write through the thirty days have gone on to revise, find an agent, and pursue what they have written," he told me.

If 100,000 participate, 6% means over 6,000 of these "crazy writers" have gotten serious about writing, and want to see their work published, on the book shelves, and in the hands of readers. Many have been published already.

The night was filled with fun, the film noir theme was fun and adventurous, and we had lots to eat.

Figures from the site, 2008: 119,301 participants and 21,683 winners.
Number of words officially logged in 2008: 1,643,343,993
Current number of words for 2009: 1,924,987,017
This writer's current word count: 18,191 and counting…
[Mark McDonald / Santa Barbara Edhat]

Friday, November 13, 2009

Mountain View writers tackle National Novel Writing Month

For some, the month of November brings with it dread of the cold. For others, thoughts turn to turkey and stuffing.

But for National Novel Writing Month's many diehard participants, November means writing.

National Novel Writing Month — NaNoWriMo for short — challenges professional authors, aspiring writers and plain creative types to produce a 175-page, 50,000-word novel in 30 days. Now in its tenth year, the program has resulted in good times, new friendships, purple prose, demolished writer's blocks, countless reams of senseless stream-of-consciousness writing, and at least one success story: the New York Times bestseller "Water for Elephants."

For many, if not most, participants, the goal is simply to reach the word count. To help writers reach this goal, "write-ins" are held regularly around the Bay Area, including one at East West Bookstore on a recent Monday. Ten people showed up to write together in a quiet, focused group.

Diane Holcomb, a book buyer for East West Bookstore, is participating in NaNoWriMo for the third time this year. Writing what she describes as a "'Sleepless in Seattle,' mainstream love story," she doesn't have time to focus on perfect writing.

Instead, Holcomb says, she just writes as much as she can.

"You do write a lot of garbage, but something wonderful comes out and it takes over," she said. "You know you're not going to come away with the best American novel, ready to send to a publisher, (but) you'll have a rough draft."

The concept of quantity over quality — proselytized by NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty in his book "No Plot? No Problem!" — seems to be the particular draw for many participants.

Bridget Flynn, a freelance editor and writer who lives in Mountain View, believes the deadline and required word count is the perfect impetus for people like her, forcing them to get the raw story on the page.

"We really need this. Because the ones who procrastinate are also the ones who I think judge their own work really harshly," she said. "If you judge your work you're going to sit there and agonize over each paragraph and I think in the end, 'You don't produce.'"

Sue Wilhite, a tarot reader and assistant manger at East West Bookstore, also finds the deadline helpful. She has published two books already, the second of which took her seven years to complete.

"NaNoWriMo is really forcing me to drill down and focus," she said. "It certainly makes (writing) the priority choice of a number of things I can do."

Holcomb and Flynn both said that putting thoughts to the page is a very personal process. Holcomb finds that ordinary observations made in her everyday life — such as meals she's eaten, or outfits she sees on the street — keep cropping up in her writing.

"It all just goes into the pot," she said. "The subconscious makes all of this make sense; it's like a waking dream."

Flynn says she's proud of the very act of writing, even when the quality is not her best. At the Monday night write-in, she said, she sat down and cranked out 10 pages in a single session.

"I felt powerful because I was being true to myself by writing this story," she said. "This story is a part of who I am. It's an expression of me, and I finally feel comfortable enough to express that part — so I'm really proud of myself for that."

[Dana Sherne / Mountain View Voice]

Sunday, November 8, 2009

On their marks, get set, NaNo!

She's a modern-day Hemingway scribbling as she eats, except on a laptop instead of a napkin -- and at the Santa Cruz Diner, where inspiration must strike among all the booths of loud, costume-clad customers.

Lisa Quintana and her party of 15 began churning out their novels at the diner on Halloween night.

Quintana and her group are among 372 people in Santa Cruz County who are registered to participate in National Novel Writing Month, a creative writing effort held annually since 1999. The project aims to support aspiring novelists as they attempt to write 50,000 words -- what would fit on perhaps a thousand napkins, or 200 double-spaced pages -- during the 30 days of November.

The Office of Letters and Light, the Oakland-based nonprofit behind National Novel Writing Month, encourages people to mince words for once and call the event NaNoWriMo.

The "national" part of its title a bit of a misnomer, as NaNoWriMo boasts international participation. Sara Nelson, a 21-year-old linguistics major at UC Santa Cruz, did NaNoWriMo during a study-abroad program in England.

"With crazy English people and alcohol and novels, only good things can happen," Nelson says. She started a vampire novel from a pub in Brighton. This year from the diner she'll write about a blind kleptomaniac.

The project's Web site explains that being able to "dramatize the [novel-writing] process at social gatherings" is as much a perk of NaNoWriMo as a finished novel.
Another benefit of is the support of volunteer mentors like Quintana, a six-year NaNoWriMo veteran whose first novel won First Prize at the East of Eden writer's conference.

Quintana and Nelson are spearheading the Santa Cruz writers this year. They organized the kickoff at the diner and plan to hold a "Thank God It's Over" party at the end of the month.

"I don't get paid to do this, but I think it's important to help people tell their stories," says Quintana.

The 44-year-old has a tech job in Silicon Valley and a family in Boulder Creek. She says her son plans to participate in the Young Writers Program, in which an under-17 crowd sets its own word-count goals. Her teenage daughter is participating in the event with Quintana, and at the diner she takes a seat at a table next to her mom's.

Dave Empey, 46, sat in a booth by himself, wearing a grey wig. Empey wrote a novel from his La-Z-Boy recliner in 2008, but he says he's committed to coming to some local NaNoWriMo meetings this year.

The Santa Cruz group will meet thrice weekly in November -- at coffee shops, UCSC and after hours at a donated storefront.

Writers who elect not to attend meetings can interact on the online forums, which are bustling in November as participants -- some proud, others sheepish -- share their latest word counts, achievements and hurdles.

And everyone receives periodic e-mails from NaNoWriMo headquarters, the first of which reads like a gym's January newsletter, with reassurances that "it's OK to not know what you're doing," advice to "embrace imperfection and see where it takes you," and valuable hindsight from veterans to stick it out because completion of the project "will make you want to yodel."

Wrimos will submit their novels to the Web site for word count validation between Nov. 25 and Nov. 30.

"They must have no lives, no jobs," Quintana says of people who reported unusually high word counts in the first week.

"Or they're using the lorem ipsum generator," Nelson quips, referring to the traditional placeholder text publishers often use to fill space.

It's one esoteric topic among many that the writers discuss before they start writing at midnight. Others include Isaac Asimov "He worked on many projects at a time"; the Star Trek exhibit that recently opened at the Tech Museum in San Jose "The props are phenomenally amazing"; and the Stephanie Meyer's "Twilight" novels "Do we think the movies will make it to the end of the series?".

When the date on one writer's laptop switches over to Nov. 1, an announcement is made. The fourteen writers, half of them writing longhand, begin NaNoWriMo.

A few minutes after midnight, another UCSC student pushes aside an empty basket of fries and takes out a spiral-bound notebook. "I need a last name for a character."

Quintana doesn't look up from her laptop or miss a beat. "Male or female?"

"Male, first name Orlando."

Quintana pauses. "I'm trying to remember the last spam name I got -- that's where I get my names from."

"What was your first boyfriend's last name?" someone asks.

"I've never had one," the student says. "Does preschool count?"

Quintana chimes in with Oeudreheo. "O-e-u-d-r-e-h-e-o," she spells as the student scribbles it down.

Only 49,999 more words to go.

[Laura Copeland / Santa Cruz Sentinel]

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

National Novel Writing Month observed locally

Local writers gather at Panera Bread
on Hotel Drive on Friday to kick off
National Novel Writing Month.
Around the world hundreds of thousands of novelists are penning sordid tales of romance, bone-chilling thrillers, head-scratching mysteries, and sagas of mysterious artifacts from fantastic worlds. Some of those intriguing stories are being written right here in Turlock.

National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo as it’s known, kicked off on Sunday and will run through Nov. 30. Last year, approximately 120,000 writers took part in the race to write 50,000 words and complete a novel from start to finish in just 30 days. By the end of the month, more than 21,000 had become novelists — many for the first time.

“The 50,000-word challenge has a wonderful way of opening up your imagination and unleashing creative potential like nothing else,” said NaNoWriMo Founder and Program Director Chris Baty. “When you write for quantity instead of quality, you end up getting both. Also, it’s a great excuse for not doing any dishes for a month.”

Baty himself is a 10-time NaNoWriMo “winner,” though winning the challenge simply awards participants with a printable certificate. The finished manuscript is the true reward for NaNoWriMo participants, however.

On average, about 18 percent of participants become winners. More than 30 NaNoWriMo novels have been professionally published, including the No. 1 New York Times Bestseller “Water for Elephants,” by Sara Gruen.

For most of the self-styled “WriMos,” however, publication isn’t the end goal of the month. It’s simply a love of writing that draws most to a November spent huddled in the warm glow of a computer screen, and a dream of becoming a novelist.

In 2007, Viki Sprague of Patterson found herself facing a serious illness, possibly near death according to doctors. She’d heard of NaNoWriMo before, some time after the event’s 1999 founding, and had always wanted to write a novel. Staring down her own mortality, there didn’t seem to be any better time for Sprague to set off into the world of novel writing, she said.

Sprague said she set out to pen a mystery based on a story she read in the Oakland Tribune in the 1970s. The article told of a woman who committed suicide via carbon monoxide poisoning, locking herself in a car trunk with a stack of romance novels and a bag of Hershey’s Kisses.

Thanks to some good-natured prodding from co-workers, Sprague became a winner in her very first NaNoWriMo, writing 53,000 words in a month.
“It changed the way I write,” Sprague said.

The one challenge Sprague said she faced during that first NaNoWriMo was a lack of a local support group, the sort of which can be found in communities large and small around the world. Unfortunately, the nearest to Stanislaus County was located in Stockton, simply too far to travel on a routine basis.

Emboldened by her experience and wishing to share NaNoWriMo with others, Sprague signed on to serve as NaNoWriMo Municipal Liaison for the Modesto region in 2008. As she sits in Turlock’s Panera Bread for weekly write-ins, she now wears a shirt that reads, “Yes, I am in charge here,” offering up whatever advice she can to the aspiring novelists typing up fantasies and works of literature alongside her.
“It’s like being a den mother and a cheering section and a mentor all wrapped into one,” Sprague said.

Finishing 50,000 words in just a month is no small task. Last year Sprague set out on a more ambitious NaNoWriMo project, a tale of twins in Jim Crow-era Georgia with revolving points of views. She didn’t quite finish, though her words are counted among the total of 1.6 million words written in last year’s NaNoWriMo.

This year Sprague has even more on her plate, undertaking a mystery novel — her “official” novel — as she attempts to complete last year’s book, serve as municipal liason, and act as moderator for a discussion forum on the official Web site, “making sure everyone plays nice in the sandbox.” The forum, titled “NaNo Rebels” is dedicated to those like Sprague who are bending the rules of the event by working on a novel that has already been started, a non-fiction book, or even a play.
Sprague says that, through her increasing involvement with the challenge, she’s come to learn more about Office of Letters and Light, the Oakland-based non-profit that operates entirely on donations and administers NaNoWriMo. Funds raised are used to teach creative writing to children, challenging fourth and fifth grade students in Canada to compete in a shorter version of NaNoWriMo, build school libraries in Vietnam, and even to help students here in America.

Sprague considers herself fortunate to have a husband who tolerates her “unique hobbies,” especially in the whirlwind month of November. But earlier this year she realized how much her “hobby” means to her — and how important her husband’s support is — when on a cruise to Alaska her husband referred to her as a writer for, what she can remember, was the first time.

Sprague says that, even though NaNoWriMo kicked off on Sunday, it’s not too late to join this year’s effort. After all, you’re only about 5,000 words behind if you start today, she notes, and she believes anyone can become a novelist.

“It’s just a matter of putting your butt in a chair and writing it,” Sprague said.

The Turlock NaNoWriMo group meets at Panera Bread on Hotel Drive at 6 p.m. every Tuesday. For more information about NaNoWriMo, to sign up online, or for further details about local meet-ups visit

[Alex Cantatore / Turlock Journal]

Monday, November 2, 2009

Book Keeping: Speed-Writing For Success

"All at once" is not the way most people write their first novel, but that's what Jessica Burkhart did.

In 2006, as a 19-year-old college student, Burkhart wrote a 50,000-word manuscript in 30 days, along with nearly 13,000 other writers. As a participant in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), it was quantity over quality. Most participants compare it to running a marathon; most participants shove their completed manuscripts into the darkest reaches of their computer files, thinking, 'Anything I wrote this quickly can't be good.'

When the month-long writing spree ended, Burkhart started revising Take The Reins, a story about tween girls at a competitive equestrian school. A month later, an agent found a blog post she'd written about the novel and asked to see the manuscript. The rest is history: The Canterwood Crest series is now five books long, with seven more to come. And it all started with a marathon, madcap, month-long writing frenzy...

[Rachel Kaufman /]