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]

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