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.
Q: Unless my spies have been lying to me, you’re the brainchild behind NaNoWriMo, is that true? How did it all begin?
CB: That is true; you have credible spies. It started here in the Bay area back in 1999, and at that point I was a very naïve 26 year old who thought that if I could just convince enough of my friends to agree to write novels with me that we could have fun and write books. None of us really had any idea what we were getting into. Almost nobody was a writer. Everybody loved books, but none of us had any idea how to go about writing one. I think that was our saving grace. I think that if we have set out to write something great—The Great American Novel—I think it would’ve been a disaster. But because our expectations were so abysmally low, we really ended up surprising ourselves by the fact that the books we wrote were not horrible and the writing process was a total blast. So that first year, there were 21 of us, and 6 completed the 50,000 word challenge, and everyone else fell off between word one and word 49,999. And it was such tremendous fun that I resolved to do it again the next year, put up a website and invite more people.
Q: Was it during the second year that the exponential factor kicked in?
CB: No, the second year was manageable: 140 people. I felt like we’d peaked. I didn’t know all of the people who’d signed up. Some were even international. I thought maybe we’d grow a little more—maybe we’d have 500 at the most for the third year. Then the third year came and we had ten times that number, and all hell broke loose.
Q: How did you manage it all? What techniques did you use?
CB: Pure craven fear does wonderful things to a manager. I was terrified that the event would implode on me. Thankfully, the same group of people that had taken part that first year were all still around and taking part the third year. We formed a volunteer zombie army and stayed up almost 24 hours a day to process sign ups. In year three, the signups were not yet automated. To participate, you emailed me your name and city, and then I would personally paste that information into the HTML—alphabetizing the names—then I’d send you an invitation to join the Yahoo group. I’d send you a third email with a general welcome. When we fell behind by 4,000 signups in year three, I knew it would be almost impossible to dig ourselves out if it. Power of friendship and energy drinks came through and we pulled it off.
Q: How many participated in NaNoWriMo in 2006?
CB: Last year in our main program we had 79,000 participants.
We have a separate site for our Young Writers Program. Kids who are 12 and under who are doing the challenge by themselves take part on that site. It’s a G-rated version with a lot more moderation. Also, the Young Writers Program site is home to all of the K-12 classrooms that are taking part in the event. Last year, we had over 300 classrooms around the country who were involved on different levels. Very few had kids writing their own 50,000-word novels. Most of them would allow the kids to choose their own word-count goal or they would write a collaborative novel. We had kids as young as 6-years old taking part in this. I think the teachers sort of teach it as Writing as Adventure rather than Writing as Teeth Pulling, and that has been amazing. We had 15,000 kids taking part in the Young Writers Program last year.
Q: How have people responded to the Young Writers Program?
CB: I think kids come away from that absolutely in love with writing and storytelling. I think something happened to all of us right around puberty, when we went from those creatures who were like, “I’m going to write a play!” and “I’m going to write a book!” and “I’m going to paint a painting!” That was us then, and then puberty hit and we were like, “I’m embarrassed about everything I used to dream.” I think National Novel Writing Month is about getting adults back into that frame of mind that it’s fun to make stuff, and it doesn’t matter if it goes.
The teachers just are stunned. Something about the slightly competitive nature of it, as well as the sense that everybody has a story to tell—whether you think you’re a writer or you love books or hate books—you just need to sit down and write the story only you can. It’s really been a revelation for a lot of English teachers who used to have to drag a 700-word essay bodily from their students.
We had a report recently from one of our teachers in California. The kids had to do a state standard exam essay of 500 words, and they giggled. They thought it was nothing, they ate it for breakfast. It’s just kind of neat to ambitiously expand as what we see as possible for these kids, because they can do it. They really can do it, and they find they love doing it.
Q: Do you think NaNo will keep growing?
CB: Yes. If somebody had told me when we first started this that we would have had 79,000 people in 2006, I would’ve laughed for a couple years, because the premise is so preposterous. How could a writing contest without judges or prizes become the most popular writing contest in the world? We’re expecting 100,000 participants in our main program this year. I think we’ll keep growing, but at some point things may start to fall away somewhat; things just kind of have a life cycle.
Q: What do you think the draw is?
CB: The truth is, everybody has so much more creative potential than they have the time to nurture it. In day to day life, very few people have the chance to really use their imagination and to dream these crazy worlds that you get to create when you’re writing. I think as long as that’s true, there will always be room for an event like NaNoWriMo, that basically says you can write a novel, you should write a novel and you’re going to write that novel. And I think that message will never be less relevant. There will always be a need for somebody to say we’re doing this project, and we’re going to do it together.
Q: Do you think part of the draw, too, is this promise of an imperfect creation? The chance to just create for the sake of it? Making a literary mess, maybe? Playing in the paints?
CB: I think that the writing world is a very weird place. When I was a college student, I was a full-time music nerd. In the music world, you realize there’s so much room for the notion of amateurs and practice. You know, most bands are amateurs. People get together to make music because it feels great—it feels wonderful to lose yourself in that sound, in that noise. For some reason the writing world has been so slow to catch onto that. The idea is that unless you’re on the New York Times bestseller list, or are headed there, you are woefully off course. That’s so strange. In the music world, there are so many groups and performers that just play once a month in a bar or play in the student center and put out their own CDs, and that’s as high as they want to get on the ladder of fame, because it comes along with its own sense of satisfaction.
One of the responses to NaNoWriMo that I get a lot is, “How many of these people have sold their books?” And at this point I think the answer is that we’re up to fourteen over the entire course of National Novel Writing Month. So fourteen people have sold their manuscripts to major publishers, to big-time publishing houses, which is not a great percentage. I mean, we had 79,000 last year alone. You know, more are coming in though every couple months, and some of the deals are getting to be really sweet. Last year, we had the great news that Sara Gruen, who is an author who does National Novel Writing Month, got a five-million-dollar book deal (details HERE) and then promptly sat down to write the first of her contractually obligated books during National Novel Writing Month.
But the vast majority of people will not even revise their novel. They spend the month writing it for the sake of writing it, to feel that electricity and ideas pouring out onto the page. I hope that National Novel Writing Month has brought the writing world closer to that musical model, where it’s okay to create something that only fifty people will ever encounter, that there is a sense of accomplishment and fun that comes from making art on any scale. And I hope that whatever happens with the future of NaNo, that enough people have had their eyes opened to this simple pleasure of creating and practicing, and making mistakes and learning from them.
I think that nobody has it as bad as aspiring writers. Look at the world of sports. If I went out and played a round of golf, when I came back from it, none of my friends would say, “Oh, you going to join the PGA?” The sense is that you do it for fun and you do it regularly, and it doesn’t have to be something you make your living at. My goal for the last decade has been to make a living as a writer. And I think there are other people in National Novel Writing Month who share that ambition, but I think that represents 10% of the overall population, and the other 90% are doing it for completely different reasons.
Come back next Friday for Part 2 of our interview with NaNo’s Chris Baty, when we’ll talk about what NaNo ISN’T, why “30″ is a magic number, the secrets to NaNo success and more.
Photo Credit: Susan Burdick