We first met Chris Baty about a decade ago, when Arielle agented his book No Plot, No Problem: A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days. We watched as he built this strange, beautiful community of lunatics and dreamers who, every November, write a 50,000 word book in 30 days. NaNoWriMo, as it’s called, now has hundreds of thousands of participants all over the world, writing writing writing. Then last summer, an astonishing librarian named Amy Marshall brought us to rural Alaska with the NaNo team, to make cyber-presentations to libraries in the most remote parts of Alaska. We saw bears and whales and totem poles with Chris. He has boundless enthusiasm, a wicked sense of humor and he listens when you talk. The most telling thing we can say about him is that our daughter loves hanging out with him. She’s five years old. So Chris has moved on from National Novel Writing Month, and we wanted to check in with him to see what he’s working on now, and what he learned from being around all those crazy writers writing all those crazy books.
The Book Doctors: What in God’s name made you want to start National Novel Writing Month?
Chris Baty: I have a history of dragging friends into questionable endeavors, and NaNoWriMo was one of many self-improvement schemes that began with me saying “What if we all got together and…” I thought the 21 of us who agreed to write 50,000-word novels in July of ’99 would do it once, make a complete mess of it and never do it again. But somehow lowering our expectations and transforming novel-writing into a group activity — most of us got together after work to write — ended up doing good things to our brains and books. Our stories definitely weren’t anywhere near bookstore-ready, but they were promising in their own lopsided ways. And the experience of writing them had been more fun than any of us had dreamed.
TBD: Did you have any idea that it would take over your life?
CB: Not at all! It wasn’t until the third year, when I was planning for 200 participants and 5,000 people showed up, that I first realized that the idea might have some appeal beyond my friends.
I kind of blame the name for the event’s growth. For the first two years, everyone who took part in National Novel Writing Month knew it was a homespun challenge run by a twentysomething book nerd with a lot of enthusiasm and almost zero fiction-writing experience. When the third NaNoWriMo rolled around, though, a handful of blogs sent thousands of new folks to the site. They didn’t know the history. They just saw the “National Novel Writing Month” name and the long list of writers taking part and assumed it was some sort of vetted national literary initiative.
I think that gave all the newcomers a healthy jolt of confidence. Behind the scenes, I was worried that the magic from the first two years wouldn’t scale. But because everyone believed our promise that you can write a novel draft in a month, they did exactly that. And that was the tipping point. When those 5,000 people came back the next year, they brought friends with them. By 2006, when we became a nonprofit, we had 75,000 participants. By 2012, when I stepped down as Executive Director, we had year-round programs serving 300,000 writers, including tens of thousands of kids and teens writing books with our Young Writers Program. It was totally unexpected and completely wonderful and I never in a million years could have predicted any of it would happen back in 1999.
TBD: How did being surrounded in the sea of writers change you as a writer?
CB: First off, I think it helped me see that writing can be a great social activity. If you want to get more writing done, try working in the same room with other writers. There’s just something about the sight and sound of people typing that makes it easier to get words on the page.
It also made me a devout believer in the power of shared deadlines. Even if you can’t sit at the same table with other novelists, just knowing that you’re part of a group all working towards the same goal at the same time keeps you writing when the going gets tough. A terrifying deadline, coupled with a supportive community, can work miracles.
TBD: What mistakes do you see writers make over and over and over?
CB: I think a lot of writers set impossibly high standards for their first drafts, which tends to sabotage the creative process. I know why we do it: We’ve read so many great books, and we unintentionally use them as yardsticks to measure our own efforts. When we fall short (which, for me, usually happens around the second sentence), we take it as a sign that our stories are doomed. This is a tragedy because, as Ernest Hemingway said, “the first draft of anything is shit.” Most of the novels that have inspired us started out as horrible messes. Confusing plots. Flat characters. Clunky dialogue. I keep hoping that publishers will offer downloads of the first draft of bestselling novels as a public service to writers. I think we’d be astonished. And relieved.
To me, your novel’s true essence doesn’t become clear until you’ve written an entire draft. Finding out what your book is really about is the consolation prize granted to writers by the Novel Gods for all the hours of TV watching, internet surfing and personal grooming we had to forgo to get to The End. The life-changing thing about second drafts is that you get to take this newly clarified vision for your story and all the best bits from the first draft and shape them into something that’s better than the book you initially set out to write. And the third draft gets even more powerful. Which means that most important thing someone can do in the early phase of book writing is to turn off their inner editor and just focus on getting a beginning, middle and end down on paper. In an early draft, quantity trumps quality. A bad story decision is better than no story decision. There’s a wise saying that you can revise a bad book into a great book, but you can’t revise a blank page into anything but a blank page. Neil Gaiman wrote a fantastic pep talk for NaNoWriMo about how doubting your own writing abilities during a first draft is just part of the process. If you haven’t read it, I totally recommend it.
TBD: Your first book, No Plot No Problem was, of course, nonfiction. We heard on the grapevine that your working on a novel now, what’s it like making the transition to fiction?
CB: Yes! I’m in the middle of revising two NaNoWriMo novels, along with a couple of screenplays that were born in NaNo’s sister event, Script Frenzy. With non-fiction, it feels easier to isolate (and address) problems when something isn’t working in the piece. With novel revision, I get this vague feeling that something is broken in the machine, but it can be hard to know exactly how to fix it. I think this is one of the thing that makes fiction so irresistible and so frustrating — it’s a magnificent puzzle.
TBD: What your favorite thing about Alaska?
CB: Traveling by float plane! I also love the sense of humor that the miserable winters engender.
TBD: What’s it like watching all those NaNoWriMo writers get published? When one of our people gets a book deal, it’s a very happy day around our house.
CB: It’s amazing. Bashing out that first draft in NaNoWriMo is just the start of a long journey, and the writers who make it through to the end of their revisions are heroes regardless of whether the manuscript sells. That said, it’s totally exciting to see projects that started in NaNoWriMo show up on the New York Times Bestseller list or peek out from bookstore shelves. One of my favorite NaNoWriMo memories was going to see the Water For Elephants movie with the rest of the NaNo staff. So cool!
TBD: What are some of things you learned by watching all those people write 50,000 words in a month?
CB: 1) Everyone has a book in them. (Actually, that’s not totally true. Everyone has a bunch of books in them.)
2) Writing one of those books will change the way you see yourself, deepen the way you read and make life feel a little more magical.
3) You can have about a hundred cups of coffee in one sitting before the caffeine becomes lethal.
TBD: Where do you see the future of books going?
CB: I wish I knew! We’re clearly heading into the era of e-books. I’m guessing that within two decades paperbooks will become what vinyl records are now — cool, retro objects embraced by the faithful and seen as quaint and impractical by everyone else. Whatever form books take, though, I still see a big place for them in human hearts. People have been proclaiming the death of novels and reading for a long time. But I’ve watched hundreds of thousands of people voluntarily give up a month of their lives to take part in a writing contest where the only prize is the manuscript itself. I find this very reassuring.
TBD: Is there a huge gaping hole in your life where NaNoWriMo used to be?
CB: Yes! It’s hard not to be working every day with the incredible staff and volunteers who continue to kick so much literary ass. The nice thing about my role as board member emeritus is that I still get to write encouraging emails and give talks. I’m also still a very enthusiastic participant, and look forward to writing my 15th mediocre novel this November. I’ve also continued to work with illustrators to create posters for writers through my latest questionable living-room-based endeavor, Chris Baty Studios.
TBD: I hate to do this to you, but do you have any advice for writers?
CB: Keep going. Keep growing. Finish your book. And have fun.
Chris Baty founded National Novel Writing Month in 1999, and oversaw the growth of the annual writing challenge from 21 friends to more than 250,000 writers in 90 countries. Chris is the author of No Plot? No Problem! and the co-author of Ready, Set, Novel. When not revising his future bestseller about two monsters who find a VHS tape and set out to return it, Chris gives talks about writing and creativity, creates posters through Chris Baty Studios and freelances for such publications as the Washington Post, Afar magazine, theBeliever and Lonely Planet guidebooks. His quest for the perfect cup of coffee is never-ending, and will likely kill him someday.