NaNoWriMo Founder Chris Baty
In 1999 Chris Baty and nearly two dozen others set out on a writing odyssey, a month of literary abandon when word counts reigned supreme, when tight plotlines and punchy prose didn’t matter. The goal? To write a 50,000-word novel in a month. The result? National Novel Writing Month, better known as NaNoWriMo. What began as a local lark has grown into an international annual event that breaks loose perfectionist restraints and sparks the imagination of hundreds of thousands. The event includes more than 250,000 writers in ninety countries. Chris now serves as a Board Member Emeritus for NaNoWriMo. He also teaches classes on writing and creativity through Stanford University’s Writer’s Studio. He’s the author of No Plot? No Problem! and co-author of Ready, Set, Novel.
Small Print Magazine: What would you say to someone in 1999 if they told you that 341,375 people would participate in NaNoWriMo in 2012 and that these participants would include published novelists and school children?
Chris Baty: Oh man. I would have thought they were talking about a different NaNoWriMo. Going into that first NaNoWriMo in 1999, I wasn’t sure most of us were going to make it through the first week. I thought we would start writing, get overwhelmed by our own ineptitude, drop out, and never talk about it again. But it turned out to be more fun than we ever dreamed.
When I organized it again the following year, 140 people took part, and I was sure the event had peaked. The year after that, 5,000 people signed up, and some cities (and countries!) began organizing their own chapters. That was when I realized that the NaNoWriMo virus had escaped the laboratory, and that my life was about to change because of that fact. It was a wonderful, confusing time.
How many of the original six winners still participate in NaNoWriMo?
Everyone who won that first year has come back to claim the NaNoWriMo crown at least once more. My friend Dan, who won in 1999, has a dozen victories under his belt. It definitely gets in your blood.
Have you participated in every NaNoWriMo? How did you find the time while running NaNoWriMo and the Office of Letters and Light?
Yes! I’ve been a proud winner every year since 1999. It’s kind of hard for me to imagine a November where I’m not bashing out a 50,000-word novel draft, and I continue look forward to every NaNoWriMo with an embarrassing amount of excitement. NaNoWriMo still feels like Christmas to me. A weird version of Christmas where you’re yoked to a laptop and forced to type a lot before you get any presents. But Christmas all the same.
The time-finding question is a really good one, though. As NaNoWriMo grew, the responsibilities of running the event became more and more intense. My workdays in October and November would start at 6:00 a.m. and end around 3:00 a.m. You’d think this would make it the worst time to try and write a novel, but I found that being so busy actually made it easier to get creative work done. I was more forgiving of the various sins of my first drafts because I was operating under ridiculous time constraints. Which in turn helped my writing flow better, and helped me have more fun with the whole thing. In my sleep-deprived state, I would end up writing these great, spontaneous, true passages that I know I would have second-guessed right out of existence if I’d had more time to overthink it.
Also when you’re surrounded by chaos and stress, fiction writing becomes a wonderful refuge from the madness. After a day of server meltdowns and missing truckloads of NaNoWriMo T-shirts, nothing feels better than climbing up into the imaginary world of a novel and pulling the rope ladder in behind you. It makes writing a treat rather than a chore.
Have participants shared personal journeys with you that left you in awe? Do any particular stories come to mind?
So many! Last year, I met a woman who had been doing NaNoWriMo for years. As we talked about her NaNoWriMo experiences, she confided that she’d been in an abusive relationship when she’d started doing NaNoWriMo. Her husband had spent a lot of time telling her how worthless and stupid she was, and over the years she’d come to believe him. She’d always loved books, so she quietly signed up for NaNoWriMo. She didn’t tell her husband. She didn’t tell anyone. She just waited until November 1 arrived, and started writing. And over the course of November, an entire beautiful world came alive beneath her fingers. She won NaNoWriMo that year, and the feelings of pride and accomplishment from writing her book reopened parts of her that had been closed for a long time. Soon after that, she moved out and filed for divorce. She has a life she loves now. She still writes novels every November.
It starts with a book. But where it goes from there can be pretty amazing.
You seem to be something of an evangelist when it comes to motivating people to write. Why do you think it’s important for people to write?
More than anything else, I think writing is just a lot of fun. It’s a great way to revisit that rollicking, playful space where we spent our days in as kids. Back then, making up stories was our chief occupation. Give a seven-year-old a blank piece of paper and a marker, they’re good for hours. There are a lot of adventures and people and animals and kingdoms and trucks and battles and princesses in a piece of paper.
Somewhere around adolescence, though, most of us stop visiting those imaginary worlds. We get self-conscious. We see that other kids are much better writers or artists than we are, so we cede that creative space to them. And they in turn cede it to others who are better still. The blank page stops being an invitation and becomes intimidating.
But the impulse to create and make and dream is still with us. It doesn’t go away. It just waits, patiently, for us to find a way back to it again. For some adults, it happens through art classes or music lessons. For me, it was through NaNoWriMo. However you get back there, it just feels pretty incredible when you arrive.
On a selfish level, I also think it’s important for everyone to write because I want more great stories to read. If you love books, you should try writing one. Your readers are waiting!
Do you find your academic background in anthropology and social sciences useful in writing?
Anthropology definitely made me be a good observer of the ways people interact with each other, which I think helps in fiction and nonfiction writing (and life in general). Also, anthropology is built around this great, novelistic concept of the ethnography, where you head off into a strange world to document the lives of the people who live there. What could be cooler than that?
My problem with anthropology, though, was that many of my professors in graduate school were so deep into anthropological theory that they’d completely lost touch with actual human beings. Academic writing is often frustratingly dense, and whenever someone in the field wrote clearly or with a sense of humor, I felt like they were looked down on for not being scientific enough.
While I was at the University of Chicago, I started contributing record reviews to the student newspaper. I’d always been a huge music nerd, but this was the first time that I’d gotten a chance to write about the bands and songwriters who were important to me. Being part of a newspaper staff was a dream. I loved the deadlines, camaraderie, and the fact that the things I wrote would be read by regular people. And I found myself thinking: I wish anthropology were more like this. That was a big turning point for me. Instead of sticking around for my Ph.D., I left grad school and came back to the Bay Area to try and make my living as a writer.
Do you have a recommended-reading list of books on the craft of writing?
I really loved Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird (particularly the chapter called “Shitty First Drafts”) and Stephen King’s On Writing. There’s also a comic about the creative process by Lynda Barry called “Two Questions” that I think is brilliant.
When it comes to craft books, the one bit of advice I’d give is to always prioritize writing over reading about writing. This American Life’s Ira Glass has this great quote about the importance of just diving in and writing as much as you can when you’re first starting out.
Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase; they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal, and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take a while. It’s normal to take a while. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.
What is your physical process for composition? Any preferred software, desk, chair, keyboard, notepads, pens, totems, et cetera?
I write on a Dell Latitude 6430u, which I just got two weeks ago, and which I’m pretty convinced has the best keyboard I’ve ever set fingers on. I write with Microsoft Word. Furniture-wise, my home writing station is a beat-up dining room table, and I sit on a $25 Ikea chair that I fear is slowly pinching off every nerve in my lower body. Perhaps because of this, I do most of my writing in cafés. I find I’m able to focus in coffee shops on a level I never reach at home.
When I’m away from my computer, I’m a big believer in notebooks. I like very thin ones I can carry comfortably in my back pocket. I’m currently writing with a Pigma Micron 01 black pen that I bought from a stationery store recently. I will likely lose it in the next few hours and will then resume my normal state of writing with whatever cheap ballpoint pen I accidentally steal from car rental counters and motel lobbies.
Do you have a writing routine?
Yes! I really like routines. My most creative hours are from about nine to noon, and I try to give half of that time to non-deadlined, non-paying projects like novels or scripts. (This is a new development—I used to start my day with paying work and leave the optional fun stuff for later in the day, but I kept finding that “later in the day” often never arrived. So now I eat dessert first.)
After my fiction time, I’ll segue into teaching-prep work, nonfiction book projects, and editorial consulting. That lasts until lunch. After lunch, I usually head out to a Berkeley café for more work-related writing, email-returning, and a jug of caffeine.
What is the best writing advice you’ve received or heard given? What is the worst?
Best: “You can edit a bad book into a great book. But you can’t edit a blank page into anything but a blank page.” I’m not sure who said that, but it’s helped me through a lot of first drafts.
Worst: Anytime someone starts talking about what it means to be “a real writer,” I know I’m in for a treat.
Who would you cite as strong influences in your writing life?
I think Dave Eggers has done amazing things, both on and off the page. I love Nick Hornby’s prose—his tone is one I would kill to have. Lynda Barry, the cartoonist and writer I mentioned earlier, is also a completely inspiring force. If you ever get a chance to take one of her writing workshops or see her speak, do it!
What were you like as a kid? Did you read? Were you entertained by stories? Did you drink coffee?
I’m an only child, and books were definitely my siblings growing up. My parents had this generous policy that they would buy me a book anytime we went to a bookstore, and I definitely abused their kindness by doing everything I could to route every family errand close to a bookstore. I was also a pretty constant presence at the local library.
On the coffee front—it’s funny you ask. I was sadly forbidden from drinking coffee all through my childhood and teenhood. When my parents would go out at night and leave me home alone in fifth and sixth grade, though, I would sometimes sneak up to the kitchen and make myself a cup of instant coffee. It tasted disgusting, but a mug of Folgers seemed like the distilled essence of adult sophistication to me.
How much coffee do you drink?
I’m cutting down! I’m probably down to a pint and a half now? A friend of mine from Scotland recently introduced me to this thing called “tea.” So now I supplement my espresso rations with pots of black tea.
Did you ever hit a point when you thought NaNoWriMo had grown out of control? Did you feel an overwhelming sense of responsibility because so many were following your lead?
Yes. That third year, when I was expecting 200 people and 5,000 folks showed up, everything felt truly, totally out of control. Sign-ups were manual and took me and my friends the better part of three weeks to slog through them all. The website was hacked on November 1, and we got booted by our webhost because we were taking up too much bandwidth. I realized there was no way I could personally check everyone’s final word count by hand, so we went with an honor system, and a lot of people got angry about that. I was in over my head in a hundred different ways, and I just kept telling myself: Survive the month. You just have to survive the month.
How many Thanksgiving dinners has NaNoWriMo ruined?
Hee hee. I think the better question is: How many people have been able to escape interminable Thanksgiving dinners because they were able to say they were contestants in a national novel-writing competition and needed to submit their manuscript by November 30th?
In January 2012 you stepped down as executive director of the Office of Letters and Light to spend more time writing. How did it feel to turn over the keys?
It was a really strange time. It was very easy in that I was passing the baton to a fantastic staff and board who had been running it with me for so many years. I knew they were going to put a lot of love and hard work into keeping it going and growing. But it was also hard because I was still totally in love with the organization and so proud of all it had accomplished. I learned almost everything I know from NaNoWriMo. It changed my life in more ways than I can count.
But after thirteen years, I knew it was time for me to step back a little bit, finish some of the bazillion writing projects I’d started through NaNoWriMo, and launch a few new adventures.
Also sleep. I was very excited about sleeping again.
My new NaNoWriMo role as Board Member Emeritus has been pretty perfect for me. I still get to be involved in the organization, but I also have time to write, spread the high-velocity gospel through classes and talks, and travel around to meet some of the NaNoWriMo volunteers and participants who’ve been a big part of my virtual life for so many years.
When we first contacted you, you were under a book deadline. What have you been working on?
Chronicle Books is putting out an expanded 10th anniversary edition of No Plot? No Problem! in fall 2014. It’s going to have a whole bunch of new stuff from me, new pep talks from published NaNoWriMo authors, and hundreds of new tips from NaNoWriMo veterans. It just made it through copyedits and is now heading to layout. I’m very excited about it.
What is Chris Baty Studios?
It’s a tiny-but-mighty poster company I run out of my living room. I team up with great designers and illustrators and we make posters for writers. The posters are printed here in the Bay Area, packed up lovingly with stickers and other goodies on my coffee table, then shipped worldwide.
Have you ever been approached by TED* to give a talk?
No. TED people: Call me.
Do you have any plans for other group projects/movements?
I did have an idea for a project I liked called One Good Thing. Like NaNoWriMo, it would be based around a specific month. But this would be more about community-building than writing. Participants would come up with a small task or project they could do to make someone in their neighborhood happier, or make their community a better place. Bake cupcakes and take them over to a neighbor you’ve never met. Mow a stranger’s lawn. Hold a whiskey tasting for the residents at the old folks home down the street. Something that wouldn’t be too onerous, that would connect you more deeply to the world around you. A month filled with non-random acts of kindness. Here is a perfect example of the kind of thing I’m thinking of: www.cainesarcade.com.
Everyone would document their project on the One Good Thing website, and favorite projects could be awarded mini-grants so they could keep going and expand. We talked about doing it at the Office of Letters and Light, but it never quite got off the ground.
What are your long-term writing goals?
I’d really love to publish one or two of my NaNoWriMo novels. I’d love to finish and sell a couple of my Script Frenzy screenplays. I’d like to write a follow-up to No Plot? No Problem! about novel revision. I’d like to write a nonfiction book about something. But I’m not quite sure what yet. Llamas? Burritos? If you have any ideas, let me know!
Thank you, Chris. Looking forward to your next bold project! ■
*TED Conferences include science, business, the arts, technology and global issues. The nonprofit started in 1984 to bring together people from Technology, Entertainment, and Design. Conferences were released online through TEDTalks and now have an audience in the millions. For more information visit www.ted.com.
Chris Baty website: http://www.chrisbaty.com/
National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo): http://nanowrimo.org/
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This interview appears in the Fall 2013 issue of Small Print Magazine: http://smallprintmagazine.com/issues/fall-2013/