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In November of 2003, 25,000 caffeine-fueled scribes sat down to complete a novel in the course of a month. Over 3,500 of them met their goal: 50,000 words by midnight, Nov. 30. Now, as November rolls around again, a whole slew of budding novelists are priming their speed-typing and sharpening pencils.
Chris Baty, a proud resident of Oakland, Calif., is responsible for this exercise in absurdity (or lyricism, or post-modernism, or banality). Baty has been heading up National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in which participants, with motivation from cohorts around the world connected through the Web site, complete a 50,000 word novel in the 30 days of November. Since founding the escapade in 1999, Baty claims he has set a reassuringly low bar for budding novelists everywhere.
Baty is a freelance writer by trade; his work has appeared in the Washington Post, the SF Weekly, the Minneapolis City Pages, and Lonely Planet guidebooks. When not bossing strangers around, Chris spends debilitating amounts of time in coffee shops and record stores. His companion guide to NaNoWriMo, " No Plot? No Problem!" (Chronicle Books) has just been published, and writers around the world are cracking their knuckles, stocking up on coffee and getting ready to write.
Jordan Rosenfeld: Where did you get the idea for National Novel Writing Month?
Chris Baty: Back in June of 1999 I had just finished a writing project and had that overly-ambitious energy that comes from being done with something large. Instead of doing what I should have done, which was to rest for awhile, my immediate thought was to do something bigger. Thankfully I'm blessed with friends who tend to say yes when they should probably say no. I convinced 20 others that we should write a novel in a month. None of us expected that we would write master works, or even passable novels. Mediocre was definitely the highest that we were hoping for. But it turned into something much larger than that over the years.
How did you go to the next phase, starting this massive Web site?
Well, we did have a Web site that first year, something I uploaded to some generic server using Microsoft Word's save-as-HTML feature. That first year was such a revelation where, although we had very low expectationssix of us ended up writing 50,000 words and none of us had seen ourselves as novel writers or even fiction writersit was a chance to spend a month romping around in our imaginations, which is hard to get the time to do. Before that experience I felt you had to be a professional novelist and have a card that presented your affiliation with some global noveling organization. I thought you needed some sort of training for that. You don't. If you spend a month writing a novel, plot happens.
It was such an eye opening experience that I thought, if I can do this and my friends can do this, anybody can do this and so we set out the following year to do it again. I had a friend offer to make an actual Web site at an actual domain. At that point I thought that was a way overly-ambitious plan. But the second year we went from 21 to 141 people and then it just kept going.
When you started getting up in the numbers of over 5,000 peopleand I know it's quite a bit over that nowdid you experience overwhelm or were you excited?
I was simultaneously excited and overwhelmed. The nervous breakdown happened at year three where we still had the same site from year two, but everything was done by hand, by me. When we hit 5000 it involved a lot of sleepless nights and a lot of kindhearted friends who put their life and limb on the line. There have been a lot of growing pains, where it's always exciting but also totally terrifying, like the whole thing was going to implode. There never was a master plan from the get-go to bring literary empowerment and fiction writing to the world; it's been more about fun.
The rate at which it has grown has a lot to do with the fact that it's Web-based, don't you think?
NaNoWriMo couldn't exist without the internet. But I see it as a Web-enabled event, because the real events take place in Detroit, Stockholm, Tokyo, London, where individual NaNoWriMo chapters are getting together in bars, libraries and coffee shops giving each other the support that helps you get through this mammoth undertaking. When people refer to NaNoWriMo as a Web site, I disagree; it's a real-world face-to-face experience, facilitated by the website.
You are a non-profit aren't you?
No. We're a for-profit organization fiscally sponsored by a non-profit organization, and we're sort of a strange beast. I ultimately decided it would take too much money to run a year-round nonprofit and I'm able to keep it leaner and meaner this way, with an off-season. But we work hard to have the trappings of a non-profit, such as fiscal transparency, showing everybody where the money is going to go, letting everybody know how much we've raised and having a philanthropic mission.
How many participants and winners did you have last year? What are your projected numbers for this year?
We had 25,500 participants last year. I believe we had over 5,000 that completed it. This year we will have, I am guessing, anywhere between 40 and 50 thousand. The success rate has hovered around 18% for most years. Last year it took a dip downward because we had so many more participants.
Since there is no monetary reward, what might people be getting out of slaving away at a novel in a month?
The largest reward is the tremendous satisfaction of having tackled a really huge and daunting project. Novel writing is a really intimidating undertaking, especially if you love books. I think that's why amateur writers who just set out to write a novel on their own with no time pressure or community end up shelving them after a couple chapters. You can't help but compare these sentences and characters you're creating to these finished products that you love so much.
I think that writing a novel in a month helps you get past that sort of perfectionist nitpicky inner editor that basically says 'that's not good enough. Why don't you go back and revise that sentence for the next three days?' It's an empowering and productive way to write. And when you're finished there's this new sense of 'my god, if I could write a mediocre novel in a month, imagine what I could do in a year!' I think people get the sense that the creative capacity most people have is almost infinite and it's about whether you'll make the time to sit down and access it.
Your new book, "No Plot? No Problem!" talks a person through what NaNoWriMo is all about. What are a couple of off-the-cuff tips you use to convince people they can write a novel in a month?
The first thing is to get people to admit they have even the kernel of an interest, which can take some doing. The older we get, the more specialized we get. When you're a kid you're a ballerina one day or a doctor the next; you do all these things without the fear of 'am I good enough?' It's a sense of play for play's sake. What I try to do is hold up this novel experiment as a chance to get back to that pure play sense where there are no stakes and no punishment if you don't do it.
In the book I talk about embracing this idea of 'an exuberant imperfection' where you commit to the idea of making mistakes, rolling up your sleeves and just plunging into it. Yes, bad things will come out of your pen, your plots won't entirely make sense and there will be a lot of filler. But if you embrace that ahead of time as a chance to learn by successes as well as failures you open up creative realms you don't normally get into.
Are there some NaNoWriMo publishing success stories?
This year will be the second NaNoWriMo'er published by a major publisheran author named Lani Diane Rich. She stumbled on the Web site two years ago and had never written a novel before. She thought 'why not, what's the worst that can happen?' She ended up getting a two-book deal with Warner Books. Her first manuscript from NaNoWriMo two years ago is out this month. She's since gotten another two-book deal. It's an atypical scenario but I think we'll continue to hear a lot more stories like this as the years go on.
Every year I get e-mails from people who have taken their NaNoWriMo and hacked them into short stories and won contests or had them published. We've had people submit their manuscripts and get work-in-progress grants from literary foundations that support writers. It seems like every month there is a new story.
I heard someone even met the love of their life through NaNoWriMo?
It's true. There's this kind of underground NaNoWriMo dating pool that goes on. We even debated whether we wanted to put marital status in people's profiles because it is a chance to meet these people that you have a lot in common with, crazy as you are, people who would find spending a month slaving over a novel a good idea.
Do you ever get any nasty commentary, where someone says the equivalent of: 'All the world needs are a bunch of amateur novelists sitting around producing more work to fill up the slush piles?'
I haven't heard it directly, but I know it's out there. I could understand it if that person was forced to read every manuscript written, but that doesn't happen. I don't think we're flooding the world! I think a lot of these books are written for personal reasons. The vast majority of them never go beyond the hard-drive or their families. That negative attitude ultimately misses the point of the whole endeavor.
Talk to me a little about the future of NaNoWriMo, new directions, things we don't know about?
The goal is always to make the site more interactive to be more of a conduit and a catalyst for people meeting each other in towns and cities all over the world.
One of the most important things we're doing this year is working with an international children's literacy nonprofit called Room to Read. What they do is build libraries in places like Cambodia, Laos and Nepal. Then they hire local authors to write children's book in the local language and team up with local illustrators. Then they pay to have those books printed in-country. It's not only encouraging kids to read, but its having a positive economic effect as well. It seemed like a real fit for us.
I've been feeling that NaNoWriMo does a world of personal good, but that there was also some international good that we could do. So this year we'll donate 50% of our net proceeds to Room to Read earmarked for Cambodian libraries. We're hoping to establish at least two libraries. Every year I would like to come up with some project similar to this.
The Web site for NaNoWriMo has become sort of global community with people all over the world connecting up. Did you see yourself as a community-building person before this all began?
No, that's developed. When all of this started it was just to have something to do and to impress attractive strangers at parties with the novelist status. It was started for the silliest of reasons. I feel so lucky to have been part of this as it grows and spreads. I've been learning a ton every year about Web-enabled communities. We've done a small amount and there's still so much work to be done.
What do people need to know to get started in November?
Sign-ups are open. Come to www.nanowrimo.org. It's free. You'll get an account and will be able to start posting on the forums and finding out where the local kickoff parties will take place. The actual writing starts Nov. 1 through the 30. The goal is to write 50,000 words in the month. If you're successful, you'll get a dazzling web icon you can put on your Web site or blog, as well as a PDF of a winner's certificate and your name will be enshrined on the NaNoWriMo winner's page, which is something you can tell your grandchildren about.
I would say this to people who are considering it: you have nothing to lose. The worst case scenario is that you will write more than you've written in years, probably your whole life. Best case scenario is that you'll write a book that is amazing to you and maybe fulfills a long ambition you've had.
Transcription excerpted from an interview with Jordan E. Rosenfeld on "Word by Word: Conversations with Writers." (KRCB Radio)
Jordan E. Rosenfeld is a freelance writer living in Northern California and the host of Word by Word: Conversations with Writers, on KRCB Radio.