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Q&A with Chris Baty, NaNoWriMo founder

National Novel Writing Month is the brain child of Chris Baty, a San Franciscan who took November off to write a book and found a few friends to join him. It's become a global phenomenon with more than 150,000 participants. Chris chatted about the future of writing, the Office of Light and Letters, book piracy and the bright future for the story in the age of laptops and Kindle.

Hackpacker: What made you start NaNoWriMo? Was it a tool to beat your own procrastination?

Chris Baty: The "why" of it all is such a good question. It wasn't because I had a novel in me that I was dying to write. I'd always loved novels and worshipped novelists but had never really thought I would write a book of my own. Until I started planning the first NaNoWriMo, I believed that novelists were a (superior) alien race that had been beamed down to Earth to delight and intimidate the rest of the planet.

Then, in 1999, I quit my full-time job and try to make a living as a freelance writer. I was living in San Francisco, and the internet boom was in full flower and the streets were filled with cash and you could do things like quit full-time jobs and become a writer without anyone giving you pitying or worried looks. I was doing music writing, travel writing, lots of web stuff for different companies. I loved being a freelancer, but writing for a living also made the whole creative process feel very serious all of a sudden. Each day's writerly successes or failures felt like they had looming implications for the rest of my career.

Enter the idea of getting a bunch of friends together and writing novels in a month. By starting NaNoWriMo, I accidentally created a 30-day refuge from that pressure. It was exhilarating to know from the get-go that our books would suck. They had to! We were writing them in 30 days! But the strange thing about lowering our expectations and focusing on quantity is that we were able to stop feeling intimidated by the endeavor and just write. The books turned out okay. The month was one of the funnest times I'd ever had. And I knew that if me and my friends could write passable books in a month, anyone could.

HP: NaNoWriMo began in 1999 - happy belated 10th birthday. How does it feel to have something that started with 20-odd people become a worldwide event? When did you first start thinking it was getting really big?

CB: In 1999, I really didn't think it would be an annual event. To be honest, I didn't think we'd last out the month. And I never dreamed we'd have more than a couple hundred folks taking part. I think it says something great about the human imagination and innate drive to make stuff that a writing contest where the main prize is the manuscript itself could somehow grow to be the largest in the world.

I first realized it had taken on a life of its own in 2001 when I went to a copymat in downtown Oakland. The employee - a guy I had never seen before - handed my copies to me and then said, out of nowhere: "I only made it to 23,000 words." No introduction. Just a quiet sharing of his NaNoWriMo word count. I walked away thinking: What just happened?

HP: This year things got high tech over at the NaNoWriMo site with profiles that act as social networking between novelists and daily stats on how you're doing against the required word counts. How important is that ability to check in with other writers?

I think it's very important! It's amazing how much easier it is to actually finish a draft when your novel is a matter of public record. You're much more accountable to yourself when everyone can check on your word-count each day. Also, having 150,000 other souls noveling alongside you creates its own creative momentum that can help keep you going when the going gets tough.

HP: People who complete NaNoWriMo get a neat 'winner' badge for completing their 50,000 words. For some people that's almost enough. How many participants go back and re-draft their manuscripts?

CB: You also get a winner's certificate! Which, um, you have to download and write your own name on. But still…

To the question of revision: We do a survey every year, and if I'm remembering the results correctly, over 60% of our participants say they plan on revising their novel and finding a publisher for it. At this point, we're heading towards 50 manuscripts that have found homes with traditional print publishers, including one #1 US bestseller. Given the sheer number of first drafts written during NaNoWriMo, I'm guessing we'll be up to 200 manuscripts sold within the next couple years. And ebooks! We're about to roll out a list of folks who have sold their NaNo novels to ebook publishers, and it's going to be a sight to behold. The number of people who have self-published their NaNoWriMo novels numbers in the tens of thousands.

HP: You've written a novel for every year - that's ten manuscripts. How are they going? Do you get time to re-draft them or are you thinking about next year?
CB: Revising a novel is one of the hardest (and most satisfying) creative projects I've ever tackled. It feels like doing a wall-sized Sudoku puzzle - there are just so many ways to get it wrong and progress feels interminably slow some times. Even worse, you sort of have the rest of your life to work on, it so there's no helpful pressure to get the thing finished. I've been working hard at revising my 2005 NaNoWriMo novel for a couple years now, though, and I hope to have to have it out to potential publishers before November. Or before I die. It just takes so much longer than it should!

HP: I started doing NaNoWriMo a couple of years ago and I really appreciated the deadlines and the manic need to write everyday, but freelancing got in the way and I gave up just shy of 20,000 words. How do you get around the distractions of life when writing?

CB: I know! It is really hard. Especially since most of us aren't getting paid to work on our novels, so other activities that prevent us from getting evicted from our homes tend to take priority over fiction-writing.

My sense from running NaNoWriMo over the past decade is that the biggest thing separating people who hit the 50,000-word goal in November from those who fall short is that those who went the distance had mentally committed themselves and their month to the escapade. We have manically busy CEOs and sleep-deprived high school students and stay-at-home moms with five kids in to look after who all win every year. It's not really a question of whether you have time to write a novel. Because none of us ever have time to write a novel. It's a question of whether you make time to write a novel.

In terms of NaNoWriMo, I find it's easier to stay on track if you get a big word-count lead right out of the gate. It's also easier to stay on track if you tell everyone you know you're doing it. It's that accountability thing again. The fear of personal humiliation is a very powerful writing motivator.

HP: NaNoWriMo is run as a project of the Office of Light and Letters. OLL runs a whole slew of events now including Script Frenzy and the Come Write In events where you invite people to work in their local library or indie bookstore. Are you bent on world domination? What next for OLL?

CB: Hee hee. Yes! World domination! One of the places we're really putting a lot of resources is our classroom-based Young Writers Program. For YWP, kids choose a word-count goal (in NaNoWriMo) or a page-count goal (for Script Frenzy), and then they write like crazy to meet that goal. We provide fun, free hands-on writing curriculum for teachers, along with kid-oriented websites, workbooks stickers, posters, and other goodies for students. It's really helped kids around the world discover how much fun writing can be, and has helped overworked teachers tap into a more adventuresome approach to language arts instruction. (It also usually means that teachers get to write a novel along with their students, which is kind of great.)

HP: NaNoWriMo has spread its message really effectively over the web and gets writers using technology to make them less isolated. How else do you see writes and their writing craft changing with new technology?

CB: That's such a good question! I really think that cheap laptops with long-lasting batteries have brought writing into more people's lives because they allow us to get out of our distraction-filled homes and into cafes or libraries (where a lot of us find we can focus better). It'll also be interesting to see how the current generation of teens - who grew up completely enmeshed in online worlds - end up developing their creative selves. For awhile, it felt like every teen had a blog or a livejournal, and that seemed like a really promising development to me. There's no better way to develop a writerly voice (and hone your storytelling skills) than by condensing your life into narrative form for regular readers. Now that we're moving away from blogs and towards tweets and two-sentence status updates, I'm not so sure what will happen.

HP: There's a lot of talk at the moment about publishing changing dramatically with the arrival of the Kindle creating lower priced books. What impact do you think this will have on writers? What will publishers look like in ten years time?

CB: Another great question. I wish I knew! One of the interesting things that I'm not seeing a lot of discussion about is the fact that we're sailing into an era of widespread book piracy, where every book available in an electronic version will be downloadable for free on bit torrent sites. This will mean that a huge chunk of teens and twentysomethings will stop paying for books altogether; authors will see their already-meager royalties reduced; and writers will begin facing the same pressures that musicians currently face to make money through secondary channels like public events and limited-run collector's editions. I think this works great if you're charismatic, love being a public figure, have the luxury of being able to travel constantly, and have a publisher who is willing to make and market special products based on your work. Authors aren't traditionally known for their stage presence, though, and publishers can be slow to adapt to new opportunities.

Hmmm…. I do think that the high participation rates in something like NaNoWriMo is a bright sign for the enduring power of books and stories. In a historical moment when people are supposedly abandoning books, over 200,000 adults will sit down in November and write a novel just because it seems like an interesting or fun thing to do. That gives me a lot of hope for the future.

Photo by Susan Burdick


  1. Hackpacker, when you reached that 20,000 words in your NaNoWriMo attempt, how many hours a day were you writing?

    I've often thought about participating, but I don't have a good idea of exactly how much time it would take each day.

  2. I've gotta ask...Which No. 1 bestseller? Or would revealing that be a breach of someone's contract? Anyone hazard a guess?

  3. @parlance. NaNoWriMo has a word count for each day which I think is something like 1,600 words over thirty days, so depending on how fast you write it can be as much as two hours or as little as thirty minutes. There's lots of good tips in Chris' book, No Plot No Problem, which gives you advice on how to plan your NaNoWriMo.

  4. Hey HP,
    I did Nanowrimo last year and got 23,000 words which I was wrapped with, considering the small people...

    I worked between one and two hours most nights, watched NO TV and didn't read much either.

    No blogging, tweeting or futzing around the interweb either.

    I'm now 1.5 chapters from the end of said first draft of novel and approaching 60,000 words so the model worked really well for me as a carrot.

    Dunno if I'll ever make the 1667 words per day though. Thanks for interview, big-G.

  5. @anna, it's good to just dedicate teh time to it isn't it? 23K beats my effort. You can read more of Anna's NaNoWriMo experiences here:


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