An Interview with National Novel Writing Month’s Chris Baty

NaNoWriMo's Chris Baty talks about why novel writing is like pick-up basketball, how to make your creative work a priority, and The Year of Big, Fun, Scary Adventures.

Chris Baty

Photo credit: Susan Burdick

How does National Novel Writing Month define a novel?

We define a novel as a minimum of fifty thousand words of fiction. Which is just kind of a ridiculous definition, but it creates a sense of structure, and the boundaries of the game are set. That’s about as close as we want to get to coming up with a definition for it. Leaving it malleable and open fits in well with the idea that, really, what we want to do is be sort of a creative kick in the pants for everybody.

We get a lot of emails saying, “I’m doing X. Am I allowed to do that in your contest?” And the answer’s usually, “Well, as the official keeper of the Great Rule Book of Month-Long Creativity Escapades, the answer is no, but as somebody who understands the joys of making stuff, we’re gonna pretend we didn’t get this email, and you just go about your business.” [laughs]

What do you think it says that one hundred and twenty thousand people signed on to write a novel last November?

There’s a profound love of the book, and I think that that hasn’t changed. There’s some absolute magic in these stories bound and placed on pages, whether digital or paper. The idea of creating this world that you, as the originator of the world, lose yourself in first, and then subsequently, you can share that pathway into this realm with others — both creating and sharing are incredibly enriching things. There’s nothing quite like handing somebody this brick of paper that they can step into and meet people and smell things and see things. It’s an act of alchemy, really….

I think also, fundamentally, not many of us are lucky enough to have [a job] where we invent and we dream and we conjure. And the idea of spending thirty days exploring the outer limits of our imagination is appealing, whether that’s writing a novel or a script or recording a record. Having that time period where, “It’s going to start this day and end that day, and in between, this creative project that tends to flow to the very bottom of my lifetime to-do list is going to be at the very top, and I’m going to orient my life around this project rather than vice versa” — that’s deeply appealing to people who have very busy lives.

So even if there’s not necessarily a reader at the other end of the month, people just want that experience?

Right. It feels good. It pokes your brain in ways and places your brain’s not otherwise poked. It’s a lot like playing a sport in that you’re competing against yourself and you have the focus and momentum that only comes when you have this set of boundaries.


What have you found helps people make it all through?

… it’s kind of amazing, the things that people do and all they really needed was the sense of a public declaration. You give people a deadline and a community and miracles happen every time.

[Your NaNoWriMo novel] isn’t something you’re likely to get paid for, so it’s very hard to make it a priority. One of the ways you can help yourself make it a priority is the deadline. Another way is to let as many people as possible know that you’re on this adventure and they should hold your feet to the fire….

We have regional chapters in about five hundred cities around the world now where almost every night of the week [during that month] you can go into a Starbucks and there’ll be other National Novel Writing Month participants there writing, and those people are going to say, “Hey Dan, how’s your word count?” And then there are online check-ins, and you have this very public author profile that has a word-count bar on it. As you write, you add to that number, the bar grows, and that’s a little bit of razzle dazzle to help the author feel good, but ultimately, it’s also there for their cheerleaders to see….

The big lesson for any sustained creative activity is that there’ll be ups and downs. There’ll be parts where you feel like you’re king of the world and that you should’ve been doing this your whole life. And there’ll be times when you just feel like the biggest hack that’s ever lived, and all you want to do is bury your laptop in the backyard and pretend that the whole thing had never even started. And everybody goes through that whether they’re a Nobel Prize-winning author or this is their first book and they’re just feeling their way through it.

If you don’t have some sense of what will happen if you quit that project, if there’s not this fear of something, it’s just so easy to let go of it and think, “I’ll try it again next year” or “This isn’t the right story.” In National Novel Writing Month, I feel like every story is the right story, that there are really no wrong turns in this month-long experiment in creative writing, all books are good books, and all words are good words.


Chris Baty is the founder of and Program Director for National Novel Writing Month (aka “NaNoWriMo”), a prize-free contest held each November in which participants attempt to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. In 2008, nearly 120,000 people signed on and over 20,000 “won” — making it through to other side, first draft in hand. All told, participants wrote an astounding 1.6 billion words.

Baty and the Office of Letters and Light also run a month-long script-writing event called “Script Frenzy,” in which more than 12,000 participants wrote over 180,000 pages in 2009.

He’s a novelist himself, having participated in each year’s NaNoWriMo, as well as the author of No Plot, No Problem, “A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days.”

On the Web: NaNoWriMo, Script Frenzy,No Plot, No Problem

How does community help?

When you write with a partner — not that you’re sharing the work but you’re each doing individual works — it absolutely increases the likelihood of you both finishing. We have a lot of families that do NaNoWriMo together, and they’re basically shoe-ins for “wins” because they’re constantly comparing word counts: “I have 5,300 words.” “Oh crap, I have 3,200 words — and the last thing I’m gonna do is let my mother beat me at this.” “Alright, I’m gonna stay up late tonight. I’m tired but I’m gonna do this” — just so that in the morning you can say, “I have 5,400 words.”

In that way, they’re taking this absolutely terrifying creative undertaking of writing a novel in a month and breaking it down into this series of competitive leaps. That helps unspook people who tend to be spooked by this idea that a novel should be great on the first draft, and if the sentences are clunky they shouldn’t be doing this. It gets them focused on quantity instead of quality, which in the case of a first draft is really all you should be thinking about — this notion of creating this block of words that you can then later go back and revise and start fine-tuning into a more cohesive work.

Is that also intended to relax people into a state where they can let loose?

Yeah, and it really does. Part of National Novel Writing Month’s success, the reason so many people keep doing it, is that it’s an event. I didn’t study English in college. I always loved books. I loved writing. But I’m an anthropology major, and I didn’t come at this from the position of an aspiring novelist who really was frustrated by the realities in the publishing market so I made my own world. It was really just like, “Man, books are so cool, and wouldn’t it be cool to write a book?” And because of that, there isn’t this unnecessary stultifying reverence for the literary art form.

I see novels as an enormous, exciting puzzle or something similar to the local middle school basketball court where you can go up on Saturday with your friends and have a great day losing yourself in this game and the thrill of competition. Novel writing is the best video game on the planet, one that requires so many different aspects of your imagination and so many different aspects of your life management skills. It really takes a lot of focus and discipline. The creative side of it is just one component.

What role does the website play?

Having a site that people can visit and update their word counts helps keep the bond to the book high and helps them continue to write. On every page of the site now, you can update your word count. A novel is such a miasma of ideas and prose and inspiration, it’s such an indefinite thing, and when you can attach metrics to your progress — nail it down in terms of words and easily feed that count into the machine and have the machine recognize it and start building that progress graph that shows that you’re doing it — you’re halfway there; you’re three-quarters of the way there! I think it really does increase the commitment to the pursuit and help people see it through to the end.

When you’re revising your rough draft during the year, are there any techniques from NaNoWriMo that you try to apply?

Deadlines are an essential carryover. What I’ve found in revision is that it always takes about ten times as long as you think it will. At first, I would say, “I’m going to have this draft done by April 15, and I’ll give it to you then.” After blowing so many April 15 deadlines, I think what you need to do is try to keep it within a ballpark. Break it down into phases — that’s a really helpful carryover from National Novel Writing Month.
For me, making sense of what I’ve written in that month is usually a process of stepping back. I tend to then do a chapter-by-chapter synopsis of the whole book and make sure that the electricity is flowing through each [chapter] and the characters are in the right places and the settings are kind of a dynamic mix so they’re not all taking place indoors in somebody’s bedroom or something.

Where did the idea for creating a student version of NaNoWriMo come from?

It started back in 2004 with teachers at the elementary, middle, and high school level who had done NaNoWriMo themselves and thought, “Is there some way I can bring this into my classroom, some kind of hands-on approach to creative writing that doesn’t feel too stilted, that’s going to be engaging to kids?”…

We have kits with a poster for the classroom and a progress chart that has slots for all the kids’ names, and we send them stickers. They set their own word-count goals — for a teenage classroom, it might be fifty thousand words, but for second graders it might be one thousand words. And it can be per kid or per group…. You fill the progress chart up with stickers as you go that spell out NaNoWriMo, and then there’s a gold star, and once you’ve filled up your graph, you get this really exciting candy-colored button that says “Novelist” on it and has some lighting bolts.

And just this idea of writing becoming like play — something you want to beat your friends at — it helps them lower their reservations about, “Ugh, I’m doing school work,” or “Oh god, I hate writing.” Instead, it’s like, “I’m beating Joseph,” “My word count is so far above Latricia’s; you are so going down.” It’s been amazing.

We have a reading for Bay Area classrooms at a bookstore every year with first graders getting up and reading their stories about the Halloween Monkey. These kids are up to my knee, and we bend the microphone down, and that experience of having created something and going to a reading in a bookstore with a group of rapt adults standing around them — that really changes their sense of what it means to be creative and who gets to be creative.

There’s also an April event for scriptwriters — how does that differ from NaNoWriMo?

The first year that we did Script Frenzy, it was a really interesting challenge. Everybody can have a novel that they’re kicking around. Everybody’s read novels and can understand the form. But scripts — we’ve seen movies and TV shows, but nobody knows what the blueprint of those look like. And that’s what a script is — it’s a blueprint for the version that gets staged or filmed. So there was a fair amount of education that had to take place…. It was an interesting and also difficult thing for us to do because for the first time, we were getting into the idea of how to do this, which is something we’d always avoided.

Instruction, as opposed to being in the creative-kick-in-the-pants business?

Exactly. Craft rather than endurance. But I think you need that with script writing. And it turned out, actually, that the formatting takes about two seconds. There’s free open source software called Celtx that anybody can download that makes it a snap.
That first year, when I took part and wrote a script, it was that same “Eureka!” moment — that this is so much fun, especially coming from a novel-writing perspective where you have room for very flabby prose, the economical nature of scripts helped me understand dialogue in a way that I never had before. Everything has to lead to the next thing. You can’t just have those circular conversations that are kind of charming because characters are funny. It needs to go someplace. And there are real joys there.

But because scriptwriting is such a professionalized thing, and you can sell a script and make a pretty good amount of money, it’s a much more regulated marketplace. There aren’t as many people thinking, “I write movies for fun.” It’s more like, “I’m writing a movie because I want to sell it and have Jean-Claude Van Damme star in it.”

When we first introduced the idea, the existing script-writing community said, “This is stupid. There are no celebrity judges here. This is not going help me get a deal. Why would I want to do this?” This will be our third year, and we’re now the largest script-writing event in the world. More and more everyday people who love movies and love plays are starting to have that same realization that NaNoWriMo participants had — that you can do this, and it feels great to do this. And that’s been exciting — slowly making inroads into something that was very professionalized and cloistered in a way.

Where would you like this all to lead 15, 20 years from now?

For us, organizationally, our question is what other realms can we open up with this idea of community, a deadline, and some encouragement? If we can get one hundred and twenty thousand adults to write a novel in a month, and twenty-two thousand kids and teens in five hundred classrooms around the world to try the same project, and they actually do it and have a great time doing it, and it changes their relationship to writing and literature, what else can we do with that idea?

At the end of NaNoWriMo every year, we run this event called, “The Year of Big, Fun, Scary Adventures.” NaNoWriMo nicely fades out in December, which is when you start thinking about the next year and New Year’s resolutions. So I challenge everybody to come up with one thing in their life that they’ve long wanted to do but have always been a little bit intimidated by and maybe a little bit scared of — it could be going back to school and getting another degree or starting a business or coming out to your parents. Just something that has been nagging at you — and to publicly post that on the NaNoWriMo website in that “Big, Fun, Scary Adventure” forum and then spend a year going after it and keeping everybody up to date.

It’s up to you to pick whatever your project is, but then there is that sense of accountability in community and then if you do it, we make a certificate for you that’s like the NaNoWriMo winner certificate that you download can put your name on, and there’s a little web badge. And it’s kind of amazing, the things that people do and all they really needed was the sense of a public declaration. You give people a deadline and a community and miracles happen every time.

You started this out with a circle of friends. Was there a moment when you realized you’d hit on something big?

I think that was the third year, where we went from one hundred and forty participants, most of whom I knew or were friends of friends, to five thousand participants, who I didn’t know and who almost gave me a nervous breakdown [laughs] because I really wasn’t ready to have five thousand participants on this website where signups weren’t automated.

You had to send me an email and I would hand-post your name in alphabetical order on the HTML page, and I would personally send you a welcome email and then send you an invitation to join the Yahoo! club that functioned as our message board. The plan was, these people would email me their word counts three times over the course of the month and I would post it on their behalf and move the progress bar for them. And when you have suddenly five thousand people, just getting them signed up for the event ended up taking about a week, and having friends on board and doing this almost twenty hours a day.

[It] was really a moment of disbelief and shock for me. I just kept thinking that these people don’t realize this is a contest without prizes [laughs]. Or that winning manuscripts get thrown away unread. I mean, that’s not a great way to run a writing contest. And the idea that five thousand people would want to do this just for the sake of doing it really was an ah-ha moment. It didn’t make sense to me except for the fact that I had seen that it works — that this actually is a reasonable way to write a novel.
That year, in the midst of all of that, I had this surreal moment of listening to NPR — this was around November 3 — and hearing the sonorous NPR desk say, “November is National Novel Writing Month, and our correspondent….” and I did this double take at the stereo.

You just happened to be listening?

I had no idea it was going to happen. There was an LA correspondent who was taking part in NaNoWriMo and using voice recognition software — it was this humorous piece about using voice recognition software. And just to hear Corey Flintoff or whoever it was say this, it was definitely a Fantasia moment where I was like, “Oh god, this thing has come alive.”

The idea of naming it “National Novel Writing Month” was such a preposterous in-joke when it started. There were twenty of us. We were in the Bay Area. We clearly weren’t national. We didn’t know what we were doing on the novel-writing front. I didn’t know if we were going to last the month [laughs]. It was just this overcaffeinated idea.

If you’d named it, “my pals are writing a novel together for thirty days” it might not have taken off the same way.

Overly ambitious naming may be key to any group creative undertaking.

By that third year, we were international with a bullet. Seeing that idea jump national boundaries was also exhilarating and totally terrifying — “Oh God, they’re doing this in Germany and they’re doing this in France and in China”…. It was one of those moments of just incomprehension at the way the idea had spread.

And I think the reason it spread is just because we do need a little bit of structure. And we need somebody to tell us it’s time. And I think that’s really what National Novel Writing Month’s message is: There’s a book out there that the world is waiting for you to write. And now is the time to write it.

Category: Writing

One comment on “An Interview with National Novel Writing Month’s Chris Baty

  1. Another cool interview. I think this could be a great campaign for improving literacy and communication in the U.S. I still have never done Nanowrimo (too much writing in progress) but I may fudge this year and use it to finish a novel, rather than start one from scratch. I feel that should be included in the definition. Good interview!

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