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The Chris Baty Interview, pt. 2

And now we continue our interview with NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty with Crossroads Writer Makenna Johnston

NaNoWriMo founder and author Chris Baty

Makenna: Do you still try to write a novel every November?

Chris: I do still write a novel every November!

M: NaNoWriMo focuses on the get it done, fast first draft mentality of writing. We’d love to hear your thoughts on the ‘then what?’ and revision process.

C: That first NaNoWriMo was such a shock because I discovered that you can write a totally credible novel draft in 30 days. But the subsequent thirteen years I’ve spent revising my NaNoWriMo manuscripts have taught me that getting a novel from promising first draft to finished product is HARD.

I absolutely believe that the first draft of a story is best tackled in a deadline-driven frenzy. When you write for quantity rather than quality, you end up getting both. But when it comes to revision, you can’t just wing it. And because editing requires years of mucking around with a not-quite-there story, it’s really easy to lose momentum and give up.

There are two tips I’ve found really helpful in keeping a book moving steadily through the rewrite process. 1) Work out your entire story arc before you start on the second draft. I tend to write up a ten-page synopsis of my book and share it with readers. Then I revise the synopsis based on their feedback. You’ll save yourself months of aimless wandering if you make a map before you head into the wilds of your novel. 2) Let your prose be ugly until you reach the third or fourth draft. This is SO hard to do, but trying to make your sentences sing in the second draft is like trying to decorate a house that’s still under construction. Entire blocks of your book will end up getting changed or cut between the second and third drafts. Your creative hours are too precious to waste them fine-tuning prose and dialogue that won’t make it into the final draft. Let everything be clunky as long as possible.

M: I’m sure my MFA professors would balk at your prose comment! :) (I wont’ tell them don’t worry. :) ) Why do you think the story is more important than the initial prose? Has this always been true, or is this changing due to reader and publisher expectations?

“No Plot? No Problem!” written by Crossroads 2012 guest Chris Baty

C: Ha! Thank you for your discretion. ;) In my experience, writing projects really don’t come into their own until the second draft. This is true of shorter non-fiction pieces, but it’s particularly acute with novels. The story you think you’re writing in Chapter One turns out to be very different than the story you have on your hands by the time you hit The End. Which is great! Those elements of surprise and discovery are what make novel drafts so much fun to write. But it also means that people who spend months (or years) agonizing over the opening chapters of their books before tackling the rest of the story are likely fine-tuning prose that will end up on the cutting room floor.

I still polish prematurely all the time, and because of that, it’s taken me seven years to revise a short Young Adult novel. Writers: Learn from my mistakes! Use your writing hours wisely! Postpone that polishing!

M: One of our Crossroaders asked “Please oh please would you make a NaNoWriMo tracking app for my phone so I can carry NaNoWriMo with me everywhere?” Any thought about mobile technology?

C: It’s such a great idea! I’d love to have an app that sends goons to my house if I ever fall more than 10,000 words behind in November.

Chris Baty will be the lunch keynote speaker at the 4th annual Crossroads Writers Conference. If you haven’t already registered, do so while you still have time! 

NaNoWriMo founder and author Chris Baty

The Chris Baty Interview, pt. 1

Writer Makenna Johnston interviews NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty

One sunny November 1st in New York City, I started my first attempt at NaNoWriMo, steamy coffee mug in hand. I thought to myself ‘why not write a novel in a month?’. The answer? It wasn’t as easy as I had though. When November 31st rolled around, I hadn’t completed a novel, but I had spent a month writing daily, drank some 100 cups of coffee, and successfully sat in 20 different coffee shops late at night. I’d call it a success. What I did learn, other than that writing a novel in a month is arduous, is that being a writer wasn’t as novel or romantic as I thought it would be (pun intended). And I certainly didn’t need a fedora or a tweed coat to do it.

So what sort of guy convinces thousands of people year after year to sit down and write a novel in a month? The inimitable Chris Baty.

And guess who’s coming Crossroads this year?! The Chis Baty. The main inspiration and mad man behind NaNoWriMo, I’m not excited, I swear. Ok so maybe I am really excited. I asked a number of our Facebook followers what they wanted me to ask him. I hope I did your bidding appropriately good Crossroad-ers. Without further adieu:

Makenna: So Chris, what was the impetus for you to write a novel in one month?

Chris: Oh man. Such a good question. I think there were several things afoot that lead to the birth of NaNoWriMo. The most important one was just my life-long obsession with novels. I’m an only child, and books were my siblings when I was growing up. They provided an escape from boring adult conversations, helped me survive interminable summer road trips, and taught me that murderous clowns lurk beneath sewer grates (thank you, Stephen King.)

I’d always seen novels as these magical things, but I never dreamed I would write one. Then, in 1999, I found myself working as an editor at a website for business travelers. I was spending my days researching power-lunch spots in Houston and writing up blurbs on the best company to rent a limo in Los Angeles. Spending eight hours a day doing something that I wasn’t really connected to left me feeling pretty drifty. I wanted to tackle a big, personal project that might make life feel exciting again.

That lead me to novel-writing.

M: How did you get 20 other crazy folks to join you?

C: I’m a coward who has trouble finishing projects, and I always feel better (and end up doing more) when I have a group of friends tackling the same project alongside me. Happily, when I sent out an email to my friends inviting them to take part in the escapade (http://blog.lettersandlight.org/post/13563014781), almost all of them signed on.

M: What type of folks were these first vagabonds? Were they writers already or mixed background?

C: There were definitely a couple writers in the mix, but most of the participants that first year didn’t have any literary ambitions—they just liked the idea of a fun, group challenge. (One of the winners that first year was my friend Tim, who adamantly insists he hates writing and has gone on to win NaNoWriMo eight times. It kind gets in your blood.)

M: How many of them are still involved with NaNoWriMo today?

C: I’m the only NaNoWriMo participant who has taken part in the challenge every year since 1999, but a bunch of those original six winners been doing it off and on over the years.

M: What is your favorite part of NaNoWriMo?

Chris Baty founder of NaNoWriMo in his Berkeley apartment.

C: Favorite parts…hmmm…There’s a moment towards the end of the month where you scroll back through all you’ve written and just shake your head in amazement. The quality is very rough, but the potential is huge. And it’s just so crazy that none of these characters or places or conversations existed a few weeks earlier. To me, it’s a real lesson in the power of deadlines to help us achieve huge things.

I also really love the anticipation leading up to November. I’ve learned a ton from every NaNoWriMo novel I’ve written, but I tend to exit November knowing I won’t revise that year’s manuscript. Still, I’ve stumbled into three or four stories that I’ve really loved and never would have discovered without NaNoWriMo. There’s this great Christmas Eve feeling on October 31, where you go to bed knowing that the next day you’ll tear into this mysterious package and find out what’s inside. Sometimes it’s a pair of socks. But sometimes it’s a pair of unicorns who can magically dispense espresso out of their horns. Every year, you hope for the barista unicorns. And sometimes you get them.

Stay tuned for Part 2…

 Chris Baty will be the lunch keynote speaker at the 4th annual Crossroads Writers Conference. If you haven’t already registered, do so while you still have time!