Thursday, November 14, 2013

Writing Wednesday: Mr. NaNoWriMo

It is not often that I can boast of meeting such famous celebrities here in the Midwest.  I always feel those privileges are reserved for residents of New York City or Los Angeles.  But last night I had the opportunity to hear Chris Baty - Mr. NaNoWriMo himself - speak at our local library, and he was indeed a celebrity to all those in attendance.

I wan't sure what to expect, since registration was not required and it was a free event, so I arrived about a half hour prior to the 7:00pm start time.  A few were already seated, laptops in tow, working on their novel while waiting for the guru.  I was able to find a nice end spot about three rows from the front.  The perfect place to capture a couple of pictures while remaining somewhat inconspicuous.

Chris arrived shortly afterward for set up, and I was surprised by how tall he was and... how much he smiled.  He is such a pleasant person to be around.  He brought a couple of books to share, and had a typed speech available for a quick review.  He is quite professional.

The room filled up quickly and he began at 7:00pm on the dot.  I like a punctual speaker.

He began by telling us a little bit about himself (he was actually born and raised in Prairie Village, Kansas and his hometown library was the Corinth branch).  In fact, his father was in the audience, supporting his son in this endeavor, which explains why Chris is so supportive of every one of us.

He gave a brief history of the NaNo phenomenon:  it began in 1999 as a wild and crazy idea.  Chris emailed his contact list saying that he was going to write a novel in a month and would love some company.  The email was sent May 30th and the first NaNo event was held July 1st, with 21 participants.  Most of the writing occurred in coffee shops using laptops ... which Chris was quick to remind us that in 1999 coffee shops were not wired for writers and laptops were as big as a washing machine.  The budding novelists brought their own power strips, orange extension cords, and set up shop for thirty days.

The next year the participant list grew by word of mouth, with 140 writers taking part.  The following year saw a total of 5,000 participants and the numbers have increased ever since.  This year, which marks the 15th anniversary, the website shows just shy of 300,000 registered writers.  Chris has participated and won every year.

The one point that he repeated over and over - which we all needed to hear - is that NaNoWriMo is not intended to promote quality writing; rather it is to focus on quantity.  One problem we writers face, however, is that we also love to read.  And when we sit down on November 1st to set out on this quest, we are comparing our first draft to the polished prose of the novels we read.  We simply cannot do that.  All first drafts are awful... period.  And to prove his point, he read a bit of dialogue from one of his first drafts.  And you know what?  It was indeed awful -- and I can't imagine how many writers (including myself) he inspired by doing that one humble act.

Bottom line:  We need to learn to lower our standards on first drafts.  The bar should be raised in the  revision process, but we need to be willing to allow imperfection (and sometimes downright awfulness) in the first draft phase.  One of his quotes of the evening was, "You can always revise a bad draft into a good novel; you can only revise a blank page into a blank page."

One tip he shared for those of us who have a difficult time turning off the internal editor was:  set the font to white and just start writing.  You can't see the words on the page and that is enough to silence the critique for a while.

Chris stated that novels are not written by novelists, but by everyday people who have a story to share (therefore... if you think about it... we all have a story to share ergo, we are all writers).  He surmised that the reason we don't have more people writing novels (or.... completing any kind of creative endeavor)... is NOT because we lack talent; NOT because we lack self-discipline; but rather because we do not have a deadline.  NaNoWriMo is intended to help with that hurdle.

He told a short anecdote of the first year and how the pact between friends was they were not allowed to go to the bathroom until they had written a thousand words.  Now, they were in a coffee shop, after work, guzzling coffee to try to stay awake.  This was true motivation!

Since NaNo's inception, there have been 200 traditionally published novels drafted during the event; 9 best selling novels; and currently 1 major motion picture (Water for Elephants).  Who knows how many countless more novels could be added to these numbers if we would take the time to revise our first drafts.  Food for thought....

The final tip of the night, before he volunteered to sign autographs, was this:  FINISH

I absolutely loved the evening!  And while Chris gave some great advice for the NaNo event, I believe much of what he said could be applied to life in general.  Lower the bar - set goals with deadlines - and commit to finishing the task at hand.


  1. The stats are interesting. The biggest problem I see with this approach, assuming that the writer has done absolutely no pre-planning, is the possibility of writing himself into a corner midway and then being unable to move forward easily. It wouldn't be an internal editor issue, but one of logic and implausibility. Stuckness.

  2. I admire anyone who aspires to be a writer -- I don't have it in me.