An Interview with Chris Baty,
The Man Behind the Curtain
Interview By Lazette Gifford
Chris Baty has been both idolized and
vilified for starting NaNoWriMo -- National Novel Writing Month, a thirty day
writing frenzy that seizes thousands of people around the world. Each November
(and even for a couple months before) the writers converge on
www.nanowrimo.org and begin their hopeful rush toward... well, writing a
hell of a lot of words in a very short time.
Some come armed with extensive outlines, and
others start only with a vague idea of what a story even entails. Some come
hoping to write the minimum number of words needed to 'win' and others start out
intending to write an entire novel. Many people from both groups fall short of
the goal of 50,000 words, but that doesn't diminish the fun of joining in with
thousands of others on the starting line at midnight, November 1.
Other people have claimed that anyone who
joins NaNoWriMo can't be a real writer, that flooding the world with horrible
manuscripts, and that apparently we should all be taken out back to the wall and
shot rather than allowed to continue this travesty.
But it's all great fun and anyone who doesn't
'get' that part is maybe taking writing -- and probably life -- a little too
seriously. No, NaNo will not turn out thousands of ready to publish works
novels -- but it has helped many people work their way past the fear of writing,
and allowed others to run wild for an entire month without fear of their inner
critic telling them they're not taking this seriously enough.
And it's fun.
That's the part the detractors really don't get. If you can't have fun writing,
it's just another job. NaNoWriMo isn't for everyone. However, joining in isn't
going to ruin you as a writer anymore than joining in the Boston Marathon would
ruin a person for jogging.
Even as this interview hits the Internet, the
2003 NaNoWriMo will be getting underway. It's not too late to join the
insanity fun. Come over to the boards and ask how we're doing. Just don't
expect anyone there to be truly coherent for the month of November...
So, what does the man who started this think
of it all?
Are you a writer, or is this something you just wanted to inflict on people who
annoyed you in school or something?
Ha! Well, I'm a freelance writer by trade, covering music, travel and culture
for various publications. Before starting NaNoWriMo, though, I didn't do any
fiction writing. I had always loved to read novels, but I never felt talented
enough to actually try to create one of my own. Discovering that you can have
fun writing novels even if you're not particularly gifted at it was a real
"eureka!" moment for me.
Did you think it would become this popular?
Never in my wildest dreams. The second year, when we had 140 people sign up, I
was astounded. I was sure it was going to be a dwindling turn-out from there.
Do you have any idea how many words the participants of NaNoWriMo amass on their
manuscripts during November?
It's hard to say. We had about 2100 winners last year. If you assume all of them
wrote 50,001 words and then collapsed, that alone is over 105,000,000 words.
Combined with the output of the other 12000 participants, I would say
150,000,000 words is a safe estimate.
Do you see any particular genre as being more popular than others?
Not so much. I know sci-fi and fantasy are both popular. Because I don't get to
read anyone's novels apart from my friends', so I think I have a skewed notion
of what people are writing. From my end, it looks like everyone is writing
vaguely autobiographical, character-driven fiction about people who have just
turned 30 and are still confused about what they want to be when they grow up.
I've gotten emails from people though, asking if NaNoWriMo is only for romance
writers. So I think there's a real diversity there.
Do you participate in NaNoWriMo?
I've done it every year since 1999, amassing four deeply mediocre manuscripts
along the way. One of the nice things about leading NaNoWriMo is the fact that I
HAVE to write a book each year or feel like a dismal failure as a program
What has most surprised you about the people who join?
I've been really surprised and delighted by how supportive Wrimos are of one
another. I feel like NaNoWriMo is a really unique writing community, because we
are, for better or worse, deeply uncritical. It's all about just losing yourself
into the creative process; the book that results from it all is almost
irrelevant. Because of that, there's a lot of energetic support in the air
during November. You can see it on the message boards. Someone will write in
saying they're exhausted and are thinking about giving up, and five total
strangers will write back and cheer them back to their computer. It's really
wonderful to watch.
What do you think of all the spin-offs that are using the NaNo name to expand on
the idea -- NaNo Edit, NaNo Year, etc.
Anything that provides people a structured opportunity to be creative is a good
thing in my book. We could all use more deadlines that encourage us to make neat
Do you know of anyone who has participated in every NaNo since it started in
I think there are four of us who have won each year. We're all stubborn as mules
at this point, and will likely write a NaNo novel every year until carpal tunnel
How much does it cost to run NaNoWriMo each year, and how much of that is funded
by contributions? (And when and where can people contribute?)
This year we're looking at $35,885 in non-recoupable expenses, and another
$24,900 in recoupable costs (like t-shirts). The financing of NaNo has gotten a
little more tricky as the costs of the event have grown. Since I don't want to
charge an entry fee and I'm dead set against taking ads, we depend on
participant contributions (about 70% of the budget) and t-shirt sales (about 30%
of the budget) to make ends meet. We have a $10 suggested donation for all
participants, and make about $3 in profit per t-shirt (which goes right back
into the organization). NaNoWriMo participants are a generous, thoughtful lot,
and raising the money for the budget each year usually happens without too much
browbeating on my part. ;) If people want to help support us, they can find our
PayPal link and mailing address at
NaNo Writers seem to live in many different countries. Have some of those
places surprised you? Where do the majority of NaNo people appear to be?
I think reading the announcement for a NaNo Thank God It's Over Party that was
being held in a South African national park was the most "oh my god, this thing
has gotten out of hand" moment.
The majority of participants, though, live in
the US, Canada, and UK.
People who attend intensive writing camps like Clarion often claim it's a
life-changing experience. A few have even given up writing. What do you hear
from people who have participated in NaNoWriMo?
I think people come away from NaNoWriMo feeling really excited about writing.
We've had some people get so inspired by what happens to them in November that
they quit their jobs and head back to school to study fiction. For most people,
though, the effects are less dramatic. Participants tend to feel more confident
afterwards, and are more ready to risk trying their hands at other projects.
Giving yourself permission to write horribly is a really liberating process. It
immediately turns off that stultifying, self-critical voice that has a way of
dooming creative undertakings.
Mostly, people come away from NaNo realizing
that writing can be more fun if you stop trying to get it perfect on the first
go-round. You can get it perfect in the rewrite. The first draft is all about
making wonderful messes.
What would you wish for the people who join NaNoWriMo this November?
I hope that everyone gives themselves enough time to see the project through. I
tell everyone that if they set aside two hours a night, five nights a week, the
book will write itself. People who give up because they don't think things are
going well in Week Two are going to miss out on the amazing breakthroughs that
always happen in Week Three. So my wish is that people give it time, and stay
disciplined about writing, even when it becomes exhausting and tedious. It will
get better. And nothing compares to that feeling of crossing the 50,000 word
Any words of wisdom for hopeful NaNoWriMo people this year, like how to deal
with crazed family members, unsympathetic bosses, and neglected pets -- not to
mention how to get those words written?
I tell everyone to send out an email to everyone they know before starting,
explaining that they're taking part in this crazy writing escapade and that
they're looking for at least one other person to write with them. Having someone
in your area to write with makes the whole experience so much more fun, and will
end up keeping both writers on track when the going gets tough. If you REALLY
want to stay on track, get a sibling to do it with you. Nothing brings out those
(very helpful) competitive urges like gloating calls from a sister or brother
saying they wrote 4,000 words the previous night.
What do you do with the rest of your year?
The months around NaNo are so hectic for me that I usually spend January just
reconnecting with friends who I haven't seen since September. And hanging out
with my long-suffering girlfriend, Elly, (who does an admirable job of
tolerating all the distracted nights I spend at the computer in autumn). I also
start the freelance writing work again, writing CD reviews and working on
guidebooks to various cities. Mostly, though, I spend time telling myself that I
really need to get started on my novel rewrite. ;)
Come and check out the madness: