Fiction or Nonfiction: Founder of National Novel Writing Month Gives His Opinion
Every November, for the past seventeen years, Chris Baty of Berkeley, California, has committed the month to writing a fifty-thousand-word novel in thirty days.
What started as a creative, wacky idea between Twenty Marketing Mistakes_you_shouldnt_be_making_50friends led by Baty has turned into an international community that has over 400,000 participants from over forty countries feverishly writing to finish a novel over the course of one month. It’s affiliated with noteworthy charities, school programs, and libraries and has cultivated communities in a way that a young Baty never originally intended. Furthermore, his jump-right-in, adaptable style follows key steps of successful entrepreneurship over the course of many trial-and-error-driven years.
If you haven’t caught on already, November is National Novel Writing Month. The 501(c)(3) non-profit, commonly known by the writing world as NaNoWriMo, challenges hundreds of thousands of participants to write fifty thousand words in one month. All you have to do is sign up on their website and submit your fifty-thousand-plus words by 11:59 p.m. on November 30. Once you send it in, it is reviewed by the editorial team at NaNoWriMo and if you have fifty thousand words or more, you are deemed a “winner.”
Since Baty started NaNoWriMo, he has published two of his own books, began teaching a course at Stanford University, spoken at Facebook, MIT, and Google, and helped get books in the hands of thousands of children in countries around the world.
As you can imagine, Chris Baty, who recently had his first child with his wife in January, was a little busy in the month of November, but we were able to catch him this week for an exclusive interview, where he told us his ideas on books, entrepreneurship, and all the journeys in between.
Advantage: In 2004, you came out with your own book No Plot? No Problem!: A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days. How did your book change your organization?
Chris Baty: National Novel Writing Month is a counterintuitive approach to writing, in this idea that in the first draft you should be focusing more on quantity than quality. I think it was helpful to have a book that walked people through that process of getting a book written. We tried to provide a lot of resources on the website, so if people couldn’t afford the book, they could still get tips. On a personal level for me, it did open a lot of doors for speaking at conferences. I think when you have a book, people take you more seriously, whether they should of not. For me, it really helped people understand that there was value in this event, and it helped tell the story of the impact that tackling this project can have. My goal with the book was to help people have this big, life-changing adventure that would then help them realize that they had in them.
A: What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs? What about writers?
CB: For entrepreneurs, whatever your idea is, there are people a bunch of other people out there who have been waiting years for it. I would have never guessed that this idea of encouraging people to write a novel in a month would be this worldwide adventure. Anything that you feel passionately about or you feel is missing from the world, there are a lot of other people who feel the same way. Know that if you feel it’s needed that there are other people who feel the same way.
In terms of getting a book written, it’s similar. You have accumulated incredibly vast insights and experience. In walking that road, you have learned things that are priceless for other people. Remembering how valuable your voice is and how useful it has been in getting you to be the person you are now is huge. Just think how much it would help if you could get an email from someone as experienced as you are now giving you advice ten years ago. We are all looking for guidance on this journey; sharing it helps you remember all that you’ve learned along the way.
A: What do you think is the best way for writers to distinguish if they should write fiction or nonfiction?
CB: A lot of it has to do with where your heart is. I’ve always loved fiction and related to that, but a lot of people have really amazing true stories or have people in their family who do. My hope is that each person tries one of each in their lives. It helps you see the world in a new way.
People tend to think of NaNoWriMo as only for novels, but we have a lot of people who are writing memoirs, grad school dissertations, and other nonfiction works. This idea of having a deadline really helps motivate people. We have a lot of business people working on books about work or their lives, too.
A: What was your November novel about this year?
CB: This year’s novel, which was my seventeenth, was about an animator who has lost his mojo and gets it back with the help of a kidnapped crow and a Somalian super fan who he met online.
A: A few years ago, you stepped down from the 501(c)(3) as executive director. Why did you decide to do that?
CB: I still absolutely loved it and believed in it, but I knew I could pass the baton on to a new team of leadership. I was really hungry to get back to writing again. When you are involved in administration or management, you get farther away from why you started it. After thirteen years, it was time for me to give it to people who would put new inspirations and experiences into it. I’m still a part of it as a volunteer, so it’s the best of both worlds because I get to travel around the world and go speak about what I do.
A: Why is giving back important no matter what business you’re in?
CB: It just feels great for one thing. When we’re exhausted in the depths of NaMoWriMo craziness, to be able to go to one of the elementary schools that gets our free workbooks reminds us of why what we do is so great. It’s funny; when we visit the schools who participate in our Young Writers Program, teachers are shocked and they say, “It’s really weird. They are staying in during recess to write their novels.” To know that when you are in fifth grade and you have written a ten thousand-page book, writing is never scary again. You connect with that for the rest of your life.
I think our organization really believes in the magic of books. We give thousands of books to students around the world. It’s investing in the next generation of writers and thinkers and creative people. In doing that, no matter what business you are in, you are passing along this enthusiasm and reverence.
A: If people want participate in NaNoWriMo next year, what should they do to prepare?
CB: If you are interested in taking on the challenge, you don’t have to wait until next November. Any month can be National Writing Month. You can grab a couple friends and do this in January. There are also two formal, off-season events called Camp NaNoWriMo: one in April and one in July. We have a lot of people writing nonfiction and screenplays, and you pick your own word-count goals.