Interview: Chris Baty, Author
I recently spoke to an aspiring author who was obsessed with developing his “signature style.” This well-intentioned person knew that to make it in publishing, you have to present something different, something special. He kept referring to this something as his signature style. I suppose he saw it as his version of the secret sauce. He talked about the huge amounts of time devoted to crafting this iconic style. The kicker came when I asked him about his work. The reality was that in five years of calling himself a writer, he had completed only one short story sixteen pages in length. He was so concerned with his novel being unlike anything ever published that it didn’t exist. He asked my advice and, like a doctor scribbling a referral to a specialist, I told him about Chris Baty.
In 1999, intoxicated by the anything-is-possible attitude of the dot com era, Baty and some friends decided to write a novel in one month’s time. Using self-taught rock stars as role models, Baty and his pals looked at bands like the Sex Pistols and the Ramones who were “examples of unpolished, untrained people who went from nobodies to kings and queens of their oeuvre through sheer exuberance.” And so National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) was born. The first year, the experiment was Baty and twenty friends. The second year, 140 people joined the adventure. In 2003, 25,000 people participated. In 2004, the number was more than 42,000. NaNoWriMo is scheduled for the month of November this year, so signups run through Halloween.
Part writing teacher, part motivator, Baty believes that this pedal to the floor approach to writing eliminates internal hindrances, teaches discipline, and empowers through accomplishment. He believes young writers should allow themselves to fail, to write poorly, and to just keep going. It’s a long process, but you can’t begin without that first draft. As Baty told us in this interview, too many aspiring writers think you have to work on the first draft with a dental pick. He advises a chainsaw. While some high-minded critics think Baty’s experiment is demeaning to the great art of literature, he doesn’t see what all the fuss is about. Why can’t writing be fun?
And, in my former-farmboy opinion, few things in life are more fun than yanking on that cord and firing up a chainsaw.
Slushpile: What was your favorite book growing up?
Baty: I was an only child, so I had a somewhat pathetic number of favorite books. As a young kid, I was completely obsessed with Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day? I loved the energy of it, and savored the tantalizing glimpses of what I assumed would my future life as a bus driver. I named my very first NaNoWriMo novel Busytown after the fictional town in that book. I also remember really loving John Fitzgerald’s Great Brain series. And The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was also high on my list.
Slushpile: You have said in other interviews that you love to read novels. What are some of your favorites?
Baty: Oh, man. I think novels are just about the coolest thing ever, and easily one of the most underpriced commodities on Earth. Today I was in a local bookstore and found a clearance copy of a book I’d been meaning to read for a long time – Jincy Willett’s Winner of the National Book Award. It was $6.99! For a hardback! And bookstores have deals like that all the time. It makes me weep.
My favorite novels that I’ve read in the last few years are probably Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (who must be some sort of superhuman writer-cyborg because his writing is just so stunning), and Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex. I think Lynda Barry is one of the best writers out there, and I’m a devoted Nick Hornby fan as well.
Slushpile: What was your job when you founded the National Novel Writing Month? I believe in your book you mentioned covering music for a paper. Were you working as a reporter?
Baty: At that point in 1999 I was in my last month of full-time work as an editor at an ill-fated dot-com, and I was doing as much freelancing as I could on the side. Before then, I had also worked as an editor for Fodor’s guidebooks and had decided I really wanted to go over to the writing side of things. So I saved up about six month’s of income, and quit, thinking that, worst case scenario, I could always get my editing job back at the same company. At that point, the economy was so hot in the Bay Area that the idea of not being able to find a job somewhere was laughable.
Slushpile: After 5 years of leading NaNoWriMo and publishing your own book, are you still working a day job?
Baty: I’m happy to say I’m still freelancing. These days, I do a combination of music reviewing, travel guidebook writing, and work on my own novels. And then there’s NaNoWriMo, which has somehow become my job for about six months out of the year. It’s not always been the most lucrative position in the world, but getting to sleep as late as I want every morning is worth any amount of financial hardship to me.
Slushpile: In No Plot? No Problem!, you mention the lengths that writers went through to record their latest plot developments and ideas. You write, “we called our answering machines to dictate plot breakthroughs we’d hatched on our morning commutes, and scribbled out ever-lengthening backstories on napkins, receipts, co-workers; anything we could get our hands on to capture some of the ideas that were pouring out of our overtaxed brains.” What’s the craziest thing you ever did to capture a brainstorm?
Baty: For me, the biggest plot advances and loose-end tie-ups invariably happen when I’m far away from the computer, usually on those days when I’ve forgotten to bring a pen and notebook with me. I’ve spent at least an hour of my life desperately searching the sidewalks and gutters for castaway pens or some sort of writing implement so I can scrawl my dubious breakthroughs on a piece of trash before I forget them.
Slushpile: A re-occurring concept in your book and in the concept of NaNoWriMo is just to write, without worrying about quality, just get the words on the page, in a fit exuberant imperfection. You make statements such as “there is no pressure on you to write a brilliant first draft. Because no one ever writes a brilliant first draft,” and “the single best thing you can do to improve your writing is to write. Copiously,” and “in the context of novel writing, this means you should lower the bar from ‘best-seller’ to ‘would not make someone vomit.’” Why do you think aspiring authors put so much pressure on their writing? They wouldn’t expect to pick up the violin and play a Paganini opus so why do they think their early writing experiments need to be so great?
Baty: I think the biggest problem is that would-be writers get too much advice too soon about their writing. An entire industry exists (and I’m now a part of it), that makes money off of telling people how to spend their creative hours. I think a lot of the advice – particularly the stuff about how to construct winning plots or build realistic characters or avoid the slush pile – is totally overwhelming for someone who hasn’t really written much yet. An amateur writer can’t help but feel like their prose is falling short when they’re trying to juggle the voices of five different teachers, each of whom has their own recipe for the perfect novel.
I think the first draft of a novel is best approached with absolutely no aspiration in sight save finishing the thing. Don’t worry about creating original characters or irresistible plots. Just give yourself room to make a honking huge old mess, and then sit down every day and make that mess. You can clean everything up in the rewrite. That’s the beauty of a novel – it’s created in a series of ever-improving stages, and each phase contains its own challenges and delights. But you have to have a first draft before you can move on to the second. Which is why I try to tell people not to fuss so much over the first drafts of their novels. I think a lot of amateur writers think they need to be shaping their first draft with a dental pick. The best tool for the job is a chainsaw. Just get the book down on paper, and save the dental picks for later.
Slushpile: Predictably, your project has its critics. Some people allege that you are demeaning literature. One critic mentioned something about trampling on her holiest of holies: Writing. Of course, these people also have to capitalize words like Art, Muse and Literature. Only the stuffiest of art snobs would tell musicians they can’t have fun, that they can’t just jam, and not worry about wrong notes. But yet this kind of complaint is leveled all the time in the literary world. Why do you think some people are so determined to make writing such a high-brow, severe, and dour endeavor?
Baty: I wish I knew! I think your comparison to music is a good one. In the rock world, there’s this entire universe of bands and singers who fall under the heading of “indie” or “alternative” or “underground” music. A handful of these groups become famous, but most spend their musical life playing small neighborhood bars for an audience of a few dozen friends. They record CDs and put them out themselves, and a lot of times the music they make is absolutely amazing, but it’s just not right for a Top 40 audience. So they keep their day jobs and jam out together on weekends and play great, infrequent concerts and get written up in the local alt weekly once a year.
And it’s great. Because they’re playing and making something together. For a bunch of reasons, though, the fiction world doesn’t really have an “indie” equivalent. If you write a book, you’re supposed to get a good agent and then get the thing on the New York Times bestseller list. Anything short of that is a failure. I really wish there were more of a hobbiest mentality in the novel-writing world, where people wrote books for the same reasons they play Scrabble or golf or rock out in the basement with friends on weekends: Because it feels good just to play, to solve puzzles, to use your imagination and challenge yourself.
As for the idea that something like National Novel Writing Month demeans literature, well, I don’t really see it. I think there are some people who believe that the only way to write a first draft of a novel is to spend several years toiling over it. These people are probably using a write/edit strategy, where they write a page, and then polish it to perfection before allowing themselves to move on. I just have a different approach, where I think it makes more sense to rough out the entire shape very quickly so you maintain momentum and focus. And then, once an entire arc is hammered out, then you can do the difficult work of bringing all the features into harmony with each other. I’ve found that my novels change dramatically as I write them, with protagonists getting demoted to supporting roles and weird, left-field plot twists suddenly becoming the absolute heart of the book. So to me, it’s just a better time-management strategy to hold off on all of the painful, minute polishing until I’m absolutely sure that the parts I’m polishing are actually going to be in the book.
Slushpile: No Plot? No Problem! details some very interesting locations for writing. You write, “in my search for noveling novelty, I’ve driven out to the airport to spend the day writing in the concourses, had day-long writing sessions in the local IKEA cafeteria (fantastic views over the San Francisco Bay!), and worked out more than one chapter in the swank, anonymous recesses of downtown hotel bars.” Back in the late nineties, I used to enjoy writing at the airport but now you’re liable to draw some tough questions from men with earpieces for loitering too long and I also used to read in hotel bars while I was traveling for work. So I’m curious what your funniest or strangest experience was in these places. Overly-aggressive security guards? Inebriated business travelers?
Baty: I haven’t had too many negative experiences. There’s even a bar in Oakland where the waitresses get this big grin on their faces when the group of us show up, computers in hand, every November. “It’s the laptop people!” they yell, and then show us to our traditional darkened corner near the outlets. We’ve sort of become their equivalent of the swallows departing San Juan Capistrano. A sign that winter is on its way.
For me, writing in weird places has always been one of the great side effects of National Novel Writing Month. Last year, I was out on book tour for No Plot? No Problem! throughout most of November, and I made a habit of writing in my motels’ unattended conference rooms. It’s amazing how invisible you become when you have a laptop in front of you. I think everyone assumes you’re a computer nerd, a business traveler, or some other harmless sort, so they happily leave you alone.
Slushpile: Do the cooks in the IKEA cafeteria talk like the Swedish Chef on The Muppet Show?
Baty: They don’t. I was crushed.
Slushpile: You, along with many other writers, use music to help you stay focused, motivated, and to tap into certain moods. What music do you listen to the most? Who are your favorite bands for writing?
Baty: I tend to be a binge listener. I’ll have one set of songs that I play over and over and over while writing. I put iTunes on my laptop last year, and it was a little alarming to see how many times I listened to the Mark Mothersbaugh’s instrumentals on the Life Aquatic soundtrack. I’m a sucker for soundtracks in general, and have a particular obsession with the soundtrack to a PBS series about the Irish in America called Long Journey Home. It has Van Morrison and Elvis Costello and a bunch of other people doing traditional Irish songs, and for some weird reason, it’s my favorite go-to music for novel writing.
Slushpile: For NaNoWriMo, you say that people should not do much preparation in advance. You write “if you give yourself enough time to plan, you might end up stumbling across a brilliant concept for your novel… Every year during NaNoWriMo, I get emails from people jubilantly informing me that they’re dropping out of the contest because they’ve found a story they love, and they want to work on it slowly enough to do it justice. When I check in with these people six months later, they’ve inevitably stopped working on the book entirely. Why? Because they’ve become afraid of ruining their book by actually sitting down and writing it… A novel rough draft is like bread dough; you need to beat the crap out of it for it to rise.” That makes sense, but what are your suggestions for these people to break the spell of those ideas? It’s like the way you fret over a new car until the first scratch and then you can relax. How do they take a concept or idea that is precious to them, and rough it up enough to where they aren’t afraid of getting it dirty?
Baty: It’s tough. And I didn’t mean to say that coming up with a great book idea is a bad thing. I think, though, that once you’ve decided that you have a potential bestseller on your hands, you’re going to stop having fun with the thing, and start becoming deathly afraid that your prose isn’t living up to the book’s potential. And before you’ve known it, you’ve raised the stakes so high on the non-existent book that merely thinking about it becomes stressful.
In my experience, there are two keys to getting a first draft done while keeping your sanity. The first is limiting the time you’ll let yourself spend on it. Having a start date, an end date, and a word-count goal transforms this looming terror of an art project into something much more manageable.
The second thing is a willingness to make decisions. I think most manuscripts are abandoned early because writers have introduced their cast but are afraid of tipping those first plot dominos. Because they’re not 100% sure that a possible direction is the right one. So they hold off on doing anything, and a weeklong vacation from the manuscript stretches into a month-long vacation. Which stretches into an early death for a perfectly good book.
The nice thing about writing the entire first draft in thirty days is that you’re forced to make tough decisions early, and you just don’t have time to entertain doubts. And because the whole thing ultimately takes so little time, it’s easier to tell yourself “okay, if the face-eating wombats turn out to be a bad plot idea, I can go back next month and try it again with face-eating leprechauns.” It makes your writing looser, and makes the whole process a lot more fun.
Slushpile: Your participants are not allowed to use the second-person perspective in their novel; that’s one of the few rules. Worked great for Jay McInerney in Bright Lights, Big City. What’s your beef with this tense?
Baty: I’m sure it works well in the right hands, and NaNoWriMo participants are more than welcome to use whatever point of view they see fit. I think I was trying to work in a dumb joke there about Choose Your Own Adventure Books, and ended up taking an unfair swipe at second-person POV. I’ll have to check out Bright Lights, Big City… Okay, I just read the first page on Amazon.com. Holy cow, did he really keep that up through the whole book? I’m intrigued.
Slushpile: You mentioned that two of the novels you’ve written during your five attempts at NaNoWriMo are “crapulent” but what about the other three? Are you working on editing and publishing those books? Some reports mention a novel called Busytown. Is this one of your NaNoWriMo books or a different project?
Baty: Two of the six manuscripts I’ve written were just horrible. One was very embarrassing but not irredeemable. And the other three were surprisingly okay. I’ve spent the last year doing a third rewrite of the very first NaNo novel I wrote back in 1999 (which used to be called Busytown). I gave it to my agent a couple months ago and she liked it, so we’ll be sending it out after one more tidying draft. The book is set in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2000, just as the dot-com boom is about to bust. The story is sort of like Greencard meets Some Kind of Wonderful, but with much more bagpiping.
Slushpile: How did No Plot? No Problem! happen? Did you create a proposal and send it to an agent? Did you write the manuscript and then submit it? What is the publication story behind this book?
Baty: I actually had a very amazing thing happen, where a literary agent named Arielle Eckstut sent me an email one day three years ago. One of her clients, Gayle Brandeis, had participated in NaNoWriMo and had been saying that it was helpful and fun. Arielle emailed me and told me that if I ever wanted to talk, I should get in touch.
After peeing my pants, I called her a few minutes later with two book ideas. One was a book of essays about being a sensitive twentysomething who spent way too much money on CDs, and the other was a NaNoWriMo how-to book. She very tactfully steered me away from the book of essays, and a few months later I had put together a proposal for No Plot? No Problem!.
Of the publishing houses that ended up making an offer on the book, I went with Chronicle Books because they were local (I live in Oakland; Chronicle is in San Francisco) and I felt that if they ripped me off, I could more effectively picket their offices than I would a New York house. Also, I loved the look and feel of Chronicle’s books, and I was sure that they’d make the book look nice.
I actually wrote a lot of the book in November 2003, while also writing my NaNoWriMo novel. I don’t think my eyeballs have ever fully recovered from all the monitor irradiating they went through that month.
Slushpile: The layout was very attractive and fun. Was layout, graphics, and design entirely up to your publisher, Chronicle Books or did you have some input?
Baty: They came up with all of the design elements. I’d say something like: “I want to have boxed texts” and they came back with the cool, torn-spiral page thing. They’re total champs at art direction.
Slushpile: You’re in the Oakland/San Francisco Bay area, and the McSweeney’s folk are out there, MacAdam/Cage is there, and other literary luminaries are appearing. Is the Bay area literary scene growing, or is it just a matter of people noticing the writers that have always been there and just went under the radar?
Baty: That’s a good question. I think the scene is pretty small out here, and the authors who have chosen to settle down in the Bay Area tend to be a quirky lot who are happy to be off of the New York-Los Angeles axis of power. I ride through Michael Chabon’s neighborhood every day on the way to the coffeeshop where I do most of my freelance work. I’ve only seen him once, but it makes me feel good that he’s nearby.
Slushpile: Tell us about your connection to the Room to Read program.
Baty: They are bookish angels, those people. Room to Read is a San Francisco nonprofit that builds schools and libraries for children in rural areas throughout Nepal, Cambodia, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, and Laos, stocking them with books, maps, games, kid-sized furniture, and all sorts of other good stuff. They also have scholarship programs specifically designed at getting girls in these areas better-educated, and an awesome book-printing program, where they hire local authors and illustrators to collaborate on a children’s book, which they then print in-country. I can’t say enough good things about Room to Read, and NaNoWriMo donates 50% of our proceeds to them, earmarked for building libraries in specific areas. Last year, we built three in Cambodia. This year, we’re hoping to raise the money to build four libraries in Laos.
Slushpile: I write book reviews, as do many of our readers. Some people think a review should be almost devoid of the critic’s personality, just a “factual” recitation of the review. Other people think there is an art to the reviews and should show the style that any other piece of prose would display. From your experience writing music reviews, what are your suggestions for injecting your personality into a review while not overpowering the work you’re reviewing?
Baty: That’s a great question, and I wish I had some articulate answers for it. Even after ten years, I feel like I’m still learning how to write reviews. I think the best reviews are those that manage to use a writer’s unique voice to convey a sense of the work and its aesthetic merits. And if you can work a little humor in, that’s even better. As review lengths get shorter and shorter though, I think a lot of us are being forced to either love something or hate it. When you’re expected to give your opinion in 175 words, you really don’t have room to write a clever intro, list some of the pros, list some of the cons, and close with a nice outtro that ties back into the lead. You basically have room for an intro and a single opinion – thumbs up or thumbs down. It’s too bad, because I think most works – be they books or music or movies – fall into that middle territory, and I’m guessing those kinds of works are getting passed over by reviewers because its much easier to write about the instant classics or the total disasters.
Slushpile: How does an aspiring author get a gig writing travel books?
Batty: The more widely you’ve traveled and the more languages you speak, the more of an exciting catch you’ll be for book publishers. Also, clips are essential, even if they’re aren’t from super well-known places. I started working for Fodor’s guidebooks as kind of a fluke when I was still in college, and that ended up leading to work with other places.
I’m not sure if working on guidebooks is quite the romantic vision that many people have, however. A lot of it is updating prices and restaurant open hours at semi-breakneck speeds. The real gig to get is magazine writing, where you can file drool-worthy stories about the succulent ahi tuna you ate at the four-star restaurant in Maui overlooking the lagoon.
Slushpile: Sometimes it’s difficult for new freelancers to get nonfiction assignments. Queries and pitches are often not even rejected, just ignored, and more than one person has said to me that if your query doesn’t have a New York City postmark on it, then you can forget about an editor even reading it. What are your tips for freelancers looking to get bylines?
Baty: I think coffee is the best approach. Find friends of friends (or even your parents’ friends) who have done something similar to what you’d like to do. And then ask if you can buy them a coffee or lunch and hear their thoughts on breaking into the market. Networking truly is key, but it doesn’t have to be gross or terrifying. I think a lot of people are very happy to help someone else coming up through the ranks. All for the price of a mocha.
Slushpile: Through your work with NaNoWriMo and your book, No Plot? No Problem!, do you see yourself more as a writing instructor or more as a motivator?
Baty: I think I fall much more on the motivator side of things. I love cajoling people into realizing that they can do much more than they’d imagined, but I don’t feel comfortable telling anyone how to write well. What works for me may not work for someone else, and I think that you really do need to let the words come out of your head in a way that makes sense to you.
Ultimately, I feel that everyone is their own best instructor, and that actually sitting down and writing your own novel will teach you more important lessons than any teacher could. Combine copious practice with a couple readers’ whose opinion you trust, and I think you’re good to go.
Slushpile: What is your single-best, most-important, can’t live without writing tip you would offer to aspiring authors?
Baty: Finish what you start. Seeing something through to the end, no matter how dismal you fear that end may be, will teach you tons.
Slushpile: What is your single-best, most-important, can’t live without publishing tip you would offer to aspiring authors trying to break into print?
Baty: Know that someone has to get those bylines. It may as well be you.
For more information on National Novel Writing Month, and to sign up, check out their website.
To buy No Plot? No Problem!, check it out here.