Muse for the Masses

NaNoWriMo now produces by my count more fiction in one month than all of America's MFA programs combined in an entire year.

Sartre had it right: We are exactly what we do. If you lie you’re a liar, and if you don’t write you’re not a writer. Fortunately, Chris Baty, an Oakland freelancer and founder of National Novel Writing Month, can help you with that last part. In just thirty days, he can make you a novelist.

Well, that’s not strictly true. Only you can make yourself a novelist. What Baty can do is give you an excuse and a simple plan to finally write that Great American Novel you knew you had in you — or better yet, that you had no idea you had in you. Since 1999, when Baty and his friends decided on a lark to all write novels in the space of one month, more and more budding novelists have risen to the challenge. Every November, they novel like they’d never noveled before. And if “novel” ever becomes a valid verb in Merriam-Webster’s, you’ll know who to blame.

In July of 1999, Baty baited twenty of his friends into joining him in a monthlong novel-writing marathon. Six of them actually completed the fifty thousand words agreed upon. The following year, he e-mailed the same group an invitation to try again, only this time they forwarded it to some friends and 140 people signed up. “There were people from other parts of the United States,” Baty recalls, “which was strange because I called it National Novel Writing Month as a funny thing the first year, and the second year it actually was national.”

To say he was unprepared for the degree to which his idea would catch on is an understatement. That would become evident in 2001, when he geared up for November with the same simple Web site,, on which he had manually alphabetized lists of participants and updated writers’ word counts e-mailed to him on the tenth, twentieth, and thirtieth days of the month. But word has a way of getting around on the Internet.

“That was when the bloggers got hold of it and it jumped from 140 to five thousand,” Baty says. “That was the year when I pretty much lost it. I had to cut off sign-ups, and people were forming rogue NaNoWriMo organizations, putting Che Guevara’s head on the NaNoWriMo logo. We had people staying up all night drinking Red Bull and hand-alphabetizing name after name after name until five thousand names got put up on the Web page. That was also the year that I was sitting at my computer in November, and some smooth-voiced NPR announcer said, ‘November is National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo.’ It was just ice water in my veins, and I was like, ‘How is this happening?'”

Suddenly Baty’s little fall project was everywhere — National Novel Writing Month had gone from local to national to international in three years, attracting everyone from grads fresh out of college to parents whose kids had just gone off to college, from Catholic priests to twelve-year-olds. “Last year, we had a Hindu monk write in to ask if he could have his followers be the ones who uploaded his excerpts because he didn’t have regular access to a computer,” Baty says.

In 2002 he was ready, armed with a new Web site with automatic sign-ups and progress bars, and online forums where the “Wrimos” could organize meet-ups in their areas or ask technical questions ranging from symptoms of nightshade poisoning to what it feels like to fall in love. “But that was also the year I came closest to a nervous breakdown,” Baty says. “Around October 28, with the BBC doing all of these pieces on us, suddenly people could no longer connect to the Web site. The computer programmer was trying to figure out what the problem was, but he was working full-time and couldn’t really work on it during the day, and I was getting all these e-mails: ‘Is NaNoWriMo being called off?’ It felt as if I had invited five thousand people to my wedding, and the church door had this enormous padlock on it and all of these guests from Saskatchewan and Tokyo were showing up. Thankfully on October 31 he discovered what the problem was and fixed it, and suddenly everything came back.”

NaNoWriMo is still growing. It attracted more than 25,000 Wrimos last year. At this point it has become Baty’s job for a few months of the year, and he manages to sustain the site and pay a small staff through donations and T-shirt sales. And somehow he always manages to get his novels done by the end of November. He’s far from alone: The number of Wrimos completing novels ballooned from the initial six to 29, then 700, then 2,100, and finally 3,500 last year. “NaNoWriMo now produces by my count more fiction in one month than all of America’s MFA programs combined in an entire year,” he says. “That writing may not be as good as the stuff coming out of the MFA programs, but in some ways it’s just as important, because it’s turning people on to the fact that whatever they do professionally or how busy they are with their kids, they still have this part of themselves that is magical and is always there waiting for them.”

Once you’ve written the quickie novel, you’re on your own for the seemingly endless work of revisions and submissions, so it’ll be a while before Oprah is likely to read any of these. Of the more than six thousand novels completed, only two to date have seen the light of day: Jon F. Merz’ The Destructor, written in November 2001, was released by Pinnacle Books in March of last year. And Lani Diane Rich, a mom who joined up on a whim in 2002, will have her first novel, Time Off for Good Behavior, released on Warner Books this October.

Baty’s own debut will be published by Chronicle Books in October, but it isn’t one of his five novels. No Plot? No Problem! is Baty’s guide to marathon novel-writing, just in time to help the troops survive this year’s NaNoWriMo. “This is a how-to book on how to write a novel by a man who has never published a novel,” he admits. “But what I know a lot about at this point is the psychology and time management of sitting down and getting something big completed in a short amount of time.”

Baty views his role as leader of a literary movement with a certain amusement, and would be the first to tell you NaNoWriMo was a dumb idea — but a pretty good dumb idea. “I think at a certain point, NaNoWriMo will be over,” he says. “It’ll be like Friendster, something that was fun for a while, or will seem like swallowing goldfish at a frat party. It just won’t be cool anymore. But for now, it feels so neat to know that there are books out there that didn’t exist before and that NaNoWriMo has had an effect on normal people’s creative lives in this tremendous capacity.”

His secret to novel writing: Just write the damn thing and wait till afterward to worry about if it’s any good. The best part is that you don’t need time, or not as much time as you think. “Somehow I think it’s just easier to write a novel when you’re really, really busy, in the same way that it’s really hard to get anything done if you just don’t have enough to do,” Baty says. “I think that’s one of the weird, counterintuitive temporal physics of NaNoWriMo: Doing something that’s difficult is impossible, and doing something that’s impossible is actually relatively easy.”

For those taking part in November’s prose-pounding, it’s also a hell of a ride. Someone should write a novel about it. And with tens of thousands of wannabe Hemingways in search of a subject, someone undoubtedly will.


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