Chris Baty wants to be your muse. He’ll drape himself in Grecian linen and hand-feed you from a grape cluster dangling from his gracefully-curved hand. OK, maybe not that last part, but he does hope to
inspire you. Specifically, he requests that you write a 50,000-word novel next month.
Each November since 1999, Baty has done exactly that. As founder of National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, he advocates a quick and dirty draft to get to “The End” before motivation wanes. And by quick, he means super quick: like, 30 days.
Back when dot-com euphoria made the idlest ideas seem thick with promise, the then-Oakland resident gathered 21 buddies to spend the month writing novels. A freelance writer for local magazines, he easily tapped fellow wordsmithers who agreed the project sounded entertaining. He decided on 50,000 words as the goal; that’s actually novella length, but many classic books fall in that range like The Great Gatsby and The Catcher in the Rye.
The intrepid writers met at drinkeries like Gaylord’s and L’Amyx to hunker down with laptops and plots — and to quickly learn the arduousness of their whimsically adopted objective. At the end of the month, only six had hit the word count, what Baty calls “winning.”
Those six were over-caffeinated, cranky … and exhilarated. Piedmont Avenue resident Dan Strachota explains: “NaNoWriMo has helped me muffle the little editor in my head. And even after all these years, it’s still incredible to feel the rush of sitting down to write with only a few concrete ideas and then seeing what things your brain will come up with.” Strachota stands right behind Baty as a NaNoWriMo pioneer; he’s only missed two years out of the last 12.
And he’s now in great company. Last year, 200,500 people embarked on authorhood, a percentage increase of something close to a million. Of those, 37,500 won.
Recently Baty showed me around his Victorianly-titled Office of Letters and
Light sitting just over the border in Berkeley. This is the headquarters for NaNoWriMo, which now boasts infrastructure and
At 6-foot-3 he moves gracefully and emits a gleeful and infectious smile through his Wife-of-Bath gap. Wearing a noncommittal black Oxford shirt and dark jeans, the attractive 37-year-old has a buzz cut and a five o’clock shadow that is easing its way towards, say,
A staff of eight full-time employees runs the office, all young, friendly hipsters. Baty opens cupboards to show NaNoWriMo memorabilia, the profuse amounts of coffee that fuel the team, an equal amount of tea that he seems surprised over and treble the quantity in wine bottles sitting atop the fridge at the back. A painting of Tom Selleck holds a place of honor.
Upstairs is a loft meeting room. Baty and I stand perusing the bookcase with shelves of published NaNoWriMo books until a staffer kicks us out so he can hold a conference call. I’m surprised to see Sara Gruen’s bestseller Water for Elephants in the mix. Baty says her last three novels began as 50K entries in his race.
The loft overlooks the rest of the hive, and Baty tells me he sometimes peers out and experiences momentary disbelief. “We have a functioning office,” he says in a tone of marvel.
Back downstairs at the front of the narrow shotgun space, two retail windows each display a schoolish desk and chair. During November, novelists occupy the space as live mannequins for the “wares.”
Great ideas need bandwidth, and Baty’s nonfiction book No Plot? No Problem! chronicles the drama of keeping his website from crashing with the unforeseen hordes of visitors (in two years the numbers had jumped from 21 to 5,000). The site is where writers sign in, get advice and motivational support, and ultimately upload their novels — with privacy guaranteed — to verify word count for their winner’s certificate. Participating in NaNoWriMo is always free — but you’ll confront a pretty convincing plea
to donate $10.
Donations run 60 percent of this nonprofit endeavor (that $10 gift powers their server for two hours). Monies go to, among other things, create and ship classroom kits, fund a program that loans word processors to kids without computers, send staffers to classrooms to enact curricula, ship motivational kits to libraries and bookstores to get the word out, and, of course, to keep the lights on. An online store of kitschy merchandise also helps pay bills, to the tune of 30 percent. The final infusion of cash comes from grants and corporate sponsorships.
Baty himself admits 50,000 words is “ridiculous” and emphasizes congratulating all entrants’ accomplishments, undoubtedly an increased ebb of words regardless. He clearly feels there’s still something wholesome about the journey even if the horse doesn’t pull the cart to the destination.
“There is nothing more admirable in this whole damn world than someone willing to set for themselves the fearsome task of trying something big,” he states in his 2004 book.
It’s perhaps surprising that Baty never thought of himself as a novelist and says he still doesn’t. He majored in anthropology. Yet, as an only child, he says, “Books were my siblings. In the back seat of the car, instead of punching other kids, I’d be reading quietly until I threw up.”
And to answer the question, no, Baty has not yet published any of his 12 novels, although he has an agent (half the battle in today’s publishing world) who’s excited about his 2007 NaNoNovel, a young adult fantasy novel under revision. As a sign of his faith in his own work, he’s leaving the Office of Letters and Light in January to pursue the dream full time.
But his inability to (yet) capture the golden ring of publication almost seems beside the point. Strachota calls his friend the “Pied Piper of Noveling,” and many tangible proofs of his success exist. Like new residents on the planet. Dozens of people who met and fell in love at writing sessions have gotten married, and NaNoWriMo babies have been born. “Some consider this a clandestine dating site for book nerds,” says Baty.
Besides love and gestation, writing communities that wouldn’t otherwise exist have sprung up. In 500 cities worldwide, writing pods created from NaNoWriMo meet up. Baty traveled to Australia to visit a group that meets every Wednesday year round.
Baty’s made special efforts to give back. Early on, teachers wanted to bring NaNoWriMo to their students and asked him for resources. He jumped to the challenge, building a simpler version of the website, establishing different word-count goals based on age and offering free creative writing programs. Today more than 1,800 classrooms around the world participate.
A final indication of NaNoWriMo’s triumph? Academia embraces it. Stanford University creative writing instructor Tom Kealey tells me that students lobbied for a NaNoWriMo course, which is now part of the curriculum. George Mason University and the UCLA Extension also offer classes.
All over the world people participate rabidly, like the Washington, D.C., woman who, upon waking from anesthesia, requested her laptop so she could make
up for lost time.
I was glad to meet Baty and get the straight dope on pronunciation. It’s correctly said “Nan-no-wry-moe.” I lightly argued that we say nah-vel, not no-vel, and munth rather than moanth — but felt like a jerk for bringing that up when Baty’s expressive blue eyes momentarily clouded. Why quibble over syllables when he’s done so much good for the world?
Ideas are famous for being fleeting. Little electrical impulses that bolt through our neurons, they are gone instantly unless we pay attention. Baty pays attention, god bless him. He harnesses ideas and doesn’t let them go until he’s built a worldwide empire based on them. “In every group of friends, there’s someone who says, ‘Let’s dress up like donkeys and go down Market Street,’ ” Baty says. “I’m that guy.”
Nov. 1 is your chance to jump on board: Visit www.nanowrimo.org to register.