NaNoWriMo's Chris Baty Explains How to Write a Science Fiction Epic in 30 Days

November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), when amateur and professional writers alike scramble to write a first draft of a novel in a mere 30 days. For science fiction writers, that's an especially daunting task, which can involve not only telling a story and creating compelling characters, but also craft an entirely new world. We talked to NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty, who told us how the process works and why science fiction writers should speed through their first drafts.Baty, who also wrote the novel-writing guide No Plot? No Problem!, started National Novel Writing Month in 1999. Each November, participants attempt to write 50,000 words of an entirely new novel, with little or no planning. Sound impossible? We caught up with Baty, who explained how impossible deadlines can inspire surprising works of fiction. What got you started on turning this whole thing into this whole national movement? It's becoming really huge. It wasn't at first. It was really never supposed to be national. In fact, the first year that I did it, it was just a bunch of us in the Bay Area in 1999. And the name "National Novel Writing Month" was sort of an inside joke that I think made us feel better about our sort of dismal chances of success. It was nice to kind of have a big-sounding name for what I was pretty sure was going to a pretty small thing. So I think the idea kind of came from my past both working as an editor and putting out a ‘zine that I had done from the time I was about 22 years old until I was 27 or so. And it just seemed that when you give someone an impossible deadline, miracles happen, and things that you shouldn't be able to pull off you can if the deadline is scary enough. And I think that was sort of the idea that drove this notion of writing a novel in a month – was you know, writing a novel seems like an impossible thing, so let's give it a deadline and maybe that will make it doable. And strangely that's kind of what happened. It really did. There were 21 of us that first year and the books that we ended up writing were not great, but they weren't abysmally, embarrassingly horrible. And to me, that felt like this tremendous accomplishment and I thought if we can do this, anyone can do this. So I put up a better website and extended the call a little bit wider the following year and it's just grown from word of mouth from there. It's funny. I've talked to a lot of people online who say "Don't talk to me. It's November and I'm writing my novel." I feel like we owe a great apology to the blog readers of the world because I think that a lot of the great blogs are affected by this NaNoWriMo virus where all of the bloggers are sort of taken out of commission for the month of November. And beyond people finishing the 50,000 words – which I think is amazing – you've had a lot of people get their novels published.


Yeah and it's been interesting over the years to see the number of people who have ended up selling their NaNoWriMo manuscripts grow, because I never thought that would happen. It was really just supposed to be a creative kick in the pants, an adventuresome month spent running naked through your imagination. But it's fantastic. It's actually a pretty great way to get a book written. I mean you have to write the first draft in a month and then you go and spend probably the rest of the year actually revising it and expanding it, because, you know, 50,000 words is not really a classic literary length. You tend to preferably end up adding anywhere between 30 and 100,000 words on top of it. But yeah, more and more people have been finding publishers. I think we have 27 people so far have sold their manuscript to print publishers, and another probably three times that many have sold them to ebook publishers. And last year we had our first New York Times number one bestseller in Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants. And it's amazing. I mean, I go to airport bookstores and there's Water for Elephants and it's a NaNoWriMo novel. It's pretty cool. I was talking to someone whose first published novel was a NaNoWriMo novel, and felt he really needed that experience. That's kind of the interesting thing about NaNoWriMo as it's grown. I think there's definitely a large group of people who just do it for the sake of doing it, because it's outrageous amounts of fun, because it pokes your imagination in really nice ways. I think because it also improves your reading ability in this really interesting way where once you've actually written a book you read on a completely different level. You are able to see both the really exquisite but you're also able to see the seams of the book that couldn't see before and that's really fascinating. But there are, I would say at this point, 20 percent of us participants taking part in National Novel Writing Month really as part of this multi-stage process of getting that thing sold. And it works really well and we've had more and more published novelists come and take part in this just because you know everybody needs that deadline. And the really nice thing is that we've paired that terrifying deadline with a really supportive, fun, funny community that absolutely takes this goal of 50,000 words very seriously but does not take themselves so seriously as a lot of writing sites do, that it's okay to have fun, it's okay to make mistakes, and it's okay to learn by doing. And I think that is such a great atmosphere both for book lovers who are giving this a shot for the first time as well as book writers who do this for a living. Do you have any sense of what genres are the most common for NaNoWriMo? It's pretty evenly spread out. I think our top genres are fantasy, science fiction, and literary fiction, however you define that, and romance is also a big one. And in terms of science fiction, there's always been a huge contingent of scifi writers that have done NaNoWriMo and they were really some of the earliest adopters. I think because the science fiction reading community has already had so many great online resources so they were already in some ways gathered together on message boards and websites and blogs. And so the NaNoWriMo virus that I talked about earlier was really able to take hold because these are connected people already and so the word can really go out. When one person's doing it, there's "Oh, maybe we should all do this." And I think that's been one of the reasons that we have had such a high turnout among the science fiction writers and fans.

With science fiction writers, there's often a lot of additional work going on: worldbuilding, creating new technology. Do you find that NaNoWriMo helps with that, or is it a hindrance to writing the novel? Yeah, that's a good question and you're right. It's interesting. I think certain genres lend themselves a little bit better to NaNoWriMo than others. Like mysteries are really – if you don't know whodunit when you're writing it, you're kind of in trouble as a mystery writer. And I think science fiction writers – there's worldbuilding – they do have a little more work to do. But I think the nice thing about NaNoWriMo for worldbuilders is it's so easy to get bogged down in this sense of "I really need to understand the mechanics of spaceflight for this particular craft before I'm able to move forward in my story." And I think that you can spend your entire life basically trying to populate these worlds and try to understand how the various technologies interact, how the various organisms, and all that stuff and at a certain point it just becomes an impediment to actually writing your book rather than something that enhances your ability to write. And I think that NaNoWriMo is good for science fiction writers in that sense that it's kind of like "Okay, enough planning. It's time to take this show on the road and actually get your story written." And I think that's also true for writing historical fiction. They get caught in that same infinite research loop where you really can take a century to try to map out the exact kind of wunderbust that your character would be carrying or whether the buttons on their pants would be made of elephant tusk or brass. And I think in some ways that sort of hides the point of the story. You don't necessarily need to know how that creature breathes or something. It sounds like a lot of people use research as a procrastination tool, or an excuse not to write the novel. For me, what I have found is that it's better to just go ahead and write the thing, and get the plot down and get your character arcs going, and figure out who's going to be in the story, and get a general sense of where it's going to be set, and know that a novel is something that goes through drafts. There's really no way of getting around it. No matter how talented you are as a writer, you cannot get your novel right on the first draft. You just can't do it. It's too complicated. And so I think with that in mind, I would encourage people to go ahead and write the story with whatever worlds they can get open at the time. And then go through and see what parts of the story are the best parts. And then on your second draft build your book around those. And who knows? Maybe a lot of that intricate world and entire solar system that you would have spent a year creating, maybe it turns out it's not even a hit in that book. So at that point, it would have been a lot of wasted time. One of the things I really like about NaNoWriMo is this community you've set up. You have these block captains who keep everyone in line. And there's this wonderful sense of – and I mean this in the best way possible – sense of shame in the community, shaming you to keep writing. Yeah, absolutely. I think we're really in some ways kind of a cross between a marathon and a literary block party or something where having that community is really important. And I think it does such great things for both the writing and the writer in that none of us are getting paid to write these novels and because of that it can be really hard to make time for them. There's so many things that take precedence in our lives, things that pay the rent and the mortgages, and things that allow us to send our kids to school and all that stuff. Novels tend to be very far down on the list of crucial life undertakings and because of that I think you need to you need anything that helps force you to sit down when you are not feeling it I think is absolutely crucial in getting the book written. And I think this aspect of word count and then this community of people who are going to ask you about, well, how are you doing? Are you at 35,000 words? And you have 13,000 words.


And I think that does help you keep your feet to the fire and kind of gives you the motivation that you need to struggle through the ups and downs of a first draft. And it can be really challenging even for professional novelists that have done this a lot and know there is always light at the end of the tunnel if you just keep on writing. And there are just dispiriting, demoralizing moments where you just think, "What the hell am I doing? I'm a horrible writer. This is the worst story I've ever come up with. I should just bury this thing in the back yard and be done with it." But you find if you keep going through those periods that actually things get better and stories start to come alive and characters take the book in unexpected directions and it all works out. But if don't have a group of people to help push you through those tough times, it's just very, very easy to quit. And for that reason, I think this idea of having local chapters all around the world where you can actually bring your laptop or a legal pad or whatever and sit in a coffee shop with folks that you may or may not know and just write your novel I think is just such an essential productivity tool for amateur novelists. Do you find then that there's a lot of cross-pollination among the genres? Does physical presence matter more than a close alignment in what you're writing? Yeah, that is kind of a nice thing about it. And another nice thing about it is that a lot of people have been doing this every November for six, seven, eight, nine years. And at a certain point people who maybe started out as a scifi writer, after they've written four scifi novels and November's coming up again and they definitely want to do it again, I think it kind of helps push you outside of the typical genre that you might normally read and explore some other things. I know for me, I started writing Nick Hornby-esque music nerd with relationship problems-style fiction and you can only write so many of those before you start wondering what else is out there. And I've written a couple of young adult novels that I've really enjoyed and I wrote an aquatic zombie lawyer novel. You just kind of get curious and I think that's a great thing to explore the outer reaches of your imagination. Um, is that aquatic zombie lawyer novel available somewhere? It's available only on my hard drive to a very select readership. What would you say to NaNoWriMo writers who are now several days into the month, and the high has worn off, and now they're stuck? I would just say that this is part of it. This is a time when this idea that seemed kind of fun and a little bit silly is going to start feeling like work and a lot of this self-doubt about our abilities as writers are going to creep in about now. And it's also a time when a lot of cool, just crazy things start to happen in peoples' lives, like this is when hard drives start exploding and people get hit by cars. It really is a strange anti-vortex that perhaps is channeled by NaNoWriMo. But a lot of crazy things happen in peoples' lives that make focusing on your book tough. So I would just say just keep going and know that it will get better in week three and that if you keep going into week four that it just feels like the greatest thing you could ever imagine. It's just really an exhilarating feeling. Did you deliberately choose the worst possible month to do this? You know, the first year we did it, we did it in July. And it was tough for other reasons, because everyone was on vacation. And so we would have done it the next July though, but it turned out that the original group wasn't available. People were just too busy. So we moved it to November. And I think that it's nice in some ways because a lot of the world is having really miserable weather. Also, November starts with N-O-V, which is kind of a mnemonic to help you think about "Oh, it's November! I should be thinking nov-el." And I think that's a kind of psychic aid. And then, it's also an absolutely miserable month for any student or teacher. It's a really hectic time. But it's easier to get something done when you're incredibly busy. When you've got a million things to do, adding number million-and-one is somehow more doable than when you don't really have stuff to do and then somehow it's hard to get anything done. So it's a horrible month, but there aren't really any good months, so I think this one's pretty okay… What's interesting is there are a lot of high school students that do NaNoWriMo – a lot of high school students. And I was never more sleep-deprived and exhausted than I was in high school. You have to get up at some ungodly hour and you just have way too many things going on. And that to me is so inspiring that this large of group of teens are basically like, "I'm going to do this. I'm writing my novel." And I think it's just great. So what are you working on this month? I'm back to square one, but now it's thirty-something music nerd with relationship problems. So I've grown a lot in the last ten years. Top image courtesy of NaNoWriMo. [National Novel Writing Month]


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