Book Review – No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty

Title: No Plot? No Problem!
Author: Chris Baty
Format: Paperback
Written: 2004
Published: 2004

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is an annual writing challenge that was started by Chris Baty, and No Plot? No Problem! has been written as a handbook to guide participants through the process of writing a novel in a month. It is divided into two main sections: before you start, and during the journey. There is a final chapter on what to do once your novel is written, and this is easily encompassed in the section on writing.

It is immediately obvious that this book is highly irreverent and completely unapologetic. The primary objective is to help people transform themselves from a mindset of ‘one day I will do this’ to ‘today I will do this’. Humorous side notes fill the pages, bringing stories from the personal experiences of Baty and other NaNoWriMo participants. Each page is carefully constructed to blend support of the possibility with a reduction in the importance of success.

In the first half of the book, the focus is on discovering the joy of writing, the excitement of doing something outside your comfort zone, and giving yourself permission to make mistakes. And it is clear from the book that you will make those mistakes, most likely frequently and spectacularly. This section provides a framework to decide that mistakes are acceptable and instructions for creating a support network to help you move past them to continue following the goal.

Ultimately, preparation can only go so far, so the second half of the book is about writing. At some point you need to transition to doing rather than contemplating, and this is where that journey begins. This section deals with the challenges and breakthroughs that are common to novelists undertaking NaNoWriMo. Things are covered that not every novelist will deal with, and those that do encounter issues will not encounter them with every novel, but the main idea to take from this section is that you are not alone in facing these problems. Other people have been there before you, other people will probably be there after you, and all of it can be dealt with as it arises.

Unlike most other books on writing, this one deals with the emotional journey. It teaches a method for persevering when you want to quit. There are sections on dealing with emotional fallout from people who don’t like what you are doing and want you to stop. It recognises that you are not always going to be happy, provides a shoulder to cry on, and then gently pushes you back toward the goal.

I came across this book before I participated in NaNoWriMo for the first time, several years ago. It was liberating to return to writing without worrying about my target market, complicated technical theories that I didn’t fully understand, or the pressure that every word needed to be just right. By following this program, I was able to return to writing with a sense of play and adventure.

There are, however, many criticisms of NaNoWriMo that apply equally to this book. It will not teach you how to write the next bestseller. It probably won’t teach you how to write anything mediocre. It actually encourages you to “lower the bar from ‘best-seller’ to ‘would not make someone vomit’.” (p.33) There is undoubtedly a staggering amount of terrible prose written each year as a result of the program. While these criticisms are valid, they miss the fundamental point of this book: it is better to have written rubbish than to have never written at all.

The program will not be right for all novelists, but the underlying philosophy here can be easily adapted to anyone who is too nervous to try a new project in a new area. For that reason, I am giving this book 4 of 5 pages.

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