Writer Wednesday – Chris Baty

Most of us know Chris Baty for one reason and one reason only, NaNoWriMo.  He’s the reason why thousands of writers around the world huddle around laptops, AlphaSmart Neos or even paper and pen every November, hurriedly wording our way to a daily 1667 word count (if you’re curious how long that is, it’s roughly the length of this post).  For those of us who have participated in NaNo (or its now-defunct sister program Script Frenzy), he’s a bit of a hero.  [Note: this includes everybody here on this blog; most of us even helped organize the program locally at one time or another.] The genius that made us put our buts in our chairs and create something that we would have otherwise put off.  The man who got us gathering in groups, warring with words and crafting something, making us greater than we may have been without him.

If it sounds like I’m gushing, it’s because I am.  When we started this blog, this was the first name that popped in my head, and the one I wanted more than all the others.  You see, there’s magic that surrounds NaNo, and it’s not just because we manage to put a bunch of words on paper.  I credit the program for reminding me that I wanted to be a writer.  It united me with many amazing people – who I now call friends – and gave me the confidence and networking abilities that I now carry beyond the program.  Before I can’t stop myself, here’s Chris…

Not a wombat.

Let’s start with the basics. Who are you?
Hello! My name is Chris Baty. I am a very tall human living in Berkeley, California.

…and a bit about what you’ve written…
Over the years, I’ve done travel writing, music reviewing, web copywriting, and academic business case writing (that one was the best/weirdest because I got to go live in Paris and learn a lot about professional wrestling.)

When I was 26, I organized the first National Novel Writing Month and fell in love with fiction writing. Bashing out mediocre novels in November has been a huge, joyful, part of my life ever since. When we launched NaNoWriMo’s sister event, Script Frenzy, I also got bitten by the screenplay bug. In addition to 13 novel manuscripts and three movies, I’ve also authored a guide to writing a novel in a month called No Plot? No Problem! and co-written a noveling workbook called Ready, Set, Novel.

…and what you’re working on right now.
I’m currently deep in revisions on a bunch of projects. I’m working on the seventh draft of my young adult novel, and also rewriting a couple screenplays with my friends Dan and Jen. I also send out writerly pep talks twice a month to folks on my mailing list. http://chrisbaty.us5.list-manage.com/subscribe?u=766c4810f0c1a87e99faab871&id=1e6ae3e507

What are your earliest book-related memories?
I’m an only child, so books really functioned as my siblings growing up. I remember happily reading myself sick in the back seat of the car on long road trips. Some of my favorite books as a kid were Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day? (which kicked off a lifelong obsession with other people’s jobs) and Mercer Mayer’s One Monster After Another (which caused me to believe that the US postal system relied much more heavily on monsters than it actually did.)

I went to the library a lot as a kid, and I also have this very strong memory of the way the Prairie Village Kansas smelled. It was a mixture of paper, ink, and buffed linoleum, and I’ll sometimes catch a whiff of the same smell in older public buildings and it always makes me feel like a bookish adventure is about to begin.

What are your three favorite books?
This is such a tough question that I’m going to pretend you asked me to name my three favorite books from the past year. The answer to that question would be Feed by MT Anderson, Everything is Its Own Reward by Paul Madonna, and What the Family Needed by Steven Amsterdam.

How many books to do you read at any given time? What are you reading now?
I recently had a birthday and received a bunch of great books, all of which I’m trying to cram into my brain simultaneously. Right now I’m reading One Last Thing Before I Go by Jonathan Topper, Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon, It Chooses You by Miranda July, and the graphic novel Whiteout by Greg Rucka and Steve Lieber.

Finish this sentence; when I curl up with a book, I ___
am fighting the urge to get up and tweet about it.

To re-read or not to re-read that is the question.
Like most book-lovers, I have an entire shelf filled with books I’ve bought or been given that I haven’t yet had a chance to read. These books stare at me balefully every day, and are likely close to organizing some sort of mutiny and killing me in my sleep. Until I make it through more of them, I probably won’t go back and reread anything.

How likely are you to read a book that’s been recommended to you?
Very.

How likely are you to recommend a book (that isn’t yours)?
I’m an insufferable pusher of books. When I finished reading Dave Eggers’ What is the What, I bought five copies and just carried them around in my car to give away.

What do you look for in a good book?
I like humor, a self-deprecating narrator, and insights on modern life and love. If there’s a little music nerdiness thrown in there, so much the better. I tend to gravitate simple writing that offers insights into a complicated world.

Why do you write?
Honestly, I think I write to make people happy. Is that a horrible answer? I also write to help me understand how I feel about things. And sometimes I just write because it’s a great excuse to drink coffee.

If you couldn’t be a writer, what would you be?
What’s the job called where you get to play with monkeys all day long? Monkey-player? I’d like to be a monkey-player.

Where do you draw your inspiration from?
Some things that tend to inspire me include…

Weird handwritten signs, found notes, and graffiti
Modern art museums
Talking with friends
Travel in other cities and countries
Misread news headlines
Correctly read news headlines
Overheard conversations
Monkeys

What has writing taught you about yourself?
I think the biggest thing I’ve learned is that everyone has a wealth of stories in them, and that folks who who claim to be storyless just need a good deadline and a tiny bit of encouragement to help get things flowing.

How do the people in your life seem to view your writing career?
They’re into it! I was lucky to be born to parents who encouraged me to follow my passions, even if none of those passions have been all that practical. I’m also blessed with a group of creative, talented, and generous friends who serve as enablers, co-conspirators, and beta readers. I would be lost without them.

What do you see as the biggest challenge today for writers starting out?
The most basic challenge is just keeping at it long enough to get better. One of my heroes, This American Life’s Ira Glass, said it really well: http://vimeo.com/24715531

Have you made any writing mistakes that seem obvious in retrospect but weren’t at the time?
Oh god, yes. I feel like the first couple drafts every novel I write consist entirely of obvious mistakes. I really believe that’s just part of the process. You write a flawed story arc, and then tear it apart and rebuild it better. Then tear that apart and start again. Each time it gets a little closer to the glorious book-beast it will eventually become.

In a sense, writing a good book really depends on making heaps of mistakes so you have a lot to work with during the revision process. You’re never going to get it right on the first go-round. Which is all the more reason to just embrace the suckitude and get words down. A wise person once said that you can edit a bad book into a good book, but you can’t edit a blank page into anything but a blank page.

Is there a particular project you would love to be involved with?
I’d love to try doing non-fiction storytelling for radio in the vein of RadioLab or This American Life.

How do you deal with your fan base?
With gratitude. There are so many fantastic writers and inspiring folks out there, and I’m just thankful that anyone cares what I have to say. I’m an extrovert and tend to get a little lonely when I’m trapped behind a computer for months on end. I love getting out on the road and meeting folks. This summer I got a chance to travel around Ireland and the UK, and I met up with groups of NaNoWriMo participants in Dublin, London, Galway, and Brighton. It was one of the highlights of my year.

So, tell us about this little thing called NaNoWriMo.
NaNoWriMo is short for National Novel Writing Month. It’s a nonprofit organization, and its goal is to get kids and adults to spend November bashing out an entire book from scratch. I founded it accidentally back in 1999 and it’s since grown into global literary block party with over 300,000 participants every year. I stepped down as Executive Director in 2012, but I still love it and believe in it and am proud to serve as a Board Member Emeritus. I’ll be going for my 14th NaNoWriMo victory this November.   [http://www.nanowrimo.org]

Anything else we should know?
This October, I’m going to be launching a tiny online store called Chris Baty Studios. It’s a poster workshop, where I team up with illustrators and designers to make inspiring, fun art for writers. When the shop goes live, you’ll be able to see it http://shop.chrisbaty.com. In the meantime, folks can find me at http://www.twitter.com/chrisbaty and www.facebook.com/batyland.

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5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. L.M. Murphy (@murphyslawyer22)
    Oct 17, 2012 @ 22:40:58

    Nice interview! I’d be gushing too. ^__^

    Reply

  2. Trackback: Writer Wednesday – Interview with Chris Baty (founder of NaNoWriMo) « writermummy
  3. Janice
    Oct 24, 2012 @ 16:09:23

    Great interview! i love Chris and NaNoWriMo, going for i third win! Have also won two Camp NaNo’s.

    Reply

    • Mandi M. Lynch, author
      Oct 26, 2012 @ 05:18:30

      Between the people on this blog, we’ve got at least 10 wins (but most certainly more). You can totally do it this year.

      Reply

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