Review: No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty

A WordsDay Special

If writing a 50,000-word novel in a month sounds like a crackpot idea, it is. So admits Chris Baty, founder of National Novel Writing Month and author of No Plot? No Problem! But Baty’s book also makes the idea sound like a total lark—and totally doable, too.

Baty and twenty of his friends, living in the shadow of Silicon Valley at the height of the dot-com boom, launched NaNoWriMo as nothing more than something to do to kill time. “My only explanation for our cheeky ambition is this,” he writes: “Being surrounded by pet-supply e-tailers worth more than IBM has a way of getting your sense of what’s possible all out of whack. The old millennium was dying; a better one was on its way. We were in out mid-twenties, and we had no idea what we were doing. But we knew we loved books. And so we set out to write them.”

No Plot? No Problem! is not the book he set out to write that week. Instead, it’s a how-to book designed for daredevil fiction writers who want to replicate Baty’s literary feat. It provides an outline for how to tackle a novel-in-a-month project, and it also includes a wealth of tips from Baty and dozens of other NaNoWriMo veterans.

“Perhaps flinging a random assortment of characters at a Microsoft Word document…was not the soundest approach to book-building,” says Baty, who warns that starting from scratch—as a true daredevil fiction writer might be wont to do—isn’t quite as easy as it sounds. “Of the twenty-one people who participated,” he writes, “only six of us made it across the 50,000-word finish line that first year, with the rest falling short anywhere from 500 to 49,000 words.”

NaNoWriMo might be nothing more than a big gimmick, which Baty treats as serious-but-light-hearted fun. He wants subscribers of his vision to do the same. “[Y]our novel is not a self-improvement campaign,” he says. “Your novel is a spastic, jubilant hoe-down set to your favorite music, a thirty-day visit to a candy store where everything is free and nothing is fattening.”

The key to the event, and the message central to Baty’s book, is for writers to take risks. “The quickest, easiest way to produce something beautiful and lasting is to risk making something horribly crappy,” Baty says.

Self-censorship and meticulous attention to craft are no-no’s. Instead, the book counsels a breakneck speed of 1,667 words per day for thirty days. “You will be bathing in dizzying amounts of momentum and literary moxie,” he says.

Why one month? On one hand, it’s an arbitrary amount of time, easy to measure—but it’s also absolutely crucial. “A deadline is, simply put, optimism in its most ass-kicking form,” Baty says. “Deadlines are the dynamos of the modern age.”

The deadline forces action, and with novel writing, it necessitates an emphasis on quantity over quality. “Thanks for the go-go-go structure of the event, the stultifying pressure to write brilliant, eternal prose had been lifted,” Baty says. “And in its place was the pleasure of learning by doing. Of taking risks, of making messes. Of following ideas just to see where they lead.”

And in a way, that’s the joy of No Plot?: It is a celebration of the raw act of creation. Art and craft come later—but the novel must first of all be born before the writer can turn it into something.

Baty never seems to take the novel-in-a-month idea too seriously—but he does take the writing itself very seriously. After all, No Plot? could’ve been little more than a 50K-word promo for NaNoWriMo. Baty avoids that trap by hammering home the importance of risk and creation and by plugging the book chock-full of excellent writing advice.

Some of this suggestions sound like writing truisms:

  • Allow change, and plot will happen.
  • If you won’t enjoy reading it, you won’t enjoy writing it.
  • When picking out your pen, you must be absolutely sure that you have found the right one…. Getting the wrong pen for the job would be a disastrous start to the writing process.

But beyond the truisms, Baty offers excellent time management strategies, suggestions for generating well-realized characters, and over coming writers block (my favorite: start your novel as an e-mail to yourself because “something about the rhetorical situation of e-mail writing keeps [your] internal censor and editor quiet).

He does offer, too, suggestions specific to novel-in-a-month writing, such as advice for managing “word debt” and tips for padding word counts: “Afflict one of your characters with a stutter,” “Word-processing programs tend to count hyphenated words as a single unit,” “The dream sequence and its cousin, the hallucination, go on for as long as you like and don’t have to many any sense whatsoever.”

Overall, it’s a well-balanced mix of universal writing advice and advice for daredevil novelists.

It’s clear, throughout the book, that Baty loves writing and he loves being a writer. “If we loved books, we were equally awestruck by their creators,” he says. “Novelists were clearly a different branch of Homo sapiens; an enlightened subspecies endowed with a monstrously overdeveloped understanding of the human condition and the supernatural ability to spell words properly.”

That’s one of the delights of the book: Baty makes it abundantly clear that he’s having one first-class helluva good time as a writer. “I find flinging balls of paper, pens, and other assorted office supplies across the room helps the whole writing process feel more romantically agonized, and I’ll throw things for fun even when my novel is going well,” he says.

Baty has been criticized for urging people to churn out a novel’s worth of unrefined garbage in a month—garbage then unleashed on weary literary agents worldwide—but Baty is quick to point out that the first draft is only the beginning of a long process. “Making the myriad tweaks, fixes, and alterations necessary to get your book up to bookstore quality is a huge, challenging project,” he writes.

The book spends time offering tips on how to revise and edit, although the section feels like an after-thought. Baty’s genius shines during the act of creation but the brilliance dims a little when the hard work comes. The section is there because it has to be, but it’s clear that it’s not Baty’s passion.

Creation, clearly, is—high-octane, super-caffeinated, no-holds-barred, go-go-go creation. And that alone makes No Plot? No Problem worth reading. With so many Very Serious books about writing on the market, No Plot? No Problem! stands out with whirling dervish energy—whether a writer wants to tackle a novel in a month or not.

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