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Now You Can Write a Turkey Instead of Cooking One

Web site invites all comers to submit 50,000 of their best -- or worst -- words by the end of the month. No plot? No problem.

November 03, 2002|Michelle Locke | Associated Press Writer

OAKLAND — Chris Baty doesn't want you to write the Great American Novel. He's not even asking for the Halfway Good American Novel. Go ahead, write a book so bad that it's criminal. Just make it at least 50,000 words and in the language of your choice.

Oh, one other thing. Get it done in 30 days or less.

Baty is founder of National Novel Writing Month, an Internet writing endeavor in its fourth year that is expected to send thousands of would-be prose pros into creative hyperdrive this month.

The premise: Everyone really does have at least one book in her or him.

The precept: No plot? No problem!

"Let's write laughably awful yet lengthy prose together," Baty invites participants in his disarming Web site come-on.

The idea, he explains, is that pumping out prose at high speed overrides the deadly second-guessing that keeps many a would-be writer, and even some successful ones, from typing word one.

"Once you pry that delete key off the computer, it really enables you to tap into your creativity," he said.

A freelance writer living in Oakland, Baty came up with the nimble novel concept in 1999, when he was abuzz with the caffeinated high of just finishing a big magazine project. Like so many others, he had wanted to write a novel, but was intimidated by the effort. On the Web site, this is known as the one-day novel. As in, "One day I'll write a novel."

Baty started wondering about what would happen if novel writing were turned into a social activity that would only last a month and "then we could be novelists and talk about our work at parties."

Twenty-one people signed up the first year, 140 the second. Then, last year, it was near-disaster as newspapers and bloggers (Web loggers, or writers of Web diaries) discovered the contest.

Suddenly, thousands of people showed up at Baty's not very sophisticated Web site, forcing him to press friends and relatives into the wrist-bending process of manually entering participant data. Ice packs were needed.

Adding insult to carpal tunnel injury, a programming slip-up allowed hackers to get in and put up a photo of a scantily clad young woman and a rude message. "That was sort of my welcome to the big time," Baty said.

This year, has a nifty new design and an automated sign-up system that Baty expects will be able to handle the anticipated 6,000 to 7,000 participants.

NaNoWriMo has brought Baty a measure of fame, but not too much cash. So, this year, he's suggesting a $10 donation per entry.

To "win," you write 50,000 words or more, which are to be counted by an automated program -- Baty has a purple prose protection policy, promising that no human will actually read the submitted works.

But friends do let friends read NaNoWriMo novels, and Baty has found "some surprisingly passable, some impressively adequate, none ready for publication."

Frequently asked questions:

* Has anyone managed to get a NaNoWriMo novel published? Some have self-published or posted their work on the Internet and at least one, Jon Merz, has a NaNo novel, "The Destructor," coming out from Pinnacle Books in March.

* Has anyone famous participated? It appears not, although Baty is not averse to the idea of starting a rumor to that effect. After all, who, really, is evilwizard29?

* Can NaNoWriMo help you get your finished novel published? No. "Our connections to the publishing world end at Kinko's."

Among those who signed up last year was Lauren Ayer, a San Francisco Bay Area writer. Ayer, who has a day job writing copy for Internet sites, was struggling with an idea for a novel and looking for a way "to just blast through the story."

The first week went well. The second week didn't. "All of a sudden, all the words dry up. You've lost your train of thought. You have no idea. The plot's not working. The characters don't do what you want [them] to do." Then, at the end of the second week, the fog cleared and by Nov. 25, she had a 48,000-word novel. A true pro, she padded to get to 50,851.

She put the novel away for a month. Then she took it out and began rewriting. "It was appallingly bad, especially at the beginning," she said.

A year later, Ayer is close to finishing her book, "Wake," the story of what happens to a group of friends after one of them dies. She hopes to shop the book to an agent.

Ayer, who is game for another go-round this year, was making a lightheartedly serious attempt at fiction.

Other participants go for the seriously lightweight. As one poster to a NaNoWriMo forum recently put it: "Is smut a genre?"

Among last year's entries: "Sing Paramecia Sing" and "So I Married a Ninja."

Adair Lara, who writes the old-fashioned way, took four years to live through, and four more years to write, a memoir of her daughter's adolescence, "Hold Me Close, Let Me Go." But Lara, who teaches writing and writes for the San Francisco Chronicle, doesn't scoff at the verbosity-over-virtuosity approach.

"Anything that can get a person to write 50,000 words in a month is fabulous," she said. "The words will have to be completely rewritten, but so will 50,000 words written over a year." Writing fast and focused "overcomes the paralysis of writer's block and the need to clean your apartment."

So this month, let others brine turkeys, make pilgrim place cards, and stir up the toxic concoction of family and togetherness.

Baty and his followers will be lugging laptops to coffee shops and locking themselves into rooms with no view save the pale glow of a computer screen, tapping with reckless rapture.

You can make book on it.

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