Chris Baty: The Terribleminds Interview


Chris Baty, ladies and gentlemen: the founder of NaNoWriMo is here just in time to save you and your novel. I met Chris as the Crossroads Conference down in Macon, GA, this year, where the both of us were guest speakers of the con (and what a kick-ass con it is), and damn if he isn’t the nicest and most inspiring dude. Which tells me he’s probably a serial killer, but that’s okay. Who isn’t? Chris harnessed the power of his niceness and inspiration and focused them on an interview here at terribleminds. Find his site at chrisbaty.com, and you will find him on the Twitters @chrisbaty.

This is a blog about writing and storytelling. So, tell us a story. As short or long as you care to make it. As true or false as you see it.

Almost a decade ago, one of the most active members of the NaNoWriMo message boards died in a car accident. I’ll call her Mary. Mary lived in a small town in Michigan, and on New Year’s Eve, she was driving alone on an icy road when a deer jumped in front of her car. She swerved and skidded, slamming into a tree. We learned about the accident when the executor of her will posted a note about her death on the NaNoWriMo forums.

Everyone was stunned. Mary had been a vital, hilarious presence in the NaNoWriMo message boards. She’d always gone out of her way to be encouraging to everyone, and had been particularly generous with younger participants. Mary had a lot of virtual admirers spread out all over the country, and none of us really knew how to deal with her sudden absence.

A week later, the first bit of weirdness appeared. A fan of Mary’s had posted in the message boards, saying she’d contacted the mortuaries in Mary’s town because she’d wanted to send flowers to the funeral. And none of them were hosting a funeral for Mary.

Thinking “Mary” might have been a pen name (or that Mary was being buried elsewhere), this person called Mary’s local newspaper to get the details of the woman killed in the New Year’s Eve crash. Which is how she learned there had been no New Year’s Eve crash.

This weirded everyone out. I sent Mary an awkward email asking, in essence, if she really was dead. She didn’t respond. Shortly after that, a longtime member of the NaNoWriMo community decided to take matters into her own hands. She found Mary’s phone number online and called it. To her surprise, a woman answered.

“Mary?” the caller asked.

“Yes?” the woman said.

The caller hung up and immediately posted details of the interaction on the NaNoWriMo site. Mary’s sister, who had never posted on the site before, responded quickly, saying that she had been packing up Mary’s house and had answered the  phone. The name thing had been a misunderstanding.

This was fishy enough that, by the time someone found Mary alive and well and posting on another other message board one week later, most of us had already accepted the fact that she’d faked her death, creating the executor and sister to sell the lie.

It was an unforgivable stunt. But as a writer, I had to give Mary grudging props. She’d woven a ridiculous plot twist into the story of her life, and artfully deployed a cast of supporting characters to make it believable. We’d been sucked in by it. Our anger over being so thoroughly manipulated was only slightly lessened by the knowledge that we’d managed to expose her fiction.

As the scandal was dying down, I went into the admin area of the NaNoWriMo site and checked the IP addresses of all the key players in the story. Sure enough, the Executor’s account had the same IP address as Mary’s. The sister’s did as well. I was kicking myself for not checking this earlier.

Then, on a strange impulse, I looked up the post by the woman who had accidentally unraveled Mary’s story by calling the newspaper.

It had also come from Mary’s IP address.

I checked the forums posts from the person who first called Mary at home.

Ditto.

Dumbstruck, I checked all of the other NaNoWriMo accounts involved in the fracas, and they were thankfully coming from places far away from Mary’s small Michigan town. They were legit. Right?

I didn’t know. At that point, Mary’s reach seemed limitless. She’d been brazen enough to kill off one of our community’s beloved heroines and then bring her back to life as a monster. It was brilliant and awful, and for years afterwards I asked myself the question: Who does that sort of thing?

I wish I knew.

Why do you tell stories?

Well, this is going to sound weird after the above tale, but I really like to make people laugh.

Give the audience one piece of writing or storytelling advice:

Make the most of your novel-writing time by only polishing prose that you’re relatively sure will end up in front of readers’ eyeballs.

I’ve found that stories can change a ton between the outline and the first draft, and they can shape-shift again between the first and second drafts. Novels are slippery buggers, and we usually have to write all the way through them a couple times before we pin down exactly what they’re about and how best to tell the tale.

This means that big parts of our early drafts will usually need to be demolished or completely reconfigured to make room for the mind-blowing, award-winning, bestselling creatures our books are destined to be.

Getting rid of utilitarian prose is hard. Getting rid of  polished, bookstore-ready chapters packed with hilarious dialogue and eloquent descriptions will make you want to die. It can be so demoralizing that we can get all Golem-y about it, holding on to our precious sections even when we know they’re sapping strength from our books.

No matter how long you postpone your fine-tuning, you’ll still end up having to cut some golden prose—everyone does. But if you let sentence-fixing and dialogue-bettering be the cupcake you reward yourself with for making it all the way through one or two drafts, I think you’ll be happier (and more prolific) in the long run.

What’s the worst piece of writing/storytelling advice you’ve ever received?

I feel like at every writer’s conference there’s a tough-love expert who gets up and tells everyone to quit. They lay out the dire economics of the publishing world. They talk about how the field is already overcrowded with aspiring writers. They say that, unless you’re among the .1% of writers who are so committed to your craft that blood spurts out of your eyeballs on the days your don’t write, you should just pack it in.

I know it’s coming from a place of wanting to protect people from getting hurt down the line. But we’re all adults here. Life is short. Writing is fun. Why would you discourage anyone from doing it?

How does a writer combat demoralization during writing and editing?

Argh. Yeah. That’s such a great question. I’ve watched some of the most gifted writers I know abandon promising manuscripts just because they lose momentum on them.

This is why I think they should teach the dark arts of project management in writing classes.  If I were teaching that class, my first lecture would be on the Five Truths That Will Make You Less Likely To Kill Yourself or Your Book During the Writing Process.

Truth # 1: Books take longer to write than you think they will. (This one is especially hard to accept for those of us who wrote our first drafts in a month.) Some of the most toxic frustration we dump into our writing process starts with unrealistic expectations about how quickly we should be able to revise our books. Think of your book as a house that you’re building alone. Eventually you’re going to have this supremely satisfying moment where all your friends come over to your finished place and sit in your new hot tub out on the beautiful deck and marvel at your talent, discipline, and vision. To reach that glorious hot tub moment, though, you have to schlep a lot of bricks. It takes time, but the best things always do. As long as you’re continually pushing forward on the project, you should never beat yourself up about how long it takes to finish it.

Truth #2: Momentum is everything. Isaac Newton’s law that objects in motion tend to stay in motion is deeply true when it comes to book building. The more frequently you write, the easier each writing session becomes. Characters work hard for authors who visit them often.

Truth #3: Your book will get better. If you’re feeling despondent about your story, know that many of the things bothering you will be fixed by the time you get to the end of your current draft.  Appreciate your book for what it will become, not what it is now.

Truth #4: Nothing gets done without deadlines. Schedule the hell out of every draft. Share those deadlines with other people and ask them to check in on your progress. Even as you cut yourself slack when the book’s overall timeframe shifts (see Truth #1), be sure to move heaven and earth to hit each mini deadline.

Truth #5: You deserve treats. Celebrate every bookish milestone by doing (or buying) something nice for yourself. Don’t wait until the house is finished to raise a glass to yourself and everything you’ve done.

What goes into writing a great character? Bonus round: give an example.

I love characters who are great observers. Characters who have simple, true insights into themselves, the people in their lives, and the world at large.

As a writer, these are hard to pull off because we have to first come up with the insights and revealing details and then sneak them into the brains and mouths of our protagonists in a way that seems natural to them.

I’m reading The Leftovers by Tom Perrota, a book about life in a small suburb after a rapture-like event has mysteriously claimed a quarter of Earth’s population. One of the characters is a teenage girl whose mom has run away with a Christian doomsday cult that has popped up after the Sudden Departure. Here’s a passage about the girl.

“She missed everything about the woman, even the stuff that used to drive her crazy—her off-key singing, her insistence that whole-wheat pasta tasted just as good as the regular kind, her inability to follow the storyline of even the simplest TV show (Wait a second, is that the same guy as before, or someone else?). Spasms of wild longing would strike her out of nowhere, leaving her dazed and weepy, prone to sullen fits of anger that inevitably got turned against her father, which was totally unfair, since he wasn’t the one who’d abandoned her. In an effort to fend off these attacks, Jill made a list of her mother’s faults and pulled it out whenever she felt herself getting sentimental:

Weird, high-pitched totally fake laugh

Crappy taste in music

Judgmental

Ugly sunglasses

Uses words like hoopla and rigmarole in conversation

Nags Dad about cholesterol

Flabby arm Jello

Loves God more than her own family”

So many rich details that say a lot about who the mom and daughter are. Nice one, Tom.

Recommend a book, comic book, film, or game: something with great story. Go!

Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis De Bernieres has such a strong story that not even the abysmal movie adaptation staring Nicholas Cage could completely ruin it. Such a great book!

Favorite word? And then, the follow up: Favorite curse word?

“And,” when placed at the start of a sentence, is probably my favorite thing in the universe. (Thank you for your use of it in this question, by the way.)

Curse word: Pants. British people say it. Hilarious!

Favorite alcoholic beverage? (If cocktail: provide recipe. If you don’t drink alcohol, fine, fine, a non-alcoholic beverage will do.)

My friend Jen makes a deceptively simple bourbon drink that I would take with me to a desert island. Here’s her recipe:

Pour into a tall shaker filled just over halfway with ice…

  • 2 oz Bulleit Bourbon
  • 1/2 oz simple syrup
  • 1 – 2 dashes Angostura Bitters

Stir aggressively for 20 – 30 seconds to chill and slightly dilute the drink. Taste. Adjust as needed. Place a large ice cube in a glass and pour over.

Peel an orange slice over the glass (you want to get the oils from the peel) and use it as garnish.

What skills do you bring to help the us win the inevitable war against the robots?

I can make weapons-grade coffee.

Where did NaNoWriMo come from?

I’ve always been full of bad ideas, and NaNoWriMo was just one in a series of questionable endeavors that started with me emailing my friends and saying “Hey, what if we all got together and…”

The 21 of us that took part that first year really loved books, but none of us knew much about writing them. From my work as an editor, I’d seen writers pull off miraculous feats when given impossible deadlines. So I jokingly named the challenge “National Novel Writing Month” and came up with the 30-day deadline and the 50,000-word goal (scientifically calculated by counting the words of the shortest novel on my bookshelf.)

To help make the whole thing less scary, we all got together after work and on weekends to write. That camaraderie, coupled with the stupid deadline, gave all of us the high commitment and low expectations that turn out to be a godsend when you’re writing a first draft of a novel. We had a great time and wrote delightfully craptastic (but promising!) books.

It turned out to be kind of a revelation for me. And I knew that if we could do it, anyone could do it. The next year, I put up a website and invited more people to take part. It just started growing from there.

Would you change NaNoWriMo or evolve it in any way?

I think a great next step would be coming up with a fun, collaborative adventure that makes novel revision easier (and less lonely). I know NaNoWriMo HQ is working on a plan for that now, and I can’t wait to see what they come up with.

What is your NaNoWriMo experience?

I’ve done it every year since 1999. Of the thirteen drafts I’ve written so far, I’ve really loved four or five of them. But even the ill-fated books I’ve buried in my back yard have taught me a ton about writing. I would have thought I’d be sick of it by now, but the process of knocking out a first draft in a month is somehow still just as fun as it was back in 1999.

You’re now promoting a series of posters, right? Where do these come from? What should writers take away from them?

I’m a big graphic design nerd, and I have an endless appetite for cool posters with encouraging messages on them. (My favorite, framed on my living room wall, says “Done is better than perfect.”)

I stumbled on a really neat poster project last year called Advice to Sink in Slowly and it inspired me to team up with illustrators and create some you-can-do-it posters for writers.  I have them printed at a press near my place in Berkeley, and then pack and ship all of them out of my living room (which is now permanently imbued with the aroma of printer’s ink and paper.)

How go your own efforts at writing a novel?

Good! Right now, I’m waist-deep in my NaNoWriMo novel about a monster who finds a VHS tape and sets out to return it. In December, I’ll say goodbye to the monsters and go back to revising my YA novel about a boy who discovers a secret buried beneath his town.  I’m working on the seventh draft of that book, and I’ve been schlepping bricks on it for a long, long time. The end is in sight, though, and I’m hoping to sink into that hot tub this spring.

What’s next for you as a storyteller? What does the future hold?

I’m trying to finish that young adult novel and two screenplays.

As soon as I do that, I’m turning my full attention to the robot apocalypse.

11 comments

  • Great interview. Item 4 of the Five Truths really speaks to me. When I’m taking a writing course and have to turn in assignments on time, I think I write better. If I have plenty of time, I goof off too much.

  • Been missing Chris’ presence in NaNoWriMo. It’s still good. But simply not the same without his constant energy around. So glad to hear how well he’s doing and all the creative projects he has going.

    I hope, like he said, that HQ does come up with a good revision dealio. Because, Pants! if it isn’t lonely and slow.

  • Yes, we do say “Pants!” but only when we’re (for whatever reason: small child / boss / vicar in the room etc.) trying to not-swear.

    It is fun, but it does not mean what you think it means because over ‘ere, of course, “pants” are what you wear under your trousers or skirt so it’s like shouting “Knickers!” (which, of course, means that any small children in the vicinity keel over with a fit of the giggles – always a bonus)

  • That thing about not polishing early because you might have to cut it. Damn. I mean, I’m an editor; I apply that to my work all the time. Substative edit first, send it back to client for revision, THEN fix the little things like punctuation and word choice. Yet I don’t apply it to my own feeble attempt at writing. I keep polishing the first few chapters instead of getting on with it! I keep working on the PROLOGUE which I recently decided needs to be in a different POV anyway. What am I, crazy?

    Thanks for the lesson.

  • Argh. Everywhere I turn, people say the same thing. “Finish the draft! Don’t edit yet!”

    Frankly, I’m about 100 pages deep in the first draft of a novel, but already I can see a flipping of heaven and hell is needed. I have a predestined end already planned out, but I know if I add on to the current draft, no matter how good it will get, I won’t use it. Mainly because those first 100 pages need to be tweaked so so much… ahhhh….

    I want to finish my shit (as suggested here), yet I already know by doing that, all new pages would be subject for amputation. It’s actually quite a fix I’m in.

  • M. Chapman: Gratuitous advice: Pretend it’s fixed and go on as though it were. Then apply the fix when you hit the revision phase. Write a note on your MS that says {everything before this needs to be fixed with the end in mind. Switch A and B.} Then carry on.

    And I got this advice from Holly Lisle, although I can’t remember when or where.

  • I’m constantly revising. I get “in the mood” the next time I sit down by reading the last little bit, and then going forward. If I see a fiddly bit that needs fixing, I fix it, then I sail on to the new stuff. I don’t even think of it as “revision”, just fixing something I noticed. Sometimes while writing I have to stop and jot down some notes for a future scene, or something about a character, or whatever. Writing for me isn’t linear at all, I’ve never had a “first draft” because it all comes out at different times. If you’re stressing about the first 100 pages, are you really going to be concentrating on the next 100 all that well? I mean, doesn’t it make sense just to write whatever you feel like writing at the time? If you’re going to throw out that first 100 pages because things have changed, then you’re not revising them, it sounds to me like you’ll have yourself a new first draft.

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