No Plot? No Problem!, Chris Baty

Chronicles Books, 2004, 176 pages, C$20.95 tpb, ISBN 0-8118-4505-2

For the past four years, I’ve been happily setting my Novembers aside to write a novel in thirty days. Yup, it’s a bit insane, but that’s the whole point of the National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo): Taking thirty days of one’s life and saying “to heck with everything else; I’m writing a novel”. I may not be perfectly sane, but neither am I alone: Over forty thousand people now participate in Nanowrimo, churning out thousands of words for the sheer fun of writing something. In 2005, over 714 million words were written by Nanowrimo participants, the equivalent of a small library.

In some ways, those words are all the fault of a guy named Chris Baty, a San Francisco-area freelance writer who, in 1999, came up with the thirty-days novel concept. Nanowrimo went on-line in 2000: By 2002, it became an international phenomenon. But no good deed can escape the attention of a tie-in non-fiction book, and so No Plot? No Problem! is Baty’s portable guide to writing a novel in thirty days, a distillation of inspiration, tips and anecdotes from Nanowrimo participants in 50,000 words —not-so-coincidentally, the suggested word-count goal for a Nanowrimo novel.

Chances are good that you’ll never read a Nanowrimo novel, but that’s not the point: For most Nanowrimo participants, the whole exercise is about finally fulfilling that “one day, I’ll write a novel” life objective. Different participants will approach the exercise differently, of course: Some will simply start writing fan-fiction and see where their whims take them. Others (like, ahem, your reviewer) will spend eleven months planning ahead, thinking about themes, stuffing characters, structuring a plot on a gigantic sheet of paper, writing an outline and doing research in preparation for thirty days of pedal-to-the-metal writing. Any approach is fine by the Nanowrimo rules, which are surprisingly lenient on all but one crucial aspect: At least fifty thousand words in thirty days.

As you can guess, Nanowrimo is a mixture of silly seriousness and serious silliness —an approach that is well represented by Baty’s prose style in No Plot? No Problem! As Baty explains, the serious part of Nanowrimo is committing to a tough fixed schedule. Once you’re writing, though, anything goes: You can be as silly as you want to be because what you’re writing is not really meant for immediate public consumption; it’s perfectly acceptable to rush through difficult parts and fix the problems in post-production. The hectic schedule of Nanowrimo is such that it doesn’t allow time for doubt, indecision or self-consciousness: The inner editor gets locked in a box for the duration of the exercise. Editing is only suggested later, much later.

While the “official” Nanowrimo offers tremendous moral support from like-minded people, No Plot? No Problem! is meant to allow anyone, regardless of month, to participate in the madness. Through inspiring passages and a bit of cheeky irreverence, Baty makes an unpretentious mentor in matters of speed-writing. The basics of Nanowrimo are not very complicated, so the book’s biggest asset is in its inspiring passages as it reassures the reader that the goal is within reach of everyone with sufficient willpower.

Past Nanowrimo participants already know that Baty is an amusing writer, and the tone of his regular emails to the Nanowrimo crowd survives intact to the printed page. Clear, direct, often laugh-out-loud funny, No Plot? No Problem! perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the exercise. Obviously, this is a book that will first appeal to wannabe writers and baffle everyone else. That’s fine. In fact, I’d be worried if regular people went nuts over the entire thing: Novel-writing, after all, still carries a mystique that No Plot? No Problem! Does much to puncture. Shh; don’t tell anyone.

Reading the book is enough to give you a jolt of good old literary determination: Having it at your side as you prepare for Nanowrimo is heartily recommended. It’s almost impossible to read parts of it and not grit your teeth is steely determination: Bring on those thirty days! We’ve got a novel to write! Boy, I can’t wait until next year! (In the meantime, though, I’ve got a novel to edit…)

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