Book Review – No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty

A lot of people would say you’re batty if you think you can write a novel in one month. It turns out the person who started the whole National Novel Writing Month craze was, certifiably, batty. In fact, his name’s Chris Baty. After founding NaNoWriMo (as we writers like to call it) in 1999 and participating in it multiple times, he went on to write a book about the experience. No Plot? No Problem! detailed the author’s “lessons learned” and “best practices” he discovered during his month long journeys.

For those unfamiliar with the concept Na(tional) No(vel) Wri(ting) Mo(nth) takes place every November. Writers from all over the world challenge themselves to craft the first draft of a 50,000 word novel in just 30 days. It interested me to discover that Baty and his circle conducted the first one in July. They switched to November to take advantage of the three day weekend for those of us in the USA. Also, the bad weather made the year’s penultimate month more conducive to writing.

The author presented many useful tips for accepting the month long challenge. I’ve found that many of them apply to “normal” writing occasions, too. The most valuable tool for a writer is a deadline. (Page 32) Busyness is an asset that helps writers stay focused on their work. (Page 21) That’s a good point. I’ve discovered in my own life that the more I have to do, the more I tend to get done. The same concept applies towards writing goals.

I liked how Mr. Baty  emphasized that “no one ever writes a brilliant first draft…Novels are simply too long and complex to nail on the first go around.” (Page 36) He called a first draft “exuberant imperfection”. He defined the concept in an unusual way: “the quickest, easiest way to produce something beautiful and lasting is to risk making something horrible and crappy.” (Page 37) Why? He explained, “Inspiration and insight, I’ve learned, flow more freely from failures than they do from successes.” (Page 174)

In addition to solid writing advice, the author provided non-craft tips for completing NaNoWriMo. He mentioned the need to get friends and family on-board for one’s November challenge. This helps minimize unneeded distractions. One father had an unique take on how to parent while writing 1,667 words a day. He called November, “National-Going-to-Bed-Early Month.” (Page 73)

The author intended the book to guide writers through the emotional caprices of NaNoRiMo. I thought the inclusion of quotations from people who’ve successfully finished the month long challenge a great idea. It showed that the ideas expressed in the book weren’t exclusively the author’s. He provided comments from people who’ve completed the 50,000 word challenge once, to those who’ve done so up to 12 times. It surprised me that so many people have completed NaNoWriMo during multiple years.

As if all that isn’t enough an incentive to motivate writers, Mr. Baty provided commentary from several authors who’ve gone on to publish novels they wrote during NaNoRiMo. Gayle Brandeis and Rachael Herron each published three. Marissa Meyer published four. As if that didn’t get the attention of his readers, Elizabeth Haynes published five.

I mentioned that there’s no such thing as a perfect first draft. I’m not sure how many revisions went into No Plot? No Problem!, but I did find a few mistakes in it.  Throughout the book, the author included gray boxes separate from the narrative. They included additional material regarding the topics discussed in the text. The one entitled “How Long Does a Rewrite Usually Take?” appeared twice in the version I read. I found it on pages 180 and 175. The most obvious error occurred in the phrase “Jimi Hendrix writhing over his flaming Telecaster.” (Page 146) A Fender Stratocaster served as Jimi’s guitar of choice.

Statistically only 17% of people who begin NaNoWriMo finish. (Page 36) With this excellent reference source available, it will be interesting to discover if that number increases. That’s not really the point, though. The author emphasized that writing for its own sake has surprising awards. “The single best thing you can do to improve your writing is to write. Copiously.” (Page 23) I’d suggest all aspiring novelists give that some thought as November approaches.