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Book Review: No Plot? No Problem!

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Starting in 1999, Chris Baty and a few of his friends decided to do something crazy: force themselves to try and write a 50,000 word novel in one month. They officially coined this: National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo for short, hence the website URL: nanowrimo.org and the challenge began.

I learned about NaNoWriMo last year from an internet messageboard post and went over and checked it out. I didn’t try entering the challenge last year, but this year I looked at it more seriously. Being a novelist myself (seven complete unpublished novels to my credit or shame, whichever you prefer), the concept piqued my curiosity. My original idea for the NaNoWriMO 2004 was to document my experience buying an Apple Mac computer for the very first time. Being that I’m a long time, experienced Windows user I had lots to say on this and have begun my own journal on the subject.

But fiction is the aim and spirit behind the NaNoWriMo, not non-fiction, so my idea went out and I started wrestling with the decision of whether or not I would join the NaNoWriMo 2004 challenge or not. I decided to buy Chris Baty’s non-fiction book: No Plot? No Problem! and see what he had to say about the process and if it would inspire me to start writing some fiction again (I hadn’t written any fiction since 1998). Suffice to say, this book would help me in this endeavor.

The book is paperback, but with a slightly harder spine, which seems like it might be a little more durable than a traditional genre paperback. It’s also a little wider and taller than a standard paperback. Not much text in it, as it weighs in at a mere 176 pages, including the index and acknowledgement page. Some of the illustrations are way too dark gray with black text and difficult on the eyes, but the regular text is easy to read. Mr. Baty points out that the size of this book was intentional — clever — to illustrate approximately what 50,000 words actually looks like in published form.

In the introduction the book is described as: “… intended as a guidebook and companion for the month-long vacation into the weird, wonderful realm of the imagination” and this turns out to be a fair representation of what follows.

Over the nine chapters, Baty offers many tips, tricks and even some writer-related tools he’s gathered over the four years of participating in the NaNoWriMo (1999-2003) and warms up new participants for 2004. For example, in chapter one readers learn that Baty feels the most powerful weapon for a writer is a deadline, that with a deadline it magically turns many of those people who say: “I wish I had time to write a novel” become novelists.

Other chapters include information on how to stay on task and keep writing, where to find the time for writing, music to listen to while writing, where to get help form other NaNoWrimos (or NaNos sometimes for short). The nanowrimo.org website forums are a useful place to find other writers of all skill levels and backgrounds pushing toward the goal of writing a 50,000 word fiction novel in 30 days. Other helpful places include starting local writing groups, blogging about the NaNoWriMo efforts and getting helpful encouragment from other NaNoers.

The book itself provides helpful information for staying on track and writing but honestly I’ve found their interactive forums more timely, inspiring and useful than the book. This isn’t really a knock on the book because almost any reference or guide book written becomes outdated by the time it is published compared to the dynamic nature of the internet.

The book price of $14.95 is reasonable considering the content, but perhaps $9.95 would have been a better price point, but this is not a must-have purchase for NaNoWriMo participants. NaNos can get equally useful information, and more timely, from the nanowrimo.org website and forums, though it isn’t as organized as it is in the book, so there is a trade-off.

I’m not saying there aren’t good, useful parts to No Plot? No problem! but the book left me overall feeling like it was not so much a companion to the NaNoWriMo challenge as it was a marketing tool for the website and Mr. Baty himself. The book doesn’t go off (too much anyway) into donation mode like when you visit the supporting website and see a graphical meter telling that 2004 expenses are $60,000 and that 50% of any money generated over that amount will be donated to a good cause. I wonder how many donaters miss that part which I italicized. I suppose my donation was buying Mr. Baty’s book and if I make the 2004 challenge I’ll probably be compelled to buy a t-shirt to remember the occasion.

Maybe it’s just me but when I looked at the breakdown of the expenses and saw that $27,600 of that was for the “personnel costs” for what is essentially an online, web-based user interactive event for one month … well, I felt the spiel of a slick, marketing pitch looming. Hey, I’ll give it to Mr. Baty, he’s generated a nice side job for himself online each year and seems to be able to generate gullible writers like me to donate to the cause.

I don’t think Mr. Baty meant his book to come off as a marketing pitch, or maybe he did, but at the end of the day it struck me as a little too much self-marketing and promotion. Hey, it’s America, more power to him making a buck, but I wonder if making that buck at the expense of having primarily would-be novelists cranking out 50,000 words of rough, first draft material is worthy of those over inflated ‘personnel’ costs. Please raise your hand if you wouldn’t like that job?

Writers looking to become serious fiction novelists may only glean semi-useful information about how to write quick first draft material from this book because there isn’t a lot of focus on creating truly publishable work, only creating words fast and in great numbers. Yes, there is focus on plotting and characters, it’s not like the author is suggesting people just type 50,000 nonsense words.

Chapter nine, the final chapter does delve a little bit into: “I wrote a novel, now what?” but it’s presented on with the rest of the material more like an epilogue than a principle part of the plot. It’s also one of the shorter nine chapters, weighing in at 14 pages, with only one page truly summarizing the real world publishing process.

I would like to see Mr. Baty write a follow-up book entitled: No Publisher? No Problem! because beyond the personal satisfaction of writing a 50,000 word novel the reality of selling or sharing in some way this work becomes the logical next step for novelists. Yes, there are hobbyists who just want to experience the thrill of victory being able to say: I wrote a novel, but for those who want to publish their work, sell their work, and have already written publishable material in other areas (screenplays, teleplays, articles, etc), they will probably not need the NaNoWriMo boost of write fast and sloppy.

Alas, but that turns out being the whole point of No Plot? No Problem: to write without any inhibitions, to just … write. Action. And in this respect, readers of No Plot? No Problem! will find this book worthwhile.

As for me being a NaNoWriMo 2004 participant? Yes, I decided to take the plunge and start working on novel #8. I took the idea about being a Mac user for the first time and blended that into a fiction story. At the time I’m writing this review, I’m about 9,300 words into my 50,000 words goal after only six days into the process, which is a little under the pace, but today isn’t over yet! Also, I’m trying not to write total garbage material in the first draft, which isn’t really keeping with the spirit of the challenge. My fault there if that causes me not to make the goal.

Bottom line: creative business-oriented idea (for the author primarily) and fun activity for creative people and budding novelists in particular. The book itself might make a good gift or souvenir for those who actually take, or consider taking, or have taken, the NaNoWriMo writing challenge and/or those who need a kick in the pants to write the rough first draft novel they’ve always wanted to write in a short amount of time.

For serious and/or professional writers, people who are either already published writers (I am, just not as a novelist) these folks will likely do just fine with visiting the excellent supporting website, entering the yearly challenge, writing their novel, and skipping the not-so-subtle and thinly disguised self-marketing pitch.

Follow along with my NaNoWriMo 2004 effort (cheer me on, or root for me to fail, whichever turns you on more).

Other Blogcritics who have written about NaNoWriMo in the past:
(2004) Doug Moore – a fellow NaNoWriMO for 2004
(2003) Corinna Hasofferett – The Novel is Nude
(2003) Phillip Winn – NaNoWriMo starts tomorrow
(2003) DebbieX – NaNoWriMo is six days away!

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    He spends a large portion of his year preparing, and following through with NaNoWriMo. You can’t expect him to not want to make some extra bucks on the side. Anyway, before, he used to donate 50% of profits to making new libraries for poor areas. I can’t remember how many he got created, but it probably made a big difference, which is more than a lot of people can say about themselves.