An interview with NaNoWriMo founder and writing teacher Chris Baty, where we discuss plot, pantsing, not nipping good ideas in the bud, celebrating a hot pile of garbage, and the cult of busyness.
Mary: Hello, and welcome to The Good Story podcast. My name is Mary Kole, and today I have with me for this inaugural podcast Chris Baty of NaNoWriMo fame. And I am so stoked to be able to sit down with my wonderful guest here and talk writing, talk revision, talk all sorts of creative and community things as well. The scoop on Chris, if you somehow haven't heard, is that he founded quite by accident, NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, 20 years ago. And he also is the author of a book called "No Plot? No Problem!" which I love, and also a writing workbook called "Ready, Set, Novel!" Right now, he works for Dropbox, the company, doing some sort of culture incubator, which I'm really curious to hear more about. And welcome, Chris. Why don't we get started?
Chris: Thank you, Mary. It's good to be here with you.
Mary: Oh, thank you so much. It is good to have you. So, I did a little...a couple of my questions ahead of time, and one of them is, of course, about the 20th anniversary of the founding of NaNoWriMo. And I joked, does that make you feel old, Chris?
Chris: Yes. I feel ancient. So, I have a five-year-old son, and he's been getting into "The Dark Crystal," and I definitely feel like one of those hunched over creatures with the kind of the wrinkles and the long gray hair except I don't have the hair. Whatever that creature is called, that is how I feel thinking that this has been going on for 20 years now.
Mary: Yes. The season is about to kick off as we do this interview. It's slightly before November 1st. Do you have any kind of, you know, like the old crone that you described, do you have any kind of a ritual, a kick-off, some kind of something that you do to get the writing mojo happening?
Chris: Well, it's been interesting. So, 20 years ago, for the first National Novel Writing Month, I went into it with nothing, no ideas about the characters or the story or even the setting. And I feel like it turned out pretty well. And since then, I've kind of like veered all over the planner versus the pantser map. But I think I'm back in true anniversary style to [inaudible 00:02:36]. My ritual is to look around and realize I don't know what I'm gonna write and just pray that some shred of an idea might occur to me between now and when I sit down at the keyboard on November 1st.
Mary: Tick-tock, it's coming up. I love it. I love it. And I was reading some interviews to prepare for this one, so I didn't ask you the same crap you know, that everybody else does, but I read that you do participate.
Chris: Yeah, it's been 20 years and 20 mediocre manuscripts. And now I'm also teaching every fall. I teach through Stanford's Continuing Studies program. So, it's like adults anywhere from, you know, 22 to 82 years old. And it's been fun because that first year of NaNoWriMo, there were 21 of us who kind of caffeined our way through that initial escapade and that's the class size at Stanford as well. And so, right now, I have a great group of students who are all kind of thinking about their character arcs and weighting into these questions of like point of view and tense and tone and all that stuff. So, it's fun to kind of get that contact high of other writers that are about to also break loose. And I think, at this point, all of us are just like ready for the month to start where we've been doing a lot of planning and discussing and exercises. And I think now it's like, "When does novel time begin?" And the answer is, very, very soon.
Mary: Very soon. Oh, that's great. Well, this segues nicely into something I wanted to talk about and feel free to weave in the work that you're doing with Dropbox. But one of the things that I've been talking to writers a lot about in my work is this idea of community, right? So, in addition to being a powerful force of inspiration and motivation for individual writers, something very cool that NaNo does provide is community. Writers often get in their own heads. They write by themselves. They write at night, you know, after the kids are in bed or what have you, and that can be lonely and isolating sometimes. Writers need community. They need motivation. They need encouragement and critique. So, maybe you can speak to the role you think the community element plays in November and in writer's lives in general.
Chris: Yeah, I think it's so surprisingly important, especially given that I think the kind of myth of the writer is like the lone genius who locks herself in a garret for six years and then emerges hoisting this beautiful, perfect manuscript over her head. And I think that one of the things that I've found is that depending on your personality type, I think... So, one of the things that we do in the Stanford classes, we kind of look at... There's a writer named Gretchen Rubin. Do you know Gretchen Rubin?
Chris: So, she wrote "The Happiness Project," and she has this book, "Better Than Before." And it's kind of about like implementing new habits in your life. And so, she has this idea that there are four tendencies, and it has to do with the way you respond to your own self-set goals and the way you respond to goals set for you by other people. And so, she calls the people who can really only do something if somebody else is needing it from them, obligers, and that personality type is me to a T where I just find if I don't have external accountability, if there's not somebody waiting for something, it's really hard for me to make it a priority because there's so many things that people are waiting for me to give them, right? And I think that it's not just in creative worlds, it's like we look at our families and our jobs. Like, we have a lot of deadlines and due dates in those places, and so when it comes to these projects like novels that, you know, you may never publish that, and it may never find a home, but it's something that's important to you. I think if you're somebody that responds really well to your own self-set goals, if you're that person who sets New Year's resolutions and then makes them, you will have no trouble with this. I think for the rest of us, this idea of community is so important because you really want people to not only encourage you along that path but just to kind of know about it so that they can check in and ask how it's going.
And I've just really seen this when you kind of combine a deadline with a supportive community, I just really think that's where the magic happens and it really unlocks a lot of things because it's really just helping us with that project management side of novel writing, which is, how do you make time for this? And how you stick with this project especially, you know, novel writing, like novels themselves, are built around this series of epic ups and downs, right? You're on a roll. You feel like the best writer ever. Then you're a moron who has no business doing this. It's really embarrassing. You're even trying. Can you just burn your computer? Would that get rid of all evidence of this book? And so, I think that it's easy to quit and go back to when you don't have that community. I think when you do have that community, and this is where I think writing groups are so effective, it's like, okay, these people in two weeks are gonna get together in a room, and they're gonna ask, "What have you written?" And I think that that is so helpful in the same way that when you're trying to exercise, I think having like somebody who's gonna meet you at the gym or go running with or go biking with, those are the things that help you actually prioritize it and do it when you're feeling tired or discouraged.
And that's why I think the writing community is so powerful. But I also think one of the things I've seen from National Novel Writing Month... You know, we have this great group of volunteers in 500 cities and towns around the world called municipal liaisons, and they organize these write-ins and kick-off parties, and Thank God It's Over parties. And those groups, you know, they started built around this idea of like how do we help encourage people in our local community to write novels? But, I mean, those groups have become year-round, you know, revision groups. They've also just become like buddies. Like, they go see movies together.
Mary: Friends, yeah.
Chris: Friends, some people have married each other at a... There are like NaNoWriMo babies that started in this group. And I think that that's also one of the things is that as adults, especially, like, once you leave that college era where you're just kind of surrounded by people who have free time and want to hang out, I think once you get into your 30s and 40s, it's just harder to meet new people that you might like. And that's something where I think if you have this kind of community component of this big creative event, it just gives you opportunities to meet people who are into the same kind of books you are and the same kind of stories you are. And I think that also is a really wonderful side effect of making this kind of a priority for a month is that you kind of have gone through a battle with these people and you emerge at the other side really connected to them.
Mary: Yes. No, I think there's so much wonderful insight there to unpack. And absolutely things get tough in adulthood when you're trying to find community. You're trying to find your tribe and your people, and this really lets people connect along the same lines because it is such a passionate project and I think that in life, and nobody is here for my life advice, but you're getting it, in life the idea of pursuing passion is so important. This is what I tell my editorial clients all the time. It's like you found something that gives you flow, you know, that ideal flow when time disappears, you found something that makes you happy, go do it. And that's what...I just love NaNo for that reason. It kick-starts this passion that people have, and it brings them together. So, what about creativity in general? So, do you have any insights that you've gleaned over the years? Do you like how we can say that now, over the years, the many years?
Chris: Over the many, many generations that you've been doing National Novel Writing.
Mary: Generations, literally, if there are NaNo babies, right?
Chris: It's true. It's so true. Yeah, you're right. Okay, continue.
Mary: So, do you have any insights into what a little dash of creativity, novel-related, writing-related or not, what that adds to a human life? Like, are there any inspiring stories that you can tell from writers you've met or...? I noticed that the NaNo foundation mentors young writers, has a young writing component. Any stories from there about how creativity is just amazing?
Chris: Yeah, I think one of the... So, in the Stanford class, one of the things that I really encourage students to do right in the first class is start to look to the world for inspiration. And I think that really once you decide you're gonna write a book, especially if you're gonna write a book in a month, you really do need a lot of material, right? You need those kind of little nuggets of conversation, and insights, and the physical objects, and the thoughts, the emotions, all of it. And I think that learning to kind of see the world as providing that really, I think to me, one of the most powerful things is it just makes the world feel kind of magical again. It feels like the world becomes this kind of, like, treasure chest that has opened to you that you're desperately plundering for novel material. But there's something really wonderful about that where you start to listen, you overhear conversations, you're starting to look at graffiti differently. It's the things that you find in free boxes, and you're kind of trying to make sense of all of this stuff, put it together. And I think one of the great byproducts of writing a novel is that I think you start to see the world with those eyes that... Like when we go on trips, right? When we're in a new city for the first time, everything is alive to us. We're looking at the way people talk to each other. We're looking at toilets like, "Wow, this is weird." Like, we're thinking about menus. We're thinking about the way people greet each other, and we get...
Mary: I went on a trip, I have to say, and I just got back from San Francisco, actually your neck of the woods. And my husband is a chef, so I look at restaurants very much in that engaged way. And restaurants have to be so competitive on the experience front these days that they've really started innovating right down to the toilets. And there's a restaurant called Angler in San Francisco, very splashy, very expensive, and they have, like, the full heated seat, bidet thing, and I'm like, "Oh, my goodness, this is the level of detail that restaurants have to get into to really impress their guests at this price point. My goodness." Anyway, total sidebar.
Chris: Yes. No, exactly that. And I think because you are really interested in that I think you notice those things. But I think one of the nice things about novel writing is everything can become interesting again, and I think you do start to see the world with this kind of fresh set of eyes. For the Young Writers Program...so, you know, there are several thousand K-12 classrooms that take part in the Young Writers Program every year. And the kids set their own word count goal and there are free workbooks, and buttons, and stickers, and it's basically kind of, like, out-of-the-box creative writing curriculum for schools. And it's been also interesting to go and visit these schools. There's a local school in Berkeley that I sometimes go to called Black Pine Circle. And when they first did it, I think there was some skepticism about this idea of like, should fourth and fifth graders really be writing novels? Is this...? Like, anybody got an eye on this? Like, is this really a good idea? And it ended up being the kids took to it so well. And even there was something about kind of the kids getting to set their own word count goals and then kind of race each other to see who could get there first and then they would expand their goals. And I think that... You know, I would go, and the teachers would just kind of be like, "The kids are asking to stay in for recess because they want to work on their novels." And it was like there was clearly something, and they were like, "There's something very weird going on here." And so, Black Pine Circle now has been doing this for, oh, my gosh, like seven or eight years now, and it's a core part of their curriculum for their students. The students all write a novel. When you go on tours of the school as a prospective student, they talk about how they do National Novel Writing Month, and all the kids write a book.
And, you know, talking to some of these kids too... I think when you write your first e-book, and this may be 7,000, 10,000 words, this is a lot of writing. I think when you do that as a fifth grader, it's like no piece of writing is ever scary again, right? Like, everything from your essays all the way up to like the...when you're applying to colleges. Like, you've written a book. Like, you're good. And I think that that helps kids start to see themselves as writers, but I think it also helps them start to read differently where they're like, "Oh, I had to make these choices as an author about whether, you know, this character was gonna die or not. I know it's really interesting now to see this in a book." And so, I think it helps kids feel comfortable and confident as writers, but it also helps, like, just deepen their appreciation of the magic of books.
Mary: And that creative thinking, going back to your first point of seeing the little magic and the connections in life, I'm a huge fan. When I was in college, I read "The Artist's Way" by Julia Cameron, and it is this kind of classic, classic book on creativity and about going on artist dates with yourself and, you know, going to college in California that involved spending magical artist dates with a certain lovely green herb, in my case at least. And people were like, "What are you doing?" I'm on an artist date. Please respect the process. But it's just this idea of engaging with the world differently as a result of writing, as a result of reading, and as a result of boosting your own creativity. And that's one of the things that I think NaNo really does, which is the magic of NaNo. It sort of really democratizes the process of writing a book, of creating, of seeing yourself as a serious writer for many people for the first time and giving them a tangible success in a process that can sometimes be a bummer.
Chris: Yeah. I think the... You know, we have this sense of like people are very scared to call themselves writers because we do feel like, well, I didn't get an MFA or I'm not published yet, and that fear just doesn't exist in other areas of like your downtime pursuits, right? Like, if you play tennis, you'd say, "Yeah, I'm a tennis player." I think if you go running, you would say, "Yeah, I'm a runner." It doesn't mean that you needed to get, like, an Olympic gold medal to see yourself as that, right? You don't need a Nike sponsorship to say, "I'm a runner," but there's something about writing that people feel really bashful about claiming that is something they love unless they have hit the six checkpoints of a traditional publishing ladder. And I hope that the National Novel Writing Month has changed that some ways, where... You know, some people have now written six novels. They have no interest in traditional publishing. They may have no interest in self-publishing. For them, they do it in the same way that they might, you know, play guitar on weekends. It's just something they love to do. It makes them feel alive, and it's something they can lose themselves in. It just feels great to do. And I love that... Hopefully, the National Novel Writing Month has brought that ability for people to see novel writing as something that everybody can do and that it just feels really good.
Mary: It does. It does. And I love that you call them winners, you know. There's something so nice about that validation of getting the certificate, and, you know, it is an event. You have achieved something that a lot of people do not, no matter what their intentions are, and it's... I find that the people who last the longest in this writing pursuit, whether they do it for themselves, whether they do it to pursue publications, are the ones that can celebrate the smaller moments, the moments of inspiration, the good writing days, and love the process as much as the outcome.
Chris: I agree. Totally agree.
Mary: Okay. So, I'm gonna jump ahead to, you know...I have this question because you have, for better or for worse, encouraged, like we were just talking about, hundreds of thousands, literally hundreds of thousands of writers to let their creative brains spill onto the page for a month. And then when I was agenting, I would always notice an uptick in submissions on December 1st, you know, from people who have typed "The End" the day before. And we got to joke about it. You know, what's the difference between the writing phase and then the submission-ready phase? But I wanted to get your take on it. So, creation is a very fun and very important element of the writing, but what about editing? What do we do with all this stuff?
Chris: Yeah. In some ways, I feel like National Novel Writing Month should be called National First Draft of a Novel Writing Month. And one, I want to apologize to you and any other agents who have had your inbox overflowing with perhaps not fully polished manuscripts. I think one of the great things about National Novel Writing Month is that it's kind of trying to provide year-round resources so that after you finish that first draft of it in November, there are kind of tools, and resources, and activities, and exercises, and blog posts to help guide that next phase. And to me, I love the first draft phase, but I've also really come to love revision. I've toiled in the revision minds on now like four or five of my NaNoWriMo manuscripts. And that's really where the book is born, I think. The first draft in a lot of ways is you're just getting a sense of what it could be, and you're gonna discover that, "Oh, I love this part, this part, and this part. The rest of it, I think, could go away." And then you kind of rethink, "Okay, how do I build a book around the parts that I really love?" And then, that becomes a second draft, and then the third draft gets even better. And I think helping people embrace that process as well is part of the mission of the organization now, and that I really love. Because I do think if you want to share this book with somebody, you need to revise it. You know, even the most genius writers, that first draft is really not, to me, the thing that it will become.
So, the problem I think is how do you keep that same excitement, and energy, and community around the revision process? You wrote this thing in a month, you felt like it was a great start, and then it's like, "Okay, well, so what now?" Now, everybody went away. You have your winner certificate, but it's now like coffee-stained, or your kid has chewed it up or whatever. All your cheerleaders and supporting section have gotten deeply bored with this project, and now you're like, "Okay, I'm now gonna spend, what, two, three years cleaning this up?" And that's hard. And that is really a difficult challenge.
Mary: And that's another sort of pain point where loneliness can creep in. We talked about writing community, and you're right, all of this excitement around NaNoWriMo, all of these parties and stuff, how do you...? It's like trying to make friends as an adult. How do you keep that going in critique partner relationships, beta reader relationships? We have sensitivity readers that we can loop in, critique partners, writing partners, all of these, you know, different ways to sort of get that accountability, those external checkpoints with revision. But revision as necessary as it is, I just don't think is as sexy as the creative flurry. I think maybe a calendar, some kind of editor, you know, like the firemen calendar. We'll noodle it. I'll get my design team on a calendar, and maybe it'll be more exciting. But what are some of your real tips, if you have them, for keeping that same energy or maybe a different but equally compelling energy to that revision process? How do you sit down and dig into these things?
Chris: I do think that the community aspect is key to it, and there are a lot of ways to get it. So, one of the things that I've done on this manuscript that I've been working on now for about five years, about a year ago, a friend of mine who is actually working on a book proposal for a memoir, she and I formed a book finishing club, and all we did is we had a shared document online that we both had edit access to and we would set up weekly goals for ourselves and then we would provide an excerpt of whatever we had written that week. And that notion of just having a little bit of an online check-in, knowing that...and then we provide kind of encouraging little emoji or whatever for each other was incredibly powerful, and just knowing that somebody was noticing that I was either making progress or had, like, quietly vanished from the doc for, like, for a week...
Mary: It's always quiet, right? When you're working, you're like all about it, #amwriting hashtag on Twitter, but when life gets in the way, it's like, "I'm going to slip out the back way and see if anybody notices."
Chris: Yeah, it's so true. There's this interesting anecdote I heard from a person who was an ambulance driver, and they said that what often happens in restaurants when people start choking is that people, they start choking, they get up from the table and run away to try to get into the bathroom because it's kind of embarrassing, but that's like the worst thing they could possibly do is they're locking themselves away from any possible help. And I feel like writers have that same impulse, which is to just flee the table.
Mary: That panic response.
Chris: Exactly. Yeah. So, I think building accountability for me has been really helpful. And then scheduling out also, giving yourself a sense of like, "Okay, I'm gonna go ahead," in the same way that the National Novel Writing Month says, okay, you're not writing a novel, you're writing 50,000 words of a novel. Okay. That's already helpful because I can then... If it's 30 days long, I do the math, that's 1,667 words a day. I work really well with, like, math. And I think the more out there and woo-woo is the project, the more you need some sort of hardcore numbers to help you know, like, give you that sense that you're making progress. So, I divide up... You know, I think about, okay, what are the steps that I need to do next? And this may be, I'm going to do a complete read-through of it just to reacquaint myself. Okay. That's gonna take a week. So, then I'll go ahead and calendar that out. Week one, just read through the thing. Week two, what am I gonna do? I'm gonna make an outline and then revise that outline, so it reflects more what I want the book to become. That's gonna take two weeks. And then I'll kind of chart that out. And I do all of this in this document that I have shared with this friend of mine, Lisa, who is then kind of seeing that work is happening and checking in when it's not. And I find that to be really, really helpful.
The other thing you had mentioned is beta readers. And I find it very useful to just know that there will be beta readers and to have the beta readers...like once it gets within a couple of weeks of being ready for them, reaching out to them and letting them know, "Hey, this manuscript is gonna be coming. Would you like a printed copy, or are you okay with digital?" And there you have...again, it's sort of, like, having somebody waiting for you at the gym. Like, you know, no matter how tired you are, you are gonna put on your workout clothes and go there because you promised them.
Mary: It's another layer. Yeah.
Chris: Exactly. But you know this stuff like the back of your hand. What do you think?
Mary: What do I think? Yeah, now I think I know what my problem with the gym is. I don't have anyone waiting for me, so I don't go.
Chris: Get somebody there who does.
Mary: No. So, I did want to talk about this Dropbox initiative and this in a weird, wonky way has gotten us there because I think that your Lisa thing where you loop in together, I'm guessing on Google Suite or whatever, in a shared doc somehow, and she can see what you're working on kind of as you do it. You can see what she's working on, and you guys can sort of buddy up in that way. I think that these new tools that we have access to, these productivity tools, these team tools are a great idea actually to give that accountability even in the revision stages when you are working with sort of a live document that's constantly in flux. What are you doing for Dropbox? And then I'll do revision thoughts. I'm not trying to get out of the question, but...
Chris: Don't escape this question because I know you know answers that I need. Yeah, so Dropbox is interesting. So, after stepping down from National Novel Writing Month...and this was like 7, 8 years ago now. And the organization is in, like, the most wonderful hands. So, the staff is incredible. Grant Faulkner, who took over as executive director for me has continued to make it bigger and better than ever, and they are amazing. And so, when I left, I left to kind of, like...I just really wanted to get back to the writing and also think about teaching. And so, one of the things that I did after I left National Novel Writing Month is I was looking around for kind of, like, can I help other companies... I think National Novel Writing Month's voice was kind of an accident. It was like a very friendly, enthusiastic, warm, playful voice. And when reaching out to...like talking with other companies, they were like, "We need... Help us talk in a more human way." I think, especially...
Mary: We are corporate robots with marketing degrees.
Chris: Yeah. And so, Dropbox has always had kind of this warm voice, but they needed some help around... You know, at that point, they were designing this new feature, and the feature would kind of give people messages, and the messages were terrifying. The messages were about basically, like, warning, you know, you have created a conflicted copy, error, but the...
Mary: Your life's work is about to be lost.
Chris: Exactly. Yeah. And so, I had never really thought of myself as somebody that had kind of, like, "Oh, I can come help a larger company think about how to communicate just in a more straightforward and human way," but seeing that problem I was like, "Oh, this is really interesting. This is what I kind of worked on at National Novel Writing Month thinking about how to take this creative process and make it more accessible and bring a little bit of delight into that feeling." And so, that's kind of how I ended up at Dropbox is helping them with these things, and then it's now been five years that I've been here. And Dropbox has also just been really...like, Dropbox has been a corporate sponsor of National Novel Writing Month. They're very much aligned with this idea of how do we unleash more creative energy. And so, one of the things that I started here, which has had a lot of support, is something called creative culture experiments where teams will set aside a couple of weeks or a month, say 30 days, magical time frame, and they'll decide like, "What do we want to change about the way we're currently working?" And so, for some teams, it's like, "I just want to kind of get to know the people a little better. I feel like we work all the time, but we never talk about their lives." And so, that team might go on like boba tea walks every week for a month. Or you might have a team that is just looking for more, like, "We just want to have more maker time." And so, that team may be like, "Okay, we're canceling all Monday meetings, and we're gonna see how that goes. And then after a month, we're gonna be like, okay, do we want to keep that?" In fact, like, a lot of teams do that.
And so, I love this idea of helping people create more space in their lives for the thing they want. And I think Dropbox has been very generous and sort of being like, "Okay, Chris is very passionate about this. This seems like it's helping." And so, I found some great kind of co-conspirators here within the company, and so we're kind of running this grassroots initiative. And it's been wonderful to see teams build things that they wouldn't otherwise build and to take this model of giving yourself time to do the things that are really important that I think sometimes we don't make time to do because we just get so busy and it turns out in a company's life as well as in an author's life, that space and that time to say, "Hey, am I really on the path that I want to be on? And if not, how can I get closer to that?" It's just a really useful thing. So, that's some of the...in addition to helping with writing, like, you know, the dropbox.com homepage needs a new headline or something, I might help with that, but it's also kind of internally helping these teams kind of design this new way of working for themselves.
Mary: That's really cool. That is really, really cool. And, you know, we were talking in our little pre-show banter about, I have a team of eight people that I work with, and so I've really been thinking about company cultures, how to work together, how to motivate people to express themselves creatively on a team, and Dropbox is part of that, Slack, that sort of thing. But getting back to the writing, I want to really synthesize some of the things that I think we've been talking about so that, you know, it's a nice little takeaway package. First of all, I love, love, love about NaNo that it does, like you were saying, it breaks the achievement down into smaller goals that don't seem frightening, intimidating at all, 1,667 words. Am I doing...?
Chris: Exactly. You did a great math.
Mary: I'm a past NaNo winner. I made up things.
Chris: Congratulations. Yeah.
Mary: So, I've done the math for myself, but I think it's really wise. A lot of people...to your point about the sort of cult of busyness, I fall into that trap. I have two children, two dogs, a cat, a business, I have these eight contractors, a husband who is one of those people you mentioned, the obliger, I believe, who doesn't do anything until I tell him to, the old Gretchen Rubin model. No, I'm just kidding. Sorry. I love you, Todd. And so, this kind of cult of busyness I think is a real enemy of creativity because we have all the excuses in the world and every year of my life, I've been waiting for it to die down, for it to get less busy. And I think that's a fallacy. Oh, that's my cat. This is Kitty Luna chiming in.
Chris: Hi, Kitty Luna.
Mary: So, I think it's a fallacy that we will ever have the perfect time to create. We will ever have the perfect morning to sit down, the perfect idea. I think we can't let... You know, that old adage of letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. And what I love about the NaNo model is it breaks down the work that you have to do. It makes it approachable. It's also encouraging the creative part, which a lot of people, they stop themselves before they even start because they're waiting for the muse, right? They're waiting for the perfect moment to strike. And with NaNo, it's, well, it's November 1st, and if the hot mess express has just pulled into your life, too bad. You got to just get going and get writing and sort of let the real craft maybe catch up with you in the revision process. I do feel like a writing practice is essential, and this really fosters that. It fosters the sort of marching orders of sitting down every day no matter what. And some days will be great, some days will be terrible, most days, hopefully, we'll be somewhere in between. So, I do think that a daily commitment or near-daily, but I like daily, I think everybody could find 10 or 15 minutes even to sit down. I think that's a crucial part of the process, especially as you get into revision because revision, as we said, is not necessarily sexy. There's not a lot of energy behind it. And so, for a lot of writers who love the creative side of things, getting into revision is really like, "Oh, you really have to force yourself into that chair to do it." I really also admire your zoomed-out approach, which is you start reading the thing over, let's call it the thing because it's kind of a thingly sort of monster at this point. Then you go into outline. You start with maybe that line that you wrote before you wrote the novel, and you adjust it based on A, where you are, and B, where you want to go. I am a huge proponent of the outline, especially for pantsers who maybe haven't tried it or don't think that they "work that way," you know. I do think it is something to try at least once because getting this bird's eye view approach of the novel that you have written and the novel that you want it to be, it's very, very difficult and very intimidating to try and do that on the page in the manuscript itself when you start mucking around. So, doing it in outline and sort of this zoomed out way, I think, breaks down a lot of those barriers of it being intimidating.
And so, I do a webinar on the topic of self-editing, and the slide that I put up over and over is, are we dealing with the sentence-level writing yet? No. I feel like too many writers get caught up in revising on a sentence level, word choice, moving commas around. They completely miss the forest because they are so into their trees. That is something to me that comes much later in the revision process. Once you've nailed story, once you've nailed character arc, once you've nailed sort of the beats that you want to hit in terms of you said rising and kind of falling action, a nice novel, you can ride it like a wave because you have your high points, your very, very low points, right, so, once all of that architecture is in place, that's when the sentence level comes in. In my experience, too many writers focus on the sentences right away in revision, and all the sentences could change because if you find out in your outline view that you need to completely redo the third act of the story, or however you're writing or however you're plotting, those sentences are about to become irrelevant, unfortunately.
Chris: Yeah. And which is so heartbreaking. I mean that is...
Mary: So, heartbreaking. So, so tough.
Chris: Yeah. And I think that's where... I understand why people do it because we know what good writing looks like, and for a lot of our second and third drafts, our books still feel like construction sites, right? It's like messy. It's loud. There's chaos everywhere. And so, it makes sense that you want to kind of hole up in a corner and be like, "I'm gonna make this one little room perfect."
Mary: It's so beautiful. It lets you tolerate the mess, or it reinforces that you actually can write because all you see around you is drywall dust.
Chris: Exactly. But I think what that is, I think of sentence-level work as sort of like this...it's super expensive gilded wallpaper, and if you're dragging that thing into a construction site, you know it's gonna get totally wrecked and ruined. And there's just... Like, save that gilded wallpaper for when everything is up, the drywall is in, you've decided the flow works well through the room. It's like that's the time to start bringing in the rugs and the furniture and stage that house, but like, "Who before then?" And I say this as somebody...like, that's been, to me, I feel like I've lost years of creative time to doing a sentence-level revision when what the story needed was actual joist and, you know...it needed to be like built up from the frame and the foundation, and I was instead out there with my tiny paintbrush doing filigree details. It was all so wasted.
Mary: I think a lot of writers may not want to hear it, but I think a lot of writers need to hear that because it's so distracting and we all know the reasons, and they're good reasons. But the point of revision really is revision. You are gonna have to look and make sure that all of the big story elements of your project are working first before you get to that sentence level. And I really do think that that is sort of the biggest shift, the mental shift from this creative flurry encouraged by NaNoWriMo and the revision piece when you look at what you've done and start trying to figure out what to do with it.
Chris: Yeah, to me, I really encourage people to see a novel being written by two different crews and there is the first draft crew and so you're bringing out that first draft crew and their job is just to get a lot of ideas down. And some of them are gonna be terrible, and you just keep going, right? It's this kind of, "Okay, we're going to build a path by walking it." And then I think at that point you hand it off to the next crew, which is like the revision crew and they bring in a whole different set of skills. And so much of that I think is how do you zoom out and see that forest when it has been trees. I started using Scrivener for the first time on this revision. That is an amazing tool just for doing that, of being able to get out of this sentence level weeds and really see the arc of the story. I think before that, I would use Post-it Notes or index cards. All of those, I think, are great tools, but until you have a sense that the story, the electricity is flowing roughly through your whole story... And I think it's okay to know that even that's going to change. I just wrapped up, I think, probably like the third complete revision of this novel that I've been working on. And even after I had done my beautiful outline and then I thought I knew everything, it still changed on that draft, but at least having a sense that you're looking at the math of it and the math of it feels roughly right, boy, that just saves you so much time. And again, our creative hours are precious. I don't think there's...no work is wasted because you're always learning something from it. But listen, if your goal really is to get this thing done and published, do yourself that favor of really asking yourself the hard questions and kick the tires of the story mercilessly before you start going in there to create this enchanting dialogue and these really well-crafted metaphors that are elegantly laid out across the page.
Mary: So, as an editor-for-hire, one of the things that I love to work with clients on is the outline, the initial outline. Somebody comes to me, and they say, "I am thinking of writing this idea. What do you think?" And getting involved at that level is so gratifying to me because I can just tell that we are probably shaving years of wandering around and kind of riding down this street for a bit, riding down that street for a bit to see that it's a dead end, right? That's why I'm such a proponent of outlines just in general as an editor, as a writer myself, because, to your point, I really do think that pressure testing and kicking the tires of the story is so important. So, I love the opportunity to do it with somebody before they've spent the 3, 5, 10 years.
Chris: Yeah. Well, to me, the nice... So with National Novel Writing, because it's just 30 days, I feel like some people who hate outlines, I say just, yeah, don't outline, just dive in, do it. And then to me, that's where an outline...whether you like outlines or not, I do think some form of an outline when you're heading from that first draft to the second draft is really important. In 30 days, like, if you just spent 30 days and you got a rough story arc with some characters that you really love out of it, that feels like a pretty great month. Some people though... We start this class at Stanford by reading a pep talk by Rainbow Rowell, and she, you know, did National Novel Writing Month, and that was how she wrote her book "Fangirl," I think. And so, she did this pep talk and kind of talks about how she was really skeptical of NaNoWriMo at first because it felt like it was something that people who didn't really want write a novel did to trick themselves into writing a novel. And it was also kind of just too fast. It was just going to be a hot pile of garbage, and is that really something to celebrate? And she did it and found that the momentum of it was so helpful to her and that she ended up keeping all 50,000 words that she wrote of her novel. And of course, I'm just like, "Whoa, who are you?" So, that's, obviously... She's like a superhero being or a cyborg, or something is going on with her that is far above where I ever will be.
Mary: Well, clearly, her work is tremendous, yes. For us mere mortals, though, some days we do just want to celebrate a hot pile of garbage.
Chris: Yes. A hot pile of garbage is definitely worth a cake and some balloons, I think.
Mary: Okay. I'm going to put you on the spot. So, you are a writer yourself, and you have written writing reference, and you teach writing, right?
Mary: So, do you...? Because I have a writing reference book, "Writing Irresistible Kidlit." I also write, and I also teach writing. So, you and I are very much birds of a feather there. Is there a split for you, just more out of personal curiosity, is there teacher Chris, and is he a different Chris from writer Chris? And how do those two mingle or do they?
Chris: Yeah. That's a good question.
Mary: I saved the hard ones for last.
Chris: I think the best teachers are people that have really... The thing that they're teaching doesn't always come super easily to them. To me, writing has been something... It's endlessly fascinating. It's always been something that I like, and I feel like I get novel writing, the mechanics of like...the machinery of a novel are still so exquisite, and to me, they're endlessly engaging because I'm just like, "How did they just do that?" So, I think from teaching, writing, and thinking about... Like, there's the process of getting something written quickly, and I definitely feel like I have a lot of thoughts about that, and I think the thoughts have proven out to be useful for a lot of people. But then to me when it comes to this notion of, like, how do you create a truly compelling story, and how do you have the characters that feel worthy of spending a long journey with, I still feel like I'm...it's still like a puzzle to me that I don't always feel like I understand. And so, that's where teaching this, like spending 10 weeks and thinking about, "Okay, what do we want to...? What's really important for people to understand about their books before they go?" I think I have learned a lot from that process as well, and every time I teach this class, I know it. I think that also as like a cheerleader and an encourager, I have a lot of faith in my students. I have a lot of faith in NaNoWriMo participants. I have a lot of faith that everybody can get a book done and that if they keep at it, they will eventually get it to a point that if the book means something to them, it will mean something to a set of readers out there that have been waiting a long time to hear it. I'm not sure I have that faith for myself. I think I give it very easily to other people, but I think when it comes to my own writing, I sometimes just continue to look at this, and I'm like, "God, is this really...? Do I really want to subject people to this thing? Like, is this...?" So, I really have a confidence that I share, a deep confidence in other humans that I think sometimes can be hard to muster for my own stuff.
Mary: You know what? I completely feel you. I have written a book on how to write a book, and I have a drawer of unpublished manuscripts myself. And I think teaching writing, being immersed in writing all day, every day, understanding writing, I am most critical of my own self and my own ideas, especially having worked in the publishing industry. I was a gatekeeper. It was my job to say no, you know, and to look at the marketing angle of a book. Is there a market for this? What's the market doing in relation to this right now? I find for me, I nip almost all of my ideas in the bud before I even run with it. And so, that sort of creative freedom, I don't give it to myself because I'm like, "No, no, that's never gonna work for reasons X, Y, Z." And it can be... Yeah, there's that weird split between being everybody else's cheerleader, and then your cheer bucket is kind of empty, at least it is for me, by the time I get around to my own writing.
Chris: Yeah. It's also... We talked about that notion of an obliger, you know, somebody who's very good at delivering for other people but isn't as good at prioritizing their own needs and that... It's so easy to use other people's needs as an excuse. I mean I know this is...you know, having a five-year-old son, it's like for the first few years I had this golden excuse to not finish my novel because it was like, "Well, of course, I just really want to be there for him, and it's important for me to be a great dad. And we only have this, you know, infancy once." And at a certain point... I loved your insights around, like, you'll never have time to write a book, but you can always make time to write a book. And it's important, I think. And I get that question a lot with people where they're sort of like, "Hey, I love 'No Plot? No Problem!' Where can I find your novels?" And I'm certainly like, "Well, you can find them on, like, seven different hard drives." And I think for me, probably the most important creative quest right now is I just want to finish this novel. I think I'm very close to finishing it. And on a personal level, whether people love it or hate it, I just need to be done with it and have it get out there. And so, to me, I think about this book a lot. I've made it a priority. One of the things that I also did, which was so great, is I took six weeks of unpaid leave from work just to get through a very difficult revision stretch. And that was amazing.
Chris: So good. And that's something that also I've really changed my thinking on, where I think in the past, I've also left jobs to be the writer, like, "I'm leaving this job. It's the thing that's holding me back. And then I'm gonna unleash this amazing amount of focus." And all I do is, like, nap a lot and get on Twitter. But I think having a kid changed that where I'm just like, "Oh, you get a lot better at maximizing whatever time window you have." And so, in that six weeks, I think I moved probably forward six months of what I would've done if I had just been trying to get up a little bit early or do it before going to bed.
Mary: One of my clients right now has taken a two-week work sabbatical, and I talked to him on the phone, and I was like that, that is amazing because work really does expand the time you give it, and so if you have all day to clean the house or whatever, you will spend all day doing it. And I think family pressure, I think work pressure really puts a squeeze on the available time, which makes that available time more precious, and so I love this idea. You know, obviously not everybody can take an unpaid leave from work, but putting that time pressure on it, which is again the genius of NaNoWriMo, really sort of...could be a good kick in the pants for some writers, which is why I love writers going to conferences. I just came back from speaking at the SCBWI conference in North Bay and East Bay of the San Francisco Bay Area. I love this idea of giving yourself that weekend. And for a lot of writers, it's such a big step forward in their craft, in their development, in their viewing themselves as a professional, which is also really, really crucial. And I feel like any kind of event that you can create around your own writing can also really, really help, especially if there are a lot of pressures normally on your time and resources.
Chris: I totally agree. Yeah. Genius. See, I knew you had so many great, great insights here. I should be interviewing you for this podcast. Maybe that can be the weekly thing is it will be another conversation where Chris Baty comes and interviews Mary Kole about her great ideas.
Mary: You know, I'll give you the 20 bucks for that endorsement after the show. No, thank you. I really appreciate it. But that's why I love having guests like you because we just get to talk writing and talk revision. And now, as we wrap up, you have 20 years of experience with this thing and with this craft. Do you have one piece of advice?
Chris: I think what I would say is if you are listening to this and you love books, you love reading, but your own book has been something that you've put on the back burner or maybe even never started a book, it just feels too daunting, I can't stress enough, like, life is short. The world needs your novel. Like, make time to get this first draft done. If after the first draft you decide actually, I'm not all that interested in that story or I never want to do this again, and I'm really angry at Chris Baty for having said this at the end of the podcast, great. I will refund your money from this podcast. But I have this feeling...
Mary: All zero dollars of it.
Chris: Exactly. I have a feeling, you know, if there's a story that you want to read, you should write that story. And there are people really that also love the kind of books you do and they are waiting for this book. So, like, I would say turn down that inner critic that says writing is for other people. That's not true. Writing is for you, and it's time to get that book started.
Mary: And I love that. You are on the verge of making me cry about my own kind of, like, my near and dear projects that I just haven't gotten around to. But I think really, really the takeaway is no time is ever wasted when you are writing, when you are revising, when you're having an artist date with yourself and noodling an idea, when you are, you know, going on a boba walk with your team at work and sort of shaking things up. All of that is going to have an effect on the end product, whatever it is, whatever it ends up being, whenever it comes, and whenever it feels finished to you. All of these experiences, all of these various NaNo months that you've probably done leading up to this, all the revision, all of the critique, all of the participation on the forums and the beta reads, it's all going to make you into the writer that I think you are meant to be. And I think, yes, we've all wasted time. We've all revised and moved commas around on the sentence level and then had to throw it all out, but none of that is actually bad time.
Chris: Right. Amen. I believe that too.
Mary: Chris, you have been a joy, a gentleman, and a scholar. Thank you. Thank you so much for coming on to this podcast and sharing your wisdom. And to everybody listening, whether it is in November or the week before November or anytime during the year, I just want to give these words to you as encouragement and to just to wish you a good story and good writing time. Thank you, Chris.
Chris: Thank you, Mary. This was super fun.