Genius is overrated. Art ultimately comes down to discipline, to the doers and the do-nots -- the fevered few who prime their canvases and practice their chords and the rest of us who come home from work tired and fall asleep watching "Desperate Housewives."
If, as some people believe, every single person has a novel inside himself, then a lot of people have been wasting a lot of time doing a lot of things other than writing. Chris Baty, a freelance writer from Oakland, Calif., with novelist aspirations, devotes the month of November every year to helping people get those novels out. He approaches the writing process like a crash diet; his goal is to get people each to write 50,000 words in 30 days. The results may be shockingly bad, and will in all likelihood never be published, but that's not really the point, Baty says.
"Novel writing is actually great fun!" he says.
Baty has come to the District in the past few days to promote his new book, "No Plot? No Problem!," which advocates a pragmatic, populist approach to fiction writing that Baty has culled from six years running a movement he calls National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. He is drinking coffee at a cafe downtown and a keyboard is peeking out from the bag next to his chair. He has 50,000 words to churn out this month, and being on book tour, he feels, is no excuse for falling behind. This month, just like each November, he will write everywhere, in every pocket of free time, and will drink so much coffee that in all likelihood he'll lose weight. He is tall and lanky, with green eyes and red sideburns, and he wears a badge that says "Hello, my novel is . . ." -- underneath which he has scrawled "not bad."
NaNoWriMo started with 21 people and each year it grows bigger. This year there are about 40,000 people across the country and around the world attempting it, Baty says. Participation is free, though people are encouraged to make donations if they can. They register on the Web site, www.nanowrimo.org, and share thoughts and ask questions on the message boards. WriMos, as they're known, share excerpts of their work, which reveal the NaNo approach to writing: enthusiastic and over-caffeinated, and minus the benefit of revising, because the experiment's time constraints don't allow it. They are, at the very least, imaginative:
"Vaamanan would have thought after the twelve years Teira was with him, she would have learned that she couldn't escape or defy him. Yet she continued to dredge up those incessant displays of sporadic backbone."
"With glee he shook, as his tongue lolled out the ending sound of his words in a disgustingly slimy way that made you feel like a old, wet, flea-ridden dog with worms just hearing it."
This may or may not be the future of literature.
But it hardly matters if this stuff never gets read, says Baty, 31, who is nevertheless editing two of his old NaNo novels in hopes that they may be published. He says he is an advocate of the creative process, of making art in order to unleash the artistic id. The way he sees it, novel-writing can help not only aspiring writers but anyone who wants to tap into her imagination, or create a fictitious time capsule for his grandchildren, or join a competition for competition's sake. He says the 30-day deadline frees people by eliminating one of the biggest obstacles to writing: the internal editor.
"You take this sprawling, daunting, intimidating task and you basically shove it into this absolutely impossibly short timeframe, and I think that that somehow renders it manageable," Baty says. "Your inner editor is just like, 'This can't be done. I'm gonna go someplace else.' Which then leaves this raw, throbbing imagination."
At Baty's encouragement, regional groups of WriMos try to meet often for "write-ins" at coffee shops to turn "novel writing from a matter of private suffering into a matter of public celebration," he says. These events have the air of art installations. Plots fly back and forth. Characters are discussed. Names are invented. At a recent weekday evening write-in at the Dupont Circle Books-A-Million, the organizer, Rise Sheridan-Peters, a four-year WriMo, holds an old chocolate tin she has labeled "Random Plot Elements." Inside are slips of paper meant to energize lazy plots. They say things like "A bouquet of dead roses" or "A voodoo doll of your MC," for Main Character, and Sheridan-Peters hands the tin to each newcomer as they arrive.
A group of about 10 people, mostly women, have set up shop next to Sheridan-Peters and her 14-year-old daughter, who is also writing a 30-day novel. Most people have laptops. A few have pads of paper. One man keys words in slowly on his tiny combination cell phone and PDA. Most of the WriMos are over 30, and though they may harbor faint dreams of being novelists some day, they have real jobs that pay the bills. More than anything, they are devoted readers.
"I'm born to die by stepping in front of an automobile with my nose in a book," says Sheridan-Peters, 43. She says she used to drive to work from her home in Bowie, but became so involved in reading books at red lights that she decided she'd better start taking the Metro.
Sheridan-Peters keeps an online journal, but before her first NaNoWriMo in 2001, she hadn't done much fiction writing since college. Her first NaNo novel was a mystery involving a female researcher, a gang of ginseng thieves, 1920s-era washing machines and "a guy named Buddy with an adenoid problem." Soon after she began writing, she found herself bored with her novel and decided to kick-start her creative juices by unleashing a worst-case-possible fury on her female researcher character who was at the time living in the middle of Shenandoah National Forest. Soon, the character was "burned out of her camp, hiding under a spruce tree with sap in her hair, nose-to-nose with an angry skunk."
And that's when the magic started.
Sheridan-Peters says someday she may go back and edit her 2001 novel. But the process itself -- that one-month experience, and every November that has followed -- is the reward. She says after she finished that first novel, she gave it to a friend to read.
"She handed it back to me and said, 'This does not suck,' " Sheridan-Peters says. "That was all the praise I ever expected to get."
To scan the NaNoWriMo message boards is to peer into a fascinating slice of pop culture. The two most popular categories are those labeled "Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Horror" and "Romance & Erotic Fiction." Part of that, suggests Baty, has to do with the fact that sci-fi writers have taken to the Web easily. Another element may be the fact that romantic fiction is highly formulaic and therefore easy to write in a month. Because 30 days does not allow much time to research the Regency period, or the physics of space travel, the message boards are filled with all manner of requests for arcane information. There are subject lines that say, "Anyone know about forklifts and licensing?" and "incest . . . how wrong is this?" and "Habitable star systems."
One person posts this question: "Anyone know of a disease, preferably genetic, with no symptoms so long as you're medicated but will kill you within a few days if you go off your meds?"
A woman from the state of Washington writes in with the following query: "Any ideas for traits that might inspire unjustified hatred in the wife toward a blameless, gentle, hardworking man?" This sets off a firestorm of enthusiastic responses from other women, such as: "Snoring! After a while you just want to smother them with a pillow," and "My ex used to grind his teeth at night. . . . Homicidal ideation? You betcha."
Is NaNoWriMo the downfall of literature? Baty says he has often feared that professional writers would regard his experiment as "an insulting mockery of their craft," but he's never heard a professional writer say this. Instead, he says, some professional writers use NaNoWriMo to escape writer's block. After all, they're not doing away with the concept of editing. They're simply putting the editing off for as long as it takes to write rough drafts.
Of the two people who've managed to publish NaNo novels, both substantially edited their drafts after the November frenzy was over, and one was already a professional writer. His name is Jon F. Merz, a writer of supernatural thrillers. His 2001 NaNo novel, "The Destructor," pits his hero, a sort of vampire cop, against a female villain who is part vampire and part werewolf.
NaNoWriMo is "sort of the puke-it-out phase," Merz says. "Perfection -- if it's attainable -- comes later."
The other NaNo success story is Lani Diane Rich, 33, who had always dabbled in writing but never thought she stood a chance of being published before NaNoWriMo 2002. Her creation from that year, a chick-lit book called "Time Off for Good Behavior," took her 25 days, plus six weeks of editing.
"My problem was, I was always going back and editing myself before it was finished, looking for it to be perfect from the beginning," Rich says. "The great thing about WriMo is they're like, 'Write it -- write it badly -- just write it!' "
Baty says only about 17 percent of those who register for his experiment write 50,000 words. They send their finished works in via the Web site, and a computer program verifies their word count and declares them winners. It's all done on the honor system, and Baty says that to pad novels toward their 50,000-word goal, some WriMos cut contractions, replacing "don't" with "do not," and he himself has made characters hard of hearing so that dialogue would need to be repeated. Since there's no prize at the end, aside from getting one's name on the Web site, he figures it doesn't much matter if they cheat. The main point is they're writing.
Back at Books-A-Million, Sheridan-Peters taps at her laptop, then stops.
"Okay, I need the name for a kitschy erotica boutique," she says, sucking on an iced chai latte through a straw.
"Kitty Cat Dreams," suggests one woman.
Sheridan-Peters looks dissatisfied. "I'll figure something out," she says.
Already, in an attempt to jumpstart her plot, Sheridan-Peters has burned her character's Vespa. She's considered burning the character's boat, too, but hasn't done it yet. "I think it may turn out to be a murder mystery," she says. "There may be a body."
Art is so haphazard. Who can predict the wiles of a fertile imagination? Sheridan-Peters recalls how two years ago she wrote a book that came to a natural conclusion at just 42,000 words. She needed 8,000 more to "win," and she went to her husband for help.
"He looked at me and he said, 'So you should kill someone,' " she says. "And I did. I killed the protagonist's husband. And it worked beautifully."
Letter by letter, Stephen Shaw of Washington inputs his novel into his Treo phone and PDA at the Dupont Circle write-in.Chris Baty says he sometimes fears professional writers will see his experiment as "an insulting mockery of their craft." Rise Sheridan-Peters, in her fourth year of November novel-writing, coaxed her 14-year-old daughter into trying to write a 30-day novel.