Monday, February 18, 2008

Book Review: No Plot, No Problem

I have a huge library full of books which have brought me great joy, and I've always intended to write reviews of them, in an attempt to give back a little of that joy. However, I've always procrastinated.

No more! Today I started reviewing writing books, beginning with Chris Baty's No Plot? No Problem! You can read the review on Amazon, but I'll go ahead and post it here too. (Oh, if you have a profile on Amazon and you want to be a "friend" to Misque Writer, drop me an invitation.)

No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty is the printed version of that cup of jo you use to make it through Nanowrimo -- National Novel Writing Month. Officially set in November, this is the month literary lunatics everywhere attempt to write a fiction book (at least 50,000 words) in one month. And this is the book to read while you do it.

Baty's book isn't the first writing book you should read, and it isn't the last one you'll need, but his wry pep talks and Why The Hell Not? attitude are perfect for encouraging you. "The possibility of starting the month with nada and ending it with a book we'd written - no matter how bad the book might be - was irresistible. And though we never admitted it to one another, there was also the hope that maybe, just maybe, we'd yank an undeniable work of genius from the depths of our imagination. A masterpiece in the rough that would forever change the literary landscape. The Accidental American Novel. Just think of the acclaim! The feelings of satisfaction! The vastly increased dating opportunities!"

Enlightenment is overrated, says Baty. He originally thought he had to wait until he had accumulated the Wisdom of the Ages, and become and Enlightened Being, before he could write a novel. Of course, by then he'd probably be about ninety years old. Instead, while in his twenties, he and some friends just plowed forth into "the meager, gravelly soil of our imaginations" and began to write. In so doing, he discovered an important point. "The biggest thing separating people from their artistic ambitions is not a lack of talent. It's the lack of a deadline.

In section one, he expands upon the need for a deadline and produce quantity without worrying about quality. He explains, all in the same breezy humorous style, how to find time ("Enter the Time Finder"), create a community to support your effort ("rallying the troops"), and how to find space ("A closed door with children in the house," wrote one aspiring novelist, "is nothing more than an invitation to bang, scream and cry." p.59)

In section two, Baty begins a week-by-week breakdown of your novel-writing month. The week usually starts out to "trumpets blaring, angels singing and triumph on the wind" p. 105). Nonetheless, some people falter already, daunted by such obstacles as The First Sentence. "The first sentence," he observes, "is, in many ways, a perfect microcosm of your novel. Meaning you're probably worrying way too much about it." (p.111) Other Week One issues include, What to Title Your Novel, and Knowing When to End Chapters.

Week Two problems tend to be more serious. Some novels are still flailing without any visible means of support from actual plot. Characters have staged coups. Obsessive Counting Disorder may set in. Inspiration flags. Time squeezes make it hard to keep on track. Week Two is a difficult week, but Baty has suggestions to deal with its traumas and tribulations.

Week Three may bring the wind back to some sails. It's a time, Baty suggests evaluating how far you've come. Are you halfway or more through your story? If so, "hallelujah. Great job. Continue full speed ahead." If not, "if you are still introducing characters and haven't yet sent them out in search of a plot, you should sit down and figure out where they're going now." That's right, it's time to get serious, and like the Better Business Bureau of the Novel, he will tell you how to escape "word debt" with such devices as "6,000 word days." (p.136) "These are much easier to pull off than you think," he reassures.

In Week Four, he has more great advice, such as how to steer every party conversation to your novel.

Writer: So what's up, partygoer?
Partygoer: Not much! I've been getting pretty sick lately with that flu that's going around, so I've just been laying low. Sleeping a lot, you know...
Writer: Oh, man! That's so funny you would say that. The protagonist in my novel had this moment where he thought about opening an office supply store that sold only wiener dogs.

National Novel Writing Month occurs during November, and for writers in the US, Week Four coincides with Thanksgiving. Baty doesn't explain what lunatic sadism made him decide to set Nanowrimo to coincide with the second busiest holiday in the US calendar (after December), but I have to assume it's in part because, as he was a single male in his twenties at the time, he probably didn't have many family obligations for Thanksgiving. As a working mother who is expected to help actually spend this "vacation" time drudging away over a hot stove rather than a keyboard, I would have picked a different month, I must say.

However, that's the wonderful thing about No Plot, No Problem. It's like a portable Nanowrimo, which you can use to carry your novel writing month from November (curse you, November!) to some other month, say, July. True, you won't have the knowledge that thousands of others are simultaneously typing away on their laptops at the same time as you, but you can still read their stories in Baty's book. No Plot, No Problem is filled with anecdotes of how other writers made it through the month to 50,000 words. If they can do it -- you can do it.

If you have any questions, or think you would like to apply to the Misque Writer's Retreat, email the Misque coordinator at

For scheduling information and specific submission guidelines, check out the website:

No comments: