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Beyond Backspace

In houses across America, people are writing haphazard, unedited screenplays. Kind of like Hollywood.

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Some writers want to be the next Quentin Tarantino, and some just aspire to create a screenplay that's finished. Mediocre? Extremely bad? Still slightly better than "Wild Hogs?" Doesn't matter.

It's quantity, not quality, that inspired Chris Baty to found National Novel Writing Month, a nonprofit organization based in Oakland, Calif., that tries to lead the charge for those Americans who have a book in them, but just need to get it out. So that well-formed, intimate look at, say, the crimes of a young Danish girl takes a backseat to raw, savage word count.

Apparently his group struck a chord. In November 79,000 adults took up his challenge, writing 50,000-word novels.

Now he's expanded his storytelling marathon: This month, dozens of Richmonders and thousands of Americans are participating in the premiere of Script Frenzy, a screenwriting contest in which the goal is to write 20,000 words in 30 days.

"In comparison to National Novel Writing Month, twenty thousand words is a zesty gazpacho of the soul," Baty says.

So far this June, 8,000 people have signed up to write screenplays, and the numbers are still rising. "Every year people sign up with only five days left and make the deadline," Baty says. "Nothing ventured, nothing gained."

These are people who just need someone to pull the cork out. People like Elaine Greywalker, 56, a resident of the Forest Hill area and a graphic designer at SunTrust. In November she wrote her first novel. This June she's at work on her first screenplay.

"I chanced upon National Novel Writing month on the Web. I said, 'Hey, this looks cool and it's free, and I'm not doing anything this month,'" she says. "It was really exciting. I was one of those people who said, 'Someday I'm going to write a novel,' and then I did."

Greywalker did some of the writing on her own and some at "write-ins" held at World Cup. "I thought, 'Oh yeah, we're going to get together and write, sure.' But yeah, that's what we did. I never wanted to quit. I got slowed down and had my moments of doubt, but I never wanted to quit, I was like, 'Bring it on.'" Greywalker's screenplay is tentatively titled "Season Without Reason," an autobiographical account of her hippie days.

It helps that these contests don't have judges. They don't even have readers. The prize is an electronic version — a PDF — of a winner's certificate that you print out yourself on your own computer. That's if you reach your word count. Not quite the big Nobel penny, but then, this is for that room full of monkeys in every writer's mind. "You're really just competing with yourself," Baty says.

Baty and his organization have received criticism for infusing bad writers with false hope. "We just got an angry, angry e-mail from someone whose novel had just been rejected," Baty says. "He said we were 'an evil upon the world.'" But to Baty the goal of writing is not just publication. It's a way to tap into your creativity and push yourself into uncharted territory.

"Oftentimes, writers operate under the false assumption that they will sit down and immediately write the third or fourth draft of their novel. But we have to start with that first draft," says Baty. "When you write for quantity rather than quality you end up with both. You don't have time to worry about whether or not it's brilliant. When that pressure is lifted you tap into a more playful world of intuition that you could miss with a long-term plan."

A freelance writer and music critic, Baty, 33, moved to California from Kansas in 1991 to study cultural anthropology at University of California Berkeley and then got his master's degree from the University of Chicago.

In November 1999, having never taken a writing class outside of high school, he forced himself to write a 50,000-word novel (about 175 pages) in 30 days. Eight friends joined him. The next year 140 people jumped in.

It snowballed. More people joined him. And Baty's now written eight novels. He's been revising the first one for three years and hopes it will eventually see the light of day in a bookstore.

To date, 16 manuscripts written during National Novel Writing Month have achieved publication. But how many of these uncorked screenplays will see the light of the projector? It remains to be seen how many of the screenwriters will realize, right in these last minutes of June, that the little Danish girl did it all for love. S

To get involved or to learn more, visit National Novel Writing Month at www.NaNoWriMo.org or www.ScriptFrenzy.org.

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