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Balls of Steel™: Take Your Label and Shove It

“Wannabe screenwriters dream of having that one ‘magic script’ that garners them attention. They want to define themselves by saying, ‘I’m a writer’ or ‘I wrote that.’ But there’s an enormous difference between ‘I’ve written’ and saying ‘I’m a writer.’ A true writer wants to write one project, then another, and another. A writer needs to be writing … needs to write. Be a writer. Don’t limit yourself by a label,” says writer-of-all-trades Doug Richardson.

Our nature is to define people with labels, even writers. For some reason, it makes us more comfortable to slap a tag on someone in permanent ink, marking them a thriller writer, a rom-com writer, a novelist, or a screenwriter.

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I’ve always loathed labels. It’s why I never joined a sorority. Plus, they wanted me to pay dues for the privilege of being pigeonholed. Funk that.

At Cornell, we called a non-Greek student a GDI … God Damn Independent.

That acronym perfectly defines, Doug Richardson, writer of Die Hard 2,Bad Boys, andHostage.

I met Richardson via friend and best-selling thriller author, JT Ellison. Yes, I just labeled Ellison. See how that works?

The first thing I do upon meeting a person online is stalk his or her website. That’s where a writer’s skeletons hide. I clicked Richardson’s site. Wait, he’s an action writer? No, he’s not. He’s a novelist, he’s a screenwriter, he’s a blogger, oh my – I think I just saw Superman fly by.

On Richardson’sblog, he shares war stories from his decades as a professional screenwriter. He calls the tales “catnip for movie writers.” And they are. You’ll soon be addicted, clawing at your computer screen, begging for more.

“I write what I would have wanted to read when I was starting out. I always want to know how stuff went down. I’m fascinated by process, and I want to know how it happened or how it worked out.”

While his blog is full of very cool behind-the-scenes stories, his new novel, The Safety Expert, really sparked my interest. I downloaded the first chapter tease and was hooked.

There is so much more to this writer than car chases, gunfights, and edge-of-the-seat action. He is the real-life example of what I preach in this column – gutsy writing.

He doesn’t just write, he writes with fireballs.

Recently, I asked him what it’s like living with the action-writer label. He shared a story similar to the ones he tells in his blog:

“Years ago, Gary Ross and his wife, Alison Thomas, had a fun scrabble tournament called Quetzal Cup. There was this god-awful trophy for the winner. It started off as kind of a joke. Gary invited all these high-test writers, executives, and agents. Since this business is so damn competitive, it attracts type-A people, so within a couple of years, the tourney became fierce with over a hundred players. In the third year, I won it. There was a sense in the room that something had gone terribly wrong. So, when I gave my silly little acceptance speech, I said, ‘I know you guys think I’m an action writer and can only write in two-syllable words, but apparently I know high value two-syllable words and beat your asses.’”

 Bruce Willis and Doug Richardson on the set of "Hostage." Photo by Frank Masi.

Bruce Willis and Doug Richardson on the set of "Hostage." Photo by Frank Masi.

The success of his first novel, Dark Horse, ripped his action-screenwriter label off.

Avon/Morrow asked me to give them a list for advance copies. I sent hardcovers to producers and agents all over town. They were thrilled and couldn’t believe I got published. It changed people’s perception of me. Suddenly I was able to get in the room to pitch and sell stories that, prior to the book, wouldn’t have stood a chance.

Novels and movies are on opposite ends of the spectrum. In film, you have a director of photography, actors, costume designers, etc. to aid your story … and to please. But in a novel, the writer is all of those things. All you have to please is your editor and the publisher. And in the new world of self-published e-books, you just need to please your audience.

Writing novels secures Richardson’s sanity.

“It makes writing screenplays that much more fun, because I can stomach the down side of collaborating and the specter of lousy notes. I don’t have to be as precious when I know, at the end of the screenplay, I can crawl back to my cave and pump out a novel in solitude. Carve something in stone. Once I’ve got it my way, the rest is easy, even my own adaptations. Like my second book,True Believers. I don’t think anyone was more merciless as a writer in adapting to film than I was. I was thrilled to take it further away from my book. Writing it as a movie was like reinventing it.”

Balancing both the life of an independent novelist and a collaborative screenwriter requires great discipline.

Traditional book publishers want at least one book on the shelves a year. That’s tough to maintain when you have scripts in development.

“I always planned to do both. When I wrote my first novel, I got a lot of lip service from my film agency, but no real support. At the time, I had taken the job of being the last writer on Bad Boys to make a paycheck in order to have the time to write the novel. Then, once I’d finished the novel and needed to get out and find a publisher, Bad Boys had come out and was a big hit. The agents were frustrated I wasn’t capitalizing on the film's success with big-dollar rewrites. They wanted me to take more screenwriting gigs, not get published and write another novel. When your stock is up in screenwriting, it’s crazy money. So to pass that up, is not what my agents wanted to hear.”

But Richardson stood firm.

And when he caught his film agents allegedly trying to sabotage the book getting published, he did what any ballsy writer would do – he fired them.

After I wrote the second book, I found it hard getting to the third because I had two kids in private school, a mortgage to pay, and producers teeing up assignments in front of me, along with money. In hindsight, I think I erred. A novelist should have a book out at least every 18 months to build up readership. I stalled, and when my literary agent would call about the next book, I’d rationalize that after the adaptation of True Believers came out as a movie, it would jack book sales, and I’d write the next book after that.”

That particular movie didn’t work out. But luckily, fate has a way of leading us down the right path.

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“The publishing world as it was then has not been as good to mid-list and genre writers as the e-publishing world has become. Quite possibly, had I been writing for my traditional publisher during that period, it could have proven more frustrating as they continued to tighten their belts and deal with their own shrinking business. Being a writer inside a shrinking house is not fun. Now I don’t have to worry about what that house thinks because I’m e-publishing.”

In the last two years, I’ve seen more and more writers let go of the dream of seeing their book on the shelves of Barnes and Noble and embrace an instant download to their readers' tablets or computers.

“It was a tough decision to e-publish. No question, it’s a great kick to see your name on something, whether it’s on a movie screen or a book displayed in a bookstore. At the same time, there are so many fewer Barnes and Nobles to see your book displayed at. I’m going to miss seeing my books in a bookstore, but in a few years I hope to see them in a big pile at Costco.”

E-publishing really isn’t that different than independent filmmaking. My career has brought me on both sides of the fence, attending Writer’s Digest Conferences as well as the famous DIY Conferences for filmmakers. We write to tell stories. Sometimes we have to do it in an untraditional way to get them seen or read.

Surviving this industry for decades isn’t an easy task. As I listened to Richardson speak, I soaked in his advice.

“There are a lot more successful relentless people in Hollywood than there are successful talented people. You need to water and fertilize the grinder side of you as much as your creative side. Grow it. Turn yourself into a grinder because relentless will win over talented every time.”

As an unproduced, scrapper of a screenwriter myself, I wondered what it felt like to successfully climb the ladder and finally break in.

“Every movie is a mountain. Once you climb to the top, you see all the other mountains you want to climb.”

It was at his first official WGA meeting he realized writing novels would be another mountain he was destined to conquer.

Writers can get really bitter. I heard all these old guys complaining about getting screwed over by studios and directors. My notion was that making movies was a collaborative process that lent itself to emotional scarring. And to avoid that, I’d have to write books to keep my sanity.”

Richardson has done just that and suggests other screenwriters keep an open mind when choosing a path for their careers.

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“Wannabe screenwriters dream of having that one ‘magic script’ that garners them attention. They want to define themselves by saying, ‘I’m a writer’ or ‘I wrote that.’ But there’s an enormous difference between ‘I’ve written’ and saying ‘I’m a writer.’ A true writer wants to write one project, then another, and another. A writer needs to be writing … needs to write. Be a writer. Don’t limit yourself by a label.”

So what label does Richardson put on himself?

“When people ask me what I am, I simply answer, ‘I’m a writer.’ I can’t say what kind. Everything I write -- whether a blog post, a novel, or a script -- is a form of expression, and I enjoy them all very much. I write because I need to.”

This week, Doug Richardson’s new book The Safety Expert came out. Head on over to his blog and instantly grab yourself a copy. I guarantee you’ll be satisfied.

If you want to know more about e-publishing, Jane Friedman’s website is loaded with information, as is Writer’s DigestThere are also countless webinars available at The Writer’s Store, which has expanded into the world of novelists and even freelance writing. Last but not least, follow Doug Richardson on Twitter @byDougRichand read his blog. Every Tuesday he shares a new filmmaking war story.