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Memo to Screenwriters #3: Being Solely Identified by Your Scripts Leads to Permanent Identity Crisis

Memo to Screenwriters #3: Being Solely Identified by Your Scripts Leads to Permanent Identity Crisis

Like so many others, Elmore Leonard, god bless him, praised
writers for their “perseverance to just sit there alone and grind it out.”  Of course writers might think he was only
referring to writing, especially when coupled with his memetic 10th rule: “if
it looks like writing, re-write it.” Taking this credo too literally is certain
to drive writers even further into the ivory tower of the introvert. Justified,
indeed.

Elmore Leonard’s fans don’t have to have read his work
extensively or at all, to uh, “know” him. He presents himself as a
look-us-in-the-eye type, not some remote artist alone in a tower being
celebrated from afar. In other words, Leonard exists to us as a man, not solely as a
writer.
His appeal extends beyond what’s on the page — the other half of the
career equation. Even an opposite icon like J.D. Salinger’s controlled
seclusion and rejection of immortal author conventions are just as famous as
the characters he created. We know what these writers look like. We can even
imagine what their opinions on various topics might be. Even though they are no
longer alive and writing, they still speak through the media in identities
separate and apart from their work.

I was recently asked about the difference between a
screenwriter’s identity and a screenwriter’s voice. Simply put, in a screenplay
it’s the “voice” collected into pages that’s put up for sale.
If the writer’s
persona has been left behind embedded in the pages, versus used portably as a
sustainable tool the writer can re-use, then the writer has to start from
scratch with every screenplay to gain back any kind of self referral as an
artist. Imagine if the DIY self-published authors of today followed the
technique traditionally used by screenwriters to simply type their name under
the title as reference to authorship with no personal outreach to their
readers.

Instead it’s typical for DIYs to directly engage with their
readers, communicating whistle-stop style to gain converts. Tweets become
campaign waves; blog tours, virtual handshaking — which serve before or after
any work is read to exponentially expand the writer’s off-page identity. DIY scribes
understand that any discriminating buyer for their work will, without question,
consult a website algorithm then mentally measure the writer’s metadata before
making a purchase. In a contemporary Hollywood universe, any kind of screenplay
buyer does the same.

Consider the more familiar difference in how a film director
develops identity in a traditional film business scenario. There’s discoverable
emphasis on the director’s background and training with critical analysis of
themes associated with that director’s work. There’s an easy dialogue flow
about where and how that director grew up; which filmmakers influenced them;
who their mentors were. There‘s no expectation that a page they wrote or even
piece of film they directed could solely speak for them by proxy. Directors
aren’t conflicted about their human persona being a key component to their
professional role. When they aren’t directing they’re visibly participating in
far ranging community outreach to exercise their essential uniqueness and creative
values.

If screenwriters demand exclusive evaluative focus on the
pages they “just sit there and grind out” without including interactive public
behavior to identify themselves as unique storytelling masters the way Elmore
Leonard and some other writers do, the screenwriter’s identity becomes
dependent on how that material fares in a finite Hollywood marketplace.
In this
traditional film business scenario the emphasis on material necessarily becomes
about cost: the cost for the rights, cost of re-writing and cost of producing
it. The page is what has value, not the man or woman who wrote it, who are
bound to become less important. The ensuing professional relationship
composition is calculated to take power away from the screenwriter.

Some folks might be waiting for the WGA to conduct a blind
study to see if kick-ass public identity development works. It might be simpler
and faster to take a look at Diablo Cody’s career or Tony Kushner’s.

Ms. Cody created a public persona different from the one she
grew up with that she believed was more authentic. Working at an office, she
started stripping while also blogging about it. Note that she didn’t blog in
any way about a screenwriting career. She showed up online as herself and
attracted the attention of an alert film producer, who encouraged her as a
writer. Activist Tony Kushner also shows up consistently as himself. His
opinion is often sought about topics of concern, not just Hollywood-centric
ones. We know about these artists’ human personas, which not
only influences their writing, but attracts the notice of their worlds at
large, thus creating anticipation of their work.

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Comments

Bonnie Bruckheimer

Wonderful article, Nancy. I'll share this with my USC writing students… my class has producers, directors, writers, etc. Thanks, bb

Angela Rinaldi

Good advice here. The voice is what immediately engages a reader in novels. So much of what you wrote about is what beginning writers need to pay attention to.

Merrily Kane

Nancy, as always, this is a most inciteful and oh so truthful article. The difference between a screemplay and a brilliant screenplay is its voice.

Betty Kelly Sargent

Terrific article, Nancy. I had the great privilege of being Elmore Leonard's book editor years ago, and even before he became a celebrated writer, he was always just himself — warm, funny, laid back, direct, modest and kind. This came through in everything he wrote, and was at the heart of his great success.

Graham Kaye

Nancy:

Your article made me think back to a time when the art of selling material became more of a balancing act between an agent and their client. For me it started with Joe Eszterhas, after that instead of the typical front page story of the sale, the personal delving and the nightlife of the writer's starting it's renaissance. It continued with the $4,000,000 sale of Shane Black's "The
Long Kiss Goodnight", and continued with the sale of Troy Duffy's "Boondock Saints" where I thought it jumped the shark when Harvey beat out his competitors by agreeing to purchase the bar that Troy worked in as stipulation to take it off the table at 9:00 p.m. on a Friday night. I don't miss it, or the mason jar of tums I kept next to my paper bible of the time, better known as the Hollywood Creative Directory. Great article Nancy.

Jim Strain

As always, spot on, Nancy!

APL

NN, I imagine that for a writer your message might be like hitting the refresh key on computer.

Madame Wisdom

Ah yes Lady Nigrosh! After many years in the trench warfare of Hollywood, I can agree heartily that a huge personality goes together well in the room with a talented author. The key in my mind is not simply flagrant self promotion of course, but that a truly unique persona has an unusual life outside of typing and that that life reaches beyond the limits of formulaic thinking simply because the individual is as fascinating as their work. This is the horse leading the cart then, not just the idea that one can tweet relentlessly in a virtual life, but have a real one.

Marcy Prager

Nancy,
You are a brilliant writer! A great writer of books or screenplays has to have his/her soul woven into it to make it authentic. Our experiences and feelings define who we are. It is truly a gift to be able to bring ourselves into our writing. The photograph shows the respect and awe Timothy and Walton feel for Elmor Leonard. Your words show your "awe" for him and give him the respect he deserves.

Tristine

Nancy, you have always had your finger on the pulse of the time; you still do.

Chuck Martin

Nancy
You are one of the most intelligent, creative commentators on the planet about literary work and writing; both screenplays and novels. As a writer, I greatly benefit from you ideas and wonderful perspective.

Neal

I tried stripping. Didn't work for me. Or anyone else.

This is good advice. The PR war starts at home.

Everything is changing, and that means fresh opportunity for some.

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