Clinging to the Iceberg – writing for a living

Today’s the official publication day for a book that’s somehow managed to be funny and helpful in equal measure. Clinging to the Iceberg: Writing for a Living on the Stage and in Hollywood is wickedly funny, insightful, often absurd but always true. Writer-for-hire Ron Hutchinson takes us through his successful career via hilarious anecdotes including a near-death experience on Venice Beach, being paid by Dreamworks to not actually work for them, and struggling to stay sane on location on one of the great movie flops of all time. Here, Ron shares a checklist of sorts, for writers to consider before deciding if a draft’s complete. We hope you find it as helpful as he does!

What follows are some of the things you’re looking for when you read each draft. A stern warning. This is not to be read as a check-list, a series of mechanical actions to be ticked off. It’s a cloud, a swarm of suggestions put deliberately in no particular order.

The process of creation is messy, with mis-steps and false starts. It’s partly about your brain but it’s also about gut instinct which you’ll develop as you write. There are intestinal flora in the gut which react to stimuli faster than the organs of consciousness.

That’s why we say we feel things in our gut and I can confirm for you that one of my tests when I read a draft is whether my stomach is unsettled. When the writing goes wrong I literally feel my skin prickle and my temperature rise. In time you will be as attuned to the material as that.

The following are the things I watch for as I endlessly re-read my drafts. Sometimes quietly to myself, sometimes playing the characters. I do this not as an academic exercise but because they will help in going forward to the next draft. Anyone treating them as a tool for analysis will be escorted from the premises.

  • Does a scene seem to go on a beat too long?

  • Are all the scenes of the same length so there’s no rhythm to it?

  • Does a character you love have too much to say for themselves?

  • Are you assuming the reader/viewer will love him/her just as much and could you be wrong?

  • Do the jokes work?

  • Are you trying to do in dialogue what the camera will do with visuals?

  • Is what you think you are saying actually on the page?

  • Are you clear-eyed about the difference between what happens in a script and what it’s about?

  • Are two characters trying to do one character’s work?

  • Does A lead to B and B to C so that there is a chain of cause and effect from beginning to end?

  • Does what happened in scene three pay off in scene ninety-five or is it just there because you’re too lazy to strike it through?

  • Could you put the script aside and tell it from memory in one go? If you try that and keep stopping are you willing to examine why you hit a hiccup?

  • Could that be because there is no inner structural logic so it’s this page, this scene, this line where it’s all going wrong?

  • Have you understood that there’s real life time and movie time? That one of the joys of writing for the screen is that you can manipulate time, collapse it, and expand it but that one of its miseries is that even with the different conventions of movie time (the flashback, the flash forward, the reprise) you are locked into a linearity? That is, you can only have the viewer follow one darn thing after another and that split screens never really work as an attempt to get around this?

  • Are you clear that the screenplay is saying just enough to get what you see, literally see and hear, literally hear into the head of the person who is going to read it? That you haven’t mistaken it for an essay or short story or novel which must be complete in itself on the page? That it’s okay, indeed necessary, to have lots and lots of

    white space

    on

    the page

because otherwise the eye is wearied and your characters are talking too much and keep on talking and talking and talking and talking and talking and talking and talking and talking and what the reader wants to know is what is going to happen next?

As in happen. As in event. Because if drama is indeed the impact of event on character you need to have an external event pressing on their inner life and you are going to need your character express what has happened to them in some externalized, physical way.

Ron Hutchinson & Jonathan Ross

Clinging to the Iceberg is available from our website, here.
You can listen to Ron Hutchinson’s interview with Jonathan Ross here.
Or read about his memories of Marlon Brando on the set of The Island of Dr Moreau here.

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Playwrighting Top Tips: Part Two

In this part two of our Top Tips mini-series, Philip Shelley, who founded the Channel 4 screenwriting course, chats about the artistic side and the business side of a writer’s life. This series is inspired by the book Dramatic Writing Masterclasses, and we’re grateful to Philip Shelley and to Jennifer Tuckett for their help with this blog.

What do you believe writers need to know about script editing and writing in general?

Philip Shelley: This is what I’m going to talk about in my Masterclass. There are so many different areas to writing. I think there’s the whole craft side of it but there’s also the business side of it, which isn’t talked about so much in this environment. I think it’s very important.

The business side is something I’ve learnt a lot from doing the Channel 4 course as we have a huge number of entries and it is very hard to get onto the course. Inevitably, when we choose the twelve writers we choose, we love their scripts. Their scripts are fantastic but some writers do better off the back of the course than other writers.

That’s generally not to do with their talent because they’re all incredibly talented writers. It’s more to do with how they run their careers as a business, how they conduct themselves as a business, how much research they do about work they want to do, how much television they watch and how they get on working with script editors, producers and directors in quite a pressured environment.

If you could give one piece of advice to a writer, what would be the one thing you’d say?

Philip Shelley: Probably just “be persistent and be determined”. That’s two things. You’ve just got to stick at it really because you only need one person to like your work. If you write a script and it’s rejected by fifteen people and one person takes it on, that’s all you need. You do get a lot of knock-backs. That’s one of the things on the Channel 4 course we learn about writing. When you’re working with a script editor for the first time and you’re not used to that, it’s hard. We ask a lot of questions that writers don’t want to be asked about their work. Some people thrive in that environment and some people find it difficult.

Philip Shelley

In any production, if you’re working on a show that’s in production, it’s difficult because there are very tight deadlines that you can’t miss. The script has to be to a certain quality by a certain time and there’s no way round that. It is tough but you need to have sufficient passion for the craft and for writing that you can ride those bumps and enjoy the process. I think the best writers do it because they love writing. It’s a question of making sure you enjoy it.

You can find more information on Dramatic Writing Masterclasses: Key Advice from the Industry Masters HERE.
You can read part one of our Top Tips series HERE.

How I Ruined My Career as an Actor

Fergus Craig likes to tweet about his job. He likes to make his tweets funny. Essentially, Fergus spends his spare time mercilessly mocking his colleagues, bosses and self online.
In this blog, upon the release of his book, the hilarious Tips for Actors, Fergus ponders whether this pastime has really been the best thing for his acting career.

At an audition, about a year ago, a casting director cautiously poked her head out from behind a plant pot, looked at me and said “I’m scared of you”. It was then that I became certain in my own mind that I have utterly ruined my own career. How? About twice a day, usually when sat on the toilet, I mock the job I still officially say I do – actor.

tfa2

I started a twitter account called @tips4actors. It has over 40,000 followers. That’s not quite Katy Perry’s 93 million but it does include a vast number of the people whom I rely on to give me acting jobs. So when I write things like…

Never read the script. Would your character read the script? No, of course not. For them the script doesn’t exist.

… I fear they think “Yes, yes, very funny, but in all seriousness we’d like to hire someone we can be absolutely certain will read the script.” When I write…

If you feel the director is spending too much time on other actors’ scenes – fake an asthma attack.

… they say “He clearly thinks he’s funny but he doesn’t sound like a team player”.

You may think I’m being paranoid but I have concrete evidence that not everyone is getting the joke. Thanks to that tweet about not reading the script I found myself in a twitter argument with a theatre director who insisted that ‘Actually, it really is rather helpful for me as a director if the actor reads the script so I can discuss it with them’. Instead of explaining that it was a joke and sending him my CV, I proceeded to call him “EMBARRASSINGLY WRONG!”. I made myself chuckle but I think it’s safe to say my name was crossed off a list that day.

tfa2My favourite debate was over the following tweet…

Actors have an enormous capacity to feel. An actor’s heart is on average three times larger than that of a normal human. Fact.

In stepped the now deleted account of @TrentAllen72 to set me straight…

…fact? If their hearts were three times bigger they wouldn’t be alive. That’s a fact. #ridiculous

I replied with a simple ‘WRONG.” assuming Trent would cotton on. Trent didn’t. He came back at me…

…yours isn’t a fact, there’s no way round it…

He was right. It wasn’t a fact. There was no way round it. Unless of course it was a joke and he was the kind of person who believed there were people out there who thought Helen Mirren’s heart is the size of a basketball. I looked at his profile which mentioned he was a medical student. I thought I’d give him a chance to work out what was going on…

…you’re well off the mark. Ask a medical student mate…

Rather than ask himself “why would he suggest I ask a medical student rather than a doctor?” he confidently replied as if he had the ultimate retort right up his sleeve…

I am one mate.

I came back…

Then you obviously haven’t got to the ‘actors body’ module yet. Whole different kettle of fish.

The conversation ended there. I’ll never know if he figured out the joke or was, worryingly, called to operate on a patient.

Having some fun on twitter may have proved harmless to my career. For the first couple of years I was entirely anonymous. But then I thought it might be a good idea to write a book, a book that for 200 pages screams to the industry I so long to be respected by – I do not take my job very seriously.

cover-tips

What was it that made that casting director, and I quote, “scared” of me? Perhaps she’s read the ‘Letter To A Casting Director” of my book. Here’s a brief extract…

Dear (insert name),

I’ve been watching you for some time. I like the way you move. I like the way you operate. I like the way you find a perfect balance between your work life and your family life. And may I say, what a wonderful family you appear to have. There’s just one thing missing in your life… me.

When Oberon Books commissioned me to write this book I was delighted. It didn’t occur to me that I was systematically destroying my hopes for a long and successful career as an actor in favour of a brief career as the author of a one off parody book. My first job after drama school was with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Do I really think they’ll ever have me back after reading my chapter on Shakespeare in which I recommend getting young audiences interested by adding swearwords into his verse? I’d love to do more West End theatre. What chance do I have considering my chapter on theatrical superstitions suggests that my own personal one is to snort a line of cocaine before every scene? I’ve done lots of comic acting on TV but would desperately love to be given the chance to appear in more dramatic roles. That ambition is surely well and truly scuppered now that my chapter on television acting suggests that I don’t really get into the swing of things until the 60th or 70th take.

And so, what was intended as a playful little side project may well become the last thing I do, before being forced to give up acting altogether and joining the rest of my family in the trawler fishing industry.

I hope you enjoy it.

You can learn more about Tips for Actors HERE.
You can follow @Tips4Actors on Twitter HERE.
You can watch more of Fergus’ comedy work online HERE.

See more of Fergus' work on Youtube

See more of Fergus’ work on Youtube