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 Three

Part three of our Top Tips series comes from Nina Steiger, Senior Dramaturg at the National Theatre. This series is inspired by the book Dramatic Writing Masterclasses and here, Nina talks about writing for digital media and the unexpected route her own career has taken. 

You started your career as a playwright. So, why is it that you do what you do? What was the trajectory of that?

Nina Steiger: I think the first ten to fifteen years of any career are about the balance between trying to find your feet, make money and get as close as you can to what you feel is the heat source in the room. For me, as a writer, I was like, “Oh my god, I like people who make theatre and it’s fun to take things from page to the stage”, and that was the heat for me as a writer, as well as a way to express my intelligence, problems and creativity. As I carried on, it became more about directing as that heat source felt stronger. It was as though it was the next level of authorship and a different level of control and interpretation. It was one that was creative, exposing and deeply connected to my interests and issues.

Then I started working at a theatre that worked with new writers, and I discovered that what I really loved was not the nuts and bolts of directing. Because from the time a play got cast and the script was locked, I pretty well lost interest, which is not a good thing for a director. Also, by the time the play had opened, I not only had lost interest, I wanted to leave. I actively never wanted to see the thing again or the people involved, and I took that as a sign that I was not meant to be a director. I’m joking of course, but what I mean is that from the time the script was locked, I felt the heat begin to diminish. For me, the magic was around the tussle for story and style and the possibilities in that.

Another sign early on was that I was often told when applying for jobs in theatres “Please don’t have aspirations as a writer or director yourself.” I very willingly dropped those aspirations to take on some really great jobs working with and for writers, and I didn’t significantly regret that compromise.

I feel that writing will always be there for me. I feel that expressing myself verbally and through images and ideas is something I adore. But I think that’s what helps me work with writers. I discovered that the greatest heat, for me, is understanding the soul of a play, what it could become, starting from this fragmented pencil written recipe that arrives on pages and is turned into a live event – to me, that is the ultimate excitement. That’s how I discovered what I was.

Nina Steiger

Do you have some examples of times where that’s worked well?

Nina Steiger: There are examples of where my talent-spotting, which is a big part of my job, has worked well. I have seen people soar into successful and secure careers, and quickly.

For example, one of the first writers I worked with at Soho Theatre was Matt Charman who had never written a play and was working as a valet sorting cars out, and he wrote a wonderful play about that. His writing has taken him to the top of the game. That’s a sign to me that I put the right person in the path of the right opportunity.

When I think it’s the best is when a piece of theatre has gone from a conversation with an artist over a coffee to something that really catches fire and begins to change the culture. One of the pieces I’m most proud of that I’ve worked on is by Bryony Kimmings, called Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model. It’s not a traditional play but very much a piece of theatre about the dearth of appropriate role models for young women and girls in our society and the way they’re sexualised. It’s the least didactic and preachy kind of evening.

That to me was one that went from “This is what I care about the most” to, within a year, it being on and changing the world around it. So, that’s a great example for me.

How does that theatre work link to digital media?

Nina Steiger: A lot of people who I work with in theatre don’t know that I’m wild about the convergence of dramatic writing and digital media. It’s not something I bring to bear every day in my job, in my work with various theatre companies or with artists. But I think it’s the most brilliant marriage. I always start with this question when I do workshops on this area: “How many people have been on the internet today? How many people were on the internet before they left their house to come out? How many people were on the internet before they got out of bed?” Now

some people are going to be like, “Isn’t that a bad thing?” And, that’s not what we’re debating, but it is a bad thing obviously.

However, I believe it’s also a really cool thing. I then will ask “How many people have one smart device on you right now? Two? Three?” There’s usually three or more – I’m talking about your phone, your iPad and your laptop or something like that. Because it’s not unusual that ordinary old us are wired up from the minute we wake up in the morning and, ready to go, we’re available. To me, that suggests something very interesting about the way there are performance spaces embedded in that – we are getting stories all day long and it’s a space that isn’t totally owned by artists yet but there’s an amazing opportunity there.

Then there’s this other side of it, which is, if that’s your life, it’s also the life of your audience. I feel I want to say “get in there you artists, and populate that really interesting over-inhabited but under-explored space”. So one of the things I thought was that, in theatre and in storytelling, we are so amazing at liveness and uniquenesss and experience, there is a real opportunity to bring the two together.

That’s how my interest started. What I hope my Masterclass exposes is that I’ve learnt a lot about theatre and storytelling and liveness through exploring what happens when digital media is part of it. I’ve learned a lot about what digital media can do through trying to apply what I know about theatre to it. That was the purpose that I thought I should bring to the fourweek investigation with the students, and what I’m going to talk about in my Masterclass.

Thanks to Nina Steiger and Jennifer Tuckett for their contributions to this blog. For more Top Tips, follow this blog over the coming weeks and months, and pick up a copy of Dramatic Writing Masterclasses: Key Advice from the Industry Masters.
You can still read parts One and Two on our blog. 

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.

Playwrighting Top Tips: Part One

Last month, Dramatic Writing Masterclasses: Key Advice from the Industry Masters was published, providing access to the leading industry writing training for the first time.
This blog is the first in a series of ‘Tops Tips’ inspired by the book that we’ll be bringing you over the next few months. Part one comes from Fin Kennedy, Artistic Director of Tamasha theatre and founder of Schoolwrights.

Fin Kennedy: It has been a privilege and a pleasure to be one of the ten ‘Masters’. The combination of giving free reign to industry tutors to set vocational tasks alongside academic rigour is unique, while being able to research and develop with students new creative forms in a ‘Lab’ format each and every year is of real practical value to our company. I am delighted that some of this learning is being disseminated further with this book.

 

Can you tell us more about your dramatic writing teaching?

Fin Kennedy: I’m currently putting plans in place for the writers’ group that I’ve started in-house at Tamasha. There will be craft-based training about different aspects of playwriting, but I also want to start to train that group up as artist-producers able to take responsibility for curating, project-managing and particularly fundraising for their own projects.

It’s been a bugbear of mine over the last ten to twelve years that the traditional relationship between writers and organisations renders writers essentially passive. We’re almost entirely excluded from the infrastructure of theatre-making, which is weird given that everything starts with us. We’re where the ideas come from. We decide whose lives are worth putting a frame around.

Outside of the odd residency programme, you don’t get writers running theatre companies. You’re always freelance. You wait for the phone to ring. You wait to somehow come to a literary manager’s attention. When you do get a commission you’re told what the play you’re writing is or ought to be and sent away to write some drafts on your own. It’s disempowering. My experience started with the knockback I got for How To Disappear being rejected by every theatre in London, and having to fall back on my own resources and go “Actually, I can’t make a living out of play commissions, how else am I going to use my skills?” I think writers’ skills are applicable in lots of different contexts, but particularly in a community context. That’s something I’m passionate about training other writers up to do.

Fin Kennedy, photo by Phil Adams

What do you believe writers need to know about working in schools?

Fin Kennedy: I do a whole module on this. Amanda Stewart Fisher is an academic at Central School of Speech & Drama who writes a lot about community applied drama and she talks about the writer in residence role in the community context as being a temporary, shamanistic role. What she means by that is that it’s not about you. When you get a commission from one of the big companies like Soho or the Royal Court, it is about you and your voice and your vision and your name in lights. It’s not like that when you go into schools. This is not only because it’s less glamorous and there is not the same infrastructure but also because the close-up work that you’ll do is very collaborative.

You might have a group of young people for whom you are the workshop leader as well as the writer and gatherer of the material. That involves a channelling kind of process where you’re trying to capture their voices, their concerns, their worldviews and spirit and energy. Then you take all the fragmentary material that they’ll generate with you in sessions, take it away, give it your professional polish but hand it back to them in a form that they’ll recognise.

It’s self-effacing in that respect. I enjoy that process and I enjoy taking myself out of myself. I think it’s made me a better artist – it’s broadened my palate about the kinds of worlds and experiences I can write about with legitimacy. It’s about keeping a stake in real life. It’s easy when you’re a fulltime freelance writer to be holed up in your home/office/garret pontificating about how the world works without actually taking an active part in it.

I’ve not had a ‘proper job’, in terms of being at the office every day from nine to five, for a long time. I’ve got one now with Tamasha but before that I hadn’t had one for ten years and it’s easy to shed a lot of stimulus and experience that way. So I think it’s important for writers to use their skills in a very worldly way.

Thanks to Fin Kennedy and Jennifer Tuckett for their contributions to this blog. For more Top Tips, follow this blog over the coming weeks and months, and pick up a copy of Dramatic Writing Masterclasses: Key Advice from the Industry Masters