Toby Goes Off the Page to Chat to Locals Writers

Journalist's tips for those dreaming of Hollywood


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Toby Young at Off the Page writing group

Toby addresses Off the Page writing group

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Off the Page writing group, which meets in Acton to discuss its members’ screenwriting and script ideas, had an unusual item on the agenda this month. Journalist, writer and regular Toby Young came to the meeting to talk about his approach to writing. Toby had some straight talking for those dreaming of Hollywood, and some tips for the writing life.

Known for his humorous memoirs and regular newspaper columns, Toby has also co-written stage plays and is currently working on a drama documentary. He opened the meeting by reading his story of gate-crashing the Vanity Fair Oscars party from his book How to Lose Friends and Alienate People. Talking about his own struggle with screenwriting, as chronicled in The Sound of No Hands Clapping, Toby eventually discovered that his most satisfying writing experience was playwriting. ‘It’s really tough to make a living from commercial movie screenwriting but it can be done.’ He said. ‘The important thing is to enjoy what you’re doing. Groups like Off the Page, where you can discuss your writing with other writers, are a great place to start.’

Toby talked about writers who had become successful because they were doing the writing they loved rather than consciously setting out to write what might sell. However, he likened Hollywood screenwriting to politics - a lifetime of hard work and little success!

Writers always love to hear how other writers actually ‘do’ their work. In Toby’s case, he plans meticulously whether he is writing an article or a book. He took over two years to write a 25,000 word proposal for How to Lose Friends…, but then managed to complete the book in 6 months! ‘Plan in detail – that’s the secret.’ he said. For short articles, there isn’t much time to plan so he takes shortcuts such as using Twitter to conduct instant surveys.

Off the Page writers were curious to find out which type of writing Toby preferred. He concluded that there are too many rules about structure to follow in scriptwriting, whereas you can use your natural voice when writing a book. He also prefers memoirs to fiction. ‘Perhaps I’ve done it the wrong way round, by writing about my life. Many novelists will never write memoirs because they regard their life experiences as their well of inspiration and don’t want to reveal it to anyone.’ He said. ‘But I’m always writing about my experiences. I find writing from life makes it easier for me to exaggerate and tell a good story.’

Toby’s appearance inspired the group as they continued to discuss their own work in the meeting. Off the Page is a workshop-style group for those interested in writing for performance. This includes screenwriting, playwriting, TV script ideas and monologues. Writers hear excerpts of their work being read aloud, often by actors, which is then discussed by the rest of the group. It meets every month at the West London Trades Union Club.


Kate Buchanan


April 16, 2009