The Third Most Evil Woman

Charlotte de La Trémoille painting hanging in the Blickling Estate

In the middle of editing Ben Alexander’s play The Siege of Manchester I took a holiday and accidentally came across this picture on a visit to the National Trust’s Blickling Estate in Norfolk.  The woman in question is Charlotte de La Trémoille, the wife of James Stanley, the Seventh Earl of Derby.  Ben’s play has more to say about her husband (who was the besieger of the title) and, whilst Charlotte appears as a character, the play does not cover the later events that earned her this epithet.  (Ben mentions it as an aside in his production notes.)

The description was a gift from the Parliamentarians in the English Civil War, against whom she commanded a company of marksmen in defence of Lathom House.  She refused to surrender and held out in the last bastion of Lancashire Royalists until the seige was broken by Prince Rupert.  One assumes that the champions of parliamentary democracy took a dislike to strong, independent women (although they were more polite to Mary Bankes after her defence of Corfe Castle).

So, if Charlotte de La Trémoille is third, who outranked her in evil?  Second place went to her contemporary, Henrietta Maria, Queen Consort of King Charles I.  She was considered to be interfering politically and swaying her husband in the direction of Catholicism – so both an enemy of parliament and an enemy of Protestantism.  And first place?  Eve.

We’re back to Genesis, chapter three for that one.  In the King James version, God’s interrogation of Adam runs:-

… Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?

And the man said, The woman whom though gavest to be with me, she game me of the tree, and I did eat.

So Adam, failing to admit to his own agency, blames Eve.  The Parliamentarians seem to have taken this view without thinking about it.  Never mind that Adam had a choice and could have applied his own judgement.  Never mind that Eve was tricked.  He was clearly right to blame her.  It was her fault.  She is evil.

This way of thinking has a long and unglamorous history.  In some – many – quarters, it persists today.  What an irrational lot we are.

Microsoft Causes Inflation

This simple trick will cut your Word document down to size.

The Problem

Word LogoWord documents can suffer from bloat. An author tried to submit a 32-page Word file to us. The formatting was straightforward, but the file was a whopping 2.4 MB. Our on-line systems rejected the file (because why would we want a file that big?) The author saved it as a Rich Text Format (RTF) file of 600 kB and uploaded it. We imported it into Word and saved it as a .docx and low and behold, it was back to nearly 3 MB. Over 2 MB bigger without the addition of so much as a single comma. We reviewed the file and added some simple mark-up, and it blew up to well over 3MB.
After that, I applied this trick to the script and got it down to less than 90 kB – two orders of magnitude smaller. (And with five minutes work, it went to 80 kB.) So what’s going on?

The Cause

The frank answer is that I’m not sure. I know some of the causes, but Word is a complex tool, so attributing anything to a single cause is dubious, and I’m trying to approach this as a user, not as a product tester. Broadly, there are two issues. Firstly, Word tracks changes. Even if you declare an edition to be final, and stop tracking changes, Word seems not to discard the change data. It’s still hanging around somewhere, even though it’s not used. Secondly, if your document is edited by multiple users (or one user on several computers), it picks up template information from each instance without discarding the previous information, so it keeps adding unused data to the document. (There may also be an issue with using different versions of Word to edit one document, and certainly further issues with editing documents in a mix of Word and other word-processors.)

The Solution

The solution is to leave all the rubbish behind:-
Create a new blank document (preferably using a clean template that includes just the Styles you need). Now open your bloated document. Select all the contents (either by mouse or use a shortcut; Ctrl-A on a Windows computer). Click copy (Ctrl-C). Switch to your new blank document and Paste (Ctrl-V). Then Save. The new version will have left most of the dross behind and kept your text, your formatting and not a lot else.

(There is a minor additional tweak: that process will copy over all the Styles from the source document, including ones that are not actually in use. You can reduce the file size a little more by deleting unused Styles.)

Postscript – What If That Wasn’t My Problem

The other major cause of Word Bloat is embedded images. If you need pictures, you need them, but consider cropping and shrinking to a size appropriate for your purpose before you embed images in your document.

A Rum Do

The English Language is Broken.  (Another part of a never-ending series.)

Consider the word “do”.  Amongst other things, this is used to mean a party, formal dinner, or other event.  (“We were invited to a posh do at the Dorchester.”)  Now assume that you have a busy social life and that you have been invited to a do on Thursday and another on Saturday night.  You now have two of them to write about.  How do you spell the plural of do?
You ought just to be able to stick an ess on the end of it, but for old-time computer buffs like me, dos looks like a “disc operating system” and is pronounced “doss”.
So how about treating it like potato, and adding an ee and an ess?  That turns it into does, which is either the third person form of the verb “to do” (as in “he does nothing”), or it’s multiple female rabbits (or deer).
Some people throw in an apostrophe, rendering those multiple events as “do’s”.  That goes against convention by inserting an apostrophe into a plural (which is only normal amongst greengrocers).  Furthermore, for utilitarians like me, that apostrophe has to stand for something: for the omission of specific letters, and the most likely candidate is a missing ee, so we’re back to “does”.

The basic problem here is the pronunciation.  We don’t say “do” with the oh sound that terminates potato, we say it with the oo of boo.  We have no problem with boos (although that makes us sound very unpopular), and, by sound, the plural of “do” should be “doos”.  (Incidentally, I once worked with a lady from the Isle of Wight who pronounced the third person form of the verb “to do” as “doos”.  She even managed to get the words “haves” and “doos” into a single sentence: “She haves the day off sick and then doos overtime.”)

This, I am convinced, is a case where there is no right answer (other than the impossible dream of respelling the whole of the English lexicon phonetically).

Boozy do.You can have a rum do and you can have a posh do.  You might even have rum at a posh do.

A Matter of Life and Death (and Steam)

Val McDermid, doyenne  of Scottish crime writing, recently did a broadcast talk entitled “Murder is not the point”.   (It’s one of the Radio 4 “Point of View” series, currently available here. )  Her thesis is that murder is a hook to engage the reader, but the writing can take any direction the writer wants to take – which might reflect on history, geography, society, or any other field that preoccupies the writer.   “Murder,” as McDermid put it, “is just a carnival barker’s pitch to get you inside the tent”.

Lazy Bee Scripts publishes murder mysteries of the interactive sort.   These have evolved from whodunnit novels, cited by McDermid as the font of crime fiction, in which the reader tries to solve the author’s puzzle.   In the stage version, the detective work is done by the audience.  Since there is a limited time for the audience to absorb background material, interactive murder mysteries tend towards the light entertainment end of the crime spectrum, rather than McDermid’s high-minded approach (using the murder in the foreground as a means of exploring the background).  Nevertheless, there is still scope for the author to lead the audience down a chosen path.

Rocket The Steampunk Bee (detail)In Abram Skinner, I’ve used a murder mystery as a vehicle for exploring a small corner of the Steampunk multiverse.  Steampunk might be thought of as a fantasy genre, but I don’t think that helps very much.  (The term Fantasy tends to be used disparagingly to indicate something beneath the dignity of the serious reader, but I take the view that all fiction is fantasy, since it is the creation of the imagination of the author.  Whether it is highbrow literature or not should depend on the content, not the container.)  In this case, the imagination starts with a counterfactual history question: what if oil had not become dominant?  The answer assumes the absence of the internal combustion engine and plastic materials and creates an extension of the age of steam with Victorian fashions overlaid with mechanical gadgetry – as exhibited here by the Cottonopolis Coglective (the Manchester Steampunks) along with Rocket the Steampunk Bee (designed by Evelyn Sinclair).Cottonopolis Coglective

It’s the strength of this visual aesthetic that I wanted to bring to the stage, but there’s a pitfall waiting for every Steampunk writer (probably inherent in counterfactual history): the desire to explain everything.  Everything, in this case, is not only the way technology has evolved, but also politics and commerce.  The risk is that the background overwhelms the story – and it was the story that brought the audience into the tent.  That’s why I settled on a whodunnit as a vehicle for bringing Steampunk to the stage.  It has the trappings of the classic country house mystery (albeit without the house).   All the suspects are confined to one place, so the focus is on them and the writer is prevented from exploring the whole of the outside world.  The sociology of the age is implicit in the nature of the characters and the audience can get on with admiring the costumes, absorbing the plot and pointing to the murderer.  (And if they go away ruminating on the role of the professional assassin in buccaneer capitalism, then I honestly won’t mind.)

Is this a play or a novel?

A novel gives a writer the illusion of control.  By describing in the most minute detail, the novelist seeks to fix characters immutably.
Plays are different.  Plays are a collaborative process.  The writer creates, but someone else brings the work to the stage.  As Damian Trasler put it (in a frustrated tweet):-

This does not mean that the director and actors should change the script, but they, not the author, have the responsibility for bringing it to life.  At a simple level, the writer may have a very specific vision of the actors who should play the characters, but those actors may not be available.  (There are exceptions.  When contemplating the first production of The Real Inspector Hound, Tom Stoppard was asked how he saw the roles of the central characters.  He described Birdboot as a Ronnie Barker and Moon as a Richard Briers.  Director Robert Chetwyn managed to cast Ronnie Barker as Birdboot and Richard Briers as Moon.  However, as far as I know, they were not available for all the subsequent productions.)

So, as a writer, how do you know that you are usurping the job of actor and director?  The biggest clue is the over-use of stage directions.  If a direction is necessary to make the plot work (telling someone that they need to be on stage, for example), then that’s fine.  On the other hand, if you repeatedly describe facial expressions or tone of speech, then close down your script file and write your novel; that’s clearly what you want to do.  I’m not saying never do it (sarcasm, for example, is not always obvious) in written dialogue, but if you keep describing tone and expression, you’re stifling the actor.  Furthermore (whisper this quietly), sometimes the actor will find something that the author didn’t realise was there.
Similarly, if the writer stuffs a script with pauses, beats or ellipses, it becomes unreadable.  The writer’s effort to show the rhythm of the speech gets in the way of the actors need to find that rhythm.  (If it is essential to you to dictate the cadence of every speech, then turn your script into a poetic monologue and perform it yourself!)  Of course there’s a time and a place for pauses.  There are the pauses that indicate where the gaps are in a one-sided phone conversation, and there are the long, significant pauses that make the audience uncomfortable.  In general, however, it’s far better for the writer to concentrate on punctuating the sentences and let the actor find a rhythm to suit the character.

Oh, by the way, that novelist’s illusion of control: it’s an illusion.  No matter what you put on the page, a different image will be created in the head of every reader.

Making A Scene

American play scripts tend to have a scene-setting direction before the start of the play, then the play starts with an “at rise” direction.  Whilst I often dislike the way this looks, I think the structure is hugely useful.  Let break this down.

Setting the Scene

A scene heading should indicate a change of time or place.  (There may be exceptions to this: in abstract theatre, with little or no set, where the action changes in time and space without any formal indication, arguably, you don’t need scene headings.  On the other hand, where there are separate blocks of dialogue it may be useful to break the text up into scenes. However the latter is for the purpose of rehearsal and is usually the director’s job rather than the author’s.)  So in normal circumstances, it can be useful to state the distinguishing feature of the scene (the time or place that has changed) in the scene heading.  So:-

Scene 1 – Monday Morning
Scene 2 – Monday Afternoon
Scene 3 – Twenty Minutes Later

All those happen in the same place, so (unless a later scene happens somewhere else), the location doesn’t distinguish one scene from another and there’s no need to put it in the heading.
Hang on a minute!  Where’s this play set?  And, come to that, when?  It’s all very well saying that it’s Monday Morning; I don’t want to wade though three pages of puzzling dialogue before I discover it’s 1744.  The readers needs that information; it’s not in the scene headings, so where do they find it?  This is where the scene-setting direction comes in.  One or more scene-setting directions should follow every scene heading.

A Time and A Place for Everything

The opening of the first scene-setting direction should tell the reader about geography and date.  The geography may be very specific (“a one-room apartment in Brooklyn”) or, if the country and city don’t matter, just the outline description of the setting (“a castle dungeon”).  The date can be vague (“the 1920s” or “the present day”) or specific (“June 6, 1944”).
The reason for my preference for this in a scene-setting direction, rather than (as in many American scripts) before any scene headings is that if the location or time changes, this can be described in a scene-setting direction for the specific scene).  Note, however, that you only need information at this level if and when it changes – so if all scenes are in that one-room apartment, you only need the information once.

Everything In Its Place

The stage is set.The next level of detail is a (brief) description of the set.  What does the reader (the director, the actors) need to know? What are the essential features of the set?  How many exits are there? Where are they? What and where is the essential furniture?
(There is an argument to be made here for including essential properties, particularly those that are at the boundary between set and props and tend to stay in the same place.  It is better to learn that there is a land-line telephone on Marjorie’s desk before it rings.)
Again, this level of detail is stated once and remains in place until there is a change of set.

Getting A Rise

Finally, the ‘At Rise’ direction says what happens when the curtain (or lights) go up.  Who is on stage?  What are they doing?
If the next scene uses the same set, then the opening direction merely needs to say what has changed between scenes (which should just involve characters and props: “Gerald is alone, seated on the chaise longue, reading a newspaper”).

And now you’re ready to make a scene.

The Headline Act

Recently, someone was asking how to start writing a script.  I think they were looking for process advice, but I’m going to stick with the facetious: start with Act 1, Scene 1.
The reason I want to say that is to point out that it ain’t necessarily so.  Acts and Scenes are hierarchical.  The only point in act and scene headings is to distinguish them from others of the same type.  Consequently:-

  • If you’re writing a one-act play (one-act in terms of formatting, rather than terms of dramatic structure), then you don’t need the Act 1 heading.
  • If your play has two acts, but only a single scene in each act (no changes of time or place within the acts), then you don’t need scene headings
  • If Act 1 has multiple scenes, it needs scene headings.  However, if Act 2 of the same play has only one scene, it does not need scene headings.
  • If your play is a single scene, then you don’t need a Scene heading, because Scene 1 is only relevant if you need to distinguish it from Scene 2.

The last point may look slightly odd. Does the play just start without any headings?  Possibly.  However, when Lazy Bee Scripts publishes single-scene plays, we will often restate the title before the opening scene-setting direction.

Ready to open the curtains