Category Archives: Publishing

All the bits between writing and sales.

What’s Hot – A Heatwave for the Stage

I have mentioned before that I don’t like lists.  Consequently, until now, I have resisted calls for a Best Sellers list on the Lazy Bee Scripts web site.  There are various reasons for this.  For a start, one size doesn’t fit all; just because something is popular, it doesn’t mean that it will suit your performers or audience.  Secondly, such a list is unfair to the scripts (and authors) that don’t feature on it, since it will tend to be self-perpetuating.  Thirdly, it’s unfair to new scripts which haven’t had time to become popular.  However, I think the principal cause of my resistance was summed up by John Betjeman in The arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel:

Approval of what is approved of is as false as a well-kept vow.

I want everyone to think for themselves and decide on their own tastes and priorities, rather than liking what everybody else likes.

Until now.

We’ve got over 2700 scripts and 60 murder mysteries on our books.  I’m convinced we’re way beyond the point where everyone has the patience to find for themselves material that will fit their needs.  Consequently, we’re introducing more signposts – easy shortcuts to suitable material.  We’ve had “What’s New” listings for a long time.  Recently, we introduced the “Find A Few” search to supplement our full search engine, and now we’ve added a “What’s Hot” list.

Best Sellers

People looking for Best Sellers also liked…

Actually, the “What’s Hot” is multiple lists, because there’s no point in enthusing about a popular two-hour drama to someone who wants a best-selling five minute comedy sketch.  Of course, this brings additional problems: should the categories be distinct, or should a best-selling one-act pantomime for schools appear in three categories? We’ve gone for distinct categories (accepting the risk of confusion because our general categories have fuzzier boundaries):-

This being a human endeavour, the results are imperfect.  For example, the most popular Youth Theatre plays tend to be for ages 8 to 12 (because there aren’t so many plays for younger children, and older children perform a mix of plays written for their age-group and plays written for adults).  Consequently, only two plays suitable for under-fives show up in the best selling youth theatre category, but (because it’s a musical) one shows up in the musicals category.  Ah well.

We hope that will make selection a faster and more rewarding experience for many of our customers.  I also hope that many others will ignore “What’s Hot” and strike a blow for independent thinking by searching and browsing in other ways!

The Font of All Knowledge

Amongst many other things, Lazy Bee Scripts publishes plays intended for performance by young children.  Young in this case can be taken as meaning relatively new to reading and writing.  As a result, I am perpetually niggled by the issue of readability.

Actually, this is a specific case of a general issue: what constitutes a readable font?  Whenever I dip into the academic literature on this subject I get two contradictory answers.  The first answer is that seriffed fonts (those with tiny lines decorating the tips of the strokes of a letter), Times Roman, for example, are more readable because the serifs help to define and distinguish the letters.  The second answer is “the plainer the better”, so sans serif fonts are easier to read because they are less fussy.  To date, Lazy Bee Scripts has gone with the former verdict, however I am unhappy about this for scripts aimed at the early years of the education system.

The reason for my discomfort stems from the start of the alphabet.  Look at the lower-case letter A in Times New Roman, then compare it to the way the letter is taught for handwriting.avsa5 The printing font – in this case Times New Roman – has a curl going back over the top of the letter.  (David Lovesy, who, when he is not writing or performing comedy sketches, works in the art and design field, tells me that this ornament is called a terminal.  He also tells me that this information is useless, unless it happens to come up in a pub quiz.)  This is not taught as part of the (early years) writing process, not least because it is unnecessary for distinguishing the letter.

Now, you may think that this feature of the lower case A is part of a seriffed font.  Not so.  Take a look at the common sans serif fonts – Arial for example – and you’ll find that the vast majority have the terminal.  (Irritatingly, many fonts, including Times New Roman, lose the terminal for their Italic versions.)

This came to a head for me whilst I was working on I’ll See You In My Dreams.  Michal Y Noah’s book for young children has been adapted into a play (to which I contributed the songs).  So I embarked (not for the first time) on a hunt for a better font for early readers.  You might think that there are a lot of fonts available with the schoolbook a – and so there are, but most of them have other problems.  There are two issues: all letters need to be distinct (low confusability), and the font needs to look professional. The vast majority fail at the first hurdle:-ivsl2 (For adult readers, the similarity between those two glyphs doesn’t matter, because we will interpret them according to context.  For young children, this is an unnecessary complication.)  The obvious contender that passes the confusability test is Comic Sans, but it doesn’t look professional.  (In defence of Comic Sans, it was never intended to look professional; it was created by Vincent Connare to look like the font used in the handwritten speech bubbles in comic books. It fulfils its purpose, but it wouldn’t look great in a newspaper, a business report or a play script.)

In the end, I settled on two fonts: Primer Print (from Typodermic Fonts), which works for body text, but (in my view) not so well as a title font, and Fibel Vienna (by Peter Wiegel), which is better for headlines, but (I think) has the wrong aspect ratio for body text.  I have provided an example here (pdf), showing what the same text looks like in Times New Roman and in Primer Print.  I’ve implemented this approach for I’ll See You In My Dreams, and if the general view is favourable, we’ll apply it to other scripts for children.

If you have experience of, or strong opinions about this issue, feel free to leave a comment below.

Medalling with English

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean –  neither more nor less.”

Lewis Carol, Through the Looking Glass

Historian, internationalist and writer Séan Lang recently took to twitter condemning a specific aspect of Olympic Games commentary:-
SeanRetweet

I agree with Séan that this is deplorable usage.  There is no need to turn the noun medal into a verb when perfectly good alternatives are available.  (In my view it also puts the emphasis in the wrong place.  The athlete’s objective is to win the race; the medal is a recognition of success, not, in itself, the purpose.)  Furthermore, in this case it sounds like another verb; when the Russian Athletics Federation meddled in the 2012 games, they were doing something entirely less honourable.

Where I depart from Séan is the statement “medal is not a verb”.  English is not a prescribed language.  We do not have the equivalent of l’Académie française to say what is and what is not proper usage.  Our dictionaries are compiled on the basis of the way the language is used (and has been used), not on the way it should be used.  Thus Peter John Cooper joined the argument, quoting the Oxford English Dictionary:

Medal (verb trans) To decorate or honour with a medal. 1822. “Irving went home medalled by the King” Thackeray.

Séan disagreed with the suggestion that this gave the permission of precedent for medal to be used as a verb.  He pointed out that in the OED citation it is being used adjectivally (describing Irving’s state).  All of which is to say that medal as a main verb is a recent coin; the OED points to its popularity amongst American sports commentators.  But all verbs were new once, and there is a lot of cross-over between the American and British forms of English.

I think I have a good feel for the language, and can make a reasonable guess at when and where particular words emerged, but I am often wrong; words that I think are neologisms have a long history and some I take for granted may be relatively new.  Fowler’s The King’s English (1906) has a whole section on Americanisms (which were to be avoided).  Amongst those, I was surprised to find standpoint, placate and antagonize, all of which, in spite of Fowler’s objection, seem now to be part of standard English.  One day, unfortunately, the verb form of medal may be as acceptable as the verb form of target.

This exercises me particularly because Lazy Bee Scripts edits plays for publication.  Plays deliver reported speech, so if a character is given a speech using forms that I deplore, what should I do about it?  That is the way the character is using the language to deliver a particular meaning.  The character does not know any better and, following Humpty Dumpty’s descriptivism, I should not correct it.  But does the author know any better?  Ay, there’s the rub.  One particular form that causes outrage in the Lazy Bee office is the use of “you better”.  This is becoming the dominant form.  It seems to be based on a mishearing of “you’d better”, a contraction of “you had better”.  The modern form seems to me ugly and lacking something, but what it is lacking is hard to describe.  (I think it lacks implicit conditionality, but what do I know?)  Try analysing “you had better”.  It seems to embody a grammatical case of the future looking back on the present: “your future would have been better if you had [taken a particular course of action]”.  Regardless of how that old form arose, the modern one sets my nerves on edge.  Nevertheless, we will accept it if the writer puts it into the mouth of someone who would use that form.  To do otherwise would be to render every script into grammatical sterility.  (On the other hand, give such a phrase to the wrong character and we will bat it back to the author or, in extremis, refuse publication.)

So if a word is used as a verb, then it is a verb, and I have to live with it.  (In some cases, this involves gritted teeth.)

Ceci n'est pas un verbe
Ceci n’est pas un verbe

Build your own Catalogue

Photo by @LozCreamFor several years, Lazy Bee Scripts has offered a catalogue of our stage works, downloadable from our web site as a PDF file.   The biggest problem with this was that it was permanently out-of-date.   We built it off-line, then uploaded it to the web site, and by the time we’d done the work, we’d published something else, so the catalogue was out-of-date.

So, we’ve finally bitten the bullet and done the programming necessary to generate the catalogue to order.   Now any section of the catalogue (or the whole catalogue if you don’t mind over 550 pages of PDF) can be generated at the click of a button.   As a result, it will be up-to-date at the time you click the button.   The buttons in question are on the Catalogue page of the Lazy Bee Scripts web site.   (It’s under the [Browse] menu, in case you need to find it again.)  The catalogue breaks down into many sections, so there are lots of buttons.

Good, that’s one problem solved.
The next problem is that it doesn’t necessarily do what you want it to do.   This is a general problem of catalogues: they are organised in a specific order.   (In our case, we have multiple sections, with an alphabetical listing of the scripts in each section.)  The normal way to solve this is an index.  This is fine if you are looking for one and only one thing: an index will tell you the page number on which you can find it.  However, if you are looking for a choice of things – say play scripts with a duration of 30 to 50 minutes for two women and one man – then the index would point you to pages 4.1.4, 4.3.1, 4.1.10, and so on (if, indeed a single index entry would do that).

On the Lazy Bee Scripts web site, we have a search engine that solves the indexing problem: you can enter all sorts of criteria (numbers of actors, length, style, set complexity, and so on) and it will return a list of suitable scripts.  (Those plays for two women and one man, for example.)  What’s more, it links to the text of every play, so you’re a click away from reading the script on-line.

That’s great for one person searching, but what if you have a group of people who want to choose scripts from a list?  Some time ago, we added the ability to create a reading list from search results.  The list can be shared, so multiple people can look at the contents (and add or remove scripts from the list).  So far so good, but what if members of your reading committee don’t like sifting through potential plays on-line?

Okay, we’ve done it.   We’ve added another button to the search results page.  Any time you do a search on the web site, you are invited to [Save/Print as PDF].  Click that and you can save your search results (or your reading list) as a PDF and pass around printed copies to your heart’s content.

Effectively, you can build your own fully-customised, up-to-the-minute catalogue.

 

 

* There are many reasons for creating a catalogue.  The image accompanying this blog post comes from Chichester Library where Twitter user @LozCream took the picture without any explanation.

How Long is a Piece of Theatre?

How long is...So you’ve written your play, now you want to know if it’s the right length.  At one level, that doesn’t matter: the ideal length for your play is the time it takes for you to say what you want to say.  The perfect play might last three minutes or three hours.  To someone selecting a play, however, the run time matters.  Does it fill an evening’s entertainment?  Does the length justify the effort of constructing the set?  Will it fit within the time limits allowed by a competition?  From that viewpoint, some way of estimating the length will be useful.

At this point, I have good news and bad news.  The good news is that you can make an estimate.  The bad news is that it won’t be perfect.  Firstly, some aspects of timing are outside the writer’s control: stage business, scene changes and slickness of production.  Secondly, style make a lot of difference to run time; for example, compare Samuel Beckett’s lengthy pauses to the manic pace of a Ray Cooney farce.  Estimates of stage time will be approximate. So what’s the best approximation?

Page Count

The most common way of estimating is Page Count, with the usual approximation being one minute per page.  The basic flaw in this is that it assumes that everyone uses a standard page layout.  They don’t (and, in my opinion, they should not – a play should be written in whatever format works best for the writer.  See, for example ‘Was Solzhenitsyn a Synesthete?‘).
The run time of a page of a play depends on:-

  1. The size of the paper (US Letter paper, used in North America is a different size from A4, used in most of the rest of the world).
  2. Page margins.
  3. Line spacing (single spacing? double spacing? single spacing within a speech and double spacing between speeches?).
  4. The point size of the font.
  5. The packing of the type face (monospaced fonts like Courier will occupy much more space than a highly-packed proportional font like Times New Roman).
  6. Average speech length.
  7. Style (a one-minute Beckett pause should consume a full page).
  8. All the performance issues over which the writer has no control.

Average speech length can cause major variations in estimated run time.  Compare the terse David Mamet to the long-winded George Bernard Shaw.  By my estimation, the first nine speeches of Mamet’s Duck Variations consume 23 words, whereas the first nine speeches of Shaw’s Arms and the Man weigh in at 296 words.  (In 11 point Courier1, those nine speeches of Mamet’s will occupy nine lines, but Shaw’s will occupy 31.)  Typically a page of Shaw, with ten words per line, will take much longer to read than a page of Mamet with three.

Word Count

Word Count does away with the first five factors affecting page count and most of the sixth. Just take the text from the opening scene-setting direction through to the final curtain and count all the words2.   All you need to know is that 10,000 words of script will occupy around an hour of stage time and pro rata from there – so 1000 words take six minutes3.  This is the same sort of estimate as the estimate behind Page Count, but Word Count does away with most of the variability in Page Count and will therefore, typically be more accurate with the additional advantage that it needs fewer rules.

Spurious accuracy

Just because Word Count is more accurate than Page Count, it doesn’t mean it’s perfect.  In addition to the issues of style and performance, some aspects of the writing may lead to an inaccurate estimation of duration.  Consider the following stage direction:

Carl takes a revolver from his briefcase, cleans it carefully then loads five bullets.

Word Count would say that takes five seconds, but that careful cleaning might last a minute. Then consider

Whilst Fran is talking, Carl takes a revolver from his briefcase, examines and cleans it slowly and carefully then loads five bullets, leaving one chamber empty.

Word Count allows nine seconds for this (the same action4), but actually it takes no time at all, because the time is occupied by Fran’s speech.  Directions can throw the estimate out in either direction.  (Note that this also applies to Page Count.)

On the Lazy Bee Scripts web site, we give an estimated length of each play based on Word Count.  We use the same measure throughout for consistency, and we base our category boundaries and the web site searches on that estimate.  Typically, this will mean rigid boundaries where reality is more fluid.  This is at its most problematical for one-act play competitions, where (typically) the rules require plays to run for between 20 minutes and 50 minutes, with penalties for breaking the rules.  Something that we estimate at 55 minutes may come in below the 50 minute boundary in a pacey production; a bit of creative stage business may make an 18 minute short play into a one-act festival piece.
For festival performers, the moral here is not to be too rigid with the published timings; find a piece you like, then test the length based on the way you intend to perform it.  For authors writing for festivals with time constraints, aim to give a cushion around the boundaries – but bear in mind my opening remarks about the perfect length.


Footnotes
  1. The speeches that took up 31 lines in 11 point Courier used 23 lines in Times New Roman.  Courier is a waste of space.
  2. Your word-processor will usually do the counting for you.
  3. I had been using 10,000 words per hour as a rule of thumb for several years when I came across a statistic that the typical speed of spoken English is 170 words per minute.
  4. Long-winded stage directions will distort run-time estimates.

 

Rachmaninov Surgery

Let’s have a big hand for the pianist

One of the joys of working with midi instruments and other electronic composition tools is that it is quite possible to write things that are impossible to play.  A composer or arranger can happily write chords that require a guitar to have seven strings or a pianist to have twelve fingers.
Now, if you’re writing for midi instruments, then that doesn’t matter; the range of an instrument and the arrangement of limbs are immaterial to a computer.  On the other hand, if you are writing a score that is intended to be played by a human musician, it helps enormously if the score is actually playable.

One of the commonest errors in creating a piano score is to write chords that exceed the span of the pianist’s hands.  I have fairly large hands and I would struggle to hit a chord with a span of a ninth without the risk of depressing adjacent keys.  For most pianists, an octave is a safe bet – though, of course, this depends on the pianist.  Take, for example, Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C# minor…

Whilst concert pianists like Hyung-ki Joo will find ways around the problems of Rachmaninov (and Sergei Rachmaninov himself played those chords by jumping), many pianists will struggle when confronted with passages like this.

A big hand for the pianist (part 1)There are generally two reasons why these occur.  Firstly, the composer has played the music into his computer and the computer has misinterpreted the split between the two hands.  (Usually the software works with a fixed split point – by default, usually middle C.  Everything from there upward is put into the right hand part, and all else in the left.)  Secondly, composers writing directly in the software create a chord with a particular sound, neglecting how it will be played.
In either case, the result will be the same, and the composer needs to do some editing.  The first route is always to see if notes can be switched between hands:-A big hand for the pianist (part 2)

In this case, there is still a problem with the final chord because it now exceeds the right hand’s span.  Furthermore, it can’t just be solved by knocking-out that bottom A; that would make the chord empty, with just a set of Ds and a lot of space in the middle.  A creative solution needs to be found, even if it doesn’t match the originally intended sound.  Something like:-A big hand for the pianist (part 3)

(As usual, the illustrations come from the Sibelius score-writing package, but in this case the issues are universal.)

What happens when a writer dies?

The writer - a floral tributeThis is not a spiritual question, nor is it a particularly physical one (with answers involving worms, combustion or large quantities of formaldehyde).  Nevertheless, it is a very practical matter.

Our society believes that death should not prevent writers from benefitting from the fruits of their labours.  We express this belief through copyright law which generally holds that copyright persists for 70 years after the writer’s death and that the estate of a deceased writer is entitled to any royalties that accrue during that time.  So, how is this managed?

There are two issues: who gets the royalties and how the royalties reach them.  In both cases, the writer needs to take some ante mortem action.

Where there’s a Will

A deceased writer’s royalties are part of the estate and are therefore disbursed according to the writer’s Last Will and Testament.  If the writer dies intestate, then the (residual) estate is divided amongst relatives of the deceased according to a standard formula.  (The formula varies between countries.)  Royalties are split in the same way as the rest of the estate.  (This may be simple, if everything goes to the spouse of the deceased, or it may be hideously complicated.)  So, the first piece of advice is that if your legacy is likely to be at all complex, then don’t put it off: make a Will.

By itself, a Will may not be enough.  A Will deals with the division of the deceased’s estate.  However, the literary estate may be a special case – for example, what happens if, five years after the author’s death, there’s an approach about making a film (or other derivative) of a work?  If the estate is divided amongst multiple legatees, who is entitled to make decisions about literary properties?

The solution to this is to appoint a literary executor; someone with the right and responsibility to make decisions about that part of the author’s legacy.  (Neil Gaiman is a very strong advocate of this procedure, and his on-line journal offers some very practical help.)  Even then, it may not be that simple.  That legacy lasts for 70 years; what happens if the literary executor doesn’t last that long?  If the work has a particularly long shelf life, does the writer need a literary line of succession?

Spill the beans before kicking the bucket

So you’ve appointed a literary executor?  Well done.  Now, how does he or she know what you have written and where it has been published?

In the simple, traditional literary mainstream, authors have literary agents who can be expected to know the state of play with all the writer’s works and hold copies of contracts.  But life isn’t always that simple; take playwrights (my particular cure).  Typically playwrights make direct approaches to specialist publishers rather than working through a literary agent.  Some playwrights have works with several different publishers.  Then there’s the whole business of self-publishing – which, typically, means that the writer has a contract with an on-line retailer who handles distribution of specific editions of particular works.  The literary executor needs to know about all those things.  Somehow, the writer needs to communicate to the literary executor.  It would take a pretty determined spiritualist to advocate leaving this until after death.  Somewhere, you need to leave the poor sap a complete list covering all the works and all the deals.

Who do you think you are?

Many writers use pseudonyms for some or all of their works.  From the point of view of your literary estate, your Will does not need to list your works and the names under which they are published (in the same way that it doesn’t list your bank accounts), but your executors do need to be able to trace that information.  You know that metal box where you keep all your important documents – your bank account details, investments, insurance policies and the like?  Well it would be a good idea to keep something in there about your literary works.  This could be copies of the (relevant bits of) correspondence with publishers, or it could be a simple list of title, published name and publisher.

The important thing about pseudonyms is that there should be evidence linking the pseudonym to the real name of the author.  What the author needs to do is to point the executor in the right direction.

Execution

So what does your literary executor need to do?  It’s a matter of giving instructions to the businesses that handle your works.  At their simplest, these instructions would be about where to pay the royalties.  Giving the instructions gets a bit more complicated when the executor is dealing with an on-line self-publishing retailer (because the author has an account with the on-line business, and the account needs to be changed or replaced), but the principles are exactly the same.  (I was discussing this point with Damian Trasler and he got in touch with a couple of eBook self-publishing companies to check the processes they had in place.  One of the responses included the slightly disturbing phrase “I recognize it’s inevitable for most individuals…”  This led Damian to observe that tracts of “undead” literature must be written from personal experience.)

The publisher (or eBook retailer) needs to be told that the writer has died and that the executor has been granted the right to deal with the estate.  Depending on the sums in question, the publisher may require evidence (of the death and of the executor’s rights).  This is the same as for financial institutions, and there are standard forms (death certificates and grants of probate) which will demonstrate legal proof if required.

And that’s it.  It’s a reasonably straightforward process, provided that the author has sorted out the information ahead of time.  From my (publisher’s) viewpoint, it’s much better to get an e-mail from an executor, than to have a royalty check returned with a message: “He’s no longer with us.   He didn’t leave a forwarding address, but he’s gone to one of two places.”