Category Archives: Writing

Musings about the writing process

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.)

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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

Is The Mouse A Creature of Great Personal Valour?

(And did Benjamin Britten talk like Terry Thomas?)

This week I listened to the episode of In Our Time (BBC Radio 4) about parasitism.  As usual, Melvyn Bragg’s guests included his go-to geneticist, Professor Steve Jones.  Jones the Genes is always good value.  Good value for his erudition, but also for his characteristic aphorisms.  This time the Jonesisms included “Words like ‘positive’ and ‘good’ don’t belong in biology” and “We owe our sex lives to our parasites.”

The programme reminded me about Toxoplasma (which I’d first come across in The Selfish Gene).   It’s one of the sort of parasite that has a lifecycle that takes it through multiple hosts, in this case, rodents and cats.  It needs both stages to complete its lifecycle.  To facilitate this, the parasite has evolved to modify the behaviour of rodents.  Normally rodents avoid cats (and avoid the smell of cats), but when infected with Toxoplasma, a mouse will become careless or even attracted to cats by their smell, thus increasing the risk of predation.  Jones stated that up to a third of the human population is also infected with Toxoplasma, even though that is of no benefit to the lifecycle of the parasite.  Apparently it has an impact on (“causes” may be too strong) mental conditions such as schizophrenia and depression.

christopher_smartThat got me thinking about Christopher Smart.  I hope that when you read the title of this post, you remembered Betteridge’s Law.  That’s the one that runs “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.”  However, the 18th century poet and writer Christopher Smart would have answered “yes”.

I have encountered Smart through singing – attempting to sing – Benjamin Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb which uses extracts from Smart’s poem Jubilate Agno as its libretto.  Smart was an involuntary inmate of an asylum when he wrote it, and when you read it, you can see why.  It is, at heart, a religious poem, but it wanders from its path, partly, it seems to me, playfully, and partly rambling bizarrely.
It starts with a general purpose:

Rejoice in God, O ye Tongues; give the glory to the Lord, and the Lamb.
Nations, and languages, and every Creature, in which is the breath of Life.
Let man and beast appear before him, and magnify his name together.

It then goes on to name pairs of biblical men and beasts, generally by association with their biblical tales, so we get (amongst many, and with Smart’s capitalisation)

Let Abraham present a Ram, and worship the God of his Redemption.
Let Balaam appear with an Ass, and bless the Lord his people and his creatures for a reward eternal.

(Balaam, you will recall, appears in the book of Numbers having a conversation with his ass.)

Let Daniel come forth with a Lion, and praise God with all his might through faith in Christ Jesus.

Ascribing faith in Christ Jesus to Daniel seems odd, being 600 years too early.  (There is also an oddity with Britten’s score at that point: he sets the word “lion” against a single note, whereas most of us would pronounce it with two syllables.  It can, of course, be pronounced as a single syllable, but only if one affects a voice like that of Terry Thomas.)

Later, Smart gets on to words and sounds.

For the relations of words are in pairs first.
For the relations of words are sometimes in oppositions.
For the relations of words are according to their distances from the pair.
For there be twelve cardinal virtues the gifts of the twelve sons of Jacob.
For Reuben is Great. God be gracious to Lord Falmouth.
For Simeon is Valiant. God be gracious to the Duke of Somerset.

And so on, pairing the sons of Jacob with English nobility for no apparent reason.  Then he has a paean of praise for his cat Jeoffry.  Having thought of the cat, he rambles on to mice:

For the Mouse is a creature of great personal valour.
For — this is a true case — Cat takes female mouse from the company of male — male mouse will not depart, but stands threatning and daring.
For this is as much as to challenge, if you will let her go, I will engage you, as prodigious a creature as you are.
For the Mouse is of an hospitable disposition.

Hang on a minute!  I doubt that Burns’ “Wee, sleekit, cowran, tim’rous beastie” is a creature of great personal valour, but Smart emphasises “this is a true case”.
I don’t doubt his observation, but that’s not normal mouse behaviour.  That’s a description of a mouse with a Toxoplasma infection.  (Which makes me speculate about the ultimate cause of Smart’s incarceration.)

That which we call a rose, by any other name…

This is a tip for authors.  Specifically it’s for playwrights, but it might be applied (with caution) to other fields of writing.

Our editors and proof readers keep finding inconsistencies in character names.  It’s not just an issue for first-time writers; we see this from experienced writers as well.  There are, of course, some identifiable causes.  During the writing process, names may change over time.  A character may have an official name, but (legitimately) be addressed by other characters using a nickname or diminutive.  A name may, in the wild, have multiple spellings; the writer may use several variations in the course of a script.  Misspellings of names are not necessarily caught by a spell checker.  The result is that speeches for the same character get assigned to multiple names.  Whilst a decent proof reader or editor will catch most of them, they may not catch them all, and, in any case, they should not have to.  It is the writer’s job to decide who they are writing about, to choose a character name, and stick to it.  (It’s the writer’s choice; a writer in two minds should not force the editor to arbitrate.)

So, what can a writer do to check a finished text for name consistency?
This tip assumes that you are using Microsoft Word.  (I’ve created the examples using Word 2007.  Other versions of Word will behave similarly.)  Other wordprocessors will do similar things, but you’ll need to find the controls for yourself.  (It also assumes that you’ve written a play!  If you work in another genre, you’ll need to decide how to apply this.)

Overview

What we’re going to do is to find every instance of every character name that should be in the play and we’re going to colour it red.  Any name that is left (in a speech assignment or direction) that isn’t in red is likely to be a mistake of some sort (either a mistake in the character name or a character missing from the character list.)

Find and Replace Basics

Open your script in Word and go to the Characters’ page – the one with the list of character names.
Open the Find and Replace window (hereafter, with Microsoft spelling, called a Dialog).  The keyboard shortcut to do this is Ctrl H.  It will probably look like this.

findandreplacedialog
Expand the dialog by clicking on the [More >>] button.  That will get you to the options we’re going to use.

Find the Lady

In our example, we’re going to find Cinderella.  So we type Cinderella into the Find box.

I’ve also checked the “Match case” box.  In some cases, this may help.  (Firstly it may help you identify character names with case errors.  Secondly, if you have a name that is also a common word or part of a common word, it avoids most instances – for example the syllable “King” may be a character name or may be part of “thinking”.)

findcinderella

The Lady in Red

Now we’re going to replace Cinderella with Cinderella – but we’re going to format the text so that it appears in red.

replacedarkred
With your cursor in the “Replace with” box, you can change the replace formatting by (obviously) clicking on the [Format] button and, from there, select “Font…”

Another dialog pops up, in which you can set the font colour.  (Although of course the dialog wants you to set the font color.)

replacefont

I happen to have chosen Dark Red.  Chose something that stands out for you – and a colour that you haven’t used for any other purpose.  (And what other purpose would you have for coloured text?)
Click [Okay] to return to the main dialog.
Click on [Replace All] and all your Cinderellas will blush dark red.

Rinse and Repeat

Follow the above steps for all the characters named in your character list.
When you’ve done that, you are ready to look at the text.  What you should see, is red text at the start of every line of speech (and everywhere else a character name is mentioned).  However, what you may see is something like this…

misplacedcinders
What stands out there is a different name for the same character.  Correct it!  Check the whole script, correcting as you go.

Clean up

Finally, when you’ve checked and corrected, go back to the Find and Replace dialog.  This time in the “Find what“ box,  clear all the text but set the Find [Format] to find the font colour Dark Red (or whatever you used.)

In the “Replace with” box, clear the text and set the replace font colour to “Auto” (usually another word for Black, assuming that Black is your default font colour).

replaceauto
[Replace All], and you will have cleaned up all the ruddy text.

Apostroplexy

McMillan & Goss
The Bard of Barnsley & Luke Carver-Goss

I’ve recently (and accidentally) been exposed to some differing views on apostrophes.
I went to see a performance by Ian McMillan (poet and host of The Verb), appearing with the excellent musician Luke Carver-Goss.  They did a piece called Apostrophe Amnesty Day.  McMillan’s point was that, for the most part, punctuation is artificial and doesn’t matter much.  (Nobody articulates punctuation marks, therefore they are a feature of the way we choose to transcribe the language.)  McMillan argues that those of us who criticise greengrocers for their failing’s (sic) in advertising their cabbage’s (sic) are just wasting our time (and sneering for the sake of our own aggrandisement, rather than for the benefit of greengrocers’ customers).
A piece in German from Nicholas Richards reminded me that the German language doesn’t use apostrophes for possessives.  I then got into a social discussion with an retired teacher who expected apostrophes to become the norm for plurals as well as possessives.  He laid the blame on the influence of Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy for being the start of a fashion in education that encouraged expression over precision, rewarding creativity and not pouncing on every mistake.  (I’m not sure that this is a fair representation of Hoggart’s legacy).

So if apostrophes can be used everywhere, don’t they become meaningless?  If German can do without them (for possessives), can’t we?

Many features of punctuation came from printing conventions.  Take the use of the capital letter I for the personal pronoun; that only arose as an attempt by printers to give the word due weight.  Compare it with the its Western European piers: je, ich, ik, io, yo and jeg do not take capitals.  Then look at the word shan’t.  It’s an abbreviation of shall not.  If the absent vowel deserves an apostrophe, why isn’t there one for the double ell?

The conventions are artificial, so for the most part, I’m with McMillan in believing that content (meaning) takes precedence over punctuation.  However, they are also a matter of established custom and practice, and I’m a publisher.  I’m prepared to shrug at unconventional usage when writing is there to lead to another subject (cabbages, for example).  On the other hand, when writing is the deliverable, clarity matters; sloppy punctuation distracts the reader and gets in the way of  the meaning.  That’s why I see occasional rants about apostrophe abuse from the likes of Damian and Dawn.  Don’t expect any leniency from proof readers.