Category Archives: Writing

Musings about the writing process

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.)


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.

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”.)


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.

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.)


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…

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).

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


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.

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:-

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

A linguistic menu, including brussels sprouts, champagne, Cornish pasties and french windows

(A game of spot the odd one out)

Opening for a set-designer
Opening for a set-designer

One of the most frequently heard questions in the Lazy Bee Scripts office is “should this have a capital letter”?   The proof reader, usually Sue, has stumbled over a word which either has a spurious capital of an absence of an upper case lead.   Mostly, the answer is clear, but sometimes we have to scratch our heads.

The most common errors concern forms of address.   If you are speaking to your father, you address him as Dad with a capital because you are substituting for his name (Eric).   Similarly, Your Majesty takes capitals as it stands in for Liz.   On the other hand, “my dad” refers to an example of a generic type (the class of fathers), so takes lower case.

The real head-scratchers are things like the ones in the heading.   Can you spot the odd one out?   No, it is neither the windows nor the pasties.   The anomaly is champagne.

The examples all take their name from a geographical region.   The rule should be that if the item can only come from the particular area, then it is using the region as a proper noun.   That’s why Cornish pasties have the capital.  That style of pasty – the semi-circular enclosure, with a thick crimped crust on the curved part of the perimeter – is recognised as a regional delicacy.  (The thick rim is there so that miners with dirty hands could grip something whilst eating the more gastronomically interesting filling.)  The pasties with the ridge down the middle – like a small, edible Stegosaurus – are Devenish pasties, or oggies.

In the case of french windows and brussels sprouts, the items can be made or grown anywhere, so the name is an indicator of the style, rather than specific origin, and takes lower case.  The same applies to cheddar cheese (to Sue’s distress, as she grew up close to Cheddar), since the documentation of a standardised manufacturing system allowed the cheddar method to travel the world.  (If you are interested in this from a cheese-making viewpoint, rather than a purely linguistic one, then try, for example, The Somerset Rural Life Museum in Glastonbury.)  Sampling the case of champagne, we find that it really ought to be capitalised, because it comes exclusively from the Champagne region, but the word has been so long in English as a generic that it has been allowed to stay that way.

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.

  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.


Where do you go shopping?

Divided by a common language – Part 2

Dawn, from the Brighton Plot Bunnies writers’ group, took to Twitter to express her annoyance about the transition in British English that has led to “shops” becoming “stores”.  This would seem to be an American influence, since store tends to be the US preference for describing retail emporia, so I responded by blaming Kristina, who is an American member of Brighton Plot Bunnies.  The topic had actually come up in a discussion with Kristina a day or so previously when she mentioned that her sister-in-law’s car was “in the shop”.  In British English, a car would only be in a shop as the result of a serious collision with a plate glass window.

Americans use “shop” for a place where work is carried out – a workshop – whilst the English use it to mean a place where you can buy goods.  In the USA, you buy things in a store.  It is conceivable that Americans would shop in a store but store things in a shop.  In both countries, the act of going out with the intention of purchasing goods is called shopping.

I suspect that shops came first.  Think of it this way: in the days of local production, the tailor’s workshop was where he made clothes and sold them to you.  The baker made bread and cakes in his shop.  For artisans, the workshop was also the retail outlet.

Marple Bridge Co-op
My local Co-op in 1978 (long past its heyday)

Now consider the grocer.  He doesn’t make any of his goods.  Instead, he stores them on his shelves ready for the customer to walk-in and buy.  The more you go towards a ‘pile it high and sell it cheap’ model, the more logical the name store becomes: a tailor’s shop, but a clothing store.  Indeed, though shop is the more common coin in England, store has been used for over a hundred years.  From the late nineteenth century, the Co-op group referred to its retail outlets as stores.  (In the common parlance of its Manchester heartland, my grandmother always referred to the Co-op as The Stores.)

Does that mean that shop is wrong for a grocer’s premises?  Certainly not.  Take a descriptivist view of language: if your peers use shop to describe a retail outlet, then that’s the meaning of shop in your culture, and personally, I’m with Dawn in wanting to hang on to that meaning; I would be uncomfortable saying “I’m going to the store”.

Storing-up trouble – the shopping glossary

This is another of my Californian glossaries…

Building Society [English], mutually owned financial institution, originally formed to support members building or buying houses by (in effect) borrowing money from savers. Now a more general financial institution.

Charity shop [E], a shop selling second-hand goods, usually in support of a charitable cause.

Credit Union [American], mutually owned not-for-profit financial institution (see the more general meaning of Building Society)

Corner shop [E], small retail outlet, usually family owned, usually selling a wide variety of goods to a small local market.

Garage [A, E], private room built to house a car, but actually containing a freezer, three bicycles, a spare bicycle wheel, a surfboard, a Workmate bench, a collection of broken power tools, several folding chairs, a half-built rocking horse, a set of exercise weights, two tents (each with a broken pole), an unstable pile of wood and a deflated basketball.

Garage [E], a car repair workshop.

Mom and Pop Store [A], (rarely, but more sonorously, Mom and Pop Shop) a family-owned small retail business see Corner Shop

Repair Shop see garage [E].

Savings & Loan (S&L) [A], see Building Society (very much aligned to the original purpose).

Shop [A], place where goods are made or repaired.

Shop [E], place where goods may be purchased (or at least looked at avariciously).

Shopping [A,E], visiting retailers for the purpose of acquiring goods.  Performed by English people in shops, but by Americans in stores.

Shopping cart [A], wire basket mounted on independent-minded wheels.  This is used to clear space in supermarkets by crushing the ankles of the shoppers ahead of you.

Shopping trolley [E], see shopping cart.

Store [A], see shop [E].

Store [E], stock room at the back of a shop, not accessible to customers.

Take-out [A] a meal, generally hot, eaten away from the premises where it was purchased.

Take-away [E] see take-out

Thrift shop [A], see charity shop

Workshop [E] see shop [A]