Category Archives: Methods

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.

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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.

 

Channelling John Lennon

There’s a common question to writers: where do you get your ideas?

Mr Kite PosterIn January 1967, John Lennon bought a 19th century circus poster from an antique shop in Sevenoaks.  Later, the content framed on Lennon’s wall became Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite.  A few words – even a fact or two – were changed for purposes of rhyme and scansion, but basically, on the Sgt Pepper album, the Beatles sang the poster.

It’s an example of a particular process of inspiration that starts from a definite point – in this case, the written word.  At its simplest, this is “found art” – taking something out of its original context and inviting the audience to think about it in a different way.

Roger McGough did this some time ago with a newspaper headline reading “Conservative government unemployment figures”.  He turned it into

Conservative Government.
Unemployment?
Figures.

Two full stops and a question mark and the meaning has changed from the headline of a factual report into a political comment.
Inspiration is rarely gifted so easily – or perhaps the inspiration is there but the art needs more work.  Jonathan Edgington’s eye fell upon an advertisement in the free paper Metro.  It’s a modern phenomenon.  British people don’t talk to strangers on trains, but seem quite happy to make a public announcement indicating their desire to do so.  By itself, the ad is incomplete: what happened next?  The only way for Jonathan to find out was to write it himself, in the play of The Slim Blonde Beauty.The Slim Blonde Beauty

 

What did you say, Mr Bamber?

Writing plays using speech recognition software ought to be even more difficult than writing novels that way.   In this guest post, playwright Geoff Bamber explains how he does it…
Geoff Bamber
Geoff Bamber keeping quiet.

I’d like to say that my use of voice recognition software was due my being my being up-to-speed/ahead of the curve and indeed technologically savvy but no – it was and, to an extent, still is mainly down to pure laziness.

Back in the days when I thought I was a novelist, the notion of typing out a hundred thousand words or more with two slow fingers on a keyboard attached to a steam-driven computer was a bit daunting.  As I never found stream-of-consciousness babble a problem, the idea of not having to physically write it all down was very appealing.  Short of morphing into Barbara Cartland, employing a secretary and dictating to her/him from a reclining position on a chaise longue in a room that looked like the inside of a marshmallow, voice-to-text was as good as it got.

I was enticed to start with IBM Via Voice.  If I remember correctly, the publicity material showed a sharp executive leaning back his chair with his feet up on his desk dictating a business letter which he would not need to check or proof read at all before it was fit to send.  As these were the days when people still sent letters with stamps on them he would probably have to sign it himself but the general tone of the marketing was that the communication would climb into an envelope of its own accord and that was the last he would see of it, thus allowing him to take the afternoon off for a round of golf.

Unfortunately real life isn’t like that.  The software had to be ‘trained’ to be better able to recognise the speaker’s intonation though a heavy regional accent would always be a problem.  Thus my first requirement was to tone down my northern vowels (best achieved by taking the flat cap off and making sure the whippet was in the other room) and speaking slowly in standard English.

I must say my early experiences were not particularly successful but the software has got better and so have I.  I have used two or three other programmes over the years – currently Dragon Naturally Speaking.  Like the original ViaVoice, it does ‘learn’ to follow my dictation but is by no means foolproof.  It seems happier with American pronunciation and thus has trouble with seemingly simple words like ‘ladder’ and ‘daughter’.

There is a tendency to over-compensate to the point where I speak unnaturally slowly and without any expression and end up sounding like Stephen Hawking’s voice synthesiser.  In actual fact ‘normal’ speech certainly fares no worse. Even so when writing scripts, my first draft is always written on paper with a fountain pen(!) before being dictated into the software.  I only normally dictate actual dialogue.  The speaker and any stage directions are typed in by hand afterwards while the various faux pas of the voice recognition system are hopefully being picked out and corrected.

Dictating straight from imagination to screen leaves me dangerously open to reading the material afterwards and having no idea what I said as the software has concocted something that doesn’t make any sense at all.  Things tend to go haywire when I speak too quickly and when the microphone is too far away to pick up dictation clearly.  (I use a call centre-style headset.)

A good typist may well probably not find the process any quicker than typing the whole script in manually but it’s a lot less wear and tear on ageing fingers, shoulders and neck and a similarly ageing keyboard.

Over the years my typing speed has got faster but not a lot more accurate.  For me voice recognition, even with me speaking slowly, sets out text at twice the speed that I can type and makes fewer errors.  At ‘normal’ speed (i.e. how the actors might be expected to deliver the lines) the time can be halved again with only a slightly higher error count.

The major drawback is being interrupted in mid-flow, either by the dog barking, other members of the family coming into the room or me answering the phone while neglecting to switch the mike off.

I would point out that my software programme, though I am quite happy with it, is from the cheaper end of the market and that more sophisticated and presumably more accurate versions are available.

I’m even lazier now than I was when I started using voice recognition software so I’d be reluctant to abandon it and would recommend anyone to give it a try.  Just work on that Californian accent and you can’t go wrong.

[The results, in the form of Geoff’s plays, can be explored here.]

Posters and Poofreading

Borshtch 'n' TearsThe point of a poster is to grab your attention, make you think you want more and (implicitly or explicitly) tell you where to get it.  Usually, that means a vivid image.  Most posters are glimpsed, rather than studied, so the written information should be kept to a minimum.  Most, but not all.  When I was mis-spending part of my youth in London, there was a poster on the wall of South Kensington tube station, opposite the Piccadilly Line platform that was almost entirely filled with text in a legible but small font.  The publicist had realised that, having hurried down the escalators and through the tunnels, the passengers would have an average of three minutes waiting on the platform, with nothing to do but stare.  The poster, from Borshtch ‘n’ Tears gave them something entertaining to stare at.  Borshtch ‘n’ Tears was (and still is) a Russian restaurant in Beauchamp Place, Knightsbridge – within walking distance of South Kensington underground.  The poster, whilst saying something about the cuisine, used jokes and puns to keep you reading – for example, crediting the proprietor with lifting the Rouble out of trouble.  On one line, there was a handwritten editorial correction, with a note “our poof reader is on holiday”.

I am given to using this joke from time to time, but I’ve found that it needs a gloss to point out that it is a joke, otherwise it is seen to be an example of Muphry’s Law.  Muphry’s Law (courtesy of David Marsh, author of For Who the Bell Tolls: One Man’s Quest for Grammatical Perfection) is the editorial application of the better-known Murphy’s Law, and says that “Anything criticising editing or proofreading will contain an error of some kind.”

Proofreading is a difficult process; the human brain is very tolerant of errors, so we read what we expect to read.  More so if we’ve written it.  It’s also a recursive process; you can read a piece and correct the errors you find, and then, on re-reading, find more errors.  Currently, in addition to the author’s process, we have three levels of error-trapping in our publishing process.  Even then, it’s not perfect.  Imagine that we have a 90% success rate in finding errors.  (I don’t know what the actual figure is, since it’s very difficult to count the errors we don’t find.)  So, if there are 100 errors in the piece, on our first approach we’ll find nine out of every ten – so we’ll leave ten behind.  On our second pass, we’ll pick nine of the remaining ten, leaving one which (90% of the time) we’ll get on the third pass.  Result: perfection.  However, if there are 1000 errors at the start, we’ll get 900 the first time through, 90 the second then after that third pass, we’ll find nine errors and leave one behind.

The message here is that the more errors there are in a manuscript when it reaches the publisher, the more likely it is that some will persist in the final version.  Clearly the author has the major part to play in getting the text right at the start, but, as I’ve said, it isn’t easy.  One of the best strategies we’ve found is for the author to get a group together to read the script out-loud, specifically with the intention of finding the errors.  The more people there are involved, the better chance there is that someone will stumble over the errors.  There is a further advantage that even if you don’t find any errors, it’s fun!  Remember, you can never have too much poofreading.

Was Solzhenitsyn a Synesthete?

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn - source Wikimedia CommonsDifferent writers have different methods of working – methods they employ to shape their work.  Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn used different coloured pens.  He wasn’t doing this to reflect which character he was talking about, but to convey the mood of each sentence.  Different moods got different colours.  This method seems completely alien to me, I can’t imagine it being useful to my writing, but it meant something to Solzhenitsyn.  That’s why I wonder if he was a synesthete.  Synesthesia is a crossover between senses.  Different synesthetes experience it in different ways.  Some see numbers, letters or words as having particular colours – and for one person, one number will always have the same colour – others experience words as tastes.  I wonder if Solzhenitsyn had a mild form and experienced emotions as colours and felt the need to express the feeling in his writing.

This sort of method would not help me at all, but as a writer, you have to do the things that help you to write.  (This can include habits – where you write, when you write, how you sit – it can include the tools you use, from HB pencils to computer programmes and, as in Solzhenitsyn’s case, your practices whilst thinking and writing.)  In all probability, your method will not be visible to your readers; you do it for yourself.  Solzhenitsyn’s method did nothing for his readers directly, but he thought it helped him writing, and who am I to argue?  He won the Nobel Prize for literature, so if adopting particular methods helps you to write, by all means adopt them.  However, do it for yourself, not for your readers.  When you next take down your well-thumbed copy of One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich from your book shelves, you will notice that although Solzhenitsyn wrote his stories with multiple colours of ink, his publisher only printed them in black type.