Tag Archives: writer

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.

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.


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.”

The Mystery of the Swiss Waiter

I sometimes give talks.  My focus is somewhere on the interface between writer and publisher; that’s the interesting part: boundaries are where the friction happens.  Unfortunately, I always seem to run out of time to talk about Raymond Chandler, and Chandler was a byword for friction with his publishers.  Probably his best-known blow to the publishing nose is the following:

“By the way, would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split, and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of bar-room vernacular, that is done with eyes wide open and the mind relaxed but attentive.  The method may not be perfect, but it is all I have.

I think that part of the reason passage gets into dictionaries of quotations is the bit about the Swiss waiter.  Whilst I have sampled a few Swiss restaurants, I must have paid insufficient attention to the speech patterns of the staff, because I cannot recall any peculiarity that links them to Chandler.  I suspect that what he was getting at was that people from multi-lingual countries* may speak sentences in one language using word order transposed from another.

Chandler was being self-deprecating in saying that the method was all he had. He knew exactly what he was doing.  What he was doing was writing dialogue in an adopted persona.  The following comes from another of his letters (to the editor of the Atlantic monthly) about an article he has written:

I should like to mention one error in this article because it is the kind of thing I can never understand. (…)  It reads: ‘and not examine the artistic result too critically’.  What I wrote was: ‘and not too critically examine the artistic result’…  It is obvious that somebody, for no reason save that he thought he was improving the style, changed the order of the words.  I confess myself completely flabbergasted by the literary attitude this expresses, the assumption on the part of some editorial hireling that he can write better than the man who sent the stuff in, that he knows more about phrase and cadence and the placing of words that he actually thinks that a clause with a strong stressed syllable at the end, which was put there because it was strong, is improved by changing the order so that the clause ends in a weak adverbial termination.

Chandler was one of the great stylists of the twentieth century.  He wrote the Philip Marlowe detective stories in the first person and, since that person was the archetypal rough diamond, the emphasis is deliberately on the strength of the phrase rather than grammatical elegance.  If he wants to split an infinitive, just stand back and admire the Chandleresque results.

Writing in the first person is to inhabit the character.  It’s what playwrights do in creating dialogue that differentiates one role from another; the speech patterns belong to the character, not to Fowler’s Modern English Usage.  Thus I wince every time an editor or proof reader reports that a script was full of bad grammar.  However, before heaping scorn on the editorial hireling, it is worth noting that most of this criticism applies not to the construction of dialogue but to the stage directions.  Whilst dialogue may well be a voyage of discovery for the actors, the directions should be beacons of clarity.

So, by all means aspire to be a stylist with your own esque, but if you want your editors to leave your dialogue unchanged, your stage directions have to be perfect.

Raymond Chandler

* The best multi-lingual waiter I ever came across was in Brussels. I was dining with a Dutch colleague and there was a French couple on the next table. The waiter addressed the French people in English, the Dutchman in French and me in Dutch in what I suspect was a deliberate equality of insult.

Writers Exposed

Gnome keyboardWhen she’s not teaching, my daughter is the University Applications Officer for her school.  That job might be distilled down to getting the candidates to think about how their applications will appear to an academic institution.  One of her exercises is to get the students to play the role of the university admissions board and to assess a set of applications to see how the applicants come over to them.  It’s the same when you go after a new job: the first impression is created by the application.

The publishing equivalent is the query letter; the first window into the soul of the writer.  Given that such things are received by members of an editorial staff, the writer would be reasonably advised to expect pedantry.  I try not to be too hard on writers – after all, we all make mistakes (as this blog will occasionally attest, I am prone to homophone errors and to grammatical mistakes caused by rearranging sentences on-the-fly), so I may well turn a blind eye to the hedge obsessives who offer us scripts about a “Privet Investigator”.  On the other hand, it seems reasonable to expect authors to make an effort to check what they have written.

So, this post contains some cautionary (and anonymous) examples, from amusing to appalling.  (The spelling errors in the quoted sections are as received; outside the quotes, they’re all mine.)

It is a psycological horror play that is very visual and is set in naturist theatre…

Naturist theatre has the advantage of a very low budget for wardrobe (although some of us would need a lot of make-up).

 “Tensions run high and fractions appear within the group,

I suggested to the writer that a number of the group might progress from fractions and become irrational; he went up considerably in my estimation when he responded by “eating some humble pi.”

 “[The script] is set in the recent present.

And the writer seems to have invented a whole new grammatical case.

A query e-mail is, to some extent, a sales pitch.

It is believed I hold great potential in the art of writing. […] They are short ten-minute plays which i’ve put under one reading due to there similarities of a specific topic, love. It can be easily viewed by my use of lyrics and syllable pentameters that I am ahead of my time.

This might be considered over-selling.  On the other hand, it is possible to go too far in the opposite direction…

I would like to send you a copy of the script I wrote a few years ago. You probably won’t like it…

If you can’t think of a better way in, just tell me about the script.

Occasionally, we get some cracking excuses:

Some of this was written on my older computer (which has a missing M key), which explains the incomprehensible words!

(I think that the above came from a writer whose work we have published.)

Then there’s a whole series where the writer seems to have a different frame of reference from the publisher…

narrated throught querky and must have different voices for each cast
the cast mime the lines in sink with narrator

I rejected this script on the grounds that I don’t believe that anyone will be able to find a stage with a large enough sink.

 “A radio play. Scene: A customer enters a gift shop, looks around but is soon looking rather bewildered.

The author and I had different experiences of what was possible on radio.

 “[The play] is entertaining and mainly comedy. It is for all ages and is Epically enjoyable.It starts off with four children and their dog (which I have people and a clever dog who are great actors and would love to play them). […] It is a cunning crime that delivers with a unexpected criminal that will leave people shocked and blown away

Amongst many other things (such as why a publisher would be concerned about the availability of actors), does the dog have an agent?  If not, how does the writer know that the dog would love to play the role?

 “Could you plaese publish this script for everyone in the world to read and put it on the internet and maybe publish it to the book shop in Diss. Please publish it and maybe act it out and send me the video of the performance.

There are some expectations that a publisher just can’t satisfy.