Of Semi-Colons and Sandwiches

penguindictionaryAs a writer, once you get your bum on the seat, it is all too tempting to concentrate on the story, the creativity, the word count, the dreamlike moment when you go up to claim your award……Anything, anything but grammar. ‘Don’t they have a thing on Word for that?’ I am aghast, you charlatan! Not really. But you need to know enough to know whether you should ignore the grammar tool on Word and whether you know enough to turn off the bad grammar indicator all together. So this time, in the run up to more things pedagogical, I thought I would give you (and myself) a short punctuation lesson on semi-colons from the wonderful Penguin Guide to Punctuation.

It begins:  The semi-colon (;) has only one major use. It is used to join two complete sentences into a single written sentence when all of the following conditions are met:

  1. The two sentences are too closely related to be separated by a full stop;
  2. There are no connecting words which would require a comma, such as and or but;
  3. The special conditions requiring a colon are absent.

(The colon is most correctly and often used when a general statement is followed by an explanatory phrase which gives specifics. For example: Africa is facing a terrifying problem: perpetual drought.)

The semi colon, they go on to explain, must be preceded and followed by a complete sentence. The following example shows an incorrect use:

We’ve had streams of books on chaos theory; no fewer than twelve since 1988.

The use here is incorrect since the second phrase is not a complete sentence.

A correct usage (if not PC?) would be:

Women’s conversation is co-operative; men’s is competitive.

If you used the joining word, while before men’s you can use a comma instead of a  semi-colon

However (to tax your brain just a tad more), certain joining words such as however, therefore, consequently, nevertheless and meanwhile require a preceding semi-colon.

(Read all of the above three times and it will become magically clear).

The most famous correct example of the use of a semi-colon is:

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.

Healthy Lunch Box

And that brings me nicely onto sandwiches. Semi-colons can be used to sandwich sentences together. But it’s far from those kinds of sandwiches the writing mother of schoolkids will be shortly. It is the best of times and the worst of times. The kids will soon be back at school and occupied but the amount of preparation and organisation that goes into getting the kids back to school is mind-boggling, literally. Books, uniforms, bags, lunches, labels, fees, it goes on and on. This year, my third child is starting school (1 left) so the preparation time is increasing exponentially. On Sunday night there will be sandwich making and of course now there is the ham controversy.

We have been informed that pre-packed convenience ham is in no way suitable for the tender digestive systems of our little cherubs. That’s why this Sunday I will be carefully preparing a boiled ham, from which I can cut juicy, nutritious slices to sustain the bodies and brains of my angelic, diligent children as they hang on every word their teacher utters.

(That reminds me, where I grew up, it was known as a hang sanwitch and was accompanied by a bottle of black tea wrapped in a tea cloth as the turf was cut, spread and footed back in the hazy August days when heat rose off the bog and when we came home we had to examine ourselves to see if we had succumbed to the blood sucking fangs of the sciathorn (tick). If anyone knows the correct spelling of that Irish word, let me know. It’s amazing how many of the commonly used phrases and words in the country do not exist in any dictionary or in an internet entry. Fedgeock is another one (clumps of a thick, dead sedge) or perhaps it’s my spelling.)

I digress. Ham is also, of course, ‘an inexpert if showy performance’. The phrase is admittedly used more for actors than writers. It could be applied to the kind of self-conscious writing we all begin with, the overwriting, the showy phrase we’re in love with but that adds nothing to the story. In the past year, but particularly over the last few months, I have been writing one short story after another. One of the things that I have realised is that we are never too far from cliché, and there are no new stories to tell. The secret is in using the right words that may have several nuances, all of which can enhance or illuminate the story, in using the right sounds and rhythms that reflect the pace of the piece, the mood of the character, in using objects and scenery to define characters rather than just being a backdrop.  If we do all this then we give the stories layers (like a sandwich) and these layers make the story meaningful and give it greater resonance with the reader. It is no longer just a universal story, it is a specific story with vibrant characters about whom the reader now truly cares.

So remember: Make sandwiches with the content of your stories;  the best sandwiches leave out the processed ham.

Writer DNA: Blood, sweat, nails and hair


The better my writing goes, the more of myself I leave behind. That is true for the story, where the stronger the impact of the piece, the more likely it is that I have imbued it with some authentic emotion, some recognisable evidence of  common humanity, my version of it. It is also true of my surroundings. As every writer will know, a period of sustained writing, or sustained presence in the company of a story will result in the accumulation of copious debris on nearby surfaces, not least of which debris is the evidence of the writer’s own DNA.

A warning to the squeamish, what follows may not be pretty..

We begin fairly innocuously. We have a desk strewn with a pile of books. Jurgen Wolff’s  ‘Your Writing Coach’, The Penguin English Diction and The Penguin Dictionary of English Idioms, The Creative Writing Coursebook – a great book from staff at the renowned East Anglia Creative Writing MA. A Cottage Garden Day Book (empty – how can I fill in those white spaces beside the lovely pictures?). Several A4 notebooks in different colours, two of which are the repositories of my ideas at any time of the day or night and The Book of Joy, a personal journal from about 20 years ago, prose, poetry, musings on sorrow and joy, nature, connectedness, friendship and love. (Everything then!) Oh and the DK book of Insects (was trying to identify a beetle for a writer friend, after a twitter plea).

Then it begins to get grittier. Around the room we have a scattering of paperclips and paperclip necklaces (DNA chains?).  On the table are cups of old and dusty water, there are tissues,(urghh)  a crumbled Galaxy wrapping, two pairs of socks, two pairs of shoes and a pair of slippers. Remember, these are all the props that have kept me going, this is the evidence of my toil.

Finally (along with the tissues) we have the rest of the bodily evidence, the odd torn off fingernail and a carpet full of hair, because that is my vice, combing my hair through with my fingers while thinking and letting it drop to the floor. I told you it wouldn’t be pretty.

Gene Fowler has said ‘Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank piece of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.’

It’s early days but there beginning to be evidence of a creativity gene that got humans on the track of artistic expression.  With all the blood, sweat and other body parts around here, there’s plenty of writer DNA to investigate. Failing that you can always read my stories.

What evidence do you leave of your Writer DNA? Spill your dark secrets. I would love to hear your comments.

RTE Francis Mac Manus Competition 2009

This year the Frances Mac Manus Short Story competition celebrates its 25th anniversary. It is one of the foremost competitions in Ireland, both in terms of prestige and the generosity of its prizes.  Prizes of €3,000, €2,000 and €1,000 will be awarded for 1st, 2nd and 3rd winning stories. The story must be  should be within the range of 1,800 to 2,000 words. Competition is tough, as there are over 700 entries every year.

Writing a short story for radio has particular considerations, imagery has to be extremely vivid and character voices distinct.  Guest blogger Kellie Jackson (who was commissioned to write a story for BBC Radio 4) gives some great tips on Emma Darwin’s site This Itch of Writing.

The winners and all of the shortlisted stories will be broadcast on RTE Radio 1. You can listen to previously successful entrants on the RTE website.

The closing date for entries is Monday 26th October 2009. The prize will be announced in April 2010. For full details of rules and application form, see the 25th Frances McManus Short Story Competition.

Eulogy (tribute, acclamation) to my Thesaurus

I read a while back, when I was getting into writing more seriously,  that the serious writer should beware of overusing the thesaurus function on their computer. The implication was that, if you were a writer of worth, you wouldn’t need to. Well actually, maybe I’ve just backed myself into a corner and proved his point.  But his insinuation was that you should be clever enough to think of the word for yourself and that if you didn’t you would never be a writer of worth.  I don’t remember who the worthy pundit of this advice was so I may well be ignoring one of the most acclaimed writers (authors, essayists, critics) on the planet for all I know.

But you know how it is when you are writing something and you have the sense of the word, the feeling of it, coming into focus and then fading again. It’s on the tip of the tongue, that is, you can almost taste it, then you get a whiff of it and off it goes. For me, its a vague space up near my chest, nervous energy in my fingers.

So I type in the word that is nearly and I find other nearly ones. I am the battered heroine in an action movie dragging herself along the floor to get the key or the gun or whatever it is.  I keep clicking, I reach out – make that final excruciating stretch – and it’s in my grasp! (Then the villain kicks it away – only kidding!) I insert the found word and it unlocks the meaning of the whole sentence. But more than that.  Words, of course have many meanings and many associated words that form a continum of meaning. When I choose a word, all the other possible words and meanings resonate behind it, lending it greater context and significance, giving the word its own particular mood, creating layers in the story.

Yes, you worthy writers  already knew that implicitly didn’t you? And I suppose I did too. Using the thesaurus just showed me that explicitly.  Perhaps to be truly worthy you do have to have the thesaurus, the map of all words (worlds!) in your head.  Until then, I’ll keep my route planner.

Thesaurus: Dictionary, lexicon, wordbook, encyclopedia, treasury (ooh, layers), repository (mmm).

Hand sewing a hem with invisible thread

It’s one of those mindful things, isn’t it, sewing? One of those repetitive actions, that, if you are comfortable with the process and more or less left to it, you can sink right into and your thoughts gently flow through the sense of what you’re doing, the rhythm, the steady harmony.

I suppose that’s what, as a writer, you might call ‘getting into the zone’, that beautiful time when the words write themselves or seem to come from your unconscious, fully formed and gorgeous.

The moment, it’s exquisite. But it doesn’t often last. Being human and not a Zen master, deep moments are had but not held. I have, in reality been hand sewing the hem of a curtain with invisible thread for the past half hour.  I was, for a while, at one with the thread and the movement, as I may, when I go to write a novel or story, be at one with its thread and momentum also.

The invisible thread also provides me with another analogy (if laboured). It was a very long hem,  like a novel or a story where you cannot see the beginning and the end at the same time.  I moved forward with the invisible thread but at times I couldn’t clearly see how far I’d come and whether or not the stitches were well-crafted or pleasing. As it turned out, I couldn’t complete it in one go, it needs a lot more work, and as its the curtain for my children’s bedroom window I need to keep at it and get it done as soon as I can.  It would be great if someone could do it for me, but like writing, it’s down to me.

This morning I was working on new story (working title Integrity). It was one that I laboured with for quite a while, finding the ‘flow’ hard to get into. There was plenty of stopping and starting on my part, plenty staring into space, procrastination.  I was going to swap over to something else but I gave it another read through and finally, things started to click, connections were made, the thread came through the story intact  all the way to it’s satisfying conclusion.

So as in writing this (hypothetical, No!) novel or story, when that beautiful easy moment is gone, I need to pick up the needle, commit to sitting back down, hope that I can retrieve the feeling and whether I do or not just keep going with the thread as best I can, until its all done.

Why I write.

What has been wonderful in the last few days is getting feedback from my published story Bog Body. Although I’ve had a couple of stories published in magazines before, this was the first time that – thanks to modern technology – I was able to receive feedback not only from friends and acquaintances but also those in the general population that had found the link to my story.

This has been said before, but writing is a solitary occupation and the circumstances of being a stay at home mum mean that I circulate more in the private than public domain.  Having had this publication has helped me get ‘out there’ (see the use of that phrase in the Bog Body story – with its themes of constraint and stagnation).  The comments I received were wonderful, the general impression was that people could really feel themselves in the story, it resonated with them. Here are some thoughts I had jotted down recently about writing. 

‘Being a writer is like digging, turning over the soil of life and revealing, unearthing and making ready the ingredients of adventure.

Sends shivers. Done right, writing connects to the shaft of light reaching between the soul and everyday, illuminates the world with it, directs and diffuses the beam into the readers life.  

That one moment, that butterfly wing, that blink, that swallow, that turn of the head, that fall of a petal, that lift of breeze catching the hair, that tipping point, that second that everything changes. That held breath. When I write I want you to hold your breath, jump into the story, drown in it, feel something, a flicker, some resonance that reverberates in the back of your brain now and maybe later unexpectedly, fusing your experience of life with mine and humankind in general.’

At least with this story I have been assured that I may in some way have achieved this connection that is absolutely the reason I write.

Link to ‘Bog Body’ by Alison Wells  http://www.tribune.ie/arts/article/2009/aug/02/bog-body/
Interesting article by Anne Enright on her personal experience of whether or not someone can be taught to write:

Bog Body Discovered by Sunday Tribune!

Get my head above water?  Well I must have done or perhaps not… My story Bog Body – which is about being submerge and trapped among other things has been published by Ciaran Carty in The  Sunday Tribune’s New Writing section, yesterday August 2nd! 


I discovered it was to be published only a few days before while visiting family in Kerry.  Without broadband I did not venture to update my blog and have come here to discover so many of you visited yesterday! I hope to greet you again!

It is such an honour to be chosen for the New Writing section, particularly as the story is automatically shortlisted for the Hennessy Literary Awards next year.


As I said to a friend, after I found out I was like a child who suddenly remembers its Christmas Eve and finds themselves grinning and spinning with excitement.

Thanks to all of you who sent your best wishes by various technological means. Now that I am back online, normal service will resume and the site will be updated to include a blogroll  etc so I look forward to connecting with other likeminded in the near future.