Writing Tips

5 New School Year Resolutions for Writing Parents

Kids back at school

In which I muse aloud and you get to listen in.

Although it varies by a week or two across the Northern Hemisphere for many parents, children round about now are returning to school and the more rigid routines of school days, homework and earlier bedtimes will come into play. As parents we need to be more organised and lovingly firm with our kids as we ease them through the change.

Whether you are a going out to work writing parent or a stay at home one or a bit of both, it’s a good time to think about your own schedule, your priorities in terms of projects that you have to complete, client commitments and projects that capture your heart and that you want to spend time on.

An important question to ask is ‘what is actually possible?’ We can take steps to create writing time by getting up early or staying up late, by being good at using small pockets of time between chores or on commute but believe it or not, writing isn’t everything. Our resolutions need to take account of the current demands of our lives timewise, physically, emotionally, mentally. At different phases these demands will fluctuate. All out commitment to the cause of writing without consideration of your current situation cannot be a good thing. As children settle into school they may require more of our empathy and listening time, will benefit and feel less anxious by us just being around, taking a walk with them, creating space for communication. Later on in the year these demands may change.

But if we get a chance to write, we want it to be as fruitful as possible. I often struggle to feel satisfied with my achievements because I have several tasks and projects on the go and have not identified which need to come higher on the list. At the end of the session, which is never very long, I have achieved not much of anything as I flit from document to document, to my email, to Google etc. A simple thing, but sometimes I’m not really clear what I’m working on. Just writing that down and having a schedule will make a lot of difference.

Sometimes I come to write and just can’t get into it, I have no spark. This is often after a period where I have not had any down time, general pleasant relaxation, a walk, or sit down with a book or even an evening in front of the TV.  It is possible to make writing a stick that doesn’t bear fruit because you are beating yourself with it. (Ah the mixed metaphor, my favourite beast!)

So what resolutions might be good ones for the new school and writing year?

5 Resolutions for the new school and writing year

1: Write less but more fruitfully and watch more telly

2: Pick a project, set a deadline or a mini deadline and work to it

3: Think each day about your current demands/desires emotionally, mentally, physiologically, socially, for family etc and decide what is most important, what is possible and necessary.

4: Take pride and joy in what you achieve even if it is less than what you had hoped, write down what you have done, it’s easy to forget

5: Think about, interact with and support others, friends, extended family members, other writers, create a strong and positive network.

Goodwill and good effort for the most part come back. Writing and life energy can be created by taking care of our time, ourselves, each other.

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Just enough: Lorrie Moore and the power of description

Last night I started reading Lorrie Moore’s novel A Gate at the Stairs. I’m a fan of her short stories and am interested in seeing how her style pans out in a novel. Whereas I have always been an avid reader, now I can’t help but read and dissect a little as a writer, asking ‘why is this working for me’, ‘how come I’m getting into this book and liking it when another sits begun but not continued on the bedside locker’.

Apart from the opening, the character sketch and the outline of place both of which were just enough to get me settling back into my pillows, book balanced in hand, with a satisfied sigh it was the quality of the detail that struck me.

A good example of what I am talking about is the following passage:

Two slate steps led, in an odd mismatch of rock, downward to a flagstone walk, all of which, as well as the grass, wore a light dusting of snow – I laid the first footprints of the day; perhaps the front door was seldom used. Some dessicated mums were still in pots on the porch. Ice frosted the crisp heads of the flowers. Leaning against the house were a shovel and a rake, and shoved into the corner two phone books still in shrink-wrap.

We get an idea of the house, not in terms of what it looked like per se but in terms of the character’s impression of her surroundings as she approached. The shrinked wrapped directories would stand out.

She continues:

The woman of the house opened the door. She was pale and compact, no sags or pouches, linen skin tight across the bone. The hollows of her cheek were powdered darkly, as if with the pollen of a tiger lily. Her hair was cropped short and dyed the fashionable bright auburn of a ladybug. Her earrings were buttons of deepest orange, her leggings mahogany, her sweater rust-coloured and her lips maroonish brown. She looked like a highly controlled oxidation experiment.’

A Gate at the Stairs: Lorrie Moore

The description is masterful – unique and original without being overly metaphorical or jarring. The physical descriptions are not purely physical, they say something about the person’s internal landscape.

The ‘university’ of short story and flash fiction writing has taught me how vitally important it is to choose exactly the right detail, the most layered (but not overtly so) phrase to say as much as possible in few words. One of the aspects I enjoy most about editing is recognising a redundant or superfluous phrase. One sentence is always better than two. The constant pursuit of precise pithiness in writing short stories provides a good measure for what really matters in a story and the skill can be carried over to novel writing that way.

As a reader I am fan of lyrical writing but I also enjoy the sense of being carried along rather than being swallowed up in paragraphs of dense description for the sake of it. When we perceive for real we make quick assertations, processing impressions fleetingly to get a handle on our environment. Only as we spend lengths of time, perhaps even years in a place do we get a sense of slowing down, detail coagulating. So more detail could be added to a piece to signify the accumulation of years and related objects.

What we need to learn to do, by reading and by constant practise is to gain an innate sense of how much detail is ‘just enough’ for the particular situation and for the likely reader whether introducing a character, place or moving the story along. This is our judgement call as a writer. Getting it right is the mark of a fine observer, psychologist and wordsmith.

Do you write everyday and should you?

Stephen King’s book ‘On Writing‘ is a fabulous no-nonsense practical approach to being a writer and one that anyone serious about writing should own (in my humble opinion). From a previous reading I recalled that King said that he wrote everyday including Christmas Day and his birthday. On re-reading I see that he says that he told interviewers that because, when you are being interviewed you have to say something…However the nuanced truth is more interesting. When he’s really into a project, he DOES write everyday (including Christmas and his birthday). On the other hand, he says when he is not writing, he completely comes away from it and does plenty other things instead.

When we want to call ourselves writers, when we come to a point when writing is almost as vital to us as breathing, we can begin to eat, drink and sleep writing. We ponder plots and subplots, fret about wordcount, viewpoint, characterization. Sometimes we go to our writing day after day like inmates of an institution who don’t realise that they are free at any time to leave. During National Novel Writing Month in November, thousands of writers pledge to write 50,000 words. Why? friends sometimes ask Is there a prize? Is it a competition? No, we just do it, for ourselves. But producing the necessary 1667 words a day is a baptism of fire and there are days when you want to beat your head against the table and shout ‘No, no, no!’ You feel literally burned out. And the reason is that you are sapping every inch of your available subconscious and leaving no subconscious soup to bubble and brew and produce new rich and substantial ideas.

I’ve written before about the absolutely vital part of creativity called incubation (the psychological process whereby disjointed ideas stew and associate in new and startling ways). It famously worked in the bath for Archimedes and – as I’ve discovered this morning – for the inventor of the ATM (who unfortunately forgot to patent the idea.) At the moment I am itching to write a short story, I just love the form so much. I have plenty of ideas jotted down, some character development done, some paragraphs written but nothing, at the moment is jumping out at me. As indeed Stephen King puts it ‘good short story ideas come quite literally from no-where, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun’.  So my short stories ideas are reasonable but there is no spark to set them alight, align them in a unique and exciting way. All it will take is a moment, a chance remark, something seen on television (Gah!) or by listening to a song or reading something in the newspaper to make the difference. But that cannot always be planned and sometimes you have to work through the piece in the absense of inspiration hoping that the next time you come to it you will see it with a fresh eye.

Being committed we will write as much as we can, even when life is busy and emotionally demanding, even when we are sucked from all sides. ‘Sometimes, as King says ‘you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you are doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position‘. We need to be committed and ready to feel the fear that our work is going no-where and go there anyway. However we also need to be aware of finding a balance between word production, following through and giving ourselves the mental space to find new inspiration and drive.

Do you write everyday? Through difficult times or holidays? Or do you give yourself a day off every week? Or a break at the end of a project? What works for you? Would love to hear your comments.

5 ways to be a writer when you’re not writing.

When you're not writing, get into your writing mind

When you’re not writing, get into your writing mind

You may burn to be a writer, you may understand that it is your true calling and be prepared to put in the hours tapping away on the keyboard or scribbling with your pen but depending on your work situation and personal/family circumstances, there may be stretches of time when you are not able to be physically present with your manuscript. It’s still possible to be in your writing head and to progress with your story or piece even when away from it.

 

1: Let things simmer (incubation 1)

Psychological research has identified incubation as one of the key elements in creativity. Incubation is defined as ‘a process of unconscious recombination of thought elements that were stimulated through conscious work at one point in time, resulting in novel ideas at some later point in time’ [2]. Seabrook Rachel, Dienes Zoltan (2003). Incubation in Problem Solving as a context Effect (Wiki)

Incubation is the period between your conscious and practical outlining of your piece and the point where you come up with the hook or the usual slant on your proposed story. It’s the time when all your ideas mingle and coalesce and form unusual associations.

Writer Louise Wise recently commented on this blog Once I’m in my writer’s head my best writing has come from cooking the family dinner, wiping a 5 year old’s runny nose and mopping up a grazed knee! Somehow in between all that I’ve written a lovey dovey scene! Multi tasking? No sweat!!

Let things simmer

 

Sometimes when you are finding it difficult to begin or to progress with your writing you may just need to give your ideas time to incubate. While going about your daily chores, travelling, listening to music etc you can still orient your mind towards your writing project and with a sort of Zen wait and watch approach be receptive to new ideas rising to the surface of consciousness. By placing the elements of your story into a pot and letting it simmer you may find resolutions to your sticky writing problems, you may find an exchange between characters rising fully formed from the stew or a plot angle from a real news story attaching itself successfully to a stuck place in your novel.

2: Get the pot really hot: Engage in a cultural activity (incubation 2)

One writer I know makes it a policy to set aside time for regular cultural trips to museums, art galleries, music recitals, readings, and dance shows. Exposing yourself to a hotch potch of creative ideas allows you to come at stories from different angles, to experience them through a number of senses, to see the world upside down and back to front. Benedict Carey in the New York Times recently wrote on How Nonsense Sharpens the Intellect. The article outlines psychological research which shows that the human brain strives for order. Exposing it to the bizarre makes it work harder to make sense of the world and preserve narrative cohesion by identifying patterns. Thus ‘disorientation begets creative thinking’. So while you are immersing yourself in a flood of fascinating ideas, your brain will be working to find a common thread and the juxtaposition of unusual ideas may result in a unique story or piece of writing.

 

3: Remember and record your dreams (incubation 3)

We all dream, whether we remember or not. Freud made a career out of the Interpretation of Dreams as part of his psychotherapeutic technique. It is true that our dreams may carry many of our conscious and unconscious concerns. Dream interpretation also suggests that many aspects of our dreams can be symbolic. For example a dream of a bath, can mean a tub, or a vessel that carries something important. I am not convinced that we can be absolutely reductionist about our dreams. Any analysis should be done broadly. I believe that our dreams are our subconscious efforts at creating narrative out of our experiences, fragments of memories, subliminal cues, peripheral inputs. We are programmed to make sense of things, to tell stories and our dreams do that while we sleep.

Record your dreams when you wake

Record your dreams when you wake

It is the narrative genius of dreams – making sense out of the utterly bizarre – that makes it so worthwhile to try to recall and record them. It’s not often possible to do this and if we are woken suddenly our dreams often retreat out of reach. However I did, for a time, keep a dream notebook and with practice was able to write down many dreams.

There are, of course, many common themes, what may be called Archetypal stories, and these may as Jung suggested be common universal concerns. As a novelist we aspire to make explicit these universal stories. Our dreams can present us with unusual paths through our personal material that can give us an original voice when dealing with those themes.

4: Pay attention and Notice Difference

 

Decide to take notice (or notes) of things. I have spoken about this before but compared to children, for example, we take so much for granted, we are rushed, preoccupied etc and don’t take the time to notice the small details surrounding us, the details that can make a reader catch their breath with delight.

Psychology also tells us that we are attracted to people who are similar to ourselves, we are also programmed to gather evidence to support our own theories of life and notice environmental cues that feed into our preoccupations. For example if you are buying a house a drive around the neighbourhood will have you noticing all the For Sale signs. If you are into cars, you might take note of what is parked in the driveways. We need to make an effort to see things differently, to pay attention to the kinds of people we normally disregard, to take an interest in a different aspect of a scene, to watch or read something we might normally never consider.

This puts me in mind of an entertaining BBC comedy quiz show called Have I Got News For You. One of the quiz rounds is the fill in the missing word round. Phrases are taken from a guest publication. The guest publications chosen are a esoteric and ecletic mix including Welding and Metal Fabrication Monthly, Barbed Wire Collector, Hairdressers Journal International, Vacuum Cleaner Collectors Club Newsletter. While some examples are hilarious, these publications go to show that there are so many specialized interests out there, some you may never have imagined. What kind of people are interested in these sorts of things, what sort of lives do they lead? Aspire to see difference where ever you go.

 

Inspiration at the washing line

5: Finally find Inspiration at the washing line (Inspiration 1)

/in the car wash/emptying the dishwasher/having a shower

I don’t think there is a reason I chose washing related examples but it’s at moments of mindless activity where our garrulous consciousness coasts into automatic and goes quiet  that the subconscious gets a chance to speak its mind. I knew many years ago that I wanted to be a writer but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what to write about. It’s true to say that the experience of years provides material. It strengthens associations and references that lend depth to writing. However I have discovered since I decided to just BE a writer that you can write about absolutely anything. And it’s at the washing line that all the phrases, news items, emotions, characters merge together and instantaneously throw out several fascinating ideas.

Why the washing line? It’s peaceful. I am momentarily (and I mean momentarily) away from the clamour of the children. It’s usually pleasant, uplifting weather (the reason I’m hanging out the washing in the first place). There may be a fresh breeze or bird song. The action of hanging out the washing is repetitive and soothing and requires little concentrated brain power. It is here that the fruits of all that incubation are realised, I become inspired and I find my way through. I trace the narrative thread of the line until a story falls from the bright blue sky. A man with an obsession with weeding is an emotional tyrant who bullies his wife. A pigeon’s coo reminds me of a time and a place and first love. A jokey remark made to one of the children becomes a possible children’s picture book story.

I am a writer in my head, in my dreams, in my outlook, in the middle of my chores. I nearly trip over the washing basket as I run back inside to find a pen to pen the ideas in and prevent them from getting away. So don’t sweat when you can’t be writing, get into your writing head, feed your subconscious and let it do the work for you.

Five ways to procrastinate procrastination

Would love to write but my pet giraffe needs walking

Would love to write but my pet giraffe needs walking

I’m going to write a post on procrastination but first I need to make a cup of tea, check on a few emails, update my twitter feed, clean the bathroom and take my pet giraffe out for a walk. Oh and the keyboard could do with a bit of a polish.

Right. Sorted.  So here are five ways to get yourself started:

1: Set yourself small, achievable, immediate and visible goals.

Don’t make your molehills into mountains that you haven’t the resources to climb. Don’t panic about ‘finishing your novel’ or short story. Tell yourself you will write 100 words in the next half an hour. Make sure your aim is achievable for you at your current stage/ability or you will only dishearten yourself if you don’t achieve it. Your aims must be bitesized and easily digestible.

Don't let ambition overwhelm you

Don't let ambition overwhelm you

On her excellent writer’s resource site www.Inkygirl.com Debbie Ridpath Ohi invites you to sign up for a 1000 word a day or 500 word a day challenge. You can choose the goal that best suits you and she is open to setting up even smaller challenges to suit your circumstances.

Signing up for a group challenge makes you feel part of a common endeavour and strengthens your motivation, particularly if you share your experiences with others.  (Once you’ve finished your target wordcount!)

2. Use the Twitter Carrot Approach

(Instead of Twitter you can insert Facebook/Chocolate Cream Bun/Favourite TV show)

When you are avoiding a task, you often substitute it with one that seems vital/useful or is just plain fun. For me, of late, my displacement activity has been Twitter. It’s a wonderful way of networking and building up relationships with other writers and mothers, a reciprocal mine of valuable information, a venue for support and encouragement. But you can inadvertently fritter away precious writing time on this other ‘vital’ activities such as checking email, texting, checking facebook, looking out of the window and just getting a..(insert whatever it is you fancy).

No tweets until you've finished your homework!

No tweets until you've finished your homework!

After years of careful testing and validation (procrastinating again?) I have developed the Twitter Carrot Approach. I set myself a number of words after which I can have a set number of tweets or length of time on twitter. A tweet must not pass my fingertips until the set number of words is completed. In this instance you must again ensure that you goals are achievable or you will end up sad and lonely. (Cue violins). If you have been good and achieved your goal you can reward yourself with an activity of your choice. And if you’ve really been good you can find me on twitter @alisonwells)

3. Free yourself from self censure and fear

Guilt and fear are the antithesis of achievement and creativity. (Unless you want to write about a guilty and fearful person). You may fear that your work is not good enough, that you don’t have the skills, that what you have written is a heap of rubbish, that you will never sell as many books as Dan Brown. All of these may be true. Or not. And even if they are true right now, just by you being there and working through the crud you are improving inch by inch. (As an aside, I found out yesterday that the moon is literally inching away. It moves away from the earth by an inch every year.) I digress. I recently summed up my philosophy in a short, tweetable motto:

Intention, even ultimately unrealised is an optimistic orientation towards success

The fact that you have turned your head or hand towards writing, that you have it in your focus, that you are making an attempt, that you are sitting in the presence of your manuscript means that you are baby steps closer to realising your dream. The only way it will actually happen is if you jettison the guilt that you are not as far as you wanted to be, or that you should be doing more. This will only make you panic and stymie you. You need to accept where you are with it and move forward as best you can. Even if you feel you are going backwards, you have still learned something from the attempt. If you read one of your creations with horror you know you won’t go down that dark alleyway again.

Just keep stepping forward little by little and you will soon have come much further than you think.

Create a ritual that is about getting yourself in the zone

Create a ritual to get you started

Create a ritual to get you started

So much of our learned behaviour (and our memory) is cue dependent and is developed by way of association with other behaviours or triggers. Parents will know that routines can settle babies and reassure older children (and prevent murders on the school run). It can be difficult for us to switch from one aspect of our lives to another (especially if one of the aspects of our lives keeps running in and saying ‘Mummy….’ or twirls you around on your office chair). No, even when you get into your writing space, with the kids or whatever packed away (into a lockable holdall, sorry) it may take some time to settle back into your story or novel or to connect with your subconscious, its ideas and associations. (For more on how to get into your writing mind see this.)

Leo Babuata explains how a morning ritual can help you become a more productive writer. I would also suggest that you need to include some form or relaxation activity during the day where ideas have a chance to percolate. Recently my relentless sticking to an arduous early morning and evening writing routine left me drained and bereft of any new inspirations. Often a step out to hang the washing is all it takes to give me a breath of peace and perspective that gets the ideas swirling.

Whether it’s a cup of tea, a walk, a favourite notebook, a warm bottle of milk, putting on your lap blanket and your fingerless gloves, find out what guides you into your writing mode and settle yourself in to your writing session.

5. Remember its nice once you get down

It's nice once you get down - honest

It's nice once you get down - honest

Growing up on the Irish Atlantic seaboard (despite being in the Gulf Stream) a decision to swim in the sea was accompanied by a feeling of trepidation and inertia. It was always so cold as we gingerly edged our way out into the waves. We could feel goosebumps forming on our skin. But once we threw aside our caution and got our shoulders under and took a few strokes it wasn’t so bad. After a while the feeling of being in the water was delicious and I have wonderful memories of diving under the clear water, being completely immersed in otherworldliness and peace.

Once back on the shore, the pleasure of heating up again was wonderful and the satisfaction of having been out for the swim was immense. We felt refreshed and ebullient and always assured the reluctant that ‘its nice once you get down.’

You know you want to write. You know how good it feels when you start to get words on the page, when you create a fabulous phrase or a cracking character. You know how you tingle when you read something you have written and know that ‘This is really good’. And if and when you get published and someone tells you that your writing is wonderful or moved them or changed them in some way it feels great. Remember all those feelings, recreate them in your mind, then you will know why you have to just get down to writing, as fast as you possibly can.

Procrastinating postscript.

I was going to write ‘Ten ways to procrastinate procrastination’ but I realised that by doing that I would be procrastinating writing my novel. And in reading this, you may be putting off something you may be supposed to be doing. So if it’s writing you’re into, start now. Write 200 words of heartfelt gobbledygook and then another 200. After that you can have a biscuit or one tweet. And once you’ve done your 1000 words, come back to the comments and let me know how good it feels. Don’t take too long.

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Why I’m Missing 1970’s Wallpaper – Inspiration for Far Out Writing Dudes

Wallpaper can free your mind

Wallpaper can free your mind

I grew up in the 1970’s: the era of swirly carpets, psychedelic curtains, bed coverings and wallpaper. The wallpaper was flock, groovy, funky, floral, paisley, repeating geometric, colourful, clashing, kitsch. But you have to admit it, compared with the pared down smooth walls in neutral cream paint of the minimalist mode we have now, there was something going on there, there was movement, activity, shape.

When my husband and I moved into our first house, it still had the original orange and brown carpet with giant swirls. In college my sisters and I shared a flat – part of a large old building known as Blair’s Castle. It was decorated in luscious, heavily textured red flock wallpaper. As a kid, I remember lying in bed looking at the walls, picking out a particular pattern within the wallpaper, following it with my eyes until it morphed into another shape or became something, an animal or usually some kind of face. In particular, paisley design was my favourite, the ever repeating fractal like patterns echoing the world’s elegant chaos.

If you want to read a fabulous story about Wallpaper becoming something, or something becoming Wallpaper,  read Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s, The Yellow Wallpaper.

We can see things in wallpaper

We can see things in wallpaper

First published in 1892 this 6119 word story is included in Peter Boxalls 1001 Books:  You must read before you die. He describes it as ‘This little slip of prose, a novella running to a mere twenty-nine pages, it is a literary masterpiece’ and a ‘yearning for sexual and intellectual freedom’. It is written in the first person as a series of journal entries by a woman whose husband has insisted she be confined to a room, (decorated in the yellow wallpaper) to recuperate from what he, a doctor, has diagnosed “temporary nervous depression, a slight hysterical tendency;” The story stays with her as she descends into psychosis with the wallpaper as her companion.

If the Yellow Wallpaper is an extreme example of where identification with wallpaper can bring you,  I still believe that the dearth of pattern and activity in our furnishings and wallcoverings is a loss in our creative lives. There’s a state of mind that is crucial to creativity. It’s a kind of free state awareness, where you become utterly immersed in what you are doing, an energized focus. Positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi identifies nine aspects of this feeling of flow:

  1. Clear goals (expectations and rules are discernible and goals are attainable and align appropriately with one’s skill set and abilities). Moreover, the challenge level and skill level should both be high.
  2. Concentrating and focusing, a high degree of concentration on a limited field of attention (a person engaged in the activity will have the opportunity to focus and to delve deeply into it).
  3. A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness the merging of action and awareness.
  4. Distorted sense of time, one’s subjective experience of time is altered.
  5. Direct and immediate feedback (successes and failures in the course of the activity are apparent, so that behavior can be adjusted as needed).
  6. Balance between ability level and challenge (the activity is neither too easy nor too difficult).
  7. A sense of personal control over the situation or activity.
  8. The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so there is an effortlessness of action.
  9. People become absorbed in their activity, and focus of awareness is narrowed down to the activity itself, action awareness merging.
Ever repeating fractal patterns help creativity

Ever repeating fractal patterns help creativity

As a writer, it’s that feeling you have when you are receptive to ideas, when the writing is flowing, when you are ‘in the groove’. It’s the feeling I used to get, spaced out on groovy wallpaper, a narcotic free method of ‘opening the mind’ and ‘chilling’. Its benefits for creativity and healthy mental relaxation – for us as writers trying to open up a path to our subconscious and our memory, for our children,  kicking back in their bedrooms – are huge. It’s a way of freeing the mind, letting go of our residual concerns and moving into a world of possibility. It’s a way of creating creative head space, going places. That’s why I’m Missing 1970’s Wallpaper and glad that its coming back into fashion.

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.

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.

Head space at dawn

Last night the baby woke again.  His Dad, who deserves a shelf of parenting accolades, got up yet again.  But if I don’t keep my eyes absolutely shut and resist the urge to turn over I start to wake up and if its almost midsummer and the bloody birds, bless them, think that the faint light of three forty five means its morning and they are going to sing their hearts out telling me that, then the wires connect and there you go, the brain’s awake and spinning. 

Hubby comes back to bed and to the sound of his gentle snoring, I think of a fabulous (ideas are either horrifying or fabulous at that time of the morning) idea for a new website for creative parents. I think of several new ideas for blogging and find two lines of a short story I am writing sitting on the kitchen table of my mind with a mug of coffee beside them.  I compose a e-letter to a friend and work out the logistics of pick ups and drop offs and the events of the forthcoming day.

How productive am I. It is 4am on a Monday morning of a very busy week.  The kids are all asleep, I am alone in my head for once and so I find there is plenty of space there after all.

Creative Writing Exercise

You arrive at the supermarket and bump into an old friend. What does she look like now? What was your relationship with her? How do you feel when you see her? How do you want to present yourself to her. Is there something in particular you really don’t want her to know?

She invites you and your husband to dinner. Do you go? If so, what happens. What happens if your secret slips out in conversation, are there consequences? Write up to 500 words just to see where it takes you.