Pondering semi-colons; my book; and competition entries

My son bought me a copy of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway as a Christmas present. He is working his way through a long list of classics (admirable) and said of those he had read so far, this was his favourite. I had to confess I had not read Virginia Woolf. As a feminist, this seemed like a particularly shameful confession because although Woolf was conflicted about labelling herself a feminist, so many women I admire hold her in near saintly esteem. When I started reading Mrs Dalloway I remembered (at least one of the reasons) why I had avoided her work. The semi-colons.

As most people interested in the written word will know, the story details Clarissa Dalloway’s day as she prepares to host a party. She muses and ponders as various characters are introduced. The writing style is a jumbled, poetic and wordy stream of consciousness slipping between different narrative points of view.

The interesting themes of the book are widely discussed, debated and deconstructed but the thing that stops me being able to make any tiny contribution to the discussion is the semicolon.

The semicolon litters the book like particularly invasive confetti – it germs the book to a point where I can’t get past the irritation of it to enable me to see the work in all its discussed glory.

I have never been a fan of the semicolon. A recent editor of some of my work invited me to add them to a particular paragraph. I had to re-write the whole thing because although I could see where she was going with it, why the suggestion had been made – and even how it might subtly add nuance to the paragraph – I just couldn’t litter my text with them.

As we all know, a semicolon is used to link two separate, equally positioned but closely related ideas in a single sentence.

I understand they have more about them than simple lists. I completely get that they can add a particular quality to a sentence. I am aware of many great authors who not only praise their utility but consider they add beauty to text. I am not one of them. I am in good company.  Hemingway preferred short declarative sentences honed to acute sharpness.

In a written text I like the perfect word choice. Also, the weighty space of a period rather than the ephemeral dainty pause of the semicolon.

However, one of the great things that often happens when I finally read an avoided or neglected classic work is that I am forced to consider why I haven’t read it earlier. In this case, to revisit my animosity towards the semicolon. Perhaps, maybe I am considering a softening towards considering the possibility of it being (as Abe Lincoln said) ‘A useful little chap’. I’m not sure. I need to ponder…

In any case, I will of course finish Mrs Dalloway – because I think I should and also because I will look forward to discussing with my son why he enjoyed it so much but whether it will nudge me towards more semicolon use remains to be seen.

In other news…

I submitted my novel to the publisher’s deadline.  The wheels towards publication are in motion and after submission, I felt a little bit ‘what now?’.  It is a strange space to be in and I had a peculiar gap of feeling I should be writing but despite lots of ideas not having any motivation. It lasted for most of January. I don’t recall reading about gap management in any ‘writers process’ type scripts.  Stephen King and many others say they write word count every day – does this mean they don’t perceive ‘gaps’?

Anyway, fortunately, last week I suddenly got my AWOL mojo back and wrote and submitted three short stories to competitions, a trilogy of poems to an online anthology and started on my next novel.  So far no semicolons have been used.

Writing – hobby, passion or work?

My novel – ‘Everyday Wendy’ is to be published in 2022 (more details to follow).  To a required deadline, I’ve spent most of the past year editing my story into a publishable work.  I’ve learned more from the process than I could ever have imagined.

I have notebooks full of ideas for stories.  I have shelves of books on writing craft which I’ve studied and drawn upon in an effort to improve my writing. I read a broad range of genres. For a number of years, I’ve written every day and enjoyed creating playgrounds and characters. I’ve been lucky with having a few things published too – even won a couple of prizes for my writing.

The past year has taught me the difference between being a hobby writer and a career writer.

Turning my novel into a publishable draft has been work. Several hours a day, most weekdays, concentrated graft. Don’t get me wrong – it’s been an adventure and fun and through the process, I believe I have learned how better to write my next novel. I will write another novel (I have two more in the planning stage) but I’ve needed to ponder on whether I want to be ‘a writer’ and if I do, why (Photo by Javier Allegue Barros on Unsplash).

I love creating worlds. Even more than this though are the many surprises I find in those worlds.  Remembering those moments sat at my desk, tapping away on a keyboard when I’m taken to ‘oh, OK then – didn’t see that coming’, makes me smile. I love that. I love finding the essence of the thing – chewing over the right word to use, how best to show emotion or find the right hook to make a reader want to turn the page.  When a story works, when it does what I had hoped it would do with the richest of words and the most crafted of forms, I am happy.  Writing makes me happy. If, sometimes, my writing makes other people happy too, even better.

Writing for me is more than a hobby – I need to write

I don’t know who I am without it and a few days away from a keyboard has me twitchy.  Even on beach sunbeds, I’m making notes on dialogue heard and possible settings.

Do I want it to be work though? I’m not looking for another career – I’ve had one of those and very fine it was too but life now takes a different pace. Indeed, it is a pace and with space that allows me the joy of writing. Making writing my job would suck the joy out of it I think. (Photo by Nick Morrison on Unsplash

Hopefully, the novel will be successful, sold all over the world, goes into paperback, options taken, book tours. Yada yada (living the novelists dream for a moment there…. But if, as is more likely, this is not what happens I guess I will carry on joyfully writing anyway.

After a tough year, great news

As far as running a blog goes, 2020 did not go according to plan.  In 2019 I wrote two pieces every month and had every intention to achieve the same on my differently focussed blog for the following year. As I wrote in my first 2020 post, I planned to enter a writing competition every month.  The competitions had to take me into unfamiliar writing arenas.  I aimed to write a piece about my writing process and, depending on the outcomes, post the submitted pieces on my blog.  Up to July, it was going well.  Enthusiasm was high and I had done OK in the competitions – a win and a couple of commendations.  And then… we all know what happened then.  Lockdown.

Lockdown coincided with a family funeral, selling my house and moving 300 miles away.  Throw in our house purchase falling through leaving us homeless and I had a perfect storm of ‘stressful situation’.  Fortunately, homelessness was seen off by belongings going into storage and my partner and I moving into a caravan on a lovely peaceful site while we looked for a new house to buy.  We had a bit of an extended summer holiday and it was lovely.  Then the government decreed that the site had to close.  We were fortunate to be able to find a fully furnished rental which allowed pets but again… ‘stress’ doesn’t cover how challenging the period was.  For the record, a word of advice: don’t sell a house in a pandemic or try to move 300 miles in a lockdown.

Thanks to Georgy Rudakov Via Unsplash for the image

I stopped writing.  From the end of June 2020 until mid-January 2021 I did not write as much as a shopping list.  It wasn’t apathy, fugue or procrastination.  With hindsight I think it was process-related – I simply got out of my ‘groove’ which included elements of physical space (my lost office and only having my laptop to work on) and different measurements of time in a lockdown.

What kickstarted me back into a groove was the astounding news from Pen to Print that I am one of their ten Book Challenge Competition winners.  Way back at the beginning of 2020 I submitted a synopsis and first chapter of a novel.  Submissions are filtered down to ten winners and I was one of the ten.  The winners all get mentoring support to get the book to publication. The prize is worth £5k. Next year, the ten completed books will also go into a final competition and the ultimate winner will be chosen.

I am beyond thrilled to win such a valuable prize which is packed with opportunity.  Pen to Print has a great deal of book industry respect and support and I am so lucky to be joining their stable of writers.  I have already (virtually) ‘met’ my fellow writers and the mentor team and am at last writing again – with a curious wonder that I ever left something I love so much. 

For those unfamiliar with Pen to Print do check out their website at https://pentoprint.org/  They run amazing competitions and fabulous courses. 

I will not, mostly, be entering competitions in 2021 but I will be focussed on completing my novel. So, I am changing the name of the blog to reflect the different writing focus this year. I will continue to blog about my process as the year goes on.

PS Am delighted to have had a poem, ‘FUG’ (about lockdown) accepted for the annual on-line Febulous (sic) February blog. I have recorded a reading of the poem which is to be played on Medway Pride Radio sometime in February. I will add a link when I get it.

February Competition Entry: Learning from the process of writing a short story

My February competition entry was a short story to the Writers and Artists competition Which this year is being judged by award-winning writer Kerry Hudson (@ThatKerryHudson).  There were few requirements other than it needed to be up to 2000 words.  In some ways, I cheated a bit for this submission.  It was, as required, previously unpublished but it was not a new work.  My submission was a story written a few months ago after an unusual idea came to me ‘out of the blue’.  It is a story I enjoyed writing, and I think it has some merit, but it is quirky enough not to have a ready home.  Despite coming in quite a way under the maximum word count, it felt to me that it might be a good fit with this competition.  As I discuss in my first post in this blog series, I will post the story whatever the outcome once the judging has concluded.

As also planned, I began this post with the intention that it be a ‘writers process’ post about how one goes about writing a short story. I am never short of ideas for stories. I am never short of characters – almost all of my story ideas begin with characters I ‘see’ in my head. I ‘hear’ how they speak and the phrases they use long before I have any idea how their dialogue will fit into a story. I quite often have ideas for beginnings and journeys from the beginnings, but I am less confident about creating a satisfying story arc ending/conclusion. It won’t surprise any writer that I have countless unfinished, first drafts which have dissolved into nothingness in my ‘bits and pieces’ folder. They are not so much WIP’s as ‘works which deserve better’!

#writingchat on Twitter – check it out!

Like many other writers I read voraciously and through this have hopefully understood a little of what makes short stories work and why some do not grab interest.  I am also well-read about writing theory.  I planned today to write about the process of applying theory to create a good quality short story.  However, yesterday (12 Feb 2020) on twitter, there was a lovely #writingchat hosted by Carol Bevitt (@Carol Bevitt) with lots of really useful contributions from so many writers and aspiring writers.  One very well-published writer, Patsy Collins (@PatsyCollins) suggested in particular that writers interested in publishing for women’s magazines take a look at her blog at womanwriter.blogspot.com which features writing guidelines for magazines across the globe.  A useful resource.  Another writer Stephen Allsop (@StephenAllsop1) posted a link to an article on BookRiot  ‘How Long is a Short Story’ by Annika Barranti Klein (@noirbettie) which I certainly found helpful. There are so many useful and accessible tips about writing short stories – and how not to – the twitter thread #writingchat is well worth a read.  It nips down dry theory into actionable pointers, generously given. 

Although I sadly missed being able to participate in the #writingchat a review of the thread today shows that it touched upon almost all of the points I try to address when I edit and restructure a short story. Specifically:-

  • Size matters! Is the story up to 5k words? Flash? Or micro fiction?
  • Short stories must be well told.
  • They must have a structure which keeps readers wanting to know what is going to happen. The structure should have highs, lows, hiccups along the way and resolution. Enable your reader to invest themselves in the story – to care about what happens (whatever genre).
  • Do not waffle and/or explain, or set up the story – just tell it. And then edit until it is crisp and all superfluous words, threads or exposition have been removed (yes, even your darlings – if clever turns of phrases, characters, place names etc. do not add to the story arc, remove them).

I should note here that none of these helpful points are in my head when I write my first draft and I wish I could be more disciplined about this. I get carried away by the story ideas and getting them down on paper.

I have committed to submitting one writing competition entry a month for the year, and I am guessing this will not be my last short story submission.  I am committed to creating an entirely new story for my next entry and so must wait until I find the right free-to-enter comp (if anyone knows of any, please do let me know).  I am aiming to choose something outside my writing experience – horror, fantasy, YA or romance, for example.  Writing outside my (usual) genre(s) is a little bit scary but also quite exciting.  I do get such a buzz from writing something completely new.  Wish me luck!