Monday, 28 March 2016

Does The Use Of Colons And Semi-Colons Date Your Style?

In 2013 I wrote a post asking the question Does The Use Of Colons And Semi-Colons Date Your Style? 

It still seems to me a relevant question IT occurred to me again as I
am editing my new novel (very exciting!) and have also been reviewing other people’s work and giving editorial judgements.

We all have attitudes to prose – our own and that of other writers. As for me, I love the subtle energy that colons and semicolons add to prose. They are syntactical tools that act to smooth the progress from sentence to sentence. They energise the forward movement of the narrative.

Some people do seem to have problems with the use of colons and semi-colons. But really it’s not so difficult: we can use the colon to provide a pause before introducing related information, while we may use the semicolon to create a break in a sentence that is stronger than a comma but not as final as a full stop.

But there are times when we as writers need to stand back a little.

Recently I asked a friend – a good editor – to cast a final eye over a story I'd been polishing making it ready for a prestigious competition.

My friend said many very good things about the story, then hesitated. 
‘What is it?’ I say, with writerly anxiety.
‘Well. The colons and the semi-colons…’
‘What about them?’ I am defensive. I love these subtle tools of syntax.
‘Well, somehow, I’m stubbing my toe on them.’
My eyes narrow. ‘They’re all correct.’ I say.
‘Well somehow they look…’ she hesitates. ‘It’s different with essays and factual. In fiction they look…’
Then it dawns on me. ‘…dated, old fashioned?’
She colours, ‘Well, not quite…’

But that’s certainly what she means.

I really, really hate to think that my style might be dated. I like to think I have an open mind: a fresh view of the world in my work. Each novel, each story is a fresh adventure for present day audiences to read. I like to think my writing reflects this for my readers. I hope it does.

I went through my story again, reviewed the colons and semi-colons and removed two of them. I’m not sure whether or not it was an improvement. I have no answer as yet to this dilemma. We’ll see

Do you bother about colons and semi-colons?

Colons and semicolons galore in THE PATHFINDER 

5 Star Amazon Review

 ‘The past has never felt so real as in the last days of Roman Britain and the uneasy peace between natives and conquerors portrayed in Wendy Robertson's 'Pathfinder'. Heroine Elen is a beautifully drawn character uniting natives with the conquerors.
Pathways lead in two directions and fey Elen's 'honeycomb' mind leads back centuries into the mists of time. But she is young and resourceful and her ordained path leads from her beloved coastal marshland of West Briaininto Roman Gaul when the Roman leader of Britain Magnus Maximum falls I love with the native girl, drawing her father and warrior brothers into his military schemes.
      The novel is filled with believable,fascinating characters including Aunt Olwen a drowned spirit, song-writer brother Lleu and Quin the faithful Roman devoted to both Elen and Magnus Maximum.
       It is a delightful, thought provoking read and I could not put it down. So many questions answered so many tantalisingly left. Elen has a future in her homeland and I want to know more.’

Monday, 21 March 2016

Hugh and the Writer’s Bookshelf

 My monthly conversation with my friend Hugh is always a delight.

We ramble through our own idiosyncrasies and preoccupations, our families, current films, politics and theatre - and books, always books. Hugh encourages me to re-read the Victorian novelists. I put him onto my more contemporary favourites. Sometimes we happen to talk about my own novels, which he has been reading. He also reads my work in progress with enlightened interest. (New novel now - going full steam ahead…)

At one point last week he asked me how old I was when I knew –

just knew – I would be a writer. I had a think and said, ‘I would be eight or nine.’ His eyebrows raised and he gave a little smile.

But it’s true. As often happens, Hugh made me think of my process: how the acquisition and maintenance of  my tools, for becoming and being the writer I am, has taken a lifetime to acquire.

You need to start early - reading voraciously and writing almost continually are the surest foundation. . 

When I was nine I regularly borrowed five library books a week. I also wrote stories and published little books of my own, made of folded paper and hand stitched spines. I used to keep this practice a secret but as I met more lifetime writers I discovered quite a few had made little books in their childhood,

One necessity for any writer aiming for success in writing novels is the ingenuity and skill to create physical and mental space in your life to free up your spirit and unleash your imagination; to make space and time to spin up ideas and make ever new and ever better stories. To  prioritise your writing before all your other preoccupations. - Not very easy for girls or women I feel - the aristocratic Vita Sackville West with her tower, and the self-evident genius Virginia Woolf with her meticulous husband might be the exception here.

So,  child into adult,  you read – from Fairy Tales to children’s
comics, From Jane Austen to Wilkie Collins, From Virginia Woolf to John le Carré, from Dorothy L Sayers to Ian Rankin, from Willa Cather to Ian McKewan, from RD Blackmore to Catherine Cookson,. And on. And on.

The intense process of reading good writers alongside your own writing process has a profound effect. Even so, one should never assume that you’ll find universal answers to your writer’s questions that will transform you unto JK Rowling or JR Tolkien, Alice Hoffman or Zadie Smith.

The effect is more subtle than this. You read these novels, imagining they can read you. In the process your own writing somehow clarifies itself in terms of category, syntax and style. It improves because your sense of writing as a skill deepens and you come to define and develop your own style and essential themes.

Inevitably reading as a writer becomes part of your natural creative process. You notice how good writers in every field have this or that effect. Even while enjoying a novel for itself you will notice vivid characterisation, the dynamics of pace, the evocative locations, the elegant structure.

Of course, being your own original writer, you won’t mimic, or

copy such things in your own work, or else your novel will become a parody - if not a travesty. But the awareness of such fine approaches will embed itself in your subconscious and will find a natural place in your writing and influence your style.  

 So, from the very beginning I have discovered that reading

leads to writing leads to more reading and better writing.

And now I come directly to books that focus more deliberately on the technicalities of the writing process. 

Today one can almost drown in the plethora of advice on this subject, on the authorweb, in articles, between the covers of a book, or in course books for the thousands of ‘Creative Writing courses..

I am always coming across lists (I have written some myself …) that promise to ensure your success with their top tips for :-:
Creating great characters
Editing your book
Ending your novel
Increasing your pace
Enhancing your prose
Pitching your novel to an agent, publisher
Promoting your book

Of course these can be important aspects of improving your writing and require your close attention - but, ensuring success?

If only! I say, with a wry smile.

In my workshops I often tell people that every writer should have
behind them their own writer’s  bookshelf  - books specifically focusing on the writing process and creativity, written by writers whose own writing has an appreciative audience out there in the difficult field of published fiction.  

It’s good to avoid the sources that can be very shallow pools, sometimes written by writers whose creative output consists of instructional books on the writing process. Writing a novel creatively and organisationally, is the hardest most disciplined creative task. Writing a book about writing a novel is easy compared to this,

I ask you! Would you take advice as a potter from a person whose only output had been recipes for, the constituency of, and the location of clay?

We writers all have our chosen books – to pick up at the end of the day; to tap into the creativity of accomplished writers from across the world and recharge our own. Glancing at my shelf I see I have books for all seasons. You will have your own.

Amongst mine are:

  • Stephen King’s: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft  - Honest professional self knowledge from a master practitioner.
  • The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. - Reminds us that writing is part of a creative family incorporating art and music. We borrow from and create with our brothers and sisters
  • Zen and the Art of Writing:  |Releasing  the Creative Genius Within You. Ray Bradbury – what it says on the tin.
  • This Year You Write Your Novel by Walter Mosely. A practical guide offering structure and inspiration to beginners and more experienced writers

  • Almost anything by Susan Sontag including Against Interpretation and Other Essays   Pure inspiration towards your liberated creative self.

  • A special mention for Avril Joy’s  From Writing With Love. Ane enabling and inspiring book  from a novelist and artist.  If you are looking for inspiration and encouragement, sign on of Avril Joy’s newsletter. The best weekly source around,

  • But even such great books are only of helpful if your own talent for prose and story is already highly developed by the lifelong reading/writing/reading process described above with the proviso that your writer’s confidence is mature enough for you to incorporate good advice and reject advice that doesn’t enhance you own unique writing.


I now come to the book that would be on my shelf if there were only room for one.

I sometimes think I have read every book on the writing process in the world and now can learn nothing new.
However came I recently across How Fiction Works by James Wood and keep going back and back to take it all in. This book is beautifully written, highly informed, drawing writing inferences from hundreds of novels, stretching right back Don Quixote from to Ian McEwen.

Most importantly James Wood makes a passionate and compelling case for the novel as a form, arguing that it puts other forms of creative writing firmly in the shade.
This absolutely coincides with my view and I have been waiting for someone to put this case as well as this.

How Fiction Works is inspiring and full of ideas which are now spurring me on the stretch my writing game and not settle for anything less than my best.

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

For International Woman's Day: An Extraordinary Woman:

 The Muse Still At My Shoulder

Always the Professional

I was casting around, looking for inspiration for something to write on International Women's Day. As a long term feminist there some attractive (though not enough) choices of good role models and inspirational women. The patriarchy still rules.

But I started to think that the most significant and influential role models were much closer to home than the international scene.

Then I came across again the post I wrote on my mother's birthday - New Years Eve - in 2009. When I think of it she - a feisty independent woman, a widow who was the daughter of a widow - both of whom brought up successful families on their own.

 Here it is, only slightly adapted - 

An Extraordinary Woman: The Muse At My Shoulder (2009)

On New Year’s Eve I take a Celtic delight in the pagan celebration of the end of one year and the anticipative celebration promise of the year to come. This day also was (is?) my mother Barbara’s birthday and I think of her. She was an extraordinary woman.

Although we were (are?) very different personalities, I have inherited many things from Barbara . There is this desire to run away, expressed in the delight in travel. For her, with a family of four to bring up on her own and no resources, this was confined to books, maps and the globe of the world. Then things became just a bit easier and in her fifties she went to Denmark on her own. After that, year by year, she travelled further and further.
I was in my thirties when I started. Paris first. Then Moscow, Then different parts of America. Then Italy. Then the far East. Then New Zealand. Then Poland. Then back to France. Always France.

Being imbued with the Puritan work ethic Barbara would have approved of the fact that much of my travelling has been about the writing of novels. Evidence for this would be the working titles for some of my novels: for example, The Russian Novel (The Self Made Woman) ; the Singapore Novel (Long Journey Home); The Polish Novel (The Woman Who Drew Buildings); The London Novel (The Lavender House). Honesty’s Daughter was, for a time ‘The American Novel’. And my new novel for 2010 is The French Novel (2016 NB have written two 'French novels' An Englishwoman in France & Writing at the Maison Bleue)

Sadly, Barbara was only here on earth to read my first novel Lizza in printer’s proofs. But in all these travels - in all this writing – she has been at my shoulder.

Although it is fiction, Lizza is based on a fragile sliver of Barbara’s young life.
‘I stayed up all night reading it, love,’ she said, when she read the proofs. ‘Couldn’t stop. Do you know that foreman? Well his real name was …’

It seemed that much of my pure invention was real. Which brings me to another of my bequests from Barbara: some kind of psychic acuity. Her oldest sister was a full blown medium but Barbara herself was highly sensitive. This psychic acuity probably explains why - as I write - I hear my characters talking, see them walking. It could explain the fact that when I’ve written about a place – even a place thousands of miles away - and checked it out later, I find that it’s already there, in my drafting book.

This psychic predisposition is there as a kind of ‘sleeper’ in many of my novels, but with my new ‘French Novel’ I have come out and centred the narrative on the psychic predispositions of my character Starr and the way she relates to space and time. New departure! It’s been great to write.

I’ve benefitted from other bequests from Barbara –a love of the realities of history, a cherishing of the resonance of the spoken word, an innate story telling gene – all these would merit further stories here.

But an important bequest worth mentioning has been Barbara’s role model as a working mother with little regard for the domestic side of life. This has allowed me to write rather than dust, to make stories rather than make the bed. It has stood me in good stead all my working life and been instrumental in the production of so many novels.

However for now the greatest bequest to me is her continuing presence at my shoulder, and her pleasure through time at what has happened in my life - my new novels, my good teaching and my extraordinary family. 

Her grandson is now a very big grown-up.

Happy International Woman’s Day 2016, Barbara,  dear Mum and extraordinary muse. Much missed. 


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