Semicolons, first sentences and stories that stick
Letters to a Young Writer: Some Practical and Philosophical Advice
By Colum McCann Bloomsbury, £12.99
‘Just keep your arse in the chair. Arse in the chair. Arse in the chair.” Colum McCann is quite right: resisting the procrastinatory impulse – the writer’s nemesis – is a question of will, and ensconcing yourself in a physical space is the necessary starting point for any productive literary endeavour.
Pithy, direct and to the point, Letters to a Young Writer dispenses wisdom in short, easily digestible chapters, spanning everything from the technical aspects of writing to the business side of things, as well as some highly pertinent remarks about the importance of not being too hard on yourself.
Much of this advice is, in truth, little more than received wisdom repackaged: the need to conjure a sense of realism with small, telling details; the aesthetic benefits of shifting narrative perspectives and playing around with chronology; the suggestion that writers should go out and experience the real world for a couple of years before putting pen to paper; and so on.
One suspects the initiative for books like this comes not from the author but from the spreadsheet of some enterprising commissioning editor looking to piggyback on the proliferation of masters courses in creative writing. It beggars belief to imagine McCann, kicking his heels in his New York home thinking, This is what I want to do next.
At any rate, his spare, confidential tone elevates Letters to a Young Writer above the run-of-the-mill “how to” books on the market. McCann, who has written six novels in a literary career spanning more than two decades, is conversational and avuncular in these brief, second- person missives; even if, particularly when he addresses his reader as “young writer”, his manner verges on the parodic. This volume will be a useful starting point for an aspiring author in the very earliest stages of their literary journey, but anyone hoping for advanced insights may be disappointed.
Perhaps the most pleasing and refreshing nugget of counsel in these pages is McCann’s i njunction against excessive use of the semicolon: “It is a muscular comma when used correctly,” he rightly reminds us. Though the tendency to abuse this punctuation mark is by no means limited to inexperienced writers, it does crop up an awful lot in emerging fiction, and it’ s easy enough to understand why.
Repeated semicolon deployment works as a sort of syntactic crutch, a get- out that helps elide over weaknesses in the rhythm and flow of the prose. It can bestow a superficial veneer of dreamy profundity, an effect that comes too easily and too cheaply to be worth much at all. Saturation will usually result in prose that feels untethered and insubstantial, and lacks conviction.
Some of McCann’s other recommendations are less convincing. His chapter on characterisation advises writers to get to know their creations inside out, to really understand what makes them tick – “What is the first time she shoplifted? What makes her happy? What terrifies her? What does she feel most guilty about?” and so on – in order to make them as vivid as possible. But is this always necessary? A many worthy modern novels have featured comparatively two-dimensional protagonists whose neuroses are only lightly adumbrated, and whose portraits are all the more compelling for being, in a sense, unfinished.
It is important for such literary guidance manuals to avoid being too prescriptive if they are not to stifle creativity, although to McCann’s credit he does take care to qualify many of his suggestions to ensure they are not interpreted too rigidly.
A useful starting point . . . but anyone hoping for advanced insights may be disappointed
More egregiously, McCann lends his endorsement to that dubious mainstay of creative writing didacticism: that the prescription that a story’s opening line must pack a hefty punch. The excessive emphasis afforded to this imperative – be simultaneously profound, urgent, clever, funny, shocking, all in one sentence – is responsible for the prevalence of grotesquely overwritten opening sentences in workshopped fiction. Some stories even read as though they were conceived, in their entirety, by working backwards from a painstakingly arresting first sentence.
Here is an alternative suggestion, and you can have it for nothing: if your reader is going to abandon you because your opening line was not simultaneously profound, urgent, clever, funny and shocking enough to retain their attention, the chances are they would have left you anyway. Have the self- belief to write a first sentence that fits with your second, third and fourth sentences. That would be a start; literally.
Colum McCann: warns authors against excessive use of the semicolon, “a muscular comma when used correctly”. PHOTOGRAPH: CYRIL BYRNE