Semi­colons, first sen­tences and sto­ries that stick

Let­ters to a Young Writer: Some Prac­ti­cal and Philo­soph­i­cal Ad­vice

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - ARTS & BOOKS - Houman Barekat

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.

‘Mus­cu­lar comma’

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

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