Writing Tip: Small Fictions

 

Libby Sommer with her book The Crystal Ballroom in book store
At Harry Hartog Bookseller

I love writing small fictions, also known as hybrid fiction:  flash, micro fiction, prose poetry.  The form is gaining in traction and you can enter your stories in various competitions like the New Flash Fiction Review.

‘New Flash Fiction Review has chosen to honor master storyteller Anton Chekhov through holding an annual award for excellence in flash fiction— or as they might have said, back in Chekhov’s time, “very short fiction”. Anton Pavlovich Chekhov was a Russian playwright and short-story writer, who is considered to be among the greatest writers of short fiction in history. Chekhov’s mastery for saying a lot with a little makes him one of the flash fiction’s spiritual inspirations. Over one-hundred years before the term “flash” was invented, Chekhov himself was writing short stories in under 1,000 words, stories such as “After the Theatre”, “A Country Cottage”, and “Bliss”. In 1886, Chekhov wrote in a letter to his brother, “… you’ll have a moonlit night if you write that on the mill dam a piece of glass from a broken bottle glittered like a bright little star, and that the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled past like a ball.”’ – New Flash Fiction Review

My small fiction titled Undulations was first published in Quadrant magazine. Hope you enjoy it.

Undulations

So we’re sitting in Melbourne in a vegan restaurant reminiscing about our school days spent mucking-up in the back row and Jane (her hair still red, short and frizzy, like childhood) remembers daring me to ask our fourth-grade Geography teacher how to spell ‘undulations’.  What?  “Because I wanted to write her a message,” Jane says.  “An unsigned message saying, ‘The way you run your hands over your boobs to demonstrate undulations is disgusting,’ but didn’t know how to spell it.  So I told you that if you were my friend, you’d ask her.  You know how she always said to speak up if we couldn’t spell something?  For some reason she wrote the word down on a piece of paper, rather than on the blackboard.  Maybe she thought you couldn’t see properly from our eyrie.  So you got back to your desk and passed it to me under the chair.  I wrote in my best handwriting, ‘Your demonstrations of undulations are gross,’ blotted it carefully, and placed it furtively on her table after the recess bell had cleared the room.  When we filed in after lunch, I saw her open it up.”  Jane taps me on the arm enthusiastically.  “What happened then?” I say.  “Was she angry?  Did she think it was me?  Did I get punished?”  How forgetful was I?  Jane had mastered the art of getting the ink from the inkwell to the pen nib to the paper—no ugly blotches—her cursive as good as a professional engraver’s.  Even after all this time, she still prefers a fountain pen and has a proclivity for setting wrongs right.  “She threw the chalk in the bin, reached for her cardigan and draped it over her shoulders,” Jane says, grinning.  “Yes, that’s what happened.  And she didn’t demonstrate undulating landscapes on herself or on any of us ever again.”

Copyright © 2018 Libby Sommer

Or you can study this growing-in-popularity short form by getting a copy of Best Small Fictions by Sonder Press:  ‘The Best Small Fictions is the first ever contemporary anthology solely dedicated to anthologizing the best short hybrid fiction published in a given calendar year.’

“If you are a writer of any kind, this book is also a must read because it will only enhance and inspire your own work, particularly through models of stellar openings/endings and meticulous editing.” — JMWW

 

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Why Do You Write?

woman lying on green grass while holding pencil

It’s a tough gig being a writer. Lots of isolation, lots of intense concentration, lots of rejection from publishers and agents.

Why do I write? It’s a good question to ask yourself.

  1.  Because I’m a fool.
  2.  Because I want to impress my old school friends.
  3.  So people will like me.
  4.  So my friends will hate me.
  5.  I’m no good at speaking up.
  6.  So I can invent a new way of looking at the world.
  7.  In order to write the great Australian novel and become famous.
  8.  Because I’m a nut case.
  9.  Because I’m an undiscovered literary genius.
  10.  Because I have something to tell.
  11.  Because I have nothing to tell.

One of my favourite books on the writing process is The Writing Life by Pullitzer Prize winning Annie Dillard. It’s a small and passionate guide to the terrain of a writer’s world.

Dillard begins:

When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow. Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow, or this time next year. You make the path boldly and follow it fearfully. You go where the path leads. At the end of the path, you find a box canyon. You hammer out reports, dispatch bulletins. The writing has changed, in your hands, and in a twinkling, from an expression of your notions to an epistemological tool. The new place interests you because it is not clear. You attend. In your humility, you lay down the words carefully, watching all the angles. Now the earlier writing looks soft and careless. Process is nothing; erase your tracks. The path is not the work. I hope your tracks have grown over; I hope birds ate the crumbs; I hope you will toss it all and not look back.

There is a famous story in the Zen world:

The student, newly arrived at the monastery, asks the master, “What work will I do as I seek enlightenment?”

The master replies, “Chop wood, carry water.”

“And what work will I do once I achieve enlightenment?” asks the student.

“Chop wood, carry water,” says the master.

So how does this stay apply to the writing life? A writer writes. That’s all there is to it.

“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.” —E. B. White

What about you? Why do you write?

18 Years of Notes and Cards

woman dressed as mermaid swimming underwater

The year is 2000. I’m slogging away at a Masters in Writing at UTS. I’d had two careers already, in film and television production at the ABC (an engine-room role) and as Principal of my own PR agency, but my dream had always been to become a writer. My children were grown up and living their own lives. One day towards the end of that year the phone rang and someone left a message saying they were Les Murray. Ha ha, I thought. As if Australia’s most famous living poet would be ringing me. I had sent a story titled Art and the Mermaid to the address on the Quadrant website. Imagine my disbelief and indescribable joy when I found out it wasn’t a friend playing a trick on me, but was in fact the real Les Murray, Literary Editor of Quadrant. He said he’d like to take Art and the Mermaid for Quadrant.

That phone call began an 18-year friendship and working relationship. It changed my life.

The thrill of seeing my work published regularly in Quadrant has given me credibility as a fiction writer and, more recently, as a poet. I’ve felt encouraged to continue to explore unique ways of expressing my thoughts and ideas.

Where would I be if it wasn’t for Les Murray? My writing career may never had started, or continued. To date, three books published, a fourth coming out next year – each book containing chapters that were first published in Quadrant.

Les’s inclusion of my work in the magazine has been instrumental in my development. He’s lifted my confidence, inspired me and made me proud of being a writer. Published in Quadrant was public validation and acceptance into the literary world.

We communicated about my stories and poetry through notes and postcards over all these years: I’d post him a submission and a short letter and he’d respond with either a chatty postcard to say ‘Yes’, or a note saying ‘Alas, …’

When Quadrant published my first story Art and the Mermaid in 2001, I had no idea the next 18 years would lead to 22 more stories and 4 poems published in Quadrant.

With the retirement of Les Murray as Literary Editor, it’s the poignant end of the era of Les at Quadrant. However, Les’s impact continues through the new and established writers he has fostered and who continue their careers. I am forever grateful that I was one of those writers. Congratulations. Literary Editor at Quadrant since March 1990.

Here is my story Art and the Mermaid, first published in Quadrant:

Once upon a time it came to pass, so it is said, that an enormous storm swept the coast of New South Wales, doing extensive damage to the ocean beaches – destroying jetties, breakwaters and washing away retaining walls.  Mountainous seas swept Bondi Beach and dashed against the cliffs carrying ruin with every roller.  At North Bondi near Ben Buckler a huge submerged block of sandstone weighing 233 tons was lifted ten feet and driven 160 feet to the edge of the cliff where it remains to this day.

One day a Sydney sculptor, Lyall Randolph, looked upon the rock and was inspired.  The sculptor was a dreamer.  Let us, he said, have two beautiful mermaids to grace the boulder.  Using two Bondi women as models he cast the two mermaids in fibreglass and painted them in gold.

Without Council approval and at his own expense he erected The Mermaids for all to see on the giant rock that had been washed up by the sea.  The Mermaids sat side by side on the rock.  One shaded her eyes as she scanned the ocean and the other leant back in a relaxed fashion with an uplifted arm sweeping her hair up at the back of her neck.  Their fishy tails complemented the curves and crevices of their bodies.

It so happened that less than a month after The Mermaids were put in place, one was stolen and damaged.  The Council held many meetings to decide if she should be replaced using ratepayers’ money.  The council had previously objected to the sculptor placing the statues there without Council permission.  The sculptor had argued that before placing The Mermaids in position he had taken all necessary steps to obtain the requisite permission.

The large boulder at Ben Buckler, upon which The Mermaids were securely bolted and concreted, he said, is not in the municipality of Waverley at all.  It is in the sea.  According to the Australian Constitution high-tide mark is the defined limit of the Waverley Council’s domain.  The Maritime Services Board and the Lands Department both advised me they had no objection to the erection of The Mermaids.

One Waverley Alderman said he wished both mermaids had been taken instead of only one.  Someone else said the sculptor didn’t need the Council’s permission to put them there in the first place and the The Mermaids had given Bondi a great attraction without any cost to the Council.  The sculptor said The Mermaids had brought great publicity to the Council.  They had been featured in films, newspapers, television and the National Geographic magazine.

The Mayor used his casting vote in favour of the mermaid and she was re-installed.

For over ten years the two beautiful golden mermaids reclined at Ben Buckler, attracting many thousands of sightseers to the beach.

Poised on the huge boulder they braved the driving storms of winter until one day one was washed off.  The Council saw its opportunity and removed the other.

Today, only the remnants of one mermaid remain – but not on the rock.  In a glass cabinet in Waverley Library at Bondi Junction all that is left of the two beautiful mermaids is a figure with half a face.  There’s a hole instead of a cheek, a dismembered torso, part of an uplifted arm, the tender groove of an armpit.  And there, down below, a complete fish’s tail.

Copyright © 2018 Libby Sommer

Header image:  Creative Commons

My 3 Favourite How-To-Write Books

three book covers: The Artist's Way, Writing Down the Bones, Becoming a writer

So much advice out there on writing process but these three books, old ones but good ones, are my favorites. You can see how well-loved they are by how many pages are marked with stickers. I’ve used the books many times when teaching my ‘Writing from Within‘ course where we try to harness the unconscious by falling into an artistic coma.

1.

Have you ever longed to be able to draw or paint, write or compose music? In ‘The Artist’s Way‘ by Julia Cameron you can discover how to unlock your latent creativity and make your dreams a reality.

The Artist’s Way‘  provides a twelve-week course that guides you through the process of recovering your creative self. It dispels the ‘I’m not talented enough’ conditioning that holds many people back and helps you to unleash your own inner artist.

The Artist’s Way‘ helps demystify the creative process by making it part of your daily life. It tackles your self-doubts, self-criticism and worries about time, money and the support to pursue your creative dream.

2.

In ‘Writing Down the Bones‘ by Natalie Goldberg, the secret of creativity, she makes clear, is to subtract rules for writing, not add them. It’s a process of “uneducation” rather than education. Proof that she knows what she’s talking about is abundant in her own sentences. They flow with speed and grace and accuracy and simplicity. It looks easy to a reader, but writers know it is the hardest writing of all.’ – Robert Pirsig

Writing Down the Bones‘  Natalie Goldberg’s first book, sold millions of copies and has been translated into twelve languages. For more than thirty years she practiced Zen and taught seminars in writing as a spiritual practice.

3.

Becoming a Writer‘ by Dorothea Brande is a reissue of a classic work published in 1934 on writing and the creative process. It recaptures the excitement of Dorothea Brande’s creative writing classroom of the 1920s. Decades before brain research “discovered” the role of the right and left brain in all human endeavor, Dorothea Brande was teaching students how to see again, how to hold their minds still, how to call forth the inner writer.

‘Refreshingly slim, beautifully written and deliciously elegant, Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer remains evergreen decades after it was first written. Brande believed passionately that although people have varying amounts of talent, anyone can write. It’s just a question of finding the “writer’s magic”–a degree of which is in us all. She also insists that writing can be both taught and learned. So she is enraged by the pessimistic authors of so many writing books who rejoice in trying to put off the aspiring writer by constantly stressing how difficult it all is.

‘With close reference to the great writers of her day–Wolfe, Forster, Wharton and so on–Brande gives practical but inspirational advice about finding the right time of day to write and being very self disciplined about it–“You have decided to write at four o’clock, and at four o’clock you must write.” She’s strong on confidence building and there’s a lot about cheating your unconscious which will constantly try to stop you writing by coming up with excuses. Then there are exercises to help you get into the right frame of mind and to build up writing stamina.

‘This is Dorothea Brande’s legacy to all those who have ever wanted to express their ideas in written form. A sound, practical, inspirational and charming approach to writing, it fulfills on finding “the writer’s magic.”‘ – John Gardner

I hope these recommendations are helpful. Do you have useful books on writing process you would add? Let me know in the comments and please share this post with a friend if you enjoyed it.