Writing Is Not Unlike A Sushi Roll

sushi rolls displayed on wooden platter

by Libby Sommer:

Sometimes there is a person in one of my creative writing classes who is obviously very talented.  I can bring to mind one in particular.  You could sense people holding their breath as he read, and often his hands shook.  The writing process opened him up.  He said he had wanted to write for years.  He was so excited about writing that he straight away wanted to write a book.  I said to him, slow down.  Just practice writing for a while.  Learn what this is all about.

In Japan becoming an itamae of sushi requires years of on-the-job training and apprenticeship.  After five years spent working with a master or teacher itamae, the apprentice is given his first important task, the preparation of the sushi rice.

Writing, like becoming a Sushi Chef,  is a life’s work and takes a lot of practice.  The process is slow, and at the start you are not sure what you are making.

Futomaki  (“thick roll” – rice on inside, nori on the outside)

Uramaki   (“inside-out roll” – rice on outside, nori on the inside)

Temaki     (“hand roll” – cone-shaped roll)

It took me 14 years to produce a manuscript that a publisher was prepared to turn into a book.  I am forever grateful to small but prestigious Ginninderra Press for taking me on. Two books so far: My Year With Sammy (2015) and The Crystal Ballroom (2017).

So cut yourself some slack before you head off on a writing marathon.

Writing is like learning to prepare the rice for sushi:  the apprenticeship is long, and in the beginning you are not sure whether a Futomaki, a Uramaki or a Temaki will be the end result.

I Am Not the Stories I Tell

two book covers: 'My Year With Sammy' and 'The Crystal Ballroom'

by Libby Sommer:

Sometimes when people read my stories they assume those stories are me.  They are not me, even if I write in the first person.  They were my thoughts and feelings at the time I wrote them.  But every minute we are all changing.  There is a great freedom in this.  At any time we can let go of our old selves and start again.  This is the writing process.  Instead of blocking us, it gives us permission to move on.  Just like in a progressive ballroom dance:  you give your undivided attention to your partner—keep eye contact for the time you are dancing together—but then you move on to the next person in the circle.

The ability to express yourself on the page—to write how you feel about an old lover, a favourite pair of dance shoes, or the memory of a dance on a chilly winter’s night in the Southern Highlands—that moment you can support how you feel inside with what you say on the page.  You experience a great freedom because you are not suppressing those feelings.  You have accepted them, aligned yourself with them.

I have a poem titled ‘This is what it feels like’. It’s a short poem.  I always think of it with gratitude  because I was able to write in a powerful way how it was to be desperate and frightened.  The act of self expression made me feel less of a victim.  But when people read it they often say nothing. I remind myself, I am not the poem, I am not the stories I write.  People react from where they are in their own lives.  That’s the way things are.  The strength is in the act of writing, of putting pen to paper.   Write your stories and poems, show them to the world, then move on.  The stories are not you.  They are moments in time that pass through you.

What is your experience? 

A novel-in-stories

The Crystal Ballroom red and black book cover

Three weeks till launch of my second novel ‘The Crystal Ballroom’, a novel-in-stories.

So what is a novel-in-stories? One famous example  is Elizabeth Strout’s Pullitzer Prize-winning ‘Olive Kitteridge’.

‘A penetrating, vibrant exploration of the human soul, the story of Olive Kitteridge will make you laugh, nod in recognition, wince in pain, and shed a tear or two.’ – Goodreads

‘In a voice more powerful and compassionate than ever before, New York Times bestselling author Elizabeth Strout binds together thirteen rich, luminous narratives into a book with the heft of a novel, through the presence of one larger-than-life, unforgettable character: Olive Kitteridge.’

yellow Olive Kitteridge book cover

A novel-in-stories, or connected short stories that together become more than the sum of their parts,  is also known as a short story cycle.

‘A short story cycle (sometimes referred to as a story sequence or compositenovel) is a collection of short stories in which the narratives are specifically composed and arranged with the goal of creating an enhanced or different experience when reading the group as a whole as opposed to its individual parts.’ – Wikipedia
The Canterbury Tales book cover
‘A novel-in-stories is a book-length collection of short stories that are interconnected. (One of the very first examples of this genre is The Canterbury Tales; a more recent example is The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing, by Melissa Bank.) A novel-in-stories overcomes two key challenges for writers: the challenge of writing a novel-length work, and the challenge of publishing a book-length work of unrelated short stories. (Few publishers are willing to publish a short-story collection from an unknown writer.) So, the novel-in-stories helps you sell a story collection like you would a novel—as long as the interconnected nature of the stories is strong and acts as a compelling hook. Another advantage to novels-in-stories is that they afford you the opportunity to publish pieces of your novel in a variety of literary magazines, which might attract the attention of an editor or agent.’ – Writer’s Digest

‘The Crystal Ballroom’ is connected by place and by a first person narrator and her friend who exchange stories about the characters they meet at the singles dances as they search for a regular dance partner.

The book will be launched by Stephen Matthews on 1 July in downtown Melbourne at Collected Works Bookshop at an afternoon of launches and book reading to celebrate Ginninderra Press’s 21 years of independent publishing.

Counting down. Can hardly wait.

Plotter or Pantser?

man in business suit flying

Do you plot your stories, or fly by the seat of your pants?

Plot means the story line.  When people talk about plotting, they mostly mean how to set up the situation, where to put the turning points, and what the characters will be doing in the end.  What happens.

Some fiction writers write organically, not knowing where the story they are writing is going.  These writers say it would be boring to know what’s going to happen next and they lose their enthusiasm to tell the story because they know the outcome already.  They prefer throwing themselves over the edge and into the void.  This method can be very anxiety-producing.  It means you need a lot of faith in your process.

Other writers plan the story before they begin.  In detective fiction the story definitely needs to be worked out beforehand so information can be drip-fed to the reader.

In the past, when creating my short stories, I have worked organically and not known where my stories were headed as I wrote them.  The shorter the piece of fiction, the less need for plot.  You can write an interesting story in which not very much happens.  A woman fights with her neighbour, a man quits his job, or an unhappy family goes out for a pizza.  Simple structures work better than something too complicated when the story is short.

Now that I’m working on a new novel, I feel the need to plot.

“A plot can, like a journey, begin with a single step.   A woman making up her mind to recover her father’s oil paintings may be enough to start.  The journey begins there, as it did for Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment when he decided to commit his crime,”  Jerome Stern Making Shapely Fiction

The plot grows and develops out of what helps and what hinders the characters’ progress toward their goals.

The Writers’ Workshop   http://www.writersworkshop.co.uk/plot2.html  ask:

  • But how do you know if your draft plot has the right amount of weight to carry an entire novel?
  • What kind of structures work?
  • Is there a quick way to design your own plot template?
  • And how do you handle a book with multiple points of view?

“A good plot has a clear motivation.  It has a clear structure.  It has an outcome.  It has subplots.  A good plot looks something like the plot structure template below,” The Writers’ Workshop.

 

Motivation Lizzie Bennett wants to marry for love
Plot structure She meets Darcy & Wickham. She dislikes Darcy, and starts to fall for Wickham. Wickham turns out to be a bad guy; Darcy turns out to be a good guy. She now loves Darcy.
Outcome She marries Darcy
Subplot 1 Jane Bennett (Lizzie’s nice sister) loves Bingley. Bingley vanishes. He reappears. They get hitched.
Subplot 2 Lydia Bennett (Lizzie’s idiot sister) elopes with Wickham. She’s recovered.
Subplot 3 An idiot, Mr Collins, proposes marriage to Lizzie. She says no. Her friend, Charlotte, says yes.

Of course, there are a lot of things that the above plot template doesn’t tell you.  It doesn’t say where the novel is set, it doesn’t tell you anything about plot mechanics – it doesn’t say why Lizzie dislikes Mr Darcy, or how Lydia is recovered from her elopement.  It doesn’t have anything to say about character.

The Writers’ Workshop strongly advises us to build a template much like the one above before starting to write.  “If you’ve already started your MS then, for heaven’s sake, get to that template right away.”

So I’ve decided to put myself out of my misery and create a Plot Template for my new novel.  I already had my characters in place and knew what each character wanted.  But now I’m forced into planning an ending, which isn’t a bad thing.  Some writers don’t find the real beginning to their stories until they’ve written the ending.

So that’s all we need:  a beginning, a middle and an end.  Aristotle defined it like this:  a beginning is what requires nothing to precede it, an end is what requires nothing to follow it, and a middle needs something both before and after it.

Easy peasy.  Not.

What about you?  Do you plot or write organically?  What works and what sends you straight to the Writers Block Corner?

Header image:  Creative Commons

The Writers Life

grey dolphin swimming in the blue ocean

At a literary lunch recently I overheard someone say:  ‘The thing to do is put the idea in your subconscious.  Your brain will do the work.’

It takes time for our experience to make its way through our consciousness.  For example, it is hard to write about a journey while you are still in the midst of the adventure.  We have no distance from what is happening to us.  The only things we seem to be able to say are ‘having a great time’, ‘the weather is good’, ‘wish you were here’.  It is also hard to write about a place we just moved to, we haven’t absorbed it yet.  We don’t really know where we are, even if we can walk to the train station without losing our way.  We haven’t experienced three scorching summers in this country or seen the dolphins migrating south along the  coast in the winter.

“Maybe away from Paris I could write about Paris as in Paris I could write about Michigan.  I did not know it was too early for that because I did not know Paris well enough.” – Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast  (New York:  Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1964).

So we take in experience, but we need to let things make their way through our consciousness for a while and be absorbed by our whole selves.  We are bower birds, collecting experience, and from the thrown away apple skins, outer lettuce layers, tea leaves, and chicken bones of our minds come our ideas for stories and poems and songs.  But this does not come any time soon.  It takes a very long time (three to ten years in the case of literary fiction).  We need to keep picking through these scraps until some of the thoughts together form a pattern or can be organised around a central theme, something  we can shape into a narrative.  We mine our hidden thoughts for ideas.  But the ideas need time to percolate:  to slowly filter through.

Rumi, the thirteenth-century Sufi poet, summed up what could be the creative process when he wrote ‘The Guest House’:

This being human is a guest house.

Each morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture,

still, treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out

for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,

meet them at the door laughing and invite

them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.

Jalaluddin Rumi, in The Essential Rumi

Translated by Coleman Barks, 1999

Our work is to keep rummaging through the rubbish bins of our minds, exercising the writing muscle, in readiness to answer that knock at the door when it comes.

As the author Vivian Gornick said:  ‘The writers life is the pits.  You live alone and you work alone, every day I have to recreate myself.’  She paused and laughed.  ‘But when the work is going well there is nothing that compares.’

What about you? Are you ready to answer the knock at the door?  🙂

Header image: Creative Commons

Publication day!

 

The Crystal Ballroom red and black book cover

My second novel, The Crystal Ballroom is released today! If you’re in Australia you can order a copy from your favourite bricks and mortar bookseller or directly from Ginninderra Press. Print and ebook editions are also available from Amazon, Book Depository and other online booksellers.

‘Libby Sommer lays bare the foibles of human nature in her finely observed stories of love and loss in the singles dance scene. Brilliantly drawn with wit, compassion and poignancy, the characters you meet in The Crystal Ballroom are sure to remind you of someone—maybe even yourself.’ – Jan Cornall, Writer’s Journey.

 ‘Libby Sommer exposes the secret lives of the singles who dance at The Crystal Ballroom. Authentic and powerful, this unique book will be loved by the dancers and readers.’ Frida Kotlyar, ballroom, Latin and Argentine tango dancer.

 ‘Libby Sommer’s fiction has wit but is essentially serious with a subtle but strong underlying pathos, a wry humour and accomplished satirical tone.’ – Amanda Lohrey, Australian writer, and novelist. Patrick White Award winner.

‘Sommer’s existentialism is one of the best and most articulate voices of middle age angst ever.’ –Richard English, novelist and Visiting Lecturer, Brunel University London.

The book will be launched at Collected Works Bookshop in Melbourne on 1 July. Details to follow. If you’re free, come along.

I hope you enjoy reading The Crystal Ballroom: stories of love and loss in the singles dance scene. I’m very excited that My Year With Sammy and The Crystal Ballroom are out there in the public arena – thrilled that my work has finally made it out into the world after all these years.

10 Topics to Warm Up the Writing Muscle

close up of pen clasped in writers hand over notebook on her denim lap

Sometimes we sit at our desks to write and can’t think of anything to write about.  We face the blank page.  We sit there until blood pours from our foreheads, as one famous author was heard to say.

Making a list can be good.  It makes you start noticing material for writing in your daily life, and your writing comes out of a relationship with your life in all its richness.

10 ideas for writing practice:

  • Begin with “I don’t remember”. If you get stumped, just repeat the words “I don’t remember” on the page again and keep going.
  • Tell about sound as it arises. Be aware of sounds from all directions as they arise:  sounds near, sounds far, sounds in front, behind, to the side, above or below.  Notice any spaces between sounds.
  • Tell me about last evening. Dinner, sitting on the couch, preparing for bed.  Be as detailed as you can.  Take your time to locate the specifics and relive your evening on the page.
  • Tell me what boredom feels like.
  • See in your mind a place you’ve always loved. Visualise the colours, the sounds, the smells, the tastes.
  • Write about “saying goodbye”. Tackle it any way you like.  Write about your marriage breakup, leaving home, the death of a loved one.
  • What was your first job?
  • Write about the most scared you’ve ever been.
  • Write in cafes. Write what is going on around you.
  • Describe a parent or a child.
  • Some people have a jar full of words written on pieces of paper and select one piece of paper at random each day and write from that.  Others use a line of a poem to start them off.  Then every time they get stuck they rewrite that line and keep going.

Be honest.  Cut through the crap and get to the real heart of things.

Zen Buddhist, psychotherapist, writer and teacher, Gail Sher in her book One Continuous Mistake says the solution for her came via haiku (short unrhymed Japanese poems capturing the essence of a moment).

 “For several years I wrote one haiku a day and then spent hours polishing those I had written on previous days.  This tiny step proved increasingly satisfying,” Gail Sher.

She said it gradually dawned on her that it was not the haiku but the “one per day.”  Without even knowing it, she had developed a “practice.”  Every day, no matter what, she wrote one haiku.  In her mind she became the person who writes “a haiku a day.”  And that was the beginning of knowing who she was.

Gail Sher suggests writing on the same subject every day for two weeks.

“Revisiting the same subject day after day will force you to exhaust stale, inauthentic, spurious thought patterns and dare you to enter places of subtler, more ‘fringe’ knowing,” Gail Sher.

She writes in One Continuous Mistake that the Four Noble Truths for writers are:

  1. Writers write.
  2. Writing is a process.
  3. You don’t know what your writing will be until the end of the process.
  4. If writing is your practice, the only way to fail is to not write.

So start coming up with your own list of ideas for practice writing.  Life happening around us is good grist-for-the-mill.

Header image:  Creative Commons