Why Exercise the Writing Muscle?

man holding barbell

Writing as a daily practice is a way to exercise the writing muscle. Like working out at the gym, the more you do it, the more results you get. Some days you just don’t feel like working out and you find a million reasons not to go to the gym or out for a jog, a walk, a swim, a bike ride, but you go anyway. You exercise whether you want to or not. You don’t wait around till you feel the urge to work out and have an overwhelming desire to go to the gym. It will never happen, especially if you haven’t been into health and fitness for a long time and you are pretty out of shape. But if you force yourself to exercise regularly, you’re telling your subconscious you are serious about this and it eventually releases its grip on your resistance. You just get on and do it. And in the middle of the work out, you’re actually enjoying it. You’ve felt the endorphins kick in. When you get to the end of the jog, the walk, the bike ride, the swim, the gym workout or the Pilates, Yoga or Zumba class, you don’t want it to end and you’re looking forward to the next time.

That’s how it is with writing too. Once you’ve got the flow happening, you wonder why it took you so long to turn up on the page. Bum on chair is what I used to say to my writing students. Through daily practice your writing does improve.

In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron’s book on discovering and recovering your creative self, she refers to daily writing practice as the morning pages. She recommends writing three pages of longhand, strictly stream-of-consciousness—moving the hand across the page and writing whatever comes to mind every day.

Author of Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg refers to writing practice as timed exercise. She says you might time yourself for ten minutes, twenty minutes, or longer. It’s up to you, but the aim is to capture first thoughts. “First thoughts have tremendous energy. It is the way the mind first flashes on something. The internal censor usually squelches them, so we live in the realm of second and third thoughts, thoughts on thought, twice and three times removed from the direct connection of the first fresh flash.”

Her rules for writing practice are:

1. Keep your hand moving.
2. Don’t cross out.
3. Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation , grammar.
4. Lose control.
5. Don’t think. Don’t get logical.
6. Go for the jugular.

In Creative Journal Writing, author Stephanie Dowrick refers to the same process as free writing; writing without judging, comparing and censoring. “Continuing to write when you don’t know what’s coming next and especially when you feel your own resistances gathering in a mob to mock you.”

Daily writing practice has been described as clearing the driveway of snow before reaching the front door. In other words, it’s what we do as a warm up before the real writing takes place.  And it’s a way to loosen up and discover our own unique writing ‘voice’.  That’s what publishers are looking for when they read through the slush pile.  The storyteller’s voice.  The authentic writing voice of the author is what engages the reader.

What about you? Are you able to carve some time out each day to write?

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Facing the Blank Page

woman in black leather jacket sitting on red chair

When I used to teach classes to beginning writers, it was good.  It forced me to think back to the beginning to when I first put pen to paper.  The thing is, every time we sit down and face the blank page, it’s the same.  Every time we start a new piece of writing, we doubt that we can do it again.  A new voyage with no map.  As people say, it is like setting off towards the horizon, alone in a boat, and the only thing another person can do to help us, is to wave from the shore.

So when I used to teach a creative writing class, I had to tell them the story all over again and remember that this is the first time my students are hearing it.  I had to start at the very beginning.

First up, there’s the pen on the page.  You need this intimate relationship between the pen and the paper to get the flow of words happening.  A fountain pen is best because the ink flows quickly.  We think faster than we can write.  It needs to be a “fat” pen to avoid RSI.

Consider, too, your notebook.  It is important.  The pen and paper are your basic tools, your equipment, and they need to be with you at all times.  Choose a notebook that allows you plenty of space to write big and loose.  A plain cheap thick spiral notepad is good.

After that comes the typing up on the computer and printing out a hard copy.  It’s a right and left brain thing.  You engage the right side of the brain, the creative side, when you put pen to paper, then bring in the left side, the analytic side, when you look at the print out.  You can settle back comfortably with a drink (a cup of tea even) and read what you’ve written.

Then editing and rewriting.

Patrick White said that writing is really like shitting; and then, reading the letters of Pushkin a little later, he found Pushkin said exactly the same thing.  Writing is something you have to get out of you.

Good luck on your creative journey. It’s a tough one. Hang in there and keep writing.

11 Tips: What Makes A Good Story?

portrait of girl wearing christmas hat

Everyone loves a good story. That’s the reason why so many people flock to the movies or spend hours reading novels – it’s because we love to get lost in a great tale. Here are 11 tips from the experts on how to write something fabulous.

1. Tension is the cornerstone of any good story. Eric Nylund

2.  A good story, just like a good sentence, does more than one job at once. That’s what literature is: a story that does more than tell a story, a story that manages to reflect in some way the multilayered texture of life itself. Karen Thompson Walker

3.  Be unpredictable, be real, be interesting. Tell a good story. James Dashner

4.  A good story cannot be devised; it has to be distilled. Raymond Chandler

5.  A good story should make you laugh, and a moment later break your heart. Chuck Palahniuk

6.  Tension is the cornerstone of any good story. Eric Nylund

7.  No, it’s not a very good story – its author was too busy listening to other voices to listen as closely as he should have to the one coming from inside. Stephen King

8.  My only conclusion about structure is that nothing works if you don’t have interesting characters and a good story to tell. Harold Ramis

9.  I do feel that if you can write one good sentence and then another good sentence and then another, you end up with a good story. Amy Hempel

10. I’m just trying to write a good story, strictly from imagination. People just think it’s random, they don’t see the rewriting, phrasing of characters, choosing the words, bringing the world to light in which the characters live in. That creates an illusion that this is real. Eric Jerome Dickey

11. I always try to tell a good story, one with a compelling plot that will keep the pages turning. That is my first and primary goal. Sometimes I can tackle an issue-homelessness, tobacco litigation, insurance fraud, the death penalty-and wrap a good story around it. John Grisham

Hope you find these tips useful. For further reading, check out my posts 3 Parts to a Great Blurb and 10 Ideas for Writing Practice  And to make sure not to miss anything from Libby Sommer Author you can follow me on Facebook  or Instagram.

 

 

 

Will my story resonate with anyone?

a man and woman dancing tango

When you write a story, you never know if it will resonate with anyone. Then a person like Dr Beatriz Copello writes a review and you find yourself dancing with joy, thinking how blessed you are.

Beatriz Copello’s review was published by The Compulsive Reader and you can read it below:

A review of The Usual Story by Libby Sommer

Reviewed by Beatriz Copello

The Usual Story 
by Libby Sommer
Ginninderra Press
Paperback, ISBN: 9781760415792, July 2018, $27.50, 80pp

The Usual Story by Libby Sommer takes the reader into the life and mind of Sofia.  Sofia is a middle-aged woman, a writer and very much involved in dancing, particularly Tango.

Tango, a dance that was born in the 1800s around the port of Buenos Aires, Argentina, was the dance of port workers and women of the night. Nowadays, this complicated and elegant dance is very much in vogue and danced around the world. Tango gives some sort of skeleton to a large part of The Usual Story. Other sections deal with relationships from the past and the present.

The reader gets to know Sofia as she dances and relates to the other dancers who participate in the Tango classes. In an interesting way Sommer mixes in her text Sofia’s tango adventures and lessons with her thoughts and love experiences, as well as evocative descriptions of her surroundings.

There is something in human beings that makes them ponder relationships. Sommer, with a very fine narrative, engages us in Sofia’s analysis of the past, particularly in her relationships with her parents and with two of her younger lovers J and Tom. The writer has the ability to create very believable characters. She handles feelings in a measured and unsentimental way. The author says about J:

Little by little, I’d learned new things about J. Once, when staying with him in that first summer, I found him lying on my bed with so pitiful a look on his face that I couldn’t see into it. It was very painful to realise how utterly defeated he looked; everything about him was different to what I’d seen before, out of sync, closed down, remote, his very guts hanging out in front of me.

Every now and again we encounter in the narrative some profound thoughts from Sofia. She reflects: “I think that when you are really stuck, when you have stood still in the same place for far too long, it’s almost as if a bomb needs to go off, to get you to move, to jump, and then to hope for the best.”

The Usual Story contains many things about the every day, the mundane, the routine of living but it is presented in such an engaging way that the story becomes real. It is impressive the ability of Sommer to fragment the narrative when we encounter Sofia’s visits to the psychiatrist. We read about her participation in Milongas, asking relatives about her past, and about love and its many facets. All of these interspersed with poetic descriptions of place. Sydneysiders will recognise many areas of the Eastern suburbs in Sommer’s vivid imagery. The following is one of those descriptions that has cinematic qualities:

The sea looks different every day. Today it’s a mid-grey tone, its surface moving in a gentle tugging motion as a container ship moves south along the horizon. A moist breeze brushes my cheek as the waves make a hushing noise as they curl into the sand of the beach. I watch the colour creep slowly into the clouds. A flock of lorikeets balances on the bare branches in front of me.

There is a certain melancholy in The Usual Story which I believe stems from the relationship of Sofia with her mother and her daughter. Relationship between parents and children can be very complicated. As sons and daughters we tend to arrive at a different view of them according to our age. As children, our parents are like gods; as adolescents they can be our enemies; as adults we tend to be more objective but we are too busy with our own children to spend time analysing these relationships. We may also depend on our parents to help with our progeny and this clouds our assessment. A different thing is when we get to that same period of life:  our third age. It is then, when we have lived and experienced life, that we can be more objective in the evaluation and appreciation of our parents. Sofia is at that stage and she can see clearly her mother’s distant and cold behaviour, but there must be in her a grain of insecurity so she wants to check what she thinks she knows. She wants to be sure. So she searches through memories, analysing them, confirming facts with other relatives.

Sofia’s relationship with her daughter is not perfect either. After seeing a mother and a daughter embrace each other with love she says: “They embrace and then walk to the door, still entwined. I feel a pang of wistfulness for my own daughter as I watch them walk away. My daughter who hadn’t wanted to spend a weekend away, just the two of us. She’d said we make each other tense if we’re together too much. But she’d said it in a kind voice.

‘You don’t mind, do you?’ she’d asked.

I did mind. ‘At least you’re honest with me,’ I said.”

As a psychologist, I found The Usual Story fascinating because the characters are so interesting and authentic. As a reviewer, I enjoyed the book’s clear narrative, perhaps a little leisurely at times, but the pace picks up engaging the reader with a beautiful text.

About the reviewer: Dr Beatriz Copello is a former member of NSW Writers Centre Management Committee, writes poetry, reviews, fiction and plays. Beatriz’s poetry has been published in literary journals such as Southerly and Australian Women’s Book Review and in many feminist publications.  She has read her poetry at events organised by the Sydney Writers Festival, the NSW Writers Centre, the Multicultural Arts Alliance, Refugee Week Committee, Humboldt University (USA), Ubud (Bali) Writers Festival.

Print and ebook editions of The Usual Story available from Ginninderra Press, Amazon, Book Depository and other online booksellers.

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

Have You Tried Flash Fiction Yet?

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Have you heard the term flash fiction? What does it mean?

‘A flash fiction piece is a self-contained story (beginning/middle/end), 1,000 words or less, that can entertain, intrigue, and satisfy a reader during an F5 tornado. That’s it. No genre restrictions, age requirements, or prior experience needed. Just quick, clean stories.’ – Writer’s Digest

‘Part poetry, part narrative, flash fiction–also known as sudden fictionmicro fiction, short short stories, and quick fiction—is a genre that is deceptively complex.’ – The Review Review

‘Flash fiction is a fictional work of extreme brevity that still offers character and plot development. Identified varieties, many of them defined by word count, include the six-word story, the 280-character story, the “dribble”, the “drabble”, “sudden fiction”, flash fiction, nanotale, and “micro-story”.’ – Wikipedia

I like writing in a short form. I’ve been told I have the sensibility of a poet because I have the ability to distill, so the short form suits me. You may be more of a long distance runner, rather than a sprinter, and prefer the long form of a novel.

Have a read of my flash fiction titled It’s Pot Luck When You Move Into A Unit, winner of the short short fiction UTS Alumni Competition. Hope you enjoy it.

It’s Pot Luck When You Move Into a Unit

A nice quiet weekend? the woman downstairs said.  What do you mean? I said, through the open back door, a bag of rubbish in each hand.  She smoothed her ironing on the board and said, They weren’t around over the weekend—with the baby.  She looked happy.  I’m lucky living on the top floor, I said.  She nodded towards the other side of the building.  Jim isn’t so luckyhe’s got the woman upstairs, she said, When he plays the piano and she thumps on the floor.   She put the iron back on its stand.  She’s heavy-footed, that woman.  Bang, bang, bang.   I hear her coming down the stairs every morning at six, and the slam of the front door. 

That night the wind knocked my vase off the window ledge.  I lay awake wondering if the noise of the smash had woken up the people underneath—the ones whose barbecuing sends smoke and disgusting meat smells into my unit.  Nothing clings to your furniture like the stink from last week’s burnt fat.   Sorry about the crash, I muttered to the floor, It was the wind.

Copyright © Libby Sommer 2018

Why not try your hand at writing in this short form and enter a flash fiction competition. Good luck.

 

My latest book has been accepted

painting of girl lying on beach in torquoise bikini reading a book

A big thank you to Ginninderra Press.  STORIES FROM BONDI has been accepted for publication by this small but prestigious Australian publisher.

The Ginninderra Press philosophy:

‘We believe that all people – not just a privileged few – have a right to participate actively in cultural creation rather than just being passive consumers of mass media. Our culture is revitalised and enriched when everyone is encouraged to fulfil their creative potential and diminished when that creative potential is stifled or thwarted. We love to observe the transformative possibilities for people when they see their work published and acknowledged. Getting published can and does change lives.’

Getting published has definitely changed my life. The problem has been that larger publishers are not interested in novellas or short story collections.

My first book MY YEAR WITH SAMMY (2015) was a novella, the second two, THE CRYSTAL BALLROOM (2017) and THE USUAL STORY (2018), were novels-in-stories.

STORIES FROM BONDI is a short story collection and will be released in late 2019. An earlier version of the manuscript was part of my MA in Writing (UTS) back in 2001.

I’m thrilled and delighted and very very thankful to Stephen Matthews, Ginninderra Press.

Ginninderra Press, described in The Canberra Times as ‘versatile and visionary’, is an independent book publisher set up in 1996 to provide opportunities for new and emerging authors as well as for authors writing in unfashionable genres or on non-mainstream subjects. In the words of one of our authors, we are ‘a small but significant publisher of small but significant books’.

As an author writing in unfashionable genres:  novellas and short story collections, I am extremely grateful to this award-winning independent publisher for taking me on. If it wasn’t for Stephen Matthews my work would not be out in the world.