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.

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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.

 

 

 

Where Do We Get Our Story Ideas?

girl learning person studying

 

“Talking is the first voice of a writer. I always heard it, I just didn’t know you could write it. I write the voices you hear every day—it’s just that people don’t recognize how wonderfully people talk. I think every time a person tells the truth, that person is speaking beautifully.” – Grace Paley

As a writer you’re probably always on red alert looking for story ideas. Maybe you use the world around you, seeking locations and characters and situations, listening in to conversations on buses or trains or in cafes. Changing your daily routine is a way to stimulate the  imagination. Drive or walk to a different part of your suburb or home town and look for different places to write. Writing in cafes is my thing. Challenge yourself to move out of your comfort zone in order to find new ideas. It helps to stay out of routine’s boring rut. I need to be physically comfortable and relaxed when I call on the  muse. Early in my writing career, I wrote sitting up in bed. The ultimate cosy comfort zone. Now a comfy couch in a cafe is my preferred relax place. And when I sit in a cafe to write I always have a printout beside me of the previous day’s writing session. So I’m never staring at a blank page. Helps with the panic, What the hell will I write next?

There’s no better way to find out where to get our story ideas than by hearing from the experts.  Check out some of my favorite authorial quotes below:

“Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind, is written large in his works.”— Virginia Woolf
“And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”― Sylvia Plath
“Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them. Most people don’t see any.” – Orson Scott
“I want to tell a story, in the old-fashioned way – what happens to somebody – but I want that ‘what happens’ to be delivered with quite a bit of interruption, turnarounds, and strangeness. I want the reader to feel something is astonishing – not the ‘what happens’ but the way everything happens.” –– Alice Munro

 

“If you haven’t got an idea, write a story anyway.” – William Campbell Gault

Some people keep a container filled with single words and draw out a word each day and write from it. That’s a good way to exercise the writing muscle and to get into the right (rather than left) side of the brain.

Good luck on your search for story ideas. I like to tell people I use anything that moves or makes a noise 🙂

For further reading, check out my posts Writing Tip: Don’t Forget to Pause and Writing Tip: Beating Resistance.  And to make sure not to miss anything from Libby Sommer Author you can follow me on Facebook  or Instagram.

5 Tips: Should You Write a Short Story or Novel?

adult book book store bookcase

Should you write short stories or work on a novel? Some say the difference between a short story and a novel is in the pacing. Are you a sprinter or a long distance runner?

Even though a short story and a novel have many similarities, such as characters, dialogue, plot, etc., there are aspects that a short story must have that a novel can live without. You can be looser when writing a novel, take your time building suspense, revealing information about the characters, and meander your way to the ending. The short story writer doesn’t have this freedom. Every sentence counts. The short story is an art form. It needs special skills and talents on the part of the author that novels do not.

And then there are novels-in-stories. My last two books, The Crystal Ballroom (2017) and The Usual Story (2018), are novels-in-stories:

‘While the short story pauses to explore an illuminated moment, and the novel chugs toward a grand conclusion, the novel-in-stories moves in spirals and loops, a corkscrewing joy ride.’ – Danielle Trussoni

Here are 5 tips on whether you should write a short story or a novel from Elizabeth Sims, Writer’s Digest

1. DURATION OF STORY
Obviously, the short story is short; the novel is long. But while short fiction typically ranges from 1,000–5,000 words, there’s another kind of length to discuss: time frame. One of the most prevalent characteristics of a short story is a concentrated time frame. A few hours, a day, a week. A short story that spans years or generations risks leaving the reader unsatisfied.

The novel, on the other hand, is the ideal form for a story that is literally extended in length. If you want to explore the effects of time on your characters, the novel is the more suitable vehicle.

So consider: How much time might your story require?

2. NUMBER OF CHARACTERS
Counting characters might seem simplistic, but actually it’s one of the best criteria for determining the scope of your story. If your cast keeps growing as you flesh out your plot—let’s say you’ll be portraying a large family, or a complex group—then a short story won’t serve. You simply don’t have room in 2,000 or even 7,000 words to draw more than a few characters effectively, giving each one enough presence for the reader to keep them straight, let alone relate
to them.

On the flip side, beware of relying on just a select few characters to carry a novel. On one hand, you’ll be able to develop those characters deeply, but on the other, you’ll risk losing readers who are restless for quicker pacing.

What about point of view? In a novel, the number of points of view is up to you. For short stories, it’s sensible to stick with the classic single POV, either first person or third limited. Briefer stories can also work well with the POV shifting between two characters, but when you get to three or more, the varying perspectives can dilute the power of the story.

3. PLOTS AND SUBPLOTS
I once had an editor advise me, as I was revising one of my early novels, to add more characters. I played around with the idea. As soon as I’d decided to add a few fresh faces and give them something to do, I realized that what my editor had really asked for was more plot.

Ding. More characters equal
more action.

Most short stories have but one plot. The very best, however, have what I call a plot-and-a-half—that is, a main plot and a small subplot that feeds in a twist or an unexpected piece of business that adds crunch and flavor to the story as
a whole.

Consider how much plot you’ve got worked out so far. Does one plot strand, or perhaps a plot-and-a-half, feel just right? Or is your story straining to bust out and explore territory you haven’t seen yet? Which leads us to …

4. THEMES
Coincidentally, when I got the assignment to write this piece, I’d been rereading Anton Chekhov’s short stories. My copy, a sublime little clothbound volume issued by the Modern Library in 1932, features marginalia written by previous owners. In the blank half-page after “Grief,” a story about a bereaved hackney driver and his callously abusive passengers, someone wrote, “Second-lowest man has one job in life: to keep the lowest man down.”

Now that is an incisive reading of the story. One vest-pocket-sized tale was all the great Chekhov needed to pierce our hearts with that truth. Just like Chekhov, in a short story you should be trying to get at one or two poignant aspects of being human. In a novel, you can create characters, let them loose, follow them and see what they do. If you feel your story will be more a journey than a statement, you may be leaning toward a novel.

5. COMMITMENT
Writing a novel could take a year or more, and whether you publish it or not, it’s a huge investment of time, energy, and mental and emotional strength. If you feel you’ve got a novel on your hands, consider these most important questions:

Do you lie awake thinking about your story? Do your characters come to you at odd moments and stand silently, waiting for you to do something with them?

Are you fully committed to doing whatever it takes to pour out your best? (It bears mentioning that in order to get your best, you often must pour out your worst—and be willing to toss it all in the trash one day.)

Are you afraid of wasting your time on something that might not succeed? (Everybody is.) The real question: Will fear turn you away from this task, or will you push through fear, risking failure but opening untold possibilities?

Will you be sorry if you don’t have a go at it?

Elizabeth Sims adds, ‘Whichever form you select, novel or short story, you should work with joy, with passion and without haste. And hey, you can always change your mind. Writing is a journey.’

For further reading, check out my posts Writing Is Like Becoming a Sushi Chef and Writing Tip: Use Your Obsessions. And to make sure not to miss anything from Libby Sommer Author you can follow me on Facebook  or Instagram.

Small Fictions

man walks beside train

Have you tried the short short form yet? I might have mentioned before that I am working on a book length series of small fictions – flash fictions and prose poems, some already published in literary journals.

This is one of my flash fictions, THE BACK PACK first published in Quadrant magazine in July 2011. Hope you enjoy it.

The Back Pack

What can a man who meets you at the station and offers to carry your backpack mean to a woman traveling the world alone?

I was scared, like anyone who has no sense of direction.  The journey was a series of stops and starts.  Whether to use the Eurail pass or post it back home and ask the kids to get me a refund.  Giovanni appeared one European winter, thick padded jacket, woolen beanie, scarf and gloves, tall and imposing,  I’ll carry your bag.

I was small, the backpack the length of my spine, the zip-off bag on one shoulder, the daypack positioned in front like a nine-month baby bump.  That evening, as we climbed the steps of the Corniche – the wind bitter across the Mediterranean, the metal stairs covered with slippery ice, the railing melting beneath my hand.  Soon it would become my railway platform, my steps, and Giovanni my landlord.

We walked there in the crisp night air.  My own place.  It didn’t cost much.  No-one yet knew I was here.  I could ask Giovanni if I needed any help.  I knew my children would be pleased I had a base.  I didn’t want them to worry.  It was the thing I wanted the most secretly, studying maps, absorbing travel books.  To be safe, a desire whispered to the moon that moved behind my shoulder at night.  If you guide me to a safe haven I promise to be happy.  And the moon listened.  I did my best.

The winter sky closed down and the spring began its flowering.  I took photos and painted and rang the children every week.  Watch your money, don’t talk to strangers, be careful walking at night – you know the drill.  The pebbly beach, the weekend markets, it was all there for the exploring.  A glimpse of the sea between terracotta roofs – a vision in turquoise.  The cobbled streets could show which way to follow – and none of them wrong.  A room at the top of the stairs – till June I stayed reading the English books Giovanni had left in the bookcase, shopping for food, telling my kids and friends they should come for a visit.

Where had the months gone?  Almost two years on the road.  Summer approached. The rents would go up and the tourists arrive.  Time to move on.  I could only take with me what I could carry on my back.  A Jewish gypsy they said.  One more step into the unknown.  Pack up, give away what I couldn’t manage, but keep the palette knife and miniature easel.  There was stuff happening back home.    The boys were grown and earning a living.  Their sister turned twenty-one.  People were reinventing themselves all over the place then coming back home.  A thousand train rides later, my mother nearly eighty.  I won’t be around much longer, she cried.

His was a helping hand in a world that says, but what are you doing there?  What are you doing?

Copyright © Libby Sommer 2011

For further reading, check out my posts  What Is A Prose Poem? and Writing Tip: A Sense of Place. And to make sure not to miss anything from Libby Sommer Author you can follow me on Facebook  or Instagram.

Best wishes for the festive season, dear WordPress friends.

 

What does ‘show don’t tell’ mean exactly?

woman sitting on chair while reading book

What does ‘show don’t tell’ mean? It means don’t tell us about loneliness (or any of those complex words like dishonesty, secrecy, jealousy, obsession, regret, death, injustice, etc) show us what loneliness is. We will read what you’ve written and feel the bite of loneliness. Don’t tell us what to feel. Show us the situation, and that feeling will be triggered in us.

When you take your child to school on their first day you may find yourself teary and relieved at the same time. Put into words what you see: the child’s face, the wave at the gate, the other mothers saying their goodbyes, another child coming up to take your son by the hand. We will get what you’re trying to say without you telling us directly.

When you write, be conscious of the senses and how they connect to the experiences you are writing about. Use sight, sound, smell, touch to create concrete pictures. The senses allow you to get as close as humanly possible in words to the wedding, the sunrise, the dog, the suitcase. It’s the best way to penetrate your story and breathe life into it. Don’t tell us about something, drop deep, enter the story and take us with you.

‘Use strong, specific verbs, and avoid overusing adverbs. Provoke emotion through character reactions and vivid writing, don’t simply tell readers how to feel. Use well-placed details to bring scenes to life. Use expressive dialogue to show characters’ emotions and attitudes.’ – Creative Writing 101, Wright State University

For further reading, check out my posts  Have You Tried Flash Fiction Yet? and Is There A Link Between Spirituality and Creativity?. And to make sure not to miss anything from Libby Sommer Author you can follow me on Facebook  or Instagram.

Writing Tip: Endings

pen writing notes studying

Beginnings and endings are the hardest part of creating a successful story and the most important. More important than plot and character, in my opinion, especially in short stories. “Conclusions are the weak points of most authors,” George Eliot remarked, “but some of the fault lies in the very nature of a conclusion, which is at best a negation.”

“As Jane Austen pointed out in a metafictional aside in Northanger Abbey, a novelist cannot conceal the timing of the end of the story (as a dramatist or film-maker can, for instance) because of the telltale compression of the pages.” – The Art of Fiction

The closer and closer you get to the ending, the more weight every word has, so that by the time you get to the last several words each one carries an enormous meaning. A single gesture or image at the end can outweigh all that has gone before. Choose each word carefully – even simple words like dark or down, light or up drastically affect the sense of the ending and therefore the entire story. Anything revelatory or portentous at the end of the story is very heavy indeed. Heavy-handed, in fact, is the way it’s likely to come out.

In beginning the story certain tensions, ideas, and characters have been launched. These themes then fly in intricate formations. The ending doesn’t have to provide a surprise. All it has to do is land safely. – Jerome Stern, Making Shapely Fiction

I’m rather proud of this ending to my short story Jean-Pierre, first published in Quadrant in July-August 2016. It’s the last page of a 5,000 word piece.

During that last day she thought of nothing but Jean-Pierre as she packed and cleaned out her little apartment.

‘What do you do, you have a stopover in Dubai?’ Jean-Pierre said, standing next to her at the taxi rank in the early morning chill.  A bitter wind blew from the mountains.  He had come over to carry her bag down the stairs.

‘I go straight through.  It’s three hours on the ground in Dubai, so I walk around the airport then read my book.’

Jean-Pierre looked directly into her eyes.  ‘I’ve bought you a little gift,’ he said.

‘You have?’

‘Don’t unwrap it until you’re on the plane.’

She smiled.  ‘Okay.”  Then she looked at his face, to place him clearly in her mind.  He was wearing a white t-shirt and blue jeans under a padded coat.  She kissed him on the lips, then got into the taxi.

‘Something to take with you,’ he said, leaning in the window.  In his hand he clasped a small gift-wrapped box.  The sun, still low on the horizon, cast an amber glow on his precious face.

‘Thank you,’ she said.  She reached for his hand through the window and then put on her seatbelt.

And she thought about this all twenty-four hours of the journey across the Indian Ocean.  She would keep opening the little box to admire the marquisite earrings he’d given her.  She would catch a taxi from the airport and at home notice the house smelt musty; she would open all the doors and windows to let the air move through, the curtains blowing and air coming in and out.  From a far-away-place, and at night, he would ring to say, resignedly, ‘My mother is living with me now.’  His gift, when she’d take the earrings out of their black box, would remind her of something that had happened to her once.

She felt like someone who she had always known, that old friend of herself, grounded in home, decisions already made, and behind her somewhere, like the shadow of an identical twin, her other self, who must remain in the far-off distance,  never to be exposed to the light.

Copyright © Libby Sommer 2016

For further reading, check out my posts  My 3 Favourite How-To-Write Books and Why Do You Write?. And to make sure not to miss anything from Libby Sommer Author you can follow me on Facebook  or Instagram.