How is Writing Like a Sushi Roll?

close up photo of sushi served on table

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

The journey to completing a book reminds me of training to become a sushi chef.

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)

That’s how it was for me.  I thought I could jump in and write a book in 6 months.  In fact, it took me 20 years to write a publishable manuscript. My debut novel,  ‘My Year With Sammy’, the story of a difficult yet sensitive child, published by Ginninderra Press in 2015 went on to be Pick of the Week in Spectrum Books and winner of the Society of Women Writers Fiction Book Award in 2016.

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.

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Path to Publication

Libby Sommer holding a copy of The Crystal Ballroom in book store

Interviewer: I would like you to tell me about your Path to Publication from first idea to finished book. I’d like to know your inspirations and how The Crystal Ballroom became more than an idea. I also want to know about your writing process. Do you sit at a desk 9-5 or at a cafe during snatched lunches? Did you write the book in a spurt of three months … how long did it take from start to finish? Did you have cold readers, send it to an agent or to a publisher? Were you accepted straight away? How many rewrites and drafts?

Me:  I usually write stories about places and people that I know well. I take real events and characters but change things around and shake them all about and make things up. So, for The Crystal Ballroom, I had been dancing Argentine tango, rock and roll, jive, swing, Latin American and ballroom dancing for many many years. I used to dance five nights a week. I’d drive all over Sydney for technique classes and to dance at different venues. The place, ‘The Crystal Ballroom’, is a fiction but this dance hall becomes a character in the novel. I was inspired by the people I met at the dances and the politics of the ‘dance scene’.

I don’t sit at a desk 9-5 but I am extremely disciplined with my writing. I write 7 days a week. I treat my manuscript like an old friend, someone I need to stay in touch with regularly. I also exercise 7 days a week. So my routine is to go to a cafe before the gym with a print out of the previous day’s work. I edit from this hard copy and write the next scene. After the gym I walk home, type out the revisions, print out, go to another cafe in the afternoon. Repeat the process. I only work in the AM on a Sunday 🙂

It took me 4 years to write The Crystal Ballroom. The chapters are self-contained, so I was able to send some of the discreet episodes out to Quadrant magazine for publication.

I belong to a weekly feedback writing group where we critique each others’ work. So I write to that weekly deadline. In the early years, when I’d finish a manuscript I’d pay an editor or mentor to read it and give me feedback. I’d also ask a couple of friends to read it and give feedback. I never send a manuscript to an agent or a publisher that hasn’t been reworked 20 to 100 times – that includes the rewriting along the way.

My Year With Sammy was my first published book. It was accepted straight away by Ginninderra Press, a small but prestigious publisher (thought-provoking books for inquiring readers). It was my fifth book length manuscript. I had sent the previous books to agents and large publishers. All my confidence had been knocked out of me by all the rejections leading up to the fifth manuscript. Now though, I have Ginninderra Press who seem to like my work. They also published The Crystal Ballroom this year. The Usual Story will be published by Ginninderra Press next year.

It’s an extremely difficult road to publication and some people decide to self-publish rather than continue to be rejected. But other people are able to write a best-seller, an airport book that sells lots of copies, so big publishers like their work very much. Unfortunately, or fortunately, my books are classified as literary fiction, so a very small market. Big publishers are not interested in books that do not conform to the norm. Not enough money in it for them.

I am very grateful to have my small but prestigious publisher.

Connected short stories

exterior State Library of NSW
State Library of New South Wales Sydney

I had a five minute spot last Wednesday at the Society of Women Writers monthly lunch meeting at the State Library of NSW in Sydney. I was given the opportunity to stand up in front of a microphone and speak about my two books. It was a chance to confront my fear of public speaking and tell everyone ‘The Crystal Ballroom’ (Ginninderra Press) had been launched the previous week in Melbourne. I’d only spoken in public twice before, at the two launches. It was a very scary experience. Apparently, most of us fear speaking in front of an audience more than death. So, even though I appeared confident, my hands kept up their shaking for some time after I sat down again. But very pleased with myself for doing it. Those more experienced than me tell me it gets easier every time.

Anyway, the thrust of what I said was that I am transitioning from short story writer to novelist. My debut novel, ‘My Year With Sammy’ (Ginninderra Press) is really a novella and ‘The Crystal Ballroom’ a collection of short stories that I’ve linked together with an “I” narrator and the narrator’s friend, Ingrid. The two women get together over a coffee to talk about the dances they go to, who they see there, and who is sleeping with who, and who’s paying the rent 🙂

It was a device I used to turn a collection of short stories into a novel.

What about you? Have you been able to successfully change the form you write in?

 

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.

Is it a short story or a novel?

white laptop,black and white notepad and pen, white mobile, on desk

Is a novel a short story that keeps going, or, is it a string of stories with connective tissue and padding, or, is it something else?  Essayist Greg Hollingshead believes that the primary difference between the short story and the novel is not length but the larger, more conceptual weight of meaning that the longer narrative must carry on its back from page to page, scene to scene.

“It’s not baggy wordage that causes the diffusiveness of the novel.  It’s this long-distance haul of meaning.”  Greg Hollingshead

There is a widespread conviction among fiction writers that sooner or later one moves on from the short story to the novel.  When John Cheever described himself as the world’s oldest living short story writer, everyone knew what he meant.

Greg Hollingshead says that every once in a while, to the salvation of literary fiction, there appears a mature writer of short stories—someone like Chekhov, or Munro—whose handling of the form at its best is so undulled, so poised, so capacious, so intelligent, that the short in short story is once again revealed as the silly adjective it is, for suddenly there are simply stories, spiritual histories, narratives amazingly porous yet concentrated and undiffused.

When you decide you want to write in a particular form—a novel, short story, poem—read a lot of writing in that form.  Notice the rhythm. How does it begin?  What makes it complete?  When you read a lot in a particular form, it becomes imprinted inside you, so when you sit at your desk to write, you produce that same structure.  In reading novels your whole being absorbs the pace of the sentences, the setting of scenes, knowing the colour of the bedspread and how the writer gets her character to move down the hallway to the front door.

I sit at my desk thinking about form as a low-slung blanket of cloud blocks my view of the sky.  Through the fly screen I inhale the sweet smell of earth after rain as another day of possibility beckons.

We might write five novels before we write a good one.  I wrote five book-length manuscripts before one was finally accepted for publication. My skill was in the short form. I’d published dozens of short stories in prestigious literary journals. So it made sense that my first book, ‘My Year With Sammy’ (Ginninderra Press) is a novella –  a small book.

What about you? Is your skill in the short form or the marathon?

book cover My Year With Sammy

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Writing Is Not Unlike A Sushi Roll

salmon, prawn, rice, seeweed sushi rolls on blue and white dish
Credit: Creative Commons Image

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 she read, and often her hands shook.  The writing process opened her up.  She said she had wanted to write for years.  She was so excited about writing that she straight away wanted to write a book.  I said to her, 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)

That’s how it was for me.  I thought I could jump in and write a book in 6 months.  In fact, it’s taken me 20 years to write a publishable manuscript:  ‘My Year With Sammy’, the story of a difficult yet sensitive child, published by Ginninderra Press last year.

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.