My First Published Short Story in 2000

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

I’m very happy to say that I have been publishing short stories and poems in literary journals for 21 years.

‘Around the World In Fifty Step’ was my first published story. It appeared in Overland Literary Journal Autumn, 2000. Since then, more than 40 have been published.

Have a read of this first one. Hope you enjoy it.

Around the World In Fifty Steps:

  1. Joanna lives in a Sydney suburb with her two sons. It’s 1992 and Australia is in recession.
  2. “I’m sick of licking arse in a service industry,” she says of her marketing business. “And I’m fed up with financial insecurity, the feast or famine of too many projects or not enough and chasing new business and getting clients to pay their bills.”
  3. “I’m thinking of renting the house out and travelling,” she tells her grown up sons after reading “The Pitter Patter of Thirty-Year-Old Feet” in the Sydney Morning Herald.
  4. “You’re ready to leave home are you mum?” said one son.
  5. “Why don’t you just go on a long holiday instead,” said the other.
  6. “I want a new beginning, a change of career, a new home, a community of people, an intimate relationship with a significant other, that sort of thing.”
  7. “You could always get yourself a dog,” suggests a friend.
  8. Her son moves out when she puts his rent up.
  9. “Are you going to wait till he buys a new house for cash before you ask for a decent rent?” her mother had said.
  10. “I’ve decided to go and live with Dad for a change,” says the other son.
  11. “I’ll be away for six to twelve months,” Joanna says as she throws her client files on the rubbish tip.
  12. She spends the spring in Italy. The summer in England, Scotland and Ireland. The autumn walking the gorge country of the Ardeche in France.
  13. In the winter she rents a studio apartment in Villefranche on the French Riviera. The studio belongs to a friend of a friend so she’s able to get it at a good price. She works as a casual deck hand on one of the luxury cruisers in dry dock for maintenance. “The first thing I want you to do,” says her boss when she arrives at work on the first day, “is blitz the tender.” After a backbreaking morning of hard physical work cleaning the small run-about she goes to lunch. She orders a salad nicoise and a coffee and realises her lunch will cost her a morning’s pay.
  14. A young and handsome French man who lives in Paris but comes to Villefranche to visit his grandmother most weekends, pursues her. Joanna comes to realise that French men love and cherish women as much as they appreciate good food.
  15. She shops at the markets, paints and reads and falls in love with the light and the colours of the south of France.
  16. “I’m able to live contentedly alone without a regular job, without a car, without speaking the language,” she writes to her friends back home.
  17. In the summer she moves on again before the tourist masses arrive and the rent goes up.
  18. She gives away to her new friends in Villefranche all the things that won’t now fit in her backpack but keeps her paint brushes and pallet knife.
  19. On the Greek island of Skyros she joins a group of landscape artists led by a famous English painter.
  20. “My purpose in leading this group is to help everyone find their own unique style,” says the woman.
  21. Joanna spends the autumn in London meeting with other artists from the island and the woman becomes her mentor and they meet for a cup of tea every week and talk about the isolation of being an artist as well as many other things.
  22. “It’s important to stop and regenerate before the creative battery runs flat,” she says.
  23. Joanna paints every day and goes out with an English man named Clive.
  24. “Your painting is vivid and alive,” says the famous English artist. “I’ll write you a letter of introduction to my contacts in Australia when you’re ready to exhibit this collection.”
  25. Clive has a strong face with chiselled square cheekbones. Dark brown eyes and dark hair that falls in a square fringe on his forehead. His fingers are long and sensitive for playing the piano.
  26. “What are you doing there?” her mother asks on the phone from across the ocean.
  27. “I’m painting,” says Joanna.
  28.  “But what are you doing?”
  29.   “My mother is like a poisonous gas that can cross from one side of the world to the other,” Joanna says.
  30. Joanna dreams about her sons every night and Clive tells her she cries in her sleep.
  31. She yearns for the bright Australian light and for the sound of the ocean.
  32. She returns to Australia for her eldest son’s wedding.
  33. In Sydney, Joanna supplements her income from the house rental by getting a job as a casual for a clothing company. She unpacks boxes and steampresses the garments. Her back, neck and shoulders ache and she suspects she’s getting RSI from the steampresser.
  34. Clive rings to say he’s coming to visit her.
  35. In preparation for his arrival she moves all her furniture out of storage and rents a small place near the beach hoping that he’ll love it in Australia and decide to stay.
  36. Two weeks before his arrival Clive rings to say he’s not coming and Joanna finds out through a friend that he’s met someone else and is moving in with her.
  37. She tears up his photos and throws his Christmas present at the wall.
  38. Joanna stops painting.
  39. She reflects on the past and all that she’s lost.
  40. I thought when love for you died, I should die. It’s dead. Alone, most strangely, I live on. Rupert Brooke.
  41. Joanna stays in bed most days but still feels so tired that she can only remain vertical for four hours in any twenty-four hour period.
  42. The phone stops ringing.
  43. She rehearses her own death by going to the edge of the cliff.
  44. From the edge she sketches the waves breaking on rocks, the lone seagull on the shore at the water’s edge.
  45. At home she fills in the drawing, blending black charcoal and white pastel reminding herself the darkest hour is before the dawn.
  46. And, after winter spring always comes.
  47. Joanna sells the house where she lived with her children and spends half the money on a home unit overlooking the ocean and the rest of the money on Australian shares.
  48. Her new home faces the east and she can smell the salt from the ocean.
  49. “It takes twenty years to be a successful artist,” echoes in her mind.
  50. On a new canvas she drags the colours of the sunrise across the blank white space.

Copyright © 2000 Libby Sommer

My Flash Fiction, Sober Sixty

Libby Sommer and 'Grieve" anthology

Have a read of my flash fiction ‘Sober Sixty’ first published in the August 2020 Grieve Anthology, Stories and Poems of Grief and Loss.

Sober Sixty:

Samantha’s single women friends were envious, although she assured them Johnny wasn’t perfect. Mood swings, challenging stuff like that.

Nobody messed with Johnny. Nobody knew better than he did, he was always watching YouTube and learning new facts and figures. Also, he rode a motorbike and practiced shooting at weekends. There were Facebook groups for bike riders and a rifle range nearby. Johnny was proud of being a rev-head and a good shot with his gun, and not many people could disagree that he had unusual interests for a man his age.

‘Sober since forty and counting,’ he said about his sobriety. They didn’t talk about his twenties and thirties.

There’s a photograph of the two of them from Christmas day. Johnny had tried to lower himself to Samantha’s height for the photo so they’d be on the same level. ‘Stand up tall,’ she’d said. ‘Stand to your full height.’ ‘That’s right,’ he’d said. ‘You like things big.’

‘What does ATP in ATP Cup stand for?’ was the type of thing Johnny would call out while she poured him a glass of water before setting out on a stroll around the block.

Samantha thought she knew the answer, but didn’t want to risk being wrong. She’d learnt to tiptoe around his wildness and dreaded the fighting when she wasn’t attentive enough to his needs. Dry drunk, AA called it. The unpredictable rages were doing her head in. She knew she needed the courage to walk away.

Now she’s getting by a day at a time.

Her friends say she’s one of the lucky ones. She’s dodged a bullet.

Copyright © Libby Sommer 2020

Grieve 2020 Anthology available from Hunter Writer’s Centre website or Booktopia https://hunterwriterscentre.org/bookshop/

My Microlit ‘In the Mall’

My Microlit ‘In the Mall’ was selected as an entry in the Microflix Writers Awards available to be chosen by filmmakers for adaption to a short film for the 2019 Film Awards. On the theme of SOUND it is available to view on the Microflix SOUND extracts page on the website of Australian short story publisher, Spineless Wonders.

So what is Microlit? According to writer, teacher and editor, Karen Whitelaw: Imagery is important to all writing, but none more than microlit. … Writing is a visual art; paint pictures with words. Things don’t have to be explained, merely implied. This is the beauty of the form, that behind the words a whole world is peeping through. The micro-story has to say something.

Have a read of my story. Hope you enjoy it.

IN THE MALL

In a café inside a mall in Sydney a small curly-topped girl sobbed and sobbed. She sat on her father’s lap, stabbing her finger into a slice of banana bread. Her dad soothed, whispered, coaxed. What would you like, Tara? He cut into his poached egg. Toast? he cajoled. The girl sobbed more loudly, wailing, coughing, staring out into the mall. I want my mum. She cuddled a pink soft piglet. Our eyes scanned the glass display of croissants, pies and pastries. I loved every carb that did not pass my lips. I loved the sobbing child who heard no one else in that cafe but herself, whose lungs fought hard to reach a soaring, sorrowful pitch. What have you got? an elderly woman asked her. Still crying, the child held up her toy. Her father gave up on his poached eggs and carried her out, still wailing. We went and sat at the table with the stabbed-at bread her finger had made and swept the moist crumbs into a heap.

Copyright © 2019 Libby Sommer

 

World Maternal Mental Health Day

Renoir painting of mother on cane chair outside breastfeeding child
Pierre Auguste Renoir

Wednesday, 6 May 2020 is World Maternal Mental Health Day: raising awareness of maternal mental health issues so that more women will get treatment and fewer will suffer.

I responded to a call out for submissions of stories, essays and poems that address perinatal depression and anxiety.

I’m delighted to tell you that my short story ‘The New Baby’, first published in Quadrant magazine, has been selected for inclusion in this anthology.

The planned release date for the anthology is May this year, to coincide with World Maternal Mental Health Day.

What a privilege to be part of this important collection of 25 stories, poems and essays that will also be featured as part of PANDA (Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Awareness) week in November.

Every November PANDA Week provides an opportunity to increase understanding in the community about an illness that is more common and more serious than many people realise.

Things Raymond Carver has said about the short form in writing

blur book stack books bookshelves

‘My attention span had gone out on me; I no longer had the patience to try to write novels. … I know it has much to do now with why I write poems and short stories. Get in, get out. Don’t linger. Go on.’

‘Every great or even every very good writer makes the world over according to his own specifications.’

‘It is his world and no other. This is one of the things that distinguishes one writer from another. Not talent.’

‘Isak Dinesan said that she wrote a little every day, without hope and without despair.’

‘”Fundamental accuracy of statement is the ONE sole morality of writing,” Ezra Pound.’

‘It is possible to write a line of seemingly innocuous dialogue and have it send a chill along the reader’s spine – the source of artistic delight, as Nabokov would have it. That’s the kind of writing that most interests me.’

‘That’s all we have, finally, the words, and they had better be the right ones, with the punctuation in the right places so that they can best say what they are meant to say.’

‘I like it when there is some feeling of threat or sense of menace in short stories.’

‘I made the story just as I’d make a poem; one line and then the next, and the next.’

‘V.S. Pritchett’s definition of a short story is “something glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing.” Notice the “glimpse” part of this. First the glimpse.’

‘The short story writer’s task is to invest the glimpse with all that is in his power. He’ll bring his intelligence and literary skill to bear (his talent), his sense of proportion and sense of the fitness of things – like no one else sees them. And this is done through the use of clear and specific language, language used so as to bring to life the details that will light up the story for the reader. For the details to be concrete and convey meaning, the language must be accurate and precisely given. The words can be so precise they may even sound flat, but they can still carry, if used right, they can hit all the notes.’

Raymond Carver, Fires, Vintage 1989

So who is Raymond Carver?

Raymond Carver, in full Raymond Clevie Carver, (born May 25, 1938, Clatskanie, Oregon, U.S.—died August 2, 1988, Port Angeles, Washington), American short-story writer and poet whose realistic writings about the working poor mirrored his own life. – Encyclopedia Britannica

What Are the Microflix Writers Awards?

red-headed author Libby Sommer signing one of her books

I am delighted to say that my micro-fiction ‘In the Mall’ has been selected as an entry in the Microflix Writers Awards. Halleluja. I’ll find out in August if my story is chosen by filmmakers for adaptation to a short film for the 2019 Microflix Awards. My microlit on the theme of SOUND is available to view on the Microflix SOUND extracts page on the website of Australian short story publisher, Spineless Wonders.

Spineless Wonders 2019 Microflix Writers Awards

The Microflix Awards offered each year aim to reward and value the roles of both the author and the filmmaker in the adaptation process. For this reason we offer both the Microflix Film Awards and the Microflix Author Awards.

The Microflix Writers Awards consists of a $500 cash prize for Best Writing as well as range of prizes such as discounts on writers’ centre memberships and other resources for writers as well as book packages for Highly Recommended and Recommended Writers.

Our panel of jurists will select winners of the Microflix Writers Awards from the pool of finalist films screened at the Microflix Festival.

 

The theme for 2019 is SOUND.

This year, Microflix invites authors to submit microlit texts on the theme of SOUND for adaptation by filmmakers. The texts submitted will be reviewed by microlit specialist and Spineless Wonders’ editor Associate Professor Cassandra Atherton. Submissions will be accepted until 30 April and those selected by Cassandra will be included in the 2019 SOUND Texts section on this website.

Exploring the theme of SOUND

We are looking for prose pieces suitable for film adaptation which riff on the theme of sound. You may wish to reflect on the soundtracks of your life – be that songs and music or sounds from the built environment or the natural world. Your submission may reflect on the absence of sound or it may take us into a world without music. Your approach may be playful, witty, political, philosophical or all of the above.

 

My fingers are crossed.

 

Short Story or Novel

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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 here 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 of the form.  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.

The thing is, we might write five novels before we write a good one.  I wrote five book-length manuscripts before one was finally accepted for publication, even though I’d published 30 short stories.  So form is important, we need to learn form, but we should also remember to fill form with life.  All it takes is practice.

I hope this post is useful. Do you have any tips you would add? Let me know in the comments and please share this post with a friend if you enjoyed it.

Short Story: At the Festival

pexels-photo-167491.jpeg

My short story ‘At the Festival’ was first published in Quadrant May 2016. It was inspired by my yearly visits to the Canberra National Folk Festival. The music is really world music rather than folk. A happening event. 60,000 people. Lots of colour and movement for a writer who likes to get ideas from the world around them – though this is a work of fiction.

It was six o’clock in the evening when she finally passed the wind turbines.  There, at last, stood Lake George, where long-woolled sheep grazed the field and to the west the Brindabella mountain range was coloured grey and pink by the setting sun.   On she drove along an ink-black strip of road where, on either side, tall green-grey eucalypts had formed a welcoming archway.  The way flattened out then curved into a narrow empty road.  Not one person did she see, not one building, just a handful of brown-bellied cows and later a group of kangaroos standing formidable and still in the headlights.  The turn for Watson wasn’t clearly sign-posted but she felt confident in turning east along the row of liquid ambers in autumn bloom that took her to the cabins.

Twice on the journey she had pulled into a service station and shut her eyes and briefly rested but now, as she neared Canberra, she felt wide awake and full of energy.  Even the dark length of road which progressed flatly to Reception seemed to hold the promise of a new beginning.  She sensed the towering, protective presence of the mountain range, the forested hills and, further on, just past the turnoff, the clear, pleasant thump of music coming from the festival.

The receptionist gave her a key, and eagerly she drove further on to cabin number five.  Inside, the room was renovated:  the two single beds replaced by a double.  The same compact kitchenette set into one end of the room but a new television secured to the wall by a multidirectional wall bracket.  In between, on the bare linoleum floor, stood a small table laminated with melamine and two matching chairs.  She set her keys and mobile on the table and reached for the electric jug for tea. Continue reading

2 Years Rewriting Short Story

close up of September Quadrant magazine cover

My short story On Valentine’s Day appears in the September Quadrant available now in newsagents and good book stores. It took two years of rewriting before the story was accepted for publication. In Friday’s mail I received my contributor’s copy and a generous cheque. My name is on the front cover. Always a thrill. It took many years of my stories appearing in Quadrant before my name made it to the cover 🙂

The first paragraph of On Valentine’s Day reads:

You had to get out of them occasionally, those Australian country towns with the funny names:  Wagga Wagga, Wee Waa, Woy Woy. Once, after a devastating week wiped out more than $4 trillion from the global stock exchanges, one of the local papers boasted a banner headline:  WAGGA WAGGA WOMAN WEDS WOY WOY TOY BOY. You had to make an effort from time to time to get out, even if it meant flying all the way across the Nullarbor to go to a Valentine’s Day party.

 

My critique group will recognize the first paragraph. We meet weekly at the New South Wales Writers Centre to give and receive feedback on two pages of our writing. I brought sections of the 4,000 word On Valentine’s Day many times to the Women Writers Network at the Centre. Two dear friends also read the  story and commented. Very much appreciated. More than once my two friends read the whole of On Valentine’s Day and offered constructive criticism. I couldn’t have got the story to a publishable standard without my writing group and my two friends. Lucky me.

Quadrant is a highly regarded literary magazine: http://quadrant.org.au/september-quadrant-now-sale/

Quadrant blue magazine cover

I can’t emphasize enough how useful it is to have a weekly writing group. I work to that deadline. We take a couple of pages each and have 12 minutes to read and receive feedback. I think of it as ‘off Broadway’ and ‘on Broadway’.  Famous comedians like Jerry Seinfeld and Woody Allen say they test their material out on an ‘off Broadway’ audience before performing ‘on Broadway’.

picture of the New South Wales Writers Centre with trees in foreground
New South Wales Writers Centre

What about you? Are you in a writing group? Do you find it useful?