A brand new story in Quadrant

Yellow cover of Quadrant magazine July 2019

I’m so excited to have my brand new short story ‘The End of It All‘ in this month’s Quadrant magazine. Have a read. Available in newsagents and online. Thank you to Fiction Editor, George Thomas.

https://quadrant.org.au/magazine/2019/july-2019/

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How to Find Something New to Write About

girl learning person studying

Every once in a while, when I’m scratching around for something new to write, I make a list of the things I obsess about.  Thankfully, some of them change over time, but there are always new ones to fill the gap.

It’s true that writers write about what they think about most of the time.  Things they can’t let go: things that plague them; stories they carry around in their heads waiting to be heard.

Sometimes I used to get my creative writing groups to make a list of the topics they obsess about so they can see what occupies their thoughts during their waking hours.  After you write them down, you can use them for spontaneous writing before crafting them into stories.  They have much power.  This is where the juice is for writing.  They are probably driving your life, whether you realise it or not, so you may as well use them rather than waste your energy trying to push them away.  And you can come back to them repeatedly.

One of the things I’m always obsessing about is relationships:  relationships in families, relationships with friends, relationships with lovers.  That’s what I tend to write about.  I think to myself, Why not?  Rather than repress my obsessions, explore them, go with the flow.  And life is always changing, so new material keeps presenting  itself.

We are driven by our passions.  Am I the only one who thinks this?  For me these compulsions contain the life force energy.  We can exploit that energy.  The same with writing itself.  I’m always thinking and worrying about my writing, even when I’m on holidays.

But not all compulsions are a bad thing.  Get involved with your passions, read about them, talk to other people about them and then they will naturally become ‘grist for the mill’.

What about you?  Do you find yourself writing about the same things over and over again? 

How to Write Story Beginnings

adult book book store bookcase

I’m trying to write a good solid beginning for my new book. I don’t know yet if I’ll be able to maintain the narrative momentum necessary to complete another book length marathon because what I do best is the short form: short stories, flash fiction, prose poems. I’m a sprinter rather than a long distance runner. However, I do have an idea for the setting of the story, the main character and the situation. But that’s all.

Here are the first few paragraphs of my work in progress. My fingers are crossed that I will make it to the end of the story.

“From the window all she could see was a thick expanse of white. She imagined that beyond the bleached park, bereft of native flora, but sprouting feral Norfolk Island pines, lay the immense Pacific Ocean, its agitated waves unravelling along the distant sand of the beach. A few metres beyond that she pictured the white tower and lantern of the Harbour Light, as pictured on the hotel’s website, silently but steadily showing the way.

It was early winter. The tourists had left, the rates were cheaper, and there wasn’t much to look forward to in this sleepy seaside town. Its residents – mostly retirees – were tucked up at home or on holidays in warmer climates. The thick fog that hung low for days on end and the bitter wind from the sea would disappear in its own time to uncover a totally different scene: seagulls skimming the shore, pelicans at the pier, an outdoor craft market, the intermittent feisty spurt of water from the blowhole, formed from basalt lava 260 million years ago, named “kiarama” by Aboriginals, place where the sea makes a noise.

On the jaunty semi-rural valley to the south were dark red cows, producers of butter fat and protein milk. This was a land of dairy-farming plenty, the place where the mountains touched the sea, leaving only the weather frustratingly beyond restraint.

Kirsten Craig, a writer of crime fiction under a more testosterone-fuelled name, kept standing by the window, as if by sheer force of will she could penetrate the confusing mist. She yearned for clarity, an uncomplicated, black or white, answer. She’d find what she needed: peaceful hotel, good food, long walks by the sea, lack of stress, early nights. She would resurrect her conscientious and work-focused persona and put out of her mind the foolishness that had led to her being in this small town, at this slowly darkening time of the year, when she should have been at home.”

According to ‘How to Write a Good Hook & Start Your Novel with a Bang!’ by BookBub:

  1. Startle readers with the first line. …
  2. Begin at a life-changing moment. …
  3. Create intrigue about the characters. …
  4. Use a setting as the inciting incident. …
  5. Up the stakes within the first few pages. …
  6. Introduce something ominous right away. …
  7. Set the mood. …
  8. Make your characters sympathetic — and relatable — immediately.
  9. Draw in the reader with a strong voice
  10. Start at a moment of confusion
  11. Don’t get bogged down with exposition
  12. End the first chapter with a killer cliffhanger

Author Jerome Stern writes in ‘Making Shapely Fiction’:

‘In the first draft of a story, no rules apply. You write and write, ideas come, characters change, situations grow, dialogues take off, speeches become scenes, and surprises occur. … After this first draft exists, then you can bring to bear some of your critical faculties and see what you can see about your creation.’

‘The Art of Fiction’ author David Lodge asks:

‘When does a novel begin? The question is almost as difficult to answer as the question, when does the human embryo become a person? Certainly the creation of a novel rarely begins with the penning or typing of its first words. Most writers do some preliminary work, if it is only in their heads. Many prepare the ground carefully over weeks or months, making diagrams of the plot, compiling c.v.s for their characters, filling a notebook with ideas, settings, situations, jokes, to be drawn on in the process of composition. Every writer has his or her own way of working.

Hope you find this post useful. Let me know in the comments if there’s something you’d like to add about your own experience of writing a story beginning.

You Are Not the Stories You Tell

woman reading book

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 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.

 

Should You Plot Or Not?

man with hand on temple looking at laptop

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.

“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 Punishmentwhen 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 all we need is  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?  I’d love to hear what works for you and what sends you straight to the Writers’ Block Corner.

Facts About The Creative Process

afterglow backlit beautiful crescent moon

At a literary event I heard 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 those 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?