Writing Tip: The Bigger the Issue, the Smaller You Write

A quote: the bigger the issue, the smaller you write - Richard Price

A fantastic example of this writing advice is Kurt Vonnegut’s  Slaughterhouse-Five.

Poignant and hilarious, threaded with compassion and, behind everything, the cataract of a thundering moral statement. – The Boston Globe

book cover of Kurt Vonnegut's 'Slaughterhouse-Five'

Kurt Vonnegut’s absurdist classic Slaughterhouse-Five introduces us to Billy Pilgrim, a man who becomes unstuck in time after he is abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. In a plot-scrambling display of virtuosity, we follow Pilgrim simultaneously through all phases of his life, concentrating on his (and Vonnegut’s) shattering experience as an American prisoner of war who witnesses the firebombing of Dresden.

Don’t let the ease of reading fool you – Vonnegut’s isn’t a conventional, or simple, novel. He writes, “There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick, and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces. One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters.”

Slaughterhouse-Five is not only Vonnegut’s most powerful book, it is also as important as any written since 1945. Like Catch- 22, it fashions the author’s experiences in the Second World War into an eloquent and deeply funny plea against butchery in the service of authority. Slaughterhouse-Five boasts the same imagination, humanity, and gleeful appreciation of the absurd found in Vonnegut’s other works, but the book’s basis in rock-hard, tragic fact gives it a unique poignancy – and humor. – Goodreads

Highly recommended. A masterpiece.

My Flash Fiction ‘Sober Sixty’

Libby Sommer and 'Grieve" anthology

Have a read of my flash fiction ‘Sober Sixty’ first published in the Grieve Anthology, August 2020, 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/

Writing Tip: Ground Your Writing in Sense of Place

Ground your writing in a sense of place, whether landscape or cityscape. How often have you heard someone say of a book they loved:  ‘I felt like I was there’.

Even if you relocate the poodle tied to a fake-cane chair, the sound of a game of tennis, the table of older men after their regular Sunday match at the café overlooking the tennis courts at Cooper Park that you drank a lemongrass and ginger tea at in Sydney into a café in a story in another state and time, the story will have originality and believability.  ‘But that café was in Sydney, I can’t transport it to Adelaide.’  But you can.  You can have flexibility with specific detail.  The mind is able to transport details, but using actual places that you experienced will give your writing authenticity and truthfulness.  It grounds your work in place, giving life and vitality to your writing, rather than a whole lot of exposition that floats in the air.

 If you don’t create evocative settings, your characters seem to have their conversations in vacuums or in some beige nowhere-in-particular. –  Jerome Stern

Creation of the physical world is as important to your story as action and dialogue.  If your readers can be made to see the hand-knitted socks or the row of vitamins on the kitchen bench top, the scene becomes alive.  Readers pay attention.  Touch, sound, taste, and smell make readers feel as if their own feet are warm under the cold sheets.

Place situates the story in your reader’s mind.  Fiction that seems to happen in no particular place often seems not to take place at all. –  Jerome Stern

Agree?

My Prose Poem: Sixteen Is A Very Difficult Age, You Know

guitar and harmonica on the grass at sunset

So what is a prose poem? According to the Poetry Foundation, a prose poem is a prose composition that, while not broken into verse lines, demonstrates other traits such as symbols, metaphors, and other figures of speech common to poetry.

If you are able to distill meaning in a very short form, you may enjoy writing prose poetry.

Have a read of my prose poem ‘Sixteen Is A Very Difficult Age, You Know’, first published in Quadrant magazine September 2018.

Sixteen Is a Very Difficult Age, You Know:

Well yes it is. This time of year isn’t easy either. It has most of us by the neck.  You don’t want to get sick at Christmas. They said he needs six weeks of intensive therapy then they’ll decide about medication. How – when everything’s closed till February? Yes, he’s up and down. Better some days, but hardly ever. They said hide all the tablets and remove the kitchen knives. I ring or text to see how he’s going. He doesn’t always pick up. Don’t refer to the incident. Wait for him to say something. Well, he doesn’t say much though he’ll let me give him a hug – sometimes. So here I am trying to gather his forgotten dreams from the air. They’re drifting just outside my reach.

Copyright © 2018 Libby Sommer

Writing Tip: Beating Resistance

How many wonderful ideas have we had in our lives that never became anything more than ideas?  What stopped them from becoming reality?  Probably lack of drive, or fear, or both.

If the idea of writing a story, writing a memoir, or writing a blog lights a spark within you, sets off a signal, causes you to drool—or fills you with unspeakable anxiety—then you are ready to write.  What is holding you back is not lack of drive, but fear.  Unadulterated, stark fear.

  • Fear of what?
  • Fear of being unable to write well and being criticized by others?
  • Fear of being unable to stay on track long enough to get to an ending?
  • Fear that you just don’t have what it takes to maintain focus to tell a good story?

Research into the way the brain operates has revealed that there are two sides to the brain, left and right.  Much of our fear of writing comes from the way these two sides do or don’t work together.

“We might term the right brain ‘the creator,’ for apparently it allows us to do creative things—make connections, manifest ideas, imagine situations, see pictures of events.  The left side analyses, categorizes, recalls words, and performs its learning functions in a step-by-step manner,”  Bernard Selling, Writing From Within.

The analytic left brain has a compartment that houses the “critic.”  He or she is the person in us who says,

  • Watch out!
  • You can’t do that!
  • You’ll fail, so don’t even try.
  • You know you’re not good at that!

“If those two voices in you want to fight, let them fight.  Meanwhile, the sane part of you should quietly get up, go over to your notebook, and begin to write from a deeper, more peaceful place.  Unfortunately, those two fighters often come with you to your notebook since they are inside your head.  So you might have to give them five or ten minutes of voice in your notebook.  Let them carry on in writing.  It is amazing that when you give those voices writing space, their complaining quickly gets boring and you get sick of them,” Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones.

It’s just resistance.

Sometimes, the harder you try, the more you become stuck in your own negativity.  It can feel like car tyres spinning in a bog and you just can’t move forward with ‘the work’.  Your resistance is actually greater than your desire to write.  That’s when you need to say ‘stop’ and put it aside for now.  Look for another outlet for your energy before starting again.  Take a break and read books by wonderful writers.  When I get stuck I turn to contemporary poetry for inspiration – thoughtful and passionate poems about living in the modern world.  Some of my favourite poets are:  Mary Oliver, Naomi Shihab Nye, Les Murray and Joanne Burns.

Sometimes I start another writing project before going back to the original one to get more perspective on things.  Other times I will study the beginning and endings of books to get inspiration for a new beginning or a new ending, or sometimes work backwards from the ending as a way to restart.

But don’t get caught in the endless cycle of guilt, avoidance, and pressure.  When it is your time to write, write.  Put yourself out of your misery and just do it.

Writing Tip: The Writing Process

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?  

Writing Tip: Flash Fiction

Have you tried flash fiction yet? What does flash fiction 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 a few years ago. 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.

Writing Tip: Use the Senses

Sounds, sights, and smells are all part of  creating an atmosphere.

‘The creation of the physical world is as crucial to your story as action and dialogue. If your readers can be made to see the glove without fingers or the crumpled yellow tissue, the scene becomes vivid. Readers become present. Touch, sound, taste and smell make readers feel as if their own fingers are pressing the sticky windowsill.

‘If you don’t create evocative settings, your characters seem to have their conversations in vacuums or in some beige nowhere-in-particular. Some writers love description too much. They go on and on as if they were setting places at the table for an elaborate dinner that will begin later on. Beautiful language or detailed scenery does not generate momentum. Long descriptions can dissipate tension or seem self-indulgent. Don’t paint pictures. Paint action.’ – Jerome Stern, Making Shapely Fiction

Bringing in sensory detail is a way to enrich a story with texture to create the fullness of experience, to make the reader be there.

using all five senses quote on green board

What about you? Do you use the senses, apart from sight, to create atmosphere?

Story Mosaic

Famous in India! That’s me holding my book, ‘The Crystal Ballroom’. My stories ‘Aravind’ and ‘Aravind Again’, included in Agathokakological Aussie Summer story mosaic, are self-contained chapters from ‘The Crystal Ballroom’. A great review of the story mosaic is in Indian national newspaper, News Mania. Well done to editors Sharon Rundle and Indranil Bengal Halder

Agathokakological Aussie Summer is an Australia – India collaborative online story mosaic. All free! Enjoy the stories at:

www.sharonrundle.com.au/aussiesummer/start or

https://aussiesummer.com.au

Just press a star to begin.

Writing Tip: Taste Life Twice

quote by Anais Nin against a night sky

“Writers live twice. They go along with their regular life, are as fast as anyone in the grocery store, crossing the street, getting dressed for work in the morning. But there’s another part of them that they have been training. The one that lives everything a second time. That sits down and sees their life again and goes over it. Looks at the texture and the details.”  – Natalie Goldberg