Author Archives: Joe Ponepinto

About Joe Ponepinto

Joe Ponepinto is a senior editor and co-publisher at Orca, a northwest-based literary journal.

Orca Blog for May 2021: Sympathy, Empathy, and Sentimentality

This month let’s look at reader sympathy, empathy, and sentimentality, three emotional states that are often misunderstood in fiction.

Sympathy might be defined as an understanding, perception, or appreciation of another’s situation. More simply, it’s the ability to care about someone else. In terms of fiction, it’s the creation of characters who experience situations that a reader can identify with. It could be a specific problem that the character faces, or it could be something more existential, such as being an outcast among her peers. What’s important to remember, is that sympathy is largely driven by character desire or stakes. Inexperienced writers often burden their stories with extraneous details that have nothing to do with what their characters want. That may create mild interest, but it doesn’t foster sympathy. If the reader identifies with the character’s desire, she’ll want to know what happens. You can use sympathy to portray most characters, even the unlikable ones.

Empathy takes sympathy and goes further. It creates a situation in which the reader not only cares about a character, but can actually feel what the character feels. As you might imagine, this is not easy to do. It requires the ability to immerse readers in a character’s situation using precise sensory perception and subtext. Empathy begins with sympathy’s idea of character identification. The reader must first identify and appreciate what the character faces. The sensory perception—so much more than just sight alone—then serves to heighten the experience by providing the kind of the details that provoke memories of similar feelings within the reader. Think about the memories of your own life, and how things like smells, sounds, and touch are associated with them. These are powerful memories, often more powerful and personal than things you have seen. Couple this effect with subtext, which is the meaning beneath the text. It is a technique of conveying character motivation through action and dialogue, as well as a way of revealing hidden agendas (much like real life), in which people give subtle clues about what they really want. These are the keys that lead to creating characters that seem like real people.

Empathy requires the ability to sense the reality of another. This is where writers should live. Doing so also allows writers to shed the authorial intrusion that plagues too many submissions. If you are the character, you are no longer the writer, with the writer’s desire to explain things.

Then there’s sentimentality. It’s something a writer should never employ. But so many writers do that it’s important to explain why it does not belong in literary fiction. Sentimentality is based on nostalgia, which is a fond but not necessarily true or honest recollection of past times, usually connected to the idea that those times were better than the present. Whether they were or weren’t isn’t the point. Sentimentality is simplistic, not complex. It deliberately ignores facts and truth, creating a fantasy world that is without value, usually in the service of making the dreamer feel better about himself. Sentimentality is not the same as simplicity, which strives to eliminate obfuscation. Nostalgia is the kind of approach politicians and corporate marketers use to trick people into thinking that what they’re promoting is worth believing in. A good fiction writer doesn’t need to trick anyone into immersing in a story.

– Joe Ponepinto


Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Our Favorite Short Stories

We asked our team to name one of their favorite stories in the hope it will shed some light into what the Orcans are hoping to discover within the slush pile.

David Anderson, Reader:

Quaestio De Centauris” by Primo Levi. One of my favorites. How Levi, with such apparent ease creates the world so efficiently blew me away. There are no excess words. In no place does it sag under its own weight. Since the world has been built so well and the characters developed, the reader participates in realization and the heartbreak. 

Tommy Anderson, Reader:

For my favorite short story, I decided to go back and read some of the work that I remembered from some of my early fiction classes in college. There were a lot of great ones, but one that has stuck with me that  I honestly haven’t heard much about in any other instance is “Sugarbaby” by William Gay. I think the voice is done so well. The aggressively passive ways in which the protagonist, known as Beasley, tries to cling to the world he understands, even after he blows it up (sort of literally) is as heartbreaking as it is captivating. I find myself chasing these characters in my own writing: broken people who try, but often fail, to find what comfort they can.

Renee Jackson, Editor:

“Understand” by Ted Chiang is a brilliant example of using form as a core element of storytelling. First person is critical here as it allows the narrator’s vocabulary and sentence structure to change as the story progresses. The story also does an interesting job of taking a Flowers for Algernon concept and pivoting it so that it’s still a fresh account.

Ai Jiang, Reader:

I thought about it for a while and I think I’d have to say Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” The narrator speaks about Omelas rather than themselves—a way of storytelling that we usually would find somewhat distancing. But I feel in this case, the descriptions presented and the way the narrator talks about Omelas embodies their personality. The narrator often interjects with their personal thoughts and comments on certain aspects of the society. It does a lot of scene setting, but it’s done purposefully because of the narrator’s reveal in the latter half of the story, which offers equally descriptive imagery but a shocking contrast.

Zachary Kellian, Publisher/Senior Editor:

I chose “The Man Who Went to Chicago,” a short story from Richard Wright’s posthumous 1961 collection Eight Men. Another literary great, James Baldwin, had this to say of Wright (one of my idols): “His landscape was not merely that of the Deep South, or of Chicago, but that of the world, of the human heart.” To map the human experience with words should be the goal of every short story. To that end, “The Man Who Went to Chicago” has stuck with me ever since I randomly picked it off a bookshelf in the Chicago Public Library many years ago. I was looking to read a story that I could relate to, and instead, read something that helped me relate to others. It was a gift that Wright’s words keep on giving.

Zoë Mikel-Stites, Reader:

How to Talk to Girls at Parties” by Neil Gaiman. It’s awkward and weird, and when I read it, it struck me hard enough to be something I think about to this day, even though I hadn’t read it in years. It plays with tone, awareness, and vocabulary in a way that I always find fascinating. Now it’s something I look to when I think about when I consider the effect I want my own writing to have. It was also made into a feature film in 2017, which I now have to go watch.

Ronak Patel, Reader:

A Temporary Matter,” by Jhumpa Lahiri. This is not the first story about a couple’s marriage falling apart due to the loss of a child. But the lens in which it is told, that of a South Asian immigrant couple, provides a unique look at an old subject. I think that’s what first drew me not only to this story but writing as an art. I feel represented reading Lahiri’s work.  I see how these stories can unfold with people that share common experiences, something I did not have growing up. The cultural lens aside, this story nails so many of the indicators of great writing that we look for at Orca: quality imagery and narration, realistic dialogue, deep subtext, and skillful insertion of backstory.

Marci Pliskin, Reader:

This was tough! I’m going with Amy Hempel’s “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried.” It is dark, funny and heartbreaking. Every word on the page has purpose and each image is crystal clear. Hempel makes me feel generous toward the narrator who fails to be supportive of her dying friend. Oh, and this is the first story she wrote. 

Joe Ponepinto, Publisher/Senior Editor:

I was tempted to go with James Joyce’s “The Dead,” but everybody already knows that’s the best short story ever written. And then I thought about Thomas Mann’s “Death In Venice,” (which is also one of my favorite movies) but at 70 pages long it is more of a novella than a short story. So I am going with an old favorite that I have read many times and never tire of reading, “Bullet in The Brain,” by Tobias Wolff. Wolff gives us a completely unlikable character and then transforms him, in the milliseconds between life and death, into a heartbreaking reminder that every person was once a child, innocently embracing the hope of life to come.

Lauren Voeltz, Reader:

“The Redwoods” by Joyce Carol Oates  (Issue 70 of American Short Fiction, 2020). The story is experimental in form—taking on the literal shape of the interior of a redwood tree, weaving in and out of the present and the past. Oates connects these sections seamlessly. Oates has an excellent style and voice. The story is understandable on a first read, but upon rereading, it reveals deeper meaning. This story challenges emotionally, and I keep coming back to it for these reasons.

Issue 6 – Winter 2021

After Vermeer, by Dina Brodsky

The Literary Issue

The Brits used to be proud of the saying, “The sun never sets on the British Empire.” Those days are long gone, thankfully, but the phrase came to mind when considering the writers featured in this new issue. Our writers this time hail from Canada, Ireland, Israel, Puerto Rico, and Australia, in addition to the continental United States. Instead of being united by subjugation, these talented people are connected by a passion for writing. So you might say the sun never sets on great storytelling.

There is movement, however glacial, toward this form of unification. It’s mostly visual and digital, but the core of it is the human need to tell and to hear stories. It is what connects us and what helps break down barriers between us. Perhaps the truth of that lies within the fact that despite our many technological advancements, so many people still take joy in writing and reading the old-fashioned way, in a simple book with words on pages.

We hope you enjoy this one.

– Joe, Zac, Renee, Marci, David, Zoë, Ronak, Lauren, Ai, and Tommy

Table of Contents (click the links for stories and excerpts)

Hunting Crows Year-Round, Phillip Scott Mandel
Love Drips and Gathers, Fiachra Kelleher
A Room for Your Name, Rolando André López Torres
Patrimony, Dave Karrel
The Leaf Queen, Carolyn Fay
Barbed Wire Fence, Carl Meuser
The Edge of Elsewhere, Margaret Irish
No One Looks Up, Julia L. Offen
Kisses, Lilian Cohen
Molyneaux’s Problem, Kate Krautkramer
The Hey, Emilee Prado
Make Up the Difference, Henry Presente
About the Cover
Issue 6 Contributors

If you like what you see here, please consider purchasing a copy of the issue using the sidebar to the right. A pdf is a mere $3, and a print copy is $10.99.

Creating Tension in Your Fiction

Anyone who’s taken a class in creative writing has probably heard the term “rising action.” Essentially it’s a series of events related to the main plot that increases the tension or suspense of a story until the climax and resolution. It’s one of the aspects of good fiction that draws readers in and keeps them engaged. It fills readers’ psychological need for increased complexity and meaning.

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The End May Only Be the Beginning: Infusing New Life Into Your Fiction

A special mid-month blog by Senior Editor Joe Ponepinto, posted on publishing industry guru Jane Friedman’s site. Joe discusses a writing technique he uses to keep fiction from becoming predictable and uninspired. Big thanks to Jane for sharing this.



Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

How to Listen to Workshop Criticism

If you ask people what’s wrong with a story, chances are they will find something. That’s the default in some critique groups, the subconscious premise that often drives the members’ comments: you have given us this work to analyze, therefore there must be something wrong with it.

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Book Review: Always Brave, Sometimes Kind

Those of us in the states tend, especially in these days of division and hyper-partisanship, to think of our neighbor to the north as a land of relative calm, where problems of oppression, race, and abuse have long since been solved. But Canada has its share of chronic ills, and in Always Brave, Sometimes Kind (Touchwood Editions), Katie Bickell illuminates those issues, particularly one of the country’s most protracted, the mistreatment of Indigenous women.

I first met this Alberta writer (virtually) through two stories she published in another journal I used to edit, Tahoma Literary Review. Both pieces were tales of life on the margins in Canada. Bickell has expanded on that theme in several other published short stories, and in this novel she’s tied them together, creating a saga that touches on the lives of her characters over the period from 1985 to the present day. Bickell’s ability to weave the original, stand-alone short stories into a novel speaks to her evolution as a writer. She has taken glimpses into an alternate reality and built them into a vivid and compelling world that few writers have, until now, understood.

Many of the stories are painful to read. They portray tales of hopelessness, born of valuelessness. The people in these pages are not so much disposable as disposed. For me, the toughest aspect to digest was the characters’ inability to move away from their present existence, even when they wanted to, and even when they have planned their escapes. Better futures seem possible at times, but these characters find themselves barred from fully engaging, forcing them to stay where they are.

Where do those barriers come from? It speaks to the power of culture to bind its members to a certain perception of self-worth, especially in relation to the larger, dominant culture of the nation. More importantly it identifies the systemic separators entrenched in Canada that make it virtually impossible to move beyond economic and cultural boundaries. The parallels to America today seem obvious, where ossified, arcane systems serve the status quo and reinforce those economic and cultural differences. When the systems become too resistant to change, progress stops. That we often don’t see it in our everyday lives is, to a certain extent, understandable. We need writers like Bickell to remind us of the injustices that lie outside our personal experience, and to prod us to take action to remedy them.

A major theme in this book is the plight of indigenous women in Canada. The issue has long been an afterthought in the country’s cultural evolution. For example, between the years 1980 and 2012, Indigenous women and girls represented 16% of all female homicides in Canada, while constituting only 4% of the female population. Statistics regarding sexual abuse and missing women among the indigenous are similarly shocking. Bickell treats this national disgrace as a part of that embedded culture.

The flaw inherent in culture is its belief that for a group to prosper, another group must not. Someone must be cast aside, left behind, and often this precept is extended to assign blame: It’s their fault for the problems between us, and their own fault for not being able to adjust.

Here is the evidence, in Bickell’s novel.

– Joe Ponepinto

Orca Blog for October: The Connection Between Literary Writing and Relativism

MFA fiction has been accused of being formulaic, flat, and cold. There are many reasons, but one I haven’t seen before is that MFA instructors are afflicted with a bad case of relativism. I’d like to explore that possibility.

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Orca Blog for September: To Avoid Rejection, Take the Writer Out of the Story

Orca’s September blog is hosted by Jane Friedman. It talks about taking the writer out of the story—one of the techniques that makes a story truly literary. It also discusses the characteristics of a story that speak to an editor’s subconscious aesthetic. Pretty important for writers who want to be published in lit journals (especially ours).

If you’re not familiar with Jane Friedman, you should be. A former editor at Virginia Quarterly Review and publisher of Writer’s Digest, she’s gone on to become one of the most knowledgeable and influential publishing experts in the business. Her email newsletter, website, and books provide writing and publishing advice helpful to writers from beginners to established pros. Jane’s newest book is The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press). You can subscribe to Jane’s newsletter on her site…after you read the blog, of course.

Big thanks to Jane for sharing the blog with a wider audience.

Here’s the link: https://www.janefriedman.com/to-avoid-rejection-take-the-writer-out-of-the-story/


Image by Karolina Grabowska from Pixabay

Orca Blog for August: Writing Politics

In our current hyper-political society, it sometimes seems as though every subject contains a political aspect. The creative writing field is particularly prone to politics—in fact it’s hard to find a literary journal or publishing house that hasn’t taken a political stand on race and social justice in the last few months, both in their public statements and in the material they choose to publish (here’s ours).

Traditionally, politics has always found an ally in the pages of creative writing. Some of literature’s classics have carried a political theme, both obvious like Animal Farm, and more subtle, such as Moby Dick. But rarely has the inclusion of politics in creative writing been as common and blatant as it is today. You only need look at the calls for submissions and published work at many literary journals to realize how popular the approach is.

A recent story published in The New Yorker titled “White Noise” by Emma Cline, forces writers to look at the issue in a modern light. The story is a fictional account of Harvey Weinstein on the day the verdict in his rape trial is to be delivered. What differentiates this story from traditional fiction is that it is completely unsympathetic to its main character, and has no other characters a reader might consider sympathetic. Anyone who’s taken a course in creative writing knows that one of the tenets of fiction is the creation of sympathetic characters—people the reader can root for. But Weinstein, since found guilty on two counts and sentenced to 23 years in prison, hardly deserves anyone’s sympathy. Instead, the sympathy in this story lies not with any particular person, but with the social awakening that exposed his activities and brought him to trial, and made him a poster boy for the sexual predators who pervade American society. In other words, the sympathy in the story is for the women Weinstein abused, and who spoke out. By extension, that sympathy could be applied toward the political movement they represent.

Either way, the sympathetic character is off camera. Cline alludes to it through her protagonist’s activities on that day, through his denial of the crimes he committed, and his obsession with the importance of his own life, to the exclusion of others.

That’s about as subtle as it gets in fiction, and serves as a good example for writers who wish to speak to current politics. Too many times our submission queue yields stories in which the writer has an obvious political agenda; characters tend to be stereotypes and narratives lean toward the polemic. A good politically-charged story will be executed through its subtext, by letting characters lead their normal lives. It’s what they do and say that then must be interpreted, in order to lead to the author’s intent.

In my book, everything good in fiction is connected in some way to subtext. Simply stated, it’s saying what you want to say without saying it—through character action and dialogue—and letting the readers figure out what it means. When they do, the realization (or resolution, in literary terms) is far more profound than if the writer explained it, because the realization  belongs to the reader, as well as (or in some cases instead of) the character.

Nothing turns the Orca staff off faster than a story with a blatant, one-sided point of view, no matter which side it’s arguing for. That kind of approach is better left to the circus of politics you can follow on news sites and social media.

Joe Ponepinto