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 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

Orca Blog for July: What We Can Say; What We Will Do

Orca’s editors (Zac, Renee, and me) have debated over several weeks what we might say about the events following the murder of George Floyd, and whether we even have anything relevant to say. We do not wish to pretend our opinions matter much to those more directly involved in the current social discourse. We also don’t wish to be perceived as merely jumping on the bandwagon of popular opinion, like all those larger entities that suddenly “stand with” us in these times of crisis. We could, and maybe should stay quiet.

When we started Orca in 2019, we envisioned the journal as a commitment to the literary style of writing. We believe that writing, especially fiction, is more than words, more than personal opinion. We believe the best writing is art, something that both transcends our daily existence and has the capacity to connect us to the existence of others. Ludwig Wittgenstein, an Austrian philosopher of the early-to-mid twentieth century, said, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” This sentiment points to the essence of literary style, and to its encouragement of the pursuit of knowledge and experience.

We also believe that any writer can compose in a literary aesthetic, and therefore that we should not have to lower our standards to accommodate popular or politically-motivated agendas. By saying this we could easily be cast as a journal of white privilege. We are an all-white staff and the majority of stories we publish are by white authors. Although we do not know the race or ethnicity of the writers who submit to us, we suspect we don’t receive many works by writers of color. What we publish is largely reflective of our literary and personal experiences and tastes, and that could easily be construed as a manifestation of white privilege. In fact, it probably is.

We are seven white people. The journal began with one person (me), but soon others wanted to become a part of it, and I was glad for the help. We did have a woman of color, but she returned to school. We do have (and had) staff members of differing sexual orientation, but we do not at present have anyone of color.

We are seven individual people, and as such we are subject to our life and cultural experiences. We can’t deny that those experiences have been and remain privileged. We can’t eliminate them, or pretend they didn’t happen, or even pretend they don’t affect us. We want to be fair. We have tried to present a journal that encompasses experience from every rational and accountable perspective, and in that regard we have been statistically successful. In our first three issues we have published writers from all regions of the U.S., and probably a dozen foreign countries. About 70 percent of what we publish is by women. But that doesn’t necessarily prove a truly diverse perspective.

A friend of Zac’s, who is an academic as well as a writer of color, said that the standards of “literary English,” while arguably problematic in their ethnocentricity, are unavoidable, and that changing those standards would be a mistake, and would likely be viewed as such by many academics in the field of racial equality.

We are happy to hear that, but not relieved.

The current social unrest exposes a disease that should have been acknowledged and treated centuries ago. Despite the childish jingoism espoused by our current president, despite all the “greats” and “exceptionalisms” and “manifest destinies,” and the calls to return to a fantasized past, America is still a nation of deep racial prejudice and, at best, only an unfulfilled promise. It is an enormous land of distance and isolation, those factors leading to ignorance, which leads to fear, which leads to tribalism, which leads to hatred and violence. The protests address the lies that keep that promise from fruition. They reveal a national frustration over our failure to solve a 400-year-old problem, and a pent-up anger at the political and economic systems that have cemented racism and discrimination into our national foundation. Our capitalist system has become corrupted beyond the Founders’ wildest nightmares, from theoretical opportunity for all, into a belief among many people that opportunity for others means less for them. It’s that myopic, zero-sum thinking that’s behind a lot of what’s happening, and which allows the one-percenters to keep hoarding, and keep laughing at the rest of us as we fight over the remaining scraps.

At Orca we want to move forward in a way that addresses both our staff’s concerns over our biases, and the fundamental inequities that plague our nation.

Zac’s academic friend has challenged us to consider what role the artists themselves play in the piece of art. When Zac mentioned that some of the staff tend to read stories blind to avoid bias, he countered that by not including the artist as a piece of their work, we are perhaps opening ourselves up to unconscious bias. This makes sense—by eliminating the writer from our judgment, a reader can only assess the work through that narrow slit of personal experience, which is too dependent on its cultural foundation.

He also said that what many people of color in any field are looking for is transparency. He said most people could and should agree that this is all a nuanced discussion, and by demonstrating that we are having these discussions internally, and by acknowledging that we too struggle with the role art plays in all of this, we are several steps ahead of most of the universities with whom he works, who are either not having the discussions at all, or instantly leap to the conclusion that they know the right path to follow.

Perhaps when dealing with unconscious bias, the best course is to address it consciously. With that in mind, here is what we will do:

  • We will expand our staff to include people of color and diverse experience.
  • We will use our educational and experiential foundations—our privilege—to awaken ourselves to the breadth of writing perspectives that exist, and to know that they have literary value; to not limit what we publish to stories we “like” or that simply reflect the values on which we were raised, or the values of the moment. We will not be afraid to challenge ourselves and our readers with work that represents the realities of other cultures, lifestyles, experiences, hopes, and imaginations—provided that work takes into account that there exists a valid spectrum of experience deserving of representation (in other words, no screeds or polemics).
  • We will achieve a necessary balance of perspectives, and still maintain our literary standards, because we also believe that writers of every background are capable of thoughtful and imaginative stories that employ language to its fullest potential. We will aim to prove it with every issue we publish.
  • We will not allow political agendas to affect our commitment. That is not about “our” truth. It is about responsible discourse.
  • We will recognize that writing is an attempt to make art, and that art is an attempt to understand not just oneself, but oneself as a part of a larger world. We will recognize that writing is, like America, an unfulfilled promise.
  • We will embrace and promote the idea that good writing involves risk.

That last idea comes from something I read a few years ago, and which has stayed with me since. It’s from a commencement speech given by the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño, in which he talked at length about writing well. Here is an excerpt:

What, then, is writing of quality? Well, what it has always been: knowing to stick one’s head into the dark, knowing to jump into the void, knowing that literature is basically a dangerous occupation. To run along the edge of the precipice: on one side the bottomless abyss and on the other the faces one loves, the smiling faces one loves, and books, and friends, and food. And to accept that fact, though sometimes it may weigh on us more than the flagstone that covers the remains of every dead writer. Literature, as an Andalusian folk song might say, is dangerous.

We will see you on the edge of the precipice.

– Joe Ponepinto

Image by Patrick Behn from Pixabay

Orca Blog for May: The Problem with “I”

Lately I’ve been rejecting a lot of fiction submissions written in the first-person point of view. So many that I’ve begun to ask why—what is it about these stories that’s turning me off?*

First-person has long been an excellent choice for conveying a character’s individual view of the world. Examples like James Joyce’s “Araby,” Amy Hempel’s “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried,” and Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral” are classics that quickly come to mind. More recently some of George Saunders’s stories as well.

When done well, first person offers a glimpse into a character’s inner psyche. But remember that it’s also often referred to as the unreliable narrator; that psyche is tempered by motivations and long-buried embarrassments, which are suppressed in the name of ego, the image a character presents to the rest of the world. That person’s past is usually revealed through the story’s subtext, the signs and symbols within action and dialogue that serve as illumination of the character’s soul, and place it in relation to the reality that surrounds it.

That conflict between characters’ inner and outer worlds—how they relate to other people and experience growth—seems to be missing in some of what comes in through our submission portal. The result, especially when presented in first-person, are stories that exhibit a deliberate ignorance of the world. They are self-indulgent, sometimes self-aggrandizing. And for sure, they lack subtext.

First-person is, on its surface, the easiest POV to write. Just adopt a persona and a situation, and off you go. Maybe that’s why we get so many. No need to worry about other characters too much, since the story is about this one person. I think that’s the problem, though. One of the attractions of stories written in third-person POV is their world building. The characters are part of a world, not isolated from it. They must react to its demands, relate to other characters—in short, participate. So many of the first-person stories we get seem to want to escape from that. They seem narrow, limited, not fully formed.

Some of this seems to be a function of our times. In a culture in which every person is encouraged to express his or her inherent “specialness,” it’s easy for writers, especially younger ones, to misinterpret that to mean to the exclusion of others.

One writer who I admire, Rachel Cusk, has shown how the opposite of self-indulgence can make first-person POV truly work. In her Outline trilogy (Outline, Transit, Kudos) she has created a first-person narrator who remains primarily in the background, letting other characters tell their stories, and barely even reacting to them. It’s incredibly refreshing to read these novels, in which Faye (the POV character) acknowledges the world and perhaps more importantly, her place in it.

It seems that such engagement with the world is what’s needed now, both in fiction and reality. You have to live in the world. So do your characters. Give them the opportunity to do that and maybe your first-person story will find its way into our pages.

– Joe Ponepinto

*Note: I am aware that writing a blog about the shortcomings of the first-person POV in first-person POV is something of a literary oxymoron. But it seems unavoidable, since the nature of a blog is opinion. So bear with me.

Discounted Novels to Help Pass These Difficult Times

Isolation and quarantines made necessary by the COVID-19 epidemic have some people looking for ways to fill the extra time spent at home. Our friends at 7.13 Books have a suggestion: reading discounted ebooks. All their ebooks are now priced at $2.99.

We’re partial to 7.13 because Publisher Leland Cheuk has put together a lineup of incredible titles by debut novelists, giving authors who would otherwise be ignored by the New York publishing industry a chance to introduce their work to the world. His press has received praise from many major industry review outlets.

Oh, and one of those books is Mr. Neutron, a science fiction/satire mashup by Orca Co-publisher Joe Ponepinto.

Whatever your situation during this crisis, the team at Orca hopes you stay distant and safe.

Some Wishes, Adages, and Nominations

First, a recognition of the holiday season, and whether you celebrate or denigrate these observances, we at Orca hope you experience joy, camaraderie, or at least contentment during the coming weeks.

Adages

In my literary travels, I often come across bits of wisdom from writers and thinkers that resonate with me. I’ve been collecting these words for several years now, and I’d like to pass along some of the most profound. Some are about writing, and some are just about life. Separately they may occasionally sound contradictory, but each contains a little bit of truth, and together they help make some sense of an apparently senseless world.

“We live in a printing age,” which was no good thing, for “every rednosed rimester is an author, every drunken mans dreame is a booke.” Martine Mar-Sixtus (pseudonym), circa 1620

Sometimes I think the surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us. – Calvin (as written by Bill Watterson, creator of the comic strip Calvin & Hobbes)

Writers of fiction look for the bits that distort, and color, and qualify—that raise all sorts of questions where there were once answers. – Sabina Murray

I now write from an old mind and an old body, long beyond the time when most men would ever think of continuing such a thing, but since I started so late I owe it to myself to continue, and when the words begin to falter and I must be helped up stairways and I can no longer tell a bluebird from a paperclip, I still feel that something in me is going to remember (no matter how far I’m gone) how I’ve come through the murder and the mess and the moil, to at least a generous way to die. To not to have entirely wasted one’s life seems to be a worthy accomplishment, if only for myself. – Charles Bukowski

Truth must dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind – Emily Dickinson

You will always be tempted to temper your vision by the reactions of the world around you, which celebrates mediocrity. As the years go by, it will become more and more difficult, this struggle to stick to your art, to your excellence. You will be set upon by mediocre people. Mediocre people support mediocre people, and they support mediocre objects. – Gordon Lish

The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less. – Annie Dillard

The limits of my language mean the limits of my world. – Ludwig Wittgenstein

Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself. – also Wittgenstein

A belief is like a guillotine, just as heavy, just as light. – Franz Kafka

It’s not that you should write what you know, you should write what you don’t know about what you know. – Grace Paley

In the United States, you look at the guy that lives in the mansion on the hill, and you think, “You know, one day, if I work really hard, I could live in that mansion.” In Ireland, people look up at the guy in the mansion on the hill and go, “One day, I’m going to get that bastard.” – Bono

If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that’s a full day. That’s a heck of a day. You do that seven days a week, you’re going to have something special. – Jim Valvano

My Turn

Reading these quotes can’t help but inspire one to try a hand at profundity. Although you didn’t ask, here are a few of mine:

Writing is the only profession that disproves the saying: “Do what you love and the money will follow.”

Good fiction lets readers experience the risks they would never dare take in their real lives.

The devil doesn’t know he’s the devil.

When the tradition becomes more important than its meaning, it’s time to abandon it.

It’s all in the search terms.

Never give up. No one who was ever successful gave up. Ever. Among journals and agents and editors, I’ve received thousands of rejections, brush offs and no responses. Don’t let the assholes and jerks and the cronyism of the writing business get to you. Just keep writing, because it’s not really about getting published (although that’s always nice), it’s about writing great fiction.

For a long time I thought that if I had to sum up the goal of human experience in one term I would have said, “self-interest.” But as I age I have learned the correct term is, “forgiveness,” and I am working on that.

– Joe Ponepinto


Awards Nominations

And finally this month, Orca is proud to announce our nominations for literary awards:

Pushcart Prize

  • Daughter of Cups, Kristin Dunnion, issue 1
  • One Man Away, Siamak Vossoughi, issue 1
  • The Broken Logic of the Universe, Will Cordeiro, issue 1
  • Inside the Zone, Catherine Browder, issue 1
  • Bridge of the Hallelujahs, Sean Marciniak, issue 2

Best Small Fictions

  • Scientifically Mapping a Missed Attraction, Teffy Wrightson, issue 1
  • Robin and the Pronoun They, Amanda Yskamp, issue 1
  • The Raspberry Man, Melissa Juchniewicz, issue 1
  • A Season’s End, Adam Stemple, issue 2

PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers

  • Away Game in Monaco, Jacob van Berkum, issue 2

Image by Sherri Simpson from Pixabay

Orca Blog for November — Announcing Our Literary-Speculative Issue

We’d like to take November’s blog to introduce an upcoming concept issue for our journal. While Orca was founded on our love for literary storytelling, we like to champion any use of rich, carefully crafted language. Some of our favorite novels and short stories fall under the umbrella of genre fiction, but they remain classics in our heart for their wonderful use of language and their broad exploration of imagination.

With that in mind, beginning with our fourth issue and continuing with every third issue of Orca, we will be celebrating submissions of literary speculative fiction and shining a deserved light on those storytellers who push boundaries and manage to break away from the conventions and tropes of their genre and seek to craft something truly special.

What do we mean by the terms Literary and Speculative—and what does it mean when those two worlds combine?

Literary: A style of writing in which the focus is on language and character, and plot is often secondary. A literary story is about ideas. It has an overarching theme distinct from the narrative and a leitmotif running through it. It treats its characters as real human beings and not as props to espouse an author’s opinion or to simply move the plot forward. It approaches language as art: a literary writer pays attention to every sentence, every word.

Speculative: The term “speculative” has been employed by writers and editors to connote works from a variety of genres, such as science fiction, fantasy, horror, dystopian, space opera, and similar subjects. All of those genres are welcome, and we hope to celebrate shining examples of them all, but for Orca we are specifically looking for submissions that adhere more closely to the original sense of the word, which is to consider what might be, instead of what is. Think a near-future where the political structure is turned on its head. Think about an alternative present where the South won the Civil War. Imagine a fantastical horror that over the course of ten pages begins to feel all too real. Think Black Mirror and The Twilight Zone. Think “what if….”

Both definitions pay particular attention to the idea behind the story. Good, literary speculative fiction has its basis in concepts that are larger (often much larger) than the story itself, and seeks to examine one aspect of it, and how that aspect affects the story’s characters.

A great example of excellent literary speculative fiction can be found in the opening paragraph of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Notice how, on its surface the narrator is simply establishing a setting, but then marvel at how, within this description, Atwood manages an incredible amount of world building:

We slept in what had once been a gymnasium. The floor was of varnished wood, with stripes and circles painted on it, for the games that were formerly played there; the hoops for the basketball nets were still in place, though the nets were gone. A balcony ran around the room, for the spectators, and I thought I could smell, faintly like an afterimage, the pungent scent of sweat shot through with the sweet taint of chewing gum and perfume from the watching girls, felt-skirted as I knew from pictures, later in miniskirt, then pants, then in one earring, spike green-streaked hair. Dances would have been held there; the music lingered, a palimpsest of unheard sound, style upon style, and undercurrent of drums, a forlorn wail, garlands make of up of issue paper flowers, cardboard devils, and a revolving ball of mirrors, powdering the dancers with snow of light.

Not a word is wasted. Notice how the backstory it hints at creates far more questions than answers. Notice how the future being described is done, not through heavy-handed narration or purple prose, but through carefully constructed sensory images that give the novel’s world a full past, present, and future, all in a brief 150 words.

Other great examples of this type of writing include works by Ted Chiang, Kelly Link, Jorge Luis Borges, Ursula K. LeGuin, Julio Cortázar, and Ta-Nehisi Coates latest novel, The Water Dancer. Notice how Chiang’s stories are much more about the people dealing with and affected by the great unknown than they are about defining the unknown itself. Remember that LeGuin was using the lens of science fiction and fantasy to tackle subjects like institutionalized racism and transgender rights long before they were at the forefront of the political realm.

Horror, too, can find a home within the speculative literary world, for what genre better epitomizes the collective sentiment of the human condition that we tend to feel today? In this world of polemics and 24-hour push notifications, who among us can turn on the news or read an article and not be stricken with a sense, false or not, of impending doom?

There are few better than Shirley Jackson when it comes to writing literary horror. Consider her opening to Hill House and the world it opens up to us, like the day to twilight shift of a full eclipse:

No organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

One of literature’s most ominous openings. More examples of great literary horror can be found in the works of: Robert W. Chambers, Alma Katsu, Neil Gaiman, and Stephen King.

While we want to keep this upcoming issue open to all types of literary speculative fiction, it is unlikely that we would publish anything considered high fantasy or hard sci-fi. So too, would we be likely to pass on anything that focuses on extreme gore, violence, or eroticism. All of those can be great tools for a skilled writer, but only when used sparingly.

Consider this thematic issue our challenge to the many writers who have submitted to us in the past, to break away from the mold and to craft something boldly imaginative. To pose a “what if…,” explore it, and perhaps, even attempt to answer it. We cannot wait to read your submissions!

– Zac and Joe

Book Review: Spider Love Song and Other Stories

How much did I enjoy the stories in Nancy Au’s new collection, Spider Love Song and Other Stories? I’ll put it this way: I had published the title work when I was fiction editor of Tahoma Literary Review a couple of years ago, and being a typically overworked, under-motivated editor, I reasoned I could save some time by skipping that story (it is a long one, about twenty-five pages) since I’d read it before. But when I came to it about halfway through the book, I scanned the opening paragraphs, and was immediately back into its pages, and read it with as much fascination as the first time.*

Such are the stories throughout this collection, Au’s first. They’re filled with what might be called emotional intrigue: no flat characters, every one of the people who populate her fictions unique and unusual in the way we all can be, and it’s a remarkable talent to both recognize that trait and be able to inhabit the minds of such a diverse cast.

From this there spawns no end of plots, all relatively simple in their progression, yet deeply complex in their characters’ psyches and interrelationships: In “The Unfed” an old and toothless woman recounts the deaths of neighbors in her rural town who sought magical ways to rebuild a mountaintop destroyed by a mining company. “The Richmond” focuses on a young girl who tries to convince her mother to move to a more upscale area of San Francisco. And there’s the title story, regarding a girl whose parents have gone missing (the result of foul play or abandonment no one knows), who lives with her eccentric grandmother and copes with her loss by regarding the world from inside an elephant costume.

Conclusions? Revelations? Not of the traditional or genre sort. Instead each tale comprises something like a visit to the home of an acquaintance, only made during those times which are typically private. Pull up a chair and observe.

Once you leave, of course, their lives continue; new problems, surely, will occur for these people, and while we don’t know what they are and how they’ll play out, we can know how they’ll try to deal with them. Ultimately, that’s all we really need to know about a person.


* Disclaimer: A few months after initially publishing the story my wife and I had the opportunity to meet Nancy and her husband in San Francisco for lunch, and I would now consider her a friend. That may influence my opinion about the book, but I suspect I’d be convinced of its excellence had we never met. Acre Books (connected to the august Cincinnati Review) doesn’t publish just anything.

– Joe Ponepinto

Current Issue

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.

Orca Blog for October: It’s All in the Timing: When’s the Best Time to Submit?

The short answer is when journals and contests are looking for good stories. Theoretically that’s whenever they are open. But the real answer is far more nuanced. And for a writer, that means there are certain times during reading periods in which you can improve your chances of publication.*

Let’s look at this situation from the other side of the fence—from within a journal’s organization. I’ve been editing literary journals for several years now, and have noticed definite patterns and trends when it comes to submissions. And I know from that experience the timing of a submission can influence its potential acceptance.

First, let’s eliminate the possibility that your story is so good that it won’t matter when you submit it. Instead let’s assume that your story is good enough to be published, somewhere in the top five percent of submissions received. Considering that most established literary journals accept less than two percent of their submissions (and usually it’s less than one percent), you still face significant odds. So here are a few things to keep in mind as you prepare to submit.

Typically when a reading period opens there is a spike in the number of submissions. This may be because writers missed the last submission period and have been waiting for a journal to reopen. At this point in the reading process a good story will be noted, but then it has to sit for the remainder of the submission period. In that time (and remember we are talking about good, publishable, but not necessarily spectacular stories) it will likely be pretty much forgotten until it’s time for the editors to consider which pieces are actually selected for the next issue.

After that initial rush, there is usually a lull. Submissions trickle in at a pace of a few a day. The good ones received during this time are also noted for consideration at the end of the period.

Approximately halfway to three quarters of the way through the submission period, if no spectacular stories come in, the editors may begin to worry that they don’t have enough great stories to fill the next issue. (This is not an absolute rule, of course, but it is something that I have seen quite often.) I’ll get back to this time in a minute.

The final two weeks of a reading period see the greatest number of submissions by far. Sometimes as many as half the final total come in during that time, as writers rush to beat the deadline. The final week often sees a tremendous rise in the number of submissions, as writers (being writers, I suppose) react to a hard deadline. But those submitters may not be aware of the increased odds they face in getting their stories published. Consider that readers for literary journals are usually faced with hundreds of submissions that have come in during the final weeks. Each needs to be evaluated in a compressed period of time, since the editors must make decisions about the content of their next issue under their deadlines. The readers—usually unpaid volunteers who must also find time for their paying jobs or school studies—have to read and decide quickly. The general thinking can be summed up like this: we already have a lot of good stories to consider, so I need to see something spectacular before I pass it on. Is it fair to assume they may not give each story adequate time to develop before they make that call? That’s for each individual writer to determine for herself. But as someone who understands the workload during this time, my advice is to not give a reader a chance to dismiss you after only a couple of sentences.

So let’s get back to that third quarter of the submission period. That’s the time when editors look at their submission queue and may begin to wonder if they have enough quality material to produce the next issue. If they believe they don’t, a feeling of concern begins to set in. Will we make it? Will we receive the kinds of stories we are looking for, and are known for? And where will they come from? This is when, if they receive a very good story, they may start to worry that if they don’t accept it right away, another journal might steal it away from them. Some journals, Orca included, will accept that story rather than take a chance it gets away. It’s also the time when good stories have a better chance of remaining fresh in their minds when they sit down to make their final selections. The sense of excitement attached to such stories is greater than that for the good ones that came in at the beginning of the reading period, simply because it’s easier to remember them.

You may want to consider making the third quarter of a reading period your target for submission. If you have a quality story that deserves publication, it may just improve your chances. Even if it only gives your story a slight boost, that may be enough to see it in print.

– Joe Ponepinto


*A quick disclaimer: Not every journal follows the path I’ve laid out above. Some have specific policies about how their reading periods and acceptances are structured—these are generally well-established journals that receive many thousands of submissions, giving them a much larger talent pool. For the hundreds of other literary journals, however, especially those that haven’t been publishing for many years, this assessment may apply.