Author Archives: zacharykellian

Orca Blog for September: Clichés

Avoiding Clichés (Dark, Stormy and Other Lessor Discussed Banalities)

All writers know the cliché: “It was a Dark and Stormy Night…” and we all know not to use it (with the exception of Edward Bulwer-Lytton and Snoopy’s alter-ego, The World Famous Author). It has become so cliché, that the only acceptable time for the words dark and stormy to be uttered in conjunction with each other is when ordering a cocktail (2oz dark rum, 3 oz ginger beer, 0.5 ounces fresh-squeezed lime juice, on ice; stir well), but in belaboring that one trope, we have all ignored a host of other equally tired lines, plot devices, and story openings. Every submission period, publishers all over the country see the same clichés, roll their eyes, and pass on otherwise solid works of fiction. It doesn’t matter if you’re a first time writer or an experienced professional, it is a trap into which we all fall, and one this blog will attempt to help you prevent in the future.

So here are some of the worst offending clichés we’ve seen this month and some suggestions as to how to best avoid them:

1) The clichéd opening. We’ve already touched on how to best engage your reader (and a publisher) in our May blog, but it’s worth being more direct since we see the same, stale openings time and time again (at last count, the openings on the following list account for about 25% of our submissions, so if you’re looking to stand out to us, or any publisher, you must avoid these:

Do not start your story with:

  • A funeral
  • A character waking up or starting their mundane day
  • The break up of a relationship
  • An accident / assault or its immediate aftermath
  • A narrator reflecting on, or worse, describing him/her/their self in a mirror.
  • A corollary to the above, a character looking at a photograph
  • Two people driving in a car to someplace they’ve never been, while trying to make sense of their relationship.
  • The above not specific enough for you? How about the dozen stories we receive every submission period that begin with phrases like “By the time…,” “Ever since…”, etc.

Do start your story with

  • Present, in the moment action
  • Intrigue
  • Drama
  • Plot
  • Character desire
  • Something that you can honestly tell yourself is unlikely to be repeated by another author in that month’s submission pile

2) Plot devices. While it is entirely possible that any one of the following plots could be anchored by strong writing and a refreshing take on the subject matter, if its the third time a publisher has read a story with the exact same stakes as yours, what are the chances your genius will be recognized?

Do not write about

  • A Love Triangle (especially a middle-aged one revolving around academics. This is 2019 literature, not a 1970s Woody Allen retrospective)
  • Abusive parents 
  • A loner trying to make sense of a chaotic world
  • A teacher dealing with troublesome children
  • Kids dealing with mom’s/dad’s new lover
  • Coping with a parent who has Alzheimer’s/cancer, etc
  • Urolagnia (Look it up if you dare. Don’t believe us if you want to… but we’ve had four stories so far about this very subject)
  • And the always popular, I ran over a (insert animal of your choice) with my car/ truck and must nurse it back to health for deeper reasons than guilt, which I only realize by the end, through the perspective of the natural world and my own selfless actions.

Do write about literally anything else. Seriously, we aren’t pulling these examples out of thin air; these are all very real clichés and are culled from stories we read all the time. And the more we read them, the less likely we are to publish them, regardless of quality. 

3) Sexism. Lastly, a cliché that should definitely not be, but one that has become an unwelcome virus plaguing many of our submissions. While sexism this can come in many forms, and all of them are worth discussing in a more serious forum than a monthly blog, the one we see most often is male writers writing about women, poorly, and with little empathy.

Do not

  • Write two dimensional female characters
  • Attribute traditionally masculine traits to a woman to make her seem tough (although this works for some characters, authors seem to forget that many of the traditionally feminine traits can be just as empowering, forceful, and commanding.)
  • Sexualize a female character’s actions (by making specific references to her body)
  • Sensationalize anything that involves the sadistic abuse and/or murder of female characters. There’s a time and a place for violence in many stories, but trust us, we can tell the difference between craft and your own personal, dark fantasies and we don’t want to read them (see also: Urolagnia).

Do write your female characters as complex, as imperfect, as empathetic and as real as you do your male characters. In 2019 so it seems ridiculous to even have to call these sexist tropes out, but until we stop seeing the above clichés in every fourth submission, we’re going to keep preaching.

Strive for originality, it’s what our art is (and has always been) about. Be original and you will definitely see an uptick on your acceptances. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a story to write:

“It was a dark and stormy night, the funeral was well underway, and we were all about to be introduced to Urolagnia for the first time…”

– Zac

Actually, if you can start a story like that last line, and somehow dig your way out of that horrible hole and into a worth-while piece, go for it! Every publisher who doesn’t immediately pass after the first sentence will be impressed.

Hopefully this blog was a helpful reminder. Because if not we just made our journal show up on a lot of “Urolagnia” web searches for no good reason.

Orca Blog for June: Avoiding Appropriation in Art

In literature, there are fewer falls from grace more precipitous than the stunning rebuke Kathryn Stockett’s The Help has experienced in this decade. It went from its two-year stranglehold on the bestseller list to being decried as a gross cultural appropriation, a white author, “writing in blackface,” whose handling of a delicate subject was clumsy at best, racist at its worst. This is not a blog to pile onto the criticisms this author has faced, but to address the debate it has brought to the forefront. History will determine how we view Stockett’s novel, but the floodgates that it opened still have the literary world treading in deep, murky water as it struggles to distinguish the line between fiction and appropriation.

With such a potent and dramatic backlash for works like The Help, you would assume that most writers have sought to distance themselves as fully as possible from the controversy. But, as anyone who reads submissions piles can tell you, that this is far from the case. We still have a long way to go to combat this naiveté, while at the same time making sure we preserve that which makes fiction so special

So how do you avoid appropriation in your own work? Just by asking that question you’re already taking a big step in the right direction. Those who are most guilty of using another’s culture, experience, or truth for their own fiction often do so carelessly without ever having asked the question of if they should. But before we go into how to avoid it, it is important to be on the same page about art’s place in this important 21st century debate.

The broadest definition of cultural appropriation being bandied about today is, itself, problematic. Under the widest definition, all art is appropriation and in the world of writing, only non-fiction is, potentially, shielded from such criticism. This is the other side of the sword, and we need to be careful not to swing it too carelessly. Art has always thrived on inspiration from other artists and indeed, other cultures. Without art, many stories and experiences throughout the world may never have seen the light of day. So, through its own progressive function in our society, art (and in particular literature) has opened up a worldwide perspective and as a result has placed itself on the firing lines.

By this logic, avoiding appropriation should be easy. Simply stick to the old adage “write what you know.” But if we all did that, the literary world would become a rather boring, one-dimensional place; because regardless of background, nearly every author would be forced to write stories about their struggles as a writer and nothing else. Would anyone find that engaging? Is that even fiction?

Accepting that writing about someone whose life and experience may be different from yours is an inescapable and necessary function of fiction, it is best to break the appropriation debate down to three key areas. And since the title of this blog has gotten me in the mood for alliteration, let’s stick with that trend. When considering whether not your current or future work may be appropriation, consider: Empathy, Education, and Exploration.

Empathy: Are you writing about a one-dimensional archetype meant to stand in for a culture that plays a key role in your plot? Or are you writing about a fully fleshed out human whose personality is baked-in with strengths and flaws like any real human? A male author writing from the perspective of a female narrator, who spends 75% of the story writing about the narrator’s boyfriend, is not someone writing from a place of empathy. No attempt was made to get inside the female narrator’s head, and instead the author has rested on his own gender norms as a crutch by putting the focus of the story on the boyfriend, despite who the story assumes its protagonist to be. In a similar vein, it is natural and indeed noble for an author writing about another race, religion, sexual orientation, etc. to want to avoid stereotypes or anything that may be perceived in a negative light. As a result, you sometimes get characters who are without flaws, who sit atop a pedestal, gleaming as a magical unicorn—a person who could not possibly exist in real life. An author who does his/her/their job well, will bring their characters to life on the page, not smother them with stereotypes or shield them from the truth.

Education: Have you taken the time to fully research the characters and culture in your story? Research implies something much more than a cursory Wikipedia glance, it demands a rigorous academic approach to ensure that the details you are including are authentic, nuanced, and truthful.

When Rebecca Makkai was writing a story about the AIDS epidemic in Chicago in the 1980s for her Pulitzer Prize shortlisted 2018 novel The Great Believers, she employed an academic and grueling study regimen to ensure that the world she portrayed was not only accurate, but full of authentic life. Makkai, who herself identifies as a white, cis-gendered, straight female, was certainly writing out of her element in portraying gay male characters dealing with the new realities of HIV/AIDS in their community, and yet her book received universal praise because it was apparent on every page that she had taken the time to interview the people who had lived through that era. She had mapped out all of the long defunct gay clubs throughout Chicago so that her geography was accurate, and she read all of the existing works about the crisis in Chicago so that even the minutia she included rang true. She had no need to hire “sensitivity readers,” because she was already friends and confidants with the people who had lived the story and they had given their blessing to the work.

Even if you are not someone who believes in sensitivity (if so, why are you a writer?) there is another benefit to educating yourself before you write, above and beyond making it politically correct: it will make your story better! I have seen this from personal experience. I’m fifth generation Appalachian on my father’s side and Irish on my mother’s. I can spot from a mile away an author who has not done his/her/their research on either of those cultures because I have lived them, and no amount of academic study can fully approximate an experience lived. Yet I’d be forgiving if minor details were missed, as long as the broad strokes felt true to my cultural experience, but the trend, particularly in writing about rural West Virginia, is to oversimplify its characters, to take the region’s lack of proper educational opportunities as a sign of lower intelligence, to glamorize and even fetishize poverty to the point where it becomes parody. When I read these stories, I know I am reading an author who doesn’t care enough to respect their characters or their audience. When I read someone like Breece D’J Pancake, a native Appalachian writer, I see my family in his words. I see he and my Dad sitting down with a few bottles of long neck Stroh’s and whiling away an afternoon speaking to one another in their quintessentially, lyrical, mountain manner. If you aren’t willing to put a majority of your work into research, then you aren’t ready to write about anything other than your own personal experience.

Exploration: In short, ask yourself if what you’re writing about has already been explored by others who may be closer to the situation than you. Makkai tackled the AIDS crisis in Chicago precisely because it hadn’t been written about much in mainstream media. If you are going to write about the Holocaust, specifically about the European Jewish experience, and you are not Jewish, and are not a direct descendant of a survivor of that dark era, then you are likely treading on ground that others with far more experience, education, and empathy than you have already explored. If, in your research of the Holocaust, you learn about the plight of the Romani people and discover that there have been precious few works of fiction written about their struggle, then perhaps, just perhaps, you’ve found a reason to write about another culture other than your own. To give voice to the previously voiceless had always been one of literature’s most important roles.

A final litmus test: if writing about another culture, identity, or experience that is not your own does not terrify you, you clearly don’t care enough to do the story or the characters justice. Art thrives when it is left uncensored and unfettered, but it is our responsibility as artists to ensure that we pay proper respect to that responsibility and that we always explore our fictional worlds with empathy and education.

– Zac Kellian

Orca Blog for April, 2019 – Hardheaded: The Autodidacts Who Shaped Literary History

It was Ernest Hemingway’s second plane crash in as many days. As the fuselage burned, the survivors ran to the rear cargo door to make their escape. Never a follower, always a trailblazer, “Papa” was a man who labored under the notion that the courageous always exited the way they came in. He tried to head butt open the fire-fused main cabin door and managed to crack two vertebrae in the process. One of the great masters of the English language was many things, among them, an Autodidact—a self-taught man—and while that kind of thinking didn’t serve Hemingway well during his second plane crash in Africa, his rebel attitude helped redefine the language you and I speak today.

The internet is rife with articles extolling the virtues of traditional education. This is not one of those pieces. Certainly there are many benefits to MFA programs: they can be a welcoming place to hone your craft around like minds, to strengthen the mechanics of your trade, or to open doors to the literary world through the personal connections you make. But this blog is dedicated to those who went a more non-traditional route. This is a tribute to autodidacticism and the men and women who have embraced it. From Hemingway to Faulkner, Mark Twain to José Saramago, the self-taught writer is as much a part of the literary landscape as any of the multi-degreed polymaths through the ages.

Sometimes this self-taught nature is a result of circumstances beyond the literary greats’ control. Poor health, isolationism, and the general social mores precluding women from more advanced opportunities relegated Jane Austen to her family’s library. It was there she taught herself to write in the style of some of her favorite authors, and later became skilled enough to turn that style on its head—giving us the influential novels she’s known for today, while the vast majority of her traditionally educated contemporaries have been forgotten.

Renowned Russian author Maxim Gorky’s family was so impoverished, he ran away from home to be one less mouth to feed. Starting from the age of twelve he earned his education by “borrowing” books from the various towns he passed through as he traveled on foot across the country. He would pick up various jobs as he walked and entertained himself with impressions of the people he encountered, many of whom would later populate his works.

Richard Wright was denied an education due to the color of his skin as the grandson of freed slaves in the Jim Crow South, but he persisted in seeking out any opportunity he could to hone his craft and challenge the status quo at every turn. When his junior high school asked him to give a traditional, faculty-written speech at graduation, he refused and instead gave the racially charged, honest speech he had written for the occasion.

But just as often the greats we remember today became autodidacts by choice. Playwright August Wilson dropped out of high school in grade nine after he found the curriculum unchallenging and had grown weary of teachers accusing him of plagiarism for delivering reports written in a style well beyond his grade level. Instead he spent all of his newly acquired free time at the Pittsburgh Carnegie Library. His presence became so ubiquitous among the stacks that the library would later offer him an honorary high school diploma in recognition of his years of self-motivated learning.

Irish playwright and critic George Bernard Shaw abhorred traditional education to such a degree that he quit school altogether at age fifteen, declaring years later that “Schools and schoolmasters, as we have them today, are not popular as places of education and teachers, but rather prisons and turnkeys in which children are kept to prevent them disturbing and chaperoning their parent.”

Jack London sought a life of adventure outside the classroom and used his unique travel and work experiences as a young man to formulate a new, commercial approach to fiction. Ardent autodidact Mark Twain loved to brazenly boast that “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”

While there have been many self-taught writers who would go on to win Nobel and Pulitzer Prizes for their craft, the measure of their contribution to the world has, and will always be, the unique way they managed to steer the world of fiction in new and interesting directions. If there is one prevalent critique of MFA programs and writers’ workshops, it is that they have the potential to teach everyone to write in a similar voice, based on a preconceived notion of what fiction is and isn’t. For the self-taught greats, this kind of conformity, real or imagined, is what drove them to march to the beat of their own drummer and, along the way, create new and wholly unexpected literary expressions.

Autodidacts like H.P. Lovecraft and Jack London managed to create new literary genres, while other independent learners like Louis L’Amour and Harlan Ellison helped to innovate and breathe new life into existing genres. Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore managed to reshape literature for an entire subcontinent while Ernest Hemingway, his aversion to traditional emergency exits aside, achieved nothing less that reshaping the way an English-language novel is written and a story is told.

Clearly, an informal education is not an impediment to literary success or acclaim, which may lead one to wonder which path is better. The short answer: whatever learning style best suits you! While it is true that many autodidacts have catalyzed paradigm shifts in their respective media, precisely because they naturally think outside the box there are still many examples of artists who embraced higher learning and managed to change their art form for the better. After all, you still need to know the rules before you can effectively break them. So choose the path that is right for you, weigh the pros and cons of each, and regardless of how rebellious you choose to be, it never hurts to learn where your exits are in case of an emergency.

-Zachary Kellian