Category Archives: Craft of Fiction

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 June: Asking for Feedback, a Micro Guide

Have you ever shared a draft with friends and colleagues to see what they think and been disappointed with the feedback you received? Conversely, have you ever read a friend’s manuscript and been unsure of how to give them actionable critiques?

Feedback can be uncomfortable on both sides of the fence: we feel put on the spot, we aren’t sure how to articulate how we felt, or we aren’t even sure whether what we have managed to articulate is useful! I’d like to share a couple strategies to reduce this stress and optimize your results.

Gather volunteers

Hey! I was hoping you could read the attached story and let me know what you thought! Thanks so much! 🙂

Don’t send this email unless you already have an ongoing critical relationship with the recipient; surprises are for your stories. An email like this out of the blue can cause many people to panic. What if I don’t like it? What if I don’t give the kind of response they’re looking for? Your email may get a quick “Great job, this was a fun read!” or it may get relegated to the deep recesses of your friend’s unread pile. Instead, ask your friends and colleagues if they’d be willing and interested in reading and critiquing your work in advance of sending them your latest draft. This way they are prepared and have a chance to bow out gracefully if they haven’t the time or inclination.

Ask specific questions

Are you wondering whether the dialogue works? Whether the twist on page 20 is too out of the blue? Ask! It’s much easier for someone to give you useful feedback when it’s specific. Sending your story along with 1-3 specific questions you’re trying to answer will help your reader target their commentary in a way that they and you both feel is useful. “Did you like it??” doesn’t count —it may be what you want to know, but it’s not very useful as you head into your next draft.

A handful of our favorite questions:

  • What is your favorite part of the story? This is fun to talk about and usually gets people primed to give you honest responses. Readers will be more comfortable if they can give you some positive words off the bat.
  • What do you feel is missing or unclear? Were there parts you felt like skipping over? Is there anything you wished there were more of? These are good for identifying deficiencies—maybe a character or plot point needs further development. The implied reverse questions are also a fair ask.
  • Do the climax and resolution make sense? Sometimes we get so wrapped up in getting to the climax of a story that we forget that our readers have to buy into the plot that gets them there.
  • Is the main character sympathetic? Stories often fail because readers can’t identify with or sympathize with the main character. Asking them to consider this aspect can be very helpful.
  • Is the dialogue in this scene realistic? Sometimes we tend to make dialogue too explanatory in an effort to make things clear. But dialogue needs to sound natural, like people actually talking.

– Renee Jackson

Image by Dean Moriarty 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.

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 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.

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 August: Under the Radar: Some (Other) Journals That Put Writing First

I did not submit my fiction to literary journals for a long time. Maybe a year. I used to, much to my present embarrassment, seek out those journals that might be good for the resume, put me on the literary map, boost my career, whatever you want to call it—all that egocentric bullshit on which such journals lean and which exact from sincere writers their hopes, their dreams, and quite often their cash.

Not so this time.

Lately in my submission travels I’ve begun to pay closer attention to the focus and quality of the journals where I send my work. I’ve discovered something interesting, a countertrend, a comment on the state of literary journals. There is, flying just beneath the journal world’s radar, a small group of publications that honor the writing over the writer, the opposite of what seems popular in the mainstream. It’s writing for writing’s sake, poetry in prose, a breathtaking use of language that takes a reader out of her existence for a while, and allows her to live another’s life, and honestly experience how people connect to other people.

Instead of groups, or tropes, or stereotypes, this writing deals with singular people, people more curious about what it is to be a person than a member of a culture or a political movement. Not that politically-motivated writing has no place in literature; it always has. But it has never before tried to drown out other good writing with accusations of privilege, as though its practitioners have lost respect for what has come before.

Never before has political writing abandoned its goals in favor of its deeds. (The same could be said of current politics—one problem with both populism and activism is that they tend to disregard the good in their obsessive search for the righteous.)

I resist that trend.

And so, it seems, do these small, obscure literary journals. I’ve begun to compile a list of venues whose editors’ values seem similar to mine, where the stories published make me wish I had written them. None of them pay. They don’t spend a lot of time online in self-promotion. Most likely none will get me or my writing noticed. Their editors are clearly publishing them for the other, more traditional joys of writing: great language, imagination, empathy…

Here are some journals I admire. You won’t find any of the usual suspects here. I hope to keep adding to the list.

I was fortunate, a few weeks ago, to have a story accepted by Bell Ombre—a story I originally wrote several years ago—one that was rejected many dozens of times by those other places, and of which I recall a gallery of confused faces and reactions when I presented it to a writers’ class. You’ve heard that kind of vague, patronizing commentary, I’m sure: “It’s well written, but I didn’t understand…the stakes/character’s choices/point of view/whatever.” (I’ve learned to tune out critiques that begin with, “It’s well written…” I know what comes next.)

Seeing that story accepted, knowing that some editors understood the language and the intent, is no small measure of vindication.

Discovering these new journals tells me there is another movement going on, separate from the ones that dominate the literary space. A quiet one, lest those Jacobins of popular culture get wind of what they’re doing and try to silence them. It’s an undercurrent keeping alive what writing can be, a pulse to let the literary world know that the sentence—the beautifully crafted sentence, the one that floors you with its intelligence—is not dead.

I hope to make Orca that kind of journal, too.


PS: I am my writing. My writing is not me. If you agree, please submit to us.

*PPS: I find The Buenos Aires Review so impressive that I cannot summon the courage to submit to them. And sadly, the staff at Skidrow Penthouse has decided to cease production.

– JP

Photo credit: shannonkringen on Visualhunt.com CC BY-SA

Orca Blog for July: Watching a Movie Like a Writer

Quote of the Week: Story is born in that place where the subjective and objective realms touch. – Robert McKee in Story

As much as I try to educate writers about writing through writing, I have to acknowledge that we live in a visual world. I found this painfully true in the last week when I had to replace a lawn sprinkler. The instructions for adjusting the direction and strength of the spray had zero words—just a pictograph of tools and controls and arrows—which I found so confusing that after ten minutes I was shouting, Just give me the words!

This seems to be how most people live now; they understand and think through image, not words or concepts. Even some writers understand writing better through images. And I believe most writers can benefit from the visual aspects of the storytelling craft.

Visual media has a power to make us better writers, because our brains interpret it in a different way from writing. (And keep in mind that a primary goal of writing is to create an image in the mind of a reader.) It’s more organic, and doesn’t rely on our ability to translate words into images. Words link to us through a system of logic (sometimes called language) that requires an exact understanding of the meaning of words and how they are used. The visual often has a direct link to the emotional state of the viewer. There’s no need to parse meaning to create images—that part is done for you, and allows for immediate identification with the characters in the story.

Writers need to know both ways of communicating. Which is why I believe writers should watch movies to become better writers—not watch them as fans, but as students and critics.

The first book about writing that I read was not really a book about writing. Instead it was a book about screenwriting: Story by Robert McKee. Both the book and the author are regarded among the best in teaching the craft of screenwriting. Not surprisingly, the techniques described in the book work just as well for writers of fiction.

McKee deals primarily with how a movie script can create images that engage the viewers’ emotions. It discusses the momentum of a story and character building, aspects of writing that serve both genre and literary writers. He describes, for example, how tension is created and maintained through a series of inciting incidents and turning points, and how that tension is heightened by creating gaps between the viewer’s (reader’s) expectation and the actual results of actions.

Learning these techniques, and reinforcing them while watching movies, can help a lot of writers break bad habits in their work. Notice for example, how a good movie soon presents a scene that contains some tension requiring a character choice (inciting incident). Take The Hunger Games for example (which of course was based on a book). It jumps right into the first inciting incident, when Katniss must choose whether to let her little sister be drafted into the combat (where she’ll surely die), or volunteer to take her place. It doesn’t start with a leisurely description of the dystopian world in which they live (as so much poor writing would). It allows the viewer to become part of that world by simply being in it.

Sometimes, when I’m watching a movie at home and I view a scene that works particularly well, I’ll stop and rewind a bit, to understand how the screenwriter and director set it up. Usually they’ve planted elements earlier in the plot that establish motivation or provide a critical clue to what comes later, even though those things aren’t apparent at first. Watch enough of them, and you’ll start to notice them when they first appear, especially in the bad movies. Then, like me, you can watch Hunger Games 3: The Mockingjay, and demand your money back when the evil new president stands directly behind and above the old president so when Katniss aims her bow to execute the old one, all she has to do is raise it a few degrees to kill the new one instead. (It would have been poetic justice if they’d had the screenwriter or director stand up there.)

Anyway, read Story. Watch movies. Don’t forget the red vines.

– JP

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 May: Your Critical First Impression

Most writers know that readers for literary journals have to review hundreds of submissions. In practical terms this means readers may only give each submission a paragraph or two to make a good impression before deciding to reject or consider the piece further. That doesn’t give a writer much of a chance. So what should a writer try to do to engage an Orca reader?

Your opening can establish character, setting, point of view, conflict, and other aspects. But more importantly it must establish the voice of the story, and create some connection to the character’s situation, also known as the stakes.

Let’s look at a couple of examples, one that doesn’t quite work, and one that does:

Here’s a first paragraph, written by me to approximate many of the stories we receive in our submission queue:

Jim Stone walked past the gates of O’Hare’s spacious Terminal B, checking his cell, searching for a restaurant he and his wife could go to after work; he had something important to tell her, and the right place would make it go more smoothly. It was his first week on the job. At this hour there were only two people in the waiting area—a young man sitting in a gray chair reading a book, and an old woman in a green coat with a leather bag on her lap.

I see dozens of stories that start off this way. Technically there’s nothing wrong with them. Above, we have character, setting, and even a hint to the story’s inherent conflict. But what’s missing is subtext. The details in this opening are mostly exterior.

Now here’s the first paragraph of Rachel Cusk’s Outline:

Before the flight I was invited for lunch at a London club with a billionaire I’d been promised had liberal credentials. He talked in his open-necked shirt about the new software he was developing that could help organizations identify the employees most likely to rob and betray them in the future. We were meant to be discussing a literary magazine he was thinking of starting up: unfortunately I had to leave before we arrived at that subject. He insisted on paying for a taxi to the airport, which was useful since I was late and had a heavy suitcase.

There are subtle clues in this paragraph that tell me the writer is immersed in the characters and the story. Exterior details are tied to interior reactions and emotions. This is much more like the way people experience their world, and therefore tends to draw the reader into the character’s reality.

By examining closer, we can see how this works.

Both paragraphs present a scene that has something to do with air flight. What’s the difference?

  1. In the first, notice the attention to factual background information: O’Hare’s Terminal B, first week on the job; the young man and the old woman are specifically described. In the second, notice that the information is more vague: a London club, a billionaire. We do not know exactly what these things are or what they look like. But then, people don’t view the world around them in terms of specific facts; instead they tend to incorporate what they are experiencing into a larger whole, as though each detail presented was part of a connected reality, and therefore doesn’t need the breakdown into explanation. In the weaker example, the things that should be specific are left vague, and the things that don’t truly matter are made specific. In the Cusk paragraph every sentence offers a window into a deeper meaning—that’s subtext.
  2. Interior versus exterior detail. The exterior detail must be connected to the protagonist’s interior experience, otherwise it becomes peripheral. It is not a “telling” detail. Look at the description at the end of the first paragraph: The terminal was empty except for an elderly woman and a young man. Although these things are visible to the protagonist, and register to his senses, none of them seems connected in any significant way to the protagonist’s problem or psychological state. They are essentially window dressing, placed by the author to establish the “scene,” as though mere detail could do this. In the second example, every external detail is connected to the protagonist’s inner reality. These are aspects that are important to the protagonist. For example, the billionaire promised “liberal credentials.” His open-necked shirt implies liberality, but the software he is developing serves corporations and seems designed to punish workers. He wants to start a literary magazine, which is important enough for her to stop before a trip to have lunch with him. The beauty of Cusk’s writing is that it works on a subconscious level, luring the reader in subtly. The information is just enough to get the reader to start thinking about more than what’s in the scene—this is the difference between telling a story and engaging the reader in a story.
  3. A glimpse into your character’s interior state reveals her interests, desires, and goals. In other words, it introduces the possibility of conflict, and conflict is the primary driver of good fiction. What does your character want, and what stands in her way of getting it? Yes, you can have external conflict such as a physical confrontation, but even the external conflict implies an internal state. We are not simply physical objects reacting to external stimuli.
  4. This depth of writing is not something that comes easily for most writers. It requires a deep understanding of character, to the point at which exterior observations and interior reactions become one. It also requires that the writer have confidence in presenting those connections as they are to the reader, without the boring, factual explanation that bogs down so many submissions. Part of the problem is that from our first conscious stirrings as children, and all through our educational experience, we are expected to explain ourselves to others. We are expected to provide simple answers. The world, we are taught, is not interested in our deeper emotions. The world is essentially a court of law that judges us based on what we did, not why we did it. As writers we have to overcome that. We have to learn to present not the facts of a protagonist’s existence, but the experience of what it is like to be that person. And that can only be done by connecting that exterior experience to interior desires and motivations. In simpler terms, it means that when we write the details of a scene or story, we need to ask why including those details matter.

– JP