Category Archives: Orca Blog

Our Favorite Short Stories

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

David Anderson, Reader:

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

Tommy Anderson, Reader:

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

Renee Jackson, Editor:

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

Ai Jiang, Reader:

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

Zachary Kellian, Publisher/Senior Editor:

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

Zoë Mikel-Stites, Reader:

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

Ronak Patel, Reader:

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

Marci Pliskin, Reader:

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

Joe Ponepinto, Publisher/Senior Editor:

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

Lauren Voeltz, Reader:

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

Titling is Important or, Is Your Interview Outfit a Crumpled T-Shirt?

A good title can make or break your story submission. That is, unfortunately, not an exaggeration. Many writers and artists title as an afterthought: a title is a necessary evil, and the story is the real attraction. It will speak for itself! While it is true that a stellar story will trump a bad title, you have to remember that despite all attempts to make judging art fair, neutral, and unbiased, reading is an inherently subjective task. Your title—and not the story itself—is the very first interaction anyone will have with your work. It’s the suit & tie your story wears to the interview.

There are a few things you must keep in mind when titling your piece.

  1. Its ability to stick in the mind. We read hundreds and hundreds of submissions each period. If I can remember what your story was about, but not what it was called, I’ll have a much harder time finding it again to promote internally. In our first issue, there was a flash story titled Scientifically Mapping a Missed Attraction (Teffy Wrightson), and I’m still thinking about the way the title made me feel. A title that strong means I can easily direct a future audience to the story; I know exactly how to find it again. This is, understandably, harder to do for something titled Short Story 3.
  2. Remember that we HAVE to read your submission. It’s literally our job. You have an opportunity with your title to make this seem like a pleasure or a chore. Say you pick a title meant to shock; Bad Santa and the Naughty Elves. I’m instantly making judgments despite all best intentions. Do I really want to read what appears to be fan-fic erotica about Santa? Doesn’t matter, I have to: again, literally my job. A racially charged or misogynistic title may be perfect for your story, but a reader may start out with a bad taste in their mouth. To a lesser extent than shock titles, boring titles can disadvantage you. Short Story 3, Interlude, and Luck are a few examples that suggest you perhaps did not put great thought into your title. The problem here is that you have inadvertently primed your reader to suspect that you put a similar level of care into the story itself. Of course, there are cases where a title like Interlude or Luck may absolutely be a spot-on moniker and reading will make that absolutely clear to your reader. Just do yourself a favor and double check; I guarantee you want your reader rooting for you and not against you as they start out with your story so try to give yourself a leg up and give readers an appetizer instead of a bowl of gruel.
  3. Related to the above point, your title can affect how early your story is read. Picture a queue with 50 new submissions in a single day; our intrepid volunteer reader is tasked with reading, let’s say, 5 of them daily. Our reader may be a diligent, type A person who reads in order of earliest submission until their task is complete. They may just as easily be a diligent person who likes to skip around in the queue as various titles grab their attention. Seeing the issue? Maybe I decide Bad Santa can wait a day or two and pick something else to read today. Maybe Bad Santa sits in the queue unread for a week. I assure you Bad Santa will eventually get read, but there are some advantages to having it read earlier. First of all, you get an answer sooner. Second, the earlier a story is read in a submission period, the more time there is for someone to champion your work internally. This means that given two good stories read at the end and beginning of a submission period, respectively, the latter is more likely to be accepted for the upcoming issue. The good story read later will most likely still be accepted, but placed in a future issue if the current issue is already full. You, the author, are now waiting longer to see your story in print.

With that in mind, here are some suggestions on how to go about crafting your next title.

  1. Borrow from your own content. Is there a particularly evocative line or image from the text itself? Even a line that ended up on the cutting room floor during editing could be repurposed as your title.
  2. Do you have a trusted reader or editor who can help you workshop titles?
  3. Think of an elevator pitch; if you had to describe what your story was about in 3-5 words, what would you say? A title that tells or hints at what the story is about can be a great choice in short fiction. Remember that your reader is often sandwiching a short story in between activities or during a commute—title shopping is more common than you’d think.

Next time you send a story off, take a moment to review its title. Imagine your story going to an interview and deciding between shirts. Don’t be afraid to try a new look.

– Renee Jackson

Creating Tension in Your Fiction

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

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

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



Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

How to Listen to Workshop Criticism

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

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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 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.