Category Archives: Orca Blog

Orca blog draft: 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.

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