Category Archives: Orca Blog

My Internship Experience at Orca

Rory Ohr

A large part of my school’s curriculum, available to the juniors and seniors, is our internship program. Throughout the school year, every student searches for an internship that suits the career field they hope to go into. For me, that was the literary field, where I found Orca, A Literary Journal.

At the beginning of the internship, I truly had no idea what I would be doing. I had a very limited understanding of the inner workings of editing and publishing, and there is a definite learning curve to understanding how Submittable (the online site that handles submissions to Orca and other journals) works. Even once I understood the platform, my nervousness didn’t go away. Reviewing a work and commenting on it was easy. It was what I loved to do. Voting yes on a piece was exciting. But for every piece I voted yes on, I also inevitably had to vote no on another. There isn’t anything wrong with voting no on a submission, and one vote will not decide the fate of that piece. It’s a collaboration between all of the Orca readers, so it’s impossible to mess it up with your opinion, but it’s uncomfortable regardless. Gaining the courage to vote no on pieces instead of settling for the noncommittal comfort of a “maybe” vote was not easy, but support from other members of Orca really helped me. They encouraged me to say what I felt, not what I thought they expected me to say. In the end, I am glad for the discomfort of that situation. Without it, I would still be hesitant to give my opinions on things, big or small.

Communicating with other writers on staff had a large impact on me, but it also impacted the way I communicate with people who aren’t writers. I commonly get asked by my friends to review their English assignments because they know how much I enjoy writing, and I do enjoy editing their work. However, I struggled greatly with it. I could tell when something within a work didn’t flow correctly, or wasn’t right for the piece, but I couldn’t explain why. I could fix it for them, or give suggestions, but when they asked me why it didn’t work, I couldn’t tell them. A big part of reading for Orca, the main part of it in fact, is doing exactly that—explaining why you feel something doesn’t work within a submission. Seeing what terms other writers used to explain why certain things didn’t work helped me internalize that knowledge. By the end of my experience, I was able to turn “This doesn’t work for this piece,” into “This doesn’t work for this piece, and I can explain why.” It was a skill I didn’t know I needed, but one I desperately did, and Orca was the perfect place for me to foster it.

On the more personal side of the internship, I had the ability to ask the more senior members of Orca about their career paths, and their advice on such things. I have a lot of trepidation about college and the tremulous process that connects to that. They all had excellent advice on what paths I could take and helped me understand the differences a degree can have in the literary field. It isn’t always necessary—being a writer is not about a degree or certificate saying that’s who you are. It’s about how much you give to keep being a writer, the joy you take in it, the ability to play with words until they click into place like puzzle pieces. Talking with the staff at Orca helped me see that. Being a writer is hard, and they know that, so their greatest advice was that you can be a writer no matter what—you just have to keep putting effort into it and stay with it even when it’s hard. There are no guarantees of success in this field; and coming to terms with that is difficult. With all of that, the best advice anyone has ever given me came from a conversation in which they stressed: “Don’t Panic.” It’s a simple enough sentiment, but it held so much more weight when other members of the staff admitted it has affected them as well. Knowing that they understand what I am feeling, and that they believe in me regardless, has impacted my world view tremendously.

I keep that advice in the back of my mind even when I am not writing or contemplating my future career in the field. For once, surrounded by fellow writers who understood, I felt seen. This internship was never about school credits or mandatory curriculum for me, but still, I didn’t know how much it would end up meaning to me when I first started. I am a writer, and I have a lot of words and emotions and grammatical rules stored within me—yet I still find myself unable to describe the full weight and meaning this experience has given me. I can get close though, and that’s what this piece is.

Orca gave me an opening into the literary field, but it also helped me grow as a person. My writing has improved, but so has my ability to help those around me with their work. I am not the same writer I was when I went into this internship, and I will take that with me wherever I may go in my life. But for now, I will continue to stay and grow at Orca for as long as I possibly can—and I encourage anyone out there who is considering interning or becoming a reader at Orca to take the jump. Trust me. It’s worth it.

Rory Ohr is a young writer from Gig Harbor, WA. She is currently working on her first novel, and enjoys writing about self-discovery, psychological horror, fantasy worlds, and dystopias.

And we at Orca are honored by her commitment to our journal – the editors

How Does Rejection Influence Your Writing?

Should you alter your work to fit the market?

The Orca staff shares a lot about the writing life among our members. Recently one of the staff lamented that she had been receiving nothing but rejections for her submissions in the last few weeks. Rejection is always a common topic among writers, and thousands of articles and blogs have been written about its emotional impact, and how to deal with it. Writers have heard the advice to toughen their skins, to celebrate rejection, to silently curse the decision makers, and on and on.

But as our discussion continued we started to talk about another dimension of rejection. Not how it affected our psyche, but how it might affect our writing, for better or sometimes, worse. For most writers a rejection sends a message that there’s something off about the writing, even if they feel in their hearts that the story is as good as it can possibly be, and says exactly what they want to say. And if a story receives a lot of rejection—perhaps months or even years go by without the work being published—that feeling intensifies. And that’s when writers start to think about how to revise. It’s how they think about revision that’s the question here.

As writers we’re always trying to improve our craft—or at least we should be. If persistent rejection leads to efforts to find flaws in the writing, such as parts of a story that don’t resonate or create character sympathy, that’s potentially a good thing. Maybe it’s time to find an editor, or resubmit it to your writers group, or find a new writers group. But what if rejection compelled writers to alter their work to fit the market?

We want our work to be published. It’s not only validation of our talent, but a path to possible career success. It’s pretty hard to make a living as a writer. Most writers I know make more money editing, teaching, and through day jobs or side hustles, than they do through their published work. It’s natural to want to make whatever changes necessary to find acceptance. But in doing so do we lose something—our individual voices, our originality, our imagination?

Assume for a moment that you’ve written a spectacular short story. You’ve submitted it to literary journals for months and have received nothing but rejection. You know it’s good. You believe in it and what it says. You’ve workshopped it and everyone loves it. You’ve sent it to a professional editor who refused the job because she felt the work could not be improved. But you can’t help noticing that the journals you send it to, particularly the ones where a publishing credit would be a big boost to your career, deal with topics that are different from yours.[1] And that’s when you start thinking about altering your work to fit what they print.

But when you do, you’re no longer writing the story you were originally had in mind—what you wanted to say. Instead you’re now writing what someone else wants to say, and trust me, the difference shows. For example, we sometimes receive submissions of short stories about racial and gender issues that are obviously written by white men from the boomer generation. Those stories are almost always filled with attempts to pander to current social values, and make generalizations that reveal their lack of knowledge about what’s really happening in our culture. In a way, those stories are just as stereotypical as some of the attitudes from decades ago that these writers appear to be trying to renounce.

Good writers know that success in this business is alchemy. It’s an inexact combination of talent, luck, timing, networking, and perseverance. Leave out any one of those and you will probably not achieve the success you believe you deserve. Success isn’t giving in to what appears to be popular. That need to conform to a certain paradigm in order to be successful only breeds mediocrity—that’s the outcome of too many people writing the same things in the same way, no matter how well written it appears to be. Who wants to be considered a mediocre writer?

Perhaps this says something about the contradiction of being a writer in 2023. How can a person be true to their art and true to themselves if they have to pay so much attention to the market? (Not to mention social media.) Popularity, and therefore taste in art, is largely driven by people who know nothing about creating it, so to give into that pressure is a kind of surrender, and a kind of personal cheat to one’s self. But as artists we crave that attention. And we have to survive, and survival means finding a way to create value in the market. So how can we not give into market pressure? I don’t know if the two aspects can ever be reconciled. But then it’s always been that way. For centuries successful artists had patrons, and those patrons definitely had influence over the work. Now we don’t have patrons, we have posses, and the influence they wield is just as great. No wonder so many artists have committed suicide. Perhaps the greatest writers were ones we’ve never heard of.

Is it self-confidence to resist giving into market pressure, or is it simply stubbornness?

I sometimes think about writers like William Saroyan, who reportedly received 7,000 rejections before selling his first short story. And William H. Gass, whose short story, “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” is now an American classic. But, said Gass in an interview, “I was turned down for ten years. I couldn’t get a thing in print. My writing went nowhere. I guess you have to be persistent.”[2] I could go on for hours about great writers who received hundreds or thousands of rejections before becoming established. Just keep in mind that eventually they did make it without giving into market pressures.

The decision on what to do when you receive those bushels, those hordes, those tsunamis of rejection is, of course, yours. Will you give in? Or will you keep believing in what you have to say? Which matters more?

Note: ICYWW, it may sound contradictory for me to be talking about staying true to your voice and vision, when I’ve just published the book of essays titled, “Reader Centered Writing.” But the essays are about understanding reader psychology—what appeals on a subconscious level to readers. It has nothing to do with pandering to market tastes.

– Joe Ponepinto


[1] I’m not talking about ignoring a publication’s guidelines, such as sending a space opera to a journal that only publishes literary flash fiction. Instead I’m alluding to popular trends within a genre of the same style as your work.

[2] From a 1995 interview with BOMB. A little more: “Talent is just one element of the writing business. You also have to have a stubborn nature. That’s rarer even than the talent, I think. You have to be grimly determined. I certainly was disappointed; I got upset. But you have to go back to the desk again, to the mailbox once more, and await your next refusal.” No wonder he’s one of my literary heroes.

AI for Writers Means You Have to up Your Game

Recently Jane Friedman’s newsletter, The Hot Sheet, noted two new AI products designed for writers: Novelai and Sudowrite. Each offers some free features, and, of course, upgrades that writers have to pay for. There will likely be more such uses of ChatGPT technology in the not too distant future.

Novelai describes itself by saying, “Our Artificial Intelligence algorithms create human-like writing based on your own, enabling anyone, regardless of ability, to produce quality literature.” Sudowrite self-describes as, “The AI writing partner you always wanted.️” It seems designed to augment writing by providing plot ideas and prose to cure writer’s block. Sudowrite also claims to help writers “Write a novel from start to finish. In a week.” Yeah, right. I can’t help wondering if those descriptions were themselves written by AI or by actual thinking and feeling marketing people (which may be an oxymoron when you think about it).

Anyway, the hype is moot. Can they churn out publishable prose?

I checked them out and the writing they can produce seemed not bad. To test them further I used a prompt based on a story I’ve written: A man and a woman in a struggling relationship visit Galway in Ireland on a very windy day.[1]

The result from Novelai was dialogue heavy, but otherwise decent, although it did not include anything about Galway in the story. An Orca staff member also fed Novelai a prompt—this one for a time-loop western story. On the first try, it responded with correctly written incorrectness—it decided to tell her about Batman films, particularly the ones in which John Wayne starred. Overall, though, the writing does sound like mainstream fiction.

Sudowrite did a little better (for a while). It focused more tightly on the prompt, and had a more story-like structure. It purported to know a few things about the Irish city—some were even right. Here’s the beginning of what Sudowrite produced:

The man and the woman walked through the narrow streets of Galway, their footsteps echoing against the ancient stone buildings. The wind was blowing fiercely, threatening to knock them off their feet at any moment. They walked hand in hand, but their grip was loose and their fingers barely intertwined. They were both lost in thought, their minds preoccupied by the tension that had been building between them. As they turned onto a quieter street, the wind suddenly died down, and the silence that followed was almost eerie. The woman stopped and turned to look at the man, searching his face for some sign of affection. But his eyes were cold and distant, and she felt a chill run down her spine.

Had I entered more information, such as the characters’ names and a little of their backstory I suspect Sudowrite would have returned writing that is on a par with the writing we see in the majority of submissions to Orca. By that I mean the writing is conventional and mainstream. It’s not particularly creative, but there’s nothing terribly wrong with it. It’s writing that cannot be easily discerned from human generated writing. However, I allowed Sudowrite to continue based on what it had already written and the narrative soon turned into hardcore porn, with the two characters tearing each other’s clothes off and having graphic sex right there on the street.

So writers’ AI still has some work to do. But it does have potential. And by that I mean potential to eventually replace the average writer. That’s right, not just augment, but replace. If we can get a computer to do the same kind of writing that you do, then what do we need you for? Sorry to be so blunt, but machines and computers have been replacing people in jobs for decades. Machines and computers do not need to stop for lunch breaks. They don’t goof off and gossip when they should be working. They do not need to be paid. They do not need health insurance. They do not complain about working conditions or wish they could be at the beach instead.

This may be a little premature, but it may also be prescient: If a computer program can write as well as you, then it can eventually replace you. The writers who survive the AI onslaught will be those who are able to produce imaginative, beautifully written stories that AI cannot produce.

The AI that the average person can access is primarily based on information that is already on the web (hence the porno, I guess). The algorithms are sophisticated enough to pour through oceans of stuff and repurpose it for the writing task at hand. Considering the pace of advancement in AI technology, I’d say it’s only a matter of a couple of years before the flaws in AI’s ability to write decent fiction are filtered out. Maybe less. At that point more than a few writers may be in trouble. As a former journalist I know this is a distinct possibility. In the early 2000s many newspapers refused to acknowledge the growth of the internet as a source for news and entertainment. Many that did not adapt became noncompetitive and went out of business, and many journalists lost their jobs. (Fortunately by that time I was already out of that career field.) So if you think this can’t happen, you might want to think again.

But I also think that for a much longer time AI will not be able to replace true inventiveness. Writers who are far ahead of the mainstream curve possess some aspect of intellect that is not quantifiable or predictable, and has little relation to what most others are writing. Since AI is based on knowledge that has already been recorded, it simply can’t reproduce that level of inventiveness. It may recombine existing ideas into new ones, but it can’t do that and still make it seem plausible. One of the more interesting aspects of fiction is that, unlike nonfiction, it has to be believable to be successful. Weird but true when you think about it. It also can’t speak to readers with a voice that hasn’t been done before, because it has no model to do so. Its efforts at good literary fiction will likely continue to be as ridiculous as the examples posted above.

If you want to survive in the writing industry in the coming future, you may have to up your game. Instead of mimicking the style of a better-known writer, you’ll have to develop your own, unique style. Instead of regurgitating tired story ideas you’ll have to invent characters and situations that AI won’t anticipate. It will be a challenge, but creative people have always been up for such challenges. In fact, they relish them because they’d rather take risks with their art than pander to mediocre tastes. Someone once said the internet is like a vast ocean of information that is only an inch deep. Find the depth in your efforts and AI won’t be able to compete with you.

*

As long as we’re doing predictions, I asked the staff at Orca which popular writers could be buried by AI and which will thrive? Here’s what they said.

  • Raymond Carver for yes, Richard Powers for no.
  • Who’s likely to be replaced early on? I’m tempted to say writers of whom a great deal of scholarship has been written—thousands upon thousands of papers on in-depth textual analysis might be able to help AI. I don’t want to think of an old classical fella so I’ll go with a good mix of controversy and reasonability: Orwell. My couldn’t be replaced (or more specifically, one of the later replacements): I’m guessing some genius poet or writer that we don’t know about yet. For novelists maybe Georges Perec?
  • I think AI could write a Murakami novel (at least in English) but I feel like it could not write Tolkein, considering how hard it was for Tolkein to write Tolkein. 
  • AI might replicate Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (The Leopard) but maybe not Clarice Lispector.
  • Stephen King. Not that he would actually be replaced because he’s too famous, but I think AI could replicate him. But an imagination like Margaret Atwood’s could never be faked.

*

PS: If you’re thinking about submitting an AI-generated story to Orca, go right ahead. We (and other readers for literary journals) may not be able to tell the difference between a submission generated by AI and one written by a human being, but it would be a futile exercise because that kind of mainstream writing is not what we are looking for, and we’ll decline it anyway. And if you submit an AI generated story for feedback, we might just recognize it and send back AI generated criticism.    

– Joe Ponepinto

Image by Faisal Mehmood from Pixabay


[1] There’s more to it than that but I didn’t want to confuse the algorithm too much.

Losing the Narrator

When was the last time you watched a documentary? Admittedly they are not everyone’s cup of tea. But if you have you may have noticed that many documentaries no longer use a voiceover narrator to introduce or explain. Instead what you see are a series of interview segments with people who are either witnesses to the events being discussed or experts in the particular field covered by the program, sometimes interspersed with factual material such as video clips or publication headlines.

I find this approach very interesting because it does away with what had long been considered a necessary part of a documentary, the know-it-all white guy with the penetrating voice. Just a few years ago no one would ever have produced this kind of program without the authoritative narrator telling viewers what is going on and how it all connects, and what the viewer should learn from the show. Documentaries were approached as a teaching experience, rather than an entertainment experience. But now they are both. Exploring a particular event or subject without the voiceover allows viewers to have more of a first-hand experience, hearing about what happened through the words of the people who were or are involved. This, I think, provides an added dimension of authenticity to the story being told. It is more than just facts, it is as close to the actual experience as possible, and adds greater emotional meaning. The format may have had its origins in the work of Ken Burns, the paragon of the documentary world. Although none of his documentaries ever eliminated the narrator, he was one of the first to use the actual words of people involved in the experience, through letters, newspaper articles, speeches, and other artifacts. As documentaries continued to evolve you may have noticed the guy’s voice replaced by women’s voices, and more diverse voices.

The questions for fiction writers are whether this technique is desirable for our genre, and is it even possible to do it? I’ve written before about the concept of the “silent story,” one in which the narrator is as unobtrusive as possible. These are stories that create an experience that invites readers to get closer to the characters, to share their situations, and seemingly participate in the decisions they must make. As a reader, nothing turns me off faster than an authorial narrator who simply tells the reader what happened, and often what it means (read: subtle hint to submitters).

How far can fiction writers go in removing narration from their work? There are forms of writing like this—stage plays and screenplays—that by nature are all dialogue and stage directions. But without some form of narration to hold scenes together, to provide enough description so that readers can visualize the setting, can fiction work? I find those narrator-less documentaries immersive. Often it’s like having a conversation with the interviewee, getting to know these people through not only the content of their speech, but also their vernacular and mannerisms. What was once a formal teaching process has become informal, and yet I feel I learn more that way, because I’m getting psychological insight along with facts.

First-person stories come closest to this style—obviously—since the character, like the interviewee, is relating a personal experience. Second-person stories are also like this; the “you” POV is really something of a literary trick that forces readers to substitute their personal perspective for the “you” character. Third-person is different, however. The challenge there is to create character identification and sympathy while using an intermediary (the narrator) to provide a logical progression of information. Here the framework of the story is much more important. The visual elements that are always present in film and theater have to be provided in a non-visual medium. But that doesn’t mean third person requires an authorial narrator. I was thinking about this when rereading Joan Didion’s collection of essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Didion was careful not to prejudge the people she wrote about. She also understood, more than just about any other writer I’ve encountered, that human desire and motivation is largely a product of circumstance—the place and culture in which we were formed—and she had a remarkable ability to let those factors speak for the people she wrote about.

Okay, you say, but that’s nonfiction. But what if the same technique were applied to fiction? The great writers have always innately understood that to truly engage readers they have to empower them, and to empower them they have to create the illusion of experiencing real life, which by nature precludes a narrator (unless you’re one of those people who goes through life narrating their existence as though starring in a movie). Think of it as an advanced form of showing-not-telling. Details are closely tied to character experience to enhance the impact of action in the present moment. Background information (backstory) arises organically, when it’s apropos for a character to relate it. Nothing is forced. The narrator’s/author’s agenda is eliminated in favor of a forward-moving story that may or may not get to where the writer originally planned (to me that’s part of the challenge and fun of writing). The result is that readers feel they’ve experienced a story, not been told a story.

Possibly the most common reason submissions to Orca are declined is that too-heavy narrative voice. As documentarians have realized, you don’t need it. You may not be able to completely do away with your narrator, but you should strive to come as close as possible.

– Joe Ponepinto

A Deep Dive into Backstory

Note: The opinions in this post are mine. They do not necessarily reflect the views of other writers or even other members of the Orca staff. – JP

Sections:

What makes fiction work? What gives readers the feeling they are reading a great story and don’t want to stop? I’ve devoted a lot of time and research to this idea, reading the opinions of successful and well known writers, as well as critical articles from dozens of academics. I’ve come to believe there are some psychological factors that appeal to readers and make them want to read more. And I’ve discovered that using backstory in fiction, especially when it is ill-timed or off-topic, often works against those elements. In this post I’d like to point out why backstory does not work, and to offer a better way to write fiction.

Backstory is enormously prevalent in fiction. I’d estimate that more than 80% of the submissions we receive at Orca resort to backstory within the first page or two. Even many published works employ extensive, blatant, and often boring backstory right after the opening (not at Orca, of course). I’ve had other writers tell me they actually enjoy writing backstory.

I believe it may be helpful to take a deep dive into backstory to see if my opinion is justified. What’s involved when a writer uses backstory? What’s the motivation? What’s the result? Why do so many writers use backstory in the first place?

Some definition is in order. Often a story begins with a promising opening scene that contains good tension. As soon as that scene ends (or in some cases even before it is finished) the story switches to deliver background facts from a distant, authorial narrator. Something like this:

The assailant pulled out a gun and held it to Bob’s head. “If you don’t tell me what I want to know I’ll kill you right now,” he said. Bob’s knees began to shake uncontrollably.

A few years ago, when Bob had just graduated from college, he could not have anticipated a situation like this. He had been offered a job at a brokerage house. He was engaged to be married. All he could think about was the great things the future held in store for him.

That’s a little over the top, but hopefully you get the idea. The writer has switched from a tense and compelling scene to dry, factual background. The second paragraph is more like the writer’s notes than a part of the active story. This info may be of some use in understanding the character and his motivations, but it has nothing to do with the present action, which theoretically is the story you are trying to tell.

The Reader’s Perspective

Let’s look at this from a reader’s perspective. Almost every well-known writer or critic who has written a book about writing has identified the aspects of fiction that readers subconsciously hope to find in a story and that hold their attention. Some of the most important ones are creating sympathy for characters, rising action, creating mystery, and maintaining forward momentum. (As you can probably tell, these are related to each other.) Consider each in its relation to backstory.

Creating Sympathy: This is perhaps the only aspect of fiction in which backstory might seem helpful, but that is an illusion. Providing background details about a character makes the character more easily understandable to readers. It touches on character motivation, which is crucial to creating sympathy. I can see why so many writers want to employ that device. But that doesn’t condone it. Good writers know that they can better convey character motivation through the subtext of the present action. What characters do and say in the present are clues to what’s inside them and what has happened to them in the past, compelling them toward their desires. Doing it this way engages the reader to want to know more about the character. Readers want to learn through discovery, not through backstory. This is how we learn about people in real life—gradually, through the actions they take and the things they say.

Rising Action: Anyone who’s taken even a beginner course in fiction has seen the graph of rising action. I like to think of this as an illustration of increasing tension from the beginning of a story to its climax and resolution. As events move forward things get tougher for the main characters. The barriers to achieving goals get bigger and more consequential until the character is forced to make a crucial decision or achieve a revelation. Backstory reduces tension by explaining things, by simply laying out the facts like a lecture. If the goal of fiction is to create rising tension, then backstory, by reducing tension, is a self-defeating device. It does not contribute to rising action, but instead works against it.

Creating Mystery: Every good story is a mystery. Good fiction gets readers to want to know what happened next. This is initially done by establishing the stakes for the characters. What do the characters hope to gain, and more important, what do they stand to lose if things don’t work out? A huge part of successful fiction is knowing how to get readers to turn the page. Good writers provide just enough information to get them to do that. They leave out some to make readers want to discover the rest. In concert with character sympathy and rising action this creates reader engagement, the feeling that makes readers forget about what else is happening in their lives at that moment and immerses them in the world of the story. Backstory, by its nature, does exactly the opposite. It explains things for the reader. It makes things clear, and therefore defuses the mystery. If a story uses backstory to answer my questions, then why do I need to keep reading?

Forward Momentum: “The story is not in the news, it is in the moment.” That’s a favorite quote of mine from the editor Gordon Lish. He understood that good fiction is immersion and engagement in another world. And that world can only be conveyed well by allowing the reader to participate in it. There’s no chance for participation in a work of fiction when a writer stops the story as if to say, “But wait, let me explain…” Think about why people love movies and plays. It’s not just because they are more visual and auditory, although that does have much to do with it. But think also about how you can’t really stop a movie or play to offer backstory. How would that go? The action would cease and the spotlight would focus on the director or the writer, who would then just sit there and tell the audience the facts about the characters’ past lives. Pretty silly, isn’t it? Backgrounding in those disciplines is done in flashback, which is not the same as backstory because it’s still in scene and it still has the immediacy of a scene. It’s also usually engendered by something that happens in the present action. You don’t just drop into a flashback for no reason at all. It’s triggered by something that’s happening in the present. Backstory is something completely else. It is simply an explanation, the kind of thing that you got when you were in school: Here’s a fact that you must know, and here is why you must know it. Few people like that kind of lecture.

Why Backstory is so Prevalent

Education: That’s part of the problem, however, because from day one we’ve been schooled by parents and teachers to explain ourselves. The emphasis in the American educational system is on making ourselves factually logical and understandable to others (which these days means rote memorization, but that’s another subject). There is not much emphasis on creativity. It makes some sense, since most people will not go into the arts, but will enter careers in which communicating facts are important (obviously this no longer includes politics, which has leapfrogged creative writing and now dwells in the world of fantasy). A writer must realize, then, that those lessons from childhood do not serve good fiction because that discipline is based on the communication of characters’ emotional states more than the facts of their lives. That’s one of the things that gives fiction its impact.

Examples in published writing: They are everywhere, and, honestly, have always been everywhere. I was writing a critique of a client’s short story recently and was reminded of a story on a similar topic that I had read a couple of decades ago and that has stayed in the back of my mind. I looked it up, and found it on the web, and started reading. To my shock I saw that the story dropped into several paragraphs of boring background facts before the first page was completed. Obviously my understanding of the art of fiction has changed over the years. But it’s no wonder so many emerging writers think it’s okay to write this way, and worse, that there is no better way to convey a story.

Laziness: Creating character sympathy through subtext is not easy. It takes a deep understanding of each character by the writer. It also takes the ability to convey that character motivation through subtle, symbolic language. Communicating these through backstory is a cheat. It is lazy writing. It’s a lot easier to write backstory than it is to write present action. Backstory is almost always exposition and summary. It is generally the writer telling the reader about character motivation, rather than allowing the characters to have the spotlight and convey motivation through their actions and dialogue, like real human beings. But since when is writing fiction supposed to be easy? It is hard, very hard, for most writers to inhabit the minds of several characters at once, but if a writer can it results in realistic, compelling scenes. Plus, it gives readers the opportunity to discover these motivations for themselves, and those revelations make readers feel involved and satisfied, instead of feeling like a passive listener.

Low Expectations: I’ll admit, some readers like backstory. Readers who like backstory like things simple. They do not want to work to figure out character motivation. They are not interested in character depth. They would rather have things explained to them, than be challenged to figure them out for themselves. It’s hard not to talk about societal trends when discussing reader preferences, and I am not an expert in that area. But a look at popular culture indicates that many people prefer sentimentality and nostalgia over reality and intellectual challenge, and since the publishing business is more focused on appealing to the general public than ever before, backstory (not to mention editorializing) in fiction will remain popular. If those are the people you want to write for, then fine, load your work with simplistic, boring backstory. If you would rather challenge your readers and use your work to say something more interesting, then you will need to eliminate backstory.

Speaking of Nostalgia: I believe there is a correlation between backstory and nostalgia. Both are simplistic. Both ignore the nuance and complexity of reality and wish to replace them with easy answers to difficult questions. In that sense both exhibit a fear of reality. They avoid the challenge of the present. Until about a century ago nostalgia was considered a mental disease (see https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/08/when-nostalgia-was-a-disease/278648/). It indicated an unwillingness to face the current situation. Although nostalgia is no longer considered a mental defect, it is still a way of retreating from the present. Backstory is like that. In terms of writing it looks inward, avoiding engagement with the reader, while realistic character sympathy looks outward, welcoming it.

Tips for Eliminating Backstory

If you want to write intelligent, compelling fiction I believe there is a better way. I am hopeful these suggestions will help.

  • Stay in the moment and keep the story moving forward. Always remember that readers typically want to know what happened next, much more than what happened before. Forward momentum in fiction creates the rising action/tension that keeps readers engaged, and you can only maintain that forward momentum by staying in the moment. As much as possible keep the active scene going. Don’t cut it short by dropping into a long, boring explanation.
  • Envision your story as a play or a movie. Readers translate what you have written into visual images, so the better you are able to imagine what is happening, the more compelling the story. Background facts do not translate into images as well.
  • Instead of you saying it, let your characters say it. When you review the previous day’s writing (and this part of the revision process is a must if you are to become a successful writer) analyze how you have conveyed information. Is it coming from the narrator, or is it delivered through the characters? Keep in mind that character action and dialogue is much more effective at both engaging readers and conveying information. It’s important that you understand how subtext is used to convey meaning and character motivation in good fiction. There are many great books about using subtext. I recommend Charles Baxter’s The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot.
  • Does your reader need to know this right now? Does your reader need to know this at all? The same is true for the information you wish to communicate. When you read what you have written, ask yourself if the information is important enough to include, and if so, whether it belongs at the place you have put it. A mentor of mine, Bruce Holland Rogers, said it best: Don’t offer background information unless and until the reader absolutely, positively can’t go on without knowing it.
  • Keep thinking about your readers—what do they want and expect from your fiction? Successful published fiction is a balance between what the writer wants to say and the readers’ expectations. Good fiction is not just about you. It’s about how you communicate with the people who will pay to read your work.

– Joe Ponepinto

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

100 Stories: Reflection

Conor Barnes

Orca editors’ note: To help bring in the new year we wanted our blog to offer something inspirational to writers. Conor Barnes’s recent post on his accomplishments over the past year seemed like a perfect fit.

This year I resolved to write 100 short stories, and over eleven months I achieved it. I am absolutely pleased that I achieved it. This is a post of general reflections on the process and the results.

This all came about because I wanted to push myself as a writer, enjoy writing short stories, and was inspired by Visakan Veerasamy’s do 100 things proposal. Doing 100 things is something I would strongly recommend for anybody trying to get good at something.

I went for breadth more than for depth. I wrote about lovers and war and fools and the anxious. I wrote happy stories and sad stories. I wrote fairy tales and science fiction and literary fiction and one Chrono Trigger fanfiction. I thought they would all be microfiction, but the average length was at the higher end of flash fiction. The first one snuck in on December 12, 2021 and is one of my favourites. The last one was written on November 30 and is also one of my favourites.

I reread them frequently. This might be abnormal—but because I wrote the kind of stories I like to read, I enjoy reading them quite a bit! Simultaneously, it helps surface issues, by noticing bits that chafe on every read.

I wrote in a variety of conditions. Often in bed, sometimes at a cafe, a few on my girlfriend’s armchair, a few on a couch beside some lovely writers, a few in a notebook at a beach. Whenever possible, I used Abricotine because I find it much more pleasant than word processors, but my longest were written on plane rides on Google Keep.

The Publication Process

I started the year by publishing pieces on my blog, then I mostly settled on submitting to online magazines. Both are documented here.

I submitted 342 pieces (places usually asked for three pieces, so this actually means a bit over 100 submissions). Rejection didn’t really bother me. Much gratitude to the editors at Orca, who supplied wonderful feedback at what I think is a steal of a price.

I am not sure what comes next with my short stories. In August I decided that I had been published enough online and now wanted to just submit very deliberately to magazines. Shortly after that I was hired at 80,000 Hours though, so that slowed down significantly. What I’d like most is to publish a chapbook, so that might be my next venture alongside editing.

Level

I strongly feel that I have leveled up as a writer. Funnily, I don’t think my last piece was stronger than my first piece—but at the beginning of the year I could do one kind of voice, and now I can do many.

I worry that I have the common poet problem of assuming that readers taste the profundity I do. More generally, I want to be sure that I am generating in readers the feelings and images I am feeling. When I imagine a serpent long enough to wrap around the world, I want the reader to picture it as mysteriously and horribly as I do. I know I have improved at this, and I know I still have a long way to improve.

I am not yet the writer I want to be. I think the next step is to go for depth instead of breadth—devotedly focus on leveling up a particular style. This could be by writing a novel (I’ve had an idea percolating for years!) or by working on a few, particular short stories.

Joys

I explored questions that would otherwise have been blog posts: Would a society that defeats aging become risk-averse? If we had a Marvel-style multiverse, what would regular people do with it? I created sentences I’m still proud of. I became more attuned to the quirks and ugliness and beauty of the world.

The greatest joy has been in sharing. My girlfriend has been a lovely listener minutes after I’m done writing a piece. Friends have graciously read pieces sent as Github gists or FB messages.

Thanks

Thanks to friends who responded to entire short stories in Facebook messages. Thanks to the magazines who published me (Blink Ink and the Parliament Literary Journal even published physically!) and the editors who gave feedback. Thanks goes to the wonderful writers with whom I got to share stories. My biggest thanks go to my girlfriend for being both endlessly supportive and an excellent editor.


Conor Barnes is a Canadian writer living in Halifax. His fiction has been published in the Apple Valley Review, White Wall Review, the Metaworker Literary Magazine, and elsewhere. His poetry has been published in Modern Haiku, Frogpond, and Puddles of Sky Press.

Image by tookapic from Pixabay

The Theatricality of Creative Nonfiction

Converting Actor Advice for Writers

While writing itself may be a solo act, the resulting story is destined for an audience. Creative nonfiction combines the solo act of writing with the intensely personal experience and emotions connected to the events that actually transpired. This makes CNF uniquely susceptible to a few traps that can be examined via the lens of the theatre—a format that must always keep the audience at the forefront of every decision.

Play to the Audience

An actor’s primary goal is to convey the story to the audience from their character’s point of view. The writer’s primary objective must also be the audience, albeit the writer has a more complex angle to consider as the writer is responsible for all characters’ points of view simultaneously. How each of those characters comes across to the audience will greatly affect how they receive the overall work. While creative nonfiction primarily centers on one character, the writer must still ensure that supporting characters are multi-dimensional in order to center the readers—and not the writer—as the primary audience.

Creative nonfiction is inspired by real-world events and emotions. That is one of its greatest attractions. But  such emotional work entails some significant challenges for writers, some of which are the same as those actors face when performing emotional scenes:

Protective Mechanisms Distance the Audience

If you are focused on protecting yourself, you may miss the opportunity to create a visceral experience for your audience. When writing or performing something that is extremely personal and raw, it can be a challenge to force yourself into the headspace you occupied as the events occurred originally. In order to protect your psyche, you may pull back and share a sarcastic, arm’s length, or even toned down version of events.

If you believe you are still too close to the material, and that it still creates powerful emotions within you, it may be helpful to write down events as factually as possible and then give yourself a long enough break from the subject matter until you are psychologically ready to dive back in. Distance will likely open up fresh perspectives for your narrative.

When you do get back into the material, do not forget to give yourself mental breaks and schedule pick-me-ups and detoxes if the material is traumatic or painful. If you burn yourself out, you will naturally start to withdraw and that will serve neither you nor your narrative.

Introspection Breeds Inaccessibility

People naturally fold in on themselves when experiencing intense emotion—directing that feeling inward or at a very specific external target. An actor or a writer must open the window, so to speak, and radiate that emotion outward, making the audience complicit. Not every audience member needs to resonate with every line, but every audience member needs to resonate with some aspect for the story to land successfully. In CNF, as in acting, this can be quite a challenge because if YOU—the writer—are feeling BIG EMOTIONS then they must be there, right? In the theatre, your director and fellow actors will provide perspective on whether they feel impacted by the actor’s performance, essentially serving as editorial eyes. In CNF you may be working largely alone so you absolutely need to reach out to your writing group, mentors, editors, or trusted confidants to get an honest assessment of whether your stakes are landing with your audience, or whether you’ve got an outsized reaction to them because your personal memories and real life emotions are interfering.

Playing the Action, Not the Emotion

It may seem intuitive to write emotions such as anger or sadness by giving signifiers such as tears, raised voices, or thrown pots. However the real-world spectrum of emotion and how it manifests is far more complex, fascinating, and changeable. Actors are taught to focus on the ACTION (the profession is “actor” after all, not “emoter”) rather than the emotion as an entry point to avoid cliched behavior. This can help develop more complex characters in your writing and counteract authorial insertion by giving you an entry strategy to complex emotional scenes.

Playing the Opposite

If a scene reads as though the character should be angry, try playing them sad. If a scene reads as comical, try playing it straight. This rehearsal-room strategy does not always end up successful, but it does inform the final iteration. It can be used similarly in your writing to tease out layered reactions and behaviors in your characters that in many cases will inform your final draft even as the explorations end up on the cutting room floor.

Parting Thoughts

None of this advice is earth-shattering or new—you’ve likely heard it all in one form or another before. However, occasionally tweaking old standards to a new perspective unlocks new ways to use your existing tools. Using Stanislavski’s “Magic If” to pretend you’re an actor telling the story may help you center your audience in a new way and prevent some of the pitfalls common in CNF.

Orca Editor Renee Jackson is an actor and a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she majored in Dramatic Arts. She was a founding member of Forget Me Not Theatre in Chicago, IL, where she served as the Literary Manager.

In Praise of Creativity

What we do is often referred to as “creative” writing. But just how creative are most of us in our work? Creative writing instructors (at least mine) are fond of saying that there are no hard and fast rules for writing creatively, but that there are conventions, mostly unspoken agreements among writers and readers as to what is acceptable/publishable in the literary landscape. This, of course, changes over time, and is what allows for a small amount of true creativity to infiltrate and possibly alter accepted style.

The impetus for this blog post comes from an article on my favorite Australian website, Aeon/Psyche, “Are Successful Authors Creative Geniuses or Literary Labourers?” The article begins by comparing the literary careers of two well-known writers, Edgar Allan Poe and Jules Verne. Today Poe is far more famous than Verne. During the times they were alive Poe was considered a minor writer, while Verne was incredibly popular. But Poe was the innovator, Verne merely adapted Poe’s style for his own writing. Poe died in poverty, Verne became fabulously wealthy. Perhaps what’s most important to remember is that Poe continued to experiment with forms of writing. The article refers to Poe as writing, “…nothing is more thoroughly dignified or supremely noble than a poem which is a poem and nothing more.”

When Verne found what worked in the marketplace, he stopped tinkering and wrote everything in the same style with similar plotlines. Verne became a literary laborer, churning out essentially the same product, over and over. Although he often paid homage to Poe, his motivation appears to have been primarily to make money, more than to be creative. I think it’s safe to say that Poe had those priorities reversed.

I’m trying not to say that one path to writing is better than the other. Any effort to bring literature and ideas to the public is of some benefit. Definitely both approaches to creative writing are necessary—the laborer approach is needed to engage the public. If everything was purely creative the number of people who actually read would drop significantly (and it’s low enough already). But creativity and experimentation with writing, trying to find new ways to convey meaning, is what drives the form forward. This doesn’t mean writing obscurely—in fact it’s the opposite—writing that seeks to connect more organically with readers. I’m reminded of the Paris writers of the early 1900s (the movable feast of Hemingway, Stein, Fitzgerald, Joyce, etc.), all of whom contributed to a major shift in the style of creative writing, away from the authorial intrusion of previous times to a more character-based, immersive approach that allowed readers to connect emotionally to characters. This reflected similar shifts in art and society at that volatile time. The members of that group were the right people at the right time to lead the changes in creative form that we think of as conventions today. Similarly the work of the Language Poets (or L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E) of the 1960s and 70s reflected societal changes that questioned traditionally held values by calling into question how we perceive the words themselves. In the article, the author, Oleg Sobchuk, discusses “hot streaks,” the times when new forms seem to catch on with the public.

There are always many writers doing amazing things with literary form. But we live in a time in which conformity seems to be a powerful driver of how we live. Yes, there is polarization in our society, but whichever side you’re on it seems you are increasingly driven to conform to the beliefs of the side you choose to be on. It’s no surprise to me that writers who experiment are not well represented in the marketplace these days. But there are always venues that champion this type of creativity. Orca has always looked for imagination and experimentation with style and language, and moving forward we will seek to expand that effort and include even more work that challenges mainstream conventions.

– Joe Ponepinto

Write Small for a Bigger Impact

Writers have to recognize and accept an essential artistic paradox that the more specific and individual things become, the more universal they feel.

That’s from an essay written by Richard Russo a couple of decades ago. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately as I read stories in the submission queue, especially those by newer writers. I can tell they want to say something profound in their fiction. Why not? If you can write something that makes readers take notice, that makes them sit up from their reading and say, “Wow, that’s so true,” it could mean publishing success is not far off. But many of these writers go about it the wrong way. Since they want to say something big and universal, they tend to write their stories in the universal. They create settings and characters that adopt the traits of universal subjects, which is to say they become flat and generalized, homogenized into composites. Sometimes the characters in such stories seem written to represent a particular side in a philosophical or social discussion. In reality, though, those “big” topics are so complex and nuanced that they can’t be described efficiently and adequately enough in a short story. The result then is a narrative filled with characters and scenes that don’t connect with readers, and a message that sounds artificial and predictable.

A beginning writer is now going to ask, “How can writing about something small illustrate the great truth I have in mind?”

First, stop worrying about conveying “great truths.” If there is a truth in your story it will become apparent in a subtle way, allowing the reader to discover it instead of being lectured about it. Better to concern yourself with the smaller truths about human nature, which are just as universal, and often far more satisfying to readers because they are easier to identify with. Let’s create an example. Imagine a reader in New York City, reading about a character in a rural setting. Their lifestyles, interests, economics are vastly different. But could there be some common ground? That rural guy feels the same way about his relationships and problems as the reader in New York does, whatever the nature of the relationships and problems may be. Describing the specific details of his existence brings those feelings to the surface, provided they are described in such a way as to connect the details to character desire and motivation.

Here’s an example from Breece Pancake’s “In the Dry”:

The front yard’s shade is crowded with cars, and yells and giggles drift out to him from the back. A sociable, he knows, the Gerlock whoop-dee-doo, but a strangeness stops him. Something is different. In the field beside the yard, a sin crop grows—half an acre of tobacco standing head-high, ready to strip. So George Gerlock’s notions have changed and have turned to the bright yellow leaves that bring top dollar. Ottie grins, takes out a Pall Mall, lets the warm smoke settle him, and minces a string of loose burley between his teeth. A clang of horseshoes comes from out back. He weaves his way through all the cars, big eight-grand jobs, and walks up mossy sandstone steps to the door.

Inside smells of ages and chicken fried in deep fat and he smiles to think of all his truckstop pie and coffee. In the kitchen, Sheila and her mother work at the stove, but they stop of a sudden. They look at him, and he stands still.

I can’t begin to tell you how foreign every detail of that passage sounds at first. I’ve never been to that part of the country, never seen a field of tobacco in person, never attended a whoop-dee-doo. (I did, however, play horseshoes with my grandfather when I was a kid.) And yet I’m right there with Ottie as he takes it in. These things are as natural and important to him as my neighborhood progressive dinners are to me, and that’s a shared experience I can identify with and learn from. Notice the vernacular: a sociable, sin crop, eight-grand jobs. Each of those terms isn’t so much a description as a way of thinking about the object—the gathering is a “sociable,” tobacco is a “sin crop”—and from that we develop an understanding of Ottie’s and his relatives’ values. I’ve never been to this place, but I can see it, and see myself in it, even though Pancake used far fewer words than most emerging writers would have.

And there’s the magic—by expressing the world in specific terms that are natural to the character, the writer creates a sense of identity not with what the character sees, but with what it means, and the fact that we all have a similar need to find value in our ways of living begins to bridge the divides of place and status and race and sexual orientation and our other surface differences. Offering those details in generalized terms that are disconnected from character doesn’t do that. That’s the real great truth of fiction—it has the potential to connect us in a way that modern media, social and otherwise, doesn’t, because it speaks to the heart of what matters, not the exterior.

– Joe Ponepinto


Photo by Nubia Navarro on Pexels

Can Writing Be Taught…Or Learned?

As promised from last month’s blog post.

Approaching this subject is always a risky proposition. I’ve seen writing teachers cancelled from their positions when their frustration with emerging writers emboldens them to say that some people cannot be taught how to write. The issue is far more complicated than that.

In my writing and editing experience I’ve noticed that it’s not so much how you grew up or where you went to school that determines your writing talent and ability, but a set of qualities or personality traits that lend themselves to a writing frame of mind. It isn’t a question of publishing success either. The publishing industry, especially now that it is controlled by corporations fixated on profit rather than quality, is not a fair barometer of writing talent. I know hundreds of people who have the ability, but haven’t had the recognition.

All of the qualities I list below can be learned. It’s certainly easier for people who are born with them to employ them in their writing, but with commitment they can be achieved. In fact, these are all traits that I believe can help people in many different pursuits in life. I tend to think of them as part of a personal growth process.

These are in no particular order, with some brief explanations:

  • Attention to detail: The kind of person who is aware of what is going on around them, and, more importantly, recognizes which ones are connected to human desire and motivation.
  • A questioning attitude: Good writers rarely take information at face value. Like good journalists, they understand there is an agenda of self-interest behind almost every statement. This is also the ability, and the desire, to look at things from a variety of different perspectives.
  • Imagination: Instead of settling for tired conventions and predictable plots, good writers ask, “what if?” What if something different happened? What are the possibilities? Imagination is often the product of planning and spontaneity.
  • Memory: A powerful memory helps writers keep the details of their work in mind as they continue to write forward, leading to plot turns that surprise and yet make sense.
  • Risk: Good writers write what they believe needs to be said, whether or not it might be published or popular.
  • Focus: The ability to turn off email and social media, to basically shut out the real world and immerse in the world of the story.
  • An understanding of character psychology: Awareness of subconscious perceptions that their characters have, and the ability to connect those perceptions to meaning for the characters.
  • An understanding of reader psychology: What engages readers? What makes them want to turn the page?
  • Selflessness: The ability to take the author out of the story, to recognize that the story and its characters are the most important things, the reader is the next important thing, and the writer (and his ego) don’t matter at all. Someone once asked Laurence Olivier what makes a great actor. Olivier responded, “The humility to prepare and the confidence to pull it off.” I see plenty of writers who have the second half of that equation, but not the first.

Notice I didn’t say intelligence. Not that this doesn’t have anything to do with writing well, but without embracing the above qualities intelligence doesn’t translate into good creative writing.

Definitely writing instruction can make a difference to someone who is truly committed to learning the craft. An experienced writing mentor, someone who understands not only good writing practice, but also can accurately assess the abilities of students in order to build their strengths and address weaknesses, can be invaluable.

Those teachers who believe that some people cannot learn writing might consider their teaching technique, not to mention their sense of privilege and their own educational opportunities, before making a judgment about their students. Maybe they are more into their own ideal of writing than helping others; perhaps it shows an insecurity about their own talent, or an inflexibility regarding what is acceptable writing style.

For their part, emerging writers should remember that writing instruction can only take a person so far. Like any form of education it is done best when its goal is to get the student to think, rather than recite—to explore and connect apparently disparate ideas in order to create an understanding of how the world actually works. That creates a foundation for good writing. But students must realize that the education process continues long after they have stopped working with the mentor, and that writing is not so much an occupation, as it is a life.

– Joe Ponepinto


Image by StarzySpringer from Pixabay