Category Archives: Orca Blog

Orca Blog for December 2021 – On Sympathy and Pity, Hope and Despair

Do readers sympathize with your characters, or do they pity them? Do they have hopes and desires, or are they mired in despair? Some submissions we’ve received in the last few weeks have me thinking about the differences.

Creative writing instructors are fond of telling students that character sympathy is critical to the reader’s engagement with a story. Sympathy implies that the reader understands the character’s situation. Typically it’s a desire yet unfulfilled, or a problem the character needs to solve. In other words, there must be something about the character’s existence that the reader can identify with, and by identifying can then judge the decisions the character ultimately makes.

Pity is closer to compassion, and often means to feel sorry for someone. But in fiction it doesn’t necessarily mean identification with the character’s situation. In thinking about it, I can’t help remembering those TV commercials in which abused pets stare longingly into the camera, or the ones filled with images of critically sick children. The feeling that I get while watching is not one of sympathy, it’s one of sorrow coupled with guilt—shouldn’t I do something about this, and if I am doing something is it enough? We have to remember that these ads, as emotional as they are, are part of a marketing campaign designed to raise funds for the cause. The goal is different from what we’re trying to accomplish in fiction. Even the most touching, deeply emotional fictional story is still a form of entertainment, and that’s why getting the reader to identify with a protagonist is important to its success—readers should like (or at least understand) and root for the protagonist.

The sympathy we seek to establish in fiction is connected to a variety of elements in a story, such as forward momentum, rising tension, and a climax and resolution. That last one implies that a character will have a realization* and will have to make a decision to move forward incorporating it.

Decision making implies hope for a better future—I don’t know too many characters, or people in general, who make decisions designed to make things worse for themselves. And that hope is also important to the success of your story. People usually want things to work out in their lives. In order for them to identify with your characters, then your characters should hope for things to get better. I’ve seen some stories recently in which the characters do not have hope. Things go from bad to worse for them, and by the end of the story they simply give up. Readers have a hard time identifying with giving up. It seems counter to human nature, and especially so in the United States, where we have a history of striving to make a better life. We like people who fight for what they believe in. We’re not so crazy about the ones who give up.

Most good fiction includes bad things happening to your characters. Kurt Vonnegut’s eight rules for writing a short story includes this: Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of. Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey has a similar requirement: Step 7, the Supreme Ordeal (known as the Cave Scene in screenwriting), in which the main character must face a situation so dire that it forces her to face herself, decide who she really is and how she will respond. But note that each implies the possibility (hope) that things will get better.

Give your characters hope, even if it’s just a glimmer, and they will be sympathetic to your readers.


* This is not true 100% of the time. It’s actually more important for the reader to have the revelation. Sometimes characters just don’t get it.


Image by Press 👍👍 Love you 💖 from Pixabay

Orca Blog for November 2021 – Breaking the Rules

Editors and teachers have a standard toolkit when advising writers what not to do in their stories. We Orcans do as well when we offer feedback for submitters—things like lots of exposition, dropping into backstory, etc. But in looking at the stories we’ve chosen for our new issue we were struck by what seemed to be the same errors we often advise writers not to make. For example, we have a story in this issue that begins with several pages of exposition before it gets to any interaction between the protagonist and another character, and even then it’s only in passing. It’s another few pages before there is a true conversation. (And no, we are not going to tell you which one it is; you’ll just have to read the issue.)

Did we goof? Did we somehow miss all that exposition? Or are we simply talking out of both sides of our mouths when we prepare feedback?

None of the above.

Sometimes stories break the rules and get away with it. Looking at the selections for issue 8, there are several that, at a casual glance, appear to do exactly what we tell writers not to in our critiques. Yet they transcend those apparent flaws, turning a good story into a great story. How? The short answer is they create a world in which the reader is immersed. “Good” stories may be technically structured according to literary convention, but the problem is that their elements (characters, theme, plot, etc.) are often easily discerned and separate from each other, as though the writer has prepared a mental checklist of requirements and is making sure to cover them: setting, background, stakes, etc. When you’re reading you still think of them as writing, which makes the story feel somewhat contrived. A reader can never shake the feeling that someone wrote it—the author is always present, delivering packets of information. The “great” stories blend the elements into a single, complete experience, allowing the reader to immerse as though into another world. The author vanishes; it’s as though she never existed and the story simply took place.*

That blending is done by creating connections among the various aspects of the story, as well as to the reader’s perception. Every sentence of a great story dives deep into character, connecting what is written to an aspect of character desire or motivation. The sentences are thoughtful, creating the world of the story through precise sensory detail. These are not descriptions of what happens to be visible in this world, which in lesser works are presented as though seen by a stranger. Good description (what the well-known critic James Wood calls “telling detail”) is focused on what matters to the story’s characters. In a great story the characters are, to a certain extent, avatars for the reader. They are the means through which the reader participates in the story. So by connecting every aspect of the story to the character, the writer makes a connection with readers, allowing them to become part of the story rather than passive listeners.

That, to us, is the difference. Reading these stories is a lot like watching a movie—it just happens, it doesn’t feel like reading. There is a wholeness to a great story—a sense that the world of the story is fully developed, that it is populated by people who are more than just characters, but are actual people you might meet. The illusion of reality is immersive and captivating.


* There is an analogy to this in the world of documentaries that some of you may have noticed. For decades the standard style for documentaries was to have voiceover narration, leading the viewer through the events of the story and often to a preconceived conclusion. In recent years, however, many documentaries have been made without a narrator. Instead, the historical or investigative information is presented through the perspectives of a variety of people who either participated in the events, or are experts on the subject. This allows viewers to form their own opinions about what happened, just as writers try to get them to do in fiction.


Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

Orca Blog for October 2021 – The Risks a Writer Must Take

At Orca, as at many other journals, we get a lot of stories about dysfunctional families / relationships, friends and relatives dying in car crashes or from cancer, Alzheimer’s…etc.

I suppose this is nothing new. I imagine that in the early days of literary journals editors received hundreds of parchments in which friends and relatives were killed in oxcart crashes, or died from consumption[1]. It’s difficult for lit journal readers and editors who handle dozens of submissions every week, to summon the curiosity to read too many of these stories through to the end. It’s not that we mean to be disrespectful. But it’s a normal human reaction, when faced with the same idea over and over to take that idea less seriously as time goes on.

It could be an issue of curiosity and risk.

Without the curiosity that leads to creativity writers tend to produce stories that merely attempt to validate the worlds and lifestyles in which they live, whether they intend to or not. We see this in everything from beginning writer submissions to the fictions that appear each year in Best American Short Stories. They are, in one sense, comfortable stories—deep but not too challenging, reaffirming what the writer and their readers already believe. Obviously many readers prefer that. But in our experience we sometimes find those stories cliquish and divisive, offering settings and characters from circumstances to which most people will never be privy. The “best” of these stories exemplify a style of writing, one still taught in most MFA programs, that stresses a particular aesthetic—the one we see every year in BASS—lush language and conflicted characters, but also steeped in an intellectual arrogance that sends a subtle message of “you will never be like us.”

For myself and the Orca staff, the key to powerful fiction is the exploration of possibilities, however unusual or extraordinary they might seem. And that’s where the curiosity and risk comes in. It helps if, like me, you were perpetually on the outside while growing up—never part of an “in” group in school. You were always imagining how things might have been different, and always wondering about the why of things—certainly two traits that incurred the risk of further alienation. But that was during one’s formative years. As a mature, adult writer you get to embrace that difference. Ted Lasso had something to say about this, by the way.

That kind of writing is more than just entertainment and self-validation. It has the potential to lead to deeper connections among ideas, and that, in turn, is the process by which understanding and empathy are created. Those stories are the ones that stay with a reader long after the ending.

Here are a few strategies that may help foster the imagination:

  • In fiction every major character should have goals and desires, and therefore barriers to the achievement of those goals. But it’s much more than just having an antagonist or a difficult situation. In his book on screen writing, Robert McKee talks about creating a series of barriers, each one more imposing than the last, and each one created in part by the solution to the previous barrier. These raise the story’s tension as it approaches the climax. If you push yourself to create a new barrier each time one is overcome, chances are you will soon find that the difficulties facing your characters are far more imaginative than you originally planned. That’s a good thing, because the greater the difficulties, the better readers are able to see what your characters are really made of.[2]
  • A particular strategy you might try comes from the world of philosophy. Although some philosophers dismiss the idea of a reductio ad absurdum argument, it can be very useful for fiction writers. This is an approach that tries to ridicule an argument by taking it to an extreme conclusion. For example, I was once thinking about the effect bad parents had on the intellectual growth of their children. The ridiculous extension of that thought was that children should be matched with parents of a similar intellectual capacity, even if it meant taking kids out of their homes and placing them with other families who were better matched[3]. In real life this is Draconian. But in the world of fiction it’s one hell of an idea. Just imagine the emotional turmoil such a process would cause when the time came to send a child away forever. And yes, the story was picked up almost immediately.
  • Test the law of opposites. When your story approaches a turning point, it’s normal to let the plot adhere to a conventional resolution. But suppose your character chooses to do the opposite of what you planned (and what the reader probably expects)? This may not be supported by what’s come before, but who says you can’t revise what’s come before? 
  • Play “what if” whenever possible. For every plot development, consider alternatives to the path you originally had in mind. What might happen instead? Never assume that something will happen just because it usually does. If readers can predict where your plot is going, they are far less likely to be engaged in the story.

The important thing is not to settle for the conventional, traditional, predictable. Don’t be afraid of exploring a tangent. In fiction all things are possible. As a writer you just need to have the confidence that you can make those possibilities believable. In taking that kind of risk, you may transform your fiction from the kind that editors pass over to something that piques their interest.

– Joe Ponepinto



[1] What people used to call cancer

[2] From Kurt Vonnegut’s book Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction, in which he listed eight rules for writing a short story.

[3]This is what I mean by thinking about things the other kids never did. Any more questions about why I wasn’t popular in high school?

Orca Blog for September – After One Month in Book Publishing

One month into our book publishing venture, 55 Fathoms Publishing, and one thing has become remarkably clear: there are a lot of writers out there who can tell a great story and deserve to have their books published. I know that sounds simplistic, and possibly pollyanna-ish, but sometimes the simple thing has to be said. That’s because in the never ending quest for publication, in the dozens, hundreds, often thousands of rejections a good writer receives in the course of a career, it’s easy for writer to think that they can’t write very well and that they don’t deserve publication.

Although we will probably only publish two or three of the hundreds of talented writers who will have submitted to us by the end of the year, we want you to know that if the market were different, and if the finances were different, we would probably want to publish quite a few of you.

When you think about it, it’s quite unfair. There is always room for another lawyer or another doctor. There is always room for another teacher or paramedic. There is not a lot of room for good writers.

From these simple facts some other things are pretty obvious, but I don’t want to get too deep into the conversation about how most of America doesn’t read very much, or at all, or the comic irony that most Americans would really like to write a book even though they don’t read. Those of us who would love to write for a living—and by this I mean actually write and not teach and review and blog and edit other people’s work—know that there is very little room for us.

I know that it’s similar among some creatives—actors and musicians and dancers and comedians—but it’s not quite the same because a writer must write alone. There’s no group to work things out with, there’s no audience on which to try a new routine. A writer (more like a composer or a painter) performs in isolation. That feeling of being on, and totally focused, comes only when there is no one else to appreciate it. The praise or criticism that comes later is detached from the experience of writing; it is a separate aspect that I consider more a part of the business of writing.

This is where the blogger is supposed to turn into the coach and offer the encouragement that appeals to the writer’s hope—that boundless vessel of possibility—the one that keeps writers writing in the belief that if they work hard enough and long enough someone will notice, someone with the means to publish their stories. For some this eventually comes true. For most it does not. So I’m not going to say it. Instead I’m going to say that from us to you, we know you are there. Even though we can’t publish as many of you as we would like, we know you have the talent and the drive. And we are with you in mind, in practice, in spirit.

– Joe Ponepinto

Orca Blog for July 2021: Developmental Revision for Short Fiction

Please check out our new Literary-Speculative issue, featuring debut fiction by Neil deGrasse Tyson and Avis Lang.

by Matthew and Lauren Voeltz
Artwork by Matthew Voeltz

For newer writers, the revision process might seem elusive. A writer might shift a line, or change one word for a better word, but not address the real issues hindering the story. Often, writers miss both developmental flaws and grammar errors in early drafts, and revision is a way to combat this weakness. Revision is difficult because it involves objective evaluation. This guide will give you checkpoints, moving from the foundational story elements to the miniscule ones, so you can systematically revise your stories and make them shine.

Let’s Make a Cake!

Let’s think of your story as a multi-tiered cake. Each layer builds upon the next to create a satisfying dessert.

LAYER ONE: Prepare Your Perspective

  • Take a Break from Your Work

Revision means “re-see.” The only way to re-see something is to step away from it. Doing so will make the work feel less permanent. (I advise taking at least a day off per written page.) After a break, you will see the work differently; you will become more objective, noticing problems you missed before.

  • Reread the Story
  • Make a New Revision Document

Open a new document or get a blank sheet of paper. We’ll call this your “Fix It” list. As you go through these next questions, add any issues to the list. I’ve added footnotes for further explanation. I’ve written the questions in a way, so that each answer should be yes. If it’s no, then add the item to your “Fix It” list.

LAYER TWO: Characters

  • Your Main Character…. To evaluate, answer these questions:
    1. Does your character have a clear goal?
    2. Does your character have something to gain or lose if they do not meet their goal? If there are no stakes, it is difficult to make the reader care about your character.
    3. Is your character relatable? Does the reader understand why the character is acting the way they are?
    4. Is your character distinctive? Do they have memorable traits?
    5. Does your character change throughout the story? This can be as small as a realization, or it could be a decision. If not, does something change for them that is out of their control?
  • Supporting Characters

(Note: If you don’t have a secondary character in your story, skip to layer three)

  1. Does your secondary character add to the story either by increasing conflict or contrasting with the main character? Contrast is a way to solidify your main character in the reader’s mind. It’s the nature of contrast, really; orange looks more orange against blue.
  2. Does your secondary character feel real? Secondary characters must have their own traits, and their own goals to avoid them feeling like cardboard cutouts.

LAYER THREE: Conflict

  • Compelling Conflict
    1. Does your character have strong obstacles in the way of their goals? (It might help to list them.) Sources of conflict include intrapersonal, interpersonal, environmental, and societal.
    2. Has your character worked hard to overcome their obstacles? Don’t make their lives too easy or their accomplishments handed to them. It eliminates a reader’s tension, and tension is what compels them to keep reading.
    3. Does your character have agency? Your protagonist should be proactive, not standing around and waiting for their goals to be met with no effort. Can you list what they are doing to achieve their goals?

LAYER FOUR: Scenes

  • Scene Construction
    1. Have you established where and when your character is at the beginning of each scene? It might help to list the scenes and evaluate each.
    2. Do the scenes progress over time? (Day, rainy to afternoon to evening, etc.)
    3. Does your plot come from your character’s decisions and their obstacles? The character’s behavior should be consistent, and the plot should be causally linked and not random or a result of author convenience.
    4. Are the important scenes fleshed out with dialog, action, and setting? In early drafts, writers sometimes summarize the most interesting parts of a story. This is a mistake. The best way to immerse the reader and slow the pace is to add sensory details to your most important scenes. (Scene summaries are best used for fast transitions or when nothing happened in a certain time frame, and the writer just needs to convey information quickly. This could indicate the passing of time when nothing substantial occurs).
    5. Does your scene center around the conflict? Avoid telling the reader things they don’t need to know. Backstory pulls a reader out of the story and slows the pace. Often, backstory can be slipped into the present story seamlessly. Trust your reader.
  • Missing or Unneeded Scenes[1]
    1. Do you have all the scenes you need for a solid and logical character arc?
    2. Do you have only necessary scenes?

LAYER FIVE: Dialog & Description

  • Dialog
    1. Have you avoided dialog that’s too on the nose? In real life, people don’t usually say exactly what they are feeling. Your characters should not either. If your character is hiding something, have their actions differ from their words. Readers will read between the lines. This is called subtext and is particularly important for literary fiction, if not all writing.
    2. Does your character’s voice seem apropos to who they are?
    3. Is your dialog precise? (Avoid extra wordiness, dialog in fiction should have snap, not drone on, with extra words such as like or just.)
    4. Do your characters tell each other unknown things? Don’t use dialog to tell the characters things that they already know, so that your readers do. This reads as awkward and can be cheesy.
    5. Is it easy to tell who is speaking?
    6. Have you used “said” for dialog tags? Said is preferred by editors for its invisibility in the prose. Use your characters actions and dialog to portray emotion instead of unique dialog tags.
  • Descriptions[2]
    1. Do you describe things with purpose?
    2. Are you using all five senses? (Tip: color code your text, one color for each sense, to see this more visually.)
    3. Is there enough description for readers to get a sense of the world?

CONCLUSION & NEXT STEPS

On a final note, as you go through your stories, creating your revision list, you might notice personal patterns/tendencies. Over time, you will probably find some of these things aren’t issues for you. This is a normal part of the process. The revision process itself is revised and improved, based on our own skill sets and personal habits. The writer’s ultimate goal should be to incorporate these steps into their storytelling, so they become a subconscious part of the process. In time, this will happen if a writer keeps working to improve their craft, keeping these questions in mind.

Learn what works the best for you. After you’ve worked through these steps, your items should be arranged from biggest task to smallest, and you can begin working on fixing the issues in your story. (If they aren’t quite large to small, order-wise, feel free to tweak your list). After, you will be ready to approach beta readers or critique partners. If the feedback you receive is positive, feel free to move to the top tiers—digging in with some line editing and polishing.

Now, you can have your cake and edit, too! -Matt

To learn more here’s a few recommended books:

  • Revision: A Creative Approach to Writing and Rewriting Fiction by Kaplan
  • Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Brown and Dave King
  • A Swim in the Pond in the Rain by George Saunders

[1] Often, writers have movement and repeated ideas in each scene, but a good writer will vary them, at least slightly. In A Swim in The Pond in The Rain by George Saunders, he breaks down the story “The Darling”, written by Anton Chekov. Saunders calls this a pattern story. In each section, the main character, Olenka, falls in love. However, each time she falls in love, it’s not the same. Little details change. Chekov changes how long Olenka mourns, who she marries, how long they were together, and what kind of relationship she has. It’s important for the story to keep moving. If two scenes take a character from semi-sadness to semi-happiness, and their status is changing in the same way, consider intensifying your conflict, altering it, or only keeping the best scene.

[2] A writer submerges the readers in a character’s reality by first showing the character’s sensory experiences, and by showing the character’s interiority—what they think and how they feel through the way they describe things and what they pay attention to. Say the writer wants to convey the character’s sadness. What would a dejected person focus on? Showing their interiority can be done through body language and action as well as description. What does a sad person do? What does your specific character do when they are sad?

Header Image by Lorenzo Cafaro from Pixabay

Prescience: Review of A Song for a New Day and The Membranes

Kascha Semonovitch

In Sarah Pinsker’s A Song for a New Day, The 2020 is lost. In the novel, 2020 is not a year, but a rare live music venue in a post-pandemic world defined by social distance. A Spotify-plus-Xbox equivalent runs the 2020 out of business in an America that outlaws congregation for concerts or any other public event.

Pinsker’s novel was published in 2019, and for that reason, it requires a re-review in 2021. Pinsker anticipated in name and experience our pandemic year. With eerie prescience, her Nebula-award-winning novel captures the trauma of social distancing. Rosemary, one of two main characters, describes her first venture onto a bus—how she holds her breath walking down the aisle, flinches at the proximity of other bodies, notes the silence and suspicion of the other riders. She mentally measures and remeasures the social distance required between her and the passengers. She only feels comfortable eating at restaurants with tables separated by plexiglass dividers.

As I read these scenes, I flipped more than once to the copyright page before I trusted that Pinsker wrote the book before our pandemic. Rosemary’s response to social distancing echoes my own.

When she wants to “meet” friends, Rosemary drones in drinks and has Zoom-equivalent cocktail hours. Every morning, she logs on to her virtual work for an Amazon-equivalent, spends all day in her bedroom with her corporate identity, and then has to deal with the difficulty of shaking off work-to-home life in order to meet her mother in the kitchen.

And she’s never been to a live music show. Rosemary, now in her early twenties, was only eight when the pandemic hit and has rarely left the safety of her rural town let alone congregated in a group.

Through some strange coincidences, Rosemary finds a job seeking new talent for the ruling virtual music conglomerate; in this role, she encounters live music. After a few chapters, Rosemary’s account intersects with that of Luce, a middle-aged-musician, trying to keep alive the live music scene which was shut down just as she became famous. Rosemary begins to form real relationships, but her worldview has been so distorted that she ruins many of them—and Luce’s underground music venue, The 2020.

In Rosemary and Luce’s world, distance equals safety; maintaining distance is maintaining social norms and the rule of law. Proximity is danger; opposition to norms and laws.

But the arts require physical closeness. And in Rosemary’s world, it is the liberal underground arts community, not conservatives who rebel against anti-congregation laws.

Not only does the book accurately describe the bodily trauma many of us experienced in the past year, Pinsker’s novel also specifically shows the danger of social distance for the arts. Music and visual art need an audience. In our 2020, the government and healthcare system learned how to restructure social gatherings to save lives. But the pandemic devasted the live arts community. Live music needs bodies—bodies to show up and experience sound as physical vibration, as a motive to dance together. Visual artists too need an embodied viewer. One of the first rules taught in Sculpture 101 is to think about scale: how will a viewer respond to this work given its size in relationship to the body?

In the void left by physical gathering in the arts, digital music, video, and gaming industries have thrived in our 2020 just as they did in Rosemary’s America. To physically stay alive in Rosemary’s world and in our own 2020, required sacrificing arts that require bodies. Rosemary’s society faces a dilemma in choosing between physical and artistic life—what Martha Nussbaum has called “incommensurable goods.” Just as they cannot exchange friendship for money or freedom for money, they find they cannot exchange survival for culture.

The true trauma of the pandemic is in Rosemary’s alienation from other people—not only in the immediate trauma of hospitalization and fear during the pandemic itself.

Perhaps if I had read Pinsker’s novel in 2019, I would have been ever so slightly more prepared for the pandemic. I would not have believed her plexiglass-divided restaurants would become reality, but it might have helped to think through the consequences for relationships and the arts as I lived those changes. As a speculative novel, Pinsker’s story offers an opportunity to exercise our moral imagination: to ask, how we will maintain a fully human life in a world changed by, for example, pandemic, climate change, or space colonization? Such imaginative exercise trains us for what are potential evolutions in the human condition.

Ari Larissa Heinrich’s English translation of The Membranes by Chi Ta-Wei appeared this June 2021, but the original was published in Chinese in 1996. Like Pinsker’s novel, The Membranes anticipates some of the psychological suffering of pandemic social distancing.

Ta-Wei’s main narrator, Momo, lives alone. She lives within a membrane of special skin, within her combo work/studio and apartment, and beneath the ceiling of the ocean. Like all humans in 2100s, she lives underwater because the sun has burned the earth’s surface until it is uninhabitable. Momo has grown up within the membranes; she can only vaguely remember being able to roam freely as a very young child. She communicates virtually and learns through ebooks—a prescient vision given that the story was originally written in 1996.

Ironically, Momo works as a dermal technician, essentially giving clients full-body facials. Yet the touch she provides does not truly connect her to those she sees because they are protected by a special artificial skin membrane. A few clues hint that Momo is an unreliable narrator, but it is only the last third to quarter of the story that reveals Momo’s identity and location are radically different; though some of the features of her post-apocalyptic world remain the same, much of Momo’s description turns out to be metaphorical. The surrealism of Momo’s homebound existence, however, captures the desolation of trying to connect to a world without physical contact with others. Taken at face value, Momo’s experience shares much with Rosemary’s and our own, sealed within the membranes of Zoom and Teams.

The Membranes alludes to then-trending film and literary theory, referencing Almodóvar, Altman, Lacan, and Derrida. The narrator tells Momo’s story as Momo reads her own story—like the simulacra and simulacrum of Baudrillard. Momo requires a pass partout, a Derridean motif. The story circles around Momo’s detachment from Mother, a fundamental figure in Lacanian psychoanalysis.

As the translator explains, texts like Ta-Wei’s grew in popularity with the lifting of martial law in Taiwan; new forms of experimental literature exploded in the early 1990s—when Taiwanese people were free to come together. With this congregation, the arts flourished in a new way.

These two speculative novels bring us into possible worlds conditioned by social distance. Rosemary and Momo desire something they have hardly experienced—physical closeness. Even as they desire it, they have been so conditioned to avoid it, they can hardly enjoy it when it is offered. This is the process we must work through post-2020.

Ta-Wei, Chi. The Membranes. Translated by Ari Larissa Heinrich. Columbia University Press. New York, NY, 2021. https://cup.columbia.edu/book/the-membranes/9780231195713 Pinsker, Sarah. A Song for a New Day. Berkley, New York, NY, 2019. https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/598452/a-song-for-a-new-day-by-sarah-pinsker/

Orca Blog for June 2021: Don’t Tease Your Reader; Get to the Tension and Keep It Rising

This blog originally appeared on Jane Friedman’s website, on May 27, 2021.

Just about every fiction writer understands the need to include elements of rising tension in their stories. But as someone who reads thousands of submissions every year I know that many emerging writers sometimes don’t know quite how to go about this. I see a lot of stories try to tease their way into creating tension. They drop vague hints about what is at stake for the characters instead of showing it outright, and then withhold the reveal until the end, as if that is as high as the tension can possibly go.

But all that does is maintain low tension, without increasing it, and if the narrative structure of a story depends on rising tension, then this approach fails. Without the promise of greater rewards a narrative can start to sound like a tease—I’ve got a secret and I’m not telling!

Here’s an example:

Something was bothering Philip. A vague feeling, not quite nausea or anxiety, but something else. It came over him at random times. Perhaps it had something to do with work, or maybe his relationship with Tina. It caused him to float through his days, never knowing quite what was going to happen, and never getting any closer to what was causing his distress.

The story typically goes on like that for several pages, with the main character’s problem repeated in a variety of settings, interrupted only by drops into backstory. This avoids the real issue, and forces the writer to keep referring to the same issue over and over. That’s caused in part by the writer’s commitment to the story ending she originally envisioned.

If you write knowing where you want the story to end it will show. An experienced reader (such as an editor for a literary journal) will recognize your narrative direction early in the story. And if it doesn’t adapt to the events of the story, then your tension is lost, and your story falls flat.

For long time I’ve been telling students and clients to get right to the tension in their stories. Start high and go higher. Make it clear to the reader what the stakes of the story are, and then turn your characters loose to see how they respond. More often than not, they will take the story someplace unexpected. I can almost feel the writer’s fear when I say this. But I don’t know if I can do that. I already know where I want the story to go, so I have to save it for the end.

As George Saunders puts it in his new book on writing, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: If you know where a story is going, don’t hoard. Make the story go there, now. But then what? What will you do next? You’ve surrendered your big reveal. Exactly. Often, in our doubt that we have a real story to tell, we hold something back, fearing that we don’t have anything else. And this can be a form of trickery. Surrendering that thing is a leap of faith that forces the story to attention, saying to it, in effect, “You have to do better than that, and now that I’ve denied you your trick, your first order solution, I know that you will.”

What Saunders is saying is that you have to trust your ability to create. You need to have the confidence that whatever the level of tension established at the start, it can be increased.

Here’s a few suggestions on how to do that.

First, it’s important to relinquish some control. You may be the God of the story, the creator of this fictional world, but your characters are the inhabitants, and they need autonomy to be able to carry the narrative to a new and more exciting place. And an offshoot of allowing your characters to have the spotlight is that they will become real, individual, fully developed human beings, the kind that readers love to engage.

How do you get them to do that? As many writing teachers have said before, create barriers to the characters’ goals and desires. There’s nothing less tense than characters going through the mundane activities of a normal day. So whatever they’re doing, think of how it might go wrong. Think of what might get in the way of them achieving what they want. In other words, add conflict and risk (interpersonal, internal, external). The bigger the barrier, the greater the chance your character has to take. And the greater the risk, the greater the tension. This is what readers like to see, so don’t delay it. As Kurt Vonnegut said, “Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.” As I like to say, have your characters take the risks that your readers would never dare.

Abandon long, boring scene-setting and backstory. While those aspects are important, they tend to fill in while the characters address their current problems. Doing this will also force the narrative to move forward, another technique that increases tension. As time elapses, the moment when a character must make a decision draws closer.

Most important, listen to your characters. I see many stories in which the writer tries to maintain complete control, holding the characters back from acting outside the plot he has laid out. But the best, most engrossing, most satisfying fiction is that in which the characters are allowed to divert from the story’s preconceived path, based on their continuing development. That’s when writing fiction is the most fulfilling—the writer can be surprised as much as the reader.

At every opportunity, play “what if” with your story. What if this changed? What if something went wrong? What if she chose the opposite? Indulge your imagination and your story’s tension will rise, and you’ll engage your readers more than you ever have.


Image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay

Orca Blog for May 2021: Sympathy, Empathy, and Sentimentality

This month let’s look at reader sympathy, empathy, and sentimentality, three emotional states that are often misunderstood in fiction.

Sympathy might be defined as an understanding, perception, or appreciation of another’s situation. More simply, it’s the ability to care about someone else. In terms of fiction, it’s the creation of characters who experience situations that a reader can identify with. It could be a specific problem that the character faces, or it could be something more existential, such as being an outcast among her peers. What’s important to remember, is that sympathy is largely driven by character desire or stakes. Inexperienced writers often burden their stories with extraneous details that have nothing to do with what their characters want. That may create mild interest, but it doesn’t foster sympathy. If the reader identifies with the character’s desire, she’ll want to know what happens. You can use sympathy to portray most characters, even the unlikable ones.

Empathy takes sympathy and goes further. It creates a situation in which the reader not only cares about a character, but can actually feel what the character feels. As you might imagine, this is not easy to do. It requires the ability to immerse readers in a character’s situation using precise sensory perception and subtext. Empathy begins with sympathy’s idea of character identification. The reader must first identify and appreciate what the character faces. The sensory perception—so much more than just sight alone—then serves to heighten the experience by providing the kind of the details that provoke memories of similar feelings within the reader. Think about the memories of your own life, and how things like smells, sounds, and touch are associated with them. These are powerful memories, often more powerful and personal than things you have seen. Couple this effect with subtext, which is the meaning beneath the text. It is a technique of conveying character motivation through action and dialogue, as well as a way of revealing hidden agendas (much like real life), in which people give subtle clues about what they really want. These are the keys that lead to creating characters that seem like real people.

Empathy requires the ability to sense the reality of another. This is where writers should live. Doing so also allows writers to shed the authorial intrusion that plagues too many submissions. If you are the character, you are no longer the writer, with the writer’s desire to explain things.

Then there’s sentimentality. It’s something a writer should never employ. But so many writers do that it’s important to explain why it does not belong in literary fiction. Sentimentality is based on nostalgia, which is a fond but not necessarily true or honest recollection of past times, usually connected to the idea that those times were better than the present. Whether they were or weren’t isn’t the point. Sentimentality is simplistic, not complex. It deliberately ignores facts and truth, creating a fantasy world that is without value, usually in the service of making the dreamer feel better about himself. Sentimentality is not the same as simplicity, which strives to eliminate obfuscation. Nostalgia is the kind of approach politicians and corporate marketers use to trick people into thinking that what they’re promoting is worth believing in. A good fiction writer doesn’t need to trick anyone into immersing in a story.

– Joe Ponepinto


Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Our Favorite Short Stories

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

David Anderson, Reader:

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

Tommy Anderson, Reader:

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

Renee Jackson, Editor:

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

Ai Jiang, Reader:

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

Zachary Kellian, Publisher/Senior Editor:

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

Zoë Mikel-Stites, Reader:

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

Ronak Patel, Reader:

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

Marci Pliskin, Reader:

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

Joe Ponepinto, Publisher/Senior Editor:

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

Lauren Voeltz, Reader:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Renee Jackson