Category Archives: Orca Blog

Orca Blog for November — Announcing Our Literary-Speculative Issue

We’d like to take November’s blog to introduce an upcoming concept issue for our journal. While Orca was founded on our love for literary storytelling, we like to champion any use of rich, carefully crafted language. Some of our favorite novels and short stories fall under the umbrella of genre fiction, but they remain classics in our heart for their wonderful use of language and their broad exploration of imagination.

With that in mind, beginning with our fourth issue and continuing with every third issue of Orca, we will be celebrating submissions of literary speculative fiction and shining a deserved light on those storytellers who push boundaries and manage to break away from the conventions and tropes of their genre and seek to craft something truly special.

What do we mean by the terms Literary and Speculative—and what does it mean when those two worlds combine?

Literary: A style of writing in which the focus is on language and character, and plot is often secondary. A literary story is about ideas. It has an overarching theme distinct from the narrative and a leitmotif running through it. It treats its characters as real human beings and not as props to espouse an author’s opinion or to simply move the plot forward. It approaches language as art: a literary writer pays attention to every sentence, every word.

Speculative: The term “speculative” has been employed by writers and editors to connote works from a variety of genres, such as science fiction, fantasy, horror, dystopian, space opera, and similar subjects. All of those genres are welcome, and we hope to celebrate shining examples of them all, but for Orca we are specifically looking for submissions that adhere more closely to the original sense of the word, which is to consider what might be, instead of what is. Think a near-future where the political structure is turned on its head. Think about an alternative present where the South won the Civil War. Imagine a fantastical horror that over the course of ten pages begins to feel all too real. Think Black Mirror and The Twilight Zone. Think “what if….”

Both definitions pay particular attention to the idea behind the story. Good, literary speculative fiction has its basis in concepts that are larger (often much larger) than the story itself, and seeks to examine one aspect of it, and how that aspect affects the story’s characters.

A great example of excellent literary speculative fiction can be found in the opening paragraph of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Notice how, on its surface the narrator is simply establishing a setting, but then marvel at how, within this description, Atwood manages an incredible amount of world building:

We slept in what had once been a gymnasium. The floor was of varnished wood, with stripes and circles painted on it, for the games that were formerly played there; the hoops for the basketball nets were still in place, though the nets were gone. A balcony ran around the room, for the spectators, and I thought I could smell, faintly like an afterimage, the pungent scent of sweat shot through with the sweet taint of chewing gum and perfume from the watching girls, felt-skirted as I knew from pictures, later in miniskirt, then pants, then in one earring, spike green-streaked hair. Dances would have been held there; the music lingered, a palimpsest of unheard sound, style upon style, and undercurrent of drums, a forlorn wail, garlands make of up of issue paper flowers, cardboard devils, and a revolving ball of mirrors, powdering the dancers with snow of light.

Not a word is wasted. Notice how the backstory it hints at creates far more questions than answers. Notice how the future being described is done, not through heavy-handed narration or purple prose, but through carefully constructed sensory images that give the novel’s world a full past, present, and future, all in a brief 150 words.

Other great examples of this type of writing include works by Ted Chiang, Kelly Link, Jorge Luis Borges, Ursula K. LeGuin, Julio Cortázar, and Ta-Nehisi Coates latest novel, The Water Dancer. Notice how Chiang’s stories are much more about the people dealing with and affected by the great unknown than they are about defining the unknown itself. Remember that LeGuin was using the lens of science fiction and fantasy to tackle subjects like institutionalized racism and transgender rights long before they were at the forefront of the political realm.

Horror, too, can find a home within the speculative literary world, for what genre better epitomizes the collective sentiment of the human condition that we tend to feel today? In this world of polemics and 24-hour push notifications, who among us can turn on the news or read an article and not be stricken with a sense, false or not, of impending doom?

There are few better than Shirley Jackson when it comes to writing literary horror. Consider her opening to Hill House and the world it opens up to us, like the day to twilight shift of a full eclipse:

No organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

One of literature’s most ominous openings. More examples of great literary horror can be found in the works of: Robert W. Chambers, Alma Katsu, Neil Gaiman, and Stephen King.

While we want to keep this upcoming issue open to all types of literary speculative fiction, it is unlikely that we would publish anything considered high fantasy or hard sci-fi. So too, would we be likely to pass on anything that focuses on extreme gore, violence, or eroticism. All of those can be great tools for a skilled writer, but only when used sparingly.

Consider this thematic issue our challenge to the many writers who have submitted to us in the past, to break away from the mold and to craft something boldly imaginative. To pose a “what if…,” explore it, and perhaps, even attempt to answer it. We cannot wait to read your submissions!

– Zac and Joe

Orca Blog for October: It’s All in the Timing: When’s the Best Time to Submit?

The short answer is when journals and contests are looking for good stories. Theoretically that’s whenever they are open. But the real answer is far more nuanced. And for a writer, that means there are certain times during reading periods in which you can improve your chances of publication.*

Let’s look at this situation from the other side of the fence—from within a journal’s organization. I’ve been editing literary journals for several years now, and have noticed definite patterns and trends when it comes to submissions. And I know from that experience the timing of a submission can influence its potential acceptance.

First, let’s eliminate the possibility that your story is so good that it won’t matter when you submit it. Instead let’s assume that your story is good enough to be published, somewhere in the top five percent of submissions received. Considering that most established literary journals accept less than two percent of their submissions (and usually it’s less than one percent), you still face significant odds. So here are a few things to keep in mind as you prepare to submit.

Typically when a reading period opens there is a spike in the number of submissions. This may be because writers missed the last submission period and have been waiting for a journal to reopen. At this point in the reading process a good story will be noted, but then it has to sit for the remainder of the submission period. In that time (and remember we are talking about good, publishable, but not necessarily spectacular stories) it will likely be pretty much forgotten until it’s time for the editors to consider which pieces are actually selected for the next issue.

After that initial rush, there is usually a lull. Submissions trickle in at a pace of a few a day. The good ones received during this time are also noted for consideration at the end of the period.

Approximately halfway to three quarters of the way through the submission period, if no spectacular stories come in, the editors may begin to worry that they don’t have enough great stories to fill the next issue. (This is not an absolute rule, of course, but it is something that I have seen quite often.) I’ll get back to this time in a minute.

The final two weeks of a reading period see the greatest number of submissions by far. Sometimes as many as half the final total come in during that time, as writers rush to beat the deadline. The final week often sees a tremendous rise in the number of submissions, as writers (being writers, I suppose) react to a hard deadline. But those submitters may not be aware of the increased odds they face in getting their stories published. Consider that readers for literary journals are usually faced with hundreds of submissions that have come in during the final weeks. Each needs to be evaluated in a compressed period of time, since the editors must make decisions about the content of their next issue under their deadlines. The readers—usually unpaid volunteers who must also find time for their paying jobs or school studies—have to read and decide quickly. The general thinking can be summed up like this: we already have a lot of good stories to consider, so I need to see something spectacular before I pass it on. Is it fair to assume they may not give each story adequate time to develop before they make that call? That’s for each individual writer to determine for herself. But as someone who understands the workload during this time, my advice is to not give a reader a chance to dismiss you after only a couple of sentences.

So let’s get back to that third quarter of the submission period. That’s the time when editors look at their submission queue and may begin to wonder if they have enough quality material to produce the next issue. If they believe they don’t, a feeling of concern begins to set in. Will we make it? Will we receive the kinds of stories we are looking for, and are known for? And where will they come from? This is when, if they receive a very good story, they may start to worry that if they don’t accept it right away, another journal might steal it away from them. Some journals, Orca included, will accept that story rather than take a chance it gets away. It’s also the time when good stories have a better chance of remaining fresh in their minds when they sit down to make their final selections. The sense of excitement attached to such stories is greater than that for the good ones that came in at the beginning of the reading period, simply because it’s easier to remember them.

You may want to consider making the third quarter of a reading period your target for submission. If you have a quality story that deserves publication, it may just improve your chances. Even if it only gives your story a slight boost, that may be enough to see it in print.

– Joe Ponepinto


*A quick disclaimer: Not every journal follows the path I’ve laid out above. Some have specific policies about how their reading periods and acceptances are structured—these are generally well-established journals that receive many thousands of submissions, giving them a much larger talent pool. For the hundreds of other literary journals, however, especially those that haven’t been publishing for many years, this assessment may apply.

Orca Blog for September: Clichés

Avoiding Clichés (Dark, Stormy and Other Lessor Discussed Banalities)

All writers know the cliché: “It was a Dark and Stormy Night…” and we all know not to use it (with the exception of Edward Bulwer-Lytton and Snoopy’s alter-ego, The World Famous Author). It has become so cliché, that the only acceptable time for the words dark and stormy to be uttered in conjunction with each other is when ordering a cocktail (2oz dark rum, 3 oz ginger beer, 0.5 ounces fresh-squeezed lime juice, on ice; stir well), but in belaboring that one trope, we have all ignored a host of other equally tired lines, plot devices, and story openings. Every submission period, publishers all over the country see the same clichés, roll their eyes, and pass on otherwise solid works of fiction. It doesn’t matter if you’re a first time writer or an experienced professional, it is a trap into which we all fall, and one this blog will attempt to help you prevent in the future.

So here are some of the worst offending clichés we’ve seen this month and some suggestions as to how to best avoid them:

1) The clichéd opening. We’ve already touched on how to best engage your reader (and a publisher) in our May blog, but it’s worth being more direct since we see the same, stale openings time and time again (at last count, the openings on the following list account for about 25% of our submissions, so if you’re looking to stand out to us, or any publisher, you must avoid these:

Do not start your story with:

  • A funeral
  • A character waking up or starting their mundane day
  • The break up of a relationship
  • An accident / assault or its immediate aftermath
  • A narrator reflecting on, or worse, describing him/her/their self in a mirror.
  • A corollary to the above, a character looking at a photograph
  • Two people driving in a car to someplace they’ve never been, while trying to make sense of their relationship.
  • The above not specific enough for you? How about the dozen stories we receive every submission period that begin with phrases like “By the time…,” “Ever since…”, etc.

Do start your story with

  • Present, in the moment action
  • Intrigue
  • Drama
  • Plot
  • Character desire
  • Something that you can honestly tell yourself is unlikely to be repeated by another author in that month’s submission pile

2) Plot devices. While it is entirely possible that any one of the following plots could be anchored by strong writing and a refreshing take on the subject matter, if its the third time a publisher has read a story with the exact same stakes as yours, what are the chances your genius will be recognized?

Do not write about

  • A Love Triangle (especially a middle-aged one revolving around academics. This is 2019 literature, not a 1970s Woody Allen retrospective)
  • Abusive parents 
  • A loner trying to make sense of a chaotic world
  • A teacher dealing with troublesome children
  • Kids dealing with mom’s/dad’s new lover
  • Coping with a parent who has Alzheimer’s/cancer, etc
  • Urolagnia (Look it up if you dare. Don’t believe us if you want to… but we’ve had four stories so far about this very subject)
  • And the always popular, I ran over a (insert animal of your choice) with my car/ truck and must nurse it back to health for deeper reasons than guilt, which I only realize by the end, through the perspective of the natural world and my own selfless actions.

Do write about literally anything else. Seriously, we aren’t pulling these examples out of thin air; these are all very real clichés and are culled from stories we read all the time. And the more we read them, the less likely we are to publish them, regardless of quality. 

3) Sexism. Lastly, a cliché that should definitely not be, but one that has become an unwelcome virus plaguing many of our submissions. While sexism this can come in many forms, and all of them are worth discussing in a more serious forum than a monthly blog, the one we see most often is male writers writing about women, poorly, and with little empathy.

Do not

  • Write two dimensional female characters
  • Attribute traditionally masculine traits to a woman to make her seem tough (although this works for some characters, authors seem to forget that many of the traditionally feminine traits can be just as empowering, forceful, and commanding.)
  • Sexualize a female character’s actions (by making specific references to her body)
  • Sensationalize anything that involves the sadistic abuse and/or murder of female characters. There’s a time and a place for violence in many stories, but trust us, we can tell the difference between craft and your own personal, dark fantasies and we don’t want to read them (see also: Urolagnia).

Do write your female characters as complex, as imperfect, as empathetic and as real as you do your male characters. In 2019 so it seems ridiculous to even have to call these sexist tropes out, but until we stop seeing the above clichés in every fourth submission, we’re going to keep preaching.

Strive for originality, it’s what our art is (and has always been) about. Be original and you will definitely see an uptick on your acceptances. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a story to write:

“It was a dark and stormy night, the funeral was well underway, and we were all about to be introduced to Urolagnia for the first time…”

– Zac

Actually, if you can start a story like that last line, and somehow dig your way out of that horrible hole and into a worth-while piece, go for it! Every publisher who doesn’t immediately pass after the first sentence will be impressed.

Hopefully this blog was a helpful reminder. Because if not we just made our journal show up on a lot of “Urolagnia” web searches for no good reason.

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

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

Not so this time.

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

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

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

I resist that trend.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

– JP

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

Orca Blog for July: Watching a Movie Like a Writer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– JP

Orca Blog for June: Avoiding Appropriation in Art

In literature, there are fewer falls from grace more precipitous than the stunning rebuke Kathryn Stockett’s The Help has experienced in this decade. It went from its two-year stranglehold on the bestseller list to being decried as a gross cultural appropriation, a white author, “writing in blackface,” whose handling of a delicate subject was clumsy at best, racist at its worst. This is not a blog to pile onto the criticisms this author has faced, but to address the debate it has brought to the forefront. History will determine how we view Stockett’s novel, but the floodgates that it opened still have the literary world treading in deep, murky water as it struggles to distinguish the line between fiction and appropriation.

With such a potent and dramatic backlash for works like The Help, you would assume that most writers have sought to distance themselves as fully as possible from the controversy. But, as anyone who reads submissions piles can tell you, that this is far from the case. We still have a long way to go to combat this naiveté, while at the same time making sure we preserve that which makes fiction so special

So how do you avoid appropriation in your own work? Just by asking that question you’re already taking a big step in the right direction. Those who are most guilty of using another’s culture, experience, or truth for their own fiction often do so carelessly without ever having asked the question of if they should. But before we go into how to avoid it, it is important to be on the same page about art’s place in this important 21st century debate.

The broadest definition of cultural appropriation being bandied about today is, itself, problematic. Under the widest definition, all art is appropriation and in the world of writing, only non-fiction is, potentially, shielded from such criticism. This is the other side of the sword, and we need to be careful not to swing it too carelessly. Art has always thrived on inspiration from other artists and indeed, other cultures. Without art, many stories and experiences throughout the world may never have seen the light of day. So, through its own progressive function in our society, art (and in particular literature) has opened up a worldwide perspective and as a result has placed itself on the firing lines.

By this logic, avoiding appropriation should be easy. Simply stick to the old adage “write what you know.” But if we all did that, the literary world would become a rather boring, one-dimensional place; because regardless of background, nearly every author would be forced to write stories about their struggles as a writer and nothing else. Would anyone find that engaging? Is that even fiction?

Accepting that writing about someone whose life and experience may be different from yours is an inescapable and necessary function of fiction, it is best to break the appropriation debate down to three key areas. And since the title of this blog has gotten me in the mood for alliteration, let’s stick with that trend. When considering whether not your current or future work may be appropriation, consider: Empathy, Education, and Exploration.

Empathy: Are you writing about a one-dimensional archetype meant to stand in for a culture that plays a key role in your plot? Or are you writing about a fully fleshed out human whose personality is baked-in with strengths and flaws like any real human? A male author writing from the perspective of a female narrator, who spends 75% of the story writing about the narrator’s boyfriend, is not someone writing from a place of empathy. No attempt was made to get inside the female narrator’s head, and instead the author has rested on his own gender norms as a crutch by putting the focus of the story on the boyfriend, despite who the story assumes its protagonist to be. In a similar vein, it is natural and indeed noble for an author writing about another race, religion, sexual orientation, etc. to want to avoid stereotypes or anything that may be perceived in a negative light. As a result, you sometimes get characters who are without flaws, who sit atop a pedestal, gleaming as a magical unicorn—a person who could not possibly exist in real life. An author who does his/her/their job well, will bring their characters to life on the page, not smother them with stereotypes or shield them from the truth.

Education: Have you taken the time to fully research the characters and culture in your story? Research implies something much more than a cursory Wikipedia glance, it demands a rigorous academic approach to ensure that the details you are including are authentic, nuanced, and truthful.

When Rebecca Makkai was writing a story about the AIDS epidemic in Chicago in the 1980s for her Pulitzer Prize shortlisted 2018 novel The Great Believers, she employed an academic and grueling study regimen to ensure that the world she portrayed was not only accurate, but full of authentic life. Makkai, who herself identifies as a white, cis-gendered, straight female, was certainly writing out of her element in portraying gay male characters dealing with the new realities of HIV/AIDS in their community, and yet her book received universal praise because it was apparent on every page that she had taken the time to interview the people who had lived through that era. She had mapped out all of the long defunct gay clubs throughout Chicago so that her geography was accurate, and she read all of the existing works about the crisis in Chicago so that even the minutia she included rang true. She had no need to hire “sensitivity readers,” because she was already friends and confidants with the people who had lived the story and they had given their blessing to the work.

Even if you are not someone who believes in sensitivity (if so, why are you a writer?) there is another benefit to educating yourself before you write, above and beyond making it politically correct: it will make your story better! I have seen this from personal experience. I’m fifth generation Appalachian on my father’s side and Irish on my mother’s. I can spot from a mile away an author who has not done his/her/their research on either of those cultures because I have lived them, and no amount of academic study can fully approximate an experience lived. Yet I’d be forgiving if minor details were missed, as long as the broad strokes felt true to my cultural experience, but the trend, particularly in writing about rural West Virginia, is to oversimplify its characters, to take the region’s lack of proper educational opportunities as a sign of lower intelligence, to glamorize and even fetishize poverty to the point where it becomes parody. When I read these stories, I know I am reading an author who doesn’t care enough to respect their characters or their audience. When I read someone like Breece D’J Pancake, a native Appalachian writer, I see my family in his words. I see he and my Dad sitting down with a few bottles of long neck Stroh’s and whiling away an afternoon speaking to one another in their quintessentially, lyrical, mountain manner. If you aren’t willing to put a majority of your work into research, then you aren’t ready to write about anything other than your own personal experience.

Exploration: In short, ask yourself if what you’re writing about has already been explored by others who may be closer to the situation than you. Makkai tackled the AIDS crisis in Chicago precisely because it hadn’t been written about much in mainstream media. If you are going to write about the Holocaust, specifically about the European Jewish experience, and you are not Jewish, and are not a direct descendant of a survivor of that dark era, then you are likely treading on ground that others with far more experience, education, and empathy than you have already explored. If, in your research of the Holocaust, you learn about the plight of the Romani people and discover that there have been precious few works of fiction written about their struggle, then perhaps, just perhaps, you’ve found a reason to write about another culture other than your own. To give voice to the previously voiceless had always been one of literature’s most important roles.

A final litmus test: if writing about another culture, identity, or experience that is not your own does not terrify you, you clearly don’t care enough to do the story or the characters justice. Art thrives when it is left uncensored and unfettered, but it is our responsibility as artists to ensure that we pay proper respect to that responsibility and that we always explore our fictional worlds with empathy and education.

– Zac Kellian

Orca Blog for May: Your Critical First Impression

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By examining closer, we can see how this works.

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

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

– JP

Orca Blog for April, 2019 – Hardheaded: The Autodidacts Who Shaped Literary History

It was Ernest Hemingway’s second plane crash in as many days. As the fuselage burned, the survivors ran to the rear cargo door to make their escape. Never a follower, always a trailblazer, “Papa” was a man who labored under the notion that the courageous always exited the way they came in. He tried to head butt open the fire-fused main cabin door and managed to crack two vertebrae in the process. One of the great masters of the English language was many things, among them, an Autodidact—a self-taught man—and while that kind of thinking didn’t serve Hemingway well during his second plane crash in Africa, his rebel attitude helped redefine the language you and I speak today.

The internet is rife with articles extolling the virtues of traditional education. This is not one of those pieces. Certainly there are many benefits to MFA programs: they can be a welcoming place to hone your craft around like minds, to strengthen the mechanics of your trade, or to open doors to the literary world through the personal connections you make. But this blog is dedicated to those who went a more non-traditional route. This is a tribute to autodidacticism and the men and women who have embraced it. From Hemingway to Faulkner, Mark Twain to José Saramago, the self-taught writer is as much a part of the literary landscape as any of the multi-degreed polymaths through the ages.

Sometimes this self-taught nature is a result of circumstances beyond the literary greats’ control. Poor health, isolationism, and the general social mores precluding women from more advanced opportunities relegated Jane Austen to her family’s library. It was there she taught herself to write in the style of some of her favorite authors, and later became skilled enough to turn that style on its head—giving us the influential novels she’s known for today, while the vast majority of her traditionally educated contemporaries have been forgotten.

Renowned Russian author Maxim Gorky’s family was so impoverished, he ran away from home to be one less mouth to feed. Starting from the age of twelve he earned his education by “borrowing” books from the various towns he passed through as he traveled on foot across the country. He would pick up various jobs as he walked and entertained himself with impressions of the people he encountered, many of whom would later populate his works.

Richard Wright was denied an education due to the color of his skin as the grandson of freed slaves in the Jim Crow South, but he persisted in seeking out any opportunity he could to hone his craft and challenge the status quo at every turn. When his junior high school asked him to give a traditional, faculty-written speech at graduation, he refused and instead gave the racially charged, honest speech he had written for the occasion.

But just as often the greats we remember today became autodidacts by choice. Playwright August Wilson dropped out of high school in grade nine after he found the curriculum unchallenging and had grown weary of teachers accusing him of plagiarism for delivering reports written in a style well beyond his grade level. Instead he spent all of his newly acquired free time at the Pittsburgh Carnegie Library. His presence became so ubiquitous among the stacks that the library would later offer him an honorary high school diploma in recognition of his years of self-motivated learning.

Irish playwright and critic George Bernard Shaw abhorred traditional education to such a degree that he quit school altogether at age fifteen, declaring years later that “Schools and schoolmasters, as we have them today, are not popular as places of education and teachers, but rather prisons and turnkeys in which children are kept to prevent them disturbing and chaperoning their parent.”

Jack London sought a life of adventure outside the classroom and used his unique travel and work experiences as a young man to formulate a new, commercial approach to fiction. Ardent autodidact Mark Twain loved to brazenly boast that “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”

While there have been many self-taught writers who would go on to win Nobel and Pulitzer Prizes for their craft, the measure of their contribution to the world has, and will always be, the unique way they managed to steer the world of fiction in new and interesting directions. If there is one prevalent critique of MFA programs and writers’ workshops, it is that they have the potential to teach everyone to write in a similar voice, based on a preconceived notion of what fiction is and isn’t. For the self-taught greats, this kind of conformity, real or imagined, is what drove them to march to the beat of their own drummer and, along the way, create new and wholly unexpected literary expressions.

Autodidacts like H.P. Lovecraft and Jack London managed to create new literary genres, while other independent learners like Louis L’Amour and Harlan Ellison helped to innovate and breathe new life into existing genres. Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore managed to reshape literature for an entire subcontinent while Ernest Hemingway, his aversion to traditional emergency exits aside, achieved nothing less that reshaping the way an English-language novel is written and a story is told.

Clearly, an informal education is not an impediment to literary success or acclaim, which may lead one to wonder which path is better. The short answer: whatever learning style best suits you! While it is true that many autodidacts have catalyzed paradigm shifts in their respective media, precisely because they naturally think outside the box there are still many examples of artists who embraced higher learning and managed to change their art form for the better. After all, you still need to know the rules before you can effectively break them. So choose the path that is right for you, weigh the pros and cons of each, and regardless of how rebellious you choose to be, it never hurts to learn where your exits are in case of an emergency.

-Zachary Kellian

Orca Blog for March, 2019 – The Mathematics of Writing

Is there a formula for creative success?

Writers and critics disdain formulaic writing, but what if there were a mathematical formula for writing? Maybe there is.

In an article in The Writer’s Chronicle a couple of years ago, poet/teacher Leslie Ullman wrote of her fascination with the mathematical relationships between numbers and writing, particularly the Golden Spiral. To really understand the relationship that inspired her, check out the article (you have to be an AWP member). Essentially, it began with a couple of ancient mathematical concepts that have persevered through the centuries.

The Golden Mean was a relationship advanced by Pythagoras and Plato that established a “golden” point on a straight line segment. (Bear with me, this really does pertain to writing.) At that point, the smaller segment of line is .618 the length of the larger segment, and the larger segment is .618 the length of the original line. This magic .618 factor also comes into play in a variety of mathematical concepts, including the Fibonacci sequence, architectural applications like the pyramids and modern works, and many others. As importantly, it can be applied to many natural occurrences, such as branching in trees, the arrangement of a variety of flowering plants, the spirals of shells, generations of bees, and the curve of waves. It can even be applied to the measurements of DNA molecules. The Golden Mean’s ratio yields the Golden Spiral, “an orderly spiral that gets farther from its point of origin by a factor of .618 with each quarter turn it makes.”

Got that? Okay, here’s the writing part:

If .618 occurs naturally as a ratio between numbers and arrangements, does it have any significance in literature?

The eight ball says, “Signs point to yes.” (Or is that the .618 ball?)

Sonnets have fourteen lines. Ullman notes that in the Petrarchan sonnet the placement of the volta, or turning point, comes after the eighth line, which is quite close to the Golden Mean (grant some leeway here because fourteen lines is a pretty small sample size). English sonnets morphed from the Petrarchan, but maintain echoes of this same trait.

Ullman’s article focuses on poetry. But I couldn’t help wondering if this worked in prose as well? The turning point in a narrative is a major key to its success. So are we naturally predisposed to react to change at a certain point in a story, to feel the narrative morph in an orderly way from its origin to its climax and resolution? In the Hero’s Journey, Joseph Campbell laid out twelve steps by which the hero character in ancient literature went from average person to hero. Step 7 is the “Supreme Ordeal,” described as “…the person’s lowest point or darkest moment. The separation has been made between the old world and old self and the potential for a new world/self. By entering this stage, the person shows her/his willingness to make a change, to die and become a new person.” Step 7 is the closest to .618 in a sequence of twelve.

In that vein, Dan Harmon, the writer who created “Community,” and whose YouTube videos are quite popular with writers these days, demands that his team stick to the hero’s journey cycle and will not even entertain drafts that drift too far from the .618 rule.

Let’s see if it actually works in practice. From my collection of digitized classics I randomly chose Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Pet Dog,” translated by Constance Garnett. Word count is 6724. That means somewhere around 4155 words we should see a shift in the character. I scrolled to that point, and just a few words before the textual Golden Mean, I found this paragraph:

Gurov did not sleep all night, and was filled with indignation. And he had a headache all next day. And the next night he slept badly; he sat up in bed, thinking, or paced up and down his room. He was sick of his children, sick of the bank; he had no desire to go anywhere or to talk of anything.

Sounds like change, my friends.

I tried another, “In the Dry,” a classic in my opinion, by Breece D’J Pancake. 5126 words. The change point would be around 3168. Only a sentence later is this:

On the path to the shed, a strangeness creeps through him: he remembers walking this way—nights, years ago—and Bus yelling, “I’m going to show you something, Ottie.”

This is getting scary.

Keep in mind that to be more certain of the significance of these findings I would have to reread the stories from the start. But these passages definitely indicate turning points in the characters’ narrative arcs, at which events have caused them to begin to rethink their present lives.

But now the real test—one of mine. I chose a published story titled “A Teaching Moment.” It contains 3923 words, so a turn should occur around 2424. Here, at exactly word 2424, is text from the story:

There was no sense bringing up commitment. I couldn’t move to take her in my arms, or invoke some other movie cliché to save the scene. I just lay there, helpless, useless. She’d managed the end of our relationship perfectly. Who knew the real reason she wanted out? But I couldn’t argue at that point. All I know is that even if she came back now, all would be forgiven.

God, I do miss her.

Yikes. Since I wrote it, I can honestly report this passage ends the second of three sections, and positions the character for his psychological change.

This is just my opinion and could well be disproved. But I think it won’t be. A traditionally well-crafted story (or poem or novel) creates its effect on the reader by building an emotional case, and then advancing to climax and resolution. Think of it as a controlled spiral of increasing tension. Is the 61.8 percent point in the narrative the trigger where the reader’s mind is properly prepared to begin the rise to climax? This deserves more investigation.

Try it for yourself. Take something you’ve read and enjoyed, or something you’ve written and look for the point at which the narrative begins to turn. I’m more than curious to know what you discover.

–Joe Ponepinto

Orca Blog for February, 2019 – 10 Great Short Stories You Can Read for Free Online

We could easily link to dozens more short stories that have moved us, inspired us, or racked us with jealousy of their brilliance, but the internet likes lists and it likes them pithy. So what follows should prove a nice primer to the great resources available for those who hunger for literary language in their lives, or for anyone who just needs a quick vacation from reality. In no particular order:

1) In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried, by Amy Hempel, 1983
A classic story that deals with aspects of friendship, regret, and our ability to face death, by one of the true masters of the short form. Amazingly, this is the first short story Hempel ever wrote, when she was a student in Gordon Lish’s New York City fiction class. The story has become one of the most widely anthologized, and has long been one of my favorites. —Joe

2) A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, by Ernest Hemingway, 1933
It is easy, perhaps even fashionable now, to dismiss Hemingway. His contribution to the English language is inestimable, but perhaps his time has come and gone? This story, however, is impossible to dismiss. It cuts right to the core of our humanity. The foil of the two waiters (old and young / apathetic and impassioned) is inspired and its message is timeless. —Zac

3) Division by Zero, by Ted Chiang, 1991
Chiang is perhaps unique in his ability to combine complex scientific and mathematical concepts with deep, emotionally satisfying fiction. His story, “Story of Your Life,” was the basis for the movie “Arrival.” A computer scientist by education, his work has won four Nebula awards, four Hugo awards, and many other honors. Plus he was born just a couple of miles from where I lived when I was a kid. —Joe

4) Museum of the Dearly Departed, by Rebecca Makkai, 2015
A lesser writer would have stumbled upon this story’s excellent surface premise (people cleaning out loved ones’ apartments following a fatal gas leak) and have been satisfied with it. Makkai, one of the modern masters of the short story, deftly combines several interconnected ideas that generate whole new levels of meaning and new layers of emotional depth. —Zac

5) In the Dry, by Breece D’J Pancake, 1978
When Breece Pancake was a student at the University of Virginia, he was already being considered as one of the potentially great writers of his time. He hailed from Appalachian West Virginia (although he was not a “hillbilly”), and wrote almost exclusively about the rural people of that area. The depth of his short fiction is still incredible. But Pancake could never fit in with the people and pace of mainstream and university life. At the age of 26 he committed suicide. He wrote only 12 stories in his brief career. —Joe

6) Girls, At Play, by Celeste Ng, 2012
I’m a firm believer that any talented writer can and should write from any perspective, regardless of his/her/their race, gender, or background. However, there are certainly stories that can only be written by a woman, and this is one of them. The first time I read it felt like having my brain rewired. I’m sure this disturbing story doesn’t speak for every 8th grade girl, but it must speak for some, and I’m grateful for the opportunity this narrative gave me to exist in that challenging world for a spell. Plus, I’m a sucker for the first person, plural narrator. —Zac

7) Sonny’s Blues, by James Baldwin, 1957
Baldwin’s novel, If Beale Street Could Talk, has recently been released as a motion picture, but it’s “Sonny’s Blues” that placed Baldwin among the greatest writers of his generation and beyond. It’s a complex story of self-discovery in black America, during a time when “separate but equal,” although outlawed by the Supreme Court three years before, was still the de facto law of the land. —Joe

8) The Last Rung on the Ladder, by Stephen King, 1978
Throw aside everything you might think you know about “The Master of Horror.” The literary establishment loves to dismiss genre authors, especially if they sell well, but there’s a reason behind King’s success: strong writing. There is not a drop of horror to be found in this story. There is only heart, tears, and a resounding need to reach out to your loved ones after you read it. —Zac

9) Bullet in The Brain, by Tobias Wolff, 1995
Wolff does something in this story they tell beginning writers not to do: his main character is a complete ass, with apparently no redeeming social qualities at all. He’s such a jerk that readers can develop more sympathy for the armed bank robbers who threaten him. But by the end of this tale you may, like me, be reduced to a puddle of emotion, because at its heart this is a story about hope and dreams, and how we never completely let go of them. —Joe

10) Where are You Going, Where Have You Been? by Joyce Carol Oates, 1966
We all have that first story we read that lights up our imagination like a roman candle. This is mine; the story that made me want to be a writer. It was the first piece I remember reading that worked both as a straight-forward narrative (a harrowing one at that) and as a rich allegory. Enjoy it for its story, its language, or for its biblical and social allusions, but enjoy it you will. —Zac

BONUS STORY: The Dead, by James Joyce
We both had this one on our list, so it gets special status.
• A great candidate for the best English language short story ever written. —Zac
• I could read the ending of this story a thousand times and it would still exhilarate me. (PS: If you’ve never seen the John Huston movie based on this story, rent it.) —Joe