Orca blog draft: Titling is Important or, Is Your Interview Outfit a Crumpled T-Shirt?

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

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

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

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

1. Borrow from your own content. Is there a particularly evocative line or image from the text itself? Even a line that ended up on the cutting room floor during editing could be repurposed as your title.

2. Do you have a trusted reader or editor who can help you workshop titles?

3. Think of an elevator pitch; if you had to describe what your story was about in 3-5 words, what would you say? A title that tells or hints at what the story is about can be a great choice in short fiction. Remember that your reader is often sandwiching a short story in between activities or during a commute—title shopping is more common than you’d think.

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

– Renee Jackson

Issue 6 – Winter 2021

After Vermeer, by Dina Brodsky

The Literary Issue

The Brits used to be proud of the saying, “The sun never sets on the British Empire.” Those days are long gone, thankfully, but the phrase came to mind when considering the writers featured in this new issue. Our writers this time hail from Canada, Ireland, Israel, Puerto Rico, and Australia, in addition to the continental United States. Instead of being united by subjugation, these talented people are connected by a passion for writing. So you might say the sun never sets on great storytelling.

There is movement, however glacial, toward this form of unification. It’s mostly visual and digital, but the core of it is the human need to tell and to hear stories. It is what connects us and what helps break down barriers between us. Perhaps the truth of that lies within the fact that despite our many technological advancements, so many people still take joy in writing and reading the old-fashioned way, in a simple book with words on pages.

We hope you enjoy this one.

– Joe, Zac, Renee, Marci, David, Zoë, Ronak, Lauren, Ai, and Tommy

Table of Contents (click the links for stories and excerpts)

Hunting Crows Year-Round, Phillip Scott Mandel
Love Drips and Gathers, Fiachra Kelleher
A Room for Your Name, Rolando André López Torres
Patrimony, Dave Karrel
The Leaf Queen, Caroline Fay
Barbed Wire Fence, Carl Meuser
The Edge of Elsewhere, Margaret Irish
No One Looks Up, Julia L. Offen
Kisses, Lilian Cohen
Molyneaux’s Problem, Kate Krautkramer
The Hey, Emilee Prado
Make Up the Difference, Henry Presente
About the Cover
Issue 6 Contributors

If you like what you see here, please consider purchasing a copy of the issue using the sidebar to the right. A pdf is a mere $3, and a print copy is $10.99.

Creating Tension in Your Fiction

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

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

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



Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

How to Listen to Workshop Criticism

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

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Book Review: Always Brave, Sometimes Kind

Those of us in the states tend, especially in these days of division and hyper-partisanship, to think of our neighbor to the north as a land of relative calm, where problems of oppression, race, and abuse have long since been solved. But Canada has its share of chronic ills, and in Always Brave, Sometimes Kind (Touchwood Editions), Katie Bickell illuminates those issues, particularly one of the country’s most protracted, the mistreatment of Indigenous women.

I first met this Alberta writer (virtually) through two stories she published in another journal I used to edit, Tahoma Literary Review. Both pieces were tales of life on the margins in Canada. Bickell has expanded on that theme in several other published short stories, and in this novel she’s tied them together, creating a saga that touches on the lives of her characters over the period from 1985 to the present day. Bickell’s ability to weave the original, stand-alone short stories into a novel speaks to her evolution as a writer. She has taken glimpses into an alternate reality and built them into a vivid and compelling world that few writers have, until now, understood.

Many of the stories are painful to read. They portray tales of hopelessness, born of valuelessness. The people in these pages are not so much disposable as disposed. For me, the toughest aspect to digest was the characters’ inability to move away from their present existence, even when they wanted to, and even when they have planned their escapes. Better futures seem possible at times, but these characters find themselves barred from fully engaging, forcing them to stay where they are.

Where do those barriers come from? It speaks to the power of culture to bind its members to a certain perception of self-worth, especially in relation to the larger, dominant culture of the nation. More importantly it identifies the systemic separators entrenched in Canada that make it virtually impossible to move beyond economic and cultural boundaries. The parallels to America today seem obvious, where ossified, arcane systems serve the status quo and reinforce those economic and cultural differences. When the systems become too resistant to change, progress stops. That we often don’t see it in our everyday lives is, to a certain extent, understandable. We need writers like Bickell to remind us of the injustices that lie outside our personal experience, and to prod us to take action to remedy them.

A major theme in this book is the plight of indigenous women in Canada. The issue has long been an afterthought in the country’s cultural evolution. For example, between the years 1980 and 2012, Indigenous women and girls represented 16% of all female homicides in Canada, while constituting only 4% of the female population. Statistics regarding sexual abuse and missing women among the indigenous are similarly shocking. Bickell treats this national disgrace as a part of that embedded culture.

The flaw inherent in culture is its belief that for a group to prosper, another group must not. Someone must be cast aside, left behind, and often this precept is extended to assign blame: It’s their fault for the problems between us, and their own fault for not being able to adjust.

Here is the evidence, in Bickell’s novel.

– Joe Ponepinto

Orca Blog for October: The Connection Between Literary Writing and Relativism

MFA fiction has been accused of being formulaic, flat, and cold. There are many reasons, but one I haven’t seen before is that MFA instructors are afflicted with a bad case of relativism. I’d like to explore that possibility.

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Orca Blog for September: To Avoid Rejection, Take the Writer Out of the Story

Orca’s September blog is hosted by Jane Friedman. It talks about taking the writer out of the story—one of the techniques that makes a story truly literary. It also discusses the characteristics of a story that speak to an editor’s subconscious aesthetic. Pretty important for writers who want to be published in lit journals (especially ours).

If you’re not familiar with Jane Friedman, you should be. A former editor at Virginia Quarterly Review and publisher of Writer’s Digest, she’s gone on to become one of the most knowledgeable and influential publishing experts in the business. Her email newsletter, website, and books provide writing and publishing advice helpful to writers from beginners to established pros. Jane’s newest book is The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press). You can subscribe to Jane’s newsletter on her site…after you read the blog, of course.

Big thanks to Jane for sharing the blog with a wider audience.

Here’s the link: https://www.janefriedman.com/to-avoid-rejection-take-the-writer-out-of-the-story/


Image by Karolina Grabowska from Pixabay

Orca Blog for August: Writing Politics

In our current hyper-political society, it sometimes seems as though every subject contains a political aspect. The creative writing field is particularly prone to politics—in fact it’s hard to find a literary journal or publishing house that hasn’t taken a political stand on race and social justice in the last few months, both in their public statements and in the material they choose to publish (here’s ours).

Traditionally, politics has always found an ally in the pages of creative writing. Some of literature’s classics have carried a political theme, both obvious like Animal Farm, and more subtle, such as Moby Dick. But rarely has the inclusion of politics in creative writing been as common and blatant as it is today. You only need look at the calls for submissions and published work at many literary journals to realize how popular the approach is.

A recent story published in The New Yorker titled “White Noise” by Emma Cline, forces writers to look at the issue in a modern light. The story is a fictional account of Harvey Weinstein on the day the verdict in his rape trial is to be delivered. What differentiates this story from traditional fiction is that it is completely unsympathetic to its main character, and has no other characters a reader might consider sympathetic. Anyone who’s taken a course in creative writing knows that one of the tenets of fiction is the creation of sympathetic characters—people the reader can root for. But Weinstein, since found guilty on two counts and sentenced to 23 years in prison, hardly deserves anyone’s sympathy. Instead, the sympathy in this story lies not with any particular person, but with the social awakening that exposed his activities and brought him to trial, and made him a poster boy for the sexual predators who pervade American society. In other words, the sympathy in the story is for the women Weinstein abused, and who spoke out. By extension, that sympathy could be applied toward the political movement they represent.

Either way, the sympathetic character is off camera. Cline alludes to it through her protagonist’s activities on that day, through his denial of the crimes he committed, and his obsession with the importance of his own life, to the exclusion of others.

That’s about as subtle as it gets in fiction, and serves as a good example for writers who wish to speak to current politics. Too many times our submission queue yields stories in which the writer has an obvious political agenda; characters tend to be stereotypes and narratives lean toward the polemic. A good politically-charged story will be executed through its subtext, by letting characters lead their normal lives. It’s what they do and say that then must be interpreted, in order to lead to the author’s intent.

In my book, everything good in fiction is connected in some way to subtext. Simply stated, it’s saying what you want to say without saying it—through character action and dialogue—and letting the readers figure out what it means. When they do, the realization (or resolution, in literary terms) is far more profound than if the writer explained it, because the realization  belongs to the reader, as well as (or in some cases instead of) the character.

Nothing turns the Orca staff off faster than a story with a blatant, one-sided point of view, no matter which side it’s arguing for. That kind of approach is better left to the circus of politics you can follow on news sites and social media.

Joe Ponepinto

Orca Blog for July: What We Can Say; What We Will Do

Orca’s editors (Zac, Renee, and me) have debated over several weeks what we might say about the events following the murder of George Floyd, and whether we even have anything relevant to say. We do not wish to pretend our opinions matter much to those more directly involved in the current social discourse. We also don’t wish to be perceived as merely jumping on the bandwagon of popular opinion, like all those larger entities that suddenly “stand with” us in these times of crisis. We could, and maybe should stay quiet.

When we started Orca in 2019, we envisioned the journal as a commitment to the literary style of writing. We believe that writing, especially fiction, is more than words, more than personal opinion. We believe the best writing is art, something that both transcends our daily existence and has the capacity to connect us to the existence of others. Ludwig Wittgenstein, an Austrian philosopher of the early-to-mid twentieth century, said, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” This sentiment points to the essence of literary style, and to its encouragement of the pursuit of knowledge and experience.

We also believe that any writer can compose in a literary aesthetic, and therefore that we should not have to lower our standards to accommodate popular or politically-motivated agendas. By saying this we could easily be cast as a journal of white privilege. We are an all-white staff and the majority of stories we publish are by white authors. Although we do not know the race or ethnicity of the writers who submit to us, we suspect we don’t receive many works by writers of color. What we publish is largely reflective of our literary and personal experiences and tastes, and that could easily be construed as a manifestation of white privilege. In fact, it probably is.

We are seven white people. The journal began with one person (me), but soon others wanted to become a part of it, and I was glad for the help. We did have a woman of color, but she returned to school. We do have (and had) staff members of differing sexual orientation, but we do not at present have anyone of color.

We are seven individual people, and as such we are subject to our life and cultural experiences. We can’t deny that those experiences have been and remain privileged. We can’t eliminate them, or pretend they didn’t happen, or even pretend they don’t affect us. We want to be fair. We have tried to present a journal that encompasses experience from every rational and accountable perspective, and in that regard we have been statistically successful. In our first three issues we have published writers from all regions of the U.S., and probably a dozen foreign countries. About 70 percent of what we publish is by women. But that doesn’t necessarily prove a truly diverse perspective.

A friend of Zac’s, who is an academic as well as a writer of color, said that the standards of “literary English,” while arguably problematic in their ethnocentricity, are unavoidable, and that changing those standards would be a mistake, and would likely be viewed as such by many academics in the field of racial equality.

We are happy to hear that, but not relieved.

The current social unrest exposes a disease that should have been acknowledged and treated centuries ago. Despite the childish jingoism espoused by our current president, despite all the “greats” and “exceptionalisms” and “manifest destinies,” and the calls to return to a fantasized past, America is still a nation of deep racial prejudice and, at best, only an unfulfilled promise. It is an enormous land of distance and isolation, those factors leading to ignorance, which leads to fear, which leads to tribalism, which leads to hatred and violence. The protests address the lies that keep that promise from fruition. They reveal a national frustration over our failure to solve a 400-year-old problem, and a pent-up anger at the political and economic systems that have cemented racism and discrimination into our national foundation. Our capitalist system has become corrupted beyond the Founders’ wildest nightmares, from theoretical opportunity for all, into a belief among many people that opportunity for others means less for them. It’s that myopic, zero-sum thinking that’s behind a lot of what’s happening, and which allows the one-percenters to keep hoarding, and keep laughing at the rest of us as we fight over the remaining scraps.

At Orca we want to move forward in a way that addresses both our staff’s concerns over our biases, and the fundamental inequities that plague our nation.

Zac’s academic friend has challenged us to consider what role the artists themselves play in the piece of art. When Zac mentioned that some of the staff tend to read stories blind to avoid bias, he countered that by not including the artist as a piece of their work, we are perhaps opening ourselves up to unconscious bias. This makes sense—by eliminating the writer from our judgment, a reader can only assess the work through that narrow slit of personal experience, which is too dependent on its cultural foundation.

He also said that what many people of color in any field are looking for is transparency. He said most people could and should agree that this is all a nuanced discussion, and by demonstrating that we are having these discussions internally, and by acknowledging that we too struggle with the role art plays in all of this, we are several steps ahead of most of the universities with whom he works, who are either not having the discussions at all, or instantly leap to the conclusion that they know the right path to follow.

Perhaps when dealing with unconscious bias, the best course is to address it consciously. With that in mind, here is what we will do:

  • We will expand our staff to include people of color and diverse experience.
  • We will use our educational and experiential foundations—our privilege—to awaken ourselves to the breadth of writing perspectives that exist, and to know that they have literary value; to not limit what we publish to stories we “like” or that simply reflect the values on which we were raised, or the values of the moment. We will not be afraid to challenge ourselves and our readers with work that represents the realities of other cultures, lifestyles, experiences, hopes, and imaginations—provided that work takes into account that there exists a valid spectrum of experience deserving of representation (in other words, no screeds or polemics).
  • We will achieve a necessary balance of perspectives, and still maintain our literary standards, because we also believe that writers of every background are capable of thoughtful and imaginative stories that employ language to its fullest potential. We will aim to prove it with every issue we publish.
  • We will not allow political agendas to affect our commitment. That is not about “our” truth. It is about responsible discourse.
  • We will recognize that writing is an attempt to make art, and that art is an attempt to understand not just oneself, but oneself as a part of a larger world. We will recognize that writing is, like America, an unfulfilled promise.
  • We will embrace and promote the idea that good writing involves risk.

That last idea comes from something I read a few years ago, and which has stayed with me since. It’s from a commencement speech given by the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño, in which he talked at length about writing well. Here is an excerpt:

What, then, is writing of quality? Well, what it has always been: knowing to stick one’s head into the dark, knowing to jump into the void, knowing that literature is basically a dangerous occupation. To run along the edge of the precipice: on one side the bottomless abyss and on the other the faces one loves, the smiling faces one loves, and books, and friends, and food. And to accept that fact, though sometimes it may weigh on us more than the flagstone that covers the remains of every dead writer. Literature, as an Andalusian folk song might say, is dangerous.

We will see you on the edge of the precipice.

– Joe Ponepinto

Image by Patrick Behn from Pixabay