Tag Archives: Craft of Fiction

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

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

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

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.

Continue reading

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

Book Review: The Erotics of Restraint: Essays on Literary Form

In every writer’s life there are a few books about craft that have a profound and lasting influence. One of those, for me, was Douglas Glover’s The Attack of the Copula Spiders (Biblioasis, 2012), a sometimes humorous series of essays that focused on the many and frustrating beginning writers’ mistakes he has endured as a college creative writing professor. His advice has cured many budding writers of their bad habits, and shown them the difference between sloppy, unfocused writing and clear, accurate, meaningful prose.

At the far end of the writing spectrum, though, is a world that only a few writers and critics understand, and Glover, a prominent Canadian writer and teacher, shows his mastery of this aspect of literature as well in his latest collection of essays, The Erotics of Restraint: Essays on Literary Form (Biblioasis, 2019).

Here the writing is focused primarily on author intent and technique, rather than the basics, and Glover chooses some of literature’s greats from which to draw his observations: Alice Munro (of course), E. Annie Proulx, Jane Austen, Albert Camus, and others. He puts these writers under his microscope to explore the foundations of form and meaning.

It has always struck me, though, that the basis of form is recursion, which has its roots in rhythm, eros, and memory (memorization), and that the basics of form extend back in human history, long, long before the invention of writing and our current state of historical understanding. We’ve been writing down stories since the Sumerians. Prior to that, for tens of thousands of years, we told them over hearth fires, accompanied perhaps by drums, flute, and lyre, dance or call-and-response chants (you can imagine all the possibilities because many cultures still deploy such rhythmic performances today). That’s a hundred thousand years or more of storytellers and audience practicing together, hammering out form and response in an endless feedback loop, which, one speculates, has hardwired the brain. The reader knows without knowing.[1]

Who benefits from something this detailed and admittedly arcane? The casual reader—even many practiced writers, I think—will ask this question after a few pages, and will likely keep asking it the longer they read. Who needs to know that Plot = (d/r) + (d/r) + (d/r) time>>>[2] apart from a few academics whose careers hinge on the ability to generate this stuff? After all, most writers will say, writing is about understanding character and sympathy. It’s created in the imagination, in the soul. Writing, say those who don’t care to examine at this depth, is intuitive. It’s form from the formless, something like the creation of the universe—or alchemy (and it’s fascinating to listen to these writers try to explain the genesis of a story they’ve written).

But really, from where does this intuition come? Every writer has a core of cultural and experiential knowledge on which their stories and their outcomes are based. These factors influence every work, every sentence, even if the writer isn’t aware it’s happening during the creative process. And if that’s true, who’s to say we can’t add to that knowledge base and therefore begin our fiction from a more enlightened place? Where might we go from there?

That’s the value of Glover’s essays. His deep analysis of great works of fiction is more like the study of, say, quantum physics: the details are fascinating, and on the surface they don’t seem to have any purpose in one’s daily life. And yet, comprehending the underpinnings of our existence in relation to the evolution of storytelling creates perspective that leads to mindfulness, an understanding of what resonates in the human psyche—what words, what phrases, what desires. If a writer can assimilate the knowledge within Glover’s essays—to know it without consciously thinking of it while writing—it empowers her to create works of deeper, more effective meaning, works that engage on both conscious and subconscious levels.

I’m tempted to say that this is not a book for the beginning writer. The concepts discussed are complex, and the examples Glover uses to illustrate his essays are among the most deeply psychological and nuanced in the literary canon. And in fact if a writer is looking for nothing more than formulaic nuts and bolts advice, or a fuzzy sense of encouragement, then there are hundreds of how-to-write primers on the market. But isn’t the goal of writing to produce work akin to the quality of the authors analyzed in these essays? If the answer is yes, then I take it back—dive in, immerse, understand as much as you can, and trust that Glover’s expertise is moving you closer to that goal.

– Joe Ponepinto


[1] –From Glover’s analysis of Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain” in “Anatomy of the Short Story” (page 81).

[2] d = desire; r = resistance. And in Glover’s analysis, each successive instance of desire in a story is more profound than the one that came before. (page 29).

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