Tag Archives: Craft of Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Image by Press 👍👍 Love you 💖 from Pixabay

Orca Blog for November 2021 – Breaking the Rules

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

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

None of the above.

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

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

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


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


Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

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

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

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

It could be an issue of curiosity and risk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Joe Ponepinto



[1] What people used to call cancer

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

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

Orca Blog for 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