Tag Archives: creative writing

100 Stories: Reflection

Conor Barnes

Orca editors’ note: To help bring in the new year we wanted our blog to offer something inspirational to writers. Conor Barnes’s recent post on his accomplishments over the past year seemed like a perfect fit.

This year I resolved to write 100 short stories, and over eleven months I achieved it. I am absolutely pleased that I achieved it. This is a post of general reflections on the process and the results.

This all came about because I wanted to push myself as a writer, enjoy writing short stories, and was inspired by Visakan Veerasamy’s do 100 things proposal. Doing 100 things is something I would strongly recommend for anybody trying to get good at something.

I went for breadth more than for depth. I wrote about lovers and war and fools and the anxious. I wrote happy stories and sad stories. I wrote fairy tales and science fiction and literary fiction and one Chrono Trigger fanfiction. I thought they would all be microfiction, but the average length was at the higher end of flash fiction. The first one snuck in on December 12, 2021 and is one of my favourites. The last one was written on November 30 and is also one of my favourites.

I reread them frequently. This might be abnormal—but because I wrote the kind of stories I like to read, I enjoy reading them quite a bit! Simultaneously, it helps surface issues, by noticing bits that chafe on every read.

I wrote in a variety of conditions. Often in bed, sometimes at a cafe, a few on my girlfriend’s armchair, a few on a couch beside some lovely writers, a few in a notebook at a beach. Whenever possible, I used Abricotine because I find it much more pleasant than word processors, but my longest were written on plane rides on Google Keep.

The Publication Process

I started the year by publishing pieces on my blog, then I mostly settled on submitting to online magazines. Both are documented here.

I submitted 342 pieces (places usually asked for three pieces, so this actually means a bit over 100 submissions). Rejection didn’t really bother me. Much gratitude to the editors at Orca, who supplied wonderful feedback at what I think is a steal of a price.

I am not sure what comes next with my short stories. In August I decided that I had been published enough online and now wanted to just submit very deliberately to magazines. Shortly after that I was hired at 80,000 Hours though, so that slowed down significantly. What I’d like most is to publish a chapbook, so that might be my next venture alongside editing.

Level

I strongly feel that I have leveled up as a writer. Funnily, I don’t think my last piece was stronger than my first piece—but at the beginning of the year I could do one kind of voice, and now I can do many.

I worry that I have the common poet problem of assuming that readers taste the profundity I do. More generally, I want to be sure that I am generating in readers the feelings and images I am feeling. When I imagine a serpent long enough to wrap around the world, I want the reader to picture it as mysteriously and horribly as I do. I know I have improved at this, and I know I still have a long way to improve.

I am not yet the writer I want to be. I think the next step is to go for depth instead of breadth—devotedly focus on leveling up a particular style. This could be by writing a novel (I’ve had an idea percolating for years!) or by working on a few, particular short stories.

Joys

I explored questions that would otherwise have been blog posts: Would a society that defeats aging become risk-averse? If we had a Marvel-style multiverse, what would regular people do with it? I created sentences I’m still proud of. I became more attuned to the quirks and ugliness and beauty of the world.

The greatest joy has been in sharing. My girlfriend has been a lovely listener minutes after I’m done writing a piece. Friends have graciously read pieces sent as Github gists or FB messages.

Thanks

Thanks to friends who responded to entire short stories in Facebook messages. Thanks to the magazines who published me (Blink Ink and the Parliament Literary Journal even published physically!) and the editors who gave feedback. Thanks goes to the wonderful writers with whom I got to share stories. My biggest thanks go to my girlfriend for being both endlessly supportive and an excellent editor.


Conor Barnes is a Canadian writer living in Halifax. His fiction has been published in the Apple Valley Review, White Wall Review, the Metaworker Literary Magazine, and elsewhere. His poetry has been published in Modern Haiku, Frogpond, and Puddles of Sky Press.

Image by tookapic from Pixabay

The Theatricality of Creative Nonfiction

Converting Actor Advice for Writers

While writing itself may be a solo act, the resulting story is destined for an audience. Creative nonfiction combines the solo act of writing with the intensely personal experience and emotions connected to the events that actually transpired. This makes CNF uniquely susceptible to a few traps that can be examined via the lens of the theatre—a format that must always keep the audience at the forefront of every decision.

Play to the Audience

An actor’s primary goal is to convey the story to the audience from their character’s point of view. The writer’s primary objective must also be the audience, albeit the writer has a more complex angle to consider as the writer is responsible for all characters’ points of view simultaneously. How each of those characters comes across to the audience will greatly affect how they receive the overall work. While creative nonfiction primarily centers on one character, the writer must still ensure that supporting characters are multi-dimensional in order to center the readers—and not the writer—as the primary audience.

Creative nonfiction is inspired by real-world events and emotions. That is one of its greatest attractions. But  such emotional work entails some significant challenges for writers, some of which are the same as those actors face when performing emotional scenes:

Protective Mechanisms Distance the Audience

If you are focused on protecting yourself, you may miss the opportunity to create a visceral experience for your audience. When writing or performing something that is extremely personal and raw, it can be a challenge to force yourself into the headspace you occupied as the events occurred originally. In order to protect your psyche, you may pull back and share a sarcastic, arm’s length, or even toned down version of events.

If you believe you are still too close to the material, and that it still creates powerful emotions within you, it may be helpful to write down events as factually as possible and then give yourself a long enough break from the subject matter until you are psychologically ready to dive back in. Distance will likely open up fresh perspectives for your narrative.

When you do get back into the material, do not forget to give yourself mental breaks and schedule pick-me-ups and detoxes if the material is traumatic or painful. If you burn yourself out, you will naturally start to withdraw and that will serve neither you nor your narrative.

Introspection Breeds Inaccessibility

People naturally fold in on themselves when experiencing intense emotion—directing that feeling inward or at a very specific external target. An actor or a writer must open the window, so to speak, and radiate that emotion outward, making the audience complicit. Not every audience member needs to resonate with every line, but every audience member needs to resonate with some aspect for the story to land successfully. In CNF, as in acting, this can be quite a challenge because if YOU—the writer—are feeling BIG EMOTIONS then they must be there, right? In the theatre, your director and fellow actors will provide perspective on whether they feel impacted by the actor’s performance, essentially serving as editorial eyes. In CNF you may be working largely alone so you absolutely need to reach out to your writing group, mentors, editors, or trusted confidants to get an honest assessment of whether your stakes are landing with your audience, or whether you’ve got an outsized reaction to them because your personal memories and real life emotions are interfering.

Playing the Action, Not the Emotion

It may seem intuitive to write emotions such as anger or sadness by giving signifiers such as tears, raised voices, or thrown pots. However the real-world spectrum of emotion and how it manifests is far more complex, fascinating, and changeable. Actors are taught to focus on the ACTION (the profession is “actor” after all, not “emoter”) rather than the emotion as an entry point to avoid cliched behavior. This can help develop more complex characters in your writing and counteract authorial insertion by giving you an entry strategy to complex emotional scenes.

Playing the Opposite

If a scene reads as though the character should be angry, try playing them sad. If a scene reads as comical, try playing it straight. This rehearsal-room strategy does not always end up successful, but it does inform the final iteration. It can be used similarly in your writing to tease out layered reactions and behaviors in your characters that in many cases will inform your final draft even as the explorations end up on the cutting room floor.

Parting Thoughts

None of this advice is earth-shattering or new—you’ve likely heard it all in one form or another before. However, occasionally tweaking old standards to a new perspective unlocks new ways to use your existing tools. Using Stanislavski’s “Magic If” to pretend you’re an actor telling the story may help you center your audience in a new way and prevent some of the pitfalls common in CNF.

Orca Editor Renee Jackson is an actor and a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she majored in Dramatic Arts. She was a founding member of Forget Me Not Theatre in Chicago, IL, where she served as the Literary Manager.

Write Small for a Bigger Impact

Writers have to recognize and accept an essential artistic paradox that the more specific and individual things become, the more universal they feel.

That’s from an essay written by Richard Russo a couple of decades ago. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately as I read stories in the submission queue, especially those by newer writers. I can tell they want to say something profound in their fiction. Why not? If you can write something that makes readers take notice, that makes them sit up from their reading and say, “Wow, that’s so true,” it could mean publishing success is not far off. But many of these writers go about it the wrong way. Since they want to say something big and universal, they tend to write their stories in the universal. They create settings and characters that adopt the traits of universal subjects, which is to say they become flat and generalized, homogenized into composites. Sometimes the characters in such stories seem written to represent a particular side in a philosophical or social discussion. In reality, though, those “big” topics are so complex and nuanced that they can’t be described efficiently and adequately enough in a short story. The result then is a narrative filled with characters and scenes that don’t connect with readers, and a message that sounds artificial and predictable.

A beginning writer is now going to ask, “How can writing about something small illustrate the great truth I have in mind?”

First, stop worrying about conveying “great truths.” If there is a truth in your story it will become apparent in a subtle way, allowing the reader to discover it instead of being lectured about it. Better to concern yourself with the smaller truths about human nature, which are just as universal, and often far more satisfying to readers because they are easier to identify with. Let’s create an example. Imagine a reader in New York City, reading about a character in a rural setting. Their lifestyles, interests, economics are vastly different. But could there be some common ground? That rural guy feels the same way about his relationships and problems as the reader in New York does, whatever the nature of the relationships and problems may be. Describing the specific details of his existence brings those feelings to the surface, provided they are described in such a way as to connect the details to character desire and motivation.

Here’s an example from Breece Pancake’s “In the Dry”:

The front yard’s shade is crowded with cars, and yells and giggles drift out to him from the back. A sociable, he knows, the Gerlock whoop-dee-doo, but a strangeness stops him. Something is different. In the field beside the yard, a sin crop grows—half an acre of tobacco standing head-high, ready to strip. So George Gerlock’s notions have changed and have turned to the bright yellow leaves that bring top dollar. Ottie grins, takes out a Pall Mall, lets the warm smoke settle him, and minces a string of loose burley between his teeth. A clang of horseshoes comes from out back. He weaves his way through all the cars, big eight-grand jobs, and walks up mossy sandstone steps to the door.

Inside smells of ages and chicken fried in deep fat and he smiles to think of all his truckstop pie and coffee. In the kitchen, Sheila and her mother work at the stove, but they stop of a sudden. They look at him, and he stands still.

I can’t begin to tell you how foreign every detail of that passage sounds at first. I’ve never been to that part of the country, never seen a field of tobacco in person, never attended a whoop-dee-doo. (I did, however, play horseshoes with my grandfather when I was a kid.) And yet I’m right there with Ottie as he takes it in. These things are as natural and important to him as my neighborhood progressive dinners are to me, and that’s a shared experience I can identify with and learn from. Notice the vernacular: a sociable, sin crop, eight-grand jobs. Each of those terms isn’t so much a description as a way of thinking about the object—the gathering is a “sociable,” tobacco is a “sin crop”—and from that we develop an understanding of Ottie’s and his relatives’ values. I’ve never been to this place, but I can see it, and see myself in it, even though Pancake used far fewer words than most emerging writers would have.

And there’s the magic—by expressing the world in specific terms that are natural to the character, the writer creates a sense of identity not with what the character sees, but with what it means, and the fact that we all have a similar need to find value in our ways of living begins to bridge the divides of place and status and race and sexual orientation and our other surface differences. Offering those details in generalized terms that are disconnected from character doesn’t do that. That’s the real great truth of fiction—it has the potential to connect us in a way that modern media, social and otherwise, doesn’t, because it speaks to the heart of what matters, not the exterior.

– Joe Ponepinto


Photo by Nubia Navarro on Pexels

Can Writing Be Taught…Or Learned?

As promised from last month’s blog post.

Approaching this subject is always a risky proposition. I’ve seen writing teachers cancelled from their positions when their frustration with emerging writers emboldens them to say that some people cannot be taught how to write. The issue is far more complicated than that.

In my writing and editing experience I’ve noticed that it’s not so much how you grew up or where you went to school that determines your writing talent and ability, but a set of qualities or personality traits that lend themselves to a writing frame of mind. It isn’t a question of publishing success either. The publishing industry, especially now that it is controlled by corporations fixated on profit rather than quality, is not a fair barometer of writing talent. I know hundreds of people who have the ability, but haven’t had the recognition.

All of the qualities I list below can be learned. It’s certainly easier for people who are born with them to employ them in their writing, but with commitment they can be achieved. In fact, these are all traits that I believe can help people in many different pursuits in life. I tend to think of them as part of a personal growth process.

These are in no particular order, with some brief explanations:

  • Attention to detail: The kind of person who is aware of what is going on around them, and, more importantly, recognizes which ones are connected to human desire and motivation.
  • A questioning attitude: Good writers rarely take information at face value. Like good journalists, they understand there is an agenda of self-interest behind almost every statement. This is also the ability, and the desire, to look at things from a variety of different perspectives.
  • Imagination: Instead of settling for tired conventions and predictable plots, good writers ask, “what if?” What if something different happened? What are the possibilities? Imagination is often the product of planning and spontaneity.
  • Memory: A powerful memory helps writers keep the details of their work in mind as they continue to write forward, leading to plot turns that surprise and yet make sense.
  • Risk: Good writers write what they believe needs to be said, whether or not it might be published or popular.
  • Focus: The ability to turn off email and social media, to basically shut out the real world and immerse in the world of the story.
  • An understanding of character psychology: Awareness of subconscious perceptions that their characters have, and the ability to connect those perceptions to meaning for the characters.
  • An understanding of reader psychology: What engages readers? What makes them want to turn the page?
  • Selflessness: The ability to take the author out of the story, to recognize that the story and its characters are the most important things, the reader is the next important thing, and the writer (and his ego) don’t matter at all. Someone once asked Laurence Olivier what makes a great actor. Olivier responded, “The humility to prepare and the confidence to pull it off.” I see plenty of writers who have the second half of that equation, but not the first.

Notice I didn’t say intelligence. Not that this doesn’t have anything to do with writing well, but without embracing the above qualities intelligence doesn’t translate into good creative writing.

Definitely writing instruction can make a difference to someone who is truly committed to learning the craft. An experienced writing mentor, someone who understands not only good writing practice, but also can accurately assess the abilities of students in order to build their strengths and address weaknesses, can be invaluable.

Those teachers who believe that some people cannot learn writing might consider their teaching technique, not to mention their sense of privilege and their own educational opportunities, before making a judgment about their students. Maybe they are more into their own ideal of writing than helping others; perhaps it shows an insecurity about their own talent, or an inflexibility regarding what is acceptable writing style.

For their part, emerging writers should remember that writing instruction can only take a person so far. Like any form of education it is done best when its goal is to get the student to think, rather than recite—to explore and connect apparently disparate ideas in order to create an understanding of how the world actually works. That creates a foundation for good writing. But students must realize that the education process continues long after they have stopped working with the mentor, and that writing is not so much an occupation, as it is a life.

– Joe Ponepinto


Image by StarzySpringer from Pixabay

On Reading to Learn Writing

One of the more popular approaches to learning how to write well has long been to read, read, read. Some writing teachers even encourage their students to copy, word for word, passages or stories from their favorite writers as though, through osmosis, they will learn to write better.

How true is that?

It seems that by copying the words of an established writer one learns how to copy, not necessarily how to write. The same is true, maybe, about reading. The more you read, the better you become at… reading?

In an essay on the website psyche.co, titled, “How to Read Less and Think for Yourself More,” David Bather Woods, an associate professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Warwick in Coventry, UK, quotes liberally from Arthur Schopenhauer and Marcel Proust to make the case that reading should be a means to an end, but not the end itself—that what you read and how you read it are more important than the quantity of reading material.

There are many writers, some famous, who claimed that they learned to write by reading copious amounts of work by the writers who inspired them. So many that this approach has become something of a standard in creative writing circles. But Woods’s essay is more inspiring to me, personally, than any of that. I’ve never been one to want to copy anyone else’s words. And I certainly wouldn’t call myself well-read, particularly in comparison to academics who can quote by heart passages from dozens of writers in the literary pantheon. Book knowledge only translates into effective writing if the concepts learned while reading are synthesized into the reader’s existing knowledge base (which, I suspect, is what those famous writers really meant to say). Reading, whether a lot or not a lot, is only one part of that equation. Woods, using Schopenhauer and Proust to back him up, claims that too many people substitute what they’ve read for their own opinions, and that just reading more doesn’t make them any smarter. Assume that’s true for a second and apply it to emerging writers, the ones who are most susceptible to the influences of other, established writers—are they learning to write well and develop their own style, or only to write better, or are they merely killing time? The answer seems to depend on the reader’s disposition, a variety of psychological, cultural, and situational factors the reader brings to a book, and that seems to support what Woods is saying.

Woods quotes from Schopenhauer: “Reading is a mere surrogate for one’s own thinking…erudition makes most people even more stupid and simple than they already are by nature.” And, “The only way reading shapes us for writing is that it teaches us the use we can make of our own natural gifts…” Apparently Schopenhauer didn’t have much faith in the average person, particularly those who didn’t have the educational advantages he had. (He’s another author I have not read well.) But I think what he’s saying that’s helpful here is that without thoughtful analysis reading is merely an exercise in memorization, not comprehension. The information gleaned from reading is often used only to support a pre-existing belief, not to challenge that belief. (He also seems to be broaching the subject of whether some people are born to be writers while others are not. Perhaps I’ll explore that one next time.)

Proust was more poetic about it: “The supreme effort of the writer as of the artist only succeeds in raising partially for us the veil of ugliness and insignificance that leaves us incurious before the universe.” The implication is that we must do the rest ourselves, and that if we are not already curious about the universe no amount of reading is going to make us change.

I can’t help wondering how many excellent writers bristled against the recommendations that they received to read until their eyes are ready to fall out, and copy passages, and now are afraid to admit it because of the stigma the creative writing world has applied to being less well read than your department chair. While in school I slogged through many books that I found tedious and unhelpful, and which I would quickly abandon now. Others, however, had me re-reading passages asking, “How did the writer do that? How did she provoke such an emotional reaction in me?” Those books encouraged me to develop a more interdisciplinary approach, to look beyond just the words on the page and into the structure of the work, how it carefully created a foundation that primed the reader to have that reaction. They helped me begin to see how closely tied good writing is to psychology, how certain structures and words can trigger responses. That depends a lot on the individual reader’s culture, education, etc., but that’s another blog as well.

The essay does, however, dovetail nicely with what Orca wants to see in the submission queue. We love thoughtful stories that come from a unique perspective. We’d rather see a story that shows how a writer has thought through a situation, than one that mimics a plot or a style from a better known writer. We want to see the influences of great writers applied to your own way of looking at the world, more than we want to see how well you can mirror someone else’s style or perceptions.

– Joe Ponepinto

Image by Foundry Co from Pixabay

Achieving Revelation

In my MFA program, one of my mentors, Bruce Holland Rogers, often reminded students that to be effective, a story climax should be inevitable yet surprising. Readers should feel it was startling (at least a little), but also possible, based on what has happened previously. It should be a realization, an epiphany.

How does a writer take a story there?

Many writers, especially emerging writers, proceed as though the main conflict of their story is its climax. They then create a series of events that lead logically to that point. But by proceeding logically there is always the chance that the story will become predictable, and the rising action that readers expect too flat to be effective. I’ve found this to be true quite often when reading work in the submission queue. So many times my notes include things like, “I’ve seen this plot before,” or, “I know where this is going.”

In my own experience I have learned to put this approach aside in favor of one that treats a story more like an exploration, driven from the beginning through character desire and/or conflict. That main conflict is only the starting point. From there the challenge is to imagine what might happen next and how it might lead to an even greater point of tension, which has the potential to yield a more impactful revelation.* The process is like being an explorer. You have a general idea of where you want to go, but you don’t know exactly how you’ll get there or what you will encounter along the way, and you may choose to follow a tangent instead of the mapped way. The path is more exciting and never predictable. The result is often surprising. I’ve written many stories that have reached a point in which something almost magical occurs—one of my characters does something that seems completely unexpected, and yet still follows from everything that’s happened before. And if I can surprise myself, there’s a reasonable chance I might surprise readers as well.

This means making the conflict clear from the start and continuing to build the tension. Opening with conflict is a form of beginning the story in medias res (in the middle of things). It’s typically one of the first lessons creative writing students are taught, and most emerging writers have no problem doing this. But in medias res doesn’t mean start in the middle and go backward—delaying the action while the writer offers page after page of dull background information—it means start in the middle of things and go forward. Consider that the second lesson students learn is often the idea of rising action, a path of increased tension from the opening to the climax. If that’s true, then how is moving into backstory, a low-tension offering of background facts, justified?

There are many excellent examples of this technique in literature. One of my favorites is the short story “Araby,” by James Joyce (whose short stories often contain amazing epiphanies). Here’s a link to the story. This web page includes annotations by a variety of readers who help explain what Joyce is doing throughout the narrative: https://genius.com/James-joyce-araby-annotated.

To use this approach in your fiction you need a good imagination, and you need to let go of the desire to control everything your characters do in the story, and allow them to be real human beings with their own sense of self-determination. You also need to trust yourself. A good writer is never afraid to let go of a story plan if it looks like it might go someplace more interesting.  

* For more about this read Robert McKee’s Story. He talks about barriers—each barrier to a character goal yields a solution, but just as often yields another, more difficult barrier to overcome.

­– Joe Ponepinto

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Orca Blog for May 2022: Using Movies as a Guide to Storytelling

Congratulations to Catherine Gammon, who receives a one-year PDF subscription to Orca for being the first person to correctly identify the movie in the accompanying image. It is “Touch of Evil,” (1958) with Orson Welles and Charlton Heston.

There are many aspects of the movie CODA that made it the Academy Awards Best Picture winner for 2021, and I could go on for a while listing them. But one stands out as a great example of how to tell a story.

About halfway through I started to notice that the movie had not paused its forward momentum to offer background information on the characters or their situation. What? But a movie always stops somewhere to explain things. It’s one reason so many beginning writers get the idea that they need to explain everything in their short stories.

I’ve long been an advocate of using movies to foster better storytelling. In fact one of my favorite books on writing is actually a book on screenwriting, Story by Robert McKee. Good screenwriting technique is very similar to good storytelling technique, imho. Both involve a forward moving plot in which character motivation is revealed through subtext. This keeps viewers/readers engaged while simultaneously challenging them to discover motivation and meaning for themselves.

But while there are many such good practices writers can learn from the movies, there are also some bad ones. A lot of Hollywood movies are bad—just bad, absolutely atrocious examples of storytelling, relying on CGI, chase scenes, and other cliched tropes, terrified of challenging viewers to think, preferring to remake other bad movies. Even many decent movies begin with these tropes in an effort to lure in viewers. Apparently producers and directors believe that the majority of American moviegoers are too stupid to want anything more than mind-numbing visual entertainment. (That certainly seems to be where the money is.) And I’m not even talking about the parade of cartoons or cartoonish CGI flicks that are clearly designed for 12-year-old boys. Typical Hollywood opening #1: A group of people are gathered at someone’s memorial as a eulogy begins. Flashback to how we got there. (Alias: Unearned appeal to sentimentality.) Typical Hollywood opening #2: Someone is chasing someone else, either on foot or in a car, or both. (This one actually has a name, “Coming in Hot.” What is at stake? Who the hell knows? But it’s action, dammit, and audiences are mesmerized by action, even if there is no reason for it.) Consider a movie like No Time to Die, the latest James Bond flick. Once you get into it, it’s a deep exploration of a man facing betrayal and irrelevance. But how did it start? With an immediate series of explosions, car chases, and lots and lots of gunplay (which by the way is filled with its own sub tropes, such as the why can’t these highly trained killers ever hit their target?).

It’s important for writers to recognize movies that are going to help them write better as opposed to those that won’t. One way is to look for those tropes and understand when they have become cliched, or are being used inventively. Here’s a couple of websites that list some often hilarious tropes that Hollywood screenwriters get away with: 35 Movie Tropes and How to Avoid Them in Screenwriting (Industrial Scripts), and The Most Common Hollywood Movie Cliches (The National News), and one that discusses the difference between useful tropes and bad ones: Movie Tropes: Everything You Need to Know (Nashville Film Institute).

– JP

Orca Blog for April 2022 – Fiction is NOT Real Life

Our new issue is published! See the Current Issue page for details and excerpts.

We receive many stories in which the writer apparently believes that presenting the normalcy of daily life constitutes good fiction: people going through daily routines, doing their jobs, spending time with family, driving around, grocery shopping… Most emerging writers understand fiction as a representation of real life. In their writing they try to convey the lives of their characters through the events and details of the life they are familiar with. But let’s face it, most of us lead terribly boring lives. Why would anyone want to read about them?

It’s time to redefine what fiction is.

Fiction is not real life. Fiction is the illusion of real life. The difference is that it dwells in the critical moments that create meaning for people.

If you look at fiction that way, then good fiction must focus on the points of potential change in characters’ lives—points of intrigue and conflict. Doing this will immediately increase the tension and momentum of a short story. Anyone with even a basic creative writing education will recognize that I’m not saying anything new here. Great writers have been exhorting this for centuries. So how is it that so many beginning writers weigh their stories down with page after page of boring routine?

The answer, I think, is twofold. First, the American educational system is obsessed with teaching children to not be creative. It’s not just approaches like standardized testing, it’s an emphasis on conformity and accountability, which translates into the societal requirement that we at all times explain ourselves. Children are taught to write essays, works that adhere to a specific form and which rely on factual evidence to support a thesis. I remember those days, coming back from summer vacation, and our first assignment was to write an essay on how we spent those days. No teacher ever instructed me to use my imagination and write a short story about that time. I’ll wager no teacher has ever instructed a student to do that. We carry those early lessons with us into adulthood, but we have to let go of them when we write creatively. The result is fiction that reads like those grade school essays—relying on explanation instead of subtext. It’s fiction that refuses to explore character and avoids taking chances.

Second, many writers have misinterpreted the creative writing maxim about establishing their characters’ “known world.” That doesn’t mean including details of their morning bathroom routine (and yeah, I’ve seen that). I can often tell when a writer is layering mundane detail in an effort to make their characters seem like regular, identifiable people. But this also postpones the story’s tension, and that price is too great when lit journal readers are looking for the story’s hook. It also says the writer does not trust the story to increase tension as it develops. It says the writer has one idea in mind, and that’s the climax of the story, and if they reveal that right away the story will be over in a couple of pages. And so they keep the tension low, expecting the reader will slog through until the “surprise” of the climax. From an editor’s standpoint I can tell you that never works. Start your tension high and trust yourself that you can make it go even higher. Give yourself that challenge and you may be surprised at what you’re able to create—a story not just with higher tension, but also with far greater character depth because the stakes for the character have increased.

And never forget, fiction is also entertainment, no matter how serious its subject. You have to get people to want to read it. What is it about presenting a scene in which characters butter their toast and have a cup of coffee, and then head off to work that makes some writers think it is interesting to other people? Live stream my morning routine to the world and 90% of the audience will move on to something else within thirty seconds—most of the rest will be asleep. (Yes, there’s that one percent who will be engrossed. I feel sorry for them.)

Break out of writing about the normal world. People read fiction to escape their daily reality. Focus on the abnormal, the points of tension and change, and your fiction will stand out.

– Joe Ponepinto

Image by Jo-B 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?