Anyone who’s taken a class in creative writing has probably heard the term “rising action.” Essentially it’s a series of events related to the main plot that increases the tension or suspense of a story until the climax and resolution. It’s one of the aspects of good fiction that draws readers in and keeps them engaged. It fills readers’ psychological need for increased complexity and meaning.Continue reading
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.
If you ask people what’s wrong with a story, chances are they will find something. That’s the default in some critique groups, the subconscious premise that often drives the members’ comments: you have given us this work to analyze, therefore there must be something wrong with it.Continue reading
Those of us in the states tend, especially in these days of division and hyper-partisanship, to think of our neighbor to the north as a land of relative calm, where problems of oppression, race, and abuse have long since been solved. But Canada has its share of chronic ills, and in Always Brave, Sometimes Kind (Touchwood Editions), Katie Bickell illuminates those issues, particularly one of the country’s most protracted, the mistreatment of Indigenous women.
I first met this Alberta writer (virtually) through two stories she published in another journal I used to edit, Tahoma Literary Review. Both pieces were tales of life on the margins in Canada. Bickell has expanded on that theme in several other published short stories, and in this novel she’s tied them together, creating a saga that touches on the lives of her characters over the period from 1985 to the present day. Bickell’s ability to weave the original, stand-alone short stories into a novel speaks to her evolution as a writer. She has taken glimpses into an alternate reality and built them into a vivid and compelling world that few writers have, until now, understood.
Many of the stories are painful to read. They portray tales of hopelessness, born of valuelessness. The people in these pages are not so much disposable as disposed. For me, the toughest aspect to digest was the characters’ inability to move away from their present existence, even when they wanted to, and even when they have planned their escapes. Better futures seem possible at times, but these characters find themselves barred from fully engaging, forcing them to stay where they are.
Where do those barriers come from? It speaks to the power of culture to bind its members to a certain perception of self-worth, especially in relation to the larger, dominant culture of the nation. More importantly it identifies the systemic separators entrenched in Canada that make it virtually impossible to move beyond economic and cultural boundaries. The parallels to America today seem obvious, where ossified, arcane systems serve the status quo and reinforce those economic and cultural differences. When the systems become too resistant to change, progress stops. That we often don’t see it in our everyday lives is, to a certain extent, understandable. We need writers like Bickell to remind us of the injustices that lie outside our personal experience, and to prod us to take action to remedy them.
A major theme in this book is the plight of indigenous women in Canada. The issue has long been an afterthought in the country’s cultural evolution. For example, between the years 1980 and 2012, Indigenous women and girls represented 16% of all female homicides in Canada, while constituting only 4% of the female population. Statistics regarding sexual abuse and missing women among the indigenous are similarly shocking. Bickell treats this national disgrace as a part of that embedded culture.
The flaw inherent in culture is its belief that for a group to prosper, another group must not. Someone must be cast aside, left behind, and often this precept is extended to assign blame: It’s their fault for the problems between us, and their own fault for not being able to adjust.
Here is the evidence, in Bickell’s novel.
– Joe Ponepinto
Orca’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.
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
Lately I’ve been rejecting a lot of fiction submissions written in the first-person point of view. So many that I’ve begun to ask why—what is it about these stories that’s turning me off?*
First-person has long been an excellent choice for conveying a character’s individual view of the world. Examples like James Joyce’s “Araby,” Amy Hempel’s “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried,” and Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral” are classics that quickly come to mind. More recently some of George Saunders’s stories as well.
When done well, first person offers a glimpse into a character’s inner psyche. But remember that it’s also often referred to as the unreliable narrator; that psyche is tempered by motivations and long-buried embarrassments, which are suppressed in the name of ego, the image a character presents to the rest of the world. That person’s past is usually revealed through the story’s subtext, the signs and symbols within action and dialogue that serve as illumination of the character’s soul, and place it in relation to the reality that surrounds it.
That conflict between characters’ inner and outer worlds—how they relate to other people and experience growth—seems to be missing in some of what comes in through our submission portal. The result, especially when presented in first-person, are stories that exhibit a deliberate ignorance of the world. They are self-indulgent, sometimes self-aggrandizing. And for sure, they lack subtext.
First-person is, on its surface, the easiest POV to write. Just adopt a persona and a situation, and off you go. Maybe that’s why we get so many. No need to worry about other characters too much, since the story is about this one person. I think that’s the problem, though. One of the attractions of stories written in third-person POV is their world building. The characters are part of a world, not isolated from it. They must react to its demands, relate to other characters—in short, participate. So many of the first-person stories we get seem to want to escape from that. They seem narrow, limited, not fully formed.
Some of this seems to be a function of our times. In a culture in which every person is encouraged to express his or her inherent “specialness,” it’s easy for writers, especially younger ones, to misinterpret that to mean to the exclusion of others.
One writer who I admire, Rachel Cusk, has shown how the opposite of self-indulgence can make first-person POV truly work. In her Outline trilogy (Outline, Transit, Kudos) she has created a first-person narrator who remains primarily in the background, letting other characters tell their stories, and barely even reacting to them. It’s incredibly refreshing to read these novels, in which Faye (the POV character) acknowledges the world and perhaps more importantly, her place in it.
It seems that such engagement with the world is what’s needed now, both in fiction and reality. You have to live in the world. So do your characters. Give them the opportunity to do that and maybe your first-person story will find its way into our pages.
– Joe Ponepinto
*Note: I am aware that writing a blog about the shortcomings of the first-person POV in first-person POV is something of a literary oxymoron. But it seems unavoidable, since the nature of a blog is opinion. So bear with me.
How much did I enjoy the stories in Nancy Au’s new collection, Spider Love Song and Other Stories? I’ll put it this way: I had published the title work when I was fiction editor of Tahoma Literary Review a couple of years ago, and being a typically overworked, under-motivated editor, I reasoned I could save some time by skipping that story (it is a long one, about twenty-five pages) since I’d read it before. But when I came to it about halfway through the book, I scanned the opening paragraphs, and was immediately back into its pages, and read it with as much fascination as the first time.*
Such are the stories throughout this collection, Au’s first. They’re filled with what might be called emotional intrigue: no flat characters, every one of the people who populate her fictions unique and unusual in the way we all can be, and it’s a remarkable talent to both recognize that trait and be able to inhabit the minds of such a diverse cast.
From this there spawns no end of plots, all relatively simple in their progression, yet deeply complex in their characters’ psyches and interrelationships: In “The Unfed” an old and toothless woman recounts the deaths of neighbors in her rural town who sought magical ways to rebuild a mountaintop destroyed by a mining company. “The Richmond” focuses on a young girl who tries to convince her mother to move to a more upscale area of San Francisco. And there’s the title story, regarding a girl whose parents have gone missing (the result of foul play or abandonment no one knows), who lives with her eccentric grandmother and copes with her loss by regarding the world from inside an elephant costume.
Conclusions? Revelations? Not of the traditional or genre sort. Instead each tale comprises something like a visit to the home of an acquaintance, only made during those times which are typically private. Pull up a chair and observe.
Once you leave, of course, their lives continue; new problems, surely, will occur for these people, and while we don’t know what they are and how they’ll play out, we can know how they’ll try to deal with them. Ultimately, that’s all we really need to know about a person.
* Disclaimer: A few months after initially publishing the story my wife and I had the opportunity to meet Nancy and her husband in San Francisco for lunch, and I would now consider her a friend. That may influence my opinion about the book, but I suspect I’d be convinced of its excellence had we never met. Acre Books (connected to the august Cincinnati Review) doesn’t publish just anything.
– Joe Ponepinto
The short answer is when journals and contests are looking for good stories. Theoretically that’s whenever they are open. But the real answer is far more nuanced. And for a writer, that means there are certain times during reading periods in which you can improve your chances of publication.*
Let’s look at this situation from the other side of the fence—from within a journal’s organization. I’ve been editing literary journals for several years now, and have noticed definite patterns and trends when it comes to submissions. And I know from that experience the timing of a submission can influence its potential acceptance.
First, let’s eliminate the possibility that your story is so good that it won’t matter when you submit it. Instead let’s assume that your story is good enough to be published, somewhere in the top five percent of submissions received. Considering that most established literary journals accept less than two percent of their submissions (and usually it’s less than one percent), you still face significant odds. So here are a few things to keep in mind as you prepare to submit.
Typically when a reading period opens there is a spike in the number of submissions. This may be because writers missed the last submission period and have been waiting for a journal to reopen. At this point in the reading process a good story will be noted, but then it has to sit for the remainder of the submission period. In that time (and remember we are talking about good, publishable, but not necessarily spectacular stories) it will likely be pretty much forgotten until it’s time for the editors to consider which pieces are actually selected for the next issue.
After that initial rush, there is usually a lull. Submissions trickle in at a pace of a few a day. The good ones received during this time are also noted for consideration at the end of the period.
Approximately halfway to three quarters of the way through the submission period, if no spectacular stories come in, the editors may begin to worry that they don’t have enough great stories to fill the next issue. (This is not an absolute rule, of course, but it is something that I have seen quite often.) I’ll get back to this time in a minute.
The final two weeks of a reading period see the greatest number of submissions by far. Sometimes as many as half the final total come in during that time, as writers rush to beat the deadline. The final week often sees a tremendous rise in the number of submissions, as writers (being writers, I suppose) react to a hard deadline. But those submitters may not be aware of the increased odds they face in getting their stories published. Consider that readers for literary journals are usually faced with hundreds of submissions that have come in during the final weeks. Each needs to be evaluated in a compressed period of time, since the editors must make decisions about the content of their next issue under their deadlines. The readers—usually unpaid volunteers who must also find time for their paying jobs or school studies—have to read and decide quickly. The general thinking can be summed up like this: we already have a lot of good stories to consider, so I need to see something spectacular before I pass it on. Is it fair to assume they may not give each story adequate time to develop before they make that call? That’s for each individual writer to determine for herself. But as someone who understands the workload during this time, my advice is to not give a reader a chance to dismiss you after only a couple of sentences.
So let’s get back to that third quarter of the submission period. That’s the time when editors look at their submission queue and may begin to wonder if they have enough quality material to produce the next issue. If they believe they don’t, a feeling of concern begins to set in. Will we make it? Will we receive the kinds of stories we are looking for, and are known for? And where will they come from? This is when, if they receive a very good story, they may start to worry that if they don’t accept it right away, another journal might steal it away from them. Some journals, Orca included, will accept that story rather than take a chance it gets away. It’s also the time when good stories have a better chance of remaining fresh in their minds when they sit down to make their final selections. The sense of excitement attached to such stories is greater than that for the good ones that came in at the beginning of the reading period, simply because it’s easier to remember them.
You may want to consider making the third quarter of a reading period your target for submission. If you have a quality story that deserves publication, it may just improve your chances. Even if it only gives your story a slight boost, that may be enough to see it in print.
– Joe Ponepinto
*A quick disclaimer: Not every journal follows the path I’ve laid out above. Some have specific policies about how their reading periods and acceptances are structured—these are generally well-established journals that receive many thousands of submissions, giving them a much larger talent pool. For the hundreds of other literary journals, however, especially those that haven’t been publishing for many years, this assessment may apply.
Avoiding Clichés (Dark, Stormy and Other Lessor Discussed Banalities)
All writers know the cliché: “It was a Dark and Stormy Night…” and we all know not to use it (with the exception of Edward Bulwer-Lytton and Snoopy’s alter-ego, The World Famous Author). It has become so cliché, that the only acceptable time for the words dark and stormy to be uttered in conjunction with each other is when ordering a cocktail (2oz dark rum, 3 oz ginger beer, 0.5 ounces fresh-squeezed lime juice, on ice; stir well), but in belaboring that one trope, we have all ignored a host of other equally tired lines, plot devices, and story openings. Every submission period, publishers all over the country see the same clichés, roll their eyes, and pass on otherwise solid works of fiction. It doesn’t matter if you’re a first time writer or an experienced professional, it is a trap into which we all fall, and one this blog will attempt to help you prevent in the future.
So here are some of the worst offending clichés we’ve seen this month and some suggestions as to how to best avoid them:
1) The clichéd opening. We’ve already touched on how to best engage your reader (and a publisher) in our May blog, but it’s worth being more direct since we see the same, stale openings time and time again (at last count, the openings on the following list account for about 25% of our submissions, so if you’re looking to stand out to us, or any publisher, you must avoid these:
Do not start your story with:
- A funeral
- A character waking up or starting their mundane day
- The break up of a relationship
- An accident / assault or its immediate aftermath
- A narrator reflecting on, or worse, describing him/her/their self in a mirror.
- A corollary to the above, a character looking at a photograph
- Two people driving in a car to someplace they’ve never been, while trying to make sense of their relationship.
- The above not specific enough for you? How about the dozen stories we receive every submission period that begin with phrases like “By the time…,” “Ever since…”, etc.
Do start your story with
- Present, in the moment action
- Character desire
- Something that you can honestly tell yourself is unlikely to be repeated by another author in that month’s submission pile
2) Plot devices. While it is entirely possible that any one of the following plots could be anchored by strong writing and a refreshing take on the subject matter, if its the third time a publisher has read a story with the exact same stakes as yours, what are the chances your genius will be recognized?
Do not write about
- A Love Triangle (especially a middle-aged one revolving around academics. This is 2019 literature, not a 1970s Woody Allen retrospective)
- Abusive parents
- A loner trying to make sense of a chaotic world
- A teacher dealing with troublesome children
- Kids dealing with mom’s/dad’s new lover
- Coping with a parent who has Alzheimer’s/cancer, etc
- Urolagnia (Look it up if you dare. Don’t believe us if you want to… but we’ve had four stories so far about this very subject)
- And the always popular, I ran over a (insert animal of your choice) with my car/ truck and must nurse it back to health for deeper reasons than guilt, which I only realize by the end, through the perspective of the natural world and my own selfless actions.
Do write about literally anything else. Seriously, we aren’t pulling these examples out of thin air; these are all very real clichés and are culled from stories we read all the time. And the more we read them, the less likely we are to publish them, regardless of quality.
3) Sexism. Lastly, a cliché that should definitely not be, but one that has become an unwelcome virus plaguing many of our submissions. While sexism this can come in many forms, and all of them are worth discussing in a more serious forum than a monthly blog, the one we see most often is male writers writing about women, poorly, and with little empathy.
- Write two dimensional female characters
- Attribute traditionally masculine traits to a woman to make her seem tough (although this works for some characters, authors seem to forget that many of the traditionally feminine traits can be just as empowering, forceful, and commanding.)
- Sexualize a female character’s actions (by making specific references to her body)
- Sensationalize anything that involves the sadistic abuse and/or murder of female characters. There’s a time and a place for violence in many stories, but trust us, we can tell the difference between craft and your own personal, dark fantasies and we don’t want to read them (see also: Urolagnia).
Do write your female characters as complex, as imperfect, as empathetic and as real as you do your male characters. In 2019 so it seems ridiculous to even have to call these sexist tropes out, but until we stop seeing the above clichés in every fourth submission, we’re going to keep preaching.
Strive for originality, it’s what our art is (and has always been) about. Be original and you will definitely see an uptick on your acceptances. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a story to write:
“It was a dark and stormy night, the funeral was well underway, and we were all about to be introduced to Urolagnia for the first time…”
Actually, if you can start a story like that last line, and somehow dig your way out of that horrible hole and into a worth-while piece, go for it! Every publisher who doesn’t immediately pass after the first sentence will be impressed.
Hopefully this blog was a helpful reminder. Because if not we just made our journal show up on a lot of “Urolagnia” web searches for no good reason.