Tag Archives: fiction

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

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

Who Do You Write Like?

Once upon a time a few years ago I submitted a few paragraphs to some online thing called I Write Like that claimed to be able to tell which famous writer one wrote like. That time the answer came back H.P. Lovecraft. Dear God. Pompous and wordy, a writer of hackneyed fantasy/horror. Moi? The literary critic Edmund Wilson said of Lovecraft’s work, “The only real horror in most of these fictions is the horror of bad taste and bad art.”

Must have been faulty software. Later, reviews of my novel Mr. Neutron compared the style to David Foster Wallace’s Broom of the System, and to Thomas Pynchon. Yeah, that’s more like it.

I tried again recently; put in a few paragraphs from a recent short story and got Anne Rice. At least it’s an improvement. I was hoping for Sebald, though.

Of course none of this really matters. Although emerging writers are encouraged to read established authors, and even to copy out passages from them in order to imbue the craft within their developing minds, ultimately you write like who you are. Your experience, your education, your preferences, your repressed emotions eventually come through, and if they appeal to readers you’ll have some success as a writer. Trying to copy the style of a famous writer rarely leads to success, and it’s insincere, not only to the public, but to yourself. At Orca, nothing is more refreshing than to read a submission by a writer who is confident in her voice.

But just for fun, here’s that link again: I Write Like. Feel free to post your result in the comments.

– Joe P.

Lovecraftian image by Waldkunst from Pixabay

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?

Orca Blog for September – After One Month in Book Publishing

One month into our book publishing venture, 55 Fathoms Publishing, and one thing has become remarkably clear: there are a lot of writers out there who can tell a great story and deserve to have their books published. I know that sounds simplistic, and possibly pollyanna-ish, but sometimes the simple thing has to be said. That’s because in the never ending quest for publication, in the dozens, hundreds, often thousands of rejections a good writer receives in the course of a career, it’s easy for writer to think that they can’t write very well and that they don’t deserve publication.

Although we will probably only publish two or three of the hundreds of talented writers who will have submitted to us by the end of the year, we want you to know that if the market were different, and if the finances were different, we would probably want to publish quite a few of you.

When you think about it, it’s quite unfair. There is always room for another lawyer or another doctor. There is always room for another teacher or paramedic. There is not a lot of room for good writers.

From these simple facts some other things are pretty obvious, but I don’t want to get too deep into the conversation about how most of America doesn’t read very much, or at all, or the comic irony that most Americans would really like to write a book even though they don’t read. Those of us who would love to write for a living—and by this I mean actually write and not teach and review and blog and edit other people’s work—know that there is very little room for us.

I know that it’s similar among some creatives—actors and musicians and dancers and comedians—but it’s not quite the same because a writer must write alone. There’s no group to work things out with, there’s no audience on which to try a new routine. A writer (more like a composer or a painter) performs in isolation. That feeling of being on, and totally focused, comes only when there is no one else to appreciate it. The praise or criticism that comes later is detached from the experience of writing; it is a separate aspect that I consider more a part of the business of writing.

This is where the blogger is supposed to turn into the coach and offer the encouragement that appeals to the writer’s hope—that boundless vessel of possibility—the one that keeps writers writing in the belief that if they work hard enough and long enough someone will notice, someone with the means to publish their stories. For some this eventually comes true. For most it does not. So I’m not going to say it. Instead I’m going to say that from us to you, we know you are there. Even though we can’t publish as many of you as we would like, we know you have the talent and the drive. And we are with you in mind, in practice, in spirit.

– Joe Ponepinto

Orca Blog for July 2021: Developmental Revision for Short Fiction

Please check out our new Literary-Speculative issue, featuring debut fiction by Neil deGrasse Tyson and Avis Lang.

by Matthew and Lauren Voeltz
Artwork by Matthew Voeltz

For newer writers, the revision process might seem elusive. A writer might shift a line, or change one word for a better word, but not address the real issues hindering the story. Often, writers miss both developmental flaws and grammar errors in early drafts, and revision is a way to combat this weakness. Revision is difficult because it involves objective evaluation. This guide will give you checkpoints, moving from the foundational story elements to the miniscule ones, so you can systematically revise your stories and make them shine.

Let’s Make a Cake!

Let’s think of your story as a multi-tiered cake. Each layer builds upon the next to create a satisfying dessert.

LAYER ONE: Prepare Your Perspective

  • Take a Break from Your Work

Revision means “re-see.” The only way to re-see something is to step away from it. Doing so will make the work feel less permanent. (I advise taking at least a day off per written page.) After a break, you will see the work differently; you will become more objective, noticing problems you missed before.

  • Reread the Story
  • Make a New Revision Document

Open a new document or get a blank sheet of paper. We’ll call this your “Fix It” list. As you go through these next questions, add any issues to the list. I’ve added footnotes for further explanation. I’ve written the questions in a way, so that each answer should be yes. If it’s no, then add the item to your “Fix It” list.

LAYER TWO: Characters

  • Your Main Character…. To evaluate, answer these questions:
    1. Does your character have a clear goal?
    2. Does your character have something to gain or lose if they do not meet their goal? If there are no stakes, it is difficult to make the reader care about your character.
    3. Is your character relatable? Does the reader understand why the character is acting the way they are?
    4. Is your character distinctive? Do they have memorable traits?
    5. Does your character change throughout the story? This can be as small as a realization, or it could be a decision. If not, does something change for them that is out of their control?
  • Supporting Characters

(Note: If you don’t have a secondary character in your story, skip to layer three)

  1. Does your secondary character add to the story either by increasing conflict or contrasting with the main character? Contrast is a way to solidify your main character in the reader’s mind. It’s the nature of contrast, really; orange looks more orange against blue.
  2. Does your secondary character feel real? Secondary characters must have their own traits, and their own goals to avoid them feeling like cardboard cutouts.

LAYER THREE: Conflict

  • Compelling Conflict
    1. Does your character have strong obstacles in the way of their goals? (It might help to list them.) Sources of conflict include intrapersonal, interpersonal, environmental, and societal.
    2. Has your character worked hard to overcome their obstacles? Don’t make their lives too easy or their accomplishments handed to them. It eliminates a reader’s tension, and tension is what compels them to keep reading.
    3. Does your character have agency? Your protagonist should be proactive, not standing around and waiting for their goals to be met with no effort. Can you list what they are doing to achieve their goals?

LAYER FOUR: Scenes

  • Scene Construction
    1. Have you established where and when your character is at the beginning of each scene? It might help to list the scenes and evaluate each.
    2. Do the scenes progress over time? (Day, rainy to afternoon to evening, etc.)
    3. Does your plot come from your character’s decisions and their obstacles? The character’s behavior should be consistent, and the plot should be causally linked and not random or a result of author convenience.
    4. Are the important scenes fleshed out with dialog, action, and setting? In early drafts, writers sometimes summarize the most interesting parts of a story. This is a mistake. The best way to immerse the reader and slow the pace is to add sensory details to your most important scenes. (Scene summaries are best used for fast transitions or when nothing happened in a certain time frame, and the writer just needs to convey information quickly. This could indicate the passing of time when nothing substantial occurs).
    5. Does your scene center around the conflict? Avoid telling the reader things they don’t need to know. Backstory pulls a reader out of the story and slows the pace. Often, backstory can be slipped into the present story seamlessly. Trust your reader.
  • Missing or Unneeded Scenes[1]
    1. Do you have all the scenes you need for a solid and logical character arc?
    2. Do you have only necessary scenes?

LAYER FIVE: Dialog & Description

  • Dialog
    1. Have you avoided dialog that’s too on the nose? In real life, people don’t usually say exactly what they are feeling. Your characters should not either. If your character is hiding something, have their actions differ from their words. Readers will read between the lines. This is called subtext and is particularly important for literary fiction, if not all writing.
    2. Does your character’s voice seem apropos to who they are?
    3. Is your dialog precise? (Avoid extra wordiness, dialog in fiction should have snap, not drone on, with extra words such as like or just.)
    4. Do your characters tell each other unknown things? Don’t use dialog to tell the characters things that they already know, so that your readers do. This reads as awkward and can be cheesy.
    5. Is it easy to tell who is speaking?
    6. Have you used “said” for dialog tags? Said is preferred by editors for its invisibility in the prose. Use your characters actions and dialog to portray emotion instead of unique dialog tags.
  • Descriptions[2]
    1. Do you describe things with purpose?
    2. Are you using all five senses? (Tip: color code your text, one color for each sense, to see this more visually.)
    3. Is there enough description for readers to get a sense of the world?

CONCLUSION & NEXT STEPS

On a final note, as you go through your stories, creating your revision list, you might notice personal patterns/tendencies. Over time, you will probably find some of these things aren’t issues for you. This is a normal part of the process. The revision process itself is revised and improved, based on our own skill sets and personal habits. The writer’s ultimate goal should be to incorporate these steps into their storytelling, so they become a subconscious part of the process. In time, this will happen if a writer keeps working to improve their craft, keeping these questions in mind.

Learn what works the best for you. After you’ve worked through these steps, your items should be arranged from biggest task to smallest, and you can begin working on fixing the issues in your story. (If they aren’t quite large to small, order-wise, feel free to tweak your list). After, you will be ready to approach beta readers or critique partners. If the feedback you receive is positive, feel free to move to the top tiers—digging in with some line editing and polishing.

Now, you can have your cake and edit, too! -Matt

To learn more here’s a few recommended books:

  • Revision: A Creative Approach to Writing and Rewriting Fiction by Kaplan
  • Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Brown and Dave King
  • A Swim in the Pond in the Rain by George Saunders

[1] Often, writers have movement and repeated ideas in each scene, but a good writer will vary them, at least slightly. In A Swim in The Pond in The Rain by George Saunders, he breaks down the story “The Darling”, written by Anton Chekov. Saunders calls this a pattern story. In each section, the main character, Olenka, falls in love. However, each time she falls in love, it’s not the same. Little details change. Chekov changes how long Olenka mourns, who she marries, how long they were together, and what kind of relationship she has. It’s important for the story to keep moving. If two scenes take a character from semi-sadness to semi-happiness, and their status is changing in the same way, consider intensifying your conflict, altering it, or only keeping the best scene.

[2] A writer submerges the readers in a character’s reality by first showing the character’s sensory experiences, and by showing the character’s interiority—what they think and how they feel through the way they describe things and what they pay attention to. Say the writer wants to convey the character’s sadness. What would a dejected person focus on? Showing their interiority can be done through body language and action as well as description. What does a sad person do? What does your specific character do when they are sad?

Header Image by Lorenzo Cafaro from Pixabay

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

Creating Tension in Your Fiction

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

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