Tag Archives: fiction

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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The End May Only Be the Beginning: Infusing New Life Into Your Fiction

A special mid-month blog by Senior Editor Joe Ponepinto, posted on publishing industry guru Jane Friedman’s site. Joe discusses a writing technique he uses to keep fiction from becoming predictable and uninspired. Big thanks to Jane for sharing this.



Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

How to Listen to Workshop Criticism

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.

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Book Review: Always Brave, Sometimes Kind

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 Blog for September: To Avoid Rejection, Take the Writer Out of the Story

Orca’s September blog is hosted by Jane Friedman. It talks about taking the writer out of the story—one of the techniques that makes a story truly literary. It also discusses the characteristics of a story that speak to an editor’s subconscious aesthetic. Pretty important for writers who want to be published in lit journals (especially ours).

If you’re not familiar with Jane Friedman, you should be. A former editor at Virginia Quarterly Review and publisher of Writer’s Digest, she’s gone on to become one of the most knowledgeable and influential publishing experts in the business. Her email newsletter, website, and books provide writing and publishing advice helpful to writers from beginners to established pros. Jane’s newest book is The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press). You can subscribe to Jane’s newsletter on her site…after you read the blog, of course.

Big thanks to Jane for sharing the blog with a wider audience.

Here’s the link: https://www.janefriedman.com/to-avoid-rejection-take-the-writer-out-of-the-story/


Image by Karolina Grabowska from Pixabay

Orca Blog for August: Writing Politics

In our current hyper-political society, it sometimes seems as though every subject contains a political aspect. The creative writing field is particularly prone to politics—in fact it’s hard to find a literary journal or publishing house that hasn’t taken a political stand on race and social justice in the last few months, both in their public statements and in the material they choose to publish (here’s ours).

Traditionally, politics has always found an ally in the pages of creative writing. Some of literature’s classics have carried a political theme, both obvious like Animal Farm, and more subtle, such as Moby Dick. But rarely has the inclusion of politics in creative writing been as common and blatant as it is today. You only need look at the calls for submissions and published work at many literary journals to realize how popular the approach is.

A recent story published in The New Yorker titled “White Noise” by Emma Cline, forces writers to look at the issue in a modern light. The story is a fictional account of Harvey Weinstein on the day the verdict in his rape trial is to be delivered. What differentiates this story from traditional fiction is that it is completely unsympathetic to its main character, and has no other characters a reader might consider sympathetic. Anyone who’s taken a course in creative writing knows that one of the tenets of fiction is the creation of sympathetic characters—people the reader can root for. But Weinstein, since found guilty on two counts and sentenced to 23 years in prison, hardly deserves anyone’s sympathy. Instead, the sympathy in this story lies not with any particular person, but with the social awakening that exposed his activities and brought him to trial, and made him a poster boy for the sexual predators who pervade American society. In other words, the sympathy in the story is for the women Weinstein abused, and who spoke out. By extension, that sympathy could be applied toward the political movement they represent.

Either way, the sympathetic character is off camera. Cline alludes to it through her protagonist’s activities on that day, through his denial of the crimes he committed, and his obsession with the importance of his own life, to the exclusion of others.

That’s about as subtle as it gets in fiction, and serves as a good example for writers who wish to speak to current politics. Too many times our submission queue yields stories in which the writer has an obvious political agenda; characters tend to be stereotypes and narratives lean toward the polemic. A good politically-charged story will be executed through its subtext, by letting characters lead their normal lives. It’s what they do and say that then must be interpreted, in order to lead to the author’s intent.

In my book, everything good in fiction is connected in some way to subtext. Simply stated, it’s saying what you want to say without saying it—through character action and dialogue—and letting the readers figure out what it means. When they do, the realization (or resolution, in literary terms) is far more profound than if the writer explained it, because the realization  belongs to the reader, as well as (or in some cases instead of) the character.

Nothing turns the Orca staff off faster than a story with a blatant, one-sided point of view, no matter which side it’s arguing for. That kind of approach is better left to the circus of politics you can follow on news sites and social media.

Joe Ponepinto