Tag Archives: fiction

Book Review: Spider Love Song and Other Stories

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

Orca Blog for October: It’s All in the Timing: When’s the Best Time to Submit?

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.

Orca Blog for September: Clichés

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
  • Intrigue
  • Drama
  • Plot
  • 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.

Do not

  • 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…”

– Zac

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.

Photo credit: shannonkringen on Visualhunt.com CC BY-SA

Orca Blog for July: Watching a Movie Like a Writer

Quote of the Week: Story is born in that place where the subjective and objective realms touch. – Robert McKee in Story

As much as I try to educate writers about writing through writing, I have to acknowledge that we live in a visual world. I found this painfully true in the last week when I had to replace a lawn sprinkler. The instructions for adjusting the direction and strength of the spray had zero words—just a pictograph of tools and controls and arrows—which I found so confusing that after ten minutes I was shouting, Just give me the words!

This seems to be how most people live now; they understand and think through image, not words or concepts. Even some writers understand writing better through images. And I believe most writers can benefit from the visual aspects of the storytelling craft.

Visual media has a power to make us better writers, because our brains interpret it in a different way from writing. (And keep in mind that a primary goal of writing is to create an image in the mind of a reader.) It’s more organic, and doesn’t rely on our ability to translate words into images. Words link to us through a system of logic (sometimes called language) that requires an exact understanding of the meaning of words and how they are used. The visual often has a direct link to the emotional state of the viewer. There’s no need to parse meaning to create images—that part is done for you, and allows for immediate identification with the characters in the story.

Writers need to know both ways of communicating. Which is why I believe writers should watch movies to become better writers—not watch them as fans, but as students and critics.

The first book about writing that I read was not really a book about writing. Instead it was a book about screenwriting: Story by Robert McKee. Both the book and the author are regarded among the best in teaching the craft of screenwriting. Not surprisingly, the techniques described in the book work just as well for writers of fiction.

McKee deals primarily with how a movie script can create images that engage the viewers’ emotions. It discusses the momentum of a story and character building, aspects of writing that serve both genre and literary writers. He describes, for example, how tension is created and maintained through a series of inciting incidents and turning points, and how that tension is heightened by creating gaps between the viewer’s (reader’s) expectation and the actual results of actions.

Learning these techniques, and reinforcing them while watching movies, can help a lot of writers break bad habits in their work. Notice for example, how a good movie soon presents a scene that contains some tension requiring a character choice (inciting incident). Take The Hunger Games for example (which of course was based on a book). It jumps right into the first inciting incident, when Katniss must choose whether to let her little sister be drafted into the combat (where she’ll surely die), or volunteer to take her place. It doesn’t start with a leisurely description of the dystopian world in which they live (as so much poor writing would). It allows the viewer to become part of that world by simply being in it.

Sometimes, when I’m watching a movie at home and I view a scene that works particularly well, I’ll stop and rewind a bit, to understand how the screenwriter and director set it up. Usually they’ve planted elements earlier in the plot that establish motivation or provide a critical clue to what comes later, even though those things aren’t apparent at first. Watch enough of them, and you’ll start to notice them when they first appear, especially in the bad movies. Then, like me, you can watch Hunger Games 3: The Mockingjay, and demand your money back when the evil new president stands directly behind and above the old president so when Katniss aims her bow to execute the old one, all she has to do is raise it a few degrees to kill the new one instead. (It would have been poetic justice if they’d had the screenwriter or director stand up there.)

Anyway, read Story. Watch movies. Don’t forget the red vines.

– JP

K. at Liberation: An Interview with David Southard

“As Najwa Karim awoke one morning from a troubled sleep she found herself transformed in her bed into Franz Kafka. She did not know this name, this face, this body, not then, of course; that came later, after the riots and arrest and torture.”

The opening lines of Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” are some of the most famous in the history of literature, so to adapt them for a modern novella is, at best, a risky proposition, subject to the criticism of purists as well as pundits. And to make the protagonist a woman, in fact a Muslim woman, is about as risky as a white male author can get in today’s politicized literary climate. But to read David Southard’s K. at Liberation is to read a work in which identities are subjugated to ideas, and labels are rendered unimportant while exploring an individual’s role in a larger society. There are truths that go deeper than what’s discussed in popular culture, and Southard is not afraid to uncover them. In that regard the risk taking never stops. Southard’s narrative challenges throughout. At 90 pages, it’s a fast, but engrossing read.

Najwa K., like many good protagonists, is a reluctant participant. In her particular situation, it’s the political upheaval in a Middle East city, where the population seeks to overthrow a repressive regime. Her character mimics Kafka, who, it seems, was a reluctant participant in just about every endeavor presented in his life. Najwa, though, is much more willing to engage the world around her, and she struggles with its conflicts, dealing with both a traditional family and progressive friends, while also dabbling in fantastical fiction of the type Kafka produced—oh, and dealing with waking up in a strange man’s body.

Southard makes it work by maintaining a tight focus on his protagonist. Najwa is not Kafka reborn, nor is she a mere face in the crowd, but is a thinking, evolving human being.

As I’ve worked with David Southard while editing at another literary journal, I took the opportunity to pose a few questions about the genesis and content of this remarkable book.


Joe Ponepinto: How did you come to tell the story through the character of Najwa, who is Muslim, particularly in this time when authors are regularly called out for “appropriating” characters from other cultures? What’s your familiarity with Islam and the Middle East?

David Southard: I hate to rely on what must surely be an outdated platitude about an old concept of creativity, but I didn’t really choose my character; she appeared. I took a course on Kafka when I was an undergraduate student some 15 years ago. My friend, a young woman who shares the same initials as my protagonist, came to class one day and said that she woke up feeling Kafkaesque and I wrote the first paragraph of a story where she woke up as Kafka instead of Gregor Samsa waking up as a bug. Nothing came of it, and soon after finishing school I stopped trying to write fiction. The story stuck with me nonetheless. It wasn’t until I was reading about the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 that Najwa started to form. After that, I did what I imagined any good writer tries to do—write a good and honest story. 

To do that meant research and care. I had already read the Quran and some collections of Hadith, and revisited them a little to help flush out a few of the supporting characters, but most of my research was on the Arab Spring and on Kafka’s life. In both, I found the driving force of this novel, which is about the fight for autonomy for one’s own authority, the fight against control, whether it be an overbearing patriarch or a suffocating autocracy. 

I have no interest in pushing stereotypes or staking a claim to a single character or even a single narrative somehow representing all of a culture or all of a historical event. I don’t feel that this book does that, though I suppose that is up for readers to decide. I hope they find something redemptive, something informative in reading it, something that makes them feel less alone. 

J.P.: This aspect seems particularly critical since you present Najwa as a nonbeliever, a woman who lives in what appears to be a Middle Eastern city in which a strict religious culture dominates. You write, “She had found little escape in Islam, though she prayed for it as a child, asked God to grant her some measure of belief. Maybe she could have shared that with Father or Fatimah or found some other connection to the world. But she could not fake those feelings. Prayer did little, practice even less.” I understand this may be a parallel to Kafka’s life.

D.S.: Kafka’s relationship to religion is still being debated among scholars, which exemplifies the beauty in the unknown, unexplained, and interpretive in Kafka’s writing. I think there are works that clearly show him dealing with aspects of Judaism, both culturally and religiously. The quote capture something a lot of people feel, including Kafka and myself, and that is the existential abeyance of seeing how people connect to being in the world while you exist outside of it and know you cannot use one of the oldest of tools to be a part of it.  

J.P.: Can you discuss some of the other parallels between Najwa’s life and Kafka’s. For example, the publication she writes for is named Kafia! (Enough!). They both write fantastical stories. Toward the end, Najwa succumbs to what appears to be tuberculosis.

D.S.: Both Kafka and Najwa deal with a father who seeks to control their lives. Both feel an inexplicable drive to write fiction. Both are trapped by a sense of guilt. Both seek redemption in a world that seems intent on refusing such redemption or is, at best, indifferent to the possibility. In all of these ways, the character of Najwa mirrors Kafka; or more accurately, she mirrors a great deal of his writing which was so much more than mere biography. 

J.P.: Najwa/Kafka becomes a participant in what appears to be an Arab Spring-type uprising. How does this tie into Kafka’s life, or does it?

D.S.: This, because Najwa the character is based on Kafka and his work, ties to both of their lives, and, I hope, to our own. The uprising is the real-world actualization of self-determination, at least the fight for it. The action we see taken in the world might spur the existential one within, as opposed to the other way around, which is how a lot of us stay trapped in our heads. We think if we can change ourselves than we can put that change into action. Sometimes, we need to act first in order to change ourselves.   

Orca Blog for May: Your Critical First Impression

Most writers know that readers for literary journals have to review hundreds of submissions. In practical terms this means readers may only give each submission a paragraph or two to make a good impression before deciding to reject or consider the piece further. That doesn’t give a writer much of a chance. So what should a writer try to do to engage an Orca reader?

Your opening can establish character, setting, point of view, conflict, and other aspects. But more importantly it must establish the voice of the story, and create some connection to the character’s situation, also known as the stakes.

Let’s look at a couple of examples, one that doesn’t quite work, and one that does:

Here’s a first paragraph, written by me to approximate many of the stories we receive in our submission queue:

Jim Stone walked past the gates of O’Hare’s spacious Terminal B, checking his cell, searching for a restaurant he and his wife could go to after work; he had something important to tell her, and the right place would make it go more smoothly. It was his first week on the job. At this hour there were only two people in the waiting area—a young man sitting in a gray chair reading a book, and an old woman in a green coat with a leather bag on her lap.

I see dozens of stories that start off this way. Technically there’s nothing wrong with them. Above, we have character, setting, and even a hint to the story’s inherent conflict. But what’s missing is subtext. The details in this opening are mostly exterior.

Now here’s the first paragraph of Rachel Cusk’s Outline:

Before the flight I was invited for lunch at a London club with a billionaire I’d been promised had liberal credentials. He talked in his open-necked shirt about the new software he was developing that could help organizations identify the employees most likely to rob and betray them in the future. We were meant to be discussing a literary magazine he was thinking of starting up: unfortunately I had to leave before we arrived at that subject. He insisted on paying for a taxi to the airport, which was useful since I was late and had a heavy suitcase.

There are subtle clues in this paragraph that tell me the writer is immersed in the characters and the story. Exterior details are tied to interior reactions and emotions. This is much more like the way people experience their world, and therefore tends to draw the reader into the character’s reality.

By examining closer, we can see how this works.

Both paragraphs present a scene that has something to do with air flight. What’s the difference?

  1. In the first, notice the attention to factual background information: O’Hare’s Terminal B, first week on the job; the young man and the old woman are specifically described. In the second, notice that the information is more vague: a London club, a billionaire. We do not know exactly what these things are or what they look like. But then, people don’t view the world around them in terms of specific facts; instead they tend to incorporate what they are experiencing into a larger whole, as though each detail presented was part of a connected reality, and therefore doesn’t need the breakdown into explanation. In the weaker example, the things that should be specific are left vague, and the things that don’t truly matter are made specific. In the Cusk paragraph every sentence offers a window into a deeper meaning—that’s subtext.
  2. Interior versus exterior detail. The exterior detail must be connected to the protagonist’s interior experience, otherwise it becomes peripheral. It is not a “telling” detail. Look at the description at the end of the first paragraph: The terminal was empty except for an elderly woman and a young man. Although these things are visible to the protagonist, and register to his senses, none of them seems connected in any significant way to the protagonist’s problem or psychological state. They are essentially window dressing, placed by the author to establish the “scene,” as though mere detail could do this. In the second example, every external detail is connected to the protagonist’s inner reality. These are aspects that are important to the protagonist. For example, the billionaire promised “liberal credentials.” His open-necked shirt implies liberality, but the software he is developing serves corporations and seems designed to punish workers. He wants to start a literary magazine, which is important enough for her to stop before a trip to have lunch with him. The beauty of Cusk’s writing is that it works on a subconscious level, luring the reader in subtly. The information is just enough to get the reader to start thinking about more than what’s in the scene—this is the difference between telling a story and engaging the reader in a story.
  3. A glimpse into your character’s interior state reveals her interests, desires, and goals. In other words, it introduces the possibility of conflict, and conflict is the primary driver of good fiction. What does your character want, and what stands in her way of getting it? Yes, you can have external conflict such as a physical confrontation, but even the external conflict implies an internal state. We are not simply physical objects reacting to external stimuli.
  4. This depth of writing is not something that comes easily for most writers. It requires a deep understanding of character, to the point at which exterior observations and interior reactions become one. It also requires that the writer have confidence in presenting those connections as they are to the reader, without the boring, factual explanation that bogs down so many submissions. Part of the problem is that from our first conscious stirrings as children, and all through our educational experience, we are expected to explain ourselves to others. We are expected to provide simple answers. The world, we are taught, is not interested in our deeper emotions. The world is essentially a court of law that judges us based on what we did, not why we did it. As writers we have to overcome that. We have to learn to present not the facts of a protagonist’s existence, but the experience of what it is like to be that person. And that can only be done by connecting that exterior experience to interior desires and motivations. In simpler terms, it means that when we write the details of a scene or story, we need to ask why including those details matter.

– JP