Tag Archives: writing

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

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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Orca Blog for June: Asking for Feedback, a Micro Guide

Have you ever shared a draft with friends and colleagues to see what they think and been disappointed with the feedback you received? Conversely, have you ever read a friend’s manuscript and been unsure of how to give them actionable critiques?

Feedback can be uncomfortable on both sides of the fence: we feel put on the spot, we aren’t sure how to articulate how we felt, or we aren’t even sure whether what we have managed to articulate is useful! I’d like to share a couple strategies to reduce this stress and optimize your results.

Gather volunteers

Hey! I was hoping you could read the attached story and let me know what you thought! Thanks so much! 🙂

Don’t send this email unless you already have an ongoing critical relationship with the recipient; surprises are for your stories. An email like this out of the blue can cause many people to panic. What if I don’t like it? What if I don’t give the kind of response they’re looking for? Your email may get a quick “Great job, this was a fun read!” or it may get relegated to the deep recesses of your friend’s unread pile. Instead, ask your friends and colleagues if they’d be willing and interested in reading and critiquing your work in advance of sending them your latest draft. This way they are prepared and have a chance to bow out gracefully if they haven’t the time or inclination.

Ask specific questions

Are you wondering whether the dialogue works? Whether the twist on page 20 is too out of the blue? Ask! It’s much easier for someone to give you useful feedback when it’s specific. Sending your story along with 1-3 specific questions you’re trying to answer will help your reader target their commentary in a way that they and you both feel is useful. “Did you like it??” doesn’t count —it may be what you want to know, but it’s not very useful as you head into your next draft.

A handful of our favorite questions:

  • What is your favorite part of the story? This is fun to talk about and usually gets people primed to give you honest responses. Readers will be more comfortable if they can give you some positive words off the bat.
  • What do you feel is missing or unclear? Were there parts you felt like skipping over? Is there anything you wished there were more of? These are good for identifying deficiencies—maybe a character or plot point needs further development. The implied reverse questions are also a fair ask.
  • Do the climax and resolution make sense? Sometimes we get so wrapped up in getting to the climax of a story that we forget that our readers have to buy into the plot that gets them there.
  • Is the main character sympathetic? Stories often fail because readers can’t identify with or sympathize with the main character. Asking them to consider this aspect can be very helpful.
  • Is the dialogue in this scene realistic? Sometimes we tend to make dialogue too explanatory in an effort to make things clear. But dialogue needs to sound natural, like people actually talking.

– Renee Jackson

Image by Dean Moriarty from Pixabay

Orca Blog for August: Under the Radar: Some (Other) Journals That Put Writing First

I did not submit my fiction to literary journals for a long time. Maybe a year. I used to, much to my present embarrassment, seek out those journals that might be good for the resume, put me on the literary map, boost my career, whatever you want to call it—all that egocentric bullshit on which such journals lean and which exact from sincere writers their hopes, their dreams, and quite often their cash.

Not so this time.

Lately in my submission travels I’ve begun to pay closer attention to the focus and quality of the journals where I send my work. I’ve discovered something interesting, a countertrend, a comment on the state of literary journals. There is, flying just beneath the journal world’s radar, a small group of publications that honor the writing over the writer, the opposite of what seems popular in the mainstream. It’s writing for writing’s sake, poetry in prose, a breathtaking use of language that takes a reader out of her existence for a while, and allows her to live another’s life, and honestly experience how people connect to other people.

Instead of groups, or tropes, or stereotypes, this writing deals with singular people, people more curious about what it is to be a person than a member of a culture or a political movement. Not that politically-motivated writing has no place in literature; it always has. But it has never before tried to drown out other good writing with accusations of privilege, as though its practitioners have lost respect for what has come before.

Never before has political writing abandoned its goals in favor of its deeds. (The same could be said of current politics—one problem with both populism and activism is that they tend to disregard the good in their obsessive search for the righteous.)

I resist that trend.

And so, it seems, do these small, obscure literary journals. I’ve begun to compile a list of venues whose editors’ values seem similar to mine, where the stories published make me wish I had written them. None of them pay. They don’t spend a lot of time online in self-promotion. Most likely none will get me or my writing noticed. Their editors are clearly publishing them for the other, more traditional joys of writing: great language, imagination, empathy…

Here are some journals I admire. You won’t find any of the usual suspects here. I hope to keep adding to the list.

I was fortunate, a few weeks ago, to have a story accepted by Bell Ombre—a story I originally wrote several years ago—one that was rejected many dozens of times by those other places, and of which I recall a gallery of confused faces and reactions when I presented it to a writers’ class. You’ve heard that kind of vague, patronizing commentary, I’m sure: “It’s well written, but I didn’t understand…the stakes/character’s choices/point of view/whatever.” (I’ve learned to tune out critiques that begin with, “It’s well written…” I know what comes next.)

Seeing that story accepted, knowing that some editors understood the language and the intent, is no small measure of vindication.

Discovering these new journals tells me there is another movement going on, separate from the ones that dominate the literary space. A quiet one, lest those Jacobins of popular culture get wind of what they’re doing and try to silence them. It’s an undercurrent keeping alive what writing can be, a pulse to let the literary world know that the sentence—the beautifully crafted sentence, the one that floors you with its intelligence—is not dead.

I hope to make Orca that kind of journal, too.


PS: I am my writing. My writing is not me. If you agree, please submit to us.

*PPS: I find The Buenos Aires Review so impressive that I cannot summon the courage to submit to them. And sadly, the staff at Skidrow Penthouse has decided to cease production.

– JP

Orca Blog for June: Avoiding Appropriation in Art

In literature, there are fewer falls from grace more precipitous than the stunning rebuke Kathryn Stockett’s The Help has experienced in this decade. It went from its two-year stranglehold on the bestseller list to being decried as a gross cultural appropriation, a white author, “writing in blackface,” whose handling of a delicate subject was clumsy at best, racist at its worst. This is not a blog to pile onto the criticisms this author has faced, but to address the debate it has brought to the forefront. History will determine how we view Stockett’s novel, but the floodgates that it opened still have the literary world treading in deep, murky water as it struggles to distinguish the line between fiction and appropriation.

With such a potent and dramatic backlash for works like The Help, you would assume that most writers have sought to distance themselves as fully as possible from the controversy. But, as anyone who reads submissions piles can tell you, that this is far from the case. We still have a long way to go to combat this naiveté, while at the same time making sure we preserve that which makes fiction so special

So how do you avoid appropriation in your own work? Just by asking that question you’re already taking a big step in the right direction. Those who are most guilty of using another’s culture, experience, or truth for their own fiction often do so carelessly without ever having asked the question of if they should. But before we go into how to avoid it, it is important to be on the same page about art’s place in this important 21st century debate.

The broadest definition of cultural appropriation being bandied about today is, itself, problematic. Under the widest definition, all art is appropriation and in the world of writing, only non-fiction is, potentially, shielded from such criticism. This is the other side of the sword, and we need to be careful not to swing it too carelessly. Art has always thrived on inspiration from other artists and indeed, other cultures. Without art, many stories and experiences throughout the world may never have seen the light of day. So, through its own progressive function in our society, art (and in particular literature) has opened up a worldwide perspective and as a result has placed itself on the firing lines.

By this logic, avoiding appropriation should be easy. Simply stick to the old adage “write what you know.” But if we all did that, the literary world would become a rather boring, one-dimensional place; because regardless of background, nearly every author would be forced to write stories about their struggles as a writer and nothing else. Would anyone find that engaging? Is that even fiction?

Accepting that writing about someone whose life and experience may be different from yours is an inescapable and necessary function of fiction, it is best to break the appropriation debate down to three key areas. And since the title of this blog has gotten me in the mood for alliteration, let’s stick with that trend. When considering whether not your current or future work may be appropriation, consider: Empathy, Education, and Exploration.

Empathy: Are you writing about a one-dimensional archetype meant to stand in for a culture that plays a key role in your plot? Or are you writing about a fully fleshed out human whose personality is baked-in with strengths and flaws like any real human? A male author writing from the perspective of a female narrator, who spends 75% of the story writing about the narrator’s boyfriend, is not someone writing from a place of empathy. No attempt was made to get inside the female narrator’s head, and instead the author has rested on his own gender norms as a crutch by putting the focus of the story on the boyfriend, despite who the story assumes its protagonist to be. In a similar vein, it is natural and indeed noble for an author writing about another race, religion, sexual orientation, etc. to want to avoid stereotypes or anything that may be perceived in a negative light. As a result, you sometimes get characters who are without flaws, who sit atop a pedestal, gleaming as a magical unicorn—a person who could not possibly exist in real life. An author who does his/her/their job well, will bring their characters to life on the page, not smother them with stereotypes or shield them from the truth.

Education: Have you taken the time to fully research the characters and culture in your story? Research implies something much more than a cursory Wikipedia glance, it demands a rigorous academic approach to ensure that the details you are including are authentic, nuanced, and truthful.

When Rebecca Makkai was writing a story about the AIDS epidemic in Chicago in the 1980s for her Pulitzer Prize shortlisted 2018 novel The Great Believers, she employed an academic and grueling study regimen to ensure that the world she portrayed was not only accurate, but full of authentic life. Makkai, who herself identifies as a white, cis-gendered, straight female, was certainly writing out of her element in portraying gay male characters dealing with the new realities of HIV/AIDS in their community, and yet her book received universal praise because it was apparent on every page that she had taken the time to interview the people who had lived through that era. She had mapped out all of the long defunct gay clubs throughout Chicago so that her geography was accurate, and she read all of the existing works about the crisis in Chicago so that even the minutia she included rang true. She had no need to hire “sensitivity readers,” because she was already friends and confidants with the people who had lived the story and they had given their blessing to the work.

Even if you are not someone who believes in sensitivity (if so, why are you a writer?) there is another benefit to educating yourself before you write, above and beyond making it politically correct: it will make your story better! I have seen this from personal experience. I’m fifth generation Appalachian on my father’s side and Irish on my mother’s. I can spot from a mile away an author who has not done his/her/their research on either of those cultures because I have lived them, and no amount of academic study can fully approximate an experience lived. Yet I’d be forgiving if minor details were missed, as long as the broad strokes felt true to my cultural experience, but the trend, particularly in writing about rural West Virginia, is to oversimplify its characters, to take the region’s lack of proper educational opportunities as a sign of lower intelligence, to glamorize and even fetishize poverty to the point where it becomes parody. When I read these stories, I know I am reading an author who doesn’t care enough to respect their characters or their audience. When I read someone like Breece D’J Pancake, a native Appalachian writer, I see my family in his words. I see he and my Dad sitting down with a few bottles of long neck Stroh’s and whiling away an afternoon speaking to one another in their quintessentially, lyrical, mountain manner. If you aren’t willing to put a majority of your work into research, then you aren’t ready to write about anything other than your own personal experience.

Exploration: In short, ask yourself if what you’re writing about has already been explored by others who may be closer to the situation than you. Makkai tackled the AIDS crisis in Chicago precisely because it hadn’t been written about much in mainstream media. If you are going to write about the Holocaust, specifically about the European Jewish experience, and you are not Jewish, and are not a direct descendant of a survivor of that dark era, then you are likely treading on ground that others with far more experience, education, and empathy than you have already explored. If, in your research of the Holocaust, you learn about the plight of the Romani people and discover that there have been precious few works of fiction written about their struggle, then perhaps, just perhaps, you’ve found a reason to write about another culture other than your own. To give voice to the previously voiceless had always been one of literature’s most important roles.

A final litmus test: if writing about another culture, identity, or experience that is not your own does not terrify you, you clearly don’t care enough to do the story or the characters justice. Art thrives when it is left uncensored and unfettered, but it is our responsibility as artists to ensure that we pay proper respect to that responsibility and that we always explore our fictional worlds with empathy and education.

– Zac Kellian