Fiction: Looking at Pictures

Issue 1.2

by Janet Mason

(May, 1926)

Tina looked at the image in front of her and wished she still had her camera.

She was walking along the deepwater port looking into the hold of a ship that had backed up to the cement pier. She could see both levels. Initially she assumed that first class was on the top and that steerage was down below.  Then she noticed that the people below were almost all women and children.  They looked like immigrants from Europe wrapped in their drab shawls and holding their squalling infants.  None of them looked up.

On the top level, in what looked like first class, men in their bowler hats waited for the sailors to open the gang plank that in a few minutes would be secured on the dock.  To the left a man with a banded panama hat bent forward over the rope railing. He looked like he was lighting a pipe or cigar. He was going to smoke while he waited.  The top of his white straw hat against the brim formed a circle within a circle.

Between the two levels of steerage and first class, a plank ran diagonally through the scene.  Behind the plank, a wide metal chimney came up from the floor of the ship bottom in steerage behind a woman huddled with two children. The effect of the line of the chimney cutting behind the plank made a triangular space in the upper part of the ship where the men and their bowler hats stood.  To the right, the plank and the chimney framed the women and children in the bottom of the boat.  The horizontal line of the second floor and the stairs on the low right leading to the second floor of the ship further divided the image into another triangular space.

Tina recognized that the scene in front of her was as cubist as a Picasso or Braque. It was as mesmerizing as Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase.”  It was the perfect image.  The women in steerage, with shawls wrapped around their heads and shoulders, looked like they were from the old world.  Even the young ones stooped slightly.  They were probably Germans — maybe from Bavaria.  The men too – in their dark caps and bowler hats – looked German. They were European immigrants who had come to Mexico to flee persecution, to be with family (for there were so many Germans living here), to find work.  Tina grimaced.  If they were coming to find work, they were in for a surprise.

Maybe instead they would find the Mexican Communist Party – like she had, like Diego and Frida had, like everyone Tina was fleeing.  She wouldn’t miss them though – Frida and Diego.  She wanted to put them as far out of her mind as possible.  She would miss the Party.  It had become her life. She never thought about leaving her beloved Mexico, her sunny country filled with romance and tropical fruits.

But then she had met Peggy and she convinced Tina to return with her to Europe.  So Tina sold her camera and bought her passage on the RMS Alcantara.

Peggy was right.  Tina would find more opportunities for her photography in Europe.  But she would miss the land, the people, the Mexican Communist Party.  She would miss Frida. No!  Frida was the reason she was leaving.  The thought made her look away from the scene she had been hungering for.  It wouldn’t be right anyway.  The men in the caps and bowler hats looked indifferent.  They were just waiting to come to a new country.  They wouldn’t care if they were photographed.  But the women were different.  Most had shawls wrapped around their heads but not all.  One had her fuzzy head exposed.  They probably had been at sea for weeks — and Tina knew how women felt about fixing their hair. Plus, they had children with them.  The women would most likely not want to be photographed.

Tina ran down the walkway and reached the gangplank at the end of the dock to the liner, just as Peggy called to her from aboard the ship.

“I thought I had lost you,” she yelled to Tina.

“I’ll wait for you up here and then we can find our rooms.”

Tina threw back her shoulders as she stepped up her walk.


Janet Mason is an award-winning creative writer, teacher, and blogger for The Huffington Post. Her radio commentary airs worldwide on This Way Out, the LGBT news syndicated based in Los Angeles. Her book, Tea Leaves: a Memoir of Mothers and Daughters (Bella Books, 2012), was chosen by the American Library Association for its 2013 Over the Rainbow List and also received a Goldie Award. Janet’s short stories have appeared in many literary journals including the Brooklyn Review, Sinister Wisdom, and Aaduna. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Fiction: Hole in the Wall

by Neal Steichen

He sat on the couch with his legs kicked up, his pillow supporting his arm, simply staring at the hole in the wall. The room was much quieter now. The only real sound was the hanging buzz of a fly bouncing against one of the working ceiling lights. The air was occasionally punctuated by the German Shepard in 317.

The hole in the wall was only a bit bigger than his fist. It was a poor choice. The cheap plaster concaved when he punched through. He only felt remnants of pain in his hand—more like random nerve pulses around his knuckles—as they twitched and went limp. The small kit he usually hid under the bed was splayed out. With the belt around his arm loosening, he couldn’t feel much of anything except for a small sense of sympathy for the hole.

She had left a pair of shoes, though. Nothing impressive. Two little brown chunks of false leather and plastic. They were coming apart at the bottom, the stitches unraveling. They were to the left of the hole in the wall, teasing him out of the corner of his eye. They rested against the wall, almost in a little teepee, one pointed up and resting on the other.

He looked away from the hole in the wall and saw a drop of blood on his pillow. There was a thin, watered-down line that traced the bend of his elbow. He went to the sink, gently falling forward rather than walking. He grabbed a dishcloth from the sink and ran it under cold water. His hands lingered, enjoying the sensation and the sound that drowned the out the emptiness. Turning the water mostly off, he walked with heavy feet back to the couch.

He could hear his mother’s voice in his head, telling him to blot and not wipe to get the blood out before it became a stain. He tried, bending awkwardly at the waist, hands like slabs of uncooked steak. He failed and smeared it, gracefully though, as the spot mixed into the fabric to make a brown tinted patch. It felt permanent now. He let the cloth fall out of his hands and onto the floor as he took his position back on the couch.

The German Sheppard barked.

He felt his eyes close. He was not sure if he was blinking or sleeping, but he was roused by a knock at the door. He waited to see if it was his imagination or just mishearing the German Sheppard, but the knock repeated. He rolled off the couch and made it to his feet, shambling towards the door. He left the chain on, but open it a few inches.

It was his landlord. He couldn’t quite see all of her face. It was backlit by 1960s sconces covered in not-always-yellow glass. Her slippered foot tapped on the unfinished hardwood hallway. She said that he was late last month by a few days, which was true, and wanted to remind him that she wouldn’t hesitate to put him out on his ass next week if he forgot again or was short. He wasn’t sure if that was true, but he nodded and mumbled, closing the door when it seemed like she didn’t have anything left to say.

He didn’t mention the hole in the wall. He could fix it himself, maybe. That would cut into his rent money. He didn’t have anything set aside, except some reserved funds for necessities. He could always take some of his stuff to the thrift store or pawnshop, get some cash up front.

He picked up the milk crate that used to act as his bedside table when he had a bed frame. He went around the apartment, picking up whatever he could live without that may fetch a fair price. A radio clock. A large pot. A box of four, new light bulbs he never got around to installing.

He found himself back at the hole in the wall. Looking past the blackness, he could see a rim of cracked yellow paint underneath the eggshell overcoat and on top of the plaster. He looked away, not wanting to get preoccupied with the inside contents of his walls, as grotesque and intriguing as the likely were. Instead, his eyes drifted back down and to the left, onto the broken leather shoes.

They were probably not worth anything. She had them for what seemed like ages. He first saw them when they went to the movies, he legs kicked up on the safety rail in front of them. Whenever she visited, she kicked them off hard, but they always seemed to fall together gracefully. If he looked hard, he could see where the fabric had tightly warped around her feet.

He set the crate down on the floor and fell back onto the couch. He rolled in and out of wakefulness. When his eyes were open, he felt them rotate around the room. The hole in the wall. To the fly in the ceiling lights. To the hole in the wall. To the shoes. To the crate. To the hole in the wall. The German Sheppard barked. To the stained pillow. To the belt and needle. To the shoes. To the hole in his wall.

His hand walked up his arm and to the crook of his elbow, prodding gently.

He needed more money. He needed to fill the hole.

He looked to the window. It was still daylight.

He stood and walked to the door, bending down to pick up the milk crate. He stood up, breathed, and bent down again. He grabbed the brown leather shoes by their hanging heels and dropped them into the crate, and he went down to the street. He regretted grabbing the shoes, but his feet kept falling.

Photo by Ville Miettinen

Neal Steichen is a fiction writer, editor, and teacher living in Chicago. Currently studying as an MFA candidate at Columbia College Chicago, he finds himself drawn to writing about the darker sides of humanity. Whether it is the hubris of technology or the enticement of the mystical and unknown, Neal seeks to unravel truths about people and their capabilities. You can follow him on Twitter at @neal_steichen.

The Ecology of Storytelling: Marrow Island by Alexis M. Smith

marrow-islandAs a girl, I consumed everything terrifying and twisted. It’s a habit I’ve never managed to shake. To this day I’ve seen nearly every horror and thriller film I can get my stubby fingers on. So I couldn’t help but pick up Marrow Island by Alexis M. Smith.

Smith utilizes the novel form to create a sense of urgency and tension. We are enveloped into the fabric of the story from the first stunning handful of pages – ripe with the kind of action that marks a successful storyteller.

Smith propels us into the strange new terrain of the Pacific Northwest. And yet, it’s not new. I’ve heard of Spokane; I’ve read Sherman Alexie. I know how to point out Oregon and Washington on the map. The landscape never seemed so different from other parts of the United States. But somehow I feel as if I’ve entered undiscovered territory. I’ve stepped away from the Midwest and entered the scathing and glorious forests and islands of the Northwest. I’ve learned a new love for the fascinating relationships between organisms and their environment.  It isn’t until now, at the end of my journey with our main character, Lucie, that I see the thread of ecology tying the whole novel together.

I wonder why Smith’s novel is structured in a nonlinear fashion. Why do we move between past and present, beginning with the lynch pin prologue? Why not include the prologue as a dated entry like the other chapters? I understand why the first scene had to come first. It’s like jumping into the splintering cold river and feeling the shock of death that the cold can bring so close. We feel Lucie’s shock and her traumatic departure from Marrow Island in our guts. It’s an interesting and also gratifying way to begin a novel. And we end Marrow Island with a cleansing of fire, where Lucie’s hope of revealing the evidence that her first love, Katie, visited her before her death is lost. Smith’s choice to end the novel on such a tense scene is masterful. However, everything that comes between feels shallow. Perhaps it’s Smith’s ability to craft spectacular nature scenes and her ability to play with narrative time during pivotal moments that leaves me feeling cheated. The book felt too short. The encounters on Marrow Island in particular could have been expanded. I couldn’t figure out why we were getting Lucie’s present perspective with her new lover in Oregon – until Lucie explained that she was having a hard time looking to the past while writing her book. Then it began to make sense, and I saw Smith explaining her choices within the text. Lucie is not only the narrator but this book is also the depiction of the story she is struggling to write. I still would have liked to have more of Lucie on Marrow Island, more of her relationships to the people there, more of their relationships to each other. That’s where it felt the real story was, where I was reading on the edge of my seat. While I appreciate Smith’s choices to craft the novel by Lucie’s voice and instinct, I wonder if there wasn’t another way.unnamed1

What I appreciate most about Smith is her willingness to explore desire and sexuality. I wasn’t prepared for the tender moments of love and connection between Carey and Lucie or between Lucie and Katie. I wasn’t prepared at all for Lucie’s romantic love for Katie, but I was excited to see this accurate depiction of sexuality and love. It felt like Smith had finally ushered fiction into the realm of reality, where life is fluid and unpredictable, and people have love and desire beyond the societal binary.

I’ll be looking forward to Smith’s future work and hoping I find some the same narrative elements that appear in Marrow Island.

June 7th, 2016

Hard Cover, 9780544373419, $23.00 (USD)

How to Beat the Submission Game

Dear Reader,

So you want to know how to get your work accepted by literary magazines?

Firstly, follow the directions. As tedious as it sounds, read every bit of the Submission Guidelines (Writer’s Guidelines, Submissions, Submit) page. I even encourage you to read any About page you can find. Study the mission of the magazine/website. Pay attention to the parameters given to you for submission.

Read material the magazine has accepted and published. Sometimes this is tricky, because magazines want you to subscribe before they’ll let you read anything. You can get around this by reading any excerpts offered on the site. Sometimes they will post a part of the piece to entice readers to subscribe. Sometimes they don’t. In this event, you’ll be taking a risk if you submit blindly. That doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t. There are some facets of writing that continue to be the darlings of the literary world. If you write realistic fiction of any kind, your chances of being accepted change drastically. Genre writers, writers who experiment with form and structure, and those who employ elements of slipstream and magical realism are at a disadvantage by submitting blind.

Now you’re probably saying: I don’t have time for this shit. Then, you don’t have time to become a writer. There, we’ve solved that mess.

But what do I look for when I read these magazines? Look for content: are these pieces largely contemporary or do they deal with historical moments? Do they deal with specific places? Look for genre: are there elements of genre in these pieces? Look for style: are these pieces voicey, traditional, experimental, long, or short? Look for sentence and paragraph length (I’m not kidding). Look for any repetitions of plot and theme. Finally, compare these elements to your own piece. Will your piece differ from the aesthetic of the magazine? If yes, don’t submit it there. If your piece seems to align with a good deal of the aesthetic elements of the magazine, submit it!

I’ll give you an example of two different places to submit: McSweeney’s publishes satire. From their blog posts, nonfiction pieces, to their fiction, McSweeney’s is an outlet for comedic (and primarily satiric) literature. In this case, there is no doubt. They are transparent in their intentions, and the work they choose to publish is easily identifiable from the rest. But not all can be distinguished so well. American Short Fiction is a more elusive beast. Upon a review of the excerpts from four or so stories, their aesthetic becomes more clear. They seem to prefer more traditional pieces of both contemporary and non-contemporary value (though they all feel nostalgic in a way). They also seem to prefer third person narratives. There’s nary a first person piece in sight.

Tips for cover letters:

Address the letter by the name of either the main editor (Editor-in-Chief) or the name of the editor that handles specific submissions (Fiction Editor, Poetry Editor, Nonfiction Editor). Be aware that these positions and the faces that inhabit them are ever-changing. So always check before you submit. Never assume the same person is working in the same area or at all. If you’re concerned you’ll get the wrong person (by some change in leadership) then simply put Editor. I’ve found by being a reader and also submitting my own work, that addressing the cover letter with the first name of the editor in question gets particular attention. At the magazine where I currently read, if a cover letter seems in any way to indicate a personal relationship with our editor, we are to flag it. Flagging it means it gets to the editor faster for review. As a submitter, my pieces seem to get reviewed much more quickly when I title the cover letter with an editor’s name (or maybe I’m just imagining it, you never know). My rejection letters also tend to seem more personalized (as if someone actually took the time to write it rather than copy and paste a form).

Your cover letter should never be more than about two hundred words – in my own personal opinion. Any longer and you’ve added unnecessary information or you’ve begun to sound arrogant. You don’t need to list the one hundred places you’ve been published. Only list the top three to five. If you’ve never been published, don’t mention that. If you’ve only been published once, make sure you do mention it. Never indicate the amount of times you’ve been published if it could be to your disadvantage.

Your cover letter should in some way indicate that you are grateful for the reader’s time. A short, “I’m honored (excited) to share this piece with you” will do.

If you’re an undergrad, don’t mention that. If you’re a master’s student, only mention it you have nothing else to say (some editors and readers are just snobs; it’s a sad reality). However, keep in mind that if you’ve completed an MFA program, that is a credit to your name.

Don’t lie. That’s really all I have to say on that.

I’d like to say don’t be boring, especially in your first few pages, but experience has taught me that boring is a literary genre and one that prevails in the publishing arena. Perhaps that’s just the consequence of preferring to write epic fantasy and science fiction – a story about someone brushing their teeth and contemplating existence seems dull. To illustrate my point: I once wrote two short stories (that are indeed realistic fiction), and I wrote them in the span of three hours. I didn’t even look back at them before I submitted (mistake). They were both accepted by the same magazine. Now, the story I’ve been writing for five years which is arguably speculative fiction continues to be rejected.

The world of publishing is a precarious place, both predictable and yet wildly unpredictable in its taste. Never become too discouraged by the onslaught of rejection. Simply become smarter about where, when, and why you submit!

Sincerely,

Alexandra Stanislaw

P.S. Devise is currently seeking contributors to examine literary magazines for their aesthetic preferences (think The Review Review). Those interested should email deviseliterary@gmail.com with a cover letter, resume, and relevant writing samples to apply.

Black Warrior Review Call for Submissions

Black Warrior Review is accepting submissions now until March 1st.

Visit their submission page for more information.

BWR operates out of the University of Atlanta and was first established in 1974. Work from their contributors appears in the Pushcart Prize series, Best American Short Stories, Best American Poetry, New Stories from the South.