Bartleby Snopes Writing Blog

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Blurring Genre Boundaries with Ashley Inguanta

Ashley Inguanta’s poetry collection For the Woman Alone (Ampersand Books) is rich with lyricism, imagery, narrative. Yes, narrative. In her poem “7 Ways of Unfolding,” Inguanta tells the story of how the self transforms through a relationship. The melodic language and rhythm are not what you would necessarily see in fictional narrative, but there is an arc, from the first time the narrator sees the woman she will fall in love with, her voice “a soft burning sun”—to the aftermath of their relationship.

Photo credit: Lauren Laveria (Lauren Rita Photography)

Photo credit: Lauren Laveria (Lauren Rita Photography)

Inguanta has also imbued her fiction with poetry. In her flash piece “Inside,” published in SmokeLong Quarterly, the reader is captivated by language. In describing the narrator’s attraction for her future teacher, Inguanta writes: “I want to run my fingers down her spine, press each bone, understand her vertebrae—alone, each one hard like ivory, yet together, they’re as supple as a feather, as malleable as pure gold.” The ending also reads as if it could be the final line in a poem: “Out of the rips fly birds with piano keys for wings.”

I spoke with Inguanta about the relationship between poetry and fiction. What are the boundaries if any between the two, and how does one inspire and enrich the other?

BS: At what point do you know if your work is poetry or flash fiction? What is the difference between the two?

AI: Often, for me and for many others, the line between prose poetry and flash fiction is blurred. I find comfort and freedom in this blurry line. In grad school, I read Stephen Graham Jones’ collection Bleed Into Me, and the way I approached writing changed. The way Jones blended genre astounded me. I admire his work, especially this collection, deeply.

To me, flash embodies movement. The POV character moves from point A to B and either does change or has the opportunity to change. The most powerful flash I have read makes bold discoveries and takes leaps that are inevitable, not predictable. Poems, however, embody rhythm. The speaker understands (or wants to understand, or puts up a wall from understanding) something bright, almost blinding, sometimes excruciating—and in that, there is a layer of clarity, even if it only lasts for a moment, even if it is unsustainable.

To be honest, I have trouble differentiating between prose poetry and flash, and these traits do overlap. But I accept that, and I find strength and freedom in blending genre.

BS: For the Woman Alone is rich with narrative and story. Did you intend to write all of the pieces as poems?

AI: Yes, I wrote each piece as a poem. Each piece as “poem” felt very clear to me. I began For the Woman Alone in Florida, when my heart felt happy, seen, and loved. But when a heart feels this way, a heart needs to understand how to climb mountains, how to swim through large and powerful waves—alone. My heart eventually learned how to do these things. At the time, I was living in Brooklyn. I remember the way I carried my own body, my own weight, through all of the seasons. In Florida, we carry our bodies through the heat and rain. Brooklyn offered me strength in a different way—with different air, different grounding. So yes, For the Woman Alone was intended to be poetry, and that clarity stuck with me as the book took shape.

BS: Did you start writing poetry or fiction first? Does writing in one genre inspire the way you approach the other?

AI: I began writing poetry at age 12. To put it simply, I was experiencing my first real crush. But I had no idea what I was feeling at the time because this crush was on a woman—my middle school English teacher. I did not know why I felt pulled so strongly to her, but I knew the feeling was beautiful. When the feeling didn’t go away, I started writing about it. I wanted to understand it, to discover something.

Fiction came later, but not too much later. Maybe a few months into 7th grade I started writing stories, which were more like vision boards. I wrote about the person I wanted to be: A young woman from New Mexico who would go on adventures with her friends. I’ve been fascinated with the West for as long as I can remember. Fiction helped me understand possible futures, possible ways I could grow into the outer world.

Poetry, though, helped me understand my inner world. Eventually poetry helped me understand the inner world of others.

Both fiction and poetry are gifts.

BS: I love how your flash fiction piece “Inside” is filled with lyricism and poetic imagery. Does writing poetry influence the way you approach language when writing fiction?

AI: Yes, completely. I love rhythm, the way it moves the energy of poems and works of fiction. I don’t turn off my love for rhythm when I am writing fiction, even though I place character first. And when I am writing poetry, I don’t turn off my love for character, for journey—even though rhythm and image come first.

BS: What elements are most important to you when crafting a piece of fiction? How do you balance poetic language with other elements such as character and plot?

AI: Character is my priority when I write fiction. Learning about / sitting with / writing the story of the POV character is the journey I expect to go on when I write fiction. I always say, “have curiosity, not expectation,” but I do expect this from fiction. I am curious about the character, but I expect us to form a relationship. If we can’t, the piece doesn’t get written.

It’s very hard for me to write if I do not understand the rhythm of something. I don’t think too hard about balancing poetic language with character and plot; instead, I focus on the character’s world and the rhythm/language naturally shapes that world.

BS: In both fiction and poetry, what’s left unsaid can be just as important as what you reveal on the page. How do you decide what to leave unsaid in a poem or story?

AI: When I am revising a piece, I often ask myself, “Am I explaining this too much?” I tend to over-explain, to make things too literal, in my first drafts. Working with positive/negative space in my writing is something that I will always struggle with, but it helps me to think visually. I love showing emotion/direction of a story/poem with image, and I often work from there when deciding what to leave out, what to keep off the page. Image carries mood and can show so much about a character, about a poem’s energy.

BS: What do you think fiction writers could learn from poetry to enrich their work?

AI: Reading poetry brings rhythm into our bodies. Through this rhythm, we can find courage, we can stand face to face with our most intense emotions. “A Map to the Next World” by Joy Harjo brings me to a place where I can sit with death, feel it and speak to it without static, without walls. By reading poetry, I find myself becoming more grounded, filled with different rhythms. One poem may feel like a stampede, and another may feel like a cat’s step. This rhythm is extremely important to me when I write fiction. Without it, my heart strays.

BS: What advice would you give to yourself as a young writer if you could travel back in time?

AI: At 12, I would tell myself to be unafraid of my own voice. At 15, I would tell myself to come out sooner, to stop feeling guilty about spending hours alone writing. At 16, I would tell myself to cultivate more quiet time, because I remember that being all I wanted. I would tell myself to eat something, to kiss a girl, to write about every taste, every feeling, every risk. At 17, I would tell myself to take more risks, to open up to the page. At 21, when I finally found this openness, I would tell myself to trust it, to find power in it.

BS: If you could hang on to this time machine a little longer, which writer from the past would you visit? What would you ask? 

AI: I would visit Adrienne Rich. I would pick her up in my car, and we would go West. I would ask her to draw a map to get us there, and I would trust every line. During our drive, we would understand the way landscape changes. We would feel this in our bodies, and the shift would go unspoken. At the right time, I would ask her if we could write a continuation of her poem “Song,” together, because now we may not be as lonely.

BS: Tell us about your latest project.

AI: For the past two years, I’ve been working on a full-length collection of poetry, Bomb. This book explores how destruction and transformation work together.

Bomb begins with two women, and they both love each other deeply: One is attaching a bomb to the other, and they both experience this building/creation as intimacy, as care. Later, we find out what the bomb is made of. These women, their world explodes. They learn about themselves and about each other. And eventually, the bomb creates something expansive, something excruciating, something necessary, something exquisite.

Ashley Inguanta is a writer and photographer who is driven by landscape, place. She is the Art Director of SmokeLong Quarterly and the author of three collections: The Way Home (Dancing Girl Press 2013), For the Woman Alone(Ampersand Books 2014), and Bomb (Forthcoming with Ampersand Books 2016). Ashley has been featured in numerous publications, including Everyday Fiction, Orlando Weekly, American Microreviews & Interviews, and The Great American Brainstorm. In 2013, she was named as “one of the six Central Florida poets you should know” by Orlando Arts Magazine and recently won an Orlando’s Best Award for Best Poet.

It’s Not Over for Uzodinma Okehi (Contributor Interview Series #6)

We first met Uzodinma Okehi a few years ago when we launched the world’s first issue of Post-Experimental literature. One of our favorite stories from that special issue was Okehi’s “Cumulo-Nimbus Tonight!” When we found out Okehi’s  Rocbio2debut novel was being published–and that it contained this phenomenal story–we immediately wanted to read it. If the joy of reading this novel weren’t enough, we had the pleasure of chatting with Okehi about his work. Here’s what he had to say.

Your narrator in Over for Rockwell talks about how it takes 10 years to master anything. How long did it take you to write the book? Do you feel like a master?

Yeah, the 10 year thing. I think that was the pop-science theory du jour at the time when I started those stories. I know Malcom Gladwell delves into it in one of his books . . . But I feel like I was reading that particular tidbit everywhere, in dover for rockwellifferent magazines, books, all over the place. You know, it’s a seductive idea. And I think it’s fairly true, you spend enough time and all, just that there’s a lot of other factors. As far as Rockwell is concerned though, it took maybe 7 or 8 years to write. Way too long basically, but I guess I’m prone to distraction. What I would say about it, is that if you spend enough every-day time, even as an average joe, you can develop a skill set, a kind of confidence, with writing, in a certain style, about certain subjects. And once you have that momentum, you’d hope you wouldn’t really need to compare yourself to everyone to demonstrate mastery. More like, with those ten years, you’ve mapped a territory for yourself, it’s hard work, but now you can enjoy it. Little by little, you try and push the envelope of what you think you can do . . .

Blue Okoye draws comics, but we never really get to see any of his comics. Did you ever consider making the book more visual?

I talked about that with my editor, (Elizabeth Ellen). The main issue was that my art-game is still pretty underdeveloped. I mean, I can draw a little, I did the cover, for instance, but it must have taken me 4 or 5 months of drawing, redrawing every day to finish that thing. Seriously. Also, at this point my comics stuff doesn’t really flow that well. The backstory is I started drawing comics mainly because that’s what I was writing about. But I didn’t want to bog the writing down with a whole bunch of bad drawing and nonsense. Hopefully in the next couple of years, I can hit my stride and be able to nicely integrate more art with the prose stuff. We’ll see. That would be gratifying.

Can you draw a comic for us? 

Ok, here’s an example of how deep I’d get into something without really figuring out how to have it make sense. The “Strandzig” pic is a cover pitch I did for a zine that was going around the bookstore where I work. The other thing is a page from a five or six-page strip I did. Same character. Or I think I got five or six pages done before abandoning it. And what’s that giant concrete ball thing he’s got attached to his waist? I have no fucking idea. How is it just floating like that? Why is he chasing a giant, (badly drawn) peacock?

Strandzigcrop pg-3crop

A better question is why wouldn’t he be chasing a giant peacock? It’s often difficult to separate a first-person narrator from the author. How did you draw from your own experiences to create this character?

Right. That’s always the big question, so let me dig in a little. And, actually, talking like this really helps me clear up my position on it in my own head . . . I just think the whole first person, coming-of-age, art-actualization thing—when people have these strong opinions against it—I always think, well, it’s just a type of genre writing. Like a detective story, or Sci-fi, or whatever. You may not read espionage thrillers per say, but why make a point to actually despise them? As with any genre, there’s the well-executed stuff and there’s stuff that’s not as good. Like literary writing in and of itself. My particular axe to grind, is that I was surprised to get to grad school, to New York, and discover there is, or was, some kind of movement or something against writing with first-person narrators. Or that people consider literary writing somehow “more real” than genre stuff. I think you should never lose sight of the fact that all of this is just entertainment, crafted with an audience in mind, whether that’s somebody’s rehab memoir or a Disney comic book . . . To bring it back to your question though, I think you’re always drawing from or on your own experiences, no matter whose point of view you’re writing from. On the other hand, I also think the kind of voyeuristic hook of a first-person narrator does always makes it feel like everything actually happened. I will say, most of the stuff in the book happened in some shape or form. It is fiction though, to be clear. I’m not on that James Frey tip. That’s me pulling stories from everywhere and pouring it into a single character. Stuff that happened to me, to my friends, me overhearing other people’s conversations at work, on the train, their wild stories. Bits from movies, TV shows, rap songs. Other books, definitely. I suppose that’s the textbook way you’re supposed to do it as a writer. Creative fiction 101, right? Write what you know, keep your eyes and ears open . . .

For the record, the one story in the book that did go down, scene for scene, exactly the way I wrote it, was Streets of Rage. All of that really happened. That huge, crazy streetfight in the East Village in Manhattan. The Chinese restaurant, those cops grilling me. First time I’d ever been in the middle of anything like that. That whole summer, in particular, 2005, month-to-month, was crazy . . .

The book ends with Cumulo-Nimbus Tonight!, which appeared in the Bartleby Snopes Post-Experimentalism issue. Would you characterize this book as post-experimental?

Well, I’m flattered you picked that story. But I’ll be honest. I feel I always only have like a loose-handshake sort of grasp on these  concepts. When I was in school, I took a course called The Postmodern Novel. Something like that. I thought it sounded cool. I thought it would be cool to be part of some new movement. And I guess I can tell you, based on that class, that Paul Auster and Don Dellilo are, I guess, acclaimed masters of that shit. I’ve just looked it up on Wikipedia now, and the only simple answer seems to be that Postmodernism is all about being skeptical of Modernism. Which was a movement skeptical of Enlightenment thinking. And on back. So, if the implication is to ask if my book is somehow critiquing so-called “experimental” writing, or “concept” stories, then I’d say I wasn’t specifically trying to chop anything down. When I read other writers’ stories I am always thinking about what I’d do differently. But I don’t critique other people’s writing. I try my best to stay away from that. I never end up feeling qualified enough to join any sort of movement. Nor am I a teacher or an editor. Or a critic. That’s not really my bag.

The book comes in a very compact form. Do you think that contributes to the overall effect of the story?

Format is everything. Absolutely. What I initially submitted to Hobart was a 65-page zine I’d put together using InDesign. Complete with the clip art stuff and front cover. That original thing was about the same size as the finished book. Because after years of doing zines, I’d finally landed on that size as a good metric for my stories, with larger print. I wanted it to be dense. But I also wanted a quick read, something people might really rip through. Not to over-explain, but it’s not just supposed to be a guy talking about drawing, I was actually trying to delve into the sort of structural mechanics of comic books and how the format is almost an engine, generating momentum, excitement. I could go on about it, but I don’t think a detailed explanation is really going to help my case. It either works or it doesn’t.

I first became familiar with your work through your submission to Bartleby Snopes. How would you describe the role of lit mags in your writing and the literary world as a whole today?

I get the sense that the scene isn’t considered as important as it may have once been . . . I’m a little out of loop with that big picture stuff though. But yeah, I’m a lit-mag guy, for sure. I think it’s similar to mixtapes in hip-hop. Just like there’s gotta be a mainstream, there’s always also got to be that semi-underground space where unknown writers can flex their muscles and build on new ideas. Especially now, especially online, with flash stuff. I had a good run of about a year or two where I had stories up at least once a month, out somewhere in some lit-mag, website or journal, and Rockwell is basically a collection of that stuff. I don’t think the need for outlets like that will ever completely fade away.

What’s next for Uzodinma Okehi?

All this is new to me. First book, first time on tour. Meanwhile, I’m still grinding, trying to keep writing and drawing every day, even if it’s just an hour or two. I’ve got a family, so it’s less about any big plan, and more just balancing things out. And the goal isn’t necessarily to quit my day-job either. Then again, if I can find a way to make a little dough from comics, and keep writing books, well, who knows? Overall, I’m pushing forty, I work at a bookstore, and I’ve got my first book coming on an indie press. There’s no cocaine or Lamborghinis involved, but I’m pretty thrilled about it.

Congratulations on the book. If you’re reading this, go buy a copy so he can buy a Lamborghini. We won’t endorse the cocaine.

Bio: Uzodinma Okehi spent 2 years handing out zines on the subway. Wasn’t as fun as he thought. His work has appeared in Pank, Hobart, Bartleby Snopes, and many, many other places, no doubt, you’ve never heard of. He has an MFA in writing from New York University. He lives in Brooklyn. His son is 8 yrs old, smiles a lot, (too much?), and will absolutely, cross you over and drain a jumper in your face.

Announcing the 7th Annual Dialogue Contest Winners

With over 330 submissions and a total prize purse of just over $1,900, the 7th Annual Dialogue Contest is our second biggest contest ever. Picking our five finalists was a challenge, but we are thrilled to announce our winners:

1st Place: Boogeyman by Rebecca McDowell

2nd Place: A Visit with Dr. Wallace by Carolyn Moretti

3rd Place: The Kitchen God by Fred Senese

4th Place: Retired by Ronald Friedman

5th Place: Is My Long Hair Blocking Your View by Amy Naylor

Look for these winning stories in Issue 14 of Bartleby Snopes out in early January.

Birds of Passage with
Joe Giordano
(Contributor Interview Series #5)

Birds of Passage, An Italian Immigrant Coming of Age Story, is the debut novel from Joe Giordano. Birds of Passage recalls the Italian immigration experience at the turn of the twentieth-century when New York’s streets were paved with violence and disappointment.

We recently had the opportunity to sit down and chat with Joe about the book. Here’s what he had to say.

Congratulations on the publication of BIRDS OF PASSAGE.  What was the genesis of the novel? birds of passage by joe giordano

A: My father was an immigrant from Naples as were all my grandparents. I’m old enough to have known Italians born in the nineteenth-century. While Birds of Passage is not about my family, I tried to capture how people of that time thought and acted. Immigration, of Hispanic people into the United States is a hot topic and there are many parallels to what Italian immigrants faced in the past.

How long did it take to write before submitting it for publication?

A: I started the novel in October 2013. My first draft was completed by the following April. I had the manuscript professionally edited, reworked, then I started submitting to publishers in August. By January of 2015, Harvard Square Editions expressed interest, but with suggestions for improvement and asked for a second edit. When the rewrite was completed, Harvard Square Editions agreed to publish in May 2015.

How much research did you do?  For example, how did you know about the arranged marriages, the medical inspections before boarding the boat, municipal corruption?  Was the union busting done by Italian scabs historical fact?

A: I took a graduate course at the University of Texas at Austin on the Progressive Era, mainly to learn about the environment my family encountered when they immigrated to the United States. My paper for the course focused on Italian immigration and I read numerous books and papers on the subject. The course reading and the paper research were the foundations for the historical facts included in the novel. During the semester, I wrote a short story, “The Sour Smell of Pain,” which triggered the idea to write a novel.

Birds of Passage begins in 1905. My wife, Jane’s grandparents had an arranged marriage in 1916, although by then the practice had faded. Italians were hungry for work and did participate in strikebreaking until they were finally accepted into unions. In Birds of Passage, I provide an option for how Italians might have become part of the Longshoreman’s Union.

There are several intertwined, intricate plots at work in the novel.  How do you plot?  Do you work from an outline?  We’re thinking of a line late in the novel when the main character and his adoptive father are discussing the murder of the main character’s half-brother:  “Don’t torture yourself. No one could have imagined every twist of events.”  That could also serve as a tagline for the story, but when you start a project, do you first imagine every twist of events?

A: Duel plots seems a standard technique in fiction.  I had a general idea on how the story would unfold around Leonardo, Carlo, and Azzura, but as happens many times in my writing, the characters revealed what they would do next only when they were plunged into some difficult situation. I believe it was John Updike who labored over the last line of his novels, then never deviated. I’m not that good.

How do you effect an Italian cadence and rhythm to the dialogue when writing in English?  Or do you think and write in Italian first and then self-translate to English?

A: My Italian is not good enough to pen prose. My parents and grandparents spoke a mix of Italian and Neapolitan, which is a distinct language, not a dialect.  I use a text-to-speech reader to refine my work. Of course, growing up with New York Italians gave me a familiarity with speaking styles.

Is “bird of passage” an historical phrase used by Italian immigrants?

A: Italians were the first immigrants to the United States who returned to their home country. Quite often, they worked a season and returned with savings. Most were men. Many made multiple round trips. These travelers were termed Birds of Passage by Americans. When immigration laws were tightened after World War I, many decided to stay permanently in the U.S. and brought over families.

Are you influenced by the obvious books and movies when writing Italian-immigrant themed works?  For example, early in the narrative, there’s the famous phrase, “…an offer you can’t refuse…”

A: The full sentence spoken by Moretti in Birds of Passage as he tries to convince Leonardo to go to America is, “This is an offer you can’t refuse? No?” The last word was Moretti’s unintended subliminal warning that perhaps Leonardo should refuse. In The Godfather, an offer you can’t refuse carried the threat of death. That’s not the case between Moretti and Leonardo. The connection with Birds of Passage and The Godfather was unintended.

Any concern that this novel and others in the Italian-immigrant genre contribute to a cliché that Italian-Americans are inherently criminal?   The Medinas are law-abiding, but a lot of the other characters of Italian heritage are not (as are not the Irish- and Anglo-Americans).

A: There are a number of Italian-American groups who criticize the portrayal of Italian-Americans as criminals. I think that the Italian-Americans of today are Americans, fully integrated, and less likely to suffer from the prejudice of stereotypes. Many Italian-Americans admired The Godfather even though the Corleone family was criminal. The Corleones exemplified courage, family loyalty, resourcefulness, their own brand of integrity and seemed to control their destiny. They killed people, but that was just business. The character, Ignazio Terranova, in Birds of Passage, represents a more accurate Italian criminal personality around 1905 than does Vito Corleone.

Leonardo’s thoughts and expectations at the end of the novel beg for a sequel . . .is a sequel in the works?

A: I’m working on a modern literary thriller about an Italian-American who runs afoul of the Russian mob. I hope the reader won’t be able to put it down. A sequel to Birds of Passage will be written if the novel is popular and readers demand more.

A final question, related to writing in general, that our readers are probably interested in and would find valuable:  over the years, you’ve submitted about 50 stories to Bartleby Snopes, with only one acceptance (“A Careless Mistake,” February, 2013).  How do you handle rejection?  What keeps you submitting?

A: Ninety-five percent of the stories rejected by Bartleby Snopes were accepted by other magazines for publication, often after an additional rewrite. I expect the remainder to be published within a year. As of this interview, I’ve had seventy stories published almost all by different magazines. Once one of my pieces is accepted, I rarely submit again to the same magazine. I’m trying to broaden my readership and reputation.

However, I continue to submit to Bartleby Snopes for the quick feedback I’m given on new drafts. Writing is a lonely pursuit. My wife, Jane, helps me on new stories, but an experienced editor, like those at Bartleby Snopes often can point out the one or two things that need to be revised before the story is publishable. That’s why you see so much of my work.

Regarding rejection, I have a number of friends who won’t seek publication because of sensitivity to rejection. I think writers should embrace rejection as an incentive to improve. We must resist the temptation to argue with feedback but instead reflect on why the particular editor/reader had that reaction. The reader, not the writer, is in charge of determining both the quality of the piece and its meaning. When it comes to writing, I have a lot to learn, but the creative process is fun. Rejection makes acceptance sweeter.

Joe, thank you for talking about your book and sharing your thoughts with us. Good luck with the release!

The first chapter of Birds of Passage is available on Joe’s website.  Be sure to sign up for Joe’s blog on his “Contact” page.

Beyond Anecdote: How to Write Flash Fiction That Means Something

When an editor finds your flash submission anecdotal, you can typically expect to receive a rejection letter. But what does “anecdote” mean, anyway? Some say that an anecdote has flat characters, or an underdeveloped narrative, or that it lacks an intrinsic logic or natural progression. An anecdote can mean all of these things, but for me it mainly means that the story doesn’t delve beyond the surface, that it lacks staying power and emotional impact.

I’ve selected five of my favorite flashes to demonstrate how a story can carry weight and meaning in 1,000 words or less. The five stories I’ve highlighted are very different, but each goes beyond their surface narrative, creating something potent and universal.

Before you read what I have to say about the stories, read them for yourself and think about how they make you feel, what elements evoke your response. Then think about how some of the tools the authors use—language, structure, voice—could be developed in your own work. This, more than anything, will teach you how to write flash that means something.

“Egg Toss, August 1989” by Meagan Cass, published in SmokeLong Quarterly

This story has it all—vivid characters, rich setting, poetic prose—all of which add up to create a sense of loss for something that never really was. I love the sense of honesty here. Cass refuses to package things into a neat dichotomy—a glorified past and childhood versus a less enchanting present.  Here the past is more complex, as often is the case in real life, earning our trust in the story’s emotional truth.

Body language creates a sense of movement and adds to the story’s authenticity—we can see the aunts curling away from the father, the way the mother drinks her beer too fast.  Every detail counts, deepening our understanding of the characters.  And while the language is lovely, there are no throwaway symbols or metaphors. Instead, Cass focuses on the image of the egg—“whole, opaque, blessed”—to convey the narrator’s desire for his family to be whole.

“Out There” by Lindsay Hunter; published in the author’s short story collection Daddy’s and in The Nervous Breakdown  

You’d be hard-pressed to find a flowery phrase in this story, but isn’t the language brilliant just the same? Read it aloud to see what I mean—there is a rhythm here, a kind of music, with each sentence luring us more deeply in. Hunter begins with a declaration: “People burn cars out there.” Then we have a longer sentence that contrasts with the staccato of the first, grabbing our attention with the image of a father shaking lighter fluid over a car “like he was seasoning it.” What kind of father does that? we wonder. And what does “out there” mean?

The reader suspects that “out there” could be a metaphor for abandonment. It’s a place where things are left behind, like an old car or the narrator’s dog Jinx, who is abandoned by Pop and left to join a pack of wild dogs. Or like the child narrator herself, who also finds herself abandoned. Perhaps “out there” doesn’t mean just one thing—it also seems to embody the chaos of the narrator’s father, the danger of becoming like him.

What makes the story great is that Hunter doesn’t draw these parallels in a heavy-handed way—if anything, the deeper meaning of the story is an afterthought. Instead, Hunter focuses on evoking a sense of place through imagery—the choir of dogs with their “brutal chorus,” “God’s bloody iris” —which seem sprung from the language of dreams.

Seven Items in Jason Reynolds’ Jacket Pocket, Two Days After His Suicide, As Found by his Eight-Year-Old Brother, Grady” by Robert Swartwood, published in PANK

I love the way that Swartwood uses objects to tell a story, the way the structure of the piece leads you down the rabbit hole of the narrative. The mystery of Jason Reynolds builds with each found object—a plastic compass, a pack of gum, photographs held together by a paperclip. The ordinariness of the objects act as a foil to the complex character that emerges, a character Swartwood manages to make us like in spite of what we learnthat he’s a killer.

Swartwood accomplishes this by giving Jason multiple dimensions, by having him take a beating for his brother, by layering the character with each discovered object. The ending, which could have been a gimmicky twist in a weaker story, is a gut-puncher. While surprising, it also flows from the progression of the narrative. By the time we finish reading, we wonder if we knew who the “FOURTH” would be all along.

“Run for Your Life” by Kate Wisel, published in Bartleby Snopes

This was love at first read. In fact, I loved this story so much I couldn’t stop to think about why I loved it—it hit me on a visceral level, much like the moments of impact the narrator observes and experiences in the piece.

Part of why I couldn’t stop to think is because Wisel doesn’t let me. She grabs me with her first sentence, sweeping me along with her narrator as we run down Comm. Ave., until I feel that I too have glistening calves, “like nylon.”  Here, language mimics content—the pace of the prose is breathless, picking up momentum as we watch the bike thief from the narrator’s eyes, the way he springs free from men who try to restrain him “like he was dribbling a basketball through their legs.”

We only slow down to learn about the narrator.  Her backstory about stalking her ex is brief but potent. In fact, the narrator’s choices—both past and present—are what make this more than a well-written anecdote. Her final choice—delivered in a wallop of a last line—hits the reader with nuanced meaning and resonance.

“It’s End of the World Karaoke” by Ashley Inguanta, published in PANK  

Inguanta manages to build a world in only 663 words, creating a vivid moment in time before that world goes silent. The premise—hanging out in a bar and belting out karaoke until the Earth burns down—is a surprising take on apocalypse. The lighthearted details—nachos, taking a photo for Facebook—stand in contrast to the doom and gloom narrative we expect to see.

But Inguanta takes it a step further by creating Javier, the main character we see her world through.  Javier is what elevates this piece from a unique premise to a memorable story. He wants so much—to be kissed, to connect, to not be alone. The details about his past—namely that he only ever kissed one girl, and that she had a small breathing problem— make his story feel vivid, authentic.

It’s specifics like these that make a character universally resonant, not broad, general brushstrokes. While the world Inguanta creates is fantastical, the emotions she evokes—desire and loneliness—are our own.

Official 7th Annual Dialogue Contest Updates

Here you will find the latest information regarding the entries and prize money for our 7th Annual Dialogue Contest. Submissions are now closed. Re-submissions will be accepted through September 30th.

Last updated on 9/16 (7:00 pm Central)

Submissions Received: 337
Re-Submissions Received: 95

Current Prize Money (prize money continues to go up with each new submission):

Total Prize Purse: $1,935

1st: $1161
2nd: $387
3rd: $193.50
4th: $101.75
5th: $91.75

Explanation of Prize Structure:

1st Prize: $300 minimum + $3 for every entry over 50
2nd Prize: $100 minimum + $1 for every entry over 50
3rd Prize: $50 minimum + $1 for every two entries over 50
4th Prize: $30 minimum + $1 for every 4 entries over 50
5th Prize: $20 minimum + $1 for every 4 entries over 50

Find more details on our Contest Page

Lighting the Literary World with Merle Drown (Contributor Interview Series #4)

Several years ago, Merle Drown‘s “Reunion” earned the Bartleby Snopes Story of the Month honors. Merle hasn’t slowed down much since then. With several novels to his credit, Merle has proven a highly successful author. Now he’s back with a brand new novel called Lighting the World. We were fortunate to get the chance to speak with Merle about his success and the new book.

1. Merle, you had a bit of success in Bartleby Snopes a few years ago, with two published stories and a Story of the Month award. Why did you abandon us? Just kidding, of course. Seriously though, how do you feel your early success in lit mags contributed to your overall direction as an author?

Early in my career I published some stories early, then publisLighting coverhed novels. I worked on (and am still working on) a doorstop of a work it started coming downstairs at night drinking my beer and eating my cheese and found myself taking refuge in flash fiction. I’ve published over 30 of these pieces and still write them. I am, of course, esp. proud of being in Bartleby S! One thing writing flash fiction taught me was how to shrink mss. Even the beast novel has been put on a diet.

2. Tell us a bit about what you’ve been up to since you last appeared in Bartleby Snopes. Do you still submit to lit mags?

I do still submit to lit mags. I have a number of flash fictions, which I’d like to publish. I am focused on several novels, which are in different stages. One I’m currently shopping, one is in a much earlier stage, then there’s the beast…

3. Lighting the World‘s main characters are young teenagers, but it doesn’t necessarily feel like a young adult book. How do you go about writing young characters while maintaining a voice that can be universally read?

I didn’t intend to write a YA. When I was a teen, we read Catcher in the Rye, Black Boy, Huckleberry Finn, Lord of the Flies, just thinking of them as “books,” good books with young protagonists. I think there are good YA books as do millions of readers and I hope teenagers will read Lighting the World. (My friend Jo Knowles has a terrific one out now, Read Between the Lines). Teaching high school for many years gave me experience with teenage voices and with their ability to switch lingo when necessary. Thanks for noticing that their voices are “authentic” and the authorial voice “can be universally read.”

4. How does personal experience shape the characters in Lighting the World? Did you ever think about running away from home or showing up to school with a gun?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI did run away from home, but not with a gun. I did own a gun and did hunt a bit, never so well as Wade. I never thought of taking it to school, though many of us kept tire irons next to driver’s seat of our cars. Other parts of the novel, unrequited love, conflict with parents (for me it was my father, not my mother) were part of my life, and I’d guess, part of many teens’ lives. Something we too often forget is that teenagers are idealists, who want success in some grand sense. I think of our dreams (and the “American Dream”) a la Gatsby. We want to win the Nobel Prize, become millionairs, discover a cure for cancer, play in the World Series, win an Oscar. For Wade, “doing good in the world” is a genuine goal. He will take care of Uncle Andew and rescue Maria. And like Gatsby, it was “the foul dust that floated in the wake of his dreams” that destroyed Wade and his dreams. I think this longing is common for American teens, as it was for me, and most of us learn the cost of dreams and develop the blend of realism and romanticism that allows us to survive and prosper. Few of us have to pay the terrible price Wade did for our illusions.

5. There’s a 1-star review up for the novel on Goodreads (which is completely absurd, by the way). How do these reviews affect you as a writer?

I believe everyone is entitled to his/her own opinion and to his/her own mistakes. My first novel garnered good reviews with no mud. My second was widely and well reviewed, including a starred review from PW and a fine, standalone review in the Sunday NY Times, but it had also received two zingers, including one from a small, local paper. Go figure.

6.  What are you working on next?

I’m shopping Pa, a novel that is cousin to The Suburbs of Heaven, a dark comedy, Game of Thrones for the rural set. I’m revising a novel set in America’s past with some slightly non-realistic elements (a departure for me). Then I have the aforementioned monster that I want to tame or not.

Thank you for taking the time to chat with us. Congratulations on your new book, and good luck with Pa. We’re looking forward to reading it once it finds a home. 

Lighting the World is available for purchase from here.

7th Annual Dialogue Contest Is Now Open

Our 7th Annual Dialogue Contest is now open. You can find complete contest rules here.

Some quick information:

Prizes: A minimum of $500 will be awarded, with at least $300 going to the grand prize winner. Our five finalists will also appear in Issue 15 of the magazine due out in January 2016. Last year we awarded $2380 in prize money. For every entry over 50, an additional $5 will be added to the total prize money.

2015 Prize Structure:

1st Prize: $300 minimum + $3 for every entry over 50
2nd Prize: $100 minimum + $1 for every entry over 50
3rd Prize: $50 minimum + $1 for every two entries over 50
4th Prize: $30 minimum + $1 for every 4 entries over 50
5th Prize: $20 minimum + $1 for every 4 entries over 50

Entry Fee: $10 for unlimited entries (only one entry allowed at a time; see Response/Notification section for more details). Entry fee is due at time of submission and will be collected through Submittable.

Be sure to read our dialogue writing tips for advice on crafting your entry. You can also read our past winners while you’re there.

Suggested Reading by Story of the Month Winner Robin White

We asked Robin White, our April Story of the Month winner, what he’s been reading on the web lately. Here’s what he recommended:

Dirty Blue, by Ani King (published by Pidgeon Holes)

Severance, by Leslee Becker (published by Boston Review)

Wanted, by Kathy Steinemann (published by Saturday Night Reader)

Disappearing Act, by Chelsea Hanna Cohen (published by freeze frame fiction)

A Memory from Childhood, by Fiona Helmsley (published by Dogzplot)

Tell us what you think of Robin’s picks in the comments. Feel free to recommend some of your favorite online stories as well.

The Hit Man by J.F. Smith

At Bartleby Snopes, we receive thousands of submissions a year. As you might expect, things can get a bit redundant in the so-called slush pile. A few weeks ago, Managing Editor Nathaniel Tower published some controversial thoughts as a guest post on the freeze frame fiction blog. In the post, Tower ranted against a few things he’s tired of seeing in submissions. While most writers seemed to enjoy Tower’s frankness, a few thought his opinions were a bit too strongly stated. We won’t get into the different interpretations of Tower’s words. That’s not why we’re here. Instead, we want to share a wonderful story we received in response to the post.

A talented writer decided to take Tower’s post as a challenge. Rather than avoiding the tired topics Tower mentioned, J.F Smith chose to incorporate much of the forbidden subject matter. The result was an amusing and charming story that we just had to share with the world.

So, without further ado, here is J.F. Smith’s wonderful story that violates all the rules:

The Hit Man

by J.F. Smith

It was cloudy outside, so no artfully depicted light shone through the windows in this story. Instead, discs of recessed lighting lit the doctor’s kitchen.

The doctor sipped a cup of warmed-over coffee. He sat on a banquet stool and stared out the kitchen window, waiting for the food delivery truck. It was Wednesday, which meant that it was food delivery day. Although the ingredients came attractively packaged in a cooler, the doctor liked to store it in his refrigerator before leaving for his morning rounds, because you couldn’t be too careful with food poisoning.

The doctor lived on the side of the hill, which bears almost no weight on the plot, except for the part when the doctor wondered whether one must set the emergency brake if one parks his car nose-down. This, of course, he mused when a low black car came to a rest just across the street in this very manner. The doctor poured himself another cup of coffee in a small half-cup sized mug purchased by his wife.

Just as he considered the practicality of the e-brake on a hill (or not), the doorbell rang. On the stoop stood a man in gray trousers. He was bald, or nearly so. It was hard to tell.

“Yes?” the doctor asked.

“Oh good! It’s you,” the man said.

“Can I help you?”

“Sure,” the man said. “I’m here to talk to you about that research project of yours.”

The doctor shifted his weight. “I’m sorry. I’m not permitted to talk about it quite yet.” He allowed himself a brief moment to think about his upcoming media circuit. His goal was an interview with Sanjay Gupta, as he thought of himself as a slightly shorter and older version of the famous physician. He imagined their likenesses side-by-side on a noontime program, and warm, smug joy crackled through him. They could be brothers, the cameraman might joke. The doctor composed himself for the sake of this gray-pallored reporter in front of him. “Who are you? How did you get this address?”

“From my boss,” the man said. “And, I’m the Hit Man.” With that, he reared back and slapped the doctor across the face.

The doctor recoiled. “Hey!”

“May I?” the Hit Man asked. He scuffed his feet on the mat and stepped through the threshold into the doctor’s house. “Will my car be okay out there?”

The doctor braced himself against the hall table and did not answer. A vase that held a bouquet of artificial flowers fell to the wood floor, but did not break.

The Hit Man squinted at him. “Hoo, boy. That’s a five-fingered cheek, all right.” He bent down and picked up the vase, stepping close to the doctor and reaching around him to replace it.

The doctor trembled. “Take anything you want,” he said. “Just, please. Don’t hurt me.” He paused. “Are you going to kill me?”

“Me?” the Hit Man thumbed his chest. “Of course not. The boss said no deaths.” Whistling, he walked down the doctor’s hallway and into the kitchen.

The doctor thought about calling the police, but his only house phone was in the kitchen, where from the sounds of it, the Hit Man was heating himself a cup of coffee. He was dreaming, the doctor decided, and said as much.

“Come on,” the Hit Man said. “You know the answer to that one.”

The doctor followed him into the kitchen, where the Hit Man drank from the doctor’s own small mug. “Tell me why you’re here.”

“I already did,” the Hit Man said. “You know, you have a lovely home, but the light in here is awfully harsh, yeah?”


“Anyhow,” the Hit Man said. “The research project.”

“What about it?”

“Time to trash it, Doc.”

The doctor laughed. “Hardly. We’re one isolated variable away from a cure for cancer.”

The Hit Man sighed. He put down the coffee, flexed his fingers, and slapped the doctor’s other cheek.

“What was that for?” the doctor cried.

The Hit Man looked annoyed. “I’m just doing my job,” he said. “Boss wants me here until you agree to back off.” His eyes brightened. “’Til you say ‘oncle!’ Get it? Because you’re an oncologist?”

Goddamn pharmaceutical companies, the doctor thought.

The doorbell rang in two quick bursts, and they heard a thump against the door. The doctor excused himself and found the food delivery cooler on the stoop. He retrieved it and brought it back to the kitchen. “Look, you can tell your medicine man boss to tackle some other monster. Go after Alzheimer’s, for Chrissake.”

The Hit Man looked surprised. He sat down on the banquet stool. “My boss isn’t Big Pharma, Doc.”

The doctor opened the cooler and began unpacking it. He set wrapped and labeled meats and fish out first, followed by earthy root vegetables, ripe fruit, and small brown paper bags full of spices and mustard. “Who, then?”

The Hit Man put down the coffee and leaned toward the doctor. “The Editor,” he said. His tone was low.

It was the doctor’s turn to be surprised. “Who?”

The Hit Man shrugged. “It doesn’t matter to me, Doc. Just know that your research project really stomps his brakes.”

“I think you mean ‘grinds his gears.’”

“Didn’t quit my day job for nothing, yeah?”

“Your day job?”

“I was a lousy teacher.”

The doctor removed two ice packs from the cooler. He opened the freezer and added one to a row of twenty-six of them (two for each week since he signed up for the service). He put the other against his cheek.

“I got you pretty good, didn’t I?” the Hit Man said. He wiped his hands on his trousers and reached for the recipe sheet. Together, they read the label. Filet with Fruit Medley for Two.

The Hit Man pointed to the For Two. “Your wife like this?”

“It’s a bit of a delicate situation. We’re… separated.”

The Hit Man nodded in sympathy. “So’re we. She run around on you, or you on her? When the cat’s away, the dog just may, am I right, Doc?”

The doctor told him it was nothing like that. Long hours for him at work, longer for her at home. They grew apart. The details didn’t matter. He tapped the recipe sheet in front of the Hit Man. “Who would eat fruit with meat, anyway?” the doctor asked.

“Nietzsche ate fruit with beef for lunch every day,” the Hit Man said.

“Is that true?”

“I don’t know. It was in a textbook I taught to my students.”

The doctor put the ingredients in the refrigerator. “So now you’re a hit man? Shouldn’t you have a black overcoat and a gun?”

“Now you sound like my wife. Plus, I told you. I don’t kill people.”

“Sounds like you might be a lousy hit man,” the doctor said.

“Ouch,” the Hit Man said. “So. The research project?”

“I probably won’t give it up,” the doctor said.

“Suit yourself,” the Hit Man said. He drained the coffee and wiped his hands on his trousers again. “Now, I gotta figure out what to tell the boss.”


BIO: J.F. Smith writes, dances, teaches, and occasionally blogs at She is a Faculty Professor of Creative Writing at SNHU, where she teaches graduate students online while sitting in her Boston-area office. J.F. has most recently been published in Flash Fiction Magazine, Boston Literary Review, Thought Catalog, and Möbius. She lives with her husband and their infant daughter, Lucy.

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