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The Fiction Writing Workshop: Where To Publish Your Work

By Kristin Bair O’KeeffeKristin Bair O'Keeffe
Congratulations, writers! You’ve had a great year of writing fiction. Your work has sprouted, blossomed, and is ready to be enjoyed by readers everywhere. To get you ready for 2010, I decided to wrap up this year with a list of markets for your fiction. I’ve included a little something for everyone, so get busy and get your work out there.*
Short Fiction – Print Literary Magazines
1.     The Indiana Review  Publishes two issues a year (May and November); publishes 6-10 stories per issue.
2.     Alaska Quarterly Review  Publishes two issues a year.
3.     Alimentum: the literature of food  The print journal publishes two issues a year (winter and summer); also features an online serving.
4.     THEMA  Publishes three issues a year.
5.     Tin House  Publishes four issues a year; also offers an online sampling.
Short Fiction – Online Literary Magazines
1.     Anderbo  Continuously updated.
2.     Narrative Magazine  Continuously updated; lots of contests.
3.     Flatmancrooked  Online with an annual “best of” print anthology.
4.     The Adirondack Review  Quarterly issues with an “evolving issue” on the website.
5.    Guernica A magazine of art and ideas.
1.     Narrative Magazine  Publishes book-length works for serialization; electronic submissions only.
2.     James Jones First Novel Fellowship Contest  Deadline will be around March 1, 2010 (date TBA); award of $10,000.
3.     The 2010 Autumn House Fiction Contest The winner will receive book publication, $1,000 advance against royalties, and a $1,500 travel grant to participate in the 2009 Autumn House Master Authors Series in Pittsburgh; deadline is June 30, 2010.
*Always read the submission guidelines of every publication to which you submit.
October 2007 Family Fun MagazineKristin Bair O’Keeffe’s debut novel, Thirsty, will be published by Swallow Press in 2009. Since moving to Shanghai, China, in 2006, Kristin has been chronicling her adventures (and misadventures) in her blog, “Shanghai Adventures of a Trailing Spouse.” Her essays and articles have appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Poets & Writers Magazine, The Baltimore Review, San Diego Family Magazine, and The Gettysburg Review. She teaches fiction and nonfiction writing and is the curator of Out Loud! The Shanghai Writers Literary Salon. To learn more, visit


The Fiction Writing Workshop: Don’t Forget the Reader

By Kristin Bair O’KeeffeKristin Bair O'Keeffe

A few weeks ago, I bought a secondhand copy of Mark Haddon‘s novel A Spot of Bother in an antique furniture shop in Shanghai. I liked his first novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and had high hopes for this one.
Though I’m only midway through the book, I’ve not been disappointed. The thing about Haddon is that he gets that there is an indispensable, dynamic relationship between the writer and the reader, and no matter how interested he may be in telling his story, he never forgets that there’s a reader out there on the receiving end.
How do I know this?
Because I can’t stop reading the book. Because every night I look forward to shutting down my computer, washing my face, and crawling into bed with it. Because I’m already counting how many pages I have left, calculating how many more nights I can read at the pace I’m going, and forcing myself to slow down so I can stretch it out.
How does Haddon keep my interest? How does he successfully maintain a relationship with me, the reader?
1.   The first sentence of each chapter drops us into the middle of something, for example, Chapter 7 begins, “There was a clatter of plates and Jean turned to find that George had vanished.”
2.   Haddon utilizes a third person narrator who jumps from character to character in an organized, interesting way. Each chapter is told from a different character’s perspective, for example:
    a.  Chapter 1 is told from George’s perspective. (It’s in third person point of  view, but we’re getting details about what George feels, thinks, and sees. We’re very, VERY close to him.)
    b.  Chapter 2, George
    c.  Chapter 3, George’s wife Jean
    d.  Chapter 4, George
    e.  Chapter 5, George and Jean’s daughter Katie
     f.   and so on.
3.   The characters feel like family members, friends, or neighbors. Because of the point of view choices Haddon has made, we get very intimate with these folks. We understand their motivations, desires, and frustrations. And because we understand, we care.
4.   Tension. Haddon creates tension. Because we know the characters so well and because they have such conflicting motivations, desires, and frustrations, tension is a natural outcome.
5.   Because the tension is so high, we want to know what happens next.
All that said, I recommend you run out and buy Haddon’s A Spot of Bother. Read it, study it, set it aside for a while, and read it again. When you sit down to work on your own writing, keep his relationship with the reader in mind. Then create your own.

October 2007 Family Fun MagazineKristin Bair O’Keeffe’s debut novel, Thirsty, will be published by Swallow Press in 2009. Since moving to Shanghai, China, in 2006, Kristin has been chronicling her adventures (and misadventures) in her blog, “Shanghai Adventures of a Trailing Spouse.” Her essays and articles have appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Poets & Writers Magazine, The Baltimore Review, San Diego Family Magazine, and The Gettysburg Review. She teaches fiction and nonfiction writing and is the curator of Out Loud! The Shanghai Writers Literary Salon. To learn more, visit

The Fiction Writing Workshop: Point of View

By Kristin Bair O’KeeffeKristin Bair O'Keeffe

When I ask a student, “In which point of view is this story written?” I often get a blank stare, a long “uuummmmm,” or a wrong answer with a question mark tacked onto the end (for example, “First person?”).
When making decisions about point of view, you must consider two important questions:

From whose perspective is this story going to be told? (In other words, whose story is it?)

Who is going to tell the story?

The Breakdown
First Person: an “I” (or sometimes a “we”) tells the story; everything in the story is filtered through that narrator
          Example: The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
           1.   This is Holden Caulfield’s story. No doubt about it.
           2.   Holden is the first-person narrator. He is the “I” in the story.
Advantages: strong sense of intimacy; constant opportunity for characterization; a strong voice that draws readers into the story
Challenges: a first-person narrator walks a fine-line between interesting and self-indulgent; readers might doubt the narrator’s interpretation of events (thus creating an unreliable narrator); readers can only climb into the head of the narrator
Second Person: the protagonist (or another main character) is addressed by using “you” (This creates the sense that the reader is the “you.”)
          Example: Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney
          1.   This is the main character’s story. (Yes, he remains named throughout the book, but he is most definitely the “you.”)
          2.   The narrator is the main character talking to himself. (He’s a little screwed up so this direct address using “you” makes sense.)
Advantages: a sense of immediacy and urgency; fun to write and read; readers feel included
Challenges: if readers don’t like or don’t relate to your main character, you might lose them; some readers are uncomfortable if they feel they are being addressed directly; hard to sustain readers’ interest over many pages
Third Person: an outside narrator tells the story using “he,” “she,” and “they”
          Example: Loving Frank by Nancy Horan
          1.   This is Mamah Borthwick Cheney’s story.
          2.   A third-person narrator tells the story but via Mamah’s perspective.(We see what other characters do, but don’t get into their heads.)
Advantages: more leeway to move around a story; opportunity to observe the protagonist from the outside; ability to get into the heads of your secondary characters (if you choose to); able to create a more complicated world; more objective than a first-person narrator
Challenges: less intimacy; temptation to include too many characters; a narrator who accesses the thoughts and feelings of too many characters
Caution: It’s Not Just About Pronouns
At first glance, it may seem that changing the point of view of your story is as simple as changing the pronouns, but it’s not. Deciding on a point of view requires you to consider many aspects of a story, including information to which the reader has access, voice, attitude, language, and which scenes to include (among others). Take your time here, and when in doubt ask yourself: Who matters most? 
October 2007 Family Fun MagazineKristin Bair O’Keeffe’s debut novel, Thirsty, will be published by Swallow Press in 2009. Since moving to Shanghai, China, in 2006, Kristin has been chronicling her adventures (and misadventures) in her blog, “Shanghai Adventures of a Trailing Spouse.” Her essays and articles have appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Poets & Writers Magazine, The Baltimore Review, San Diego Family Magazine, and The Gettysburg Review. She teaches fiction and nonfiction writing and is the curator of Out Loud! The Shanghai Writers Literary Salon. To learn more, visit

Fiction Writing Workshop: The Seven Shoulds of Subplots

Kristin Bair O'Keeffe

By Kristin Bair O’Keeffe

Real life doesn’t happen in a single straight, neat line; neither should life in a novel. If you want to create a realistic story that captures and keeps the attention of your readers, you’ve got to weave subplots into it that add depth and texture. Subplots are stories within the main story, and they can sprout from any aspect of a main character’s private or professional life. Once in place they can (and should) deepen the text in significant ways.

Think about Homer’s The Odyssey. The main plot is: against crazy odds, man struggles to get home. But there’s a heck of a lot more going on in this story, thanks to the subplots. Remember Penelope, who is at home waiting, weaving, and fending off suitors? Telemachus, who is trying to grow up and do the right thing by his long-absent father? The gods who are conspiring against Odysseus? The gods who are trying to help him out?

Without these subplots, even The Odyssey would be a little boring and flat. Instead it reads like a modern-day soap opera (with a few Cyclops here and there).

Now apply this to your own work.

If your story is about a woman who loses her job and has to redefine herself in the professional community, you can add a subplot in which she secretly takes a night job to learn new skills and develops a crush on Hank, her new, sexy, younger boss. Suddenly you’ve got a little romance and an interesting secondary character.

As you take another look at your novel with subplots in mind, remember that they should:

  1. connect back to the main plot (and intersect with it along the way)
  2. happen for a reason and make sense in the story
  3. occur simultaneously with the main plot
  4. introduce secondary characters
  5. reveal characteristics about the main characters that readers wouldn’t otherwise get to see
  6. be fully developed (Subplots will not be as in-depth as the main plot, but you don’t want to skimp either. They should have a beginning, a middle, and a resolution all their own.)
  7. affect the resolution of the main plot

It’s important to remember that you don’t want to overload your story with subplots. Your goal is to enhance and create a three-dimensional story that feels realistic and balanced.

October 2007 Family Fun MagazineKristin Bair O’Keeffe’s debut novel, Thirsty, will be published by Swallow Press in 2009. Since moving to Shanghai, China, in 2006, Kristin has been chronicling her adventures (and misadventures) in her blog, “Shanghai Adventures of a Trailing Spouse.” Her essays and articles have appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Poets & Writers Magazine, The Baltimore Review, San Diego Family Magazine, and The Gettysburg Review. She teaches fiction and nonfiction writing and is the curator of Out Loud! The Shanghai Writers Literary Salon. To learn more, visit

The Fiction-Writing Workshop: Creating Three-Dimensional Characters

Kristin Bair O'Keeffe

By Kristin Bair O’Keeffe

You know a well-developed character when you read one, don’t you? It’s the one that you chatter on about to your friends as if she were a living, breathing human being. The one about whom you find yourself saying things like, “Oh my, is she nuts? I can’t believe ______ did that. What’s going to happen to her now?” The one you obsess about at the office, longing for the workday to end so you can curl up on a subway seat and get back to the book. A character like Liesel in Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, who haunts you so much that in the middle of the night you pull out the book, click on your Itty Bitty Book light, and read until dawn.

How do you create a character that sticks with readers and makes them want to keep coming back for more?

1.    Start with who you know (but good gracious, don’t get stuck there), Lots of writers base characters on people they know, and why not? We’re surrounded by quirky, lovely, interesting people whose personalities and habits are ripe for the picking. So, yes, use the folks in your life to get started on characters, but allow yourself to veer away from the real-life models when it feels right to do so. (For example, if you base a character on Uncle Ted with the kooky hair and the tendency to scratch his chin when he senses trouble, endow your character with those qualities and move on. As your mother would say, one Uncle Ted is enough.)

2.    Wreak havoc and see how your characters react. Yup, havoc. Let it roar. A flood? Great. A job loss? Terrific. The death of a secret lover? Oooh, tantalizing. There’s no better way to find out what your characters are made of than by throwing them into a stressful situation in which something dear is at risk and seeing how they react. (Take a look at Trudy Liang’s responses when the Japanese invade Hong Kong in Janice Y. K. Lee’s The Piano Teacher.)

3.    Create human beings (not robots). I don’t know about you, but all the human beings I know are complicated, emotional, multi-faceted, and somewhat flawed in both charming and not-so-charming ways, and when I read a character in a book that is as complex as one of these living, breathing human beings, I feel deeply connected to the story. David Crouse, author of two short story collections-Copy Cats and The Man Back There-is a master of creating three-dimensional characters so real you feel like you met them at a party last Friday. Check out Anthony in “Kopy Cats” (the title story in Copy Cats); you’ll see what I mean.

With all this information about creating lively characters fresh in your brain, set to work on your own characters. Are they well rounded? Will they make readers feel something? Will they make readers come back for more?

The Fiction Writing Workshop: Let Your Characters Speak

Kristin Bair O'KeeffeBy Kristin Bair O’Keeffe



“Do characters have to talk?”

“Yes, unless, of course, your character is a true mute or her mouth is bound shut with duct tape.”

Silence. And then the sound of nails drumming on a wooden desk.




“For a lot of reasons, but three pretty important ones.”

“Such as?”

“Well, first, dialogue helps readers get to know your characters. Look how much you learn about the narrator’s dad in Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics (Penguin Books, 2006) when on page five he gives his opinion about people writing their life stories:

‘Unless your name is something along the lines of Mozart, Matisse, Churchill, Che Guevara or Bond-James Bond-you best spend your free time finger painting or playing shuffleboard, for no one, with the exception of your flabby-armed mother with stiff hair and a mashed-potato way of looking at you, will want to hear the particulars of your pitiable existence, which doubtlessly will end as it began-with a wheeze.’

“Ooh, that guy’s got some attitude, huh?”

“Exactly. And you know it both from what he says AND how he says it.”

“Okay, I get that. But why else should I use dialogue?”

“Ever get stalled in the forward motion of a story?”

“Oh, yeah. All the time.”

“Well, dialogue helps you figure out what happens next.”

“It does?”

“Yep, on page fifteen of Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (Vintage, 2003), the first-person narrator says to a girl he meets, ‘I’m looking for my cat…’ Simple sentence. Simple introduction of a problem via dialogue. And so begins a relationship and a journey that takes you places you never thought you’d go.”

“Wow, that’s pretty cool.”

“Told ya.”

“But you said there were three reasons, didn’t you?”

“I did, and the last one is the simplest. Dialogue is interesting to read. Readers love it. In fact, I had a friend in college who only read the dialogue in books. She skipped all the narrative. She said dialogue was all she needed to get a full story. A little extreme, but telling.”

“Any examples of dialogue readers love?”

“Actually that’s a great assignment for you. Grab your favorite book. Study the dialogue. Look at it for characterization, story movement, and entertainment value. Then write your own.”

“Hhhmm, me and my big mouth.”

The Fiction Writing Workshop: The Anatomy of a Scene

Kristin Bair O'Keeffe
By Kristin Bair O’Keeffe

What is a scene?

Pushed to put this seemingly abstract concept into words, scene can be hard to define. But, if we leave the written word for a moment and jump to the stage, the answer comes a little more easily.

So go ahead, leave the written word. Jump to the stage. And think again.

What is a scene? Ah, yes. A scene is a period of time during which characters are talking, something is happening, and both are unfolding in a place.

Take Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” for instance, when Romeo climbs up onto Juliet’s balcony and she professes great love for him, and the two of them coo at each other until they must part. Right there you’ve got a spectacular (and rather famous) scene: action, dialogue, and definitely a place.

You use the same three elements to create scenes in novels and short stories.

But why are scenes important? A numbers of reasons.

First, scenes give your readers something to see, and readers love to have something to see. (Think about how many times while reading certain passages in your favorite novel, you say, “Oh, I can just see it!”)

Second, scenes perform the all-important task of moving your story forward.

Third, scenes allow your readers to get to know your characters (and once your readers know your characters, they will keep on reading).

Fourth, without scenes, your story will be just plain B-O-R-I-N-G.

Consider Sherman Alexie’s poignant, hilarious, and spot-on novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Little, Brown and Company, 2007). In the third chapter entitled “Revenge Is My Middle Name,” the narrator (a Spokane Indian kid named Junior who lives on a reservation) goes to a powwow with his best friend Rowdy. Now Alexie could have described Rowdy’s angry, aggressive behaviors to readers in straight narrative, but instead he puts the two boys into a situation where they talk, go somewhere, and get involved with some seedy characters. We get it all: action, dialogue, and place, and by the end of the powwow scene, we GET Rowdy. We know his role in Junior’s life. We understand why Junior loves him so much. And we suspect that eventually, there may be a bit of friction in this friendship. Most importantly, we want to keep reading. (Let me point out that although this novel’s primary audience is young readers, this is some sophisticated scene construction. It’s worth reading for both story and writerly techniques.)

With all this churning about in your noggin, try your hand at a couple of scenes this month. Use characters from a piece you’ve been working on or create some new ones in a completely new setting.

In addition, reread one of your favorite stories. Pay close attention to the scenes in the story. Where does one scene begin and end? What does the scene accomplish? How does the scene move the story forward? The more aware you become of scene construction in what you read, the more easily and artfully you’ll use it in your own work.

The Fiction Writing Workshop: The “S” Word

Kristin Bair O'Keeffe

By Kristin Bair O’Keeffe

Every story needs a setting. A place where characters can hunker down, figure out what’s bugging them, and struggle their way to resolution. Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife wouldn’t be the love story it is if Clare and Henry didn’t hang out at the Aragon in Chicago.

And Karen Connelly’s The Lizard Cage would be flat and lifeless if the Burmese jail cell in which Teza is imprisoned wasn’t described in such intimate, excruciating detail.

Yet whenever I ask students to write a scene from a story, their first drafts often feature characters floating around in a strange, airy vacuum.

The problem?

No setting. The characters may be talking, walking around, having great sex, drinking beer, and throwing vases at their mothers. They may even be having the most kick-ass, fur-flying tussle in literary history, but they’re not doing it in a place. People in the “real world” live, work, get screwed up, get unscrewed up, walk dogs, buy groceries, and go to school, in PLACES.

So do people in stories.

When I point this out, I usually get one of two reactions: 1) “Ooohhhh, I see” (and suddenly characters are traveling to Winnipeg in an ’82 Nissan 280ZX or eating dumplings in a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco), or 2) “I don’t know where it takes place.”

But you do know. Really, you do. The thing is, before you even write the first draft, you see in your own beautiful, imaginative noggin where a story takes place. Maybe your first sight of the story-what I call the dominant image-is not a place, but a conversation between a couple about to break up and the thing that grabs you is the way the man’s lips quiver as his girlfriend puts the kibosh on their engagement. But wait! If you sit with that image, and look a little longer, you’ll see that the couple is in a booth in a coffee shop. And if you look even longer, letting things come into focus, you’ll discover that the coffee shop is in a small college town in Illinois. Setting grows from there.

See what I mean? Writing a story is your chance to travel anywhere in the world. Grab that opportunity, and whether your setting is a bathroom in a Phoenix gas station or a steamy kitchen in Tokyo, make it your own.

The Fiction Writing Workshop: Beginnings

Kristin Bair O'KeeffeBy Kristin Bair O’Keeffe

Welcome to The Fiction Workshop. Each month in 2009, I will offer strategies and exercises for writers working on novels and short stories.

Whenever my students start a new fiction project-whether it’s a short story or a novel-they ask, “Where do I start? Where do I begin?” Usually the shiny nub of an idea has been taking shape in their heads for a while, but as the potential of the story swells before them, they get overwhelmed even before they get one word on the page.

“Start in the middle of something,” I say.

Inevitably they tilt their heads, narrow their eyes, and raise their eyebrows as if to say, “You’ve got to be kidding.” This is not what they expect to hear. They expect to hear, “Start at the beginning.” And many want to hear this. After all, the urge to start a story at the “true beginning” (you know, the day the main character is born even though the book is about a murder that takes place when she’s fifty and has nothing whatsoever to do with her birth) is great, but I suggest restraint. Instead, grab and hold your reader’s interest by dropping them into the middle of something.

One of the best examples of this is the opening chapter of Kiran Desai’s brilliantly crafted novel The Inheritance of Loss that won the 2006 Man Booker Prize.

“All day,” the first chapter begins.

Those two simple words-all day-deposit us quite neatly into a specific day during which many things have obviously already been unfolding.

And then there’s Jonathan Safran Foer’s ground-shuddering novel Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close that begins, “What about a teakettle? What if the spout opened and closed when the steam came out, so it would become a mouth, and it could whistle pretty melodies, or do Shakespeare, or just crack up with me?”

The first time I read this book (and I’ve read it at least three times since), I couldn’t wait to find out more. “Who the heck is speaking?” I asked myself. “And what kind of questions are these about talking teakettles? And if the narrator is the kind of person to ask about talking teakettles, where exactly is he taking us?”

With this unusual line of questioning and a very intriguing narrator’s voice, Foer plops us into a story we want to know more about, a story we want to keep reading.

And that’s the goal, after all, to create a story readers want to keep reading. So in the next few weeks, take a look at the opening of that novel or short story you’ve been toiling over. Where does it begin? In the middle of something or way back before something interesting is actually unfolding? What happens if you change the beginning? Try it. See what happens.

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