Author Archive

From the Archives: “Midlife Crisis” by Angie Pelekidis—Discussed by Rebecca Paredes

In September 2014, we published “Midlife Crisis” by Angie Pelekidis. The story follows Anne and Dan, a middle-aged couple, and what happens when Dan begins wearing diapers and behaving, literally, like a baby. Let’s take a trip into the archives.

When I first read “Midlife Crisis” by Angie Pelekidis, I was drawn in by the story’s ability to embrace the absurd with such directness; in the very first line, we learn that Anne’s husband has started wearing diapers. The tone of this line is so casual—the diapers aren’t the result of medical need, but rather a decision Dan happens to make one day. Of course, as the story unfolds, we learn that this decision is far more complicated than that first line would suggest.

This is a story about two different looks at the midlife crisis: a period of transition spurred by a person’s recognition of their age, mortality, and changing sense of self. On a craft level, “Midlife Crisis” is a story I keep coming back to read—not only for its lessons in embracing the absurd, but also for its ability to craft such well-formed, complex, and deeply grieving characters.

Take some time to read “Midlife Crisis,” and then meet me back here to dig into some of the pieces that make this story work so well.

Building a world from the first paragraph

I’ve mentioned that first line; let’s pick it apart.

One day, Anne’s husband, Dan, decides to start wearing diapers.

Talk about a hook, right? As a reader, I’m immediately wondering why Dan is wearing diapers, whether or not he has faced a serious medical issue, and if this is going to be a story about aging. The next few lines answer those questions, but also invite new layers of confusion.

He is forty-nine years old and has never had any incontinence issues, or signs of incipient senility. His father, however, died five months earlier, not long after suffering a super-nova stroke that obliterated a large section of his brain.

Okay, so, in answer to my questions: Dan doesn’t have any serious medical issues, and this story is going to interact with aging in some capacity because we spend so much time unraveling Dan’s father’s health after his stroke. His father’s death becomes the inciting incident, even though Dan’s unusual reaction to it happens five months later. The language is particularly strong here because it carries that off-handed tone of that opening line; it wasn’t just a major stroke, it was super-nova. The stroke didn’t destroy a large section of his brain, it obliterated it.

The language is so casual about the effects of aging and the ways our bodies can so easily fall apart, which makes the final sentences of this paragraph hit so hard: “Dan’s mother was also nearly speechless those weeks. She spent hours at the hospital, holding her husband’s hand and staring at what he had become.”

Suddenly, the camera pans out and we see a fuller picture of Dan’s father’s death. Dan’s mother stares at what he had become, language that skews toward dehumanization; Dan’s father’s life is divided into the person he was before the stroke, and the husk he became afterward. We don’t learn anything about who Dan’s father was as a man, husband, or father, likely because those traits don’t matter; his body has failed, and his life is over. Although this is a story about Anne and Dan, the themes presented in this first paragraph thread throughout the entire piece—and that’s great storytelling because it’s setting the reader up for what’s ahead.

Body as a symbol of need and needing

For instance, later in the story—after Dan brings home a diaper genie—Anne reads a copy of Self magazine and reads an article about an actress who bounced back to her pre-pregnancy figure. Anne “remembers what it was like to have a body that she controlled,” introducing a new wrinkle to the story’s perspective on aging, failing bodies. Anne remembers her hysterectomy and wonders what happened to her discarded parts. We get this section:

Were they incinerated? There are power plants that burn garbage to create energy. Could they also use human parts that were otherwise going to waste? No, most people are too squeamish for that. But Anne wouldn’t mind. At least then what was taken from her could be put to further use. She imagines turning on a light in her house and this being made possible by her uterus.

First of all, oof—what a steady escalation of images. We start with a hysterectomy, and we end with a uterus powering a lamp. Secondly, we learn so much about Anne’s character here: She feels like she lacks control in her life, and, by extension, lacks a sense of purpose.

Note the wording of this line: “At least then what was taken from her could be put to further use.” The words “taken” and “use” do a lot of work here; Anne feels like she has lost control of her body and herself, and the one thing that gave her purpose—being a mother and being needed—was taken from her because of her aging body.

It’s true that Anne and Dan adhere to traditional gender norms here; by the story’s end, Anne embraces the familiarity of motherhood (cleaning Dan’s bottle, washing him in the tub). But the story presents these choices as manifestations of their respective midlife crises. In this delayed reaction to his grief, Dan reverts to the familiar dependency of childhood. Anne doesn’t start wearing a diaper, but she’s in a similar state of mind as Dan; both people are confronted with the reality of their mortality and the fact that time is short, and they revert to what they know.

Here’s what I mean: Rather than taking a chance and listening to her hairdresser suggest that she switch up her hairstyle, she considers switching salons and finding a place where her stories will seem fresh. Anne isn’t the type of woman to change, embracing this new phase of her life as an opportunity for growth and evolution; when presented with the absurdity of her husband acting like a baby, she largely accepts this behavior and reverts to mothering.

In my reading, Anne is a tragic character; she feels so bereft of meaning in her life, and so uncertain about her identity, that she’s willing to go along with her husband’s actions because motherhood makes her feel needed again.

Interacting with absurdity

One of the things I appreciate most about this story is that Pelekidis directly interacts with the absurdity; several times, Anne asks her husband what he’s doing, from the second paragraph of the story (“What are you doing?”) to this moment about midway through:

What she says is, “You don’t seriously mean to use that?” Exactly what is he trying to do? she wonders. Make the point that in the end, we’re all infantilized by our failing bodies?

These are all the same questions on the reader’s mind, and Anne even offers an explanation that feels true to the story. There’s a temptation for writers to let their readers infer what a key moment in a story is meant to say; while we don’t need to spell everything out for the reader, we do need to point them in the right direction. I love that Pelekidis prods the plot device she’s using, questioning it while also maintaining some distance; Anne is equally exasperated and bemused by her husband’s actions, which places less emphasis on his infantilization and more emphasis on Anne’s reactions to it.

That emphasis really sends the ending home. During Dan’s bath, we see Anne feel “an instant if distant arousal” as she feels her husband suckling on her nipple. It’s the first hint of arousal since her surgery, “as though nerve fibers that were once severed have forged new connections.” She pulls Dan out of the tub and into her lap, “feels the change in him,” and smells him—he doesn’t smell like a baby, he smells like Dan.

“Hurry,” she says. “We don’t have much time.” Don’t have much time for what? To seize this moment of intimacy; to express their desires to need and be needed; to live while their bodies still allow them to live. It’s an open-ended statement, but even if it can be read many different ways, we know how to feel it.


by Rebecca Paredes

New Voices: “The Developer” by Sarah Walsh

“That year, like every year, the ocean lapped up the shoreline. Its hunger was an enormous force, and a patient one.” Our story for this week is Sarah Walsh’s “The Developer,” the honorable mention in our 2022-2023 Winter Short Story Award for New Writers! “The Developer” explores the narrator’s relationship with Jaime, a local she met at the beach who takes a job bartending at their favorite dive. When Jamie begins dating the shady owner, Julio, everything seems to shift permanently. Dive into “The Developer” at the link below.


Jamie took the bartending job at La Casa almost two years back. It was a seedy place, the lighting always fever-red, the music always too loud. There was a strip club in the basement, though Jamie assured me that was a totally separate affair.

That year, like every year, the ocean lapped up the shoreline. Its hunger was an enormous force, and a patient one.

Sometimes, you’d confront the enormity. Waves might flush theatrically over the street. Palm trees might splinter. Houses might crumble like sugar. Power lines might collapse into the flood and turn even the still water to something electric and worthy of fear.

More often though, things were quiet. The hunger never for a moment subsided, but it went unnoticed. Local families sunned on the shore to the tune of Música Cubana, to Today’s Top 50. The tourists nursed their tallboys, guarded their crumbs from the gulls. They paid the erosion no mind. I watched it all day long, perched on a lifeguard chair.

It continued all through the night, after I’d left. No one around to save two skinny dippers who had moved to make love on the sand. For them, this force registered as nothing more than the white noise of waves. Something hushed by the smallest ecstasies.

This force inspired no retreat. Development pressed on towards the waves, no matter how the waves pushed back. As long as there were people to buy the buildings, the buildings would be built.

Condos, developments, seaside hotel-bar-restaurant-casinos were underway, the pace breakneck. Weatherproofing was perfected. New insurance policies were dreamt up each day, old ones disregarded. Stilts were constructed for the houses. As if their knees would not soon buckle like cranes.

But this was only the periphery. It didn’t take me long to leave the shoreline, to find a new job at an indoor pool. Once I did, the Miami I knew rarely happened here, at the collapsing edge of the world. Even then, there was always the sense it was encroaching. Always the sense the solid ground beneath me might give out, open up to a sinkhole.

Mostly, though, I had better things to worry about that summer. For instance, Jamie was dying.

To continue reading “The Developer” click here.

Litmag Roadmap: Massachusetts

We only have a few stops left on our Litmag Roadmap road trip! This month’s post brings us to Massachusetts. Let’s join Rebecca Paredes on a tour through this New England state’s literary institutions below!

From Louisa May Alcott to W.E.B. Du Bois, Massachusetts is rich with literary history. Boston was the nation’s publishing center in the 19th century, which opened the door for writers, poets, and readers to foster a strong and vibrant literary community. Today, Massachusetts is home to a range of independent bookshops, publishers, coffee shops, and, of course, literary magazines. On this stop of our road trip, we’ll visit a few of them.

AGNI

Founded in 1972, AGNI is known for publishing important new writers early in their careers. Several contributors have gone on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in Literature, the National Book Award, and the PEN/Faulkner Award. The publication publishes a biannual print edition and publishes online throughout the year. AGNI publishes fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, particularly “dynamic voices that address our common reality.”

Boston Review

Boston Review began in 1975 as New Boston Review, a quarterly devoted to literature and the arts. Today, Boston Review is an independent and nonprofit “magazine of ideas” that publishes fiction and poetry, in addition to criticism, politics, and book reviews. From their About page: “By fostering the open and engaged exchange of ideas essential to a flourishing democracy, we aim to create an egalitarian public sphere that models pluralism of thought.” Boston Review publishes in print four times per year and online throughout the year.

The Emerson Review

The Emerson Review is a literary magazine edited by undergraduates at Emerson College. The magazine publishes one annual print edition and accepts fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and visual art. The submission portal is open from August 1 to February 1.

The Harvard Advocate

Founded in 1866, The Harvard Advocate is the oldest continuously published collegiate literary magazine in the United States. Past contributors include e.e. cummings, Jack Kerouac, and Tom Wolfe. The quarterly magazine publishes art, fiction, poetry, and prose. Submissions from the Harvard community are preferred, although outside contributors are also considered.

The Massachusetts Review

The Massachusetts Review was founded in 1959 by a group of professors from several colleges in Massachusetts. Since then, the quarterly print publication has been recognized as one of the top 10 literary journals (2008, Boston Globe). The Massachusetts Review publishes fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, and submissions from BIPOC writers are accepted year-round with no fee.

Meat for Tea: The Valley Review

Founded by Elizabeth MacDuffie and Alexandra Wagman, Meat for Tea: The Valley Review is a non-academic affiliated magazine committed to recognizing and featuring the work of the artists, writers, and musicians living in western Massachusetts and beyond. The magazine publishes a print edition four times per year and accepts fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and visual art.

Pangyrus

Pangyrus is a literary magazine “dedicated to art, ideas, and making culture thrive.” The magazine’s distinctive name is a portmanteau of pangea (the world continent) and gyrus (the folds on the cerebral cortex of the brain). Pangyrus publishes two to three times online per week and releases two print editions per year. The magazine accepts fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and visual art, as well as opinion pieces and reviews.

Ploughshares

Ploughshares is an award-winning literary journal based at Emerson College. Established in 1971, Ploughshares publishes a quarterly print publication and daily online posts. Each year, two of the journal’s print issues are guest-edited by prominent authors. The other two issues are a mix of poetry and prose and long-form prose, edited by staff editors. Ploughshares accepts fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.

Post Road

Post Road publishes fiction, nonfiction, poetry, art, and theatre. The literary magazine was established in New York City in 1999, then partnered with Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 2006. Today, Post Road is published biannually by Boston College and publishes online throughout the year. Stories, essays, and poems from the Post Road have been included in Pushcart Prize anthologies, received honorable mentions for the O. Henry Prize, and been selected for Best American Essays, among other recognitions.

Salamander

Founded in 1992, Salamander is a literary organization that publishes a biannual magazine of fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, and works in translation. Salamander is housed and published from Suffolk University’s English Department in Boston. Work from the magazine has been reprinted and anthologized in The Best American Short Stories, The O.Henry Prize Stories, and The Pushcart Prize Anthology, among other publications.

Soundings East

Soundings East is the literary journal of Salem State University. Founded in 1973, the journal is dedicated to publishing high-quality poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction. It is edited by undergraduate creative students, but accepts submissions from general public. Soundings East publishes one print edition annually.

The Worcester Review

The Worcester Review is a print literary journal published by the Worcester County Poetry Association (WCPA), a nonprofit organization to promote the writing arts. Since 1972, the journal has published literary fiction and poetry by new and established writers, as well as critical commentary on aspects of Central Massachusetts literary culture and history.


by Rebecca Paredes

September Book Review: The Vaster Wilds by Lauren Groff

Today in our Book Review series, we dig into the newest release from one of our all-time favorite writers, Lauren Groff! Groff was our first anthology judge almost thirteen years ago, and we’ve been overjoyed following her career in the years since. The Vaster Wilds is Groff’s fifth novel, and according to reviewer Kathryn Ordiway, is “mythology as only a woman can tell it—one that attempts to tackle the implications of supremacy and place.” Read the full review at the link below.

In Lauren Groff’s latest novel, The Vaster Wilds, the author gives us the American myth in its truest form: not the victor, not the conqueror, not the pillager or the plunderer, but a woman, a girl really, brought to this new world against her will. This is mythology as only a woman can tell it—one that attempts to tackle the implications of supremacy and place.

Very little happens in this novel and yet everything happens. In flashback, The Vaster Wilds is the story of a girl with little control over her life, who is fortunate to find a home as a servant to a wealthy family, until that luck turns and she finds herself traveling to the New World. She exercises control in the ways that she can, and the great joy of her life is caring for the child Bess, daughter of the girl’s mistress.

Read more.

New Voices: “Men Who Become Verbs” by David Lerner Schwartz

David Lerner Schwartz’s powerful micro is our New Voices piece of the week! “Men Who Become Verbs” invokes etymology as a form of self-preservation. “I want to be one of those men who become verbs.” Read the full micro below!

I want to be one of those men who become verbs. Like Franz Mesmer, the inventor of hypnosis, who gave us mesmerize.

Before my PhD, I collected words. Ways to describe plants: cruciferous, alliaceous, avenaceous. Animals: porcine, vespine, asinine. I liked their structure. I too longed to fit alongside the tongue and live adjacent to the idea. I wanted to be thought of. Just the other day, a friend I’d lost touch with asked me my favorite word. From childhood: lugubrious, because it was impressively melancholy. From yesterday: organon, because I wish I had one.

I want to be one of those men who become verbs. Like Franz Mesmer, the inventor of hypnosis, who gave us mesmerize. Did you know galvanize comes from the physicist Luigi Galvani? And nestorize is that wisest king of Pylos. Connections like these kept me sane during my dissertation. Maybe they kept me company, too.

He davidized me. Or: she’s better daviding than I am. See, I spent so long with the Oxford English Dictionary that now I david the others I read about, instead. We all want to name ourselves without forgetting who we are. I need history to tell me it davids me.


David Lerner Schwartz teaches writing and literature at the University of Cincinnati where he is a doctoral candidate. His work has been published in Ecotone, New Ohio Review, The Rumpus, and more. He holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. www.davidlernerschwartz.com

2023 Spring Small Fiction Awards Shortlist!

For the first time, this year, our contest devoted to the short short was split into three specific categories: micro, flash, and sudden fiction. You all sent in your best and without further delay, we are ready to announce the final ten small fictions in each of our three categories! K-Ming Chang will be selecting a winner and a runner-up in each category, with the winners receiving a $1,000 cash prize along with publication. Congratulations to all authors represented on our shortlist, and thank you to every single one of our terrific submitters! Stay tuned for the winners next month.

Microfiction

Cinderella at the Podiatrist by Margaret Adams

Naz 8 Cinemas by Aliza Ali Khan

Sandbox by Colin Bonini

Abdomen by Allison Field Bell

Wedding Present by David Fowler

Non Sequitur by Elizabeth Fay Furlong

Avoidance by Ariel Katz

For the Birds by Ariya Kelly

Fire on Felsham Road by Kathryn Phelan

Forest of Stone by Matthew Torralba Andrews

 

Flash Fiction

The Good Daddies by Gianna Gaetano

Was Jesus a Socialist? by Jenny Hayden Halper

Hotel Elefant by Emil Jarczynski

Whale Song by Jeff Martin

Lizard Dreams by Sue McMillan

The Peach Keeper by Sonia Moses

Hatching Moths by Emily Pegg

Fuse by Alan Sincic

Rules Keep You Safe by Dawn Tasaka Steffler

I AM A TINDER LESBIAN HOLDING A SANDING MACHINE, SEEKING GSOH by Charlie Wührer

 

Sudden Fiction

Nectar by Kerry Anderson

Seven Sol Cycles by Samantha Bolf

SMOOTHING by Hayden Casey

Immaculate by Susanna Cupido

I Play One on TV by Carrie Grinstead

Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine by Ryan Habermeyer

How to be an Atomic Wife by Sarah Hassan

The Ravine by Sophie Holdstock

A Portrait of the Lobotomist as a Young Man by S.B. Kleinman

Glamour by Marcus Rosen

What Makes a Great Novel Excerpt? by B.B. Garin

With two novel excerpt contests under our belt and a third open through mid-November, we thought it would be a good idea to share this essay from one of our contest readers on what makes a novel excerpt really pop, and some common traps to avoid when preparing your excerpt for submission. This essay was first published in the Lit Mag News Substack!

So, you’ve written a novel. And like a proud parent, you want to send it out into the world. If not the whole thing, maybe just a piece will do. Publishing a novel excerpt can be a great launching point, and numerous lit mags are willing to give novel writers this opportunity. Besides providing exposure to emerging writers, having an excerpt published is often a wonderfully validating experience.

My very first publication was a novel excerpt. I was thrilled, a stranger thought this thing that I’d been pouring my life’s blood into for years was worth reading! It gave me the confidence I needed to take the plunge into querying agents.

Now, we’re reading for our Novel Excerpt Contest here at The Masters Review, and I hope to see some fantastic writers receive the same boost I did. Yet when it comes to preparing an excerpt, it seems many writers struggle with this elusive process.

Most lit mags publishing excerpts will specify “standalone” or “self-contained” in their guidelines. The two are basically interchangeable and appear self-explanatory. A reader must be able to understand the piece without any outside information. On the surface, straightforward. But what they’re not spelling out is that the piece must be its own story. That’s where things get dicey.

Nothing breaks my heart more than reading a piece with lively characters, vivid descriptions, and stellar pacing only to reject it because it’s not a standalone excerpt. This often happens because of a misconception that the first chapter or chapters will make the best excerpt. Now, there are a few magazines which specifically seek first chapters, which is why it’s always important to READ THE GUIDELINES. Otherwise though, first chapters generally make for poor excerpt material.

I understand why writers fall into this trap. We want a piece that doesn’t need outside context. The first chapter is the context. Writers fear anything from later in the novel won’t be understood. All perfectly logical. Except, the purpose of a first chapter in a novel is at odds with the purpose of a standalone excerpt.

The first chapter is designed to draw the reader into the story and make them want to keep reading. That feeling you get at the end of a really good first chapter, when you’re going to ignore that sleep you really need because you’ve just got to read the first page of chapter two, is not the feeling you want at the end of reading a novel excerpt in a literary magazine. For a very simple reason. There is no chapter two. It’s incredibly frustrating to be left wanting to know what happens next, when there is no next. This doesn’t mean your excerpt has to tie everything up in a neat bow. Plenty of stories have unresolved endings, but the questions left unanswered must feel like a purposeful part of the ending.

Of course, not all first chapters are created equal. Yours may very well be the exception to the rule. What is important to consider, not just with the first chapter but with an excerpt from any point in the novel, is does it end on a cliffhanger? If the answer is yes, this is probably not your best option. An excerpt that ends at the moment the body is found, the employee is fired, or the overworked paralegal has coffee spilled on her by an incredibly attractive stranger generally doesn’t leave the reader with a sense of conclusion. Such excerpts may come from novels I’d love to read, but again, selling your manuscript isn’t the object here.

So, what are we looking for? What’s the magic formula that will lead to publishing glory? I wish I knew. If you ever find it, pass it on.

In the meantime, there are a few things worth considering. The first is change. Like any effective story, a novel excerpt needs an element of change in order for it to feel like it possesses a complete arc. Preferably, this will be a change with more emotional significance than say, getting a haircut. Unless the haircut is symbolic of your character breaking free from her stifling upbringing. In which case, send your haircut excerpt. That’s a scene that contains its own story.

This theoretical novel may be predominantly about the life of a beauty pageant hairstylist. The haircut scene may be just the jumping off point for the novel’s main action. But for the purposes of an excerpt, we don’t need to know where this change takes her, we just need to see it taking place. Note that this may be a scene with little action. A woman walks into a salon, sits in the chair, talks to a stylist, looks in the mirror, and leaves. There doesn’t have to be a lot of movement for there to be momentum. The journey here is an internal one. And that’s fine, so long as the reader can clearly see her moving from one phase of her life into the next over the course of the piece.

In searching your novel for this standalone structure, look for places where a character is faced with a decision. This almost always provides some type of change. Even if the character ultimately decides not to change their actions, if they’re moving forward after becoming aware of new consequences, then the stakes have changed. This sort of doubling down on a position can also provide a feeling of conflict which, when followed by the resolution to continue forward, becomes a self-contained narrative.

A lot of the successful excerpts I see seem to take place somewhere after the inciting incident but before the climax. This makes sense. This is what’s often referred to as the rising action, and it’s the place where our protagonists encounter more and more obstacles. Naturally, these complications lead to change. Complications also lead to bursts of conflict, which is another crucial element for any self-contained story. Clear conflict is what will drive your excerpt forward.

Often, I see excerpts that are full of dazzlingly dialogue or clever antics. These scenes may be amusing to read, but nine times out of ten nothing is really happening. By which I mean nothing is challenging the characters. There’s a lack of meaningful conflict. It’s a balancing act to be sure. Remember our haircut scene? Nothing physically is really happening, but a lot is going on internally. Contrast that with a car race scene. A lot may happen physically, but if nothing is changing internally, I might as well be watching NASCAR. The outcome of the race may be monumental in the context of the novel, but unless these stakes are effectively conveyed in the opening of the excerpt, it won’t feel like a significant conflict is present.

This is why climaxes generally don’t make for good excerpts. Yes, there’s a lot happening. And yes, this is a moment of big change. But there’s also been 300 pages spent establishing who these people are and why we should care about this change. It’s hard to find a few paragraphs this late in the novel that will do the same. It’s not impossible, but you’ve set yourself a much harder task than if you’d selected a smaller moment of change from earlier in the manuscript.

A final factor to consider when excerpting is consistency. I find this mainly applies to novels that use multiple points of view. This can be a great way of telling a large story, I use it myself quite often. However, in an excerpt I strongly recommend against switching POVs. It almost always leaves the reader with a sense of unfinished business at the end. Finding sections in both voices that combine to tell a standalone story is difficult. The result is often a sense of reading two separate stories, neither of which has time to fully develop.

Instead, if your novel alternates between Jane and John’s perspective it is often better to excerpt two of Jane’s sections without the intervening John one. This saves the reader from being jolted out of the story when the voice changes, and keeps them from wondering what happens to John if the narrative never returns to his voice. Herein lies what I think might be the biggest secret of novel excerpting: an excerpt doesn’t need to come verbatim from your novel manuscript. No one is going to call you up and ask to see the original for a word-by-word comparison, I promise. Editors understand that the piece is coming from a larger story. That there are inevitably things which won’t make sense out of context. This may mean cutting a single line. It may mean cutting an entire scene. The important thing is for the piece to feel continuous.

When you first sat down to write, you had to decide what story you wanted to tell. When you excerpt, you’re faced with the same decision. All the tips and tricks in the world won’t matter until you make that choice. And it’s a choice only you can make because, in the end, no one knows your novel better than you.


by B.B. Garin

Getting Unstuck: Funny/Not Funny

In our next Getting Unstuck, assistant editor Jen Dupree explores suggestions for incorporating humor into your fiction. “What’s funny to one person won’t be funny to another,” she says. But that’s okay! Take risks, put yourself out there, but consider the various advice offered in this essay when you do.

I think I’m funny—both in real life and in my writing—and I’m really drawn to other funny people, on and off the page. To me, humor is another way to get at what a story is really about. It can subvert expectations or act as a counterweight to more serious or tragic events. But what’s funny? And how can a writer render funny on the page?

What’s funny to one person won’t be funny to another. My husband loves Monty Python and, well, I don’t get it. On the other hand, puns elicit snorting laughter from me and a mere smile from my husband.  Humor differs across cultures, life experience, and general temperament. And so, while you’ll probably never make everyone laugh at the same scene, sentence, or character, there are a few things that hold true when trying to be funny on the page. In this episode of Otherppl with Brad Listi, Sloane Crosley, author of many funny non-fiction and fiction works, including one of my personal favorites, I Was Told There’d Be Cake, says, “I actually have to sort of prune the prose and make sure it’s not just like a cymbal-bashing monkey every paragraph. The selection of which darlings, or in my case, jokers, I need to murder, takes more energy and more effort. That is where the work comes in.” Even if individually the jokes are funny, piling one on top of another can feel too much like slapstick, which doesn’t translate well on the page. Crosley goes on to say that writing that becomes one punchline after another can end up being funny but meaningless and ultimately forgetful. Because funny without a counterbalance won’t make a story. And so, we have to figure out how and when to use restraint, when to pull back, when to not make that next joke or pun or include that ridiculous line of dialogue. What we ultimately want is for the humor to move the story forward, to make the story more meaningful, and to make the painful moments more poignant.

In this episode of Write-minded, David Sipress, cartoonist and author of the memoir What’s So Funny, has more to say about what makes funny resonate. Sipress says, “If you put something out there that people connect to but do it in a way that’s surprising…that kind of combination creates the laugh.” Especially in non-fiction, digging into funny missteps and personal stumbles can make a piece really relatable.  Host Brooke Warner further suggests that wry observation, a la Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club, is a way to connect to the reader. There’s an appeal, Warner says, to “wallowing in the complete abnormality of your situation.” There’s a line here, though, between self-deprecation and wry observation being funny and becoming a pity party or mean and caustic. All of those emotions are fine to express on the page, but you don’t want them if you’re going for funny. Funny is one of the things I ask my writing group to gauge for me because I find it really difficult to know for sure on my own where my work lands.

So if you’re funny in real life, will you be funny on the page? In this episode of The Writing Life, writer and comedian Caimh McDonnell talks about just that. He admits that if you’re the kind of person who looks for the joke all the time, being funny on the page will be easier than if you don’t naturally lean toward humor. But writing humor is different than doing standup or being generally funny in real life, because funny writing requires the backdrop of a story the reader cares about. McDonnell says: “Funny lines come out of character.” He insists that a writer must develop characters, and that what’s funny comes out of how we relate to the character. A surface joke or pun will end up feeling cliché and won’t satisfy the reader. McDonnell insists that “[c]razy on top of crazy doesn’t work,” which is much the same sentiment as Sloane Crosley’s warning about monkey-clanging. McDonnell says that in order for something to land, “[y]ou have to understand context.” Moreover, “If something isn’t serving the story, it has to be gone.” That’s true with every part of the story, but it’s especially true with humor. Humor that doesn’t fit the story, or a joke that goes too far, or a pun that feels out in left field can really take the reader out of the story. Humor should feel effortless on the page, but that takes a lot of work. It takes editing and positioning and trying different scenarios. “Trust your instincts,” McDonnell says.

We see a fair number of submissions that are trying to be funny but fall short, either because there’s too much of it or because it’s not rooted in character or situation. Use restraint, use humor to leverage the story, and run it by at least one other trusted reader to see how it lands.


by Jen Dupree

New Voices: “Flat Earth” by Erin Sherry

In today’s New Voices, we’re excited to share “Flat Earth” by Erin Sherry! In this story, two girls, Joey and Haley, become obsessed with an internet forum, where they learn the truth about the world: it’s flat. This discovery leads them to a kind of teenage nihilism and self-destruction, a mask for something else, much deeper than Haley’s willing to admit. Join them on their journey to the edge below.

Not everyone believes us yet, people like Joey and me who have figured it out. Our mothers still want us to learn Latin roots and trigonometry, spend the summers saving for good colleges by selling ice cream, tabloid subscriptions, door-to-door knife sets sharp enough to cut through bone. They want us to take regular baths and be sweet to our baby brothers, help out with the dishes and hum along like little idiots to the theme music of the TV shows we loved before we learned we’d been lied to. But we can’t. We used to dream of growing up, becoming beautiful, restoring the world our parents ruined. We have these useless young bodies and all sorts of great ideas, but our days are numbered and there isn’t enough time left to inherit all we’ve been promised.

Joey would jump off a bridge if I asked her to. I know because I did once. I just asked her.

We were chasing swigs of her mother’s vodka with the baby’s apple juice and beginning to sway. My belly was warm and I kept lifting up my shirt to rub it in slow, sleepy circles. I wanted to roll myself up like a dog beside the basement radiator and dream about chasing rabbits through tall grass, crunching their necks between my pointy canines. I wanted to dance. But then I got mean and started in on Joey, instead.

“Mix your juice with buttermilk,” I dared her.

She downed a whole cup. She barely winced.

“Tell me your deepest, darkest secret.”

She played dumb.

“You already know it,” she said. “I peed the bed at McKenzie’s party. It was me all along.”

“Not that one,” I said. “The real one.”

We had discovered, not long ago, that the world was flat. With this knowledge came the understanding that there was really no point to anything, not anything. Really no point at all. This freed us up for all sorts of things, like shoving off sleep until we could no longer stand and skipping school and being terrible and doing whatever we wanted. There were no rules anymore. There was no reason.

I told Joey to swallow a spoonful of vinegar, a wedge of raw onion, hold three ice cubes in her mouth until her teeth went numb. She did it all. She loved it. She cracked an egg over the top of her head and let me smear the yolk down the yellow length of her hair, laughing the whole time. She crept upstairs and returned with the expensive tube of lipstick her mother only wore once a year on Easter, wound the stick all the way up, and bit it clean off. She held the cakey cylinder very still on her tongue.

“Swallow it,” I said. “Come on, do it.”

She shook her head.

“You won’t.”

Her eyebrows scrunched together and her cheeks went fiery. I watched her throat bob.

“There,” she gasped when it was all the way down. She wiped her teeth with the palm of her hand and shook her head back and forth. “No more,” she said. “No more.”

Her mother and the baby were sound asleep and they didn’t hear a thing, not how we laughed, our stumbling missions back and forth from the fridge, not the vodka bottle slipping out of my hands and not breaking but sending booms, still, through the basement, not even the snow white Saturn inching down the driveway when suddenly we wanted milkshakes from the drive-thru. We were fourteen. Joey drove. We were both pretty rosy by then, but she was the better driver, always had been. She steered straight and steady.

To continue reading “Flat Earth” click here.

Now Open: 2023 Chapbook Open!

We are accepting manuscript submissions to our 2023 Chapbook Open until December 17! Got a flash collection in your drawer? Send it our way. Novellette? We’re interested. A really long short story that doesn’t seem to fit anywhere else? You bet. For this prize, we are considering any submission of prose between 25 and 45 pages. The winner, selected by Michael Martone, will receive print publication through The Masters Review along with a $3,000 cash prize and 75 contributor copies. Find all the details below or on our contest page!

Submissions Open Through December 17!

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For the fourth year, The Masters Review is open for submissions of literary prose chapbooks! We’re interested in collections of flash fiction, creative nonfiction essays, short stories, and anything in-between. We encourage you to be bold, to experiment with style and form, as long as you stay under 45 pages. One chapbook will be selected as our winner by our guest judge, Michael Martone! The winner receives a $3,000 cash prize, along with manuscript publication and 75 contributor copies. Our chapbooks are distributed internationally and are available through Bookshop.org, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon. A digital version of the chapbook will be made available to our newsletter subscribers six months to a year after the print publication.

Submissions will be accepted between September 1 and December 17, 2023. The Masters Review staff will select a shortlist of five to ten chapbooks to pass along to Michael Martone, who will pick the winner and write an introduction for the manuscript. The winning chapbook will be published in Spring 2025. Last year’s winner, Coats by Naomi Telushkin, selected by Kim Fu, will be published next spring. Masterplans by Nick Almeida, our inaugural winner, was chosen by Steve Almond, and Matt Bell selected Love at the End of the World by Lindy Biller as the winner of our second contest.

All submissions must be single-author prose manuscripts of 25 to 45 pages. We are not interested in poetry. All manuscripts must be complete: no excerpts, no chapters of a novel, no works-in-progress, or any other incomplete work. Individual pieces may be previously published, but submitted manuscripts should contain some unpublished material. If you have questions or concerns about whether your manuscript would qualify, please email us at contact [at] mastersreview [dot] com.

Submission Guidelines:

We don’t have any preferences topically or in terms of style. We’re simply looking for the best. We don’t define, nor are we interested in, stories identified by their genre. We do, however, consider ourselves a publication that focuses on literary fiction. Dazzle us, take chances, and be bold.

About the Judge

MICHAEL MARTONE’s recent books include Plain Air: Sketches from Winesburg, Indiana; The Complete Writings of Art Smith, The Bird Boy of Fort Wayne, Edited by Michael Martone; The Moon Over Wapakoneta; Brooding; and Memoranda. His stories and essays have appeared in Harper’s Magazine, Esquire, Story, Epoch, Denver Quarterly, Iowa Review, Shenandoah, Bomb, StoryQuarterly, American Short Fiction, and many other magazines.

Martone has won two fellowships from the NEA and a grant from the Ingram Merrill Foundation. His stories and essays have won numerous awards and have appeared and been cited in the Pushcart Prize, The Best American Stories, and The Best American Essays anthologies. In 2013 he received the national Indiana Authors Award; in 2016, the Mark Twain Award for Distinguished Contribution to Midwestern Literature; and in 2023, the Truman Capote Prize for Distinguished Work in the Short Story or Literary Non-Fiction.

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Interview with the Winner: Robyn Jefferson

Earlier this week, we published Robyn Jefferson’s excerpt from Calling Out, which won our 2022 Novel Excerpt Contest, as chosen by Charmaine Craig. Make sure to check out the excerpt, or read through it again, before digging into our interview with the winner!

First, congratulations again on winning the 2022 Novel Excerpt Contest. I was really excited that we’d get to work with you on publishing this excerpt because it’s so different from what we normally get submitted, both in voice and in focus. This is an intensely close dissection of “internet culture,” I guess I’d call it, an excerpt that’s critical of but also aware of the ways in which it’s indebted to that same space. The ways Beth and Alice communicate, how Beth is able to deconstruct Alice’s crafted-casual messages, and how Beth recognizes her own constructed personalities in these spaces. It’s as impressive and self-aware as it is funny. I suppose this is all building up to somewhat of an obvious question, but: What sparked your interest in exploring these relationships, this space?

Thank you so much for saying that! And it might be an obvious question but it’s an interesting one, too—in fact you’ve already highlighted something that factors into my answer, which is that my representation of the online spaces and subcultures into which Beth allows herself to become subsumed is in many ways critical but it’s crucially quite fond as well. I find that a lot of contemporary writers who attempt to write about social media assume a kind of woefully outdated, bemused-seeming outsider perspective that generally lacks verisimilitude and at worst can come across quite condescending. That’s not to say that no one is writing interestingly about internet culture (Patricia Lockwood, Yomi Adegoke, Eliza Clark! Bo Burnham, even!) but on the whole I don’t know if we’ve entirely moved beyond the notion of social media as an intrinsically shallow and superficial thing, with an altogether negative effect on its users and their ability to communicate, empathize, be human. There’s a disservice in it that frustrates me. It isn’t that I feel compelled to defend social media against its detractors—let it not be said that I’m a simp for websites—but rather that I think there’s so much that is evidently fascinating about it that it feels wholly unimaginative to dismiss it out of hand as something vapid and meaningless, and, at the same time, equally unimaginative to attempt to combat any critique by extolling the virtues of social media as some kind of futuristic tool for enabling interpersonal connection without acknowledging the ways in which it can be genuinely quite awful. Then of course there’s the personal element, too; for me there’s nothing that so neatly encompasses the entire spectrum of human emotion as the toxic and homoerotic relationship between girl besties who met in the trenches of fandom Tumblr as awful teens with mushily incomplete frontal lobes and whose every falling-out is conducted via the lens of political praxis. It amazes me that there’s a tendency to dismiss these kinds of relationships as insipid and uninteresting when five minutes in a friendship circle like that would kill an Ancient Greek philosopher stone dead. In the end I suppose I can’t completely avoid giving the obvious answer to the obvious question; I’m interested in exploring those spaces because I’m very much a part of them and I’m captivated by them, and certainly I owe a lot of my own evolution—both as a writer and as a person—to them as well.

I’m interested in the ways that Beth’s online presence and persona seep into her physical reality. She seems to see her world in the context of tweets and content: the graffiti she sees behind the Wonderwall-bongoer she immediately imagines as a tweet (“all caps, no punctuation, fewer than 280 characters”), and the statue of Queen Victoria is captured as content and becomes an image with a funny caption for her Instagram. Even through her processing of her breakup with Alice, she can’t help but reduce things to internet catchphrases (“L + ratio + you’re a dick, Alice”). It seems to me that Beth has two options ahead of her—she can listen to Silver and log off, or she can lean into her comfort zones and risk losing more of her reality to this constructed echo-chamber of sorts. If you can answer this question without giving away too much of the novel, which way might Beth lean? Or is there another option I’m overlooking?

The thing about Beth being as hopelessly, obnoxiously, chronically online as she is is that it’s not at all incidental to who she is as a person; she’s a fat woman who does online sex work, which is hinted at but not quite made textually explicit within the scope of this excerpt. Like most women she’s very conscious of her body and the space (both figurative and literal) it occupies within a patriarchal society, and that awareness is very much amplified by her deviation from the beauty standard and her engagement with sex work, things which force her to contemplate desirability and body politics more than any perfectly sane person would probably want to. And then on top of that she’s naturally quite timid, very self-conscious, very internal. The result of it all put together is that she isn’t especially comfortable in the physical space or with the physical reality of who she is in the world, and to escape from that she immerses herself into the abstract, the formless, the ephemeral: she logs on, as Silver would put it. Of course it has a negative effect on her—as you’ve pointed out the line between her physical and online realities has become somewhat nebulous and indistinct, but also she’s a character so used to defining herself primarily by the identity signifiers one might put in their Tumblr bio (white, cis, bisexual, fat, etc.) and by the collective thoughts and opinions of her online cadre that in many ways she’s quite unaware of who she is outside of that. It’s difficult for her to even contemplate how to extricate herself from it because she doesn’t feel fully formed as a person. She’s basically a fetus in a womb made of tweets. Anyway, the tension between what we all know she ought to do and what she actually does is certainly a conflict that pervades across much of the novel, but I’d argue it’s also one the vast majority of us are intimately familiar with, particularly with regards to the concept of “self-care” in the wake of a pandemic that completely disrupted and reshaped the habitual rhythm of our lives—like, I know I should get dressed and go for a nice walk and buy some groceries instead of festering on the sofa in food-stained sweats and getting takeout for the twenty-seventh time this week, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to! And there actually is something of a secret third option as well; I can’t reveal exactly what it is yet (sorry!) except to say that, just as in real life, sometimes one’s solipsistic personal journey is completely overturned by plot getting in the way.

Almost a year has passed since you initially submitted this excerpt to our contest; in that time, Twitter has changed pretty dramatically. (I’m going to hang onto that name and avoid that other name as much as I can.) Have you thought at all about how Beth might react to those changes? Are you thinking of incorporating any of those shifts into the novel?

Well, in writing the novel I tried to be very deliberate about situating it in a particular temporal context without situating it in an overly particular temporal context, by which I mean it’s clearly a very 2020s narrative but I don’t really want the reader to be able to pinpoint it precisely to any specific moment in time. I’ve discovered that when you’re writing about the internet this is in some ways easier to pull off—memes tend to have a lifespan of about two minutes so it probably doesn’t fully scan for “fajita wife” to be sharing space with a joke about Castiel from the TV show Supernatural, for example, and that really only adds to the vibe I’m trying to create. It’s meant to feel ever-so-slightly off in the way that time does when you spend too much of it online. Everything blurs together—a wildly rich and out-of-touch celebrity has been cancelled for saying something wildly rich and out-of-touch, someone’s become Twitter’s main character of the day over the most unfathomably bad take anyone’s ever seen, another police officer has injured themselves falling out of a slide for children in Boston: the details might be different but in essence it’s all very much the same thing over and over again, etc. ad nauseum. There’s something postmodernist about it, almost, this abnegation of the ageing physical body in favor of plugging the mind into the constant and unchanging Online, and the notion that everything is simply doomed to repeat, that periods of major innovation and change belong to the past and what we’re left with now is a kind of endlessly accumulating predictability. It’s quite comically absurd but there’s a bleakness to it too—the bleakness of late-stage capitalism, of expecting all world news to be bad, of gradually watching climate change become more and more inevitable while the people who could stop it choose for their own ends not to. And then at the center of this dreary eternally indifferent landscape: people making posts! The stagnating atmosphere, the juxtaposition of the existential and the absurd; it’s very much key to the feel of the book as well as serving as something of an externalization of Beth’s mental state but in order to amplify that sense of almost dreamlike inertia I chose not to tie the narrative to any particular event that might anchor it too strongly to linear reality—like, say, a global pandemic, or a deeply divorced billionaire buying and destroying Twitter. Those things are present only in the vaguest, most abstract terms, insofar as they might add context to the reader’s impression of the world as Beth experiences it. Also there’s the fact that if I had to unironically type a sentence like “Beth pulled out her phone and made a post on X” I think I would be immediately compelled to delete the entire draft out of sheer mortification.

What other social media does Beth use?

This is probably where I’ve been the least imaginative and just ripped entirely from my own knowledge and experience. I envision her as someone who probably debuted on MySpace and Bebo back in the day, so there’s Twitter, obviously, and then to a lesser extent Tumblr, and there’s kind of a line between her personal and professional use of both of those websites that gets explored in more depth later on in the story. Then Instagram, because I imagine she’s quite into the obsessive curation of her own image, and probably Facebook in the way that most people of our generation use Facebook (to grudgingly compare ourselves with people we went to school with who are far more conventionally successful than we are and to make sure none of our relatives have died without us noticing). I don’t think she’s normie enough for Reddit or edgy enough for 4Chan, and she probably feels a little too old for TikTok. Maybe she’s a “Bring back Vine!” girl. On the whole I don’t generally subscribe to the idea that one should write exclusively what they know but also I don’t think there’s anything worse than trying to write about a type of social media that you don’t use and failing miserably; it’s very “How do you do, fellow kids?” I genuinely can’t imagine anything more embarrassing than an impossibly cool TikTok teen reading my book and going “Ew, no.”

Through a lot of this excerpt, but particularly in Beth’s conversations with Silver, you’re engaging with cultural theory. Are these ideas you often explore in your writing?

Absolutely yes, although I think perhaps it’s rare for me to do so as explicitly as I have here. I find myself most often inclined to write about a particular type of young woman; opinionated and intelligent, probably queer, probably not conventionally beautiful, very much a part of the contemporary moment, very socially conscious (if not necessarily the most socially adept). I think a waft of cultural theory tends to make its way in even if it isn’t overtly acknowledged because it’s impossible to write truthfully about bodies or womanhood or sexuality without implicitly responding to the socio-political context. But then with this book I’ve found it quite difficult to write the scenes where Beth and Silver actually talk about anything resembling capital-D Discourse; the conversation they have in this excerpt is probably the most written and rewritten part of the entire novel, purely because when you’re writing intellectual debate about inane Twitter talking points that only the abominably online care about it’s very easy to make characters sound like authorial mouthpieces rather than people, and then you have something juvenile and moralistic and didactic that is a complete and utter slog to read. In early drafts I found that I was anticipating every possible critique that people might make of either Beth or Silver’s point of view and including counters to those imagined criticisms within the text, as if it were my own personal opinions that were coming under fire. It was garbage! And it was very silly, because what they’re talking about in those conversations isn’t the point at all—it’s there to illuminate the characters themselves and how they as individuals are inclined to respond to the world they inhabit, not to convince the reader of anything or wade into the interminable culture wars. Once I managed to unclench about it and properly internalize that I was writing fiction in which people are allowed to say things that are stupid and wrong rather than a polemical screed I might be called upon to defend in court the whole process started going a lot more smoothly.

What does your writing process look like in general?

Oh, it’s awful. Really just the worst. I think if I’m being kind to myself I would call it “haphazard;” I write in fits and starts but if I try to impose any real sense of discipline over it I find that my brain tends to shut down completely, presumably out of pure spite. I have conditioned myself to write most days but it’s definitely been a slow process that involved overcoming a lot (a lot) of self-doubt; for me it’s always been a battle between a) trying and potentially failing and b) not trying at all, and unfortunately throughout the first half of my twenties the latter option consistently won out. Having my first few short stories published helped, as did being shortlisted for the Aesthetica Magazine Creative Writing Award last year. And of course winning this competition! Entering it was a really pivotal decision for me—I was actually on the verge of abandoning the novel completely and starting over from scratch because I’d become so self-critical about it I couldn’t even glance at the manuscript without having a Category 10 Mental Health Moment but I’d invested enough time and effort into it by that point that I figured I’d give the competition a shot and the outcome would be the thing that would decide whether or not I’d pursue it. As it turned out the outcome was pretty good, and now the novel’s almost finished. Which is basically proof never to listen to your inner hater; actually you should probably pull her out of there and beat her to death with sticks. Anyway, besides that, the thing that helps most is reading; I read voraciously and finding something in someone else’s work that moves me is probably what makes me most excited to sit down and put metaphorical pen to metaphorical paper. Unless it’s too good, in which case it makes me want to hurl my laptop and then myself out of the nearest window, but c’est la vie I suppose.

Who are you reading these days?

This is absolutely the question I’m going to struggle to answer concisely. Always and forever: Elena Ferrante, Annie Proulx, James Baldwin, Patricia Lockwood, Donna Tartt. I came late to Hilary Mantel—I only read Wolf Hall this year so clearly my finger is not on the pulse at all but now I’m obsessed with her. Newer voices whose works I’ve really enjoyed include Catie Disabato, Raven Leilani, Alison Rumfitt, Kiley Reid, and most recently Nicola Dinan. Ottessa Moshfegh is a consistently interesting writer in the sense that I don’t know if I always like her books but they never fail to elicit some kind of intellectual or emotional response in me; ditto Sayaka Murata. Conversely I’ve never read a Miriam Toews book that I haven’t wholeheartedly adored. I’ve been reading a lot of James Dickey lately, poetry and prose; his language is so beautiful and precise and his themes so deftly articulated that it makes even the horny machismo tolerable. Other poets I love are Mark Doty and Hera Lindsay Bird—in voice and style they couldn’t be further apart but they’re both amazing. In the genre space I think Tamsyn Muir is doing incredibly interesting and innovative things in sci-fi/fantasy, and Tana French is the undisputed queen of the literary crime procedural (to me, anyway!). I’ve been trying to read more of the classics which has unfortunately turned me into the kind of person who wanders around telling people about how good Lolita is as if no one else has ever realized that before. I’m also very privileged to be party to the burgeoning careers of my up-and-coming writer friends that a lot of people won’t have been fortunate enough to read yet; Rue Baldry, who was one of the regional winners of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize this year and is the closest thing I have to a literary mentor, Charlin McIsaac, who won the Bridport Short Story Prize in 2021, and Sennen Cork, recently shortlisted for HarperFiction’s inaugural (Re)Presenting Romance Award. And for several months now I’ve been chipping away very slowly at The Once and Future King by T.H. White, which is wonderful and also contains easily the best line I’ve encountered in a long time—of Sir Bors he writes: “Unfortunately he was a misogynist, and, like most people of that sort, he had the female failing of indiscretion.” What an absolutely bonkers sentence. I love it.

What else can you tell us about the novel?

Hmmm. Well, I can say that it probably goes in a direction that one mightn’t expect from this excerpt alone. I personally love navel-gazey solipsistic literary fiction about terrible young women with bad personalities but I know a lot of people find it quite stultifying and plotless so I’m glad to be able to say that things do actually happen in the book outside of a) Twitter and b) Beth’s mind. There are French people, and skeletons in closets—metaphorically, but also perhaps literally—and the creeping rise of fascism (woohoo!). It’s my debut novel so it’s obviously a moving exploration of trauma and identity even though I didn’t initially set out to write it that way; unfortunately I think it’s actually impossible to write a debut novel that isn’t a moving exploration of trauma and identity, but I can safely say my prose isn’t “lyrical and haunting” so I’ve managed to avoid some clichés at least. Small mercies!


Interviewed by Cole Meyer

The 2023 Novel Excerpt Contest, Judged by Matthew Salesses, is Now Open for Submissions!

Submissions for our 2023 Novel Excerpt Contest will be open from September 1 (that’s today) through November 12. Unpublished excerpts up to 6,000 words are eligible for this prize. The grand-prize finalist will receive a $3,000 cash prize, along with online publication and an hour-long consultation with a literary agent. Matthew Salesses will select three finalists from a shortlist of fifteen excerpts, prepared by The Masters Review‘s editorial staff. Find the full details and a link to submit below or on our contest page!

Submissions Close November 12!

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Each fall, The Masters Review hosts a call for novel excerpts! Writing a novel can be an arduous and lonely process, but we’re here to champion the great work being produced. Whether your book is not quite finished or ready to pitch, we want to read your words. For this contest, we’re looking for self-contained excerpts that display a strong voice, compelling characters, and carefully constructed narrative arcs. You may submit an excerpt from any section of your completed or in-progress novel, but choose wisely: a synopsis should not be required for understanding the excerpt. As always, we have no limitations on genre, though we are primarily interested in literary fiction.

This year, our guest judge is Matthew Salesses, author of The Sense of Wonder, Disappear Doppelgänger Disappear, and The Hundred-Year Flood. Salesses will select the finalists from a shortlist provided by The Masters Review’s editorial team. The winning excerpt will be awarded $3,000; online publication; and an hour-long consultation with Halley Dunne Perry, a literary agent with The Hamilburg Agency. Second- and third-place excerpts will be awarded online publication and $300 and $200 respectively, in addition to written feedback from Dunne Perry.

Submission Guidelines:

About the Judge

MATTHEW SALESSES is the author of eight books, most recently The Sense of Wonder (Little, Brown, 2023), the national bestseller Craft in the Real World (a Best Book of 2021 at NPR, Esquire, Library Journal, Independent Book Review, Chicago Tribune, Electric Literature, and others), and the PEN/Faulkner Finalist and Dublin Literary Award longlisted novel Disappear Doppelgänger Disappear. He also wrote The Hundred-Year Flood; I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying; Different Racisms: On Stereotypes, the Individual, and Asian American Masculinity; The Last Repatriate; and Our Island of Epidemics (out of print). Forthcoming is a memoir, To Grieve Is to Carry Another Time (Little, Brown).

Matthew was adopted from Korea. In 2015 Buzzfeed named him one of 32 Essential Asian American Writers. His essays can be found in Best American Essays 2020, NPR Code Switch, The New York Times Motherlode, The Guardian, Time, VICE.com, and other venues. His short fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train, American Short Fiction, PEN/Guernica, Witness, and elsewhere. He has received awards and fellowships from, among others, the PEN/Faulkner Foundation, Dublin Literary Award, Bread Loaf, Glimmer Train, Mid-American Review, and [PANK] Books.

Matthew is an Assistant Professor of Writing at Columbia University. He earned a Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Houston and an MFA in Fiction from Emerson College. He serves on the editorial boards of Green Mountains Review and Machete (an imprint of The Ohio State University Press), and has held editorial positions at Pleiades, The Good Men Project, Gulf Coast, and Redivider. He has read and lectured widely at conferences and universities and on TV and radio, including PBS, NPR, Al Jazeera America, various MFA programs, and the Tin House, Kundiman, and One Story writing conferences.

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