Author Archive

2021-2022 Winter Short Story Award for New Writers Finalists!

We are excited to announce the finalists for our 2021-2022 Winter Short Story Award for New Writers. From a pool of over 2,000 submissions, these writers were chosen by Ye Chun for their excellent craft. Thank you to all of our terrific submitters. We wouldn’t be here without you. Check back in late fall to read these finalists! And there’s still time to submit to our Summer Short Story Award for New Writers, which closes on August 28th.


Russian Thistle by Laura Farnsworth

Second Place

A Single Mark by Reena Shah

Third Place

Creeper by Taylor Sykes

Honorable Mention

The Crown Prince of Koi by Daniel Abiva Hunt

Litmag Roadmap: Arkansas

Our roadtrip across America returns with a trek through Arkansas! From Little Rock to Fayetteville, Melissa Bandy takes us on a tour of Arkansas’s premier literary outlets.

Welcome to Arkansas, the state that brought you Walmart, Bill Clinton, and cheese dip. Literary offerings are small but mighty in The Natural State, attracting authors from the Southern region and across the globe.

The Arkansas International

The Arkansas International may be housed at the University of Arkansas, but it has an international reach, with a goal of putting “emerging and established authors from across the world in conversation with one another.” Arkansas International has a global roster of writers of fiction, essays, poetry, comics, and works in translation. Its aim is to find worldwide representation not just geographically but also in the variety of human experience and identity. Watch for information about its Emerging Writer’s Prize in the fall and its C.D. Wright Emerging Poet’s Prize in the spring, both for authors who haven’t published full-length works. Submissions are currently closed, but be ready to submit through Submittable to the themed Body Issue, open from August 20 until November 20 and general submissions from January 20 until April 20. The submission fee is waived for BIPOC authors and those with limited financial means.

Arkansas Review

Arkansas Review: A Journal of Delta Studies focuses on the Mississippi River Delta, which includes all or a portion of seven states: the southern half of Missouri, the southern third of Illinois, the western third of Kentucky, the western half of Tennessee, and all of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas. Housed at Arkansas State University, Arkansas Review accepts scholarly contributions from all of the humanities and social sciences, as well as creative non-fiction, fiction, poetry, and visual art, as long as it “evokes or responds to the Delta cultural and natural experience.” Non-Delta work will not be considered. Arkansas Review publishes three times a year, and creative materials can be submitted through Submittable, without any fees (academic articles are submitted separately).

Hive Avenue

With five issues under its belt, Hive Avenue is the youngest journal on this list. This student-run publication at Northwest Arkansas Community College, accepts poetry, fiction, visual art, creative nonfiction, and drama from Northwest Arkansas and beyond. Hive Avenue strives “to promote communication, connection, and the feeling of community in a disconnected world.” Committed to diversity and inclusion and being open to all creatives, Hive Avenue wants your work regardless of theme. The submission window for volume VI opens on Submittable in August. Time it right, as the $2 submission fee is waived for the first 100 submissions each month.


This award-winning publication has been around since 1971 and is edited and staffed entirely by students at Arkansas Tech University. Nebo: A Literary Journal, which accepts fiction, nonfiction, poetry, drama, art, and photography, is a great spot for your shorter works, as the wordcount for fiction and nonfiction is capped at 2,000 words. Published two times a year, Nebo’s annual submission window is August 15 through January 31. You can submit via email or even by mailing (!) a hard copy, and Nebo is the rare publication that accepts reprints from other journals.

The Oxford American

The Oxford American: A Magazine of the South recently celebrated its thirtieth anniversary in print. Begun in Oxford, Mississippi with early support from John Grisham (A Painted House was first serialized in its pages), The Oxford American is now housed at the University of Central Arkansas. The enticing, glossy magazine comes out quarterly. Its November issue is always its Southern Music Issue, and recent themed issues have centered around food, literature, and place. But The Oxford American has more to offer than what is between its pages. Be sure to check out the magazine’s online content, upcoming live events (both online and throughout the region), its Points South podcast featuring “thought-provoking stories and music from the South,” and its Instagram, an attractive ode to Southern culture. Submit fiction and nonfiction work through Submittable, with a $3 processing fee.

by Melissa Bandy

From the Archives: “A Sick Child” by Dustin M. Hoffman — Discussed by Shannon Phillips

In this From the Archives, Shannon Phillips returns to “A Sick Child” by Dustin M. Hoffman, published in early 2019, to explore the power of the introduction and how to craft a unique character that resonates with readers.

Dustin M. Hoffman’s “A Sick Child” is the contrast of a fairytale the same way every photo has a negative. Hoffman’s piece tells the tale of Naomi, a girl who grew up visibly ill and imposingly disfigured. In a village riddled with a plague, everyone wonders how a sick child grows to adulthood while able-bodied villagers continue to die. Naomi lives with a swarm of magpie birds as her companions and is a spectacle and source of mysticism for the village. It’s in her inability to die that the villagers seek their own defense against the plague ravaging their small town. Desperation paves their road to finding the answer to cheating disease and mortality. Eventually, the villagers get their wish—at a cost.

With this backdrop, what can we learn from Hoffman’s story?

How to write a captivating introduction

Every writer has experienced the intimidation of a blank page and the crushing pressure of writing a great introduction. The beginning of any story is a make-or-break moment. It’s where your reader will decide if they want to read your story or move on. How to write a great introductory paragraph is an essay all its own. For now, let’s consider why Hoffman’s introduction works.

“Naomi was a sick child, she was told. From birth, her mother and father bid her safe travels to the afterlife every time they lowered her shriveled infant body into the cradle. She’d surely die of the plague, like most of the village did. She’d die fast as any, they told her, for her sick stretched down to the bones. Probably deeper—a crippling, blackened snarl shooting straight from her soul. So, she learned to walk counting to last steps, learned to talk in rasps and coughs. She leaned into a limp, and by thirteen she hobbled to the swamp and mingled with the toads. She’d lie on the soft loam and let them croak atop her bare feet and arms and face, and when warts sprouted by the dozens, she wasn’t unpleased. The villagers were sure the plague had finally taken hold, bursting through her skin.”

Hoffman wastes no time introducing his main character, Naomi, and the predicament she faces. In a piece that relies on its fantastical nature and tone, Hoffman gives unique details the reader needs to formulate a vision of this character: a girl with sickness down to the bones, a limp, a teenager that seeks the solidarity of a swamp rather than open fields. Even if we can’t clearly see her, we can feel her and her struggle to function through mundane tasks, which can be far more effective so early on in a story.

This introduction is reminiscent of a childhood fable taking me by the hand and whisking me off to a world the author constructed. Hoffman’s tone grips the reader and makes me want to read the next paragraph, because hidden within Hoffman’s tone is the flow. Beneath the language is a string Hoffman weaves through each sentence to pull the reader along. Once a writer has established tone, they’ve established expectation. It leads to a careful balancing act of maintaining consistency yet achieving surprise in an author’s narrative, which Hoffman constantly does throughout this piece.

Lastly, information distribution here is critical. How much will leave your reader overwhelmed? How little will leave your reader bored? At first glance, Hoffman’s paragraph may feel a bit fast-paced. We’ve been told Naomi’s tale from birth to thirteen years old but Hoffman presents the information in a way that doesn’t feel overwhelming. The reader is being given character background but mostly, Hoffman is feeding the reader an idea, the foundation this story is built upon. A sick girl, who despite her illness, survives. It’s a clever trick that Hoffman magics before the reader’s eyes within nine sentences.

Creating a unique character that resonates

We love things that beat the odds. A flower growing from the concrete on the freeway divider. The snail you spot slithering across a pathway with heavy foot traffic. A sick child, destined for death but lives, despite everything holding them back. There are elements in all of these that resonate with the determined, rebellious spirit within every human being.

Naomi isn’t treated cruelly by the villagers. They value her abilities, her mysticism, but not her humanity—and for this reason, she’s held at arm’s length. What could clearly be interpreted as the beginnings of a villain’s tragic backstory, “A Sick Child” turns out to be a demonstration of the human spirit’s perseverance to be loved and accepted.

“Naomi hardly hissed when they cauterized her thigh nub with their finest hatchet head. After all, at least none of her magpies had been injured. After all, she’d always been sick. A scorched stump couldn’t harm her blackened soul.”

In this piece, we rarely get these in-the-moment scenes with Naomi, but when we do, they’re incredibly impactful and telling of her character. Moments after her leg has been amputated, her concern is for the magpies. Hoffman takes this opportunity to show the sad nature of her mindset as an individual raised in an isolating environment. Naomi doesn’t want anyone to feel pain like she does and despite her caring heart, she perceives herself as the villagers do–corrupted and corroded.

Hoffman also does a great job of using characterization through action. How a person acts is telling of who they are as an individual. When Naomi is laughed at, she laughs with them. When Naomi is shunned by the women of the village, she still aids them when they come to her. Repeatedly, Naomi is given every opportunity to be a villain. Instead, Hoffman writes Naomi as a strong individual who knows what she is, and instead of giving in or being cruel, allows it to make her stronger.

“She passed by windows, always empty, and saw only her reflection. She used her fingernails, grown long as talons, to etch her own hideous portrait into each pane. Eventually, the entire village brimmed with her scowl, with her pleasure.”

By the end of Hoffman’s story, Naomi uses her most traumatic experience—the loss of her magpies—to become stronger in every way. The reader watches Naomi harden throughout this piece, but Hoffman shows mental strength is not synonymous with cruelty.

Characters are humans—they’re complicated and they’re ever-changing. Hoffman created a character who spit in God’s eye and never let her illness or her place in society corrupt the good heart housed within. She embraced who she was, found peace in the role she was given, and used it to her advantage in a world that made her the butt of a joke.

Using details where they matter

Every writer knows the terms “abstract” and “concrete.” It’s the difference between reading a detail on the page versus feeling it. Detail is everything in a story and Hoffman does a great job of using them in all the right places. Not only are they used correctly, but effectively.

Hoffman’s writing is a perfect push and pull between being lost in a fictional world and feeling sensations in reality. Great writing finds a way to reach through the page and make you flinch. In A Sick Child, Hoffman didn’t create a character that was simply sick. Naomi is visibly unwell in a way that disrupts the reader’s expectations. The following are just a handful of examples of Hoffman’s ability to write details in a way that appeal to the five senses—pleasant or not:

 “Their claws hooked her skin and drew blood, and she waited for them to mince her body into carrion. Yet still, sickly Naomi didn’t die. Instead, eggs hatched in her arms.”

“Her hands blistered and then hardened into knotted leather.”

“…she shaved her scalp and tattooed there a maze so intricate only two women and one man had ever traced with their fingertips a correct path from her left ear to right,”

“…she’d abused her teeth so cruelly that only seven remained, as yellowed as corn kernels.”

“Naomi’s sickness fascinated, and her breath always smelled of peppermint and dirt and smoke.”

Hoffman uses description and detail where it’s necessary. We don’t know the color of Naomi’s hair but we know it’s molten. We don’t know her eye color but we know one is missing. Details matter where they matter and it’s the writer’s job to determine which ones stay and which ones go. It isn’t detrimental to the story that the reader doesn’t know the name of the village, the gory symptoms of the plague ravishing the village, or what Naomi’s shop looked like. The lack of these details isn’t a deal breaker and doesn’t affect our enjoyment as readers. Everything you need to know is put there by Hoffman.

In conclusion

As writers and readers, it’s important to consume content that challenges or contradicts the norm to ensure that writing evolves and stories continue to inspire and surprise us. A lot can be learned and enjoyed from “A Sick Child.” It teaches us that contrasting elements work and that to have beautiful writing, you do not need to write about something beautiful. All of this and far more is executed throughout this piece while still maintaining a low word count for a quick and easy read.

by Shannon Phillips

New Voices: “The Theme Park of Women’s Bodies” by Maggie Cooper

“Welcome to the Theme Park of Women’s Bodies,” says Tina, our tour guide through the amusement park, with attractions like the River of Menses, the Land of Sex and Sexuality and the Palace of Female Empowerment. But despite Tina’s best efforts to hide the truth, this theme park is not the bastion of feminism and progress it purports to be. Cooper’s sardonic voice guides us through “The Theme Park of Women’s Bodies” in today’s New Voices!

While we’re here, let’s have a few trivia questions. First, can anyone tell me the original name of the theme park? No, I’m afraid “Tittyville” is not the correct answer, sir. Any other guesses? Yes, you there, in the sunglasses. That’s right! Until 1988, the Theme Park of Women’s Bodies was officially called WomynWorld. The name was changed after the purchase of the park by Nabisco. That’s right, Nabisco, the company that makes Oreos!

Welcome to the Theme Park of Women’s Bodies! I’m Tina, I use she/her pronouns, and I’ll be your tour guide today as we explore the park, making stops at the River of Menses, the Land of Sex and Sexuality, the Palace of Female Empowerment, and our newest addition, Beautyland. Before we begin, management requires me to run through a few ground rules: No running, no outside food and drink, and no unauthorized video recording. Finally, we ask you to please remember that the park is a no-smoking facility and weapons of any kind are not permitted.

On to the good stuff: The tour will take approximately one hour and will end right in front of the entrance to the Miracle of Life, one of our most popular rides, which allows guests to follow an ovum from the moment of conception through the various stages of development and finally, experience the birthing process through a state-of-the-art twenty-five-foot model of a woman’s vagina!

Before we get going, I’d like to invite anyone who is visiting the park for the first time to raise their hands. We are always particularly excited to welcome new visitors, and my assistant, Andie, will be coming around with a special souvenir for those of you just beginning your empowerment journey. That’s right! Andie is passing out a few of this month’s limited-edition collectible tampons. These tampons, courtesy of one of our sponsors, Tampax, can also be purchased in any of our gift shops. Enjoy, folx!

Now, with no further ado, let’s get started. Our first stop on the tour is the historic park entrance, fondly known as the Boob. Our founders, who originally envisioned the park as a monument to the feminist movement, imagined visitors entering through a model of a breast because they considered it a universal symbol of the woman’s body. While today we have a more nuanced appreciation for the relationship between biological sex, gender identity, and expression—not all women have breasts!—at twenty-three stories, the Boob is still quite the architectural marvel! The original park committee commissioned an all-female team of architects to tackle the design, and the nipple at the top was sculpted from one-hundred-percent Italian marble. The areola, made of glass, is illuminated every night. As we pass through, make sure to take a look at the photos of our founders on display. These are the women we have to thank for this important landmark, although you may note that fashions have changed somewhat in the last forty or so years. Get a load of those haircuts!

To continue reading “The Theme Park of Women’s Bodies,” click here.

A Conversation with Elle Nash, Author of Gag Reflex

Gag Reflex, Elle Nash’s new novel from Clash Books, is an epistolary novel of sorts, framed as a LiveJournal, the famed blogging platform popular from the late 90s to mid-2000s was released on June 21, 2022. As a configuration of fragmented diary entries, it is an alarming encounter with self-loathing. There’s a connection between this work and Nash’s earlier novel, Animals Eat Each Other, aligned with femme subjectivities abrasively charged by eros and entropy. Currently based in Glasgow, Nash spoke with JC Holburn via email.

Holburn: What I found most prescient is the way your narrator likens her experience to that of a monk. While Buddhism and samsara come up, what’s also latent is a Christian ethos of piety in terms of emptying the body as a vessel (or, as is alternatively described, a “temple”) to be filled with the ecstasy of hunger and emptiness that you find in mystical writers, from Catherine of Siena to Simone Weil, and so on. Your narrator describes it in the book as an edged lip between living and dying. It’s a kind of spiritual endurance. It’s also like a drug induced state, because you’re numbing your extremities, as you describe later. Repentance in the form of cutting also comes up. Do you think religion played a significant role in your consciousness / subconsciousness at the time?

Nash: At the time of my writing it, probably yes. If we define religion specifically as a particular practice in which something is sacrificed in order to gain greater meaning, definitely. I’ve never deeply read Weil or Catherine of Siena, but I think the romanticization of repentance played a huge role in my life growing up with an eating disorder. I remember once I was punished by being locked in the basement spare room for getting a C on a report card or some test, something like that, and once I was grounded for a month when I was thirteen for going to a punk show, I had to read philosophy books like Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet and As a Man Thinketh and write book reports on them. My family life was structured very much in the traditional sense of the patriarch being, basically, the godhead, and all other beings in the pod needing to bow their heads to obey. Even without growing up distinctly Christian I think the ethos of puritanism was there in my childhood; and my mom, who grew up in rural England, was painstakingly frugal, and maybe that lent to a sense of asceticism in my life. I really wasn’t allowed any bodily autonomy until my teenage years and so turning those two practices inward onto myself to gain a sense of control and find deeper meaning in my life just seemed inevitable.

Most people would probably rather burn or shun or hide the diary entries of their younger selves. But you chose to look back in a near verbatim and vulnerable, stream of consciousness way. How did you go about editing and revisiting this painful younger self, in a way that was detached enough to withstand it? Were there things you chose to omit? And while I’m in two minds on even asking this, were you concerned about triggering readers (not that I’m implying you should be, I’m anti-trigger warning myself because world is pain and any attempt to isolate oneself from pain is an act of self-preservation which, when we look out at all the suffering of the world, I don’t think we’re necessarily entitled to at all times…)

It’s hard to describe what the process of pulling this together was like. It feels like a blur now. I can’t even remember if I had fathomed the idea before or after the pandemic began. It must have been after, because it was when I had moved back home, into my parents’ house, that I had found a bunch of my journals from that time period, which must have catapulted some kind of desire to look back on myself. 2020 felt like a really painful year for me in a lot of ways, and writing became an obsessive escape. And to be frank, since I was a teenager, relapse has always been some kind of inviting, coaxing siren when I’m having problems, because it allows me to literally jettison all other real-world issues out of my brain and focus solely on one: the problem of my body. It streamlines all of my pain and makes it simple. And so I think in some ways, revisiting my past journals was a way for me to experience this simplicity again without actually relapsing. I think I had finally reached a point where I could read about it, where I could look at old photos of myself, and not wish myself back to it. I could simply escape to the past by working on this manuscript instead. I’m not even sure how well it will land with others, because I think it’s so much inside of me, and I was so much inside of it, it feels impossible to look at the work objectively. I’m obviously more into the myth building of my body-problem than anyone else might be. But I’m kind of hoping it at least paints a picture of a lived experience that is valid and has depth, just because many eating disorder narratives I’ve found feel surface level.

I had some concerns with being triggering, given like… I know exactly what I’m looking for when I read Wasted by Marya Hornbacher (at least I did, years ago, when I was worse). That was one reason I chose to omit numbers specifically in the book, as I felt having something so blatant might encourage judgment or comparison which really is the nature of eating disorder triggers, right? Whatever “activates” the desire to plunge deeper into the well. But at the same time I also really wanted to represent a lot of the minutiae that occurs with having an eating disorder, at least from my experience, how much I obsessed over food, fantasized about it, listed it, organized its role within my life.

The lists seemed an important inclusion. Here are traces of a girl who needs control through her inventories of calorie counting and snacks. She doesn’t need tips or motivation to stop eating. She’s also aware though that the less she eats the more irrational and obsessive and exhausted she will feel. Can you unpack the point about not being pro-anorexic, but about being “pro-not ignorant”?

Definitely. So at the time I was in these LiveJournal communities, there was kind of a “culture war” that existed, not unlike stuff that exists on Twitter et al. today (tbh, just making this connection…) You would have a lot of people who really just wanted to understand their illness, they wanted to share their lives in a place that felt safe, where someone wouldn’t control them by forcing them to get better, they were actively suffering, they weren’t trying to make a cute little club out of it. They seemed, in hindsight, almost like “eating disorder realists.” They accepted that they wanted to starve or purge, but they also believed in harm reduction, and they certainly weren’t going to teach other girls actively how to harm themselves. But you also had LJ communities of girls who were almost… optimistic? And this is how I would classify the pro-ana mentality. They had very positive attitudes (online, at least) about wanting to fast and to purge, often created shareable lists of “safe foods’” vs “unsafe foods” and lists of tips on how to lose weight, that kind of thing. Many made groups where they would fast together/compete etc., share photos of themselves or triggering photos to encourage each other to commit. Some would wear red bracelets to signify being anorexic, or purple bracelets to signify being bulimic, they would come into some ED communities wanting to learn how to “be ana” or “be mia.”  They would personify and look up to emaciation in a very optimistic light. And a lot of the “realist” people were like, “We don’t make personas of our illnesses, please stop and turn around. You don’t want to be this way.” A lot of them were like, “We want to look this way because we want to die.” The line, looking back, is really thin. Like sometimes a friend could encourage you to keep fasting. But sometimes you would hit a really low weight and those friends were certainly not congratulating you. They were worried even though they understood. I think the big difference really is probably that.

But on the other hand—any young person that goes into an online community saying “I want to be anorexic” probably already is suffering and ill. I think the “realist” groups realized that once you’re enmeshed in it, it becomes a lot harder to leave without help. One goes from maybe wanting to lose a few pounds for prom to literally becoming so consumed, you want nothing else but to die. So they didn’t want to encourage or help people get enmeshed in it, which is what I think made them not specifically pro-ana.

When gag reflex comes up, it’s in the context of your protagonist going down on a lover named Mike, and describes feeling “cleansed” like his cum was the Eucharist. She talks about being Rome and “living for my ruins.” This rueful remark of self-destruction seems to be a mode of countering desire. The more one starves and exposes themselves to pain, the less one desires anything, or at least numb themselves to wanting. Your narrator wants to suffer and wants to have her suffering validated. Do you think the urge to self-destruct ever goes away? Does it just find expression elsewhere? Or do you think it’s possible to leave that cycle altogether?

I don’t know if it ever goes away. I tear up as I write this because it’s been such a long time since being a teenager struggling with self-harm, and though it’s been years and years since I’ve done it, you know, the compulsive thoughts still come up when things are really difficult. I have to white knuckle my way through those moments sometimes, like an addict. That’s a religious question, right? “What is the one thread that connects my life? Is it pain?’’ I think for me it’s certainly found expression in other things, like, the more I began to write the less I began to focus on my body… But I also have to believe at some point that it will lessen because nothing is permanent, especially with active practice and right thinking… even if suffering is inevitable… at some point, I do believe I can understand the root of it and perhaps work it out somehow.

In a final note you say that you came to some realizations about being treated badly, and yet at certain points your younger self expressed a kind of awe that people did care for you. There were moments of tenderness and expressions of concern for your well-being. And moments of sharing scars too. I’m wondering if you saw the words of your therapist about your success, about needing to be convinced, in a different light? (Or, was she just a terrible therapist needing to be “convinced” of the authenticity of your sense of failure?) In any case, was this revisitation at all therapeutic for you? How will you use this experience moving forward with your writing in future?

Oh god! I think that event truly marred my relationship with therapy forever. Though to be fair some of that event is fictionalized. My first time ever going to therapy, I remember I wanted to talk about my feelings, and my self-esteem, but I had told the therapist from the start that I absolutely didn’t want to touch on my eating issues at all, that I wouldn’t discuss them. That is the most I can really remember, she gave me some exercises. In its context I can’t remember why it was that she stated that, but it definitely fucked with my ability to feel okay—made me feel, as having an eating disorder does, that I was “faking it” the whole time. It was like I was driven to prove to myself, and to others, that I was hurting, and since I didn’t know exactly how to vocalize it, I just turned it inward and self-harmed even more. I don’t know if revisiting these situations was inherently therapeutic. In some ways, it was almost too consuming. I love to obsess, I think it’s just, at this point, a character trait. It’s something I have to accept about myself and figure out how to channel in more productive ways. Something Juliet Escoria said to me once, before I moved to Arkansas in 2016 without ever having visited, was that sometimes you have to do a thing that inherently feels self-destructive but is actually good for you. I think about that now a lot, especially now that I have moved, yet again, but this time to an entirely new country… or when I spend too much time inside my head, thinking about the next thing I want to write… it’s just, how can I channel this impulse into something that works for me?

Interviewed by JC Holburn

Elle Nash is the author of Animals Eat Each Other (Dzanc Books) UK edition (404 INK), and Nudes (SF/LD Books) UK Edition (404 Ink) and Deliver Me (forthcoming 2023, Unnamed Press). Her work appears in BOMB Magazine, Guernica, The Nervous Breakdown, Literary Hub, The Fanzine, Volume 1 Brooklyn, New York Tyrant and elsewhere. She is a founding editor of Witch Craft Magazine where she hosts her annual writing workshop, Textures. Elle lives in Glasgow, Scotland where she draws blood by day and slays with the pen by night.

Talk Isn’t Cheap: Two Simple Questions for Crafting Meaningful Dialogue by B.B. Garin

In Jerome Stern’s lexicon for writers, Making Shapely Fiction, he writes: “Good dialogue moves the plot forward.” In an earlier essay, Garin explored how to utilize plot arc to construct momentous scenes. Now, she focuses specifically on dialogue: How can dialogue move the plot effectively?

You know the conversations. Talk on your date fizzles. A coworker corners you with an endless camera roll of cat photos. The phone call with your mother becomes a déjà vu filled episode of the Twilight Zone. We’re all aware of becoming trapped in less than scintillating dialogues. Yet, writers are often guilty of replicating similarly repetitious or meandering conversations on the page. Some might call this realistic dialogue. But I believe realistic should take a backseat to effective.

For me, effective dialogue is clear, organic, and moves a piece forward. Achieving this minor feat is (like most things in writing) easier said than done. But there are two basic questions that can help sharpen your characters’ conversations, if not your real-life ones.

Who’s Talking?

Of course, you know the answer. But what the writer knows and what the reader knows are vastly different things. In submissions, I regularly encounter floating conversations, often resulting from a simple lack of dialogue tags (said/asked). A solid rule of thumb is no more than four lines of dialogue without a tag, or an action to indicate who’s speaking.

Nothing pulls me out of a story more than backtracking through a section of dialogue to figure out whose line is whose. To some writers, I’m sure dialogue tags feel unnecessary. The speaker appears obvious, why bother spelling it out? Especially, when striving for that super skinny word count. But trust me, it’s not worth confusing, and thereby losing, readers, just to cut out a couple dozen words.

One caution, however. We writers thirst for originality. But when it comes to tags: Resist that thesaurus urge. Get a rubber band and snap your wrist every time you find yourself reaching for a “cajoled” or “intoned”. “Said” and “asked” are commonly used because they work. Readers are so attuned to these words, they barely register. Which is precisely the point of tags—keeping us on track without distracting us.

Floating conversations don’t just occur because of missing tags. If a scene contains nothing but quoted dialogue and adequate tags, it’s still floating. There’s no sense of where this conversation is taking place or who the speakers are on a character level. Stories that have solid pages of uninterrupted dialogue don’t feel like stories, they feel like transcripts. Which generally leaves the reader asking the dreaded, Why do I care?

This renders actions and other descriptions important elements in any dialogue. Think about the number of times you’ve remained absolutely still during a conversation. We regularly rely on physical cues to help convey meaning, or to interpret someone else’s. If someone chews their lip while nodding, we know they don’t really agree, they just don’t want to argue. Providing your characters with the same sort of physical context makes the dialogue feel more vibrant, a reminder that there are living bodies behind these words. Even if a character isn’t moving, commenting on that unnatural, restrictive stillness helps texture your dialogue.

Floating conversations also happen when a piece lacks what we call grounding. The dialogue doesn’t feel anchored in the story and this sense of detachment transfers to the reader. Beyond building setting, grounding can emphasize emotional states or conflicts. A character who tastes something bitter as they speak is understood to be in an unpleasant situation. One who feels the cold penetrating the windowpane as the snow piles up outside has stressed the fact that the characters are trapped.

An effective piece of dialogue won’t just make clear who’s physically speaking, but the situation in which they’re speaking and the significance of their words to the story. Which brings me to my second question.

Why Are We Talking?

When people say dialogue needs to be realistic, I find what they often mean is dialogue needs to be organic. In other words, it needs to feel like something these characters would actually say to each other. Dialogue that doesn’t seem to generate organically rings false not because it’s unrealistic, but because it feels forced.

Overly expository dialogue is by far the most common offender when it comes to forced dialogue. The problem here isn’t the words themselves. Expository dialogue is information the character knows and is usually conveyed in their natural syntax. The problem is, it’s not something they’d normally bother to talk about. These dialogues feel forced because they’re primarily for the benefit of the reader, not the characters themselves.

Two machinists sitting at a bar aren’t going to have an in-depth conversation about how many years they’ve been on the job and how the technology has changed. No, they’re going to bitch about the boss or their backache. A clever writer will use that backache to show us that they’ve been in this job a long time. Or the bitching to indicate the boss doesn’t know how to operate the older technology. In this way, exposition can be incorporated into dialogue without forcing explanations that characters have no reason to make.

Expository dialogue is a common problem in genre stories where an entire world or alternate history needs to be explained. Often a young protagonist will find themselves regaled in detail about these things. This may be essential information, but is it essential dialogue? Could this not as easily be conveyed in summary, and perhaps more succinctly?

Genre pieces are by no means the only culprits. Consider any literary conversation of a “Remember when?” or “There’s something I never told you about your father” variety. Again, important information, but is dialogue the right vehicle for it? Or is this the moment for a flashback to shine? Events that are explained at length in dialogue often have more impact when made into fully fledged scenes of their own. This allows for a direct experience instead of secondhand information.

But also consider the flow of your story. Imagine if Darth Vader paused on that catwalk to give Luke the whole history of his relationship with Luke’s mother. Sometimes, there’s more tension to be gained by leaving questions unanswered and moving a scene forward.

A less frequent form of forced dialogue is sermons—generally lengthy blocks of dialogue in which a character, or pair of characters, discuss detailed philosophical/ethical/political beliefs. It’s great for characters to have deep convictions. But unless you’re a 19th century Russian novelist, this is probably not going to be an effective mode of expression because we’ve again stumbled into dialogue that feels aimed at the reader rather than the participating characters. Dialogue should never seem intended to have more impact outside the story than it does within it. When this happens, the story doesn’t appear to be advancing. The energy is focused outward instead of driving the piece forward.

To avoid sermons, consider how a character can put their beliefs into action. Don’t have a character tell us what they think, show the consequences of how they think. We sit through Raskolnikov’s philosophizing because his thinking leads him to kill that poor old lady. There is an external consequence to his internal struggle. Your stakes don’t need to be quite as dire, but when characters start talking there should always be potential for change, however slight. The goal of asking yourself, “Why are these characters in dialogue?” is hopefully to reach the answer “Because things will be different after.” In this way, we feel ourselves moving ever onward in the story.

by B.B. Garin


2022 Summer Short Story Award for New Writers Now OPEN for Submissions!

You heard correctly—the 2022 Summer Short Story Award for New Writers is now OPEN for your submissions through August 28th! We’re looking for the best of the best unpublished short story (up to 6,000 words) by emerging writers. We want to read your words. Don’t miss out on the chance to win $3,000! The full details can be found below, or on our contest page.

Submissions open July 1st – August 28th

Summer is for Short Stories! The Masters Review’s Short Story Award for New Writers is a bi-annual contest that recognizes the best fiction from today’s emerging writers. Judging this year’s summer contest is Chelsea Bieker, author of GODSHOT and the new collection Heartbroke. The winner receives a $3,000 prize and agency review, and their story will be published online in late winter/early spring. Second and third place finalists will be awarded publication, agency review and $300/$200 prizes. Participating agents include: Nat Sobel from Sobel Weber, Victoria Cappello from The Bent Agency, Andrea Morrison from Writers House, Sarah Fuentes from Fletcher & Company, and Heather Schroder from Compass Talent. Our mission from day one has been to support emerging writers. We want you to succeed. We want your words to be read.


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.


Chelsea Bieker is the author of two books, the novel GODSHOT which was a finalist for both the Oregon and California Book Award, longlisted for The Center For Fiction’s First Novel Prize, and named a Barnes and Noble Pick of the Month, and the story collection, HEARTBROKE. Her writing has appeared in The Paris Review, Granta, The Cut, McSweeney’s, Lit Hub, Electric Literature, and others. She is the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Writers’ Award, as well as residencies from MacDowell and Tin House Books. Originally from California’s Central Valley, she lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and two children where she is writing her third book.


2021 Novel Excerpt Contest Finalists

The long wait is over: We’re excited to share that Glenn Lester’s “Take Warning: The Ballad of Sammy Slug” has won our inaugural Novel Excerpt Contest! Lester’s excerpt was chosen by Dan Chaon from an overwhelming pool of quality submissions. We were blown away by the number of excellent novels-in-progress that are out there. Keep working, folks, and come back in the fall to read the finalists and submit your excerpts to our next contest!


“Take Warning: The Ballad of Sammy Slug” by Glenn Lester

Second Place

“Hakuri” by Jessica Cavero

Third Place

“The Slapjack (excerpt – chapters five, six, seven)” by Alan Sincic

Honorable Mention

“Red State” by Allie Torgan

New Voices: “Hey, Stop Blaming Your Dead Father’s Fists” by Vincent Anioke

In this week’s New Voices, we present to you: “Hey, Stop Blaming Your Dead Father’s Fists,” by Vincent Anioke. This flash, written in the second-person, employs short sentences designed to create a staccato rhythm that reflects the narrator’s unease with themselves. The story holds a mirror to its narrator while still distancing them from the emotional heft. “Your friends are a relic of the past,” Anioke writes. “There’s a room full of them in your head.”

If you squint through the fog, you’ll find a door. Baby steps take you there. Knock. Even if the hardwood does not budge.

There’s an unsnoozeable alarm clock in your head. Your room has a lopsided bed and no sheets and unscuffed running shoes near the wilted hydrangeas. Sushi Paradise rolls float in greasy mold. The journal on your nightstand has a shiny golden latch in front. Its pages are scrawled with I wills that never were: Will swim thrice-weekly, will call your mother, will run your skin under water, will find your front door, will breathe.

If you pull the curtains, there’s a gold ball in the sky. Baby steps take you there. Force the rise. Sweep lube-stained wads into a bag. The bottles too. Dial your mother’s number. Wait for voicemail. Call again. Apologize. Hear her soul rekindle. Hear her corny jokes about the Holy Ghost. Laugh. Like you mean it. Find a sidewalk. Inhale. Yes, there’s a mulchy sort of rot from the construction near the lake. But do you feel how the wind makes you more?

Your friends are a relic of the past. There’s a room full of them in your head. They’re passing around croissants and sour grape juice and trading stories about you. No one is perfect, they say, but there’s a tolerable kind of badness. They describe oceans between texts, your empty chair at a small cottage-side wedding, missing necklaces from the night you slept over, a blackened pipe in the trash from the morning you left. Without a word too, nada, until the resurfacing, the sorry-sorry-sorry, but also I need, just until payday, the slamming of a door, the shower afterward, them scrubbing and scrubbing to wash off your stench.

To continue reading “Hey, Stop Blaming Your Dead Father’s Fists,” click here.

Announcing 2022’s Summer Short Story Award for New Writers Judge: Chelsea Bieker!

The Masters Review is excited to announce that Chelsea Bieker, author of the novel GODSHOT and Heartbroke, a collection of stories released this April through Catapult, will judge this year’s Summer Short Story Award for New Writers! The winner of the Summer Short Story Award for New Writers will receive a $3,000 prize along with publication and agency review. Past winners of this award have signed with agents as a result of this review, and are nominated for anthologies like Best American, Pushcart, Best of the Net and more. Find more about our judge and the full details of the contest below, or on our contest page!

Submissions open July 1st – August 28th

Summer is for Short Stories! The Masters Review’s Short Story Award for New Writers is a bi-annual contest that recognizes the best fiction from today’s emerging writers. Judging this year’s summer contest is Chelsea Bieker, author of GODSHOT and the new collection Heartbroke. The winner receives a $3,000 prize and agency review, and their story will be published online in late winter/early spring. Second and third place finalists will be awarded publication, agency review and $300/$200 prizes. Participating agents include: Nat Sobel from Sobel Weber, Victoria Cappello from The Bent Agency, Andrea Morrison from Writers House, Sarah Fuentes from Fletcher & Company, and Heather Schroder from Compass Talent. Our mission from day one has been to support emerging writers. We want you to succeed. We want your words to be read.


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.


Chelsea Bieker is the author of two books, the novel GODSHOT which was a finalist for both the Oregon and California Book Award, longlisted for The Center For Fiction’s First Novel Prize, and named a Barnes and Noble Pick of the Month, and the story collection, HEARTBROKE. Her writing has appeared in The Paris Review, Granta, The Cut, McSweeney’s, Lit Hub, Electric Literature, and others. She is the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Writers’ Award, as well as residencies from MacDowell and Tin House Books. Originally from California’s Central Valley, she lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and two children where she is writing her third book.

July Deadlines: 14 Contests and Prizes to Enter This Month

Just like the longest day of the year has come and gone, these contests are also about to fly right by you. So make use of the extended daylight while you can, and send in those submissions!

Bellevue Literary Review Prizes

All three of the Bellevue Literary Review’s contests are ending soon, so enter now if you want to receive one of the three $1000 and publication first-place prizes! All entries should be related to themes of health, healing, illness, the mind, and the body. Toni Jensen is judging fiction, Phillip B. Williams is judging poetry, and Rana Awdish is judging nonfiction. Honorable mention winners also earn $250 and publication! Submit here.

Entry Fee: $20 Deadline: July 1

2022 LAR Literary Awards

Here is a great chance for writers of all stripes, as the Los Angeles Review’s contest rewards authors in creative nonfiction, short fiction, flash fiction, and poetry! Chelsea Catherine judges creative nonfiction, Landon Houle judges short fiction, Thea Prieto judges flash fiction, and Joshua Rivkin judges poetry. The winner in each category receives $1000 and publication – Make sure you submit to the correct category! Submission guidelines here.

Entry Fee: $20 Deadline: July 1

New Millennium Writing Awards

There’s a little something for everyone in this contest, presented by literary journal New Millennium Writings! Writers can send in submissions for poetry, fiction, flash fiction, or nonfiction, with no restrictions on style or subject matter. Fiction and nonfiction must be less than 7499 words, flash fiction must be less than 1000 words, and poetry may include three poems less than five pages long. First place in each category receives $1000, a certificate, publication online and in print, and two copies. Select finalists may also be published and receive complimentary copies. Don’t wait!

Entry Fee: $20 Deadline: July 1

Richard J. Margolis Award

Inspired by journalist and essayist Richard J. Margolis, this prize has provided financial and other support to a promising journalist whose work combines warmth, humor, and wisdom with social justice since 1992. This prize recognizes one writer with $10,000, and a one-month residency at the Blue Mountain Center in Blue Mountain Lake, NY. Applicants need to provide a cover letter, biographical note, a project description, and two writing samples. Guidelines here.

Entry Fee: FREE Deadline: July 1

The Francine Ringold Awards for New Writers

These awards, presented by Nimrod International Journal through the University of Tulsa, honor the work of writers at the beginning of their careers in either fiction or poetry. Contestants can enter up to five pages of poetry, and up to 5000 words of prose. The winner of each category will receive $500 and their manuscript will be published in the spring issue of Nimrod! Details here.

Entry Fee: $12 Deadline: July 15

Rattle Poetry Prize

Rattle is looking for an outstanding piece of poetry, and they are definitely willing to bribe you for it! This annual competition awards $15,000 for a single poem to be published in the winter issue of their magazine. Ten finalists also receive $500 and publication, and are eligible for the $5000 Reader’s Choice Award. Four poems are allowed per entry, and there is no line limit. What are you waiting for? Enter here!

Entry Fee: $25 Deadline: July 15

Robert and Adele Schiff Awards

The Cincinnati Review is currently accepting submissions for their annual contest, but all good things will eventually come to an end. The winning poem, fiction piece, and literary nonfiction piece will be judged by Rebecca Lindenberg, Michael Griffith, and Jerald Walker, respectively. The winning entries will be published in 2023 and receive $1000 each, so don’t lose your chance! Learn more here.

Entry Fee: $20 Deadline: July 15

The Screw Turn Flash Fiction Competition

The Ghost Story is looking for the finest work they can find that incorporates the uncanny, as long as it’s less than 1000 words! Stories don’t need to involve ghosts specifically, but they do need fresh perspectives and superb writing. The winner receives $1000 and both online and print publication. Submit here!

Entry Fee: $15 Deadline: July 15

The Story Prize

This competition is a daunting gauntlet for any first-time author to run, but the reward at the end is well worth the effort! A $20,000 book prize is awarded to the author of a collection of short stories that was published this year, and entries may be submitted by agents, authors, or publishers. Currently they’re accepting submissions of books that were published from January through June. Are you eligible? Do it!

Entry Fee: $75 Deadline: July 15

William Faulkner Literary Competition

This is a multi-faceted event, with opportunities for a staggering variety of writers. Authors can submit their work to novel, adult short story, student short story, one-act play, and poetry categories! Prizes and deadlines vary for each category, with the winning novel receiving $2000 and publication. Make sure you read each category closely! More information here.

Entry Fee: $50 Deadline: July 15

2022 Literary Awards

Created by the Santa Fe Writers Project, this contest is meant to recognize excellence in writing! Entries can be fiction or nonfiction, of any genre (past winners have included flash fiction, memoirs, short story collections, essays, and even a graphic novel). This year’s judge is the mega-talented Deesha Philyaw, author of The Secret Lives of Church Ladies. The grand prize is $1500, and two runners-up will receive $500. Winners will then be offered a competitive book contract, separate from the prize money! Check it out!

Entry Fee: $30 Deadline: July 18

Howling Bird Press Nonfiction Prize

Howling Bird Press, the publishing house of Augsburg University’s MFA program, is currently accepting submissions for their contest, but all good things will eventually come to an end. Entries are open to both established and emerging writers, as long as their work is original, innovative, and between 20,000 to 60,000 words. The winning manuscript will receive $2500 and publication. Don’t lose your chance!

Entry Fee: $25 Deadline: July 31

Narrative Spring Story Contest

This contest is open to all fiction and nonfiction writers, writing anything from short stories and memoirs, to photo essays and literary nonfiction! The entries need to be less than 15,000 words and previously unpublished, while containing a strong narrative drive and intense insights. First prize is $2500, second is $1000, and third is $500. Guidelines here.

Entry Fee: $27 Deadline: July 31

The Sewanee Review Contest

The oldest continuously published quarterly in the US, the Sewanee Review is opening its fifth annual Fiction, Poetry, and Nonfiction contest on July 1! Entries can be up to 10,000 words or 6 poems. Raven Leilani is judging fiction, Richie Hofmann is judging poetry, and Lisa Taddeo is judging creative nonfiction. The winners of each category receive $1000 and publication! More details here.

Entry Fee: TBA Deadline: July 31

by Kimberly Guerin



A Conversation with Sindya Bhanoo, Author of Seeking Fortune Elsewhere

The eight stories in Sindya Bhanoo’s wonderful debut collection, Seeking Fortune Elsewhere (out now from Catapult), detail the lives of South Indian immigrants as they and their families grapple with significant change and disruption. The Masters Review had the privilege of publishing “Different” (appearing in the collection as “A Life in America”) a few years ago, and Sindya was kind enough to discuss the collection and her writing in more detail with Austin Ross.

Ross: How did the collection take shape? Did you realize the thematic connection of the stories later on, or did you intentionally set out to write stories around the theme of immigration?

Bhanoo: I wrote most of the stories over the course of three years, while I was in an MFA program. I had no idea that they might form a collection. My advisor, Bret Anthony Johnston, read some of the stories and told me to keep working on them. He pointed out that they were thematically linked and felt certain that they would come together as a book.

As for the focus on South Indian immigrants, I write fiction because I think there are certain stories and people absent from the larger record. All too often, the stories of immigrants, of women, of those from marginalized communities are absent from the archive. Fiction gives us a chance to go back and correct that, not completely but partially.

I had the privilege of reading an earlier version of “A Life in America.” Can you describe how that story in particular changed as you revised? When did you know you’d landed on the finished story?

For one, the title changed many times! For a while it was called “A Resignation.” I really have the hardest time with titles. They can’t be on the nose and yet they must be meaningful.

I wrote many versions of the story but I always knew one thing—the story would center on this professor who had done something wrong. I wanted to spend some time with this professor and understand who he was and where he was coming from. People are neither all good nor all bad. We are, each of us, far more complex. His wife was an important character too, though not the central one. She is not blind to what he is doing. She is far more aware than him, in fact. Still, for various reasons, she is not able to do much about it.

How does your journalism work affect your fiction, and vice versa?

It affects my fiction in many ways. As a newspaper reporter, I’m lucky to have had tremendous editors who have always pushed me to be clear and succinct. I was trained to never waste the reader’s time. Because of this, my style is to cut to the heart of the story fairly quickly. To me, this doesn’t give the story away, it allows it to unfold.

Fiction allows me to linger in a way that journalism did not. What I love most about writing fiction is chronicling day-to-day experiences and ordinary moments in the lives of my characters. When I do this, I’m able to achieve an emotional truth, one that helps me understand who a person really is.

Fiction has informed my journalism too. When I’m reporting I tend to work very quickly. I ask a lot of questions and gather a great deal of information, write a story and then move on. These days, even when I’m reporting, I try to give myself an extra moment or two. It’s remarkable what I notice when I do that.

Can you describe your drafting process? Do you work on multiple projects at once, or just one? Do you quickly write a rough draft and revise, or revise before moving on?

I write fiction like a journalist! I spend time gathering information about my imagined world. I write down everything I know about my characters, anecdotes, scenes, bits and pieces of information about what’s lying on a desk, or what the weather is like. I do it all on my laptop, but it is as if I’m writing everything down, messily, into a reporter’s notebook. Then, with all that information in hand, I come back to my desk and write. That’s my very messy first draft. That’s the point when some sort of story makes itself apparent to me. Then I spend months (sometimes years) revising.

There’s a line in “Malliga Homes” that stood out to me for obvious reasons: “The offspring of the rich are rich, and they do not seek their fortunes elsewhere.” How does this view of wealth and status influence the collection?

I am always considering how wealth, status and privilege affect the way a person walks, talks and acts in this world. That line in “Malliga Homes” speaks to several things. Those who leave their homeland are often in search of better lives. It may be for wealth, or it may be for a better education, or safety or freedom. But they are looking for something they do not already have, and may not get, at home. “Malliga Homes” also alludes to how those who leave somehow find the means to do so. There are also those who don’t leave because they simply can’t. Those characters are present but silent in “Malliga Homes”—the boy who cleans the pool, and the waitstaff.

Could you describe the process of selecting work(s) for a collection? Were there stories you ultimately decided to not include? Were the previously published pieces revised for this book, and how did you decide on the final order of stories?

There was one story that was originally part of the book but my editor, Megha Majumdar, and I ultimately decided to keep it out of the collection. It didn’t quite fit, though I tried to make it work because it is linked to “Malliga Homes,” the first story in the book. Perhaps it will appear in my next story collection.

Once the individual stories were done, I spent a lot of time thinking about order. It so happens that four stories are set in India and four are set in the United States. I wanted the reader to feel some sense of traveling back and forth while reading the book. Two stories—“Malliga Homes” and “Three Trips”—touch Indian and American soil. I knew they would be the bookends.

What are you working on now? What are you reading, and who are the writers you turn to most frequently for inspiration?

I’m writing more stories and working on a novel. I’m still a journalist. Reporting gives me access to a variety of people, places and perspectives. My favorite writers? Alice Munro, YiYun Li, Jhumpa Lahiri, William Trevor, Elizabeth Strout. Currently, I’m reading The Immortal King Rao by Vauhini Vara.

Interviewed by Austin Ross

Sindya Bhanoo is the author of Seeking Fortune Elsewhere, out now from Catapult. Her fiction has appeared in Granta, New England Review, Glimmer Train, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of an O. Henry Award, the Disquiet Literary Prize and scholarships from the Bread Loaf and Sewanee writers’ conferences. A longtime newspaper reporter, she has worked for The New York Times and The Washington Post. She is a graduate of the Michener Center for Writers, UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism and Carnegie Mellon University. She lives in Austin, TX.