The Masters Review Blog

Apr 21

New Voices: “Everything is Fine” by Alissa Johnson

Today we present “Everything is Fine” by Alissa Johnson. This story came to us by way of our Summer Workshop and we’re so pleased it has a permanent home in our New Voices library. In “Everything is Fine,” a couple’s new dog goes missing. This search-and-rescue tale is so much more than a story about tensions that arise in a relationship due to conflict. “Everything is Fine” explores memory, self-awareness, and kindness, in a piece that is as touching as it is heart wrenching.

“He knew every detail of his life and his family’s. He just got frustrated with aging. With the way things once simple now took so long to do. They couldn’t hold it against him for getting upset about that.”

If he had been walking the dog, she would not be lost. Paul was sure of it. But his wife had the leash in her hand, and when and a man and his dogs approached from the opposite direction—a Doberman mix and a poodle, he thought, though it was hard to tell in the dark—Poppy had planted her feet then back-pedaled. She slipped out of her collar, ran across the street and disappeared between two houses. “Oh, fuck,” his wife said and crossed the street, calling the dog and vanishing behind the houses. Paul turned back to the man with the dogs, who had commanded the animals to sit side by side at his feet and now held their leashes tight.

“I was about to reel them in.”

“Poppy’s skittish,” Paul said. “We rescued her from a shelter in Hudson, Wisconsin, four days ago. She came from Kentucky. A German Shepherd mix. You probably couldn’t tell in the dark, but she doesn’t have much fur.”

Mange, he explained, giving the full story even though the man hadn’t asked for it. The way her previous owner had been unable to pay for the medication. How he had given her to a shelter, not a no-kill facility, and a Wisconsin rescue group intervened. They had picked her up just in time to avoid being euthanized. Paul and his wife had found her picture online, Jane finally ready for another dog now that she had retired from teaching. Declaring a soft spot for dogs no one else would adopt, she had insisted on making the 30-minute drive from St. Paul to their neighboring state.

“So far Poppy’s been mistaken for a wolf, a coyote, and a hyena. A face only a mother could love.” Paul smiled.

“Sounds like you’ll want to find her quick then,” said the man, pulling his cell phone out of his pocket—one of the fancy ones with a screen. “What’s your number? I’ll keep my eye out on the way home.”

Paul gave him the number for his wife’s cell phone. He hadn’t memorized his own, having acquired it only recently. He’d returned his first phone after a week—the buttons were so damn small and despite cataract surgery hard to read. He went several months without one. This time he had asked for the simplest phone with the biggest numbers on the keypad, and still, he found it complicated to use. Paul watched the man continue down the street, dogs back at the end of their 16-foot leads—typical—and listened for the sound of his wife calling for the dog. The neighborhood was quiet. A light breeze blew dried oak leaves down the sidewalk and somewhere a car door slammed. Paul decided to backtrack and head down Vincent. His wife would have ended up on Folwell and he would meet her there.

<<  Read the rest of “Everything is Fine” here  >>

Apr 19

Q&A: Agent Mark Gottlieb From Trident Media

We had the pleasure of asking agent Mark Gottlieb from Trident Media Group a few questions about being an agent, what he looks for in clients, and what makes Trident stand out among other agencies. Thank you, Mark, for taking the time to answer our Q&A!

Can you describe your history before Trident Media and why you pursued becoming an agent?

I have been working in major trade publishing since 2009 when I started at Penguin Books. I’ve grown up around books all my life, since both my parents worked in major trade publishing, and my father happens to own/operate the literary agency where I work—Trident Media Group. So I like to tell folks that I’ve been publishing from the womb! There was always the expectation that I would study book publishing in college in order to one day go into the family business. That is why I attended Emerson College in Boston, since at the time it was one of only two schools to offer an undergraduate study in book publishing. From there, my company bio charts the rest of my journey.

What does your client list look like now and what are you looking for in new clients?

My client list is a mixture of authors writing the the spaces of debut fiction, general/other fiction, mystery/crime, thrillers, women’s fiction, SFF, YA, MG, PB, GN, and various areas of nonfiction. My full client list can be viewed here.

As a general ballpark, is your client list made up of writers who solicited you from queries or did you reach out to them?

It’s a mixture of the two but some great clients have come by way of the query letter system on our website.

It says you’re currently interested in all genres. As a literary fiction publication our readership is most interested in knowing what you look for in literary fiction queries. Anything specific?

Qualities that I look for in literary fiction are things like character development, style, message, as well as accessibility.

Do you take on debut writers and if so, do you take on writers with just story collections or do you prefer selling a collection in conjunction with a novel? If so, why?

Most of my clients are authors making their debut or major debut. My preference is to sell a full-length novel since story collections can be tough. For me, it’s better for an author to first become a household name as a novelist, before trying the short story route.

What is your best advice for debut writers querying an agent? And what do you value most in a writing sample?

My advice to authors along the querying process is to really nail the writing of that query letter. A query letter that reads well is usually a good indication to the literary agent that the manuscript will similarly read well, inclining the literary agent to request a manuscript. Often the query letter can go on to become the publisher’s jacket copy, were the publisher to acquire the manuscript via the literary agent. I only request full manuscripts, rather than samples if the query letter is good. I suggest picking the strongest aspect of a manuscript for a writing sample. It doesn’t necessarily have to be chapter one. (more…)

Apr 14

Author Interview: “The Lindbergh Baby” by Andrés Carlstein

It was our pleasure to talk with Andrés Carlstein, whose story “The Lindbergh Baby” was published in The Masters Review Volume V. In this precise and powerful story, a veteran who was stationed in Iraq unexpectedly gains custody of his eleven-year-old son, after being largely absent from the boy’s life. Here, Andrés talks about the making of this story and offers insight into the practicalities of the writing life. In case you haven’t read Volume V yet, learn more about it and purchase it here.

“Jesse wasn’t crying right then and maybe that’s why he looked, Ron thought, to see if his father was. Or maybe to show his father that he wasn’t.”

Your story, “The Lindbergh Baby,” is told from the point of view of a veteran who was stationed in Iraq directly after the First Gulf War, and it includes flashbacks to that time. Like the rest of the story, these sections are incredibly detailed. Now, if you don’t mind me sharing, I know that some of the details come from your brother, a Marine, who was stationed in Iraq at that time. The story itself is, of course, fictional. I also remember that many of the details about the Lindbergh Baby (a tragic kidnapping in the 1930s) came from your friend’s grandmother.

This leads me, naturally, to the questions: What first inspired the idea for your story? How did you gather the details for it? And how long did it take to develop? Did you start with research, an outline, etc.?

I typically do not begin with outlines or research. What most often happens is that something catches my awareness—an idea, a feeling, an image—and I try to let the story manifest as I write my way around that thing. I try to let the elements come out without too many limitations from my conscious mind. My first inspiration for this story actually came from my nephew, who was about eleven years old at the time. I’d actually wanted to interview my friend’s grandmother further about her Lindbergh anecdote. She lived an hour away from my sister’s house in Upstate New York; I asked my nephew if he would like to come for the ride. Although we never took that road trip together, the idea of such a journey was the catalyst. I imagined the light in my nephew’s hair through the window, felt the car seat under me. My brother had recently told me some more details about his wartime experience, so I was thinking about what he’d gone through. Although I had no kids of my own then, I wondered, what would it be like to take such a trip with my own son? What if he were already eleven when we met? He would be a stranger to me. The story coalesced from there. Regarding the research and details, I am indebted to the people I interviewed. As you say, my brother is a Marine veteran, and he had the same job in Operation Provide Comfort that the protagonist in the story had. Nearly all the specifics came from my brother’s experience, except for the actual shooting. Fortunately, my brother never saw combat. The technical details of the shooting and the physiological aftermath were researched separately.

How many drafts did this story go through? Were there any huge changes from the first draft to the last?

I am not sure if my process is unusual, but it sounds weird to me when I describe it. Half of the time when I am working on a story I’m not actually writing. After I have gotten an idea I’ll sit on it for a few weeks as the story gestates in my head. Then one day I will draft it, from start to finish, over the course of roughly 48 hours. Once I have that first semi-complete draft, it may take months or even years to figure out what is going on in the story and how to fix what’s wrong with it. Come to think of it, my process also sounds incredibly slow! This particular story was workshopped and went through many drafts. The biggest change was to the POV. Originally it was in first person, and for the longest time I couldn’t figure out how to make the narrator sound less self-pitying and unpleasant. It was hard to have any sympathy for him. When I finally realized the story needed to be in third person, things seemed to work better. The distance from his mind allowed readers to perceive him more empathetically. The second biggest change was the end. In earlier drafts Ron makes the decision to leave Jesse with Gram and race back to NYC, trying to get home and pass out before he knows Jesse will awaken in that house and realize that his father has abandoned him again. This story made me sad for a long time. I felt like the story was ready once I discovered that there was a way for a transformation to occur, for a more hopeful ending and a better resolution for this family.

What are some of your favorite stories and/or short story collections?

This is hard to say. Stories I loved (and learned to write with) when I was younger have often aged poorly. What I mean is that they’ve become less palatable as I’ve matured. I first started engaging with real “literary” stories through the Australian writer Henry Lawson. I’m not sure I could reread him now and feel okay with the subtext in stories like “The Bush Undertaker,” for example. I’m sure that other stories of his are still perfectly fine. A better example of what I am talking about might be Hemingway. Early on I was enamored of his style and blown away by how much he could achieve emotionally with so few words, but it is very hard to read his work today and not put the book down when one of his many prejudices appear. I think part of growing as a writer is becoming more conscious of others as we examine human nature and the countless ways to be in this world. If we are really inhabiting the minds and feelings of others as we go through this process, it can be hard to ignore the unconsciousness in things we read. Hemingway’s influence on style is possibly immeasurable, but his attitudes are too often problematic. One collection I was obsessed with for a long time is the debut by Rebecca Curtis, Twenty Grand. There’s this amazing juxtaposition of fearlessness and precision in her choices in those stories, along with an energetic power that simply bursts off the page. In graduate school I first started reading James Baldwin, and as a writing mentor once said to me, “Sonny’s Blues” is one of the greatest short stories out there. I also had the great fortune to study with James Alan McPherson and his story, “Gold Coast,” is right up there as well. My favorite authors right now are Louise Erdrich and César Aira. Erdrich’s story, “Fleur,” has been my favorite short story since I read it several years ago. It’s gorgeously constructed fabulist/realist story, with mythology and plot and a surprisingly deceptive narrator. It also has possibly the best opening line in a short story that I can recall.

In what ways is this story similar to (or different from) your other writing? I know that you have a novel in progress. Could you tell us about it?

I tend to write either so-called “realist” stuff like this story, or fabulist work that sounds like it comes from a previous century. In some of my writing I’ve attempted to combine these two styles, with greater and lesser degrees of success, I think. I feel like some writers are so much themselves that you can pick up a few lines anywhere and say, “oh, this is George Saunders,” or, “Flannery O’Connor.” I don’t think I’ve found my real voice yet, or if I have I’m not aware of it. The novel I am working on is based on an abduction that happened in the 1850s in Argentina. I have spent several years on it but then I had to set it aside for a while as I adapted to being a new father. My son’s arrival brought a lot of work and life changes.

You attended the Iowa Writers Workshop, and you have also spent time writing at MacDowell and Yaddo. Would you mind telling us a little bit about any or all of these experiences?

I feel lucky to be doing what I am doing. I have been given many opportunities that I couldn’t have imagined ten years ago; the three you mention figure prominently among them. The debts I owe (to the State of Iowa, to the University of Iowa, to the Workshop, to Samantha Chang, to Connie Brothers, to other teachers and peers, to MacDowell, and to Yaddo), are difficult to overstate. In recent years people have been having that “NYC vs MFA” debate. I kind of roll my eyes about it because I did NYC. I worked in the city for a decade beginning just before 9/11. I was a technical writer for a software company when the Towers came down. The whole city was in shock. I think that while the rest of the country took some time to fully register what had happened, the people of NYC had to take the hit and keep going. After the attack, I traveled to and from work for months seeing the smoke rising from the rubble. So many businesses abandoned the city—gave up on it. The people who were there were sticking it out. I was laid off a few months later and became a bouncer and then as a bartender just to get by. Meanwhile I was working on my writing, trying to learn how to say what I felt I needed to say. At that time I had no idea people studied fiction academically. I’d never heard of the Writers’ Workshop. Eventually I went to Argentina for a year to write a novel, and then I came back and a friend suggested we attend a six-week novel workshop. The instructor had an MFA and that’s where I first got the idea. I applied to several programs with two short stories and got lucky. My point with all of this is that I toiled in literary isolation for years, with no sense of access to anything that NYC had to offer a would-be writer (except for an MFA-style workshop I paid to take). I had two writer friends and no mentors. Nobody was inviting me to literary parties. To get anything out of NYC as an aspirant means you already have means of access and, in that sense, a privilege that is probably far more exclusive than any MFA program. At least the bar for entry to grad school is more democratic. And many programs pay or have work/study tuition programs. It wasn’t until then that things started to change for me. For example, at the Writers’ Workshop that I learned about the wonder that is an artist residency. People laugh at me when I say this, but the greatest benefit is the food. To make a meal you need to go to the store, buy ingredients, prepare them, eat, and then clean up. For three meals this can take hours from your day. Yaddo and MacDowell both have amazing spaces to write, and the food is incredible. You wake up at seven, go eat, and after you’re done it’s still only half past seven. Now what? You have nothing else to do until lunch, which sometimes is even delivered to your room. There’s no television, limited internet, and a bunch of brilliant, committed artists sit in cabins and rooms all around, toiling away, inspiring and motivating you to get after it. The amount of creative work produced in these places is unreal. At my first residency I was burned out after finishing my degree and couldn’t produce much. I also didn’t really understand what a residency was. At the second I was prepared going in, and I wrote seventy pages of the novel in two weeks. Places that support the arts are rare and important for so many reasons—especially in these days of targeted budget cuts on programs such as the National Endowment for the Arts. I am extremely grateful for every opportunity I have been given, including this one. Thanks so much to Amy Hempel and The Masters Review for selecting my story.

Apr 11

Craft Essay: Productive Ambiguity

Our Editorial Director and I recently conducted an exchange for our Notes From The Slush series. It’s one of our favorite ways to discuss what we saw in submissions and talk about work on a craft level. One of the things that came up in our discussion was the question: what makes the beginning of a story effective? And it got me thinking about what other elements are essential to a successful beginning.

It is very hard to strike the right balance between clarity and ambiguity at the beginning of a short story. The entry point to the piece needs to reveal information without giving too much away. But it’s tricky: excessive exposition turns into an information dump. Not enough info, and the story lacks a foundation.

Good beginnings are satisfying because of a nice balance between what we know and what we want to know. This is especially true in stories with magical realism, speculative elements, or stories that take place in worlds unlike our own. World building is its own very special skill, and is a big part of how a story begins. Writers who are good at it provide the clarity of concrete details while still keeping the reader asking questions like, “what is going to happen next?” or “what am I going to learn?”

In Jeff VanderMeer’s excellent craftbook, Wonderbook, he suggests opening your story with a lure and then offering context. This speaks to the balance of clarity and ambiguity. Your story should begin with delicious and exciting questions, while providing enough information for the foundation of your piece.

Think of your favorite story and I’m sure you can identify some level of ambiguity. If the writing is good, the kind of ambiguity we’re talking about is productive — it keeps the reader interested and is an enjoyable part of discovery. Information and details are slowly revealed, filling in gaps of understanding just as the reader needs them.

One of my favorite stories is “Ponies” by Kij Johnson. In this story, Barbara is invited to a cutting-out party by a group of popular girls. It’s a coming-of-age event, where girls remove the wings and horns from their magical ponies, turning their horses into regular pets. It’s a very short piece and it won the Nebula Award in 2010.

Many things make this story successful, but it is a good example of productive ambiguity and clarity working in balance. Johnson doesn’t come right out and say how exactly the cutting will work, what will be gained by the process, or how much Barbara knows about the party beforehand, but the reader comes to understand each of these essential elements as the narrative moves along.

Johnson does give us some information upfront however: “Then all Ponies go to a cutting-out party, and they give up two of the three, because that’s what has to happen if a girl is going to fit in…” This is a great example of details being offered to anchor readers to the world of the piece with a lot of discovery still yet to take place. We know the girls will take two elements from the ponies: horn, wings, or voice, but what happens next is a mystery.

While ambiguity and clarity are essential to the start of the piece, the balance must also be right throughout the entire story. When I am reading submissions for The Masters Review I think a lot about the details being withheld from a piece and whether or not that ambiguity is productive.

In the novella “Of Mice and Men,” Steinbeck uses Lenny’s learning disability to infuse the story with instability. Steinbeck builds Lenny’s unpredictability throughout the narrative and its place in the story’s climax is fully earned. We don’t exactly know the specifics of what Lenny understands and doesn’t — we don’t know his diagnosis — we simply know his it is essential to his character. This ambiguity is productive. It is in perfect balance with, and necessary to the success of, the rest of the piece. In the case of “Of Mice and Men,” it is elemental to the story.

Laurie Colwin’s “Mr. Parker” is another example of productive ambiguity. In this short story, a girl attends piano lessons at the house of Mr. Parker, a man whose wife has recently died. The girl’s mother is anxious about her daughter being alone in the house with Mr. Parker. Specifically, she is worried he will “touch her.” Mr. Parker does touch the girl — he puts his hands on her shoulders after she performs a difficult piece — a congratulatory gesture. It’s a confusing moment for the girl because she’s been warned against it, yet Mr. Parker’s motivations are entirely wholesome. For readers, the ambiguity of the gesture is clearer than it is to the girl, but it heightens tension in the story and services the piece’s central theme.

On this level, and when fiction is at its very best, ambiguity forces readers to consider the “why” of a piece, and ultimately provides a better story overall.

Ask yourself when you’re writing if the details you’re withholding from your reader are productive. Especially in the beginning of your piece, consider what kinds of physical, emotional, and logical details are being kept from your reader and why. How much does the reader know and how much do you want them to know? Writers who understand their work know why they are being ambiguous and how it services their story. When you know exactly why your piece lacks clarity, and when the clarity services natural discovery, you’re working toward a very well written story.

by Kim Winternheimer

Apr 7

New Voices: “According to Their Kinds” by Kit Haggard

In Kit Haggard’s “According to Their Kinds,” a man travels to his childhood home in South Carolina following the death of his estranged father, who was an ornithologist. This story is most remarkable for its carefully wrought descriptions, which take on an emotional weight. Please welcome this latest addition to our New Voices library.

“On the way out, he looked again into his father’s room, already beginning to collect dust in its hollows. . . . Every time he stopped at the open doorway, he expected—perhaps out of a kind of habit, a kind of muscle memory—to find his father engaged in one of his strange little projects: wiring together the bones of a thrush or making tracings from an open book.”

It was the year the floods carried off the woodshed and the woodpile, when the electricity went out for several days and the basements of neighboring houses turned black with standing water—the surface broken only by a floating bucket, a half empty bottle of engine coolant like a rudderless craft—everything wet and seeping—and so, of course, it was also the year his father died. The ground had only just absorbed the last of the snowmelt, in the first sweet, euphoric days of spring; the forsythia had come up golden around the mailbox. He received the call on the hall telephone, packed the car, and drove south through the Frost Belt and out into the summertime states of his childhood. Massachusetts Welcomes You, Connecticut Welcomes You, Maryland Welcomes You, and underneath, a bunch of black-eyed Susans.

The house—what had been his house, and was now his house again—stood behind a row of oaks, where the gravel popped off the road and into the undercarriage of the car. The trees dripped with Spanish moss, fanciful. He had shed his winter coat outside Richmond and it sat heavy on the passenger seat. He brought the car to a stop and got out with his shirt sticking to the small of his back. The screen door creaked; his key fit the lock.

His father’s boots still sat beside the back door, caked to the ankle in black mud, the heels crushed where the toe of one had been used to remove its mate, the soles worn along the outside by his crooked walk. Bloated oats floated in an inch of dirty dishwater in the sink. Mail slumped on the kitchen table. The smell of stale cigarettes and dust—soft, fat in the empty house—was cut by rot: two bags of trash in the mudroom, wire ties holding the white tops shut, and on the counter, a fruit bowl furred with flies.

He went up to the second floor. The door to his father’s room was open: the print of Albrecht Dürer’s Wing of a Blue Roller hung above the bed, and the desk overflowed with pieces of loose paper, some of them covered in neat handwriting, and others, in sketches of birds broken into their constituent parts. The sheets trailed to the floor. The little paned window was thick with grime. Beneath were stacks of cardboard boxes, numbered in an unintelligible system known only to one man, and that man now dead. Their corners were darkened with wear, water stained.

To read the rest of “According to Their Kinds” click here.

Apr 4

Our Favorite Flash Pieces

Here at The Masters Review, we are huge fans of flash fiction. Broadly defined as story of less than 1000 words, flash is so wonderful for the extreme variety and power within this dense little form. In our experience, limiting the number of words in a story opens the door for creativity. Well, we’ve gathered some of our favorite short short stories, (most of) which you can read online. We are also thrilled to announce that we are holding a Flash Fiction Contest this spring, open now. You can learn more about it here. We have been wanting to have a flash contest for years, and can’t wait to see what this one will bring. So, dive into these thrilling little stories. Enjoy!


 “Peanut Butter” by Camille Esses (Available in Hint Fiction: An Anthology of Stories in 25 Words or Fewer edited by Robert Swartwood)

I love this piece of microfiction. From how Esses sets up the story via the title, to its dark and sinister implication. The full text is just a few words: “He was allergic. She pretended not to know.” Creative, cutting, and clever. Microfiction at its best. -Kim

“Nicholas Was…” by Neil Gaiman

This is another piece of microfiction, less than 100 words, that cleverly uses the title as part of its storytelling. Sure, all fiction does this, but I feel in this piece (and in the one above) it is much more deliberate; a direct contribution to the story. This was the first fairy-tale-turned-on-its-head story I had ever read, and was completely blown away. -Kim

“And the World was Crowded with Things That Meant Love” by Amber Sparks

In this exquisitely crafted piece of flash, a man and a woman spend one romantic night together and go on to live their lives apart, in different corners of the world. They keep in touch by sending each other strange objects: he sends her a puzzle box; she sends him a music box with a ballerina whose face is molded as her own. This short story, somehow, spans much of two lifetimes, and includes many wonderful oddities within it. -Sadye

“Defects” by Deb Olin Unferth (Available in Wait Till You See Me Dance)

Deb Olin Unferth’s entire collection is beautiful and filled with flash fiction. While the opening story “Likeable” is mentioned in many reviews, I am a big fan of “Defects.” In this piece a man highlights his personal defects to improve his total quality. He explains this to a second character—a woman. It’s a wonderful piece about self awareness and labeling, and the ending is incredibly witty. All of the fiction in this collection follows similar suit. I highly recommend it. -Kim

“What The Water Feels Like To The Fishes” by Dave Eggers

But really, though: what does the water feel like to the fishes? In this witty piece of flash, Eggers attempts to answer this question, then flips it on its head. There are many great pieces of flash that serve as meditations of sorts, but none are quite like this one. -Sadye

The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis

Even though Lydia Davis was writing her short, pithy stories before the term “flash fiction” was part of our literary vocabulary, I can’t talk about the genre of short short stories without mentioning her name. Many of her masterpieces are under 1000 words. One of our favorites is this little gem. -Sadye

“School” by Melissa Goodrich

The opening line of this story is: “All of the boys in school are breaking their hands.” This piece defies explanation because the entire world unfurls word by word until the end when you’re left with a dark and smoldering story. Just read it! -Kim

“Our Secret Life In The Movies” by J. M. Tyree and Michael McGriff

I have to mention this project because the flash is so beautiful and the project so unique. It was written by two writers, each piece inspired by a film in the Criterion Collection. The book reads beautifully as independent stories, but as a whole it comes together as a touching coming of age story, just filled with life. Flash fiction fans will adore it, new readers of flash will find enough cohesion to be won over. -Kim

Mar 30

The Masters Review Anthology Prize Closes Friday!

SUBMIT NOW! You have until the end of day on Friday, March 31, to submit your best stories and essays up to 8000 words. Winners earn publication, cash prizes, and national distribution to agents, editors, and publishers.

Ten writers will be selected from a shortlist of thirty by ROXANE GAY to appear in The Masters Review Anthology Volume VI. A total of $5000 will be awarded to writers.

<<  Full Guidelines and Details Here  >>

Mar 27

April Deadlines: 15 Contests and Lit Mags With Deadlines This Month

Spring has sprung, and the days are starting to shine. This month, we’ve got a round up of deadlines for poets, nonfiction, and prose writers, along with some general submissions information. There are a lot of opportunities in April so dip into our list of favorites and start writing!

Featured! The Masters Review Anthology Prize Judged by Roxane Gay

$5000 awarded! Don’t forget about our favorite March deadline, submissions to our anthology prize close on March 31. You can submit your best essay or story up to 8000 words for a chance at publication and national distribution. Stories this year are selected by the incredible Roxane Gay. Ten authors will be awarded and welcomed to The Masters Review family. Will it be you? Submit here. 

Indiana Review Poetry Prize

This is a call to poets! Judged by the indomitable Vievee Francis, the winner receives $1000 and publication in Indiana Review. All entries receive a year-long subscription to the journal, and all entries are considered for publication. Submit here.
Entry Fee: $20 Deadline: April 1

Tin House Summer Workshop  Scholarship

The incredible Tin House Summer Workshop deadline is in May, but if you plan to apply for a scholarship to help with accommodations and travel while you attend, that deadline is fast approaching. All scholarship applicants are considered for general attendance, so there’s no need to submit two applications.  Full guidelines here.
Entry Fee: $40 Deadline: April 1

The Southampton Review – General Submissions Open

There are two reading periods each year for The Southampton Review, and there is still a little time left! Not only do they accept fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, they are also interested in plays and screenplays. Do note, however, that they ask for only one submission in one category during each reading period. Submit here.
Entry Fee: $3 Deadline: April 1

Waterston Desert Writing Prize

Inspired by author and poet Ellen Waterston, this prize provides financial and other support to writers whose work reflects a connection to the desert. The Waterston Desert Prize recognizes one writer with $2000, a reading and reception, and a four-week residency at Summer Lake, OR. Applicants need to provide a biographical statement, a proposal, and a writing sample. Submission guidelines here.
Entry Fee: FREE Deadline: April 1

Poetry International Prize

Through San Diego State University, this competition is looking for a single poem to award $1000 and publication in Poetry International. Contestants may submit up to three poems, and everyone is welcome to enter, even those who won a prize last year. The judge for 2017 is Sherwin Bitsui. More details here.
Entry Fee: $15 Deadline: April 1

The Alice Munro Festival Short Story Competition

Submit up to 2500 words to be considered for publication! Prizes vary in adult and youth categories and all the winners will be recognized at the summer festival in Ontario. Munro fans, (and who isn’t?), apply now!
Entry Fee: $15 Deadline: April 1

New Ohio Review

All three of the New Ohio Review’s contests are ending this month, so enter now if you want to receive one of the three $1000 first-place prizes! Colm Toibin is judging the fiction section, Rosanna Warren is judging the poetry section, and Phillip Lopate is judging the nonfiction applicants. All of the winners and a selection of the runners up will be published! See more here.
Entry Fee: $20 Deadline: April 15

A Public Space – General Submissions Close

A Public Space has been an integral part of the literary cannon for years. They welcome fiction, poetry, and multigenre work, but only until April 15 when their submissions close until the fall. Better yet, it’s free to enter. Full details here.
Entry Fee: FREE Deadline: April 15

Passages North – General Submissions Close

Passages North publishes a little bit of everything and they are currently accepting for all categories through the middle of the month for Issue #39. Poetry, fiction, nonfiction, short fiction, and other genres are welcome.  Full details here.
Entry Fee: Varies Deadline: April 15

Event Nonfiction Prize

From the website: “Contest winners feature in every winter issue since 1989, and many have gone on to greatness. Winners also win a pretty nice cheque. How do you feel about $1500 in prize money?” J. Jill Robison is judging nonfiction entries. Prizes begin at $1500 for the winners. The entry fee is a little steep for this contest, but it could be your perfect match. More here.
Entry Fee: $35 Deadline: April 15

Prime Number Magazine Awards

With an emphasis on brevity, this contest for poetry and short fiction is meant to be a challenge! Make sure to note that the short story requirement is 53 to 5300 words, as a nod to their parent organization Press 53. Judged by Rebecca Foust and David Jauss (for poetry and short fiction, respectively), the first-place winner in each category receives $1000 and publication in Prime Number Magazine. Enter here!
Entry Fee: $15 Deadline: April 15

The 2017 Gulf Coast Prize

Here is an opportunity for all writers, as Gulf Coast’s contest rewards authors in nonfiction, fiction, and poetry! Diane Roberts judges nonfiction, Chinelo Okparanta judges fiction, and Cate Marvin judges poetry. The winner in each category receives $1500, and two honorable mentions in each category also receive $250. Make sure you submit to the correct category! Check it out here.
Entry Fee: $23 Deadline: April 15

Iowa Poetry Prize

Presented by the University of Iowa Press for a book-length collection of poems, this contest is open to new as well as established poets! The manuscript should be 50-150 pages, and simultaneous submissions are accepted. The winning manuscript will be published under a standard royalty agreement. Learn more here.
Entry Fee: $20 Deadline: April 30

Grist Journal’s Pro Forma Contest

Grist is looking for authors who make the most of structures in writing, creating an interesting opportunity to play with form and function. Submissions can be fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, or any other form of literary expression. Judged by Alex Lemon, first-place wins $1200 and publication in the journal. Don’t miss it!
Entry Fee: $18 Deadline: April 30

The Very Short Fiction Contest

From Glimmer Train, the Very Short Fiction Contest is open to all writers, and any story that hasn’t appeared in a print publication is welcome! First place receives $2000 and publication in Glimmer Train. Winners are announced November 1. The best part of a Glimmer Train deadline is you know the competition will be fierce, the prizes generous, and the deadline comes with a week’s wiggle room. Get writing! Guidelines here.
Entry Fee: $16 Deadline: April 30

by Kimberly Guerin and TMR staff

Mar 24

New Voices: “Night Beast” by Ruth Joffre

Today, we are thrilled to present the winner of our Fall Fiction Contest, “Night Beast” by Ruth Joffre. In this story, our narrator attends her brother’s wedding. His fiance is a girl who has been intimate with his sister while sleepwalking. The author says about the story: “Sleep sex has always fascinated me because of the sticky questions it raises about desire, betrayal, and consent. My characters hurt each other in ways they never would’ve imagined, and that was what interested me most while writing ‘Night Beast’.” Kelly Link selected this incredible piece as the winner of our contest, and it is immediately evident why. Congratulations, Ruth Joffre, on this wonderful and powerful story.

Selected by Kelly Link

“Looking at them then, they seemed perfect for each other, absolutely perfect. But Sydney’s eyes found me in the dark, and the look on her face struck me like water strikes a stone.”

Somnambule, I called her. Somnambule pirouetting in the night. I shivered the first time I found her pressed against me in bed, her cold, insistent fingers working their way under my shirt. My brother had told me that she was a sleepwalker, that sometimes he’d wake up in the middle of the night and have to ease Sydney down off the table or the couch, because she was dancing with her eyes closed and didn’t realize how close her head was to the fan. He hadn’t mentioned the sex or the touching, but he probably hadn’t expected it to be an issue; and of course I didn’t tell him. I thought it would embarrass him. He and Sydney had been dating for three years by then, and he’d started thinking about marriage. He told me in confidence that it was time to either get married or break up. He’d had enough of Sydney’s empty commitments. And yet she was the one who called to invite me to the wedding.

It was on Saturday, the third Saturday in April, at Sydney’s parents’ house in Connecticut. My brother had hinted on several occasions that her family was rich-rich, but I’d never met them, and I didn’t think anything of it when I read the word estate on their wedding invitations. Sydney had merely said that the ceremony would be held in her parents’ backyard—she failed to mention that this yard included statues, gardens, and a little brook her parents had installed to mark where their property ended and their neighbor’s began. It didn’t surprise me in the slightest that they had just one neighbor, a pediatric surgeon whose father had been the Governor of Connecticut. When I pulled up in front of the house, I considered turning around and skipping their wedding entirely, but then a truck drove up beside me, and someone directed me toward the garages, and I resigned myself to the fact that this was happening. She was going to marry him right in front of me.

My brother didn’t answer his phone, so I walked around the estate, half-expecting to learn that he’d fled the country at the last minute. Someone told me that he was in the back, helping put up the big tent, but when I arrived, six men were working together to drive metal stakes deep into the grass, and my brother was gone. A tall, silver-haired man in a gray button-down shirt took his place, watching the six men with an expression of disbelief and, it seemed, mild resentment. This was his backyard, I realized. His daughter getting married, just two months after getting engaged. When he saw me, his face went blank, and his hands slipped out of his pockets so he could shake mine. “Austin Carver. You’re looking for your brother?”

<<  Read the rest of “Night Beast” here  >>

Mar 22

The Masters Review // Spring Call for Readers!

Spring has officially sprung, and we are looking for some bright new readers to join our team. If you love contemporary fiction and nonfiction, then this readership might be for you! The position involves three to four hours of reading a week, and a commitment through the end of the calendar year. All our readers work remotely and set their own schedules. Readerships begin May 1.

If interested, please send cover letter, resume, and writing samples (of any genre) with the subject line READERSHIP APPLICATION to sadye (at) mastersreview.com by March 29. Thanks, and we hope to hear from you!

Mar 20

Notes From The Slush // Winter Award

In this installment of Notes From The Slush, Sadye Teiser and Kim Winternheimer discuss their most recent round of submissions: what worked in the stories they accepted and the challenges they saw in stories that were declined.

K: I love doing these exchanges because it’s fun to discuss the stories as a group as opposed to individuals. In terms of groups of stories, one of the things that stood out to me most were pieces told with a formal distance. That is to say, stories that intentionally didn’t explore the emotional landscape of its characters closely, but rather had the events, dialogue, and actions of the narrative uncover what’s important. Here’s an example: I read a fantastic piece, and it was one of our honorable mentions, where a girl dies because her parents make a mistake during sleep-training. The parents are affected by the girl’s death, sure, but the story moves on from the event quite quickly. At first it seems they are unaffected by it. The reason it works in this story, however, is because over the course of the piece the reader begins to see, through subsequent events, how the death does affect the parents. In this way the inciting action of the death and its impact on the family is explored. The story earns its distant style.

In your opinion, what is an example of formal distance working in a story and one in which it isn’t. Also, did anything stand out to you in this group in terms of style, structure, or topic?

S: You’re right that we did see a lot of submissions with a formal distance while reading for our winter award, and many of those rose to the top of the pack. I have to say that I love it when a writer lets me right into a character’s mind, and gives me a pass into the inner workings a particular (fictional) individual’s thoughts and feelings. However, the more I considered it, I realized that some of my favorite stories use formal distance to their advantage. Kevin Brockmeier’s story “The Ceiling” includes very limited reflection from the protagonist throughout, considering that the world is — quite literally — ending, but it pays off with a beautiful burst of intimate interiority at the end. One of our Volume V stories, “Cough,” is also very formally distant, but this works well to convey the surreal sense of dissociation that the narrator feels shortly after 9/11, and also the insurmountable distance in his relationship.

In the most successful stories with formal distance, the author always knows why he or she has made that choice, and uses that to the advantage of the story. Interiority is often used to help tell the reader what the story is about, the forces of human psychology that drive it. Stories with formal distance fail, most often, because the writer doesn’t have the why of the story figured out. Stories with formal distance that succeed are so masterful because they manage to convey a character’s emotional life without describing it so overtly.

This has always been the case, to some extent, but in this round I noticed a lot of stories about nature. Recently, we’ve considered multiple stories about birds and multiple stories about rock climbing. The natural element is often an integral part of the story, but also works on a symbolic level. I think this is true of “Malheur Refuge,” our third-place Winter SSA winner. Do you want to talk about this particular story, and any others in which the natural world is an integral part of the story’s structure?

K: You’re right about seeing a lot of pieces that focus on, or have symbolic ties to the natural world. And forgive my pun, but I think it’s a natural for writers to include these elements in their stories because it is so fundamental to our daily lives.

I suppose I really enjoy stories that explore nature and our interaction with it on any level, whether it be deep or surface-level, though it isn’t a requisite in pieces we accept by any means. “Malheur Refuge” in particular is a piece about a foster father and his relationship with his foster daughter. They live near a bird sanctuary and connect over tying and marking birds. The story is successful for a lot of reasons, and the birds — the setting on the whole, really — anchors the piece. This allows readers to explore other variables in this uncommon father/daughter relationship within a physical context of the story. The natural world provides common ground.

“Malhuer Refuge,” along with some of the other pieces we’ve published (“Rattlesnake Valley” and “Ledgers” for example) have a sharp focus on the natural world, but they work because they are fully formed stories. Unfortunately, this round, we saw a lot of great work that suffered from structural issues. An ineffective middle or conclusions that weren’t fully earned. To me, the latter stands out the most. We’re pretty forgiving (to some degree) of stories that suffer growing pains, but we regularly reject stories where we feel the endings aren’t fully earned. I can best summarize this to mean, that for me, when I read a story where I feel the writer is working toward an end but the rest of the piece isn’t supporting that conclusion, whether it be emotionally, on a plot level, or thematically, that ending isn’t fully earned. Do you want to comment on this notion of “earning” an ending and what it means to you? It’s something that comes up a great deal in our editorial meetings.

S: Yes. One of the comments that our readers make most often on submissions is that they don’t understand what the ending is trying to accomplish, or simply that it wasn’t fully earned — an expression we use a whole lot, for good reason. A story’s ending is most powerful when it feels like the culmination of everything that has been bubbling throughout it — the character’s motivations and actions, the preoccupations of the prose. I know that, in the past, incredibly strong stories that end with a seemingly random disaster have been hotly debated. We get upset when we come to the end of a carefully crafted story and a character who we’re invested in suddenly dies, or is injured, or it turns out (please, no!) has been dreaming this whole time — with no clear reason, we’re often left wondering what the author’s intention was. For example, one of our honorable mentions (which, overall, we really enjoyed) for this last contest ends with a shot being fired (though it’s not clear that any harm is done by it), and neither one of us was sure why. Though this sort of violence is built to more thoroughly in this story than others, here it seemed to take the place of a deeper reflection or significance.

Of course, there are degrees to this. I think that story endings can often be strengthened. One of the most common edits I make to pieces we do accept is to change the ending. Take, for example, “Family, Family,” our second-place Fall Fiction Contest winner. (Read it now to prevent any spoilers.) Though the original ending felt natural enough, all of our editors thought that it was lacking power and that it could have had a clearer “takeaway,” so I flat-out asked the author what she meant by it. Her answer was clear: she wanted to convey the desire of a first-grader who has been ridiculed by his peers to return to the safety of his nursery school classroom, to go backwards in time rather than face the challenges of growing up. We ended up changing the ending image entirely, so that the little boy literally climbs into a pine doll cradle, for which he is (of course) too big. This resonates instantly.

Even when editing pieces with quite a bit of narrative distance (to return to your earlier question), I’ll often push the author to give a little more (even a sentence!) at the end. I never want the ending of a story to be too “neat,” but at the same time I want to finish it feeling satiated.

I am going to ask you the reverse question: what makes an effective beginning to a story, for you?

K: Beginnings are important on so many levels, and that includes the actual beginning of the story — the first sentence — and the beginning of the arc of the piece as well: what our entry point is to the characters and conflict of the piece. So there’s a lot to think about. Of course entire essays and craft books have been written on beginnings, but for me there are a few things that stand out. I am a huge proponent for clarity on the sentence level. If the writing on the first two pages is rough or overwritten or simply lacking polish, it’s impossible to have confidence in the rest of the piece. Then there’s the issue of the very first sentence. I think this issue is sometimes made more complicated than is necessary because while there are stories with incredible first sentences, (Claire Beams picked some of her favorites recently for Ploughshares) as long as the start of a story drops us into the piece in effective way, I’m sold. I think all successful beginnings clue readers into the world of the piece, who or what we’re going to care about at the right moment for us to start listening. I get cranky about beginnings that explain too much, but I also find it difficult when things are overstated, so really it’s an issue of balance.

Beginnings are particularly difficult for alternate or magical worlds, or stories where there is a lot of world building to achieve because it needs to include facts about the world while moving the narrative along. I think the best pieces in this genre expose us to exactly what we need to know about the world in the right proportion to what we’re learning about the character and the story. Overall though, I would tell writers to make sure their writing is polished, and to think about why we are entering the world of the story at that specific moment. I know many writers go back and re-frame the beginning of a story after they’ve written the first draft and this is a good practice, but of course it varies from writer to writer and story to story.

What else stood out to you in this particular submission round?

S: What really stood out to me this round, in particular, was how many writers managed to infuse so-called “familiar” or even tired-sounding plots with distinction, forming truly unique characters with particular emotions and making these old tropes and plot elements feel new. Strange as this is going to sound: bear with me. If I were to summarize some of the stories that rose to the top, on purely a plot level, they would not sound that appealing (at least not to me). There were stories about the trials of growing older, about a nanny to the rich and famous, about a woman whose father is dying of cancer. All of these pieces stood out for what was unique in them, not what we recognized.

Our Short Story Award winner is written from the point of view of a sixteen-year-old girl whose sister has chronic kidney problems. The protagonist feels guilty about this because she chose not to give a kidney to her sister (even though she was a match) when they were very young. This is a plot we’ve all seen before, in some variation. But the singular consciousness of the first-person narrator, the relationship between the sisters, and the distinct preoccupations of the family make it a unique tale. It takes up a place in my mind no other story does.

Of course, some stories with familiar elements, though good, didn’t feel as original. For example, we see a lot of stories about past loves that are ultimately a little too stock in their sentimentality. (Though, someday, I’m sure we’ll see a piece on this subject that feels wholly original.)

We often discuss (and see) a lot of magical realism, science fiction, apocalyptic literature, etc. (And our second-place winner does take place in an eerily familiar speculative world.) You know that we always love a well-crafted and unreal tale. But the bulk of really spectacular pieces this round were grounded in our world, and often in very familiar parts of it.

Is there anything else that stood out to you about this group of stories?

K: You put that so well and I’m glad you touched on it. I think writers often feel they need entirely new ideas and plots, but there are so many elements that can make a story feel original, fresh, and new, even if the backbone of that story is something we’ve read before. It’s the writer and her imagination and attention to craft that gives a story that something special.

The only other thing I want to touch on isn’t so much a craft topic, and it’s something I’ve written about before and we’ve discussed often, but I do want to give it attention. I really love seeing work from writers we’ve read before. The nature of submitting means a great deal of wonderful stories are rejected, but I want to emphasize how much staying power a strong story has in the mind of an editor, even if we don’t accept it. There is a lot to say about fit and timing, but good writing and by default good writers will get published. So I suppose I’m just so pleased when we see a name or a story from a writer we know and you can see the work getting better. In this way, I guess I’m ending on a thank you to our submitters and hopefully an inspiring one: keep submitting! We remember you and we appreciate reading your work.

Thank you, Sadye. These are some of my favorite chats.

— Kim Winternheimer and Sadye Teiser

 

 

 

Mar 17

Author Interview: “This Road May Flood” by Kari Shemwell

The Masters Review Volume V with stories selected by Amy Hempel published in October and we are continuing our series of interviews with the authors in the collection. Today, we chat with Kari Shemwell about her beautiful and haunting story, “This Road May Flood.” In this piece, Shemwell plays with time and reality as a couple walks into flood lands looking for the drowned man, a specter that haunts the area. It’s a fantastic piece, with incredible staying power — so much so we chose it to be the  final story in our collection! Enjoy this wonderful interview from a talented new writer.

Don’t forget that submissions to The Masters Review Volume VI, judged by Roxane Gay, our next collection, are open until March 31!

“You always think that you are the brave one, the one who doesn’t mind sleeping alone, the one who will stand too close to the edge of a bluff or drive without power steering in our old busted Cadillac, but I am the one who approaches the drowned man.”

What inspired the idea for your story and how long did it take to develop?

“This Road May Flood” was inspired by western Kentucky history and folklore. I took this historical event and morphed it into something larger than life. The story is based around Land Between the Lakes, near where I grew up. This area really was “drowned” after the damming of a river. Remnants of homes and roads actually do exist beneath the surfaces of the lakes, so I’ve been told. In fact, my father-in-law recently purchased a cabin that had been relocated from the lake area during the flooding. Some homes were hauled to surrounding communities; others were not. I don’t know if any people actually drowned during this historical event. That’s where the story ventures into folklore and legend.

I thought about this story for about nine months before writing it. The drowned man was the first element of the story that occurred to me. While sitting in a panel at AWP Minneapolis, I wrote down several lines of a conversation between the drowned man and a struggling young married couple. I wanted to write about depression and a suicide attempt, and the weight this would carry in any marriage, especially a young, fragile one. When I actually did sit down to write the story, the whole thing came out nearly all at once. It took on a tone and narrative style I had not intended from the beginning, and ended somewhere I hadn’t expected. Nearly all of my pieces change during the journey from concept to story. I never outline for this reason.

One of the things that stands out most in “This Road May Flood,” is the Drowned Man. How did you come up with him as a character and what challenges did you face implementing him into the story?

Paranormal fans like to swap stories of ghosts in the nature preserve. And the flooding of entire villages serves as the perfect stage for legend building. The drowned man was born from these legends. Though, I wanted him to be less of a ghost and more of just a drowned person, one who talks and moves. Not long after this was picked up for publication, the movie The Swiss Army Man was released, which has a very similar style of drowned man as one of the main characters. Apparently, I’m not the only person with this on the brain. Some sort of collective sub-conscious, perhaps?

The drowned man proved to be quite difficult to write. He needed to represent something without seeming heavy-handed. He needed to be something different for each character. For the speaker, he represented escape, death, peace. For the spouse—fear, loss, selfishness. For the professor and his wife, the drowned man represents something entirely different. These two appear in another story within my collection, and this story hints at what exactly the drowned man represented for them. (more…)