The Masters Review Blog

Nov 16

New Voices — “The Road to Damascus” by Mike Broida

Our New Voices story for today seeks to lay bare the depth of human feeling in a moment of subtle discrimination. Michael Broida’s “The Road to Damascus” softly and carefully leads us through a young person’s road trip home, the car filled with friends and less-than-friends. These city kids arrive in a small town, where the subtle peace of the last few hours quickly evaporates as our protagonist finds himself the only person of color for miles around.

“Time unwound in his mind, the relational cracks mended, and undone was the certain loss of the people they had been once, in that car.”

It was four days before Christmas, as cold and dark and dry at five o’clock as the world had ever been, out in the corn near the wild stretches of Wooster, Ohio. The town’s lights blinked in the distance like an elusive mothership, calling Jordan onward. The rest of the car had fallen quiet—his friends, Maria and Peter, slept in shrouded bundles in the back and Simone, next to him, seemed still awake though gazing absently ahead as Jordan drove. The radio bleated soft static. The road had narrowed before them, a tunnel amid the dead corn as the wind swirled the wisps of salt over the scarred asphalt. Five hours in with five more to go, Jordan found himself thinking of nothing more than home, on this, the longest evening of the year.

“Why are we off the highway?” Maria asked from the back.

“Fuel,” Jordan said.

“For me or the car?” Peter asked.

Jordan could see them gently unwinding into separate entities, a splitting of the atom as Maria gave Peter a quick strike on the shoulder. White faces sprouted from under blankets.

“Both, I bet,” Simone said, turning to rub Jordan’s head with her knuckles. “Whaddya say? One big stop before we push on home?”

Jordan jerked his head away—an old reflex—leaving Simone’s half-fist hanging in the air.

“Just for something quick,” Jordan said. “Not sure what we’ll find, anyway.”

Wooster, Jordan believed, was one of those towns straight out of black-and-white television, the “Welcome” sign rearing up in the headlights, proclaiming its namesake as Revolutionary General David Wooster, and its status as the hometown of the Wayne County Fair and the mid-Atlantic Wooster Warriors hockey club. The cold evening had apparently buttoned up the place, with the exception of a few poor souls fumbling to string candy-caned banners in the dark. As they pulled onto the broad, main drag, the street lamps seemed like matches on end, flickering in the wind. He knew his mother would give him hell if she knew he was in some strange little town so far off the highway, as if Jordan had forgotten the color of his own skin.

“All these folks know about black people is what they see on TV,” his mother liked to tell him during their road trips. “We’re not stopping.”

 

To read the rest of “The Road to Damascus” click here.

Nov 13

Let’s Talk Submission Strategies

We originally posted this essay by Kim Winternheimer in 2016, but with the deadline season coming up, we feel compelled to share it again. The submission process can be full of small and difficult decisions—and we all face the anxiety of wondering if we’re doing it the right way. Let’s talk it through.

submission-strategiesSubmission strategies are a tricky thing. Every emerging writer I know discusses submission failures and victories, and it’s a topic that pops up in conference panels and workshop often.

Writers talk about submitting because the process itself is the road to publication. Because success in selling stories rests entirely on that effort. Writers lament and analyze the form rejection they receive after eight long months, and applaud the personalized request for more work. Writers talk about the process because they want to see how others are navigating the labyrinth, and, because silently they wonder: am I tackling submissions the right way?

I am a huge fan of Karen Russell’s stories and remember a time I was waiting for her to sign a copy of, St. Lucy’s Home For Girls Raised by Wolves. I had planned to ask what her first Big Publication was, and when it happened in her career. I think I was hoping for advice about submitting. That Karen Russell (the Karen Russell) would pass down a piece of information I could replicate.

When I got to the table I asked: “What was your first Big Publication?” Karen replied, “It was The New Yorker. That was my first publication.” “Ever?” I asked. She smiled and nodded, yes. Then she added: “I got very lucky.”

I mention this because most writers—even very successful ones—don’t publish their first story in The New Yorker. And while every person’s path to publishing is different, I think most new writers understand the broad strokes are often the same: land stories in literary magazines, land stories in some great literary magazines, land an agent, sell a novel or story collection.

So it’s hard. The New Yorker hasn’t gotten back to you. Maybe we haven’t gotten back to you, and there’s that nagging question again: am I tackling submissions the right way?

As an editor who sees and processes a lot of stories, certain submission strategies are apparent. We see multiple stories from the same writer in the same contest (as many as six to ten), we see stories from writers with long stretches between submissions, and we see submissions from writers only once.

I do feel that the kind of writer you are and the goals you have for your writing dictate your submission strategy. For example, prolific writers can submit multiple new stories to a contest at the same time without compromising quality, while others submit new work intermittently. Some writers value the long bio, while others value the short and extremely impressive one. Here are a few strategies and issues I see with submissions. (Please note: it is impossible to go through the many varied and personal ways a person can go about submitting because each writer is different, is affected differently by the process, and has different goals for her writing.)

Top-Tier Publication Goals

What kind of writer are you? And what are you goals? For writers seeking top-tier publications, be realistic about what that means. With so few spaces for new writers who submit through the slush, this strategy inevitably means long wait times and many rejections. Take Tin House for example. They publish one new writer in each issue. That means they take one story that is probably not from an agent. That means out of the thousands of stories they receive each year, four are published from the slush. Four. And while an acceptance from a publication like Tin House will do wonders for your visibility, prepare yourself for the realities of this strategy. (It is worth noting they have an excellent track record of publishing flash fiction from new writers online and their platform offers incredible visibility. We love you Tin House!) If rejections get you down you might be compromising confidence and the enjoyment of the process by setting your sights too high. It’s also true that you might land the publication of your dreams.

Staggering Submissions

I think it is a strong strategy to have both top-tier and medium-tier publication goals for your work. I also think it is wise to submit to handful of those when you feel your story is ready, lets say ten, and see what kind of feedback you receive before moving on to the other publications on your list. If you are getting all form rejections, it might be worth revisiting the piece, workshopping the story with friends, and editing before moving forward. I always think it’s wise to revisit a story after a little time away from it, but if you are getting positive feedback, then consider moving forward to the next round of lit mags on your list.

When To Call It Quits

No outside opinion can take the place of a writer’s instincts for her work, so if you are submitting a story that you really believe in, I don’t think there is ever a time when you should quit on it. I do think you should continue receiving feedback and improving on the piece to give the story its best chance, but trust your instincts. There are stories that simply aren’t meant to be published and there are those you should never give up on. I believe strongly that if you continue to service your work and grow as a writer, if you continue to believe in a piece, you will find a home for it.

Submitting The Same Story To A Lit Mag That Already Rejected It

We have writers ask if they should submit a story we’ve already seen, but for a different contest or category. Lets say, they received some positive feedback during our Short Story Award For New Writers, but it wasn’t accepted for publication. Should they submit it to New Voices? Our Fall Fiction Contest? Again, this is a matter of preference, but with The Masters Review we consider all the work we read for publication. If a story isn’t the winner of a contest, but we want to publish it anyway, we will accept that piece. With that said, if we passed on your story I think it’s a waste of a submission fee to send it to us again. Are there exceptions? Of course. If you’ve drastically improved the piece or reworked it so that it is a totally different version of the story we first saw, then please send it our way. But in the end, more than your submission fee, we want to see your best work. And we want to publish that work. If we rejected a story originally we would probably like to see something new from you.

Submitting to The Same Magazine With Different Work

I can’t emphasize enough that continuing to submit to the same literary magazine is something you absolutely should do. As editors, we have a long list of writers whom we’ve declined but are eager to see work from. It’s terrible to think they might not submit to us again when their work is so close and such a strong fit, but has otherwise been beat out by other stories. We’ve published several authors who first received rejections from us. They stayed in the game. They serviced their work, and in the end, they sold us a story.

The Right Fit

It almost feels silly to comment on submitting work to a literary magazine that publishes the kind of thing that you write, but you would be surprised to see the submissions we receive (poetry for example, when we do not publish poetry) that are immediate rejections because of fit. A writer should have a strong understanding of the kinds of stories a magazine publishes to improve their chances. Topically and in terms of style and tone, fit is tricky, but you will only improve your chances by reading that lit mag and knowing what kinds of stories they publish. Still, it’s an obvious statement that many writers, in their zeal to publish, ignore. Do the research. It pays off. (At the very least, read submission guidelines!)

I feel strongly that outside of specific submission strategies, the cream rises. If you continue to submit, that means you are continuing to write, and the strongest strategy for submission success is writing, writing, and writing. As your work improves, the publications will come—and then the very good publications will come. Sit down and edit your work. Don’t be afraid of change and don’t be afraid to move on from a story or set it aside. Your writing might not be where you want it, but you know a good story when you read one. When your talents as a writer and your ability to identify what you love in fiction intersect, you will have success.

by Kim Winternheimer

Nov 9

Great American Reads You Should Check Out

America loves a good television series and follows the latest shows, binges on Netflix and discusses documentaries at the water cooler. Even though television is entertaining, it never quite lives up to the detail and richness of a well-written book. The sound of a crisp page turning as you find out what happens enlivens the senses and brings a tactile experience to reading.

Some stories stand out in our memories and stay with us for years after we read them. These tales are so unique and engaging we come to love the characters almost as though they’re real people. If you’re looking for a new book to read, a great place to start is with one of the 100 novels featured on The Great American Read series on PBS. The series combines the best of reading with the ease of television viewing. You can then enhance the experience by reading the featured books.

Pulling in a Younger Generation

The average person over 15 years of age spends about 17 minutes a day reading for pleasure. Surprisingly, the younger generation still reads books, although the format they prefer varies from what those 65 and older prefer. Millennials, for example, prefer digital books and audiobooks more so than previous generations.

Young people still love books thanks to modern books that engage their imagination and pull them into a new world where they can live vicariously through the main characters. Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” series engaged an entire generation of millennials at a time when they were just discovering novels as a leisure activity.

The books also engaged moms of the teen girls reading the books, setting off a scenario where families waited in line for the latest release, made trips to Forks, Washington to see the town where the series was set and lined up for hours to see the movie versions as they were released.

Teaching Caution

In the back of people’s minds, they know dangerous people exist in the world. Your neighbor could be a saint, a thief or a serial killer. However, when Alice Sebold’s “The Lovely Bones” came out, Americans were reminded that things aren’t always what they seem and there is real evil in the world.

The book became a bestseller telling the story of a young teen who is in heaven. The reader learns her story from her viewpoint and how her killer plotted her death and had killed others. The book is unique because of the skill used to write the book from the viewpoint of a girl who is in between earth and heaven. It also served as a cautionary tale to be aware of your surroundings and trust your instincts.

Learning From Others’ Viewpoints

Learning to listen to others is a vital skill as a member of a civilized society. Some books start a conversation with others and allow you to discuss your viewpoints and differences in a constructive way. “The Shack” by Wm. Paul Young is one of those books. The book tells the story of faith, but some of the elements allow for a creative license as to what you believe of God and heaven.

The book started conversations at work, in churches and over coffee with friends. The book tells a compelling story of losing your faith and finding it again. It allowed people to learn from each other’s faith and see that even though our beliefs may vary, we can come together at the end of the day and find hope.

Where to Start

With more than 100 unique and engaging books, it’s hard to know where to start. Take the time to read the book descriptions, and a few reviews from others, and choose the title that appeals to you. The three books mentioned above are good choices, but they are merely a few books in a long list of memorable titles.

 

Nov 2

Winner of the Spring Flash Fiction Contest: “Ebenezer, Ebenezer” by Ariel Chu

We are honored to share with you the heart breaking “Ebenezer, Ebenezer” by Ariel Chu today—the standout Winner of the Spring Flash Fiction Contest. “Ebenezer, Ebenezer” softly leads the reader through loss and death, the heartache of a family robbed of their daughter, their sister. Poetic, tender, affecting—Chu’s writing demands your attention.

““You’re still hung up on that?” I asked. What I should have said was I want you here with me, not lost in some afterlife. But I was still in high school, and my sister should’ve been too.”

 

Jenny’s six feet under, getting eaten by mushrooms. Three months before she died, she told our parents to scrap their funeral plans. She’d found a biodegradable shroud on the Internet, infused with fungus that could decompose flesh. She wanted to be buried in that thing, sans coffin, sans fanfare.

“It looks like a friggin’ potato sack,” I told her, squinting at her laptop screen. She punched me from the hospital bed, but not hard enough to hurt. On the drive home, our parents cried—again—and begged me to “be sensitive.” Then they ordered the potato sack, which arrived on our doorstep a week later.

My sister was a teenage decompinaut. She was fascinated with the process of dying, being fed to the soil, getting reconstituted into That Which Gives Life. She tried to get me into it. Maybe she thought it’d help me process grief. At that point, though, everything was a big joke to me. I had to skip lightly over all my feelings so they didn’t suck me into some muddy, unforgiving hole.

She’d also started wearing the burial shroud over her hospital gown. That way, she said, she could “grow into it.” The shroud really was too big for her, but what unnerved me the most was the fungus. It ran in white veins across her body, a dormant flesh-eating monster.

“You look like a discount Muppet,” I told her one afternoon. She glared at me ineffectually. I’d snuck some of her favorites into the hospital room: Slim Jims, black cherry seltzer, three back issues of Cosmo. All things considered, she was in a good mood.

“I’ve been having the weirdest dreams in this thing,” she said, tearing at a Slim Jim. “Like the mushrooms are talking to me. Today I woke up, and this name was echoing in my head: Ebenezer, Ebenezer.”

“You’re more of a Tiny Tim.”

“Shut up,” she said, hurling the Slim Jim wrapper at me. “I’m just thinking that, I don’t know—I could be an Ebenezer in my next life.”

I wanted to say that the mushrooms were eating her brain. But she was serious; I could tell. I wanted to say something about how it wasn’t helpful to hear about her next life, or how seeing her in that fungus costume made me want to vomit. Instead, I rolled my eyes and asked her if she wanted to play Tetris.

Oct 29

November Deadlines: 11 Contests and Prizes Ending This Month

We told the rain to come again another day, and now those days have finally arrived… Don’t be too glum, though, because now you have the perfect excuse to spend all day perfecting your pile of submissions before entering them in one of these contests!

Annual Fiction, Poetry, and Creative Nonfiction Contest

There is still just enough to time to enter ​The Briar Cliff Review​’s writing contest, so don’t miss your chance! Prose entries can be up to 5000 words, poetry entries can include up to three poems, and simultaneous submissions are allowed. The first-place winner in each category is awarded $1000 and will be published in the 2019 edition of ​The Briar Cliff Review​. Submission guidelines here!
Entry Fee: $20 Deadline: November 1

Gabriele Rico Challenge in Creative Nonfiction

Reed Magazine​ is currently accepting submissions for this award, but not for long! This prize recognizes outstanding works of nonfiction, up to 5000 words, and the winner receives $1333! Please note that entries must be creative nonfiction, such as personal essays or narratives, and not scholarly papers or book reviews. Check it out!
Entry Fee: $20 Deadline: November 1

John Steinbeck Fiction Award

Another great contest from ​Reed Magazine​ ends this month, so make sure you check out this one as well! Send in works of fiction under 5000 words, with a word count and a brief bio, and you could win $1000! All entries do need to be stand-alone short stories, however, not chapters from larger works. Submit here!
Entry Fee: $20 Deadline: November 1

Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Contest

The University of Alabama Press is looking for fiction that is too innovative, challenging, and ambitious for traditional publishing, and they’re willing to pay you for the privilege of publishing yours! Open to any author writing in English who hasn’t been published with their imprint Fiction Collective Two, submissions may include a collection of short stories, one or more novellas, or a novel of any length. The winner, chosen by judge Aimee Parkison, receives $1500 and publication. Learn more here!
Entry Fee: $25 Deadline: November 1

Walt Whitman Award

If you are an unpublished poet, this is an opportunity meant specifically for you! The Walt Whitman Award is meant to honor a poet’s first book, with a $5000 prize, a six-week residency in Italy, publication, and distribution of the winning book to all members of the Academy of American Poets. As an extra bonus, the judge is decorated poet Li-Young Lee! Do it!
Entry Fee: $35 Deadline: November 1

Patrick Henry Writing Fellowship

This is an amazing opportunity for any historical writer! Applicants should have a book-length project in progress, and it should address the history and/or legacy of the American Revolution and their founding ideas (very broadly defined). The fellowship includes a $45,000 stipend, a book allowance, and a nine-month residency in Chestertown, MD. Entries need to include a cover letter, CV, a writing sample, a description of a class they might teach, and a persuasive description of the work-in-progress. More details here!
Entry Fee: FREE Deadline: November 15

Robert C. Jones Prize for Short Prose

This contest from Pleiades Press is open to all fiction and nonfiction writers, whose collections can include anything from short stories and flash fiction, to lyric essays and any other short prose you can think of! Manuscripts need to be at least 60 pages, and previously unpublished, while indicating whether they are fiction or nonfiction. Chosen by judge Kazim Ali, the winning manuscript receives $2000, and publication with national distribution! Guidelines here.
Entry Fee: $25 Deadline: November 15

VanderMey Nonfiction Prize

Now open,​Ruminate’​s current contest is a big one, with the winner receiving $1500 and publication! Submissions need to be essays or short memoirs, 5500 words or less, and there are no limits on the number of entries per person. Judged by Jessica Wilbanks. Submit here.
Entry Fee: $20 Deadline: November 15

Nilsen Literary Prize

Are you wondering what to do with your just-finished manuscript? Well, this prize is meant for an applicant’s first novel! Submissions can be novels, novellas, or collections of closely-linked short stories. The manuscript must be unpublished, as the winner will be published through Southeast Missouri State University Press, and they will also receive $2000. Check it out!
Entry Fee: $30 Deadline: November 16

Mid-American Review​ Poetry and Fiction Awards

These are actually two contests through ​Mid-American Review​, the Sherwood Anderson Fiction Award and the James Wright Poetry Award. Submissions may be up to 6000 words, or up to three poems, and the winner of each contest receives $1000 and publication. Make sure to select the correct contest for your submission! More details here.
Entry Fee: $10 Deadline: November 30

Narrative​ Fall Story Contest

This contest is open to all fiction and nonfiction writers, writing anything from short stories and memoirs, to 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. All entries are considered for publication, and all contest entries are also eligible for the $4000 Narrative Prize! Guidelines here.
Entry Fee: $26 Deadline: November 30

 

Oct 26

Spring Flash Fiction Contest 2nd Place: “Out of the Fields” by Bryna Cofrin-Shaw

“Out of the Fields” by Bryna Cofrin-Shaw—selected as the Second Place winner of the Spring Flash Fiction Contest—is a tender, melancholy exploration of the relationship between step-mother and daughter. In only a few hundred words, Cofrin-Shaw delivers a rich emotional experience of loss and love through the perspective of a tenuous and fragile relationship.

“Comatose? I say. She was shaking earlier and then started breathing heavily, but she was not comatose. ”

I don’t know where the name Lucy came from. I imagine it meant something to Isabelle’s mother; Lucy was her dog. I used to wonder why she didn’t take the dog with her. Sometimes my husband calls Lucy the name of his ex-wife when he doesn’t know I’m around. He sings it out softly when they’re leaving for a walk, or whispers it as he pets her nose early in the morning when he goes to start the coffee.

Isabelle is sitting very still in the passenger seat with the dog taking up her whole lap. Lucy stopped shaking, Isabelle tells me. It’s true, the dog isn’t twitching anymore. Her body’s curled up like a stone with her face and paws hidden, so that the subtle rise and fall of this stone as it breathes is somehow surreal.

This is the first time my husband’s ever left me in charge of his daughter for more than a few days and it’s getting easier and easier to make mistakes. I didn’t tie up Isabelle’s hair when we were baking and now the ends hold clumps of frosting. When I lean too close I can feel the heat from Isabelle’s sunburned shoulders, though I know he won’t ask after forgotten sunscreen.
Each house we pass is a slight, grey smudge on the street, like small piles of driftwood staggered at low tide. The houses are old, but ours is made new by too many appliances and too few books, remains of the woman that came before me. Neighbors have been disappearing quickly, I’ve noticed, no doubt due to four cases of cancer that popped up within a few years of one another and caused families to flee, fearing the pesticides from the fields. I’ve only lived here five months, but sometimes I feel these pesticides in my breath, falling from my skin in the shower.

Stop that, I tell Isabelle. She’s shuffling around to scratch her neck. Try to keep the dog still, we don’t want her throwing up all over the place, I say. I don’t mean for it to come out cold. I’m trying to be warm toward the girl, but sometimes I slip.
There are empty fields out of both of our windows with dust rising from their bones. Up ahead are the same tall buildings that can be seen from our front yard. Isabelle used to draw those buildings before bed, speckled yellow dots as lighted windows. She revealed them to her father once and said it was New York City. With one hand petting Lucy, he explained that New York was too far away to be seen, and those were only the tall buildings of the University a town away.

When we arrive at the clinic, a woman in green scrubs takes Lucy from my arms. I follow her into a room with a cold steel table and she asks me when Lucy first became comatose.

Comatose? I say. She was shaking earlier and then started breathing heavily, but she was not comatose.

To read the rest of “Out of the Fields” click here.

Oct 25

MFA Program Spotlight: University of South Florida

We spoke to John Fleming, Director of Creative Writing at the University of South Florida. Take a look at what they have to offer MFA students and pay particular attention to Mr. Fleming’s advice for incoming students. He offers some valuable insight for writers in any program. Thank you, USF, for such a thoughtful interview.

 

What do you feel is the essential uniqueness of USF’s MFA program? 

Its openness—to people, to forms and genres, and to the possibilities of writing. The USF MFA application does not require you to apply in a single genre; if you have a specialty and want to submit only fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, or comics, that’s fine, but if you write well in multiple genres, you’re free to include samples of your work in those genres. Students who begin the MFA program in one genre frequently get turned on by the possibilities of another. Sometimes they switch their focus. We also have students writing hybrid theses that mix word and image or multiple genres. Our openness stretches into sub-genres, too. In addition to writing traditional literary works, our students work in Young Adult, New Adult, Speculative Fiction, and experimental forms of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry while making use of both still images and videos. We’re one of the few programs that offers courses and allows theses in comics/graphic narrative. Finally, and most importantly, the USF MFA is known for the openness of its students and faculty. Faculty here are generous with their time and are dedicated to helping students improve their work and succeed as writers. Students socialize with one another and with faculty, and the atmosphere in our workshops is supportive and constructive.

 

Your program really seeks to support the careers of its graduate students. Could you describe that process and mission a little more?

As with most MFA programs, our first concern is with the art and craft of writing. However, we’re also mindful of the writer’s need to sustain herself and her writing. We feel an ethical responsibility to prepare our students for life after the MFA.

For those interested in teaching, we offer pedagogy courses in composition, creative writing, and literature. MFA students all teach creative writing courses in their second and/or third years. MFAs who choose to focus on pedagogy can graduate with training, mentoring, and teaching experience in composition, creative writing, and literature and be well-positioned for the academic job market.

Students interested in publishing careers gain experience in our Literary Editing and Publishing course. Students in the course produce our literary magazine, Saw Palm, reading submissions, communicating with writers, reviewing art, working with InDesign, and organizing a release party. Publishing professionals–agents, editors, publishers, book reviewers, and copyeditors–Skype in or visit the Literary Editing and Publishing class in person. As part of the class, students embark on a substantial final project designed to advance their presence in the literary world. Some start their own literary magazines, edit anthologies, develop writing-related websites, write book reviews, blogs, or columns, or conduct interviews with writers. They begin projects that carry them beyond the semester and often beyond the MFA program.

We also have a graduate internship program that places students with literary agencies, publishers, websites, and local businesses and organizations for course credit. This program is fairly new and expanding rapidly. Sometimes students suggest a business they’d like to intern with, and our graduate director arranges the internship.

In addition, we offer graduate certificates in Professional and Technical Communication and in Digital Humanities. MFA students are able to complete these certificates without difficulty while also pursuing their MFA. Some of our students also get valuable training by tutoring students in the Writing Studio as part of their Graduate Assistantship.

For graduating students looking for jobs, the MFA faculty hold mock interviews and review resumes and letters. Students with completed book-length manuscripts consult with faculty on query letters and on searches for agents and editors.’

 

Would you describe USF’s MFA in fiction as highly literary or broader in focus?

The USF MFA fiction workshops have grown beyond a strictly traditional literary focus to include Young Adult, New Adult, Speculative Fiction, Horror, and other fictional genres. We recognize that, in a good writer’s hands, works in these genres can have every bit of the craft and complexity as literary fiction. This is part of the atmosphere of openness I mentioned above.

 

For potential future students, are there any suggestions you have for them as they put together applications? Any values or big ideas they should seek to grapple with or emphasize?

Always the most important part of your application is the writing sample. Revise your work endlessly and send us your best. In your Personal Statement, tell us who you are as a person and writer, what you’re interested in working on, and why you’re drawn to the USF MFA program.

 

If you could provide a piece of advice for incoming students, what would it be?

Remember to keep your focus on your writing. An MFA program is a wonderful opportunity for a writer to focus for three years on writing, surrounded by others on the same journey. There will be days when you feel the squeeze of teaching, grading, coursework, and extracurricular obligations or opportunities, and you’ll be tempted to put off your writing. Don’t do it. Put your writing first and let everything else fit itself around that. You’ll only have the MFA experience once; make the most of it.

 

How does the environment of Tampa and South Florida play into the experience of pursuing an MFA at USF?

USF and Tampa have a thriving literary scene. At USF, we feature the USF Visiting Writers series, with writers in poetry, creative nonfiction, fiction, and comics coming to read from their work and meet with students. We also bring in prominent writers through the USF Humanities Institute. Two student-run reading series, Read Herring and 6×6, take place at local bars and coffee shops. We’re lucky to have three other writing programs in the area—at the University of Tampa, Eckerd College, and St. Leo University. These programs regularly bring in visiting writers and hold public events and writers’ conferences. Culturally, Tampa has a thriving downtown with museums, theaters, performing arts centers, professional sports teams, a long riverfront walkway, fine parks, rentable electric boats and water bikes, many excellent restaurants, and a trolley system. Some of the country’s most beautiful white-sand beaches are a short drive away. Ybor City, next to downtown Tampa, is our Cuban- and Italian-flavored old town that encompasses the old Tampa cigar factories. At night, Ybor City becomes a hotspot for nightclubs and restaurants. For theme park fans, the Busch Gardens roller coasters are visible from campus and DisneyWorld is less than an hour away.

Oct 19

Spring Flash Fiction Contest 3rd Place: “Spies” by Timothy Schirmer

We are so excited to share with you “Spies” by Timothy Schirmer today—selected as the Third Place winner of the Spring Flash Fiction Contest. “Spies” takes you into the heat of a family broken by divorce, exploring the disjointed relationships between parents and children. With poetic punch, Schirmer’s complex story quickly takes shape around avian imagery and untidy emotions.

“Honestly, I don’t have the stomach, the way they curl around your fingers, and you have to cut them into tiny pieces before they’ll stop moving. ”

I was nineteen when my mom remarried. It was the smallest wedding I’ve ever been to. They wanted it outside, in God’s country. Her God. The sky was clear and the air smelled of pine trees. The mountains were a red clay color and they surrounded us in elegant formations. The minister wore all black and I think that bothered my mom because he looked too formal, he looked like a priest with his shirt buttoned up so tight. In a cage that sat on the ground the minister had with him two white birds. My brother tapped me on the shoulder and he whispered, “What’s happening with the birds?” I said, “I’m not sure.” They were fluffing their feathers and making soft hooting sounds in their throats.

When we were boys our mom told us she was an atheist. Sometimes though—on rare occasions—she could be overheard saying to someone, “My church is at the top of a mountain.” Or, “My church is when the sun comes up and I’m on my bike.” Back in those days she was a triathlete. She would wake in the dark to run and bike and swim each morning before work. Her muscles looked like stones under her tanned skin. Now, once a month I go to a gym and I check for this inheritance inside myself. I still can’t jog for more than ten minutes without laser beams of pain in my chest.

She wore a simple dress that ended at her knees. It was white with shoulder pads and beads on it. That’s the first thing my dad wanted to know, and that’s what I told him, almost verbatim. I only mentioned the shoulder pads because I remembered once when he said that shoulder pads make women look like middle school quarterbacks. Then he asked my brother a different question. Our strategy was to answer him honestly, but with scant, colorless details. We were like captured spies, obtusely cooperating. Though there wasn’t much to tell. It had been a small, quiet wedding.

 

To read the rest of “Spies” click here.

Oct 16

Indie Press Corner: Forest Avenue Press

Today, our Indie Press Corner series continues with an interview with publishing powerhouse Forest Avenue Press. Thank you to publisher Laura Stanfill for taking the time to correspond with us.

We put a lot of emphasis on strong relationships with indie booksellers. We get to know them, their tastes, and be sure that they get very early copies of the books, since they are literature’s greatest advocates.

We are longtime fans of Forest Avenue Press–a fellow Portland publisher!–here at The Masters Review. Can you tell us a little about the genesis of Forest Avenue Press, its mission, and what makes it unique? 

We are fans of The Masters Review as well!

I started Forest Avenue in 2012, inspired by connecting with many local authors who had urgent, essential stories to tell—and recognizing that creating one more home for fiction could actually make a difference. Not necessarily in terms of quantity, but in terms of investing time and love and money in each book.

My background in journalism, public relations, and freelance manuscript editing gave me the basic skills to put together a small press. Local publishers agreeably answered my industry questions, giving me the courage to move forward with the business.

Two years later, I signed with a national distributor—Publishers Group West—and opened for national submissions for the first time, broadening our mission and our visibility, which in turn has exponentially grown our readership. Our core goal remains the same as in our earliest days: to bring authors and readers together in independent bookstores as a way of building in-person relationships, deep discussions, and a healthier literary ecosystem. We need each other, not just as book buyers or even book readers, but as human beings with stories to share. If we get together and make space for each other, whether that’s inside a library or bookstore, or through opening the cover of a novel and engaging with the characters, we won’t feel so alone. And we might be able, together, to change how the world works by making space for underrepresented voices and stories that affirm the importance of being present for each other.

What is your editorial process like? 

We’re very hands on, starting with offering our authors a packet about how our business model works and what to expect during the contract phase. Many of our authors are debut novelists, so we build extra time into the pre-publication process to make sure we can help them transition successfully from working on a book to holding the mic—sharing their work with the public.

With each manuscript, we begin with a rigorous developmental editing cycle, which sometimes takes a pass or two, and other times takes a year or two. When we complete that process, we make a limited number of coverless galleys to send out for reviews; this strategy helps us earn endorsements from big-name authors who might not agree to review a PDF. It also confirms to the author and those we ask for endorsements that we are investing time and money in promotion.

Then we go through the copy-editing phase while our amazing designer Gigi Little creates the perfect cover to help the book reach its target market. We combine the edited manuscript, the new cover, and marketing data into ARCs that we send out to our PGW sales team, reviewers, the media, booksellers, and librarians.

Between the ARC and the final copy, we work on sales and marketing opportunities, including helping our authors drill down into their goals for the book and how we can achieve them. We organize a book tour, build on the author’s existing community contacts, and seek new opportunities.

How do you select which manuscripts you publish? 

Our editorial committee convenes when we’re open for submissions—generally once a year for a condensed period of time of four to six weeks. We ask for query letters and fifty pages, and we try to be as clear as we can about what we’re particularly seeking and what we don’t like. This transparency and the national recognition we’ve been getting has helped us maximize the number of manuscripts we get that actually match our taste. And with this narrowed-down pipeline system, when we get manuscripts that are in our wheelhouse, but they aren’t quite right for us, we often have the ability to give individual feedback.

Not having to read through new submissions every week also allows me to go out and speak to writers and publishing professionals at colleges, universities, book festivals, and conferences. When pitches come in—and they always do—when we aren’t open, I try to be firm and polite in explaining our position.

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Oct 12

Debut Author Spotlight: Camille Acker

Camille Acker’s debut Training School for Negro Girls came out this week. The collection of new short stories is a daring and bold declaration of the complexity of black and brown womanhood—vital new representation in a overwhelmingly reductive world. We are honored to be able to share this essay from Camille Acker about how she found the strength and passion to persevere in her vision when all seemed lost. Check out the essay, and then go grab the debut from this talented author.

“Somewhere out there a creative person is waiting to be inspired by the stories only you can tell. Work that is unapologetically you does that: inspires someone else to be more of who they are.”

The summer I finished a full draft of my short story collection I was living in New York, surrounded by cacophony and inspiration. In my MFA program in New Mexico the world had been ever so quiet, ideal for pure literary output but more challenging for generating ideas and capturing the rhythms of a city (specifically my hometown of Washington, DC) on the page.
I had ideas—opening scenes, sentence fragments, settings—but what shape many of the stories would take I hadn’t yet determined. I started out in grad school with nice stories, pleasant characters in challenging situations, but I had been contemplating other characters in different storylines. That summer, an exhibition of the work of designer Alexander McQueen was on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The exhibit was entitled Savage Beauty and displayed in its filled to capacity spaces were the garments that had made McQueen a fashion legend. Leather masks with zippers and straps that engulfed the entire head. Shoes more akin to the hoof of an animal than a human foot. Impossibly voluminous dresses made of feathers next to frocks that would tightly cocoon the waist of anyone who wore it. It was weird, outlandish, bold and I left, dazed by the daylight outside and roiled by what I’d seen inside.

In cafes and libraries for the next few weeks, I wrote and revised my stories. I decided on new points of view for some stories and introduced subplots into others. I wrote characters I understood but didn’t immediately like. I smuggled humor into situations that had been dead serious. I let it all get a bit weirder.

And I decided on a title that didn’t hide that it cared about blackness and womanhood.

Seeing Savage Beauty that summer encouraged me to push my work to a new place and so did listening to Marvin Gaye’s lesser known concept album, Here, My Dear. The work of both was so full of vulnerability, so unashamed of who they were. I didn’t know what the reaction would be to my vision of my hometown but I knew it was the DC I wanted on the page.

In the years after that first draft though I doubted my vision. Rejections from literary journals and agents left me wondering if my writing would only ever sit in a desk drawer instead of on a bookshelf.

A writing group I was in when I was living in Chicago forced me back to the stories, if only because some months when I was up to be read I had been too neglectful of my writing to produce anything new. Their feedback helped me to re-engage with the stories and see how they could be better than they were, to be more fully what I had intended them to be.

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Oct 11

The Masters Review Volume VII – Introduction by Rebecca Makkai

Our seventh anthology of outstanding work by emerging writers, with stories selected by Rebecca Makkai, publishes later this year. We are so excited, we couldn’t wait until next month to share Rebecca Makkai’s wonderful introduction to these ten awesome tales. We are so grateful to have worked with Rebecca on this volume, and we can’t wait to share it with you.

“What I’m always looking for, in everything I read, is the airplane factor. I don’t mean whether or not I’d enjoy this on an airplane. I mean: Is this a good pilot? Does this pilot stall out on the runway, or are we up in the air before I know it, happily captive to the plane’s course?”

What does it mean to be an emerging writer? All I know is that I was labeled as such at one point—I was invited to several festivals featuring “emerging writers,” all around the time when I had stories out but no novel, or one novel and no clue what was supposed to happen next—and that sometime thereafter, with no warning, I stopped emerging. It felt wildly unfair to me at the time, because wasn’t I just a brand new little baby writer with nothing but exciting promise? But no: by the time your second book appears, apparently you’ve emerged. Recently, I was joking with a couple of friends (writers who “emerged” before I did, and more thoroughly than I ever have) about launching, for those of us who’ve been around the block, a Submerging Writers Festival.

Which is all to say: I know, I remember, that this “emerging” thing is both fun and terrifying. As much as I look back with nostalgic longing at the moment when my first story was accepted for publication—when everything was potential and excitement—it’s only now from this point, looking back, that I know what that moment was the start of. At the time, for all I knew, it was a fluke. It was a mistake, soon to be corrected with an awkward follow-up note. The journal would fold before the story came out. A printing error would omit half the piece. No one would even read it. Everyone would read it, in horror that it had been published. When the journal in question finally arrived at my house (nine whole anguishing months later!) I couldn’t bear to look directly at the story. I made my husband look at it and check that it was real, that all the words were there, that they’d spelled my name correctly.

To judge any contest is daunting, but one for emerging writers is especially so. There’s the question, first of all, of what this would mean to the writers chosen—something I have no way of knowing. Is this a writer on the verge of giving up, or one who’s received ten acceptances and a six-figure book deal this year? If I squint hard enough, can I tell? (No; I cannot.) And then there’s the question of promise versus polish. Everyone here has an abundance of both, but for the final spot, as I’m considering a story weighted more towards spark and promise against one weighted more towards polish… Which way do I go? (Well: spark and promise. But not without a lot of hair-pulling.)

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Oct 9

Featured Fiction: Heitor by Chaya Bhuvaneswar

Today, it is our honor to publish an original story by the esteemed Chaya Bhuvaneswar in our Featured Fiction section. In “Heitor,” a sixteenth-century slave examines his life before the firing squad. This story, from her recently released collection WHITE DANCING ELEPHANTS, dives into the darkest truths of our collective history, and bright possibility of personal transcendence.

“When death came, it would be by gunshot. Heitor would not be blindfolded. But no one would prevent him from closing his eyes when pistols were raised and seeing instead vivid memories.

One October evening in the Year of Our Blessed Lord, fifteen hundred and forty-five, a male Indian slave once advertised as being in the most robust health, skin of his young back shining like sturdy striped mahogany from pale healing scars of past whippings, stood chained in the cool courtyard of the convent in Evora, in Imperial Portugal. He was awaiting punishment.

As a mercy, one of the sisters had allowed him to continue wearing a loincloth, though, at the moment he crumpled in death, he knew that even this insignificant black rag would be forced off. The covering was for the benefit of the fifty-or-so women, some of them girls, who would live in the convent till they too died, and who, like Mariana, a sixteen-year-old novitiate, were never supposed to see any man’s genitals. Yet Mariana had contrived once to see Heitor sleeping on the ground outside the stables, had found his body beguiling, had ordered him to stand guard outside her bedroom door on several nights, though he had resisted doing more.

When death came, it would be by gunshot. Heitor would not be blindfolded. But no one would prevent him from closing his eyes when pistols were raised and seeing instead vivid memories.

As a child, Heitor was seized at the age of seven by slave traders from Lisbon, those proud descendants of da Gama. The traders had the Count of Vidiguera’s maps from a century before, when he had been the first to reach the Indian Ocean. In a village in Bengal, Heitor’s tiny mother was struck to the ground by one of the elders, who, without informing her, captured her son and, for a fat purse, surrendered him to those slave traders. Small for his age then, easily bound, Heitor was brought by ship and force, by members of large prosperous trading companies who gloried in sea routes. They were the brothers of men who had settled in Goa, the place in India where the first evidence of human life was ever found, in metavolcanics, rock art engravings. Spice traders who named kingdoms after explorers didn’t fail to notice Indian women: they married the most beautiful ones they could find, converting them to Christianity, gifting them with wedding jewels the Europeans had stolen from the women’s own ancestors.

Still mute from the sight of his mother imploring the elders, Heitor was sold for an elite price to work for the nuns of Evora, and to serve their novitiates. Indian, Chinese, Japanese slaves were bought and sold in Portuguese cities, believed to be more intelligent, and less potent as males, than African slaves, and thus allowed to work in the convents.

As a child, Heitor was striking for his quietude, forming a graceful harmony with the aggressive potential of his prematurely hard and strong limbs.

Beginning at the quick, observant, diligent age of eight, he was saved from harder labor, given to the convent’s Indian gardener and its cook.

These loving men were nowhere to be found on his last night. The men, lovers, were hiding for fear of being chained, drunk and in despair that they had not foreseen his fate. His two passionate, adoptive fathers, who knew how to grow the choicest sprigs of lavender to place on dinner plates, also knew the art of capoeira, a fighting form evolved to fend off slave traders, one of many methods of survival that Indians would learn from Afro-Brazilian men, the black crewmembers who frequented taverns and inns in the city where the cook and gardener were sent to do errands. These crewmembers, in their turn, purchased young Japanese women as slaves and bragged of how much they enjoyed them. The women had been sold by their families, so their menfolk could buy food. Or feudal lords traded these female slaves for gunpowder.

The Indian cook and gardener happened to be devoted to pleasure. Believing Heitor should have the same, they taught him capoeira, cooking, and all the other arts, believed all along he would outlast them and inherit their small trove of possessions. Those two men, slaves of the convent, suggested which girls in the village Heitor could make love with safely, in secret.                   Mariana, the rich virgin who desired Heitor, didn’t know about those girls.

If the oldest and most powerful of the nuns of Montemor had ever known about the welcoming village girls, each of whom were some respectable tradesman’s daughter – if the nuns, those grave authorities, had known how many lovers Heitor had before settling on one – by now the police would have torn off Heitor’s balls, then forced him to go one living and working.

To read the rest of “Heitor” click here.