by Jiksun Cheung
What I love about writing is that it is mostly about testing things and failing: storytelling as mad science project, as it were. And if stories are experiments, then the SmokeLong Readers-in-Residence program is a vast trove of data and insight—an opportunity to read and learn from almost two hundred story submissions over the course of three months, dissecting and deconstructing their highs and lows with a team of wonderful editors, and deciphering what makes each story tick. What worked, what didn’t, and why?
The stories I read moved, shocked, delighted, crushed, disturbed, and challenged me, but two stood out in particular, not because they were dark (they were) but because the darkness had purpose. The first was about two young women, facing the final days of a terminal disease together; the second was about a childless couple burying their loved ones. Neither of them, in the end, was published at SmokeLong—one didn’t make the final cut, the other was withdrawn by the author the very next day (nooooo…)—but they exhibited what I’d come to identify as characteristics of a strong story submission:
- Tight, evocative language that compels the reader from word to word, sentence to sentence, and which tells a focused but multi-layered story.
- An emotional core that grabs the reader by the collar and refuses to let go.
- A sense of urgency and intimacy that makes the narrative feel significant. This last one is a delicate balancing act—there were so many stories that were incredibly personal and intimate, but were essentially private journal entries that lacked actual narrative arcs.
At the end of the day, however, I realized that above all else I’m searching for stories that leave me breathless and changed; the two stories I mentioned above succeeded in this. They are so exceedingly rare that when I do come across one, it is like hitting pay dirt, or perhaps more appropriately, literary alchemy.
I’d like to thank Chris, Helen, and the stellar SmokeLong team for having me onboard as a Reader-in-Residence, and for being so welcoming and supportive. This has been one of the most eye-opening learning experiences I’ve had in a long time and I’ve enjoyed every moment of it.
To more mad science projects and literary alchemy!
Jiksun Cheung is a short fiction writer and postcard designer from Hong Kong. His work is published or forthcoming in SmokeLong Quarterly, Atticus Review, The Molotov Cocktail, Flash Fiction Magazine, The Daily Drunk, and Arsenika, amongst others. He was a 2020 Smokey finalist, a Best Microfiction nominee, and his stories will appear in The Molotov Cocktail’s 6th and 7th Annual Prize Winner’s Anthologies. He and his wife share their home with two boisterous toddlers and enough playdough to last a lifetime. Find him at @JiksunCheung