AWP After-Blog

We’re all feeling a little exhausted after this year’s Association of Writers and Writers Programs (AWP) Conference in Tampa. A lot of us traveled from across the country, and spent hours in panels and on the book fair floor, and drinking and hanging out at the after parties. It felt a little bit like a vacation actually. But when I got back home, it felt like I needed a vacation from my vacation. Here are a few things that might make next year’s AWP even better.

An augmented reality map. It’s the way of the future. But it would be great to have step-by-step directions to all of my favorite panels and booths, a menu for the café inside the convention center that mysteriously doesn’t have one, a gauge for how many people are in the bathroom or Starbucks, and maybe an estimator for how long it will take to walk from one panel to another when they’re in different buildings and I still have to pee, and grab coffee to stay awake.

More quiet rooms. Let’s face it: A lot of us are a little crazy—that’s why we’re writers. Some of us make great connections and have good conversations at the book fair that covers a floor of the entire convention center, but the noise-level was so overwhelming that I was constantly running outside to catch some rays and just have some quiet time. If more quiet rooms are not in the cards, maybe the AWP tote bags could include a pair of earplugs.

A disclaimer before panels: Please don’t bring up your own work during Q&A time. Panels aren’t a chance to pitch your own work. Writers go to AWP to learn from other writers and support each other. If you talk about your own work during question/answer time, I also assume you like your own Instagram posts and have annoyed a lot of teachers over the years.

Food trucks inside the bookfair. This one’s pretty self-explanatory. I don’t want to pay $10 for a sandwich I could slap together at home in between revisions. I’m not saying I need a food truck with literature-inspired dishes (like the Crepes of Wrath, A Raisin bran-muffin in the Sun, or the Leaves of Grass iceberg wedge) but that’s exactly what I’m saying.

Time-Turners: There is no way one mortal can attend every single panel they’re interested in. Most of the coolest panels are at the same time, and when I was going to a bunch throughout the day, I was too tired for later ones (A nap at the hotel room would hit the spot, but can’t miss the panel on Suspense at 4:30!). This is where Time-Turners would be perfect— Pick up the device at the Information Desk and simply turn back time, and then I can attend as many panels through the day as I like. And later, maybe hit snooze and the dancefloor at the same time. Problem solved.

Maybe next year, I’ll get a couple of these features. But even if I don’t, I’m still coming back. Where else can I stand in line two hours for the one-hour of open bar?


Tori Cárdenas is an MFA candiate in Poetry and incoming Blue Mesa Review Poetry Editor for 2018-19. Her poetry explores folklore, science, and the collective unconscious, and has appeared in Conceptions Southwest, Cloudthroat Journal, Lavender Review, and the Taos Journal of Poetry and Art.

AWP – Blue Mesa Style

With AWP starting Thursday, we’ve been planning how to best spend our time, aside from nightly dance party and open bar. When not tearing up the dance floor or working our table (T338), the Blue Mesa Review staff shares the panels they’re most looking forward to attending.

Steve Howe, Editor in Chief

My MFA experience is wrapping up this spring, and I’ve been working on an essay collection for my final manuscript. I’ve felt the nature of the project has left me too steeped in traditional form. Once this project is done, I’ll need to reinvigorate my interest in atypical forms of the essay, so I’m looking forward to the Friday morning session, SpeculativeNonfiction: The Act of Invention in the Context of Reality.” The panel promises to “define speculative nonfiction as writing in which actual or verifiable material is not at war with material invented/extrapolated/speculated/fantasized.” I’ve read the work of most of the panel and have been moved by the chances they take, so this one is a “can’t miss” for me.

Lydia Wassan, Managing Editor

This AWP, I’m going for panels that dig into the nitty-gritty of getting a book published: manuscripts, the editing process, agents, contracts, and all that. I’m thinking a great place to start is “How Do I Know When This Thing Is Done? featuring some high-level editors (also writers in their own right) and literary agents. I’m expecting savvy insights about editing nearly-finished manuscripts. I also be attending “Writing Before You Write: How to Write a Book Proposal,” which discusses shaping a Nonfiction book proposal so publishers will bite. Oh, and I’ll be up early for Yoga for Writers, too.

Fiction Editor, Tatiana Duvanova

I’m looking forward to “Structuring the Novel: Methods, Approaches, Ideas,” featuring Janet Fitch, Lindsey Drager, Christian Kiefer, Matthew Salesses, Derek Palacio, because I should really be working on my first novel right now instead of procrastinating with the help of short stories and essays. I hope this panel will help me figure out where to start and how to approach a project that quite frankly seems unwieldy as of now. Most importantly, I am looking for a kick in the butt. And I just want to see Janet Fitch—I loved White Oleander in my time.

Ruben Rodriguez, Poetry Editor

I’ve been going to AWP for the last five years. This year, I am excited to see some of my friends present at the conference. I wholeheartedly suggest getting up early on Saturday to see the panel “Re-defining a Writer’s Success Through Intuition, Vulnerability, and Community Service.  I am most interested in the “Community Service” aspect of the discussion. I would like to see more writing programs, including my own, become the bridge between the academy and the community inhabiting university locals. I believe that this panel with offer some insight on how to do just that.

Hayley Peterson, Nonfiction Editor (incoming Editor-in-Chief)

The panel I’m most looking forward to is In Search of Our Essays’ Mother(s): Women and the History of the Essay.” Although most of my contemporary reading list is made up of female writers, I find that in my coursework and in my own personal research, it’s difficult to find the same presence even going back only 50 years. How does the female essayist fit into the canon? How has she changed the canon? I want to know.

Tori Cardenas, Graduate Reader, MFA in Poetry (incoming Poetry Editor)

This AWP is going to be my first, and there are way too many panels that look super interesting. However, I’m proud that a lot of panels are following a theme of resistance. “Writing Resistance: LGBTQ Writing as a Platform for Change” looks particularly cool, and specifically features “LGBTQ writers known for their politically driven content, who use their writing as a platform for activism and change.” I mean, I’m in. Duh. And “This Pussy Fights Back: Poems of Witness and Resistance” would go well with “Stranger and Truthier Than Truth: Fiction in the Age of Tr*mp” but they’re at the same time. So, I’m going to have to decide between these two at some point. I’ll definitely be at the LGBTQ Caucus, so I can talk with my fellow queers about issues of the day, like body politics and why I can’t find a tailor to fix the extra-small men’s suit I found on ThredUp.

Mitch Marty, Graduate Reader, MFA in Fiction (incoming Associate Editor)

It’s safe to say I still have far too many panels I’m interested in attending, but the one that stands out is “Writing Dementia: How We Give Voice to Fragmentation and Decline with Erin Coughlin Hollowell, Brendan Constantine, Kate Carroll de Gutes, Sarah Leavitt, and Tina Schumann. I spent a substantial amount of time in the nursing home with my great grandma who lived with Alzheimer’s disease when I was a child. And as I’ve seen dementia creep into the lives of aging family members, I’ve been reflecting more on how my identity and relationships have been shaped by this over time. This panel offers a unique perspective on how to write about these experiences through the lens of the panelists’ recent works.


Remember to stop by table 338 to visit with BMR staff, see our latest issue, and learn about the truly amazing judges we have on tap for our summer contest. Really, we’re blown away and think you will be, too. See you in Tampa!

Let the Movida Live

By Olivia Padilla

As I sift through the synopses of the New York Times bestsellers, I can’t help but grumble. Same old, same old. See, I can’t relate to contemporary literature – never have. I first came to this realization during my middle and high school days when I began reading young adult fiction. I didn’t see myself in the characters. What could a girl living in Rhode Island, who is on the crew team, and bikes around town at all hours of the night, have in common with me, a girl who grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico? Albuquerque is a dry and rough city, where walking around at all hours of the day or night is not advisable. We might as well have grown up in parallel dimensions. Now that I’m older and read literary fiction, I still find myself reading characters who have little or no connection to the world I live in.

I can’t relate because most literary characters do not share the same identity as I do – the Hispanic identity that thrives off movida and órale. Of course, some will say that I can always turn to the list of classic reads by Latin American and Chicano authors, like Blue Mesa Review’s founder, Rudolfo Anaya, to quench my thirst. But why should I have to continually refer to a specific list to see myself reflected in writing? I don’t want to use several filters before finding what I want. Instead, I want to find multiple works of literature that are widely recognized that feature Hispanic and Latino characters. Why doesn’t contemporary literature include characters that have the movida and burst into an órale once in a while?

I mean, movida is simply a great character trait. It’s the ability to get anything and everything on the cheap. We all have that one cousin who can find deals. He’s the one who always has tickets to the big game that he got from his “work,” – the same one who will travel a state over to purchase a boat for $150 cheaper than any of the others in town. He’s the guy who hacks all the family’s Amazon Fire Sticks to get the movies that are still in theaters, and makes Christmas gifts of the coats that he was “left with” after volunteering at the local news station coat drive. He has the movida. And since movida is universal, literature should depict it.

Also, órale is arguably one of the most versatile phrases of all time. ¿Órale? (slight lift of the chin) means “What’s up?”; ¡Órale! (yell out loud) means “That’s cool!”; ¡Órale! (furrow the brow and puff out the chest) means “What the hell!” It can also be used to get in and out of trouble, or when at a loss of words. Its meaning is ever growing and everlasting.

According to the Pew Research Center, the Latino population in the United States is around 58 million people. But the number of Hispanic authors featured on the New York Times bestsellers list simply doesn’t correlate with this rapidly growing population.

I have gone far too long without identifying with characters in books. I’m waiting to see the spirit of movida emerge in print, and hear órales roll off the tongue of characters in mainstream, contemporary literature. After all, I’m sure there is a Latina in Rhode Island somewhere rowing away, shouting “¡Órale!” after reaching a personal best.


Olivia Padilla is a staff reader for Blue Mesa Review

On Female Characters

Recently, I was sent a submission. I looked over the cover letter and the summary of the piece, and I really wanted to like it. It dealt with an important topic, was set in a place I wanted to know more about, was relevant, current. But—the author was male, and the story was told from a perspective of a female, and it was one of those stories. The protagonist was thinking about her period, tampons, pads, cramps, and possible leaks most of the time, and when she wasn’t, all she could focus on was dreaming about an engagement ring and getting sexually aroused by powerful and dangerous men checking her out. In the end, she got shot. I guess the writer just didn’t know what to do with her, so he decided to kill her off. She was a disposable thing, much like her tampons.

I am not saying that a man can never write from a woman’s point of view. There have certainly been a lot of great works of fiction written by men about women. Leo Tolstoy was not in any way a feminist, quite the opposite, yet Anna Karenina is a complex human being, not a caricature who is only able to think about her vagina and what is coming out of it. Similarly, being a woman doesn’t guarantee an automatic ability to craft female characters without fetishizing and objectifying them (think 50 Shades of Grey), but quite frankly, having read for Blue Mesa Review for a while, I do notice that a lot of stories with disposable, poorly written female characters come from men. Once, I was sent a piece that began fetishizing Russian women on the very first page. As a Russian woman, I did not appreciate it.

When we create disposable sexual objects instead of female characters we harm much more than our own story or our reputation as a writer. We add to the dangerous and widespread narrative that women are commodities. Every story like this reinforces the message that women are things to be used.  Fiction obviously isn’t the sole source of such messages, but it can be a powerful source. I remember when my brother was a teenager with zero dating experience, he came up with a wonderful idea that women like men who ignore them and don’t treat them too nicely after having read A Hero of Our Time, a famous Russian novel by Mikhail Lermontov. My brother never thought much about the fact that the novel was written by a twenty-five-year-old man who probably didn’t know much about women. Instead, he instantly bought into the narrative. The stories we are exposed to matter, they shape the way we see the world.

The writers who send us pieces like this aren’t necessarily bad writers. They aren’t necessarily bad people. We all have grown up with narratives where women are disregarded, tossed, casually raped, or used as a decoration or as a reward for male characters. We take it for granted that every time a woman appears on a page, her physical attractiveness or lack thereof must be mentioned. I myself have read and even enjoyed plenty of stories like that, and it took me years and years to finally figure out what was it about them that always left an unpleasant after taste. Luckily, now I can recognize sexism, misogyny and objectification in fiction when I see them. Even more importantly, I am in a position where I can reject such narratives. And I do.

Gun Problem or Leadership Problem?

The views expressed are solely those of the author and not necessarily those of Blue Mesa Review. 


On Wednesday afternoon, I was meeting with Blue Mesa Review advisor, Mark Sundeen, when he saw an alert on his laptop. He said there was another school shooting. Despite Parkland, FL being 2,000 miles from Albuquerque, I immediately checked my mental family schedule to place where my teenage son was at that moment. 3:15 PM, school was out, he was at tennis practice. We felt helpless to do anything, and within seconds we were back to work. This is America in 2018.

Thursday morning, I felt like vomiting as I heard the door close when my son left for school. We didn’t watch the news the night of the shooting and it rained the next morning, leaving the paper soaked and unreadable. He left the house without carrying the anxiety that left me feeling ill. I couldn’t have that conversation with him again. Ignorance was the only thing I was able to offer him. Having your child die in a classroom isn’t an abstract concept anywhere in America, including New Mexico. In December of 2017, two kids were killed in the small town of Aztec, NM. Anyone who promises a safe school anywhere in America is lying.

A few hours after my son walked out of the door, I received a text from the University of New Mexico advising that a man had pulled a gun on several people on campus and was still at-large. It was three hours before he was captured. UNM is not only the home of Blue Mesa Review, and where I teach and take classes, but it’s also where my daughter goes to school, and she was on campus at the time. Fear and nausea again washed over me. Thankfully, within minutes, she texted me with an invite to lunch. The risk didn’t openly phase her. She was born a year before Columbine, so this is the world she grew up in.

After Trump was elected, I wrote a blog post about a writer’s responsibility in difficult times. My message remains the same; we must use our skills and platform to speak out. So, I am. But I’m too angry to put a think-piece-instruction-manual-on-how-writers-should-act into the world, even if I were qualified. Writers know what they can and should do. Those who don’t know, or aren’t willing to act, are the elected leadership on both sides of the political aisle.

Both Republicans and Democrats are willfully leaving children to die in their own classrooms to placate the NRA or not ruffle their base. They’ll shake their heads in frustration and blame mental illness but conveniently forget they just pulled the individual mandate for healthcare and last year passed legislation making it easier for the mentally ill to buy guns. You will see moist eyes and hear weighted words as they call the Parkland school shooting an “act of evil.” But they do this to place it in the unpreventable abstract, to absolve them from action. The implication being, we mere mortals have no power against the devil, but, of course, we still must arm ourselves in hopes of being the “good guy with the gun” while we learn to “get small” in public gatherings. The Thoughts and Prayers Playbook is well worn and predictable. And it works.

It feels like we are powerless, but we’re not. Our leadership just refuses to use the power we give to them. And if they don’t use it wisely, we must take it back. The callousness of Republicans on this issue is astounding, but I’ve come to expect it. They care more about the right to compile a military-grade arsenal in the suburbs than they do about kids getting shot in their classroom. This isn’t even a debate. Close the book. That’s who they are. However, the Democratic leadership with all their bluster and condemnation, if they choose to, can stop or disrupt the machine. We saw them shut the government down twice this year and once since the Marshall County shooting (do they even remember Marshal County?). Do they not see regular mass burials of murdered school children worthy of the same dramatic action? If our leadership believed gun violence to be the national crisis they proclaim it to be, they should let no legislation pass, allow no program to get funded, no plane to leave the ground, no troops moved, not even a Social Security check to Grandma should get issued without a fight and a roadblock until leaders on both sides of the aisle come to the table and present meaningful legislation to help stop the carnage in our schools. We cannot wait for the smell of gunpowder to leave the air. In America, the air is never clear.

In 1999, the death of 12 kids at Columbine put the country in a month-long coma. But the 17 victims and their families in Parkland will probably be forgotten in a week. I’m performing my duty as a writer, and as a father, to speak out. Our leaders must do their duty to act in memory of the kids in Parkland, Aztec, Rancho Tehama, Rockford, San Bernadino, and every other shooting victim during their term of leadership they vowed to protect. They must  stop this raging insanity or face the consequences of inaction. It is not the writer, the farmer, the accountant, or teacher who must act now. The only people who can make real change are sitting in Washington and in the 50 statehouses across the country. The role of rest of us is to hold them accountable, so I’m calling on our elected leaders to act now, or get the hell out. If not, we’ll be coming for you November like our children’s lives are on the line, because they are.

Steve Howe is the Editor-in-Chief of Blue Mesa Review

Better Not Call? A Curated Tour of Albuquerque’s Attorney Billboards

By the Staff Readers of Blue Mesa Review


Albuquerque’s Better Call Saul elevated an ambulance-chaser to an American icon. He represents not the nation of law and justice that we believe in, but the one of flag-wrapped scams and endearing scammers that we’re stuck with. The series’ hero, Jimmy McGill, introduced in Breaking Bad, pretends to be Jewish to attract customers, and after a few low-level cons hits pay-dirt when he brands his rackets as patriotism, complete with the inflatable Statue of Liberty atop his strip-mall office.

Anyone who has crossed Albuquerque’s sprawl knows that Saul Goodman didn’t just spring from the imagination of some Hollywood scriptwriter. His forefathers—or perhaps his imitators—populate about every billboard in town. The result is a dour gallery of stern men who insist that we’ve been wronged and, if we just had the guts to dial their number, we too could claim our share of the national bounty.

For the benefit of both fans and haters, the staff readers of Blue Mesa Review present a juried gallery of real-life Sauls, ranked in order of increasing amazingness.


6. Russ Whitener

Our judges noted that like Bigfoot this attorney can apparently only be captured in grainy long-range photos. Judges recoiled from the attempt at slangy diction (Who’s Gonna Pay?) which smacked of trying to be hip and sounding like Ghostbusters. More controversially, judges discovered that Whitener died several years ago, causing one to wonder if he represents you via Ouija Board. His obituary states that he applied to 20 law schools and got into one, and he built a giant office “that housed a two-story palm tree, purple aquarium and tiled waterfall” because, in his own words, “I wanted to have something to leave on the planet to say, ‘Hey, I was here.’”

(Photo: Maxine Porter)

5. David C. Chavez

Our judges were not impressed by the magisterial gold font, the self-aggrandizing middle initial, or the ostentatious deployment of The Law Firm of… “It’s like he didn’t think people would believe he was a real lawyer.” The inclusion of the 505 area code feels slightly desperate, like he’s not actually from here. Our judges speculated that, “No one calls him. He calls you.” One surmised that Chavez did not intend to litigate “Tragic Injury,” but to inflict it. Another contemplated calling out of pity: “I feel bad for him.”

(Photo: Maxine Porter)

4. Keller & Keller

Our judges could not help but wonder if Esquire Keller’s bald pate provided an attractive roost for migratory cranes. We were duly impressed by the baroque ampersand. The question of “Where’s the other Keller?” led to a cursory search, which revealed that Billboard Guy is neither Keller nor Keller. This raised another question, whether he was a professional model. The judges scratched their heads as to how exactly a search was conducted for a bland model who resembles “unseasoned mashed potatoes.” Questions of objectification arose when one judge referred to “Mr. Keller” as “just a hot blonde.” The firm’s attempt to enamor itself to locals with the use of a Zia symbol rang hollow when we learned that it’s based in Indianapolis.

(Photo: Maxine Porter)

3. Bert Parnell

As poets, we could not resist the rhyme. It shall outlast the monuments of princes! Judges admired Bert’s “confidence,” the type of guy who–like Madonna and Cher–requires no surname. The dude even trademarked his name. Do we need legal permission to utter it? We liked the “no nonsense” face on striking red background with brawny sans-serif font, but we did wonder if he’d stolen the design from Ron Bell, who you’re about to meet. Judges respectfully suggested an offshoot: NEED AN ATTORNEY? CALL ERNIE.

(Photo: Maxine Porter)

2. Hinkle

Judges debated if these guys were the real thing or just boojie dudes trying to look like bikers, and had real doubts about whether arriving in court flanked by Dog the Bounty Hunter and the dad from American Chopper was prudent legal strategy. “Do they rock the black leather at trial?” asked one. Also, “Does he use spray-on tan?” But ultimately we accepted Hinkle’s tufness, confident that he could ruf up opposing counsel, even the judge. He appeared capable of “taking you to hell and bringing you back.” Whatever it is that Hinkle knows—we want to know it, too.

(Photo: Rebekah Rendon)

1. Ron Bell

Ron Bell takes Bert’s single name and raises him a dollar. He’s so famous around here that he doesn’t even need a name, just a phone number. His billboards are so ubiquitous that one native Burqueña sighed fondly: “I’ve known about Ron Bell since I was born.” We admired his Tom Selleck mustache and full head of hair and the chiseled brevity of the one-word slogan. Not confined to a single genre, Bell has starred in teeveemercials in a motorcycle racing suit, and bare-chested in boxing regalia. He even has his own emoji. Overall, we found him trustworthy and avuncular but one judge dissented, “I would not be comfortable if he were my uncle.” A judge noted that Bell had himself been convicted of DWI, but another judge remarked, conclusively, “Yeah, but he beat the charges.” Case dismissed.

(Photo: Carrie Adair)

Lastly, Ron Bell is widely believed to be the real-life inspiration for Better Call Saul, a mantle that he proudly accepts.

(AP Photo/Russell Contreras)


ABQ #MeToo Monologues

TIME Magazine did not select President Donald Trump as person of the year. Instead, TIME selected The Silence Breakers, a collective of women and men—some unidentified—who have spoken publically against sexual harassment and assault. TIME is acknowledging their courage for addressing a societal problem that is often obscured in shame, confusion, and a pervasive silence.

I regularly experience sexual harassment. And because it’s both common and painful, I often avoid writing about it. I worry about being accused of exaggerating and fabricating—being labelled a drama queen. I worry about professional repercussions for accusing respected individuals, or being seen as difficult to work with. Mostly though, I cannot always make sense of it. Being violated by people who surround you, in the classroom, at the workplace, or at home, is not easy to reckon with. At times, it seems much simpler to slip into the foggy conclusion that silence is easier than speech. It’s really a last-ditch effort for life to continue with some semblance of normalcy; a plea that the unspoken, unpleasant thing never happened. I know this to be true and yet, with the exception of a casual disclosure here and there, I am among the many individuals who largely stays silent.

The wave of resignations across the professional world should remind us that speaking and writing about our experiences not only bonds us to fellow survivors, but in some cases, can call to account those who have attacked and belittled us. Speaking out leaves a safer and smoother path for those who come in our wake.

Activist Tarana Burke has been encouraging survivors of sexual harassment and assault to speak their truth for more than two decades. Burke’s work focuses on building bonds between survivors and placing responsibility squarely back on perpetrators. After a moving encounter with a 13-year-old sexual abuse survivor, Burke pioneered a dialogue-centered movement to address the shame and isolation that survivors often feel. She called the movement, “Me Too.” The hashtag #MeToo sparked a Twitter explosion in mid-October, popularized by big Hollywood names. But Burke had coined the phrase and the concept years before. In a profile for the New York Times, Burke explained, “The power of using ‘me too’ has always been in the fact that it can be a conversation starter or the whole conversation ― but it was us talking to us.”

Tarana Burke’s movement of radial compassion from survivor to survivor is being echoed across the country this December in an event called The National Me Too Monologues. The Monologues is a four-day writing workshop created by Tanya Taylor Rubenstein and Mary Rives that culminates in the sharing of the many different experiences of sexual violence and assault in a public forum.

A group of Albuquerque-based writers are performing their monologues on December 9. The Albuquerque chapter is facilitated by Ana June, who graduated from UNM’s MFA program last year, and Ramona King, a playwright, former KUNM Spoken Word Hour host, and storyteller.

Each Saturday for the past month, June has invited a group of local writers to workshop their experiences of sexual violence around her dining room table. Hayley Peterson, one of the writers performing this Saturday, says, “I’ve been able to experience the true power of the movement by coming together to write and share with other women. I’ve been so glad for the space and time to be open and vulnerable, to be heard and not dismissed, and to feel understood.” I, too, can attest to the wonderful feeling of acceptance and compassion that the Monologues writing group has created.

The event will take place at 6:30 PM at Aux Dog Theatre in Nob Hill on Saturday December 9. The suggested donation amount is $15 and all donations will benefit Crossroads for Women in Albuquerque.

I hope to see Blue Mesa Review’s local readers there, and for all of you across the country, I encourage you to create your own forum to tell your own stories.

Lydia Wassan is Managing Editor for Blue Mesa Review

Announcing our 2017 Pushcart Nominees

Congratulations to these wonderful writers:


From Issue 35:


–vibe [Fragments from a Notebook] by Marcos Gonsalez


From our upcoming Issue 36:


egungun by Aurielle Lucier


Around the Parking Lot by David Connor


On Playing Yu-Gi-Oh as a Nerdy, Brown Kid in Houston by Reyes Ramirez

Shattering Silence by Yvonne Conza


Don’t Speak! …In the First Line


Maxine Porter


As a Blue Mesa Review reader, I evaluate a lot of fiction for the magazine. I see the same mistakes made over and over again. One of the most persistent, and  most unfortunate, is the use of dialogue in the first line. So maybe you write a first line that looks something like this:

“My God, Henry! What are you doing?”

The reader has a lot of questions. Where are we? Who’s speaking? Who’s Henry? Is anyone else here? What’s going on?

Here’s another question: who cares? There’s no setting, no narrator, nothing at all to visualize—so why should I bother? Editors don’t typically make decisions based exclusively on the first line (at least not at Blue Mesa Review), but the first page is our first impression. When I see untagged dialogue in the first line, I doubt the quality of the next few pages.

Listen, I’m a writer too. I know how hard it can be to create a dynamic, engaging, imagistic opening scene that grabs the reader by the lapels and flings them head-first down the Slip-n-Slide that is your story. But free-floating dialogue lacks all context. Two people speaking into a void is boring. Two people arguing in a living room is slightly better. A girl watching through the crack in the living room door as her two suitors argue, their words growing more heated until—“My god, Henry! What are you doing?”

I care a lot more about what Henry is doing when I know who’s involved, how they’re related to each other, where they are in time and space.

“But wait,” you say, “what about _____?”

Indeed, what about ______? There are a number of novels and short stories, famous and otherwise, that open with a line of dialogue. A popular example is Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange:

“What’s it going to be then, eh?”

There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry.

Now look at Ray Bradbury’s short story The Veldt:

“George, I wish you’d look at the nursery.”

“What’s wrong with it?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, then.”

“I just want you to look at it, is all, or call a psychologist in to look at it.”

“What would a psychologist want with a nursery?”

“You know very well what he’d want.” His wife paused in the middle of the kitchen and watched the stove busy humming to itself, making supper for four.

Burgess’ opening compels me, but Bradbury’s does not. Why? For one, Bradbury doesn’t give us a setting until seven lines into the story. For another, his dialogue is fantastically empty. This is small talk—an inefficient form of dialogue. The malfunction of the nursery, and the involvement of a psychologist are both relevant to the story, but the exchange doesn’t really explain their connection in a meaningful way. Burgess, meanwhile, opens with a line of dialogue closely followed by a paragraph of narration. The narration situates the dialogue in space, place, and time.

The first line does a lot of work. It identifies the narrator and the characters in the scene, sets the time location of the action, and introduces a strong voice.

There’s nothing to say a writer shouldn’t open with dialogue—starting a conversation as early as the second line can make for an engaging first scene. I won’t call it a rule, but I’ll make an aggressive suggestion with your best interests in mind: open with narration, and if you really must start with dialogue, you had better be clever enough to get away with it.


Winner, Winner, Turkey Dinner!

We are giving thanks this holiday season for all those who make Blue Mesa Review possible; our readers, contributors, contest judges, our host university, and the literary community. And we want to offer a special thanks and congratulations to our annual contest winners.


Fiction – Judged by Lori Ostlund and Anne Raeff

1st Place – “Around the Parking Lot” by David Connor

2nd Place – “In-Laws and Out-Laws” by Evan Lloyd


Poetry – Judged by Safiya Sinclair

1st Place – “egungun” by Aurielle Lucier

2nd Place – “Her Word Will Land in You” by Alana de Hinojosa

3rd Place – “Starter Home” by Samuel Piccone


Nonfiction – Judged by Rigoberto González

1st – “On Playing Yu-Gi-Oh as a Nerdy, Brown Kid in Houston” by Reyes Ramirez

2nd – “Shattering Silence” by Yvonne Conza


We’re excited to share these wonderful works in Issue 36, forthcoming in early December 2017.