Of love and grief

I can’t read romance, I can’t write romance.

It’s not for the lack of trying. Sometimes I would love to read a story about two people who overcome great obstacles and end up together, happy and in love. Sometimes I think my own stories would benefit from a little romance and a HEA thrown in here and there. But whenever I try to write it, it turns into this or this or this.

The truth is, the unconscious part of my mind that comes up with story ideas doesn’t believe in happy endings. I don’t know why – I’m not a particularly morose grouch in real life. However, my writing brain is bored with attainable love, and studies it from a great distance with a faint, cynical smile. In almost every story I’ve ever written, the characters yearn for something they cannot get, and even if they somehow triumph in the end, it’s always tainted with a touch of melancholy, the realization that life never quite turns out as we expect it to.

My latest published story, Heart of My Heart, Soul of My Soul started as an exploration of the ways in which grief alters our perception. I made it deliberately vague, open to the readers’ interpretations. And I’ve made a conscious effort to allow at least one of those interpretations to lean towards a happy ending. I hope you will find it enjoyable.

Photo by Jr Korpa on Unsplash

Seven literary agents who will never represent you

1. Dinosaur Diana

Dinosaur Diana has owned her elite New York agency since before you were born. She drank with Hemingway and shot small furry animals with Faulkner. (Or was it the other way round?) She represents literary estates of three Nobel Prize winners and a dozen Pulitzers. She sits in her corner office reading the manuscripts her assistants printed out for her while they cry in the broom closet. She’ll consider new clients only if they’re recommended by someone she regularly eats lunch with. There’s no point in sending your query to her.

2. Snobbish Steve

Snobbish Steve is a savvy London agent with an Oxbridge degree who looks great in his tweed blazer. He claims he’s looking for the next big literary novel that captures the Zeitgeist of the broken capitalist system, but in fact, he wants a novel about a wealthy young college graduate alone and alienated in a big city, spilling his contempt and sarcasm over 500 pages because he can’t get laid. He won’t represent you because he only represents his Oxbridge chums.

3. Popular Polly

Popular Polly is a junior agent, but she’s a social media veteran pro. Her slush pile is 10 months deep, but she tweets a new #MSWL every time some hot fad captures her 3-year-old’s attention span. She still has a secret crush on Harry Potter. Her wishlist is loaded with accidental bestsellers and she sees Pitchwars as a popularity contest. She’s also written a cute YA novel or two and is represented by another Popular Polly. If she ever gets to your query, she’ll reject it because she “didn’t fall in love with it”.

4. Ghosting Gary

Ghosting Gary will immediately ask you for a full or, even better, he’ll solicit your work himself. He’ll have nothing but praise for your short prose and your opening chapters. Your themes and comps are right up his street. You’ll send him your full thinking it’s a sure thing. You won’t hear from him for the next six months. When you nudge him politely, he’ll tell you he was disappointed that the horse on p.276 was black instead of chestnut. When you assure him you can fix that and ask if it’s possible to R&R, he’ll ghost you.

5. Quirky Queenie

Quirky Queenie is all about indie authors, women’s horror and dark little magazines winning Pushcarts. She’s heavy on the eyeliner, Lovecraftian monsters and romantic poetry. She loves dark and scary fairy tales, strong female characters and unreliable narrators. Her query form will require you to answer all manner of weird questions. What song resembles the tone of your book? Do you have a moodboard or an artist whose work has the same feel? Who’s your favourite character and why? If your book was a flower, which flower it would be? It’ll take you three hours and a dozen WTFs to fill in the form. She’ll never respond.

6. Ideal Ian

Ideal Ian is your dream agent. He works for a small but reputable agency specialized in your genre. He represents the authors you want to become when you grow up. His client list and your bookshelf are practically identical. His wishlist tells you that he wants exactly what you have and that he would be the perfect agent to love, represent and sell your manuscript. He’s been closed to queries for the last three years.

7. Diverse Dolly

Diverse Dolly likes all things edgy: BIPOC writers, lgbtq+, #ownvoices, disabled, neurodiverse and historically underrepresented. She’s the epitome of political correctness. Her wishlist calls for non-European myths and legends, immigrant experience and intergenerational trauma. Her query form will ask you why you’re the best person to tell that story, to make sure it’s #authentic. She won’t respond to your query because she’s too busy representing the latest Nazi romance.

Images by studiogstock

Disclaimer: this is a hommage to a similar list I saw a few years ago. Unfortunately, I can’t find it. I compiled this one from my own querying experience.

Immersion Vortex or How to Step Into a Story

I binged on TV series during the pandemic in the attempt to get away from the ugly reality. I’ve always been a sucker for period dramas (history + pretty people + gorgeous costumes = pure joy) and for some reason, I felt especially comforted by Regency pieces. I wondered – what if VR was so advanced that we could step into this world? How many women would choose to dance with Mr. Darcy rather than date modern guys? And that’s how my latest story, Immersion Vortex, sprang into my mind.

Photo by Barbara Zandoval

However, this idea is older than my pandemic binge watching. It’s connected with the way I read books. I was a lonely, introvert child who spent her days reading quietly in the corner. I didn’t mind it at all, reading was my favourite activity and the characters often seemed more real than the people I knew. I judged books by their immersion potential – the easier it was for me to step into them, the more I loved them. I suppose that’s where my preference for history, fantasy and myth comes from – those are the stories which usually have the most substantial world-building.

I spent hours and hours inside some stories – The Count of Monte Cristo springs to mind – moving through the world, rearranging the events, interacting with the characters. I guess that even my impulse for writing stories comes from that same need to find a world I can step into.

Strangely enough, this need to step into a world was never fully satisfied by movies, series or games. Perhaps because – beautiful and meticulous as they might be – they still offer someone else’s vision. So far, books have been my favourite portals into different worlds. However, the future I imagined in Immersion Vortex might be quite near. And the possibility to step into a story fuelled by one’s own imagination is very attractive. So attractive, in fact, that I fear I would never return.

Imagine this: you choose a period you like, shape the characters according to your wishes, outline the events. You build a world based on a book, or a period, or an idea – and then you step into it. And it feels real in every sense. It’s controlled and shaped by your imagination, but it’s not inside your head, it’s all around you.

I know where I would go. Do you?

Rejection II – Turning down acceptances

As a writer, dealing with rejection is something you need to cope with if you want to get published. However, sometimes I found myself in the position where I had to reject an offer and withdraw my story. It didn’t happen very often, because when you’re new to publishing, you’ll jump at every opportunity to be published, but it did happen several times.

Here’s my experience:

1. Something is wrong with the contract

If you use the Submission Grinder, sometimes you’ll see a warning that a publication has problematic contracts, or you’ll hear other writers complaining. I am no expert on contracts, but I believe every writer should learn how to read them and see the red flags. The good place to start is the SFWA website and their model contracts. If you feel uncomfortable with the contract, you should seek advice (more experienced writers will often be able help you) and try to negotiate it – new, amateur publishers can sometimes be too grabby, and you have every right to protect your work. If it turns out that you can’t agree with the publisher, you should walk away. Even if it’s just one story, a bad contract can hurt your career.

2. Something’s wrong with the editor

When this scenario happens, it’s hard to say whose fault it is – sometimes the editors are inexperienced, or too invasive, sometimes the writer is too stubborn to let go of their vision of the story. My rule of thumb is this: if someone wants to buy my story, I’m guessing it’s because they like it. A few changes here and there, some tweaking and clarification are fine. Bigger changes that require serious rewriting, but will make the story stronger are also fine – if I have the time and skill to do them. Changes that make me uncomfortable, feel wrong or I believe miss the point of my story are not fine. Most editors will let you stet their suggestions or negotiate some other way around the problem. If you cannot reach a satisfying agreement, and the publication has more than one editor, you should ask to work with another one. If that’s not possible, you should consider walking away. A mangled story will not hurt you as much as a bad contract, but publishing something you’re not 100% happy with will seem like a missed opportunity and a waste of a good story.

3. Grabby contests

I’ve also had bad experience with contests and I’ve learned to be wary of them – they’re a great way to scam the writers. The prizes may look great, but always read the rules carefully – sometimes they will state that just by submitting your story, you’re allowing them to use it or modify it in any way or for any purpose they want. You should never agree to assign any rights just by entering the contest.

I admit that each time I withdrew my work, I felt a pang of regret. Opportunities to get published sometimes seem few and far between, and when rejections swamp your inbox, you’d sign a contract with the Devil just to get your story out there. However… when I look back, I know I made the right decisions. Not getting published hurts, but getting published by someone who scams you or destroys your work is much worse.

Rejection, Rejection

According to The Grinder, my short fiction stats for this year are:

  • 75 submissions
  • 3 acceptances
  • 67 rejections

And that’s pretty average for me. I tend to submit my stories to magazines whose acceptance rates are 1% – 3%. I’m still trying to figure out what kind of stories the editors of those magazines prefer, so there’s much fingers-crossed submitting which results in rejections at least once a week.

I should be used to rejection by now, right?

Well, yes and no. Submitting is an act of hope, and having that hope dashed always stings. But I’ve seen many discussions on the types of rejections and their advantages/disadvantages, so I thought I might add my two cents.

Form Rejections

Fast Form: a quick no-thank-you rejecting your story in a matter of days (or sometimes hours).

People sometimes get offended if they get rejected that quickly, but I understand that the first slush read often takes less than 10 minutes, and I appreciate a quick no. If we’re not compatible, let’s not waste each other’s time.

Semi-fast Form: up to 60 days.

This is the average and my attitude depends on the Grinder data. If I see a mountain of submissions and the red wave of rejection progressing slowly, but steadily, I’m happy to wait. But if there’s a limited period for submissions and the rejection wave is not moving after its end, I get grumpy and feel my time is being wasted.

Slow Form: over 60 days.

There are cases when I’m OK with this: if there’s a long submission window, and the editors state in advance they’re not going to reply before it closes (this is typical for anthology calls). Or if the market is only open once or twice per year, so everybody submits at the same time and they get hundreds of submissions.

However, if there are no hold notices and my story is in the queue for more than 60 days, I start stalking the Grinder to see if the queue is moving. If I get to 90 days without a reply, that market loses its spot on my list of priorities. And if all I get after 90+ days is a Formy McFormface, I’m disappointed.

Personal Rejections

I’m not a fan of personal rejections. Some writers like to get a feedback on their story and learn why it was rejected, but as it is often quite subjective, I prefer to skip it. Most personals I got ranged from mildly confusing to downright offensive, showing me that my story simply didn’t click with the readers. I very rarely found it useful.

However, there are two types of personal rejections that I appreciate:

Quick, Positive Personal

This is usually a form with a sentence or two added by the editor saying what they liked about the story. Not very useful, but extremely kind. There’s one editor who writes such lovely comments in their rejections I want to track them down in RL and hug them.

Slow, Thoughtful Personal

This one is rare, and, despite its usefulness, it tends to hurt. It means the editor took the time to read and analyse your story and send you the feedback that can actually make the story better.

I appreciate it, but it makes me feel I was close to selling the story but blew it because I wasn’t good enough.

Reject that pathetic loser!

This year, I also had the opportunity to co-edit Ghost Orchid’s anthology “Beyond the Veil”, which – for the first time in my life – put me in the position to reject (and accept) stories.

I’ve learnt that rejecting stories is messy. When reading other people’s work, I tend to doubt my competence all the time. Who am I to judge if this is good or not? Do I get this story or do I completely miss the point the author wants to make? Does it fit my vision of what it should look like?

The bottom line is – words are an imperfect tool for depicting the worlds we built in our heads. What you mean to write – or what you think you wrote – and what I get from it can be two very different things. It’s wonderful when the writer’s intentions match the editor’s expectations and a great synergy happens. But when it doesn’t, I’m left wondering how close or how far a story is from what I want and need.

It all boils down to my personal judgement in the end. If the story is reasonably well-written and if it fits the theme, then the difference between an acceptance and a rejection is my personal feeling. Do I like this story? Do I find it original, challenging, thought-provoking, shocking? Does it fit the other stories I’ve chosen? How does it make me feel?

I understand this is both good and bad. It’s bad because there’s probably nothing wrong with the story and some other reader might love it. It’s good because – well – there’s nothing wrong with the story and some other reader will love it.

So, when an editor says “it’s not you, it’s me”, it’s true. I used to think this was a lie, I believed there must be something inherently wrong with my rejected stories. But being the one who rejects taught me it was really much more about the editor’s expectations and needs.

Variations on Death and Love

I have two pieces published this month and they’re both about death. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

The first piece is an article, Danse Macabre: Equality in Death in Medieval Istrian Frescoes published in The Deadlands. This wasn’t the first time I connected my art history knowledge with my publications in speculative fiction magazines, but it was the first time I wrote a non-fiction piece about my own cultural heritage. If you want to know more about medieval representations of death and about the role of death as the great equalizer, read the article. Also, the frescoes are amazing.

Party like it’s 1474

The second piece is The Collector, published in the September issue of Cossmass Infinities. This one is not really about death, although the main character is Morana, the old Slavic goddess of death (who is, BTW, also the MC in my dark fantasy novel I’m querying right now). My main focus in this story is on migrant workers and on how hard it is to leave your country and your heritage behind, even if you are a deity. It sucks to be a foreigner, far from the people who believe in you, metaphysically or otherwise.

The story is on the Must-Read Speculative Short Fiction list on Tor.com, where Alex Brown wrote an amazing review:

We’ve all read tons of stories about Death gods and soul collecting, but there is something special about Jelena Dunato’s story that stuck with me. Morana, an ancient Slavic pagan deity tied to death and winter, travels to Italy to retrieve the soul of a dying elderly woman. But the woman’s house becomes a battlefield as other Death gods seek to claim the woman’s soul. I think what I appreciated the most was how Dunato threaded in the complexities of being a migrant in a place that needs your labor but does not care about your life, where ties to family and land become both stronger and more tenuous.

This month I’m also collaborating with the wonderful  A.R. Ward on Ghost Orchid Press’s new anthology, Beyond the Veil. This one is not about death, thank goodness, but about love. Queer, supernatural love. Send us your stories, we are eager to read them.


My new story How to Bind a Sailor’s Heart is in the May issue of Mermaids Monthly.

Charles Payseur writes about it in Quick Sip Reviews

A grim and bracing story, but one that acts as a fierce warning, full of haunting beauty! 

To celebrate its publication, I decided to share my recipe for pogača – the dish described in the story (without the gory details, of course – but feel free to be creative if the circumstances demand it).

Komiška pogača is a traditional filled bread from the island of Vis. This is my version of the recipe – delicious and really easy to make.

Mermaids? What mermaids?

Komiška pogača


  • 600 g plain flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 7 g dry yeast
  • a splash of virgin olive oil
  • 400 ml warm water


  • 50 ml virgin olive oil
  • 1 red onion
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 500 g tomato puree
  • 8-10 anchovy fillets
  • 1 tbsp capers
  • 1 bay leaf
  • rosemary
  • thyme


Prepare the dough: mix the dry ingredients in a large bowl, add oil and water. You can use a hand mixer at this point. Knead the dough until you get a nice, smooth texture. Cover the bowl with a clean cloth and let it rise in a warm place until it doubles in size.

Prepare the filling: chop the onion and sauté it in the virgin olive oil over medium heat for 10 min. Add the garlic, sauté for 1 min then pour in tomato puree. Add bay leaf, rosemary and thyme and simmer for about 20 min, until it thickens. Set aside to cool.

Pre-heat the oven to 200°C.

Assemble the pogača. Take the risen dough, knead it and divide it into 2 equal parts. Roll the first part into a round shape and transfer it to a baking tray lined with baking paper.

Spread the tomato sauce, arrange the anchovies in a circle and dot with capers. Roll the other part of dough into a circle and cover the first part. Fold the edges and seal them with a fork. Bake the pogača for 30 – 40 min, until golden. Slice it into wedges and enjoy.

New stories

I have three new stories published this month, which is a personal record.

The first one is Immortelle in The Dark Magazine. It is a very dark story about bleak landscapes and bleak outcomes. Charles Payseur wonderfully summed up the whole issue in his Quick Sip Reviews:

A grim issue full of stories about people trapped in yearning. In want. Isolated and alienated from the world they move through. Because they don’t fit or because they’re vulnerable and just want somewhere safe. Whatever the case, though, that yearning is used against them, used to draw them into something like a trap, something hungry and knowing exactly how to prey on them.

It also made it to the Must-Read Speculative Short Fiction list on Tor.com:

This one gripped me hard and hasn’t let me go. A young woman in an unspecified historical era is murdered by her lover after she finds out she’s pregnant. But she is not content to stay dead. A haunting story of vengeance and consequences.

Alex Brown

Fun fact: before the cosmetic industry turned immortelle into a priceless elixir of youth, the locals on the island where I live deemed it worthless because the sheep wouldn’t eat it. They used it as fuel for fishing lanterns. Those fires must have smelt wonderful.

The second one is Perfect Date in Future Science Fiction Digest. That one is more upbeat, with some humour thrown in, though the subject is serious. Personally, I’ve always found dating exhausting and exasperating, which made me wonder what kind of technology could provide women with a more positive experience. Unfortunately, it seems that in my imagination, even the most perfect dates have flaws.

Short and sensual and complicated, looking at the distance between someone’s frustrations and their desires. I really like how in so short a space it takes on AI, sex work, fantasy, and safety. Really a lot to unpack here, and a really strong story!

Quick Sip Reviews

The last story is The Echo in Dark Hearts: Tales of Twisted Love published by Ghost Orchid Press. It’s a truly wonderful collection of dark stories about love gone wrong. Mine is no exception: it’s a story about domestic violence, which is a subject that never fails to make me angry and sad.

Perhaps now that the spring is here, my writing will become optimistic once more. I’m working on a steampunk novella and I’m still trying to find an agent for The Book. I could really use some luck.

Hello darkness

I have recently volunteered to be the first reader for The Crypt Magazine, an online magazine of dark fiction and poetry published by the Ghost Orchid Press. I’ve often read and critiqued my fellow writers’ work, I’ve been a beta reader and critique partner, but I’ve never been a slusher. I think it requires a completely different set of reading skills and I’m really looking forward to it.

Between working with the Ghost Orchid Press and writing my recent stories, I’ve figured out something I’d been completely unaware of: I naturally lean towards writing dark fiction. I’ve always thought of myself as primarily a fantasy writer, especially historical, sword-and-sorcery type of fantasy. But whatever I write these days, comes out very dark – and I’m quite comfortable with that. It feels like I opened a dam and black water flowed out. It might be because it’s been a year – officially – since the beginning of the pandemic and my way of coping with anxiety and stress is to dig deeper and go darker, or it might be because it’s always been lurking inside me but I just haven’t recognized it. In any case, I’m ready to embrace it.

Oh, and if you have a dark story/poem under 500 words, The Crypt will open for subs on 1st March. Check the submission call.

White whale has landed

Those outside the querying trenches often mock those inside them for comparing the process of researching on-line, writing a letter and hitting “send” to the experience of sitting in a freezing hole in the ground while shells explode above your head. However, in my humble opinion, those who’d never tried to run the minefield of MSWL, died an agonizing death in no man’s land while waiting for requests, or felt the bayonet-in-the-guts pain of the full rejection have no right to express their opinion on the subject.

However, I’m not here to moan but to celebrate an extraordinary occurrence, the white whale of story writing: four days from the first word written to the story acceptance. Call it a wild fluke or karma or divine benevolence, but it was a ray of sunshine in my trench. Started the story on Friday, sold it on Monday. Admittedly, it is a very fast market and, also, I had a hunch that the story was right for them, but it’s still a miracle. What makes it even more important, on a personal level, is that the story was my reaction to the anxiety and heartbreak of the querying process.

I suppose it’s better to pour out your pain and sell it than to keep it in.

Anyways, Immortelle is coming soon. It’s dark, violent and crawling with zombies.