Strive Toward the Light

The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Stephanie “Baker” Lenz


Photo Credit: Stephanie Lenz

When the sun came up on Wednesday, November 9, I was standing on a balcony overlooking the western end of the Seven Seas Lagoon. I’d tried to sleep the night before but my husband wanted to watch the election returns. I stirred in the wee hours, heard the phrase, “his acceptance speech,” said to myself, “I reject this,” and rolled over to get more sleep.

It didn’t work so well.

My ten-year-old son woke first and he was crushed to learn that his candidate hadn’t won. He feared going back to school, partly because he’d been a vocal supporter of Hillary Clinton and partly because the new president-elect had mocked a disabled reporter and he thought his classmates would feel freer to mock his autism.

My daughter woke early for her, all ready to celebrate with a day at Walt Disney World. She thought I was playing a poor practical joke. We had to turn on CBS This Morning; she wouldn’t believe it until Norah O’Donnell confirmed it for her.

Days before, we’d decided that on one of the two days we’d be spending at Disney Studios (one of the four theme parks of the Walt Disney World Resort), we’d all wear our Star Wars gear. As we dressed, we decided it would be that day. My husband and I had matching T-shirts: Leia and Han silhouettes overlaid with “I love you” and “I know,” respectively. I did my hair in halfhearted Leia buns, did my daughter’s unruly hair in a three-looped Rey style (which became Leia buns by the end of the day).

I saw Star Wars when I was 5, in the summer of 1977. I’d read the comic books and I had a handful of the toys already (Leia, Luke, Darth Vader, and Obi-Wan Kenobi) but I was still spellbound. I fell in love with Han Solo and decided I wanted to be Princess Leia. Last December, I took my kids to see The Force Awakens and watched my daughter be inspired by Rey in the same way.

The first thing we encountered after orienting ourselves in the park was the hourly March of the First Order, where Captain Phasma marches her troops from the park entrance to a stage. Phasma demands allegiance from the gathered tourists—some of whom cheered and some of whom raised lightsabers in defiance—then marches back, all set to the foreboding Imperial March.

Well, I said to myself, at least we got to see a woman in charge.

After that, we decided to do a character meet-and-greet and get it out of the way before the park got too crowded. Choosing Dark Side before Light Side, we met Kylo Ren, an impressive character who used the movie character’s voice in a set of available phrases and interactions. But by that point, I was not feeling it when it came to Dark Side characters. The PhotoPass photographer snapped me digging in my heels, hands on hips, telling Ben Solo to call his mother (Leia) because she worries. It’s my new Twitter avatar.

Our Light Side character was Chewbacca. I knew we’d be seeing him because we’d run into some friends in the Dark Side line who’d already visited the Light Side. My friend recommended a Wookiee hug—she was headed back for a second one—and I took her advice when we met Chewie.

We browsed the movie props, met a Jawa, shopped in the gift shop and basically just soaked in the energy of being surrounded by people with a common, geeky interest. Before lunch, we went to a short compilation film about the Jedi Path, complete with the warnings about the temptations of the Dark Side of the Force: “Fear is the path to the Dark Side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

The last Star Wars themed thing we did at the parks that day was to ride Star Tours, a 3D, motion-simulated flight in a vehicle that creates realistic sensations of movement through space. It’s different set of destinations every time you ride it but the theme is the same: one of your fellow riders is a rebel spy (“I’m The Rebel Spy” T-shirts are in the gift shop) and Darth Vader is trying to use the Dark Side of The Force to capture and punish all riders on the shuttle. Of course, the Light Side prevails and you’re delivered safely to a rebellion or resistance destination. The moral of the story, as you often find in the Star Wars universe, is that the Light shines upon those who resist the Dark.

I don’t know if my propensity toward rebellion came before or after the character of Princess Leia entered my life. I didn’t have much to rebel about before first grade except meatloaf (again) or wanting to pick my own clothes for school.

My kids aren’t particularly rebellious, even though I encourage them to be. What they both do have is a quiet courage that gets them through everything from a normal school day to a week-long vacation full of overwhelming sights and smells that could trigger a meltdown at any moment.

In the days following the election, inspired by our day at Disney Studios, I leaned heavily on my hero Leia both as inspiration for myself and for my kids. Leia never sat back and let things happen to her or around her unless there was no other option. Leia was always assessing her surroundings, noting whose talents could be utilized or what escape routes were available, creating plans with limited resources, and recruiting new rebels to her cause. Leia acted and had no time for words without action behind them. She’s a war-weary general now but she came into our consciousness as a clever politician.

Pop culture doesn’t look kindly on female characters who are bold, take charge, and have little time for romance. Sure, there are occasional heroines we can look to as examples (see comic books and sci-fi especially) but very few female characters have these traits inherent to their character in and out of difficult situations and not just when it’s called for. Women in fiction often must “pay” for being outspoken or for making a difficult choice (even Leia, objectified after breaking Han out of the Carbonite).  Unfortunately, this sentiment carries over into real life too. You might find an article praising an actress who juggles her career and family life but you’ll find many more articles questioning whether everyday women can “have it all” or asking who suffers when women balance work and family, professional and personal goals. Single women are shamed for being single. Single mothers are shamed for having children outside of marriage. Childfree women are shamed for not wanting or not being able to have children. Working mothers are shamed for working. Mothers who work full time caring for their families are shamed for not working outside the home.

It seems America will be led by a man who said that working women getting pregnant is an “inconvenience” for business (part of his long history of objectification). He encourages people to hate and revels in his own hate. He demands allegiance and punishes those who don’t supplicate. He promises military might in exchange for diminished freedom. He plays upon fear to gain popularity. Forbes and Daily Kos compared him to a Sith Lord; the Forbes article appeared nearly a year before the election.

My kids continued to ask why so many people—not a majority but more than expected—would vote for someone like the man he continues to portray himself to be. The best reply I could come up with is that fear affects choices, that if I had to guess, I’d say that some people voted out of fear whether they recognized it as fear or not. As we know, fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering. Fear is the path to the Dark Side.

For as much darkness as there can be—either for one person, a nation, a planet, or a galaxy—there will be light. It’s tempting to stay in darkness or to let fear control or suppress action. But what would Princess Leia do? Act. Rebel. Lead. Speak truth to power. Retain compassion. Be resolute. Control what you can, even in the face of fear. Strive toward the Light.

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Editor’s Note: This essay was composed before the passing of writer and actor Carrie Fisher and is dedicated to her memory.

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Email: baker[at]toasted-cheese.com

On Simultaneous Submissions

The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Stephanie “Baker” Lenz


Photo Credit: Jameziecakes/Flickr (CC-by)

Photo Credit: Jameziecakes/Flickr (CC-by)

What follows is part of a response I wrote to an author who sent a note to TC after my latest Absolute Blank article about submissions:

I wrote as “I” not “us” so these checkpoints apply to my criteria for submissions.

Simultaneous submission means just what it says “simultaneous.” Many journals do not accept simultaneous submissions and TC is one of them. A simultaneous submission is one sent to several journals at once, the metaphorical equivalent of “casting a wide net.” The reason we don’t accept simultaneous submissions is that, too often, we shortlist or accept a story that has already been accepted elsewhere, sometimes published elsewhere.

This is clarified in our submission guidelines. We’ve embedded a link to the announcement of when we decided not to accept simultaneous submissions in our guidelines for those who are confused about what a simsub is.

We shortlist every month, as you know, and we notify authors of shortlisted submissions of acceptance or rejection on a quarterly basis, usually within 90 days of even the oldest submission for a particular issue. If a journal doesn’t communicate with you about the status of your submission in a timely way, I think it’s wise to consider it rejected. We’ve heard from authors who thought a piece had been rejected, then submitted to us, then had the piece accepted. That’s no fault of the author. That’s a shortcoming of the editor(s) of that journal. I don’t consider that a simsub.

Simsubs were a huge problem when we decided to be firm about not accepting them. The simsubs dropped off, then started up again. Theryn began to include in our shortlist notifications a note asking the authors to reply and confirm that the submission is not under consideration elsewhere. Some authors don’t reply to this (we note this lack of response when we do final read; personally, it factors into my consideration). Some authors reply that it is but they’ll withdraw it, either from TC or from the other journal(s). Most reply, quickly, that it is not.

In my experience, the authors we shortlist are excellent at following the submission guidelines. The ones whose work we accept have followed the guidelines to the letter. We don’t shortlist or accept them based on their ability to follow directions. It just so happens that the people who pay attention to a journal’s guidelines and respect and follow them are the ones who provide work we want to publish.

We’ve had another uptick in simsubs lately and the disappointment of “this was already accepted” combined with the frustration of seeing multiple journals as recipients of the same generic email got me thinking: what if people don’t know what a “simultaneous submission” is? So I added a quick & dirty definition to our submission guidelines, along with that beautiful explanatory essay crafted by Theryn more than 10 years ago. A search for “simultaneous submission” turns up the definition in big letters in a box from Writer’s Relief.

Some authors include “this is a simultaneous submission” in their cover letter. If I happen to catch that before I read, it saves me some time. That said, I appreciate the honesty. I would rather an author be upfront with the original submission rather than reply to a shortlist notification with “yes, I have it out to ten other journals.” I keep thinking of George Costanza’s “Was that wrong? Should I not have done that?” feigned ignorance speech.

Simultaneous submissions are such a black-and-white matter and so important to editors and literary agents that when we fill out forms about our journals or their guidelines, there is always a separate question asking “Do you accept simultaneous submissions?” Journals with a very long response time or high submission volume tend to accept simsubs. Journals with a quick turn-around or moderate- to low-submission volume tend not to accept simsubs.

I have absolutely no problem with an author sending a note asking to clarify our submission guidelines. I do have a problem when authors make no attempt to familiarize themselves with the terms editors and publishers use or when they believe that submission guidelines are for other authors, not them.

That’s why simsubs are in the #1 spot on my list of how to make sure your piece doesn’t make the cut. It means you either didn’t read our guidelines, disregarded them, or didn’t understand them. Our guidelines are standard. They have been our guidelines, with a few tweaks, for the 15 years of Toasted Cheese‘s existence.

pencilEmail: baker[at]toasted-cheese.com

To Discover a Mockingbird

The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Stephanie “Baker” Lenz


Photo Credit: Chris Gauthier/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: Chris Gauthier/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

I first heard of To Kill A Mockingbird when my ambitious eighth grade language arts teacher (and basketball coach) Mr. Harper assigned it. I was bored by the opening and never caught up but moved away before our first test or paper or whatever he intended to use to grade us.

In my junior year, we had to read a novel of our own choosing off a provided list of dead, white, American male authors. Thinking of how much I’d heard about Mockingbird in the last three years, I asked Mr. Garrett if I could choose it. He looked skeptical and asked if I’d read it before. I explained the situation and he decreed that Mockingbird was an acceptable choice. I read it within a week by skipping the dry “history of Maycomb County” that stopped me before. I did, however, enjoy the use of the name “John Taylor” because he was (and still is) the bassist for Duran Duran.

I own two copies of Mockingbird. I gave away my first copy (given to me by Mr. Harper with “John Taylor” underlined with a heart in the margin when it appeared) but I have the one I bought in college and a hardback that my husband gave me as a gift. I’m a fan but it’s not a book I reread obsessively. I recommend it but I don’t gush over it. I always respected that Lee said that she’d said all she had to say with a single work and that she had no intention of writing another novel. I understood her aversion to publicity and scrutiny. Writing is reviewed and criticized, particularly writing that becomes an essential part of the canon of American literature. Writers are also criticized for writing too much or too little, on the “wrong” topic, from an experience that isn’t their own, even for using a pen name (like Nelle Harper Lee did).

So when word came in February of 2015 that a “sequel” to Mockingbird would be published in the summer, I was as skeptical as my eleventh grade teacher had been. Lee was famous for being a literary one-hit wonder and for being unapologetic about her choice. Where was a sequel coming from if she already made her singular artistic statement? What would compel a nearly 90-year-old author of one 50-year-old book to publish again?

Short version: she didn’t. According to the New York Times and other sources, this was an effort primarily by her lawyer, her agent, and Harper Publishing to make a buck.

Initial reviews of Go Set A Watchman declared that Atticus Finch had been made into a racist, that Jem Finch was dead, and that Jean Louise (formerly Scout) was returning home after an unhappy relationship up north. When I read that, I thought how similar it sounded to work I’d done in that I experimented with altering locations, shifting character ages, and changing motivations. It became clear to me that what Tonja Carter “discovered” was no sequel but what we writers call a “discovery draft.” You write and you figure things out as you go. Sometimes you keep those early drafts, as Lee did, but if you’re exploring, your finished work will be very different from those early discovery drafts.

I couldn’t help but feel for Lee. Who wants first/early drafts out there for the world to see (unless you’re asking for feedback or offering it as educational material)? I also felt for people who pre-purchased what they were led to believe was a new work by a favorite author. What they got was a glimpse into how much work writing is. They saw why her editor sent back notes to Lee when she submitted Watchman for publication in 1957. It was the right suggestion to have Lee explore Jean Louise’s childhood, particularly her relationship with her father and the setting in which she grew up as “Scout.” When Lee followed this advice, we got the nearly flawless Mockingbird: the work Lee said spoke for her completely.

Reviewers came to recognize this. Bookstores began offering refunds. But the widespread realization that the book-loving public was duped didn’t stop people from changing their sons’ names from Atticus to something else as they believed that Atticus became a racist. Atticus Finch didn’t become a racist. He began as one and that wasn’t the Atticus Finch that Lee wanted the world to know. The man who sits in front of the jail reading while protecting his client from a lynch mob, who defended an innocent man even though he knew they would lose the case, who taught his children about fairness, justice, and compassion… that’s Atticus Finch. And his place as one of the greatest characters in literature remains unchanged.

When JD Salinger died in 2010, reports circulated that Salinger had continued to write while eschewing publication and publicity. Rumors that some of that work would be made available to the public—either as books or as donations of these manuscripts to libraries—remain rumors; speculation had been that we’d see what Salinger had been writing “between 2015 and 2020.” My guess is that, particularly given what we’ve seen happen with Mockingbird / Watchman, the Salinger trust will be selective about what happens with any of his work. Any books will be definite sequels or prequels, no “discovery drafts.” I honestly doubt anyone will be changing their children’s names from “Franny” “Zooey” or “Holden.” I certainly won’t.

There has been no direct statement from Harper Lee herself about Watchman nor should there be. She earned her right to be left alone and allow her work—her single work—to continue speaking for her.

pencilEmail: baker[at]toasted-cheese.com

What this editor has to say about articles for writers will SHOCK you!

The Snark Zone: Letters From the Editors
Stephanie “Baker” Lenz


Photo Credit: Michael Coghlan/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Photo Credit: Michael Coghlan/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

  • “Every writer MUST do this!”
  • “Nine Rules For Your Novel”
  • “Thirteen Things You Must Write In Your Travel Journal”
  • “The Proper Way To Hold a Pencil”
  • “What You Need For Your Writing Space”
  • “Don’t Write Another Word Until You Visit These Sites”
  • “Never Do This On Your Social Media Accounts If You’re a Writer”
  • “Twenty Must-Read Classic Children’s Books”

Those are a few of the articles I found while browsing social media.

As a former journalist, I understand why these are the titles for these articles. They catch your eye. They command you to take a look and/or threaten that a terrible fate will befall you if you ignore them. The problem is that articles like these are so prolific, we assume that the articles that don’t make demands are, in fact, making demands—just like all the others.

I wrote our most recent Absolute Blank article, which gives writers ideas on how to use Pinterest and other platforms to organize your story electronically. The accompanying A Pen In Each Hand exercises encourage writers to do this. In the comments on the exercises, a writer named Joe said that he doesn’t use social media. I replied that the article is about using social media platforms as tools. Joe may not have seen the article first; he later commented “you convinced me” on it and said that he’d try some of the ideas. I truly look forward to hearing whether he found the suggestions useful (and whether he uses the social aspect of the suggested social media sites).

That’s what I like about writing articles and exercises for TC, as well as presenting older exercises in our Podcast In Each Hand: we have never said that you must do anything. Okay, we’ve said that you must write and you must read but that’s not the same as “you must write first thing in the morning” or “you must read a new-to-you book every month.”

It’s all well and good to provide a bullet point list of things a writer must do each day. It’s another thing when the writer reading it is working two jobs, cooking dinner for his family, helping with homework, and throwing in a load of laundry all while working out a scene in his head so he can jot it down his next day off. Adding an anxiety-inducing “must” list to his chores isn’t going to help him achieve his writing goals.

I get that clickbait headlines and numbered “must/never” lists are a way to be heard over the clamor (and get some money from it, if you have advertisers). Our titles aren’t clickbait. We have no advertisers to impress with a hit count. From our inception, we’ve been dedicated to being a site by writers for writers and supporting each other, our work, and our individual processes. One writer’s “must” is another’s “maybe” and another’s “never.”

Toasted Cheese’s articles and exercises have always been about tips, tricks, ideas, suggestions, prompts, and guides, a “take what you can use and disregard the rest” approach. Some of articles are deliberately broad in order to allow the reader to be liberal about what she disregards. Our article series is titled “Absolute Blank,” which (like all things TC) comes from “The Hunting of the Snark” but it wasn’t chosen by an editor throwing a dart at a copy of the poem. For me, AB is indeed an absolute blank: something that is complete in its openness. We get you started, provide an idea, inspire, answer a question, or give you a how-to outline. One of earliest articles presented “rules” and then told you how and why to break them.

We don’t provide a strict, narrow path. We’ll give you guardrails, path lights, and lots of forks to choose from but what you do on your writing path is your choice. You’re creative. You’re driven (how many other writers are devoting a few minutes today an editorial about their craft?) You’re the one who knows—or suspects—what will work for you on your journey. You know whether you have time for extra writing in your journal or whether you have money to spend on new objects for your writing space (and whether a cat or a kid will knock it down). Who is anyone in your online travels to tell you what you have to do to succeed? Who defines writing success in the first place, other than the writer herself? Of course these articles and lists provide a lot of inspiration and most of the people writing them only want the best for other writers. We’re just advising that you go placidly amid the noise and the haste.

Of course, you can take what you like from this editorial and leave the rest.

pencilEmail: baker[at]toasted-cheese.com

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Stephanie “Baker” Lenz & Theryn “Beaver” Fleming
The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors


fleming-and-lenz

One cannot and must not try to erase the past merely because it does not fit the present. —Golda Meir

Josie walks into a city library and asks to see an issue of a magazine from 2001. The librarian finds the magazine and places it on the counter. Josie flips to page 64 and says, “I wrote this story and I don’t like it anymore.” Then she rips the pages out of the magazine and creates an origami rendition of the Sydney Opera House before she announces, “Well, I’m off to the county library to make the Villa Savoye! Wish me luck!”

Last year, Phil published a heartfelt poem about the person he thought he’d spend the rest of his life with. That was before he got dumped in favor of his partner’s coworker, Bartholomew. Phil decides to burn every copy of the poem he can find. Not just his own copies but the printed ones that people bought and the extra copies of the anthology sitting in a warehouse in Hoboken. Phil is later arrested and wouldn’t you know that the only person he knows who can give him bail money is Bartholomew.

Lola knew she wanted to write nothing but horror stories for the rest of her life and did an interview saying so in 2004. Ten years later, she’d found a passion for writing Amish romance novels. On the sixth result page of an insomnia-fueled egosurfing session, she came across her horror-espousing interview. She just knew it would damage her reputation if anyone found it. She emailed the editor to take down the interview. At 2 a.m. At 5 a.m. At 7:43 a.m. Then every hour, in between drafting scenarios of Miriam having a meet-cute with Isaac but debating whether his brother Abe might be a more suitable match, brushing aside thoughts that Abe may just be a werewolf.

It happens.

Stephanie: Every now and then TC editors get a request from an author or interview subject asking us to remove something from our archived issues. Sometimes it’s for a reason like “that piece doesn’t reflect my current writing” or “I don’t agree with what I said then.” People change, if they’re doing this whole Life gig properly. Our literary magazine does not. The issue we published ten years ago was exactly as you will find it today.

Theryn: It doesn’t happen as often as it used to, but from time to time we will get one of these requests. My answer is always the same: it’s been our policy since our inception not to remove published work from the archives. One recent request stands out, though. Usually writers request their own work be removed, but this writer wanted another writer’s work (that they were the subject of) removed. While we treated this request as we would any other, the more I think about it, the more inappropriate I find it. I should note that these pieces were originally requested by the writer and were positive about the author’s work, so it wasn’t a case of a writer being angry about a negative review or something like that.

S: There are occasions when we editors may be more flexible, like updating our information to reflect the author’s switch to his initials or when contact information must be deleted from a biography due to online harassment of the author. But those cases aren’t what’s illustrated here: changing the past as if it never happened.

T: Things we will do: correct typos, delete or change email addresses, and update author tags to reflect current bylines (here’s an example). The rest is a reflection of the time it was published and should remain intact.

S: There are a lot of reasons why we don’t like to alter our archived issues. The issue is already cached. The editorial work has value. The issue has a theme. No matter the reason, the answer has almost always been the same: we won’t change the issue but it was good to hear from you again.

T: One major reason is what’s articulated in this article: old writing on the internet has a tendency to disappear, leaving writers with no evidence they were ever published. From the beginning, we knew we didn’t want this to happen with TC. While we can’t afford to pay writers, we can give them something of value: a permanent link to their work. We’ve tried really hard when moving things around to make sure old links are forwarded to the current page so no one gets a 404 on their old work.

But it’s not just a matter of ensuring there’s a link to your page. It’s important that the entire issue/journal remain intact so anyone given a link to an older piece is able to judge where it was published accurately and doesn’t question its value because the rest of the site is full of holes and looks sketchy.

More importantly, it goes beyond live links being valuable to the writers we’ve published. It’s also about cultural value. So while an author might think, “If I take down my story no one will care,” they really don’t know. That might be someone’s favorite story; it might be the one someone teaches to their class every semester; it might have been referenced/linked to from elsewhere. There are Wikipedia articles that use TC stories and articles as sources, for example.

S: Would you remove the cheese from your toasted cheese sandwich? Of course not. The content makes it what it is. So why should editors remove the content of the literary journals?

T: Toasted Cheese isn’t your personal blog where you can do whatever you like; it’s a publication. Once work is published, it’s published.

pencilEmail: baker[at]toasted-cheese.com | beaver[at]toasted-cheese.com

You Are Not Your Work

Stephanie Lenz
The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors


Moon and Stars
Photo Credit: Dennis Stauffer

The sign of an amateur is to answer your critics. Don’t ever write a letter to a bad review because then, first of all, people didn’t even know about it the first time, maybe, and then the critic gets to answer you and put you down again. I learned a long time ago, only an amateur answers his critics. Read the bad reviews once, the good ones twice, and put them all away and never look at them again. —John Waters

Kathleen Hale is a novelist and essayist with an impressive credential list and a book published by Harper Collins. She tracked down a Goodreads reviewer who posted a negative review of her work, went to a house she believed belongs to the woman who wrote the review, called her on the phone, and chased her all over social media. Then she wrote an article about what she did for The Guardian. Hale owns up to her behavior, which plays into her brand.

“Other authors warned me not to do this,” Hale writes about the act of reading her book’s reviews at Goodreads. Goodreads specifically states that authors not “engage with people who give you negative reviews.”

I read the reviewer’s comments and they’re about the work: the quality of the writing, the language, the characters. The reviewer never attacks the author.

In a previous Snark Zone, I wrote about not responding to critiques and my opinion remains the same. I wrote that responding to critiques about a finished work is akin to standing in the bookstore arguing with your reader. I’d like to modify that: arguing with someone who critiques your work is like walking into her bedroom and yelling at her while she holds your book on her lap. A reviewer’s comments on Goodreads or Amazon are just as personal as the ones on her own blog or social media page. Every reader has the right to an opinion and to express her opinion in her own space. Everyone else has the right to disagree or agree with that opinion in his own space. No one deserves to be stalked.

No one deserves to be mocked either. Margo Howard argues in a scathing piece for The New Republic: “These people [Amazon Vine reviewers] were not reviewing my book, they were reviewing me. Or rich people. Or something. And Amazon gave them the tools, through Vine, to damage my book for the casual browser. I can see the value—maybe—for man-on-the-street reviews of cold cream and pots and pans, but books?! Especially by people who collect free stuff, feel important because they’re getting this swag, and, forgive me, do not sound in the least like well-read people to begin with.”

As a Vine reviewer myself, I find that offensive. Reviewers didn’t “damage” her book. The reviews they wrote may have affected her book’s sales but the book itself remains exactly the same. The author, however, does not. And that’s where we come back to what I wrote nearly three years ago and what I learned as a nascent writer nearly twenty-five years ago: you are not your work.

Your work can represent you. It tells the world what you have to say. It isn’t interchangeable with you as a human being. If someone writes “I do not like this story” it doesn’t necessarily mean “I do not like this author.” It could but it’s not a given. What’s more, “I do not like this author” is more likely to mean “I don’t like this author’s writing” rather than “I wouldn’t spit on this author’s gums if his mouth were on fire.”

Rejection is part of being a writer. If your work isn’t being rejected, you’re not taking enough chances. I reject submissions every day from writers whose bios make me say “We should have a cup of coffee together.” Every single writer who sends a serious submission to Toasted Cheese has my respect. Submitting for publication shows vulnerability as well as confidence. It’s a brave act to click “send” and subject your art to someone else’s opinion.

The knife cuts both ways. Authors walk a line when satisfying readers through compelling story and characters. We want to say what we want without fear of a reader showing up on our lawns demanding that we tell the story they want to have told. From Arthur Conan Doyle to Charlaine Harris, fanatical followers have threatened writers (see also Stephen King’s Misery).

There are reviewers who use sites like Goodreads to wage an attack against an author and sometimes that attack does become personal. Thankfully those reviewers are not the majority and some recourse is available to authors when the reviewer crosses the line. In some cases, bad reviews can affect a writer’s livelihood but we have to learn how to balance our reputations in the literary world against our desire to respond to a few low-star reviews.

Bad behavior by authors and readers is nothing new. Conflict between artist and reviewer isn’t unusual. It’s all well and good to point at authors and reviewers and say “This needs to stop” but it’s another thing to actually make it stop. No one wants to take away emerging platforms for authors to engage with readers. No one wants critique of published work to be incomplete or dishonest due to fear of repercussion. So where do we begin?

The adage “develop a thick skin” is good advice but it can’t happen without going through the exact process for which we’re trying to develop that thick skin. You must be rejected. Repeatedly. You must not only be knocked down, you must get up knowing that you’ll be knocked down again.

One way we can help ourselves—reader and writer alike—is to change our language. As I wrote above, Goodreads has an author guideline page that reads “Don’t engage with people who give you negative reviews.” Better wording would be “…who give your book” rather than “you.” The language intertwines the work and its creator. We should do our best to refer to our work separately from ourselves.

I think it circles back to “you are not your work.” It’s a simple sentence but a concept that’s hard to accept, understand, and implement. Writers, like all artists, are passionate people. With time and experience, we learn to temper our passion, which is harder to do when we perceive someone attacking our efforts. What took us so long to create, someone can tear down with a few words. It hurts and it often feels like it’s not fair. But we can’t control what someone else says about our work (or us). All we can do is put out the best possible work and and let our actions and personal character show who we are.

Besides, there’s always the option of turning our critics into characters—a very writerly brand of revenge.

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The Storytellers

The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Stephanie “Baker” Lenz


Storyteller - Statue by Chanel and Tiffany & Co
Photo Credit: Sarah-Rose

In mid-2010, the world got to meet a charismatic man who told a compelling story of a thwarted crime. He was described by the Washington Post‘s Jonathan Capeheart as “one of the strongest people we’ve seen for a while.”

In 2012, another compelling storyteller came to the nation’s attention with her animated tale of realization and escape set against the backdrop of Easter Sunday.

Now in the spring of 2013 the unbelievable tale of man who became a hero by being in the right place at the right time, at first reluctant and then accepting of his role as rescuer. Think Luke Skywalker. Think Harry Potter. Think Charles Ramsey, the man who painted a picture with words that was so complete and well-rendered, we could imagine every detail, from him ripping the door off his neighbor’s house to the Big Mac he held in one hand.

As I write this, the interest in Ramsey is fading but details of the true-life house of horrors are still coming out. But for a few days, he was an intrinsic part of the story. People knew his name. People bothered to learn his name, not to mock him but to hail him as a hero.

I hail Charles Ramsey not only as a hero to the women he helped to free but also for his ability to tell a story. He has the same talent as the other two people I alluded to: he can tell a vivid story in the time in a single news segment. Ramsey may not become an Internet sensation but the other two storytellers did: Sweet Brown and Antoine Dodson. People might not remember who wrote The Great Gatsby but when you say one of these storytellers’ names, you might just be quoted some of the story in return.

One of the talents we’re expected to develop as writers is brevity, preferably compelling brevity. Novelists need to perfect their “elevator pitch” and tell what a 70,000 word novel is all about in fifteen seconds. We might kvetch about it but these three people have shown us not only that it can be done but that it can be done spontaneously in front of a TV camera.

With Dodson, Brown, and Ramsey controversy arose about whether the audience was mocking or revering them. Of course they had their detractors but, for the most part, I think their fame came not because of their class or the color of their skin but because all three told interesting stories in interesting ways.

All three followed basic plot structure: set-up, climax, and resolution. All three used colorful and interesting language. Language relevant to the situation and familiar to those involved. Language that cut straight to the story instead of embellishing beyond the bounds of tight storytelling. Language that’s modern and popular, reflecting our time and each respective setting.

I remember the first time I heard each tell his or her story. With Dodson, I pictured the story he told (of a man climbing through Dodson’s sister’s bedroom window and Dodson chasing away the “bedroom intruder”). I loved not only his enthusiasm and clear-cut language but also his direct address to the audience, particularly to the Bedroom Intruder himself, something storytellers have done since the first “hearken well, dear listener” or variant thereof. Dodson capitalized on his fame with T-shirts and music and has managed to keep his name in headlines ever since he first came to our attention. He’s interesting. He manipulates the media well. He only recently renounced his alleged homosexuality on May 2 and he has an arrest record so there is still a chance he could become the Oscar Wilde of twenty-first-century America.

When I first heard Sweet Brown tell her story of escaping a fire, I was drawn closer by her delivery (she claimed to have bronchitis but in subsequent interviews, I find her voice as melodically rasping as in her initial interview). She told her story with a particular cadence, her voice almost evangelical as she gained speed to convey a sense of urgency. In twenty seconds, she became a sensation. Not because of her clothing (which she said embarrassed her, in retrospect) or her son pacing behind her but because she told a complete story—in her own way, with her own words—in twenty seconds. And she even had time for a punchline. In her Tosh.0 “web redemption,” she played a version of herself who was a fire safety awareness superhero dumping buckets of water on careless fire-starters and saying her unintended catchphrase. Stephen King probably wishes he could do the same.

And then there’s Charles Ramsey. Like Dodson, he was a hero in the story he told. Like Brown, he took charge of a dangerous situation. Like both, he became famous for the story he told as well as for the telling itself.

I first heard Ramsey tell his story the morning of May 6 while I was driving and listening to Howard Stern. By that that point in the day I had read the headlines and knew there was a “hero neighbor” but I hadn’t heard him tell his story. I found his to be the most compelling of the three stories I mention here. Not because of its subject matter—which is on a whole different level from Dodson and Brown’s stories—but because he struck me as a true narrator rather than an anecdotist. Maybe it was because of the coincidence that The Great Gatsby was soon to be released in theaters but it felt very “Nick Carraway” to me—a first person outsider-narrator telling a portion of someone else’s epic story. There’s no doubt of his importance in the tale but if/when a movie might be made, the camera could be placed on either side of the door for this scene but wouldn’t be on the outside for the bulk of the film.

Ramsey followed the first rule of writing: show, don’t tell. His story was tight, factual, and direct, yet colorful and detailed. We watched and listened and while we might be left baffled and full of questions about what happened in that house, we are very clear on what happened on the outside of the house right before those concurrent 911 calls were placed. His narrative was colorful in his telling yet he maintained a tone in keeping with the solemnity and anxiety the story itself produced. When interviewed later by Anderson Cooper, I found Ramsey even more interesting as he fleshed out more details of the story and talked, reluctantly, about himself. Like Brown, he finished his original story with a decidedly final—and memorable—line.

Dodson came in (deus ex machina) at the tail end of the story he told, one of three major characters. Without him, we would still have heard the news report about a break-in and attempted rape, maybe with Dodson’s sister Kelly telling the entire story (she could probably give her brother a run for his money, based on the original news report).

Brown’s story plays on the universality that a simple incident could have become disaster and that it happened to anyone, including us. We identify with her, project ourselves onto her, and feel her relief with the story’s safe ending. We want to buy her a cold pop (and someone did, buying her a twelve-pack of RC soon after the story broke because he was so moved by her interview).

Ramsey had to be in that place, at that time, responding as he did (mail misdelivered, on suspension from his job, just back from McDonald’s). His is a “perfect storm” chapter of a larger story but that chapter and the story as a whole must include Ramsey exactly as he is, doing just what he did or else it fails. The actor cast in his role would probably have a credit like “with Guy O’Somebody as Charles Ramsey” and a name actor in the pivotal supporting role. I’m hoping for Don Cheadle.

So as to the cultural criticism that news media or the public are contributing to some kind of stereotype of class or race with the instant and ongoing popularity of Dodson, Brown, and Ramsey, we writers know the truth: people like a good story but people love a great story well-told and, by extension, the storyteller.

The fondness I proclaim for all three of these people is genuine. I would love to have dinner with any of them, just to hear more of the stories they must have to tell. When even our “reality TV” is obviously scripted, we crave people who tell real stories with real passion, especially when they can do it in the time it would take you to travel in an elevator with them and crack open a couple cans of cold pop.

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Email: baker[at]toasted-cheese.com

All Writers Are Independent But Some Are More Independent Than Others

The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Stephanie “Baker” Lenz


Writer's Desk
Photo Credit: Allen Skyy

Diet Coke ran an ad during the Oscars that began with a writer working at his desk, taking a stretch break and sipping their product. The commercial showed the evolution of the film from that moment until the audience members gathered in their seats to watch… sipping Diet Coke. The tagline read “not all stars appear on-screen.”

All writers can identify with that guy sitting alone, working hard when it looks like nothing’s happening. Writing is solitary and sometimes unrewarding except for the satisfaction inherent in the work. Writers are weird. We know this about ourselves. We embrace it. You have to be weird to have people running wild in your head, having conversations and doing things that you wouldn’t have expected.

When we write for publication—for that audience sipping the Diet Coke—we know we’ll deal with criticism. In the olden days of the Aughts and earlier, we didn’t have the options for publication that we have in early 2012. For the most part, we kept on querying agents and submitting to journals.

As electronic publishing has grown, writers not only recognize more options for getting their work to an audience, they create their own opportunities. Yesterday’s chapbook is today’s self-published electronic book (available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and the author’s personal URL). It reminds me of the surge of one-hit-wonders in the Eighties, when all you needed for a hit record was a synthesizer and a tape recorder. If you want to create a book, all you need is to write it, format it, and offer it for sale (even if the sale price is “free”). But just like the fact that not every Eighties record was a hit not every self-published book will be Invisible Life.

However, whereas we used to sell a chapbook or zine to a potential reader who would go on her merry way, we now have a continued level of contact with our readers. Those readers aren’t silent about their opinions and the very outlets we use to get our work to an audience has become a two-way line of communication, another form of social media.

Increasingly, writers are responding to the critiques. Sometimes “thank you” suffices. Sometimes writers will go on to rebut a critique, no matter how accurate or constructive. While I believe story, character, dialogue, etc. are always open to critique and response in drafting phases, I don’t think that the equivalent of standing in a store arguing with your customer is smart. When it comes to matters of copyediting, it’s downright foolish.

As self-publishing authors call themselves “independent”—like independent musicians who circumvent record companies—there has been an undeniable increase in the number of novels, novellas, short fiction collections, memoirs, biographies, anthologies and other printed work. In our zeal to get that work into a reader’s hands, we sometimes overlook some of the basics. Those basics make the work readable. Using the excuse that we don’t need to pay attention to structure, grammar, or punctuation shows disrespect for our readers and for our hard work.

Why do we need to pull a “yeah but” on our readers? I think it’s strange to respond to critique of published work at all unless it comes from a friend (to which I usually say “thanks” unless it’s a specific question and then I might answer privately, if at all). If our manners and sense of decorum demand that we thank a reader, our manners should also respect the opinions that reader offers. Thank the reader in your acknowledgements if you must but you’re under no obligation to engage with your reader beyond what you’ve already done: offering your work. There are authors who actively engage their audience in social media; Neil Gaiman springs to mind as an author who uses Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and many other social media sites. But Neil Gaiman doesn’t engage in arguments about his reviews. Gaiman provides endless examples of ways to reach out to readers without making everything about your latest creation and its attributes or flaws.

It’s not stretch to say that independent authors have been burned by traditional publishing because every writer who has submitted for publication has been rejected. Do we have a collective chip on our shoulders over it? I say we do and that’s not a bad thing. Some of us take it as a challenge. Some of us see it as a sign to look to new, non-traditional methods of publication. This might be why we are especially stung by criticism when it comes from the readers and why we feel compelled to stand up for ourselves.

If you must defend your choices—a character’s name, an unusual plot twist, misplaced punctuation—keep in mind that doing so is akin to a book signing or a job interview. Your response to a reader that a constructive criticism is “nasty” or “uncalled-for” affects your reputation and possibly your sales. This is the same whether the response is typed by your fingers or by the friends who jump to your defense when you post to your Facebook wall that you got an unflattering critique. You did not get critiqued. Your book did. There is a difference.

When you respond to your readers in any fashion, you thin the line between your work and yourself, not only in terms of the thick skin writers develop but in terms of how your book is considered. Would the average reader bother to post even a five-star review if the author has come along after every review to make notes? Many readers like the distance between themselves and the author. It’s the characters they feel close to, not their creator. People like J.K. Rowling but they love Harry Potter.

Create a website with a “thank you” page, maybe a FAQ page as well. If these pages are rational and professional, they’ll represent your opinions well enough that you won’t be obligated to chase your reviewers and readers won’t feel individually attacked by rebuttals. If you want to discuss your work, do it there. But if you see the same critique over and over, stop defending your mistake. Correct it. With independent digital publishing, you have no excuse not to—other than pride.

Even when an author rejects one element of traditional publishing—a publisher, for example—it doesn’t mean that all aspects of traditional publishing should be eschewed. Editing services are never a bad idea. As I’ve said many times, editors don’t do what they do as a method to crush our dreams. Editors are passionate people who want the best possible product in a reader’s hands. Readers also want the best story they’ve ever read, from character to correct spelling. Is that any different from the author’s goal?

Mutual respect among writers, readers, editors, agents, and everyone involved in publishing is a goal we should reach for, not rail against.


According to the Association of American Publishers, e-books grew from 0.6% of the total trade market share in 2008 to 6.4% in 2010, the most recent figures available. Total net revenue for 2010: $878 million with 114 million e-books sold. In adult fiction, e-books are now 13.6% of the market.

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Email: baker[at]toasted-cheese.com

Count Me In

The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Stephanie “Baker” Lenz



Photo Credit: Stephanie Lenz

I belong to the 52 Weeks 25 Stories challenge and for the purposes of the group, some writing doesn’t “count.” Within the discussions, this idea of what “counts” expanded beyond the group and I discovered that some writers don’t “count” some of the things they write. At first I assumed what counts meant work that wasn’t short fiction and didn’t count for the 52/25 challenge. Turned out that one person meant flash. Another person meant drabbles (stories of around 100 words, sometimes up to 1,000, depending on who’s defining “drabble”). These fit the definition of short fiction (and, therefore, the challenge) as far as I was concerned and the discussions piqued my interest about writers who don’t “count” their work for one reason or another, whether it’s the word count, the genre, or the purpose.

I understand why some things “count” and some don’t within the confines of 52/25. If the goal is to write twenty-five short stories in a year (and submit them), then editorials, blog entries, and even novels don’t count (nor should they). But there are writers who dismiss their own work and that’s where I’m intrigued.

When it comes to “counting” my writing, where should I draw the line? If I write something for publication it counts? What if I write it and can’t get it published? Is the intention enough? Is the practice enough?

Is there a Great Whiteboard where the Muse is keeping track of my word counts and tally marking my publication credits? She’ll have to box off a corner of the whiteboard for Snark Zones and another for Absolute Blank articles. Oh, and one for blog entries. One for emails and texts. That’s all of our corners. The center is taken up by novels and the edges are full of shorts: flash across the top, short fiction across the bottom, and genre fiction down both sides, some started and never finished, some finished and never published and some published. It’s all on that mythical whiteboard, though, because I count it all.

I don’t have criteria in place that my writing has to meet in order for me to count it as writing. By writing, I’m indulging in a creative effort. It’s not about the purpose of the work, at least not for me. I don’t give weight to certain pieces of work and take it away from others. That’s fine for some people but it’s not going to work for me. If I only counted certain writings, I’d write only what counts.

I haven’t written part of a novel or any short stories for quite a while. That said, I did win NaNoWriMo by writing blog entries. I also wrote the December Absolute Blank article. In some circles, I couldn’t say I’d written anything lately because of the lack of novel, short story or poetry writing. My work doesn’t “count.”

The fiction I’m creating—writing nearly every day—isn’t traditional. I don’t intend to publish it in any way; I’ve hidden the blog from Google searches. I’m writing for myself. For practice. For fun. I’d gotten burned out blogging and I was tired of the criticism from random fly-by trolls. I had an idea of creating a “fake” blog of sorts: gleaning from my own life but writing under a false identity (a pseudonym).

Then I read about Fernando Pessoa and his use of heteronyms: imaginary characters created by a writer in order to write fiction that a reader might assume to be non-fiction due to its subject matter, presentation, voice, style, etc. A heteronymic character has his own biography and writing style. I thought it would be much more fun to create a heteronym character and then have him write a somewhat traditional blog. So not only is the blog 100-percent fiction, it has a first-person narrator who appears to be a real person.

But those couple thousand words I write just about every day don’t count.

I spent months researching the December Absolute Blank article, deciding what publishing terms to include and refining definitions from several sources. It’s not fiction so it doesn’t count. Moreover, research isn’t supposed to count toward my creative efforts, according to some of those who determine what counts.

I write up little things for my business (adult novelty home parties, thanks for asking) like letters, emails, blog entries, jokes for delivering during my shows, etc. None of that counts either because not only is it not fiction, it’s for work. Same goes for this essay.

To me, writing is writing and I count it all.

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Email: baker[at]toasted-cheese.com

#writerwin

The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Stephanie “Baker” Lenz


I snatched the opportunity to do this month’s SnarkZone not knowing what I would write about. Would it be my experience participating in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award competition? Would it be about the aftermath of #QueryFail? Would it be about the fact that my five-year-old is asking me to take dictation while she “writes stories” aloud? Or how about the fact that Castle was renewed and how many portrayals of writers do we get on TV these days, much less ones as smokin’ hot as Nathan Fillion?

After a few moments—and some research of images of Nathan Fillion—I thought, “There must be some way to tie these things together.” So while listening to my daughter tell the story of horses escaping the bloodthirsty, hippocidal skeleton that has followed them to Candyland, I came up with a solution: Success.

For some of us, success is getting 500 fresh words down in a day. It might be finally working out that metaphor in the second stanza. It might be getting a request for a full from our dream agent or hearing our latest piece read in a podcast. I know that writers have goals, even if the goal is nothing more than “write.” There are people out there who prey upon those goals but more often there are people who want to help us achieve those goals, like agents, editors and publishers.

Editors, agents and publishers want writers to succeed.

Without a product to sell, these folks are out of business. That’s why agents and editors have set up blogs and Twitter accounts and Facebook pages: to get you the information you need to succeed. #Queryfail was another attempt by agents to get us to do our jobs right—a day agents and editors devoted to using Twitter as a platform to share real life examples of “don’ts” we’ve sent them over the years.

#QueryFail was not about mocking writers. Agents who participated did approach the subject of queries from “here’s what NOT to do” but that’s why it wasn’t called #QueryWin. Was #QueryFail some kind of catharsis by way of snarkery? Sure. I have a feeling that one of the reasons for #QueryFail was for the agents to get together and say “I’m not the only one who gets queries like this, am I?” It’s silly to think the sole purpose of the experiment was the equivalent of watching sideshow geeks bite the heads off chickens.

This whole “Us Versus Them” mentality that was, likely, sparked by #QueryFail makes no sense to me. I admit, I wasn’t on board for #QueryFail. I was concerned that it would be what many writers perceived it to be after the fact: a public mockery of our hard work. I went later and read the #QueryFail tweets and found it to be not much more than a reiteration of the advice given to writers since the days before Miss Snark: write well and don’t be an idiot.

When your work doesn’t succeed, use the energy of your righteous indignation to make it succeed instead of blaming agents, editors and publishers for quashing your dreams. We get tons of really good submissions to Toasted Cheese every reading period. Unfortunately we have to reject many good submissions in favor of great submissions and even those great submissions get the axe when they’re compared against spectacular submissions. Once in a while someone whose work we rejected responds by blaming us for the rejection instead of the work or the writer’s failure to follow our submission guidelines. This is all about the writer, not the editor, and the only person who can fix this is the writer himself.

Agents aren’t thrilled by the bad queries they tweet about on #QueryFail or mention in their blogs. What thrills an agent—or an editor—is someone who’s bothered to follow some simple rules and then backs that up with excellent writing. I suspect that the “hoops” we jump through in querying are a kind of litmus test to see if we’re flexible enough to work with and can follow directions.

After a few months off, I’ve returned to querying and submitting and, apart from writing the synopsis of a 100k word novel, the hardest part of the process is clicking that “send” button. The “send” button leads to waiting. I’ve been waiting to hear the status of one submission since December (and when I wrote to the journal weeks ago, I was told that notifications were on their way). I know how it feels to offer up your hard work for judgment and for likely rejection. I’ve done stupid things in my own queries (I recently sent out a batch forgetting to mention my creative writing degree). I can’t even bring myself to follow the form so many agents say they want. In my moments of righteous indignation, I say to my writing buddies, “If an agent passes on my query because I opened it with my novel title and word count instead of the hook, he can just pucker up, buttercup.” But I crave my definition of success as much as any writer.

I’ve published stories. I’ve sold stories. I’ve worked some excellent editors (as a writer and as an editor). I made the Top 100 in ABNA and received a (favorable) Publishers Weekly review as my prize, which was the goal I’d set for my manuscript; I wanted that review so bad, I could smell the ink (or pixels, as the case may be). I set new goals all the time (today’s: finish Snark Zone) and I keep reading blogs by agents, editors, publishers and writers. I might not agree with all the advice out there or with the way it’s presented but I respect its purpose: to help me succeed.
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E-mail: baker[at]toasted-cheese.com