#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.
pencil

E-mail: baker[at]toasted-cheese.com

An Observer in My Own Life

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


June 20 was my half-birthday. I took my kids to the park, bought some yarn, and nearly died.

A reaction to an 800 milligram tablet of ibuprofen sent me to the hospital via ambulance. I’d taken ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, etc.) for years. I’d taken pills out of the same bottle for two or three weeks following a bout of shingles. An aggravated rotator cuff injury had me reaching for the medicine that day. I was lucky that my doctor husband was home when the anaphylactic reaction happened since within minutes I couldn’t communicate, stand, or open my eyes. He knew what was happening and called 911.

My brain had to tell my body what to do. Not in an absent “lungs inhale” way but in a “breathe, breathe, don’t rest, breathe” kind of way. It started to scold me and remind me of things I needed to do: important things like raising my children and small ones like washing my hair. Somewhere in there was “publish those books,” less important than my kids but on that end of the spectrum.

On my way to the hospital, my brain kept me as alert as possible, “talking” to me about little nonsense things. One of them was “you can use this in a story.” Then I began thinking about how I might be able to work the situation into the Nano from last year.

Once I exhausted that possibility, my brain came up with, “So how are you going to blog this?” As the ambulance rumbled along, I started mentally outlining the episode for a blog entry. I decided on a starting point for the story and filed away the details I wanted to include. The medicine kicked in and all the work I did had kept me sufficiently stimulated. I opened my eyes to see the stainless steel interior of the ambulance. I began taking notes—again, for possible use in a story.

When it was almost time for me to leave the emergency room a few hours later, a patient was given the bed on the other side of the curtain to my left. The nurse asked him what happened to bring him in. “I got drunk and fell down.” The nurse said, “Does that happen a lot?” The patient replied, “Oh I get drunk a lot. I fall down a lot too. I’m a drunk.” Meanwhile, I was thinking about the dialogue exchange and the story that could be built around it.

Even when I was as close to becoming one with The Force as I’ve ever been (knock wood), I was writing. More accurately, I was functioning as a writer. There’s something in the way we’re wired that makes us natural observers, even in our own lives. What others might see as detachment or shyness is the writer gathering information: story ideas, dialogue, setting details and so forth.

When I made some T-shirts for Toasted Cheese to sell at Café Press, I paraphrased Garrison Keillor’s famous quote “Nothing bad ever happens to a writer. It’s all material.” I bought one of those shirts a few years ago and I’m wearing it in my official photo on our masthead (even though you can’t see the sentiment). When Stephen King was hit by a car in 1999, he used his recuperative time to finish On Writing. He also used the accident and its aftermath as material in On Writing and as inspiration for Lisey’s Story and his “Dark Tower” series. I don’t know yet how I’ll use my experience in fiction but I do know that I will.

As I wrote this editorial, I realized that I had gone into “reporter mode,” as I call it. Having been a reporter, I sometimes find it easier to create distance between myself and the story, even if it’s a story with which I’m directly involved. When I ran it past a fellow editor for her thoughts, she also pinpointed the distance I’d inserted into this piece. For weeks, I worked on trying to make the story more personal and immediate and it just wasn’t happening. I was about to walk away from it and say, “This is the final draft” when it occurred to me that the distance is evident because it’s so close to me. I feel like I need to have that cushion to make the experience bearable. I know it will surface in a place where I can manipulate it and examine it as an outsider to the event—in fiction.

pencil

E-mail: baker[at]toasted-cheese.com

Got to Get You into My Life

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


It’s very easy advice: “write every day.” For me, I declare, “I’m going to write tomorrow.” Then the cat’s sick. Then the kids use the fridge contents as artistic media. Then I realize someone’s out of clean underwear for the next day. All of those little “right now” tasks mean that writing time is set aside until evening when I’m too tired to do much beyond open an old story and read it, looking for occurrences of “was.”

When I took my only undergraduate poetry writing course, the instructor told us he was glad to know that most of us were fiction writers (or non-writers). He said that knowing how to write poetry is more essential to prose writing than learning how to write prose. At the time, I didn’t get it but it didn’t take long before I could see how it worked. Word economy, word choice, juxtaposition, metaphor all stood at the core of our writing. In learning how to write poetry, I learned how to write more effective prose.

In the years since taking the class, I haven’t written much poetry but I’ve written a heap of fiction using the techniques I took from that class. One bit of wisdom that the instructor imparted to us near the end of the term was this: If you never write another poem, that’s fine. But keep reading poetry.

To follow that advice, I kept my favorite poetry books (The Moon Is Always Female, Leaves of Grass) and bought collections by new-to-me poets (Mark Strand, Billy Collins). There were few things better on a rainy day than to sit down with a warm drink, some good music and a book of poetry. I liked the collections because I could flip through and read what I liked or I could read front to back, noticing how the poet arranged the collection to enhance each poem simply by what came before and after it.

These days, I don’t have the luxury of sitting down with a nice chai, putting a little Sting on the iPod and cracking open one of those anthologies. However, I have time to catch a poem or two or three just by glancing through my e-mail. It can be inspiring to your creativity if you catch the right poem when you’re in the right mood. It’s also very easy to read poetry every day. Here are a few ways to get poetry into your life:

Super-easy:

Tiny Words: Have a haiku delivered every day. Poetry so short you rarely have to open the e-mail to read the entire thing.

Easy:

The Writer’s Almanac is doubly wonderful because you can read it via your inbox or listen to the almanac on your public radio station or online. You can subscribe to the free podcast or put it in a feed reader and never miss an episode. The audio segments run about five minutes; you can also download the podcasts to your iPod or other mp3 player.

Pretty easy:

Poetry Daily has a feed you can put in your feed reader. When you’re catching up on I Can Has Cheezburger, you can search for “poetry daily” and find the feed.

About’s poetry section offers a newsletter. They have some poetry available to read on the site; much of it is older work in the public domain.

Requires a little work or time:

The League of Canadian Poets provides some links to online poetry by American, Canadian and “international” poets, audio poetry and visual poetry.

Look up poems by theme, author or title: The Academy of American Poets provides a good database of poetry for all occasions. They also have audio files, biographies and essays. This is a good site to bookmark either for reference or for when you have time to browse.

The Poetry Society of America provides extensive resources for writers. Also at their site, you can read the journal Crossroads, which includes issues from 1997-2004.

For modern British and Irish poetry, check out the British Library section of modern British and Irish poets. It includes a sound archive and a listing of sponsored events, information on focused collections and links to Brit-centric poetry sites.

For info on Aussie and Kiwi poets, try The Poetry Resource, Australian Bush Poetry, Verse & Music and Australian Poetry Resources Internet Library. Perry Middlemiss’s blog Matilda is another fun resource for all literature Australian.

For non-English language poetry, a great place to start is at the Poetry Translation Centre. You have the option of reading the poems in their original languages or in English. Use your favorite search engine to find other translated poetry sites or journals.

A selection of poetry-only online literary journals:

Many literary journals publish poetry as well as prose. I recommend starting with our list of literary journals, after you comb our archives for some excellent poetry.
pencil

E-mail: baker[at]toasted-cheese.com

Meanwhile, Behind the Scenes…

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


Some journals have editors specific to each section, like a fiction editor or a poetry editor. Although we’ve kicked that idea around, when it comes down to it, Toasted Cheese‘s editorial board works best as a collective. Think of us as a virtual queen-free Borg cube floating through space, accepting submissions on a rolling basis and sponsoring four contests a year, only with more dancing bananas.

For us, working as a collective makes the editorial process easier. We recently compared notes and found that even though we work individually when making our editorial decisions, when we pool those decisions, we pretty much arrive at them the same way.

Each month, two of our editors do a preliminary sort and submissions are labeled “consider” “no” or “disqualified.” At this stage we notify everyone of the submission’s status; the authors receive an e-mail and the other editors remove all but the “consider” submissions from their reading lists. This saves time and gives the writers updates on the status of their submissions.

After a submission period closes, we read all of the “consider” submissions and then give each piece either a grade or a simple “yes,” “no” or “maybe.” Submissions labeled “maybe” or given a borderline grade are reread until they fit into “yes” or “no.”

How do you get on the “yes” list? We’re pretty simple people to please and I think most editors would agree with this little list:

  1. Follow the guidelines. For example, we ask that “submission: [category]” is the title of your e-mail. We do that so that our spam filters, which put many legitimate e-mails into the junk folder, recognize the e-mail as a submission. For example, Gmail’s “star” system might add a star to any e-mail with “submission” in the title. When going through hundred of daily spam messages, that little gold star will rescue a submission from junk mail purgatory.
  2. Write well. Many of us don’t even read cover letters. We skip straight to the good part: the submission itself. Your credits are nice to add to your biography when we print your story but we like to see “this is my first submission” just as much as a list of impressive journals.
  3. Proofread. Make sure the technical errors are eliminated (grammar, spelling, homophones, apostrophe usage, etc.). Multi-character glyphs are enough to make some editors stop reading.

Okay, you’ve done those three things. Now, how do you get the editor to keep reading? Here’s how the Toasted Cheese editorial collective defines quality:

  • Tight writing, without wasted words
  • Stories and poetry that cause genuine emotional reactions
  • Pieces that stay with us long after we’ve read them
  • Vibrant settings and characters
  • Interesting language
  • Evocative mood
  • Believability and, when applicable, realism
  • Fresh narrative voice
  • Good flow of ideas and words

What are good ways to turn the editors off? Use gratuitous sex, gratuitous violence, dead pets or dead children to shortcut to an emotion. Send us porn (some of us don’t mind reading erotica but we can’t publish it so it’s wasted time on all sides). Rhyme your poetry. Rebut your rejection (and submit again). Instead of bringing your story to a natural ending, cut it off when you near the word count. For contests, take an old or pre-written story and force the theme into it. Better yet, don’t use the theme throughout and then toss it in as a line of dialogue or the unexpected twist. Finally, throw in a character who doesn’t know he’s dead or, better yet, is a vampire!

What are our favorite things to read? It may be shocking but really bad submissions are high on the list. We don’t mean the stories by new writers who just haven’t learned the basics but stories and poems that seem to have some effort put into making them truly awful (or x-rated—always crowd-pleasers, those). When it comes down to it, however, our favorite things to read are piece that make us say “wow” or “yes” on first read. Flash, when it works, seems to have the greatest appeal for the editors, outside of the contests they run. We also like creative non-fiction when the “creative” element is showcased.

When it comes to our contests, things are the same but different. The grading and sorting system is similar but we all tend to be more lenient or forgiving with contest entries. Judges of our “Three Cheers and a Tiger” contests, in which the authors have 48 hours to write a story within a set word count and using a theme, tend to give writers a pass on some things because of the time constraint. After all, it’s part of the challenge. Contest entrants still need to follow those three steps and meet our definition of “quality writing.”

Each editor, whether reading a contest entry or a regular submission, is rooting for you, not against you. We want to publish your best work.

Being a collective, we don’t always agree on what should go in the e-zine. Sometimes a submission is “on the bubble,” as we say. If an editor really wants Toasted Cheese to publish a submission that’s in danger of being rejected, that editor can use an “editor’s pick” or “EP.” We invented the EP to rescue pieces that had at least one editor’s seal of approval. Because the EPs are based on personal taste and are more selective, they can show off work that’s a little less mainstream than what one might find in the average literary journal.

One thing we definitely agree on is that we don’t want Toasted Cheese to be “average.”

pencil

E-mail: baker[at]toasted-cheese.com

Nineteen Days

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


In January, I decided to pick up the completed manuscript of my first novel and clean it up to query again. I cut thousands of words and wrote thousands of words. I changed the ending, eliminated characters and altered some of the language in the prose. I bundled up my changes and sent the manuscript off to my writer friends for critique (and praise, of course).

I knew what would happen if I began editing it right away: I would e-mail them every day with changes and annoy them to the point where they’d never finish reading it. Since I needed the feedback on the changes but I was in a writing kind of mood, I decided to pick up a manuscript I’d begun in 2002. I’d set it and all of my creative writing aside when my daughter was born in 2003. I picked it up again and did some work in 2004 and 2005, only to get stuck and set it aside yet again while I was pregnant with my son. In March 2005, I did a little more work on it, found I was still stuck and set it aside.

During the down time, I thought about the story and the characters. I knew the general story I wanted to tell and I had some plot points and an ending in mind. When I opened the file on January 18, I had 64 pages and about 37,000 words written. I saw that sticking point and I made a decision: end the scene and write something else. So I did and 1,800 words later, I closed the manuscript, knowing where I was headed the next time I sat down to write. The next day I wrote 3,939 words. Then 3,147, 4,953, 3,825, all on subsequent days.

On January 22, I crossed the 60,000-word mark: officially a novel. I wrote 4,676 and made it to the point of my next major plot point. Years before, I’d written part of the scene and a scene that followed that plot point. That word count was 4,100. Then 1,465, 2,190, 3,701, 3,480 and 2,850 on a day where I made extra time to play with my kids and make a nice meal for the family. I suppose that getting so much work done increased my confidence and gave me extra mental and physical energy. That was ten days after I began.

On January 29, I reached 80,000 words. I had written 36,000 fresh words in ten days and I had no idea how I managed it. I blogged through all of it and did some updates in my regular blog as well, which means I wrote even more words than that.

On Groundhog Day, I broke 90,000 words. I wrote over 6,000 words on February 4 and the next day I worked about two hours, produced 2,600 words and finished the manuscript. In three weeks, I wrote 118 pages, 63,000 words. Suddenly NaNoWriMo didn’t seem so daunting.

I shipped the new manuscript off to writer friends (who now had two manuscripts of mine to cope with) and I began rereading and hand-editing the first book. Immediately after, I did the same with the second.

The whole time I wrote those 63,000 words, I wondered how I was doing it. What’s the secret? What can I tell people so they can do the same?

First, I allowed distractions. I wrote while I cared for my two small children at the same time. I could play with them outside, join them for a game, read books, etc. and still have lots of time to write. I think the frequent breaks kept me from getting bogged down.

I wrote offline. It’s too tempting for me just to “look something up quick” but get distracted at Wikipedia, Amazon or even Toasted Cheese. I made notations and look things up later.

I knew when to stop for the day. It didn’t matter if I wrote 1,000 words or 6,000. When I got tired or just wasn’t inspired, I didn’t write any more.

“When you stop, have an idea of what to write next.” This is some of the best advice I ever got from a writing professor and it’s why I was stuck for so long: I didn’t know what the next little bit would be. Once I solved the problem by ending the scene and beginning a new one, I followed this advice for the duration of the project and it made it easier for me at the next writing session.

I took days off. I got a bout of good weather, invitations from friends, took time off to be with my family and declared “no writing” days.

I didn’t set a specific goal. I didn’t say “I must write for at least two hours” or “I have to reach 1,500 words today.” My only goal on days when I wanted to write was “write.”

I wrote portably. I used a laptop for most of this story but I began it in a furry leopard print blank journal while waiting in a parking lot for my husband. I wrote in our playroom, our kitchen and in my son’s bedroom. I also edited hard copies, which were even more portable. I finished both edits in a matter of days. Flexibility was the key.

I rewarded myself. If I had great word count one day, I’d quit early the next and read a new book, watched a movie or took my kids out to play. I took breaks to do other creative things, like knitting, blogging or taking photographs.

I came out of this with a lot more than a novel. When I felt like writing, I discovered that I could find the time and the means. I showed myself that it’s possible to complete a NaNoWriMo-style project. I accomplished, even exceeded my writing goals. That translated into confidence, energy and the desire to accomplish other goals as well.

There’s no feeling in the world like completing a novel, but completing a second novel comes mighty close. I also love editing so having two manuscripts to edit was sheer heaven. I’m not as much a fan of querying, researching agents, all the business that comes with sitting on a complete manuscript. At least I didn’t think I was. Last week I found some free time to research agents and found many more resources online than I’d had when I went through the same process in 2001–2002. Dare I say that I’m excited to start querying again?

I guess when it comes down to it, I love writing. Pure and simple. Not just the joy of watching something new unfold but of sharing it with people, fine-tuning and honing it, putting it out there for rejection or acceptance and all of the business that goes with it. The creation is a small part of the whole for me and finding that I have the time to create is an invaluable gift from my long-absent Muse.

pencil

E-mail: baker[at]toasted-cheese.com

Tell Me A Story

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


I began April 7 by singing “Jive Talking” as an audio post for my blog readers. A reward/punishment for them helping me to exceed two Walk America goals in as many days. That afternoon my daughter decided to check her own diaper, which resulted in a midday bath. My infant son woke up during the bath to find me not with him and he had a hard time settling back into sleep. I finally got a toasted cheese sandwich at 4:30, when both kids were asleep. My husband called at 6:30 to say he was on his way home. I’d checked e-mails, blog and news feeds, eaten… what else to do? Maybe I should see what’s in my spam folder. I haven’t looked in there for weeks.

Delete. Delete. Delete. Hrm. A spam with my real name in the title. I usually sign up at sites and such using my online identity, occasionally just a first initial (sometimes an S, sometimes an E) but rarely my real name. As I click it to open, it registers that adoption.com is also in the title of the e-mail.

Its first line is: “I think I might be your birthmother.”

This doesn’t happen, I say to myself. You don’t just put up a profile and six years later get an e-mail from someone who says, “I think I might be your birthmother.” I’ve put up at least three profiles in my life, posted on message boards, signed up with the national adoption registry. Then one quiet evening a spam e-mail reads: “I think I might be your birthmother.”

I went to the adoption.com forums to see what info I had posted and if she had a profile. Adoption.com’s search feature was down except for adoptee info. Eventually I got around that and found her profile. It had my name on it, with a different middle name and the 12/21 birthdate. It also listed a birthfather’s name, age, and military service. After that, I went Google-crazy, her name, his name, everything.

I e-mailed her a reply and I sent her my Flickr URL so she could see photos of me. I realized afterward that the reply-to address was not one she’d listed in the body of the e-mail. I forwarded a copy of what I’d sent to those two addresses; the AOL one bounced back as “no such mailbox.” The other e-mail address was obviously a work e-mail. Since this was late on Friday, I didn’t hold out much hope that she’d see it quickly.

I barely slept Friday night.

There was no response on Saturday so I tried the AOL address again around 3:30. Amazing how after 34 years, hours made such a difference.

I spent that first anxious weekend turning the names over in my head. One is Welsh, the other Scottish or Irish (with an excellent tartan). It’s a common thing among adoptees, to look in the mirror or at photos of yourself and wonder about your ethnic background. After so many years, it’s more fun than frustrating to wonder where you come from. You can invent your own background. I made it a point to be Scottish, French, and Greek just because I like the idea of belonging to those groups.

Looking at myself since that weekend, attaching a new name to my face has been bizarre. To say “I’m a ___” or “I’m a ___-___” has affected how I see myself. It’s like I had my choices taken away. I wondered if it would have been better never knowing and continuing with the mythology I built about myself or if knowing the truth is the best possible outcome. In the weeks since, I can confirm that knowing is better.

I finally heard from her on Monday morning, first thing in the morning her time. We spent Monday writing brisk e-mails, exchanging the basic information, and getting into more details about who we were.

Then late Monday, it hit me: oh my god—I have a birthmother.

I have a name and a background. I know that Zoe’s green eyes (and our red hair) come from her grandfather. I know that my father went to Vietnam, dammit, and that he was wounded in combat but came back alive. I have Irish, Welsh, and German blood but I’m still holding out for the Scottish, French, and Greek.

On Tuesday morning, I had fresh photos in my inbox. It overwhelmed me to see someone who looked so much like me. I’d never had that before. Until my kids were born, I had no one who looked like me in the world. When they both had my chin and hair color and little else, that was more than enough for me.

At 5 p.m. on Tuesday, I called her and we talked for two hours. She told me about a vacation to California that ended with her meeting Al Jardine. I could picture the tree-lined lanes and hear the surf just over the cliffs. She related what happened to her family during the Johnstown Flood in 1977. I imagined my grandfather in his work clothes, the only clothes he had time to find, evacuating the house. I could see the heirloom rug that was ruined and the waterlogged boxes of photos and childhood souvenirs in the basement.

She told me stories about the things she and my father would do together, from going to burger joints to hockey games. She described his car, a bright orange Roadrunner with the horn that went “beep-beep.” The only orange car I’d ever been familiar with had a horn that played “Dixie” and John Schneider would slide across its hood every week.

She’d been reading my blog since before my son Holden was born and therefore had an excellent knowledge of who I am. It was a strange feeling that she knew so much about me and I knew next to nothing about her. After our first phone conversation, the scales began to tip. She was open and honest, using her natural storytelling skills to show me who she was. I’ve spent most of conversations listening instead of talking. Not because she rambles or because I’m shy about speaking, but because she has stories to tell me, from how she told my birthfather about me to what’s happening in traffic while she drives to pick up a lottery ticket.

We both knit, we both love peanut butter, and we both like to tell stories. She confessed that she’d tried her hand at writing stories for children. I told her that it’s very difficult and to keep trying. I don’t know if I came by my love of stories through nature or nurture (I’m inclined to say it was both) but I can see it springing up in Zoe.

As I write this essay, Zoe is watching her new favorite show: “Pinky Dinky Doo.” It’s about a little girl who bonds with her baby brother by making up fantastic stories about people and places they know. Storytelling is a skill worthy of nurture, whether we cultivate on our own or inherit it. But now when I encourage Zoe to tell me stories, as she’s begun to do, I know that the skill to do it and the love of doing it is something we’ve both inherited.

pencil

E-mail: baker[at]toasted-cheese.com.

A Little Writing

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


As I write this essay, I haven’t showered since the night before last and I’m still in my pajamas, wearing my glasses. I have just given my two-year-old daughter a banana to satisfy her while I “get a little writing done.”

I’m one of the lucky writer/mothers. I don’t have to maintain a job outside the home. I can afford to buy a DVD to entertain my youngling while I check e-mail or read a few submissions for the e-zine. The main thing I’ve not been able to do since she was born is to “get a little writing done.”

Sure, I can throw together a blog entry or a response to an e-mail but I’ve been handed the leftover banana twice since I began writing this essay. I’m certainly not going to get the uninterrupted time for creative writing.

This essay will be published on December 1; in two weeks I’ll be giving birth to my son. It will be 2007 before I can give him a banana and send him on his merry way.

I’ve heard stories about Toni Morrison writing longhand while her baby spit up on her manuscript. I look at Jennifer Weiner, who has a daughter about as old as mine and has published several books in the last two years. I wonder how they do it. Are they that organized that they can take care of their kids at the same time that they churn out characters and plots? I can’t even find all the pieces for Mr. Potato Head, much less think about a development arc.

My problem could be laziness, coupled with maternity issues; I could stay up late or get up early to write but I’m just too tired. It’s like my husband says: you reach a certain age and you choose sleep over sex. Frankly, I choose sleep over writing.

It also seems like there’s so much more going on around me. More laundry, more dirty dishes, less floor space. I need to monitor whether the caps are on the Color Wonder markers and where my daughter put her pink Boohbah. My brain can’t focus on the fantasy world in which my characters exist. It’s hard to get in that mindset when someone walks up and throws an Elmo rubber ball at you.

Maybe it’s about being an effective multitasker. Fellow TC editor Bellman and I met online in December 1999 (or thereabouts) and began exchanging stories and chatting. Meanwhile, she would often breastfeed her younger son. When I asked her about it for this essay, she said, “One-handed typing is your friend!”

I read an essay at Literary Mama that shares:

What [Tillie] Olsen calls “foreground silences” and other kinds of delays are described by some of my participants. Two women did not start till their mid-fifties when their children were grown and married (Theodora Kroeber, as reported by her daughter, Ursula LeGuin and Ruth Jacobs); one stopped writing entirely after marrying and having children for about a dozen years and another for eight years (Edith Konecky, Nancy Mairs). Two did not begin serious writing until their children were in school or old enough to be cared for by sitters (Gloria Goldreich, Tina Howe). Six observe that motherhood slowed them down or interrupted their writing life.

Knowing this helped me feel more solidarity with writer-mothers.

I’ve considered hiring a babysitter: someone to watch the kids while I’m off to the side writing. The thing is that at this point in my life, I’d rather hire a maid and spend what used to be my writing time teaching my daughter the ABC song or that it’s not an “uh-oh” to pee in the potty.

I wouldn’t trade my children for the time, energy or opportunity to write like I used to. It’s just a case of making choices about what needs to be done, what needs to be sacrificed to balance my combined life as a mom and a writer.

Maybe I’m just stubborn that I won’t give up writing fiction, or at least the idea of writing fiction. After all, I’ve managed to keep up a weblog or two (all right, ten), write Absolute Blank articles, Snark Zones like this one and to take on the occasional non-fiction challenge like a “crafty guide” for my hometown. I introduce myself as a writer, after I introduce myself as a full-time mom. The follow-up remains, “What do you write?” Strangely enough, my answer seems more complete now that I’m focused on writing non-fiction and editing than on writing fiction and erotica.

I managed to work on some creative writing this past spring and maybe by next spring, I’ll get to work on some more. After all, my characters won’t have aged a day nor will they require me to put on a DVD of “Blue’s Clues” before I send my attention in a different direction.

After all, as Garrison Keillor says, “Nothing bad ever happens to a writer. Everything is material.”
pencil

E-mail: baker[at]toasted-cheese.com.

The Spirit of the Snark

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


We rushed home from a weekend away this Halloween. In our first Halloween in the neighborhood, I didn’t want to be pegged as “one of those houses” that doesn’t give away candy. I got our cemetery set up, the lights lit, my costume on and a cauldron full of Kit Kats, M&Ms and Hershey bars ready to go. Half an hour after trick-or-treat began, we got our first kids. By the end of the two hours, I had barely given away the Kit-Kats, and I’d given them out in handfuls.

For a couple of weeks, I worried about possibilities from, “Is Halloween on the wane?” to “Is our neighborhood too dark?” Then it dawned on me: I assumed that kids would want to come to this neighborhood because it’s zoned in the country club area. I assumed that people here would hand out lots of the good stuff. In truth, the kids went elsewhere because the neighborhood not only refrained from passing out full-size Snickers but turned off its lights and hid.

I was never raised to be generous. In fact, I was taught to believe that you hang onto every penny and every possession and that the pharaohs had the right idea about taking it with you. I learned about generosity when I started working and had money to give. I checked the United Way box on my wage form. I figured I’d never miss it.

When I was most down on my financial luck, giving up meals so I could have gas money to get to work, I scraped together enough money to donate a toy to Toys For Tots. Then I had a small windfall of financial luck. So I donated some more and had the same result. This financial karma made me a giver; the more I gave away, the more I had to give. It was amazing.

In the last few years, I’ve given time and money when I could, almost exclusively on a local level. I’ve cleaned out my closet for women’s shelters and made food to feed volunteers. We’ve sponsored homeless and underprivileged children at Christmas and back-to-school time. Most of our giving is done anonymously but I tell people about these opportunities to enrich the community in hope that they will do the same.

To defray our running costs, Toasted Cheese accepts donations and this year we were blessed with a very generous donation from one of our editors . In lieu of donating to TC this holiday season, we hope that you will pass on this generosity and consider sending a small donation to Heifer International.

Like TC, Heifer International provides the tools and means for people to create using thier own talents. Instead of giving a bushel of wool or a bundle of meat, Heifer International provides animals to people throughout the world. The recipients then harvest wool, fur, meat, honey, etc. from the animals. They also breed their animals and pass the offspring along to other communities, lengthening the giving chain. You can learn more about what they do at their website.

If you would like to join other TC members in contributing as little as $2 toward a group donation, you can do so via our regular Paypal link. Just put in the comment section “heifer.org” and we will earmark your donation. At the end of December, we will announce what our community has donated to Heifer International.

If you would like to encourage donations in lieu of gifts, you can visit WhatGoesAround.org and create a “Give List” to share with friends and family. Instead of letting her give you another pair of slipper-socks, let Aunt Mildred know what charities are close to your heart.

On behalf of our editors here at Toasted Cheese, I encourage you to be generous with your time, your happiness and your love this holiday season. I hope this generosity returns to you throughout 2005.

pencil

E-mail: baker[at]toasted-cheese.com.

Question Authority

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


Since my daughter was born, my big outings are to places like discount stores, malls and bookstores. I also haven’t had the energy or free time to do much creative writing. Recently our family of three went to the Barnes and Noble in a nearby college town for a fun outing. A sign announcing “Writers Workshop 1-3 p.m.” stood just inside the door. Always curious to hear what people are writing, I decided to eavesdrop from the World History section.

The group was small, about ten students and an instructor. I heard a few pieces of good advice immediately. The teacher asked the students, “What creates the urgency in your story?” Silence. She rephrased the question as: “What must your character do for the story to reach its resolution?”

I couldn’t hear the answers. Having been in writing classes, I understood the reluctance to raise the volume, especially when people are browsing bargain hardcovers just behind you. I ventured closer.

The next piece of advice floored me. Seemingly in response to a student’s answer, the instructor said, “You should never write in first person. You should only write in third person. You need to know what every character is thinking and doing.”

As a fan of first person POV as a writer and reader, I could hardly believe what she said. You should only write in third person? I felt like going around the store and gathering up Jane Eyre, The Catcher In The Rye, The Great Gatsby, Out of Africa and other first-person classics and dumping them at her feet. Unfortunately, I could only stand there gape-mouthed and hear the follow-up.

“Your readers won’t know where you end and your narrator begins.”

When I was reading Judy Blume books in fifth grade, I didn’t think she was Margaret or Peter. By that point, I was already writing my own short stories, always in first person and almost always told by a boy. No one in my class though I was transgendered; they thought I was a writer telling a story.

Besides, who cares if a reader mixes up a narrator and an author? It won’t be the first or last time it’s happened. The question is: is it the reader’s problem or the author’s?

My original idea for this Snark Zone was to write about the lack of character-based TV shows and linking that fact to the dearth of quality programming and the no-writer-involved rise of “reality” TV. After hearing what new writers are being told in a little workshop in northern Colorado, I have a different idea about the source of the problem: we’re supposed to dumb down our work to appeal to the audience.

The more I think about it, the more it makes sense. Remember when Oprah Winfrey picked Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections as her book club selection? Behind the main dispute, there was another set of squeaky wheels that wasn’t being heard. People were angry that Oprah had chosen a “hard” book.

In all, Oprah’s choices had gone back and forth between mainstream choices (Where The Heart Is,The Deep End of the Ocean) and lit fic novels (three of which were authored by Toni Morrison, including the 318-page Paradise). When she chose more mainstream works, the discussion conversation swirled around topics gleaned from the stories, only occasionally touching on aspects of the writing process. Discussion of the lit fic or “hard” books was generally somber and geared toward structure, symbolism and the evolution of the story.

I think the mainstream books deserved as much attention on those topics but it only seemed to be the “hard” books that got it. Back Roads, a favorite which straddled lit fic and mainstream, got a discussion group that kept telling author Tawni O’Dell that they were “in love with” the main character, Harley. It didn’t take a dozen readings for me to realize that Harley was not the kind of character one is meant to “fall in love with” in the way they indicated. It only took one close, deliberate reading.

People also asked her about writing this first person novel with a male narrator. If memory serves, she indicated that it was no different than writing a female narrator. I don’t know if the discussion group or other book club readers had trouble wrapping their minds around that but if we’re to believe the writing group instructor, they did.

Some church-goers recently gathered in Denver (and possibly other towns across America and elsewhere) to dismiss The DaVinci Code as heretical nonsense. One man interviewed on the local news said his concern was that “people would believe this novel was not fiction.”

By definition, a “novel” is fiction. It’s sad that large groups of people feel the need to debate whether or not fiction is fiction. Maybe that’s why publishers have resorted to printing “a novel” underneath the titles on the front covers.

As a reader, I’m offended that writers are being told that I’m not smart enough to deal with their work. As a writer, I’m offended that I’m not allowed to tell the story with the best narrator for it or from the best perspective.

When I see readers who just don’t get it, whether in an Oprah Book Club discussion or on the evening news, I’m almost tempted to do what the writing instructor said and “dumb it down.” But that’s not how I was taught to write. I was taught to expect effort from a reader, to assume a reader is relatively intelligent, to write in a way that suits the story.

Intelligent literature, be it lit fic or mainstream, still sells. You don’t have to comb through the classics section to find a well-written read. It’s right on the front table as you walk in the local bookstore. Read smart, write smart. Despite what the writing authorities say, you won’t be alone.

pencil

Send us your opinion on this Snarkzone topic and you could win a best-selling book! Choose from gently-used copies of The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold (hardcover), White Oleander by Janet Fitch (hardcover), or The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (paperback). Title your e-mail “TC March Snarkzone,” include your name and a mailing address and send to editors[at]toasted-cheese.com. Your opinion can agree or disagree; it just needs to be coherent. We’ll post some of our favorite responses on a TC forum board in June.

The Borrowers

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


The story in the April 18 San Antonio Express-News began with this paragraph:

“So the single mother, a teacher’s aide, points to the ceiling fan he installed in her small living room. She points to the pinstriped couches, the tennis bracelet still in its red velvet case and the Martha Stewart patio furniture, all gifts from her first born and only son. … ‘I wish I could talk to a mother who is in the same shoes as I am who has her son missing in action. It’s very hard,’ said Anguiano, who speaks haltingly.”

The story in the April 26 New York Times began with this paragraph:

“Juanita Anguiano points proudly to the pinstriped couches, the tennis bracelet in its red case and the Martha Stewart furniture out on the patio. … ‘I wish I could talk to a mother who is in the same shoes as I am, who has her son missing in action,’ Ms. Anguiano said.”

The Times story’s byline belonged to Jayson Blair, who resigned in disgrace May 1 following several accusations of plagiarism.

Think this is unusual? Remember the plagiarism scandal that shook up the romance realm?

From the Nora Roberts novel Sweet Revenge (published 1989):

His breath feathered over her lips as his hand slid through the water and over her skin. When he leaned toward her, she turned her head so that his mouth brushed her cheek gently, patiently. Need rolled inside of her, with a pang that came as much from fear as from desire.

From the Janet Dailey novel Notorious (published 1996):

His mouth feathered over a corner of her lips as his hands slid onto her back. Eden turned her head so that his mouth brushed her cheek gently. Need rolled inside her, with a pang that came as much from fear as desire.

After the incident went public, writers and readers alike jumped to Dailey’s defense by saying that there are only so many story ideas to go around and that, especially in the romance genre, “All the story lines are the same. Only the names are different.” Dailey received vast amounts of support while Roberts was accused of stirring up trouble for Poor Janet.

Why is stealing someone else’s writing seen as such a trifle? Because publishers and editors reward plagiarists.

Editors at the New York Times had been made fully aware of Blair’s tendency to lift quotes and text from other reporters’ stories by higher-ups at the Boston Globe and Washington Post. They had printed numerous retractions and corrections of Blair stories. It was only when they were publicly busted that they decided enough was enough.

One of the reasons we instituted password-protected forums at Toasted Cheese was to allay writers’ fears of being plagiarized. While not terribly common, it does happen. We’ve had people post work to the forums as their own when it wasn’t. There’s nothing we can do except expect a level of maturity and honesty from our members.

If editors and publishers don’t seem to get the seriousness of plagiarism, what can writers do about it? What can anyone do about it? The American Historical Association has an idea: pillory the offenders.

“Publicity is the best way to handle [plagiarism],” said Columbia University history professor Eric Foner, a former president of the association. He cited the 2002 Stephen Ambrose Wild Blue case as a prime example of a writer being publicly humiliated as a thief.

The association used to have closed-door investigations into allegations of plagiarism, not only in historical fiction writing but also in textbook and other non-fiction writing. The new policy reflects not only the effectiveness of letting the public be the jury but also the fact that the association doesn’t have the time or the people to investigate every accusation.

Good start, I say. The next step is to get the public to take the issue seriously. As with any job, it’s difficult to get your average layman to understand the blood, sweat and tears behind the writing process. One of the problems with writing is that just about anyone thinks she can do it as well as the pros. So what if a line of dialogue or a small descriptive paragraph isn’t exactly original? Who does it hurt?

When music is plagiarized, it’s slightly more scandalous. In 1976, George Harrison lost a lawsuit alleging that his song “My Sweet Lord” was the tune of “He’s So Fine.” The court ruled that Harrison was guilty of “unconscious copying.” When the Rolling Stones realized that the chorus of “Has Anybody Seen My Baby?” was nearly identical to k.d. lang’s “Constant Craving,” they issued her a songwriting credit in order to avoid any bad press or legal hassle.

What have been the consequences of literary and journalistic plagiarism?

After Wild Blue‘s February 2002 release, several writers came forward to say they recognized chunks of their own writing in Ambrose’s novel. An investigation was launched that found “borrowed” anecdotes in at least six more of his works. Ambrose said, “If I am writing up a passage and it is a story I want to tell and this story fits and a part of it is from other people’s writing, I just type it up that way and put it in a footnote.” Some critics, like Forbes magazine, accused Ambrose of merely editing together other writers’ stories and of not being a “writer” at all. Ambrose died the following October. His publishing house vowed to re-release the book with proper notations in place, including quotation marks and footnotes of the plagiarized sections.

Dailey admitted to plagiarizing Roberts, then turned around and blamed a “psychological disorder.” Roberts won a successful suit and donated the proceeds to literary causes. On the other hand, Dailey had a novel published by Harper less than a year after the settlement and in 2001 signed a four-book deal with Kensington.

Among other “reasons,” Blair cites “manic depression,” substance abuse and inattentive editors for his actions. After being the cover boy for shady journalistic practices for a month, Blair has begun to put together a seven-figure book deal. Some news sources say no big publishing house will touch him. Others say it’s likely he’ll get a single book deal worth about what he’s asking for, perhaps with a movie-of-the-week offer thrown in for good measure.

My sweet lord.

pencil

Baker can be reached at baker[at]toasted-cheese.com.