Reframing the Story

The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Theryn “Beaver” Fleming


Photo Credit: Nicole Pierce/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: Nicole Pierce/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

“I know what I’m gonna do tomorrow, and the next day, and the next year, and the year after that.” —George Bailey, It’s a Wonderful Life

The movie It’s a Wonderful Life is a holiday staple. You’re undoubtedly familiar with the premise since it’s been recycled many times. On Christmas Eve, George Bailey, a man whose life hasn’t turned out as he planned, wishes he had never been born. In response to his wish, an angel appears to show him what the world (or at least a small slice of it) would have been like if he never existed.

Along the way, viewers are shown what events led to this low point and how his absence would have changed the lives of others for the worse. Of course, the movie concludes with George taking back his wish, everything being restored to status quo, and his community coming together to bail him out of his current dilemma.

It’s presented as a heartwarming tale where George is shown the value of his life as “the richest man in town” as his younger brother, Harry, puts it. Figuratively speaking, of course, since his lack of money is an ongoing issue and the crux of the dilemma that opens the film.

The first time I saw this film I took it pretty much as intended, albeit with a little side-eye at the writers for imagining the worst fate that could befall George’s wife, Mary, in the alternate universe would be ending up an unmarried librarian. With each subsequent viewing, though, the story started unraveling for me.

The dilemma George’s neighbors and friends save him from isn’t one of his own making, but it is one he would have taken the fall for had they not stepped in. Their saving him is less a selfless act of generosity than one that ensures he’s still around to take advantage of in the future; he wouldn’t have been much use to anyone in jail. And on December 26, everyone will return to their lives doing what they want, asking George to save them when they need rescuing—and George will still be stuck in Bedford Falls.

George wanted to travel, to go to college, to build bridges and tall buildings. He didn’t want to get married (or get rich quick selling plastics). Instead, he never left the small town he grew up in, ended up married with four kids, and spent his life trying to keep the family business afloat out of a sense of duty to everyone around him. Which is not to say that any of those things are inherently bad, but none of them were what he wanted from life.

And so the heartwarming tale turns out to be a horror story of a man who is trapped by invisible shackles. Each time he makes plans to leave, something intervenes to make him stay, to keep him there, in his small-town prison. It’s okay for everyone else to leave—Harry does, Violet does, Sam Wainwright does, even Mary does for a time—but not George. George must stay. Staying—or returning in Mary’s case—to the small town of Bedford Falls is proof of their goodness.

The It’s a Wonderful Life storyline has become a pervasive trope in our culture. In one of the most common variations, a protagonist who has achieved great success in their career after moving to the Big City (evil), returns to their small hometown (good) for some reason. They are either single (and therefore their life is incomplete) or in a relationship with some unfortunate city person who will soon be dumped. They quickly reunite with someone from their past who has never left town, and decide to stay and pursue a warm fuzzy scaled-down version of their previous career while raising a family. And even if most of us really do live in cities not quaint small towns and our lives are nothing like this, the power of storytelling is such that, at least for the duration, we find ourselves going along with the premise that this narrative is the one path to true happiness.

Storytelling is more powerful than any lecture. Stories have the power to convince you not only that this is the way things should be but make it seem like this is the way they are, an incontrovertible truth, not just one possibility. As writers, it’s our challenge to step far back enough from the familiar story to see alternative ones. One change can change everything. What if instead of George wishing he’d never been born and seeing a world where everything fell apart in his absence, an experience that cemented him even more deeply to the status quo, he wished he’d done the things he dreamed of and saw that things turned out okay for everyone else anyway. Subvert the sad librarian trope and show Mary thriving in her career as a librarian in the city. A wonderful life can take more than one direction.

pencilEmail: beaver[at]toasted-cheese.com

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404: Not Found

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

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Speak Your Truth

The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Theryn “Beaver” Fleming


“Speak the truth, even if your voice shakes” --Maggie Kuhn. Cringle Park, Levenshulme, Manchester
Photo Credit: Duncan Hull

When I moved away to start university, more than anything I looked forward to a fresh start, a chance to shed the role I’d been pigeonholed into, and redefine my image into something closer to my true self. That didn’t happen. While I was no longer saddled with my high school “character,” I was quickly slotted into a new role, different than the old one, but just as flawed. It took a while, but eventually I understood why.

Other people only know you from the outside; they don’t know what you’re thinking or feeling unless you tell them. Many people in your life only know a small slice of you, because they only ever see you in one context, like school or work. So while you see yourself as a round character, complex and complicated, with many facets, to them you’re a flat character, one-dimensional, a trope.

Even the people closest to you, the ones who know you the best, don’t know everything about you, because everyone, even the most forthright of us, holds things back. Your close family and friends may think they know everything about you, but they really only know what they see and what you choose to share. Only you know the true you, the one on the inside. Of course, the reverse is also true. We all have secrets.

One of the most common issues I run across when reading submissions is writers who have left too much out. It’s clear that there is a story, but the bulk of it is still in the writer’s head, not on the page. I often remind writers that readers can’t read your mind. You have to include enough information so they can fill in the gaps and make sense of the story. Otherwise, readers are left guessing—and likely drawing wrong conclusions.

The same applies to our own personal stories. People draw conclusions based on what they know—but often they know very little. And these days, there are more opportunities than ever for people to think they know you well when they really don’t.

I recently observed a situation on social media where friends and family members were speaking on behalf of people who were temporarily unable to speak for themselves. It’s one thing to want to be supportive; it’s another to assume you know what your loved one wants/doesn’t want, likes/dislikes, feels, thinks, etc. Yet, this is what was happening. I get secondhand-embarrassed when I hear someone sing badly. This was a hundred times worse.

But it got me thinking. We’re often advised to take charge of our online identities, to build our personal brand or writer platform, but these profiles typically focus on external attributes: highlighting accomplishments, choosing flattering photos, charming followers with witty one-liners, etc. We scatter breadcrumbs. The picture others put together from them is inevitably incomplete.

In wanting to make a good impression and not wanting to be vulnerable, we often leave unsaid the most important things, our innermost thoughts and feelings. But as writers we’re fortunate. We’re not limited to bite-size updates. We have all the space, and all the words, in the world to speak our truths, to write about what really matters to us. We have the ability to put our words out there so they can speak for us if/when we can’t. We just have to be brave enough to do it.

pencilbeaver[at]toasted-cheese.com

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See the World

The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Theryn “Beaver” Fleming


Lyme Regis, August 2010
Photo Credit: Sunchild57 Photography

Writing is seeing. It is paying attention. —Kate DiCamillo

Recently I watched the documentary Finding Vivian Maier. Vivian Maier (1926-2009) was a nanny, mostly in Chicago. She was also an avid street photographer.

Shortly before her death, the contents of her storage locker were auctioned off after she failed to pay the fees. The contents included photographs, negatives, and rolls and rolls of undeveloped film. These were purchased by a couple of enterprising men who are now making their fortunes off Maier’s lifework. (The questionable ethics of that are a subject for a different piece.)

Naturally, the question everyone has been asking since the finders first started sharing the photographs (because, of course, they did) is: Why would anyone take so many photographs and not share them—in many cases, not even develop them? The ubiquity of social media amplifies the confusion over this contradiction, confusion that at times seems to rise to distress, but even people who aren’t social media users are perplexed. Isn’t that the purpose of a photograph? To be shared?

Why take so many photographs if not to share them? Why? It doesn’t make sense.

Or does it?

When I initially heard about Vivian Maier a few years ago, my reaction was similar. Huh, strange. It seemed to be a uniquely individual story, one of an eccentric person, not something more universal. But then, details were sketchy. Watching the documentary, my thoughts shifted. While the documentary narrative attempts to paint Maier as a crazy person (she did seem to have some issues in her later years, but whether this was anything more than age-related cognitive decline is unclear) reading between the lines, a different picture begins to form.

Early on in the film, John Maloof, the buyer of the majority of Maier’s creative work and the person profiting from it—and the documentary about her—says straight into the camera: “Why would a nanny be taking all these photographs?”

Wait, what?

I love it when the answer is in the question. Hmm, maybe one reason she didn’t bother sharing her photographs was because of that attitude. Oh, you’re just a nanny. You couldn’t possibly be creating anything of value. In fact, all the people interviewed in the film remember that Maier was always taking photographs—the children (now grown) recall often being bored waiting for her to finish taking pictures; the parents remember thinking it was odd that she always had her camera with her—but I don’t think a single one of them mentions ever asking to see her photographs.

Maybe she was just waiting for someone (anyone) to ask. For someone to take an interest in what was so obviously her passion. Instead, it was dismissed as an odd quirk. After all, she wasn’t a real person; she was just the nanny.

In a review of the film at The New Yorker, Rose Lichter-Marck points out a better question for Maloof to have asked would be why someone who was such a good photographer—and knew it, because she did—chose to work as a nanny.

As Maier is no longer with us, we can only guess, but here are a few thoughts. Perhaps she did try to share her photographs when she was younger and met with rejection. Perhaps she didn’t know where to start to get a foot in the door. Perhaps, considering her options, nannying seemed the best career choice: it gave her a place to live; it wasn’t too exhausting (she had previously worked in a sweatshop); it gave her access to worlds she might not otherwise be able to enter and lots of opportunities to take photographs. Which was what she really wanted to do—but she had to eat, too.

Perhaps, as the years went on, the product became less important, the process more.

Perhaps she had qualms about becoming famous, considered that the accoutrements of that fame might diminish her ability to take the kinds of photographs she liked to take. She was a street photographer, after all. And in that, her great advantage was that she was “just a nanny”—invisible to those around her.

Here’s where I think people go wrong when they try to understand Vivian Maier. Photographs may be for sharing, but photography is a way of seeing. For a photographer, it’s never just about the final print; it’s about composing the shot, framing the image, deciding what to include and what to exclude, thinking about the light, focusing, knowing exactly when to press the shutter button. And all of this is a way of thinking about and understanding the world.

Vivian Maier didn’t spend all her life in the nanny room of a single house in Chicago. She worked for many different families, lived in different cities and on different continents, and traveled—including at least one around-the-world trip. And everywhere she went, she took photographs. Ultimately, she sounds like a private person who followed her own path and led an interesting life. That she chose to pursue her passion privately rather than chasing after fame and fortune (or giving it up to lead a more conventional life) does not make her crazy. It makes her brave.

At the end of the film, I was left thinking not just about Maier, but about all the writers who fill notebooks and journals with words that are rarely (if ever) re-read, who have stories they haven’t shared tucked in drawers and hidden on hard drives. Is not-sharing really so odd when you think about it? We all do it. Maybe not with everything, like Maier, but with some things.

In writing this, I remember a quote saved last year in my commonplace book:

You see, at my age, after the youth burns out, and the long sweet middle years lie ahead, what happens after the writing is done simply does not matter. The point is the chemical burn itself, the molecular exchange, not what is produced or left behind. The point is being, not having done. —Brian Vandyke

Writers are fond of saying “I write because I must (write)” but this is a tautology. We write because it’s how we see the world, how we attempt to understand it. It enriches our lives, even if we don’t share our work. Because writing—creating—is first, foremost, and always, about the process.

pencilEmail: beaver[at]toasted-cheese.com

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Brick by Brick

The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Theryn “Beaver” Fleming


lego_26nov2009_5934
Photo Credit: Patrick Lauke

Last summer, when I moved the community half of TC to WordPress, I indicated that we’d eventually get around to moving the journal as well. In truth, I planned to put it off indefinitely because the amount of work it was going to take seemed overwhelming. But four months of easy-peasy article posting spoiled me. When I sat down to put together the December issue the old-school way I knew that was it. It was time to stick a spork in the hand-coding and switch over the journal. The obvious launch date: March, with the first issue of 2014.

Normally, I am all about process. But this was not something I wanted to do so much as something I wanted to be done. I’d set up the database in the fall and got the layout sorted out, but then I just let it sit. I was busy with other things; there was lots of time till March!

Until, of course, there wasn’t.

It was January, and we’d just sent the shortlist notifications for December. That meant our shortlist for the March issue was complete and it was now time to read and make our selections. And it also meant I had less than two months to get the transfer done.

Finally, I stopped procrastinating and started. First, the easy part: the submission guidelines, the contest guidelines, the issue covers. The pages that would become, er, “Pages” in WP-speak. That part wasn’t so bad, and once I had it done I felt like I’d accomplished something, and I had the bones of the journal in place. All that was left was to flesh them out. That was the part I wasn’t looking forward to. So instead I set up categories and tags. I fiddled with the permalinks. When there was nothing else left to do, I took a stab at Volume 1, the smallest volume in our archives. New post, copy, paste, futz, save. It was going to take forever to do it this way. I didn’t have forever. I searched the WordPress plug-ins again and found one that imported static HTML pages. Whoa, game-changer. It wasn’t perfect; the resulting pages (“Posts” in WP-speak) all needed to be dated and tagged and individually checked for formatting issues, but it was a giant leap forward and gave me the kick in the pants I needed to finish this project. The hard part was done; what was left was the polishing.

Still, polishing can take a long time, if you want to do it right. I got the posts all dated and tagged, and then started in on the formatting. For the last month or so, every time I’ve had a free moment, I’ve worked my way through another issue. One more down, how many to go? It was boring and repetitive. Still, wishful thinking wasn’t going to finish the task. I kept plodding, slogging my way through it. Watching TV? Work my way through another issue.

As I crossed the fifty-percent done mark, the weight of the task lifted.

It always does.

From past experience I know if you have to do something 770 times to complete a task, the first time will take you the longest. You haven’t worked out your rhythm; you might miss a step and have to go back, and so on. The first time isn’t the worst, though, because you’re not bored yet. Once your learning curve plateaus, that’s when the weight of the task settles down on you, the reality of how long it’s going to take you really sets in. I have how many of these left to do? Sigh. I am never going to finish this task. And yet, the only way to finish is to continue. To plod-slog your way through it.

Plod.

(One more, you can do it.)

Slog.

(And another.)

Plod.

And then somehow you’re over the peak and you’re rolling downhill, picking up speed. It’s easier now because you can see THE END—it’s within reach, an “I’ve got this!” not a distant “maybe…”

The only way to get yourself through the first part of such a task is to keep your eyes on your reward for completion: why am I doing this? In this case, to make running TC easier, to save tons of time in the long run. But as you get closer to the end of the task, when the hard part is behind you, you can start to appreciate it for itself. Sure my main motivation was the backend and automating all the tasks that I’d been doing by hand for thirteen years, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t also pleased that TC was getting a fresh look.

When I was a kid, I loved the kind of toys you could build things with. We had wooden blocks, Tinkertoys, Lincoln Logs, even some of our dad’s old Meccano—and, of course, Lego. I liked putting things together, one piece at time, the process–figuring out what to put where next–and the product–seeing what you could make from a bunch of disparate pieces. It always seemed a little bit magic. The thing was, we only had a little bit of each, so while we could build different things, the projects necessarily had to be small. That meant beginning and ending were compressed without much of a slog in the middle.

I probably could have stood to do more slogging.

At the same time I was snapping together bricks and criss-crossing logs, I was writing my first stories. They were uniformly terrible, mainly because I always wanted to leap directly from beginning to end. I’d have a premise, set the story up—and then I’d jump straight to the conclusion. I’d inevitably skip the middle—you know, the actual story. That middle part, well, it just seemed like too much of a slog, too hard to write it all down (writing made my hand tired!) and couldn’t you just read my mind instead? I was used to things being easy, quick. Slogging was not in my repertoire.

But slogging is how you get big things done. Brick by brick, word by word, page by page. You keep plodding, and then one day, you realize you’re not slogging anymore. You’re sprinting, you’re sailing, you’re flying. What once seemed like an impossible task is almost done—and it was you who did it! What an accomplishment. You feel amazing.

I know all this now, but still. Starting will always be hard. It’s hard to counter the resistance, to ignore “the omg, this is too much, it’s going to take forever” refrain in my brain, to just begin. And yet, it’s the only way. If you don’t lay the first brick, or the 429th one, you’ll never get to lay the last one. And it’s the last one that’s the sweetest.

We hope you enjoy the “new” TC, and whatever your own big project is, keep on slogging.

pencilEmail: beaver[at]toasted-cheese.com

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CTRL-Z

The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Theryn “Beaver” Fleming


Frogged sock
Photo Credit: ghost of anja

“In knitting,” she said as she began to cast on again, “you can fix everything.”
… At last, here was something I couldn’t ruin.
Something I could do over, and over, and over.
Ann Hood

One Saturday, I found myself in Michael’s, the craft store, picking out a skein of yarn. It was during the period of my life when the losses were piling up, like logs being split and stacked for winter. What was done could not be undone. All I could do was stack the pieces off to the side, neatly so they wouldn’t tumble down and crush me, and wait for the next hewn log to be tossed my way.

I chose a variegated cotton, the type of yarn that makes a pattern on its own. If I’d been following the hipster script, I would then have picked out knitting needles to match. But I was writing my own script. A couple crochet hooks had been rattling around my sewing kit for decades, untouched since my mom taught me to crochet when I was a kid. I didn’t remember how, but perhaps it was like riding a bike. I thought I could figure it out. Besides, if I got stuck, there was always the internet.

Back home, I dug out one of those crochet hooks and sat myself down with the skein of yarn and a movie for company. And after a few false starts and, yes, with some help from the internet, I did. I made a scarf, of course. A skinny, crooked scarf. Not a masterpiece, just a practice sketch.

Several years ago, I remember saying I didn’t understand the knitting craze, by which I didn’t mean I didn’t understand the urge to make things—I’ve always been a maker—but rather, why knitting in particular? What was it about knitting that drew people, especially those taking their tentative first steps into making, to it rather than to, say, drawing or quilting or pottery or origami or woodworking?

But now I think I understand. Knitting doesn’t require a lot of equipment to get started. It’s portable; you can take it with you. It doesn’t require a dedicated space or make a mess that you have to clean up afterward. The repetition of the process is calming, meditative. You don’t have to worry about lopping a limb off if you zone out or drift off. And when you finish you have something functional. Anyone, given enough practice, can master it well enough to create something they wouldn’t be embarrassed to wear or give as a gift.

Mastery is easier to achieve with knitting and crocheting than with other crafts because no mistake is too big to fix. No matter how far you get into a project, you can always tear it up—rip, rip, rip—and undo your mistake or start over from the beginning. You don’t have to invest in new materials to try again; your equipment never wears out. You can keep tearing a project up and starting over until you’re happy with it. Even once a project is finished, it still holds the possibility of being reworked. If you tire of an item, you can undo it and remake it into something different. If you itch to redo some of your early projects, bring them up to your current skill level, you can do that, too.

Nothing is wasted. No, not even time. For each stitch, even if it is ephemeral, is practice. Everyone knows the more you practice, the more skilled you get. Ultimately, a finished product doesn’t consist only of the stitches you see, but also all the ones you don’t see, everything you did—and undid—along the way.

NaNoWriMo has just finished and some of you are basking in the glow of writing 50,000 words in month. Others are wishing you’d never heard the word NaNoWriMo. What’s the difference between succeeding and failing at NaNoWriMo? Beyond not making excuses about time or the lack thereof, I think it’s a willingness to make mistakes. Those who succeed are willing to write a steaming pile of words, knowing that they may have to rewrite every single one of them.

I recently read an anecdote about a writer who writes a complete first draft, sits down and reads it, then throws it away and starts over from scratch.

Did you gasp? I admit it took me a few minutes to work through my thoughts about that. I’m not sure I could be that brave. At the same time, I understand the impulse. The first draft is a discovery draft; it’s figuring out your story, what works, what doesn’t, taking chances, making mistakes. It’s practice. Even if you don’t literally throw it away, if you’re really rewriting with each subsequent draft (not just nitpicking the details), chances are very little of that first draft will be visibly left in the final one. But that doesn’t mean it’s not there. It is. Every word you write, even if it’s ultimately deleted, contributes to the final draft. Backing up, starting over, rewriting are all integral parts of the writing process. They’re not a waste of time. If you’re not throwing away words you’ve labored over, you’re not reaching your writing potential.

Write. Throw it away. Start over. Don’t try to recreate the first draft. Take it in a new direction. Make it better. Repeat.

Like yarn, words are infinitely reusable. You’re not wasting them. You’re not going to run out of them. Write, tear it up, rewrite.

No mistake is too big to fix.

pencil

Email: beaver[at]toasted-cheese.com

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The Star-Ratings Tango

The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Theryn “Beaver” Fleming


star star
Photo Credit: Markus Schöpke

The internet is always teaching me something. For instance, I recently learned that you’re not a geek if you can’t display an in-depth knowledge of particular pop culture phenomena. (I’d elaborate, but I can’t because I lack sufficient geek cred.) Say what? You’ve just robbed me of my life-long belief that I’m a geek, internet. I haz the sads. (The dictionary still has my back. Whew.) I also just learned that displaying your diplomas makes you a tacky, pretentious douche. Thanks, internet! (The classy thing to do, if you’re wondering, is to put them in a box “somewhere” and then “forget” about them.)

Now that my whole worldview has been upended—ah, kidding. One should never take internet wisdom too seriously, of course. I just wanted to illustrate that what one group holds to be a common understanding will often astonish or perplex another. We develop our ideas of what constitutes common knowledge based on the people around us, and it’s often not until we collide with someone who is baffled by something we consider common sense that we become aware that our perspectives are not as universal as we might think.

Which brings me to the bane (and occasional delight) of every writer’s existence: star-ratings. Perhaps nowhere am I more aware of how much perspectives can conflict than with book reviews. When I started keeping track of the books I read on my blog, I didn’t rate them. I even tried to avoid calling my posts “reviews”—my rationale being that my posts aren’t reviews in the classic sense, but more like my reading notes and reflections, a part of my reading process. Then I joined Goodreads with its tempting little stars. At first I thought deciding how many stars to give a book would be difficult. That’s when I noticed the hovertext. This is what it says:

5 stars — it was amazing
4 stars — really liked it
3 stars — liked it
2 stars — it was ok
1 star — did not like it

While choosing stars on their own seemed an enigmatic proposition, these little descriptions clicked with me. They made sense. It was surprisingly easy to slot any book into one of those categories. From my perspective, only the one stars are truly negative reviews, and no book’s getting a five unless it had a profound impact on me. Most books are going to land somewhere in the middle, and most of those are going to be threes. You know, average. Not life-changing but not terrible either. And yet, I’m clearly in the minority in taking this approach. It’s so unusual, it might even be considered weird.

In the majority camp, you have readers who give four or five stars to practically everything. This group includes writer-readers who are reluctant to say anything remotely critical about a fellow writer, sometimes out of kindness, sometimes out of fear of retaliation. Their positive reviews tend to be genuine; they simply omit reviewing books they didn’t like. It also includes readers whose star-ratings don’t match their written reviews. That is, they’ll write a ‘this book was ok’ review but then give the book four stars. I can only surmise that this strategy is an attempt to avoid conflict with the writers of the books in question. The third group are readers who would clearly prefer a binary ratings system: loved it/hated it, like/dislike, thumbs up/thumbs down. With this group, everything’s a five or a one.

On the other side of the reading equation, you have the writers, many of whom seem to have developed the expectation of receiving five-star reviews. Frequently I see writers flipping out over two- and three- and even four-star reviews, in despair because from their perspective anything less than a five means “I hated it” or angry because they think an uninformed and possibly jealous reader is out to get them. Some will fume to their allies, seeking sympathy; others will attack readers head-on, rebutting each criticism or even bullying readers into changing their reviews.

This, I shouldn’t have to point out, is egregious behavior. As writers, we absolutely do not have the right to dictate what readers think of our work or what they write about it. A great deal of the conflict over reviews, I think, arises from writers misunderstanding readers’ motivations for writing them. Reviews have multiple purposes—they can be for personal reflection, to enter into a discussion with fellow readers, or to provide information to potential readers—but unless the reviewer is the writer’s publicist (or a friend providing UPOP), they are not for the writer.

Once a work leaves our hands, it ceases to be ours alone. Whatever words we have put on the page, with each new reader, each new reading, the meaning is reinterpreted, the story reconstructed. Each story is a tango, a negotiation, between writer and reader. A story that one reader finds moving and meaningful, another might find sappy and maudlin. And that’s ok. No, really it is. It might make you sad that a reader didn’t find your story as wonderful as you think it is, but it doesn’t mean they’re doing their reviews wrong. It means their perspective is different than yours.

The good news is, that means sometimes two stars equals “guilty pleasure!” not “blech.”
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Email: beaver[at]toasted-cheese.com

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Unqualified Praise Only, Please

The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Theryn “Beaver” Fleming


Edited Version of First Book
Photo Credit: Joanna Penn

You’re probably familiar with the saying, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” People love to malign teachers, talk about how easy they have it. Those people have obviously never stood in front of a classroom of ninth-graders.

What is most difficult about being a teacher is not teaching per se, but the many things that get in the way of teaching and learning. Perhaps the most disheartening of these is dealing with students who insist on framing the teacher as The Enemy, turning the classroom into a combative space rather than cooperative, collegial one. Inevitably, such a student thinks the teacher is out to get them because they think the teacher “gave” them a grade they didn’t deserve.

The conversation that transmogrifies a disgruntled student into one who thinks the teacher is The Enemy generally goes something like this:

  • Student (unhappy face): “Why did I get this grade?”
  • Teacher: *explains reasons*
  • Student: “But I did what the assignment asked!”
  • Teacher: “Yes, you did the minimum, and your grade reflects that. To get a higher grade, you would need to do more.” *explains how student could have improved grade*
  • Student: “But I’m an A student!”
  • Teacher: “Grades aren’t based on a student’s track record. When I grade an assignment, all I have to go on is the work you chose to hand in.”
  • Student: “This grade will destroy my chances of getting into [college / university / med school / law school / grad school]!”
  • Teacher: “This is one assignment worth only x% of your grade. If you earn an A on all your subsequent work in this course, as you have indicated you are capable of, it will have a negligible impact on your final grade.”
  • Student: “You’re doing this because you hate me!”
  • Teacher: “Why would I hate you?”
  • Student: “You gave me this grade because don’t want me to succeed!”
  • Teacher: “I’d love to see you succeed. My office hours are from y to z on the days we have class. You don’t need to make an appointment; you’re welcome to drop in. I’m always happy to answer any questions students may have about course material or assignments.”
  • Student: “You’re out to get me!”

And so on in circular fashion until teacher cuts off student or student angrily stomps off, dissatisfied. The only satisfactory response, of course, would have been for the teacher to respond, “And what grade do you think you deserve? An A+? Oh, fine. Consider it changed! Have a nice day!”

At this point, perhaps you’re thinking this conversation is too absurd to be realistic. Or maybe you’re wondering why I’m telling you this story… Ahh, yes. Let’s replay the preceding scene with two new characters.

  • Writer (unhappy face): “Why is there all this red pen on my novel?”
  • Editor: *explains suggested edits*
  • Writer: “But I used spellcheck!”
  • Editor: “Yes, and your manuscript has very few technical errors. However, a good story consists of more than just proper spelling, grammar, and punctuation. To improve your novel, you need to do more than just clean up the typos.” *explains how writer could improve manuscript*
  • Writer: “But I’m very successful in my [non-novelist] career!”
  • Editor: “Your novel’s merit isn’t based your track record as a [butcher / baker / candlestick-maker], even if that’s also your protagonist’s occupation. When I edit a manuscript, my comments are based on the work you provided to me.”
  • Writer: “This edit has ruined my story!”
  • Editor: “Mine is just one opinion. If you’re not happy with my suggestions, you don’t have to incorporate them. You’re also welcome to seek out another editor for a second opinion. In fact, I encourage it.”
  • Writer: “You’re doing this because you hate me!”
  • Editor: “Why would I hate you?”
  • Writer: “You tore my manuscript apart because don’t want me to succeed!”
  • Editor: “I’d love to see you succeed. I’d be happy to work with you to make your manuscript the best it can be. My rates for developmental editing can be found on my website. I’d also be happy to recommend another editor if you’d rather work with someone else.”
  • Writer: “You’re out to get me!”

Does the conversation seem so absurd now?

Editors aren’t the enemy of writers any more than teachers are the enemy of students. Just as teachers want to work with students to help them succeed, editors want to do the same with writers. Some writers seem to find this hard to believe. I think I know why.

I think there are writer-writers and there are editor-writers. You’re probably a writer-writer if you love, love, love writing first drafts and find editing and revising to be a painful chore. You’re probably an editor-writer if you want to stab an icepick in your skull while writing a first draft, but can barely contain your glee as you start tearing it apart for draft two (three, four, five… twenty-seven…).

There’s a riff on the saying I opened with that goes: “Those who can, write; those who can’t, edit.” I think this is what writer-writers believe, that editors are only editing because they’ve failed at writing, and that’s what leads to the belief that editors have it in for writers. I think writer-writers hate editing so much they find it hard to believe that there are people who love editing as much as they love writing, who, in fact, prefer editing to writing. But it’s true. Editor-writers aren’t gleeful about tearing apart a first draft because they love destroying things, they’re gleeful because they can see how to put it back together in a way that makes the story better.

Some of us edit because we love it and we’re good at it and we want to share our passion and skill with others instead of hoarding it all for ourselves. When an editor makes suggestions at a writer’s request, they’re not ambushing the writer with an unexpected punch. They’re extending an invitation to enter into a cooperative working relationship, one that in time can grow into a collegial partnership based on mutual respect—but only if the writer accepts the invitation.

pencil

Email: beaver[at]toasted-cheese.com

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The Rules of Gentility by Janet Mullany

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Theryn Fleming


Janet Mullany was one of our original forum hosts at Toasted Cheese, and the winner of the first annual Dead of Winter writing contest. In the decade since she left TC, Janet has published more than a dozen books in a variety of romance sub-genres.

The Rules of Gentility (William Morrow, 2007) is a gentle parody of Regency (Jane Austen era) romances. Philomena “Philly” Wellesley-Clegg, age 19, is a girl obsessed with bonnets (buying them, beribboning them…). Since she is very nearly an old maid, she is preoccupied with making lists of potential husbands (à la Bridget Jones), all of which she finds unsuitable for various reasons. Her love of bonnets exceeds that for any suitor. That is, until Inigo Linsley, youngest brother of her best friend’s husband, kisses her. After “The Kiss,” Philly loses all interest in bonnets. Hilarity—in the form of increasinging improbable situations—ensues when she enters into a fake engagement with Inigo to save herself from another suitor.

Janet’s writing always showed her sense of humor and that was readily apparent here. The Rules of Gentility is a light, funny story that mashes up modern chick-lit elements with Regency mainstays. She pokes fun at the conventions of the genre, but in a way that shows her genuine fondness for it. The humor makes this a story with appeal to an audience beyond those who regularly read Regency romances, though fans of the genre will likely appreciate the many insider references more than the casual reader.

An interview with Janet is forthcoming at Absolute Blank. In the meantime, you can get a taste of her fiction by delving into the archives, where you’ll find three stories: “Snow, the Seven, and the Moon,” “The Companions are Chosen,” and “A Perfect Evening.” Janet also wrote “Enter At Your Own Risk: The Strange, Twilight World of Writing Competitions” for Absolute Blank.

In addition to her website, you can find Janet on Twitter, Facebook, and Goodreads, and at The Risky Regencies, a collaborative blog.

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Email: beaver[at]toasted-cheese.com

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Like Alice

The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Theryn “Beaver” Fleming


Working
Photo Credit: alex:

You’re probably familiar with the sentiment that on one’s deathbed, no one ever wishes they had worked more.

I don’t believe it. I mean, I’m sure there are people who wish they had worked less. But I’m equally sure that there are some who wish they worked more.

“No one ever wishes they worked more” is a myth arising from the cultural framing of work as a necessary evil, drudgery to be endured until rescue by retirement, lottery or—these days—building an app that Facebook buys out for $1 billion. But whether you think you worked too much or too little depends on how you view your work. On what you view as work.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman once explained that she was inspired to write “The Yellow Wallpaper” after a doctor’s advice to never write again nearly drove her insane: “I cast the noted specialist’s advice to the winds and went to work again—work, the normal life of every human being; work, in which is joy and growth and service, without which one is a pauper and a parasite—ultimately recovering some measure of power.”

Who’s ever heard of a writer who wanted to write less?

As a young mother, Alice Munro was always conflicted about spending time writing. She wrote anyway, because writing was what was most important to her. You might think, well that’s fine for her, she’s Alice Munro. But she wasn’t the writer Alice Munro back then. She was Alice “housewife finds time to write short stories” Munro. And you can be sure Jane “doesn’t find time to write short stories” Jones from next door was giving her the side-eye. Think about our collective loss if she had decided that Jane’s opinion of the state of her living room carpet had mattered more than getting an hour of writing in.

You’re probably not spending what could be your writing time trying to perfect your impression of June Cleaver. But most of us do spend too much time worrying about what other people think.

Most writers aren’t lacking in empathy. Most of us want to be liked. We feel guilty putting our work ahead of the people in our lives, so we tell ourselves that our work isn’t important. That when we look back on our lives we won’t care about the incomplete projects, the things we planned to write but never got around to. We lie.

If you put it on your wish list, would your family or friends give you the gift of writing time? If not, why not? If they ignore, devalue or belittle your writing, is it because their love is conditional on you behaving in a way that pleases them? Or is it because you’ve framed what’s most important to you as unimportant?

I’ve read a lot of author acknowledgments this fall, and one thing I’ve noticed is successful writers typically have other writers in their lives. People who not only support them, but understand them. It’s stating the obvious, but I’m going to say it anyway: if you’re the only writer in your family, if none of your friends are writers, if everyone around you thinks writing is a big waste of time, you’re going to have a harder go of it than if your spouse or sibling or parent is also a writer, if you’re surrounded by creative friends, if everyone around you wants to be the first to read the next thing you write. That’s not to say you can’t make it without support and understanding. Of course you can. It’s just harder. So give yourself a break. Stop treating it as if it doesn’t matter.

It’s time to reframe.

If you haven’t expressed to the people who are important to you how important your writing is, do it now. If you have done so and still no one cares, you’ll need to develop a thicker skin, learn to ignore their negativity, and be firm about your writing needs (“Enjoy the movie. I’m going to write.”).

Go ahead, feel guilty. But be like Alice: write anyway.

Maybe one day you could be a writer of Munro’s caliber. You’ll never know unless you actually sit down and write—regardless of what the people around you think. As Marge Piercy once wrote:

Work is its own cure. You have to
like it better than being loved.

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Email: beaver[at]toasted-cheese.com

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