Strive Toward the Light

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


Photo Credit: Stephanie Lenz

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

It didn’t work so well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

pencil

Email: baker[at]toasted-cheese.com

On Simultaneous Submissions

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


Photo Credit: Jameziecakes/Flickr (CC-by)

Photo Credit: Jameziecakes/Flickr (CC-by)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

pencilEmail: baker[at]toasted-cheese.com

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

To Discover a Mockingbird

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

pencilEmail: baker[at]toasted-cheese.com

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

pencilEmail: baker[at]toasted-cheese.com

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

You Are Not Your Work

Stephanie Lenz
The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors


Moon and Stars
Photo Credit: Dennis Stauffer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

pencilEmail: baker[at]toasted-cheese.com

 

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

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

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