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

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.”
pencil

Email: beaver[at]toasted-cheese.com

The Storytellers

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

pencil

Email: baker[at]toasted-cheese.com

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

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.

pencil

Email: beaver[at]toasted-cheese.com

Don’t Forget the Confetti

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


Confetti Cake
Photo Credit: Theryn Fleming

Celebrate (verb): to observe a notable occasion with festivities

This issue, I could have chosen to write about writers who bully readers who aren’t sycophants, those who feel compelled to rebut reviews, or those who just take matters into their own hands and write their own. So much material! Perhaps next time. This time, I’m going to press pause on the snark.

As I was mulling over potential topics, my eyes drifted over to my calendar and I saw a reminder I’d added at the beginning of the year, when I realized I had three ten-year milestones coming up in 2012.

The first was in April, my ten-year runniversary, which I celebrated by… going for a run. The second, which is this week, is my anniversary of going back to school. I’m celebrating that one by writing this editorial and setting myself the goal of being done by the time eleven rolls around. (Ok, now I’ve probably jinxed myself.) And the third is my ten-year blogiversary, which is coming up in October.

I don’t think I’ve ever celebrated my blog’s anniversary. But ten years, that seems worth celebrating. Especially when I see bloggers celebrating 4, 5, 6 years all the time (and inevitably claiming to be old-timers). I’ll probably celebrate by posting and linking to my (incredibly unexciting, yet somehow very revealing) first post. Ten years later, it’s all pretty much true: I’m still a procrastinator, I still futz with aesthetics when I should be writing, and I think I still have one regular reader (though it’s a different one now).

I never did get comfortable with blogging about myself, though I did try in the early years. In year three, I found my niche when I started keeping track of the books I was reading. That led to a reboot and the evolution of my blog into a commonplace book. I know it’s not really of interest to anyone but me, and I’m ok with that. It’s not only the longest I’ve ever journaled consistently, which is a success in itself, but every time I’m writing and I go to my blog to find a quote or refer to a book post, I think: woot! That’s why I keep at it.

Intellectually, I recognize these milestones as achievements. Emotionally, I have a tendency to downplay things, be they positive or negative. Okay, so it’s more than a tendency. You could say I don’t do drama. Which is, you know, kinda weird when you’re on the internet all the time, because it’s simply at odds with how the internet is. The interwebs loves the dramz.

It’s easy to get distracted by individuals who insist on creating drama where none exists (yes, I’m looking at you, writer going berserk over a one-star review) but what interests me more is watching the real dramas of everyday life play out online.

As I scroll through my feed reader or thumb through Twitter, I frequently run across people exploding with happiness and occasionally, crumbling with grief. I see people go all out to mark every occasion, the good, the bad, the big life events—birthdays, graduations, weddings—and all the smaller moments in-between. Things like typing “the end,” acceptances, signing book contracts, book launches and the like.

I remember once telling someone about Toasted Cheese and her asking if we had launch parties for the new issues. The question made perfect sense—print journals traditionally celebrate each new issue with a party. But honestly, until she said it, it hadn’t really occurred to me. I currently celebrate by sleeping in the day after a new issue goes up. While I’m sure I could make a convincing argument to my fellow introverts that sleeping in beats a party (some of the time), it’s not exactly a celebration.

In the past year or so, I have, amongst other things: run a half-marathon personal best, completed my comprehensive exams, written (and revised) my PhD research proposal, said goodbye to my fuzzy buddy, put out another year of Toasted Cheese—and learned how to be alone. And yet, I can’t remember the last time I did something extraordinary—something beyond picking up something nice for dinner—to mark an occasion.

I keep doing things, but it’s like I’m on a treadmill. I make note of the achievement, but I never pause to celebrate, it’s just right on to the next thing. I looked at everyone else’s celebrations and decided I needed a reward—before I launch into my dissertation.

Two weeks ago, I took a mini-vacation and stayed in a fancy-pants hotel. I booked the room through a site that offers discounts by not revealing the name of the hotel until you’ve paid. As I was choosing my mystery hotel, I noticed I was kind of excited—and not about the savings. I was thrilled about the surprise. Finding out the name of the hotel was like unwrapping a present when you genuinely don’t know what’s inside, but you know it’s going to be good. I loved it.

And that was when I realized just how much I need more festivities in my life.

Most writing-related advice focuses on getting to various goal points in the writing process. There’s not a lot of advice about what to do once you’ve accomplished a goal—except move on to the next one. Perhaps that’s because most people don’t need to be told to celebrate their accomplishments. But if you’re anything like me, here’s a reminder: don’t forget the confetti. Take the time to celebrate.

Maybe we do need to have Toasted Cheese launch parties. Hmm…

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Email: beaver[at]toasted-cheese.com

The Google Ate My Homework

The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Amanda “The Bellman” Marlowe


My dog ate my homework
Photo Credit: Girl.in.the.D

I confess. I work for a major publisher. I confess, this major publisher does accept some kinds of unsolicited manuscripts. I also confess, I have occasionally received unsolicited manuscripts. Recently a manuscript for a children’s picture book crossed my desk. Addressed to me, personally. But hang on a minute before you rush me your manuscripts.

Thing is, I don’t work for the part of the company that produces the stuff that ends up on The New York Times Bestsellers List. I don’t even come close to dealing with book acquisitions. I work for a completely different part of the company—the educational division. If you aren’t one of our textbook authors, or one of our writers, or one of our editors, I won’t be looking at your writing. The most I can do for you if you send me a trade book manuscript is to look at your contact info and let you know you sent it to the wrong place.

So how did I end up with the occasional manuscript on my desk?

I suspect LinkedIn.

My guess is that some folks who were trying to do their homework didn’t like the fact they didn’t have a specific person listed with the submission address to whom they could address the cover letter directly. After all, the prevailing advice is that it is better to address it to a person than to “Dear Sir or Madam.” So they looked around on LinkedIn under my company’s name, and found my name, and somehow decided I was the lucky editor they would write the cover letter to. In one case, it made some sense. In the others, I have no idea why they picked me over my multitude of coworkers.

This story has a moral, of course, and like most morals it can be summed up in a catch phrase:

Don’t let The Google eat your homework.

If you are casting around for a real name to send your material to, make sure that person works for a relevant part of the company. If you can’t tell what part of the company someone works for through LinkedIn or other searches, don’t just pick someone at random. Seriously. Someone who writes standardized tests for a living isn’t interested in your picture book. You might be lucky and hit someone like me, who will point you in the right direction. Or you might get someone less helpful, who just looks blankly at your packet before tossing it in the trash.

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Email: bellman[at]toasted-cheese.com

All Writers Are Independent But Some Are More Independent Than Others

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


Writer's Desk
Photo Credit: Allen Skyy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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Email: baker[at]toasted-cheese.com

Bounce

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


Eeyore & Tigger
Photo Credit: Brandi Korte

We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand. If I don’t seem as depressed or morose as I should be, sorry to disappoint you. —Randy Pausch

In the speech usually referred to as The Last Lecture, Randy Pausch says that being a Tigger or an Eeyore is a choice, and obviously, he chose to be a Tigger. Obvious because he has a positive attitude even though, at the time he gave the lecture, he knew he had only months to live.

Eeyore and Tigger are, of course, two of Christopher Robin’s stuffed animals in the Winnie-the-Pooh books by A.A. Milne. Eeyore is the pessimistic donkey. He expects the worst. He puts a negative spin on all events. His best mood could be described as not unhappy. Tigger is the optimistic tiger (though he’s always referred to as a tigger). He expects the best. He puts a positive spin on all events. His best mood could be described as exuberant.

Tiggerish people are popularly portrayed as aggressively cheerful individuals. Eeyorish people, portrayed as cynical realists, perceive Tiggers as phony. In the Eeyore’s mind, that irritatingly upbeat Tigger at work is only fake-happy (because, according to Eeyore logic, everyone is miserable). At home, the Tigger cries herself to sleep (as all Eeyores do). In other words, Eeyores see tiggerness as being a superficial characteristic, a costume or mask the Tigger wears in public, but casts off in private. Eeyoreness, according to the Eeyore, is the real human condition. Internally, everyone is an Eeyore. The difference is that Tiggers hide their misery, while Eeyores do not.

The same is not true from a Tigger perspective. Tiggers do not visualize Eeyores as being stealth Tiggers (grumpy on the outside, gleeful on the inside). From the Tigger perspective, Eeyores are most definitely Eeyores, and Tiggers are most definitely not. Tiggers know they are Tiggers through and through. What’s on the outside is a manifestation of what’s on the inside, not a cover-up. But that is equally, if not more, problematic than being fake from the Eeyore’s position, for, in this world, anyone who truly isn’t miserable must be a shallow and unthinking person:

To live in our society sometimes feels like living under the tyranny of Happiness. Much more important, perhaps, to be engaged with life and all that life offers, to be curious about people and experiences. To feel things deeply, and not to be afraid of unhappiness, of feeling the magnitude of life. —Nicole Krauss

Krauss, I think, captures the essence of writerly feeling about the Tigger/Eeyore divide. To a writer, eeyoreness is a badge of honor. Tiggers are tyrannical bullies wielding capital-H Happiness that must be resisted at all costs. Like Eeyore, serious writers think they should carry their problems (or the problems of the world) around like a storm cloud of gloom that matches their monochromatic clothing. Angst is to be prolonged and mined for all it is worth. No self-respecting writer wants to be like Tigger, an airhead bouncing around in a zany orange and black faux-fur coat.

But is that really all there is to Tigger? I recently reread The House at Pooh Corner, and I realized it’s a misconception that because Tigger is optimistic, his mood never changes. While Tigger was bouncier than the average stuffie, he wasn’t redlining the cheerfulness at all times. He had his ups and downs, just like the others. He couldn’t find anything he liked to eat. He got stuck in a tree. Rabbit tried to lose him in the forest on purpose!

Here are some lessons I learned from Tigger:

  1. Try new things.
  2. You won’t like everything you try. (No worries. Try something else.)
  3. Eventually you will find something you like. Keep doing it.
  4. Take risks.
  5. Sometimes you will fail. (It’s ok.)
  6. Sometimes you will be scared. (That’s ok too.)
  7. Don’t dwell on your failures. Dust yourself off and move on.
  8. When you’re optimistic, someone will try to quash your enthusiasm. Pay them no mind.
  9. Be kind and helpful, even to your frenemies.
  10. Bounce. It makes you look bigger.

Turns out, being a Tigger is about much more than just blind optimism. He’s got some pretty good strategies for life or for writing. As a short person, naturally my favorite is number ten: bounce. Piglet sees Tigger as being big, although Pooh notes that Tigger really isn’t big. He just seems big because he bounces. This reminds me of how I once mentioned to a friend that I always forget how little I am until I see myself in photographs with other people. She told me I have a tall personality. Maybe what I really have is a Tigger personality.

I can’t tell you whether choosing to be a Tigger (or an Eeyore!) is right for you. But Tigger isn’t bouncy just because he literally jumps around, but also because he bounces back after hardship. Being a Tigger doesn’t mean you can’t ever be unhappy, can’t ever go through a bad time, can’t ever be depressed or angry. Of course you can. But when you’re a Tigger, these are acute feelings, ones that fade over time, as the wound heals, just as a physical trauma does. Tiggers are able to let negative emotions go when they no longer serve them, while Eeyores collect snubs, real and perceived, like medals.

If you’re a writer who’s living in an Eeyorish permafunk, ask yourself if that attitude is serving your writing or a detriment to it. Are you busy tallying up criticisms and rejections, unable to fully enjoy successes because you’re always looking ahead to the next slight? Have you become so absorbed with keeping current with publishing trends that you’ve lost the joy of writing? Maybe it’s worth thinking a little more like Tigger. You don’t have to go all in, just dip a paw. Try something new. Take a risk. Extend a white flag to that fellow writer you’re feuding with. And if you’re really feeling brave, bounce.

Go ahead. Do it now. I won’t tell. What have you got to lose? At the very least, it’ll make you appear bigger.
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Email: beaver[at]toasted-cheese.com