Outside In

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


Outsider
Photo Credit: Steve Rotman

A few months ago, when VIDA: Women in Literary Arts published stats with respect to the gender disparity of book reviewees and reviewers (they’re primarily male in case you hadn’t guessed) in a number of major publications and Twitter exploded with either “ohmigod, how can this be?” or “duh, obviously,” I did a quick perusal of Toasted Cheese’s authors for 2010 and tweeted:

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Granted, these weren’t stats for reviews, but for creative nonfiction, poetry, and short fiction. But still, there it was. Our numbers were nearly equal. I decided [insert portentous music here] that this would be a good topic for a Snark Zone.

Then, just last week, VIDA released another count, this one a breakdown of the Best American anthologies. In this case, both the essay and poetry series were heavily weighted male, while the short story series was closer to equal. The data also reveal that even when the guest editor is a woman, often a majority of authors are men.

Also: Esquire republished a list of “75 Books Every Man Should Read” that only included one book by a woman, and V.S. Naipaul declared that all women writers are inferior to, well, him. What year is it again?

Obviously, I can’t control how much (or little) women writers are valued. I could take to Twitter, and rant about male bias, but considering my lack of followers (aside: what’s up with that? as an editor, shouldn’t I be more popular? why aren’t all you nice people sucking up to following me?), I’d be ranting into the abyss.

But I, along with my fellow editors, do have control over what’s published in Toasted Cheese. And with that control (muahahaha!), we’ve somehow managed to publish a fairly diverse assortment of writers, not just with respect to gender, but also experience, age, education, sexual orientation, ethnicity, nationality, religion, etc. Perhaps most gratifying, given the difficulty some of the more established publications seem to have achieving any diversity at all, is that this has happened rather organically.

One of the things editors said in response to the VIDA stats was that they publish more men because they get more submissions from men. And maybe to some extent, this is true. Because if you’re a writer and you’re doing your market research and you’re asking yourself is this publication going to be a good fit for me, for my work, and you see that nearly all the bylines in Publication X are male and you’re not, then maybe you’re going to decide to submit to Publication Q instead, which while perhaps not as well-known, has a better track record when it comes to gender diversity. So maybe that is a part of it, but it isn’t the whole story, because many of the major publications aren’t publishing much slush anyway. They’re soliciting work, that is, choosing who they ask to write for them.

In contrast, Toasted Cheese has been built on unsolicited work. In the beginning, we didn’t really have much of a choice; we had no networks to tap into. We were then, and still are in many respects, outsiders. Not just because we were founded by women (which, apparently, is notable) and have always had a predominantly female editorial board, but because we’re not based in a publishing epicenter, we’re not affiliated with a larger organization, we haven’t been on the receiving end of any angel funding (but, you know, if you have a million to spare, call me). And while not being close enough to mix and mingle with the cool kids or having the affiliations and funding that would give us the cachet that would be a draw for A-list writers can be a disadvantage, in terms of diversity, I think it’s an advantage.

Toasted Cheese was a blank slate at its inception ten years ago, and to a certain extent, we’ve let our writers decide what they want it to be. Yes, we decide what goes into each issue. But without submissions, we’d have no decisions to make. It’s the writers who’ve chosen to submit to us that have given us the raw material, the opportunity to be what we now are. And that is, I hope, a place where writers of all backgrounds feel welcome.

Drawing attention to gender disparity in literary publishing is admirable, but it’s just one strategy. Another is to support the publications that are already doing what you wish the major publications were. Spread the word about them. Subscribe. Donate. Volunteer. And most of all, if you’re a writer, submit to them. Because it’s not enough just to create alternatives. To effect real change, the new venues need to be where everyone wants to be. And that requires putting your writing where your mouth is.

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Email: beaver[at]toasted-cheese.com

Count Me In

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



Photo Credit: Stephanie Lenz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Email: baker[at]toasted-cheese.com

Joy to the Word

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


Beyond Pow!
Photo Credit: Barbara Holbrook

I have recently been taking acting classes that focus on Shakespearean verse. One of the many fun things we learn is exactly how much you can trust the Bard to get it right, and how much the characters revel in their choice word choices. If you truly give in to the words—to the sounds of the words, to the alliteration and the assonance—you find out a lot about the character’s feelings and state of mind.

My most recent monologue was “mad” Queen Margaret‘s speech to Queen Elizabeth (no, not that Queen Elizabeth, but Edward IV’s wife) from Richard III. Margaret lost her power, her son, and her husband Henry VI to Edward IV during the War of the Roses. At this point in Richard III, Elizabeth has also lost her husband and her power to Richard and has just found out her two young sons were murdered by him as well. Margaret has been hanging around England to watch the downfall of the house of York, and the speech is about her schadenfreude and about her twisting the knife in Elizabeth’s wounds. The full speech can be found here.

We talked a lot in class about how awesome Shakespeare was with his words. So one week, I just totally gave into those words. I really drew out all the consonants and vowels, really gave in to them and let them tell me the character’s feelings. Interestingly, I got a map of what she was doing and feeling.

At the beginning of the speech, Margaret is showing her contempt for Elizabeth, saying she was barely worthy of being queen as it was. She calls Elizabeth “poor shadow, painted queen, the presentation of but what I was.” Say that line, emphasizing every puh and buh. Sounds like you are spitting venom, doesn’t it? Pttthb!

Later, when Margaret is essentially saying that Elizabeth deserves all this pain (because, after all, these horrible events just mirror what the Yorks, lead by Elizabeth’s husband, did to her earlier), the speech fills with s sounds. Hissssss. “Thussss hath the coursssse of jusssstice whirled about…” And, having twisted the knife in Elizabeth’s wounds, she wallows in the schadenfreude: “These English woes will make me smile in France.” Catch the alliteration and consonance here? That’s right… mmm mmm mmm.

These aren’t the only juicy ways in which the words do Shakespeare’s work for him. There are many more examples sprinkled throughout the speech. The phrase “wails the name” for example, sounds like wailing if you draw out the a sound. Wail is onomatopoeic, and the a sound in name reinforces the “waaaaaah! aaaaaaah!” feeling of the line. Fun stuff, especially when you are acting it or reading it out loud.

We spend a lot of time as writers picking “the right words,” searching for just that nuance of meaning that hammers our point home. How much time do you spend on the sounds of your words? When you read your work aloud to hear how it flows, do you also listen for how it sounds, and whether or not the sounds reinforce the feelings you are conveying? Sometimes you’ll see it happening even if you didn’t plan it. Look for those instances. Revel in them. When your character’s “teeth chatter on a chilly day'” notice the ch ch ch of chattering teeth in that phrase. When your harried and hurrying character uses several words in a row starting with h, is it possible the hhu hhu hhu is showing you that he is out of breath?

Every once in a while, just give in to the words. Let them do your work for you. Let it be fun. Let it sound like what you mean as well as reading like what you mean. Enjoy the word play and enjoy the sound play. It’s a subtle thing, yes, but your writing will be the richer for it. And who knows? Maybe English students four hundred years from now will be pointing out these instances of word joy in lengthy essays or class discussions. So go for it!

In this post-NaNo season, my wish to all writers is: Joy to the Word!

“For what, we ask, is life without a touch of poetry in it?”
—The Pirate King, in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance.

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Email: bellman[at]toasted-cheese.com

No Take Backs (Or, Don’t Be an Asshat)

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


Yes No Maybe
Photo Credit: John

As writers, we’re often told that we need to learn to deal with rejection. It’s just part of the process. If you can’t deal with it, you may as well find a different vocation. I’ve even in written about it. But five years ago, when I wrote about only needing one yes, I wasn’t thinking about the possibility a writer might receive an acceptance, only to subsequently have the editor behave as if he were Nelson on The Simpsons (“haha!”) and rescind it.

Yet, that’s exactly what happened this summer. After a change in editors at The Paris Review, the new editor sent a form email to a number of poets whose work had been accepted by the previous poetry editors, informing them that he was sorry, but there was no place for their work in this new rendition of the journal (if you want to read about the incident, start here).

To say I was flabbergasted by this behavior would be an understatement. Words that ran through my mind: egomaniacal, disrespectful, unprofessional. The “unacceptances” served no one but himself. The former poetry editors, who were still a part of the journal, presumably didn’t pick dreck. Regardless of whether it was to his particular taste, it was still undoubtedly good writing. I now had a mental image of this editor as an individual who, due to a puffed up sense of his own sense of self-worth, had forgotten his colleagues were also human beings with feelings.

Shortly after The Paris Review incident, the managing editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review committed suicide. At first this tragedy seemed to be a personal one, but subsequently, allegations of workplace bullying on the part of VQR‘s editor arose. In the wake of this incident, VQR is now—at least temporarily—closed (you can read a recap of the events here and here).

Of course, these accusations may not be true, and even if they are, I don’t think that VQR‘s editor intended for this outcome. No one commits suicide just because his supervisor is a jerk. Obviously, there were a number of intersecting factors that led to the managing editor’s decision to take his own life, and these struggles are things that his co-workers may not have known about.

What I think we need to remember is that everyone has problems, and act accordingly. We’re often so wrapped up in our own concerns that we forget to empathize with those around us. Workplace bullies aren’t evil; rather, on some level, they feel threatened, and lashing out at their co-workers makes them feel better about themselves: powerful, important, indispensable to the organization.

Rejection isn’t exclusive to writing. It’s something we face every day, in every facet of our lives: work, school, teams, relationships. Because of that, everyone knows that all rejection is not created equal. We know that the further you get into the process, the more rejection stings. You email your resume in response to a job ad and receive a PFO letter in return? Meh, whatever. You lose your job of ten years, which you love and are exceptional at, due to an “organizational restructuring”? Crushed.

I’m not saying that editors should just accept everything to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings, or that bosses should overlook sloppy or deteriorating work, or that an offer shouldn’t be rescinded if it turns out one of the parties has misrepresented some pertinent information. Look, I get that TPR‘s new editor maybe didn’t love everything the previous editors selected as much as they did. (I should note that as a result of the reaction to the unacceptances, TPR backpedaled, offering the poets payment and online publication.) At Toasted Cheese, we edit as a collective, and that means that sometimes a piece I wasn’t all that fond of is chosen for publication—and sometimes a piece I loved doesn’t make the cut. But that’s okay. Because it’s not all about me.

Respect for your colleagues means trusting the decisions they make, not disparaging them for having different tastes. Respecting the writers you work with means honoring the commitments your publication has made, regardless of your personal opinion. When the other party, be it a writer or a fellow editor, acts in good faith, strive to act in good faith in return. Don’t be an asshat. Don’t exercise your power just because you can. There’s nothing wrong with having healthy self-esteem, but your esteem for yourself shouldn’t preclude compassion for your colleagues.

Acceptances are moments of celebration. Writers tell their friends, their family. They tweet and blog about it. They update their writer’s bio: “poems forthcoming in…” While they could avoid having to awkwardly explain that they’re not being published after all by always keeping their good news a secret until they actually see their work in front of them in print or pixels, that would suck much of the spontaneous joy out of life. So many things in life aren’t certain. It would be nice to believe that, at least in this one case, yes really means yes.

No take backs.

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Email: beaver[at]toasted-cheese.com

Missing the Snark

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


Happy Beaver
Photo Credit: stevehdc/Steve

While working on this piece, I ran across this anecdote from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s address to the Princeton graduating class:

The billionaire’s parable centered on a story of himself at ten years old, traveling along on a road trip with his grandparents. Bezos … calculated how many years his grandmother had cut her life short by smoking, and then told her. His grandfather stopped the car, made him get out, and said, “Jeff, one day you’ll understand that it’s harder to be kind than clever.”

Now I’m sure this is being tweeted as a Pearl of Wisdom, but let’s just back up a bit.

What was 10-year-old Jeff Bezos’s motivation for calculating the toll smoking was taking on his grandmother’s life? Was he, as his grandfather said, trying to show off how clever he was? “Look, Grandma and Grandpa! I’m a math whiz!” I’d hazard a guess he was not. What I think he was doing, in a roundabout 10-year-old way, was saying, “Look, Grandma, smoking has already taken X years off your life. Please stop now. I don’t want you to die.”

It might have been harsh, and Grandma might not have wanted to hear it, but in my opinion, it was also kind. He was telling her how much he cared about her. He was trying to be helpful by offering her some information he (at age 10) might have thought she didn’t have.

Kindness isn’t always a warm fuzzy.

Nearly ten years ago, the founding editors of Toasted Cheese wrote a mission statement that read in part:

Our primary reason for creating Toasted Cheese is to provide a place where writers can get honest feedback on their work and honest information about issues important to writers. … Toasted Cheese is committed to being an independent site, where all opinions are free to be expressed, as long as they are expressed in a polite manner. … Snark, aside from being a mythical beast in a Lewis Carroll poem, is what we call all those things in our writing that make it less than its best. Our mission is to hunt it out and get rid of it, and to help other people do the same.

In that statement are the three things I think every good critique needs: honesty, politeness, and, yes, a little snarkiness. Give credit where it’s due, but don’t lie, don’t over-praise. Avoid personal attacks; “you suck” is not a valid critique (nor a valid response to a critique). Be critical, but provide justification—and while you’re at it, don’t be afraid to be funny. Any adult who is reduced to a puddle by a little snark needs to develop a thicker skin.

A good critique is the writing-world equivalent of saying to a friend, “Hey, you know I love you and the outfit’s great, but that hat? It looks like it ate your head.” In a sane world, friend laughs and says, “Thanks for telling me. I had a feeling it was too much. What do you think of this one instead?” Friend is spared embarrassment, the two of you share a laugh, friend picks out a better hat, and all is well.

But these days, it probably wouldn’t be unusual for you to hesitate before saying anything about your friend’s outsized hat, thinking: Will she take offense? Maybe I should not say anything. Well, I have to say something, she’s waiting. “Er, nice shoes!”

Lately I can’t seem to shake the feeling that we’re living in a UPOP (Unqualified Praise Only, Please!) world, and I’m not the only one who thinks so. Recent articles note this trend to a world where we can like things but not dislike them, attributing it social media and a generational shift. In a world where friends, or rather “friends,” are currency, the “dry, sarcastic, snarky” wit of Gen X has given way to the inoffensive pleasantries of Gen Y.

These days, if you decide to go ahead with the hat-ate-your-head remark, you take the chance that your friend will react by bursting into tears and sobbing, “You’re just jealous! This is a $3,000 hat. I knew you hated me. You’ll be sorry!” as she tweets and facebooks about your egregiously offensive behavior (you snarked at her hat!), working herself and everyone around her into a frenzy of vitriol that makes “that hat looks like it ate your head” look like a compliment.

Because the flipside of this new mindset is that it’s apparently all right to be vitriolic as long as it’s couched as a defensive maneuver: “She said my hat looked like it ate my head. She’s so mean and also stupid! It’s supposed to look like that. It’s a $4,000 hat. It’s designer!”

The fact people are so quick to take offense at even mild criticism (not to mention leap to the defense of the offended) points to a fundamental misunderstanding of why people critique. Just because someone has some issues with something you wrote doesn’t mean they’re out to get you. Instead of thinking of critiquers as enemies, I think we need to start thinking of them as friends. Real friendships don’t crumble because one friend asks, “So, what you’d think of my story?” and the other replies, “Well, I had a few problems with it. I think it needs some work. Here’s why.”

Sure, maybe your critiquer isn’t actually a friend. Maybe you don’t know them. Maybe they really are your archrival. But if you take the feedback in the spirit of friendship regardless, it shifts the critiquer from “mean person who attacked me” to “a fellow writer who took the time to reflect on something I wrote”—and that makes a huge difference, for both of you.

A defensive response to a thoughtful critique overlooks the fact that a critique is also a piece of writing, a hard kind of writing, and the critiquer probably wrestled over not only what to say and how to say it, but whether to say it at all.

Just as young Jeff Bezos didn’t calculate the effects of his grandmother’s smoking to impress his grandparents with his math skills, you did not tell your friend that her hat looked like it ate her head to dazzle her with your flair for figures of speech. Sure, you might have giggled a bit at the sight of the oversized hat on your friend’s head (who wouldn’t?), but you stood your ground, telling her, “I don’t care if you paid $5,000 for that hat; it isn’t working. You look like the Mad Hatter” because you were looking out for her best interest. Your friend, of course, is free to disregard your opinion. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have offered it.

A couple months ago at Design Observer, Alexandra Lange lamented the lack of critical discourse in the design blogosphere. She wished there could be something like Go Fug Yourself for design rather than the proliferation of blogs that seem to do nothing but admire and fawn and gush. She wrote, “Celebrity chatter is my guilty pleasure, but the Fug Girls call the puffery to account. No, she does not look good. No, American (sic) will never love her. Yes, we can see your Botox. The acid is so refreshing. And yet we know they are still fans.”

And yet we know they are still fans.

Exactly. We don’t spend time dissecting and discussing and critiquing things that we have no interest in. We snark because we care.

There’s not a whole lot of value in engaging in disagreements with people you don’t like or have fundamental value differences with. We know how those kinds of discussions end up. But I see a great deal of value in being able to express your disagreement with people who you like and admire. As Lange says, “[W]hen you are primarily writing a sweet review, it is important to add a dash of pepper. Love doesn’t mean you have to love everything.”

And yet, these days, you could be forgiven for thinking that it does. If you play by the rules, you can like something—without reservations—or you can say nothing. Many book bloggers, for example, only write about books they liked. In a perverse way, it makes sense. In a world where connections are currency, you don’t write a book review to process what you took away from it, or to provide potential readers with an honest evaluation of the book, or even to provide the author with some potentially useful feedback. Rather, by naming a book or an author, you are declaring your fandom. The book review is no longer a critical evaluation, but a device to connect you with other fans of the book/author—and maybe even the author herself:

aspiringwriter @favoriteauthor, I love your books!
favoriteauthor Thanks! RT @aspiringwriter @favoriteauthor, I love your books!

I’m not going to deny that would be a thrill, even if all @favoriteauthor does is thank you for your compliment. But you know what? I believe that in this case you can have your cake and eat it too. Because if @favoriteauthor is worthy of that title, she understands that her truest fans are not the ones who gush uncritically over her work, they’re the ones who dissect and discuss and critique it.

The ones who aren’t afraid to snark.
pencil

Email: beaver[at]toasted-cheese.com

Cherry Blossoms

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


Cherry Blossoms
Photo Credit: Theryn Fleming

For many of you, this time of year, almost spring, means piles of slush.

But for us west coasters, it means cherry blossoms.

Sometimes I see statistics on slush piles posted, e.g. if a publication gets 1000 submissions and it publishes 10 of those, then anyone submitting there has a 1% chance of being published. Such stats assume that publication is like a lottery: you buy a ticket and if you’re lucky your number is drawn.

Of course, that’s crazy.

“Anne,” who writes well, follows guidelines, and submits her work to publications where she knows it would be a good fit is not comparable to “Bob,” who hasn’t mastered the basics of writing, ignores guidelines, and submits his work to unsuitable publications.

Anne has a good shot at being published regardless of how many other people submit. Bob is unlikely ever to be published regardless of how few people submit.

Potential for publication also depends on how seriously journals take their slush piles. Are they truly interested in wading through the slush to find the cherry blossoms—or are they just going through the motions?

Virginia Quarterly Review editor Ted Genoways recently wrote an article titled “The Death of Fiction?” In it, he complains about the number of submissions VQR gets in a year (15,000) versus the number of subscribers VQR has (1,500). According to Genoways’s logic, this means that everyone is writing and no one is reading, a situation he attributes to writers no longer concerning themselves with what their potential audience wants to read.

Well, he may have a point there. However, I think Genoways rather misses the real reason for the discrepancy between VQR‘s submissions rate and its subscriber rate. Publication in an established, prestigious print journal is a dream for a lot of writers and so such publications are likely to receive a disproportionate number of submissions.

In “The Death of the Slush Pile,” Katherine Rosman writes that although “[g]etting plucked from the slush pile was always a long shot” because it did happen occasionally, “the slush pile represented The Dream.” While it’s unclear from Genoways’s article how many slushpile pieces, if any, VQR publishes, Rosman cites The Paris Review as a publication that still values the slush pile, noting that all its unsolicited submissions are read, albeit by interns. However, of the 12,000 submissions TPR receives annually, it publishes only one. ONE. Which makes it hard not to laugh when the journal’s managing editor is quoted as saying: “We take the democratic ideal represented by the slush pile seriously.”

Presumably there is more than one publishable piece in the 12,000 they receive each year. (Come on.) TPR has chosen to instead to solicit already-established writers. That is, of course, their prerogative, but it’s also a very particular mandate.

What is hard not to escape in “The Death of Fiction?” and “The Death of the Slush Pile” is the narrowness of the writers’ perspective. In their world, literary journals only count if they’re print and old (venerable) and preferably sponsored by a university or some other institution (so they can afford to pay writers). Whereas, as Seth Fischer, editor of The Splinter Generation, points out, “There are hundreds of new sites that thrive on slush piles. There are countless small journals that do so, too. Does nothing count unless it’s Random House or The Paris Review?”

Toasted Cheese is online-only, and while we’re old in internet terms (this is our tenth year, can you believe it?) we’re still an upstart compared to the big-name print journals. Oh, and of course, we’re self-funded, which means, as much as we would like to, we can’t afford to pay our writers at this time.

But everything TC publishes—aside from Best of the Boards and our editorials—is slush. All of it. It is explicitly part of our mandate to publish new voices. From our submission guidelines:

Toasted Cheese publishes flash fiction, fiction, creative non-fiction, and poetry. Our focus is on quality of work, therefore the number of pieces published in each issue will vary. We accept approximately 5% of the submissions we receive. We encourage unpublished writers to submit to Toasted Cheese. We are impressed by quality writing, not by a list of credentials.

Five percent may not seem like a lot, but keep in mind TC‘s slush publication rate is 600 times higher than the The Paris Review‘s 0.0083%.

Everything we receive is read by two editors. If one or both of us feels the piece should be considered, it is shortlisted. We shortlist around ten submissions per month, regardless of the total number of submissions received.

At the end of a three-month submission period, the shortlist is read by the complete editorial board and we make our final decisions. If your submission makes it this far, you have two ways of making it in to TC. The first is for your piece to receive yes votes from a majority of the editors. The second is for your piece to be chosen as an editor’s pick, which means at least one editor feels strongly enough about your work to champion it.

And so, after all this, when we send an acceptance letter and we receive back, “Oh! Thanks, but it’s been accepted elsewhere! Isn’t it thrilling?!” I have to say, no, we’re not thrilled. We’re annoyed.

At this point, we have invested a lot of time in your work. We have told many other people, sorry, no, not this time. We ask upfront that you do not send simultaneous submissions (obviously many writers ignore this). We shortlist promptly (at the end of each month). We shortlist relatively few pieces (so you can be sure that if your piece is shortlisted, it is under serious consideration). This schedule is posted on our guidelines page and we adhere to it. Everyone who submits gets read (assuming you’ve submitted correctly) and gets a response.

We put a lot of work into reading and evaluating submissions. And unlike Ted Genoways, who sounds like he would prefer most writers to just go away, we do this for free, on our own time. We do this because we love writing and reading and discovering new writers.

Unlike Genoways, I do not mind reading unsolicited submissions, even the very very bad ones, because I know that if I keep reading, eventually I will find some cherry blossoms buried in the slush. What I do mind is the growing amount of impatience we have to deal with.

We tackle the reading of submissions in chunks as opposed to reading them as they come in because it is more manageable for most of us to set aside a day or two to read submissions than to be constantly thinking about them. Additionally, reading submissions one after another allows for the comparison of different pieces, to not only see how submissions stack up against each other, but see how they fit together. Many of our issues end up feeling like they have themes even though we did not explicitly set out with one in mind. In other words, the lack of an immediate response on our part is not arbitrary; we’re not making writers wait just for the sake of making them wait. We have good reasons for sticking to the schedule that we do.

Meanwhile, we have writers withdrawing only days after submitting, occasionally within 24 hours. We have writers withdrawing after we send them them shortlist letters. And we have writers withdrawing after we send them acceptance letters. To be honest, the ones that are withdrawn before I even have a chance to read them don’t bother me so much. But when I spend a lot of time reading a piece and making a decision about it and sometimes even editing and preparing it for publication, it irritates me to no end to receive an “Oh, sorry! It’s been accepted elsewhere!” in response. In the case of our Editor’s Picks, sometimes an editor has made a difficult decision between two pieces, only to have the chosen piece be withdrawn. Not only is this annoying from an editorial standpoint, it’s upsetting as both an editor and a fellow writer to know that a lack of courtesy meant the second writer missed out on an opportunity to have his or her work published.

A few points: if a publication says “no simultaneous submissions,” then don’t send them a simultaneous submission (i.e. submit your piece to more than one publication at the same time). If you are simultaneously submitting (and some publications are fine with them), this should be noted upfront in your cover letter. If you have simultaneously submitted, and your work is accepted by one of the publications, immediately notify the other publications to which you have submitted. By waiting until they contact you, you are not only being incredibly disrespectful of the editors, you are sabotaging yourself. Editors do keep track of such transgressions (and share information with each other), and any future submissions, regardless how good they are, are likely to be viewed with suspicion. Why should an editor put time into something that is likely to be withdrawn?

Recently, literary agent Nathan Bransford advised against the shotgun approach to querying. Instead of querying every agent you can find at once, he suggested querying in small batches. His rationale is that if you fail on your first try, you are then able to tweak your query and try again, but if you query everyone at once, then you are done.

I think the same principle can be applied to submissions. When you finish a piece, make a list of potential markets for it. Think of it like applying to university: pick a couple ‘reach’ markets, a bunch where you think your work would fit right in, and a few ‘safeties.’ Submit to one journal at a time, starting at the top of your list. While your work is under consideration, leave it alone. Work on something else. When you get a rejection, take another look at the piece with fresh eyes and fine-tune it. Send out the updated version. And so on.

Submitting this way might sound slow and tedious, and perhaps it is in the short-term. In the long run, however, writers who take this approach will end up with more polished work, stronger publishing credits, and a better relationship with editors. Their names will be out there as people editors want to work with and would be pleased to include in their journals. Their work may even be solicited by fancy-pants print journals, which means they won’t have to worry about the slush pile anymore.

They will be perennial cherry blossoms.
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Email: beaver[at]toasted-cheese.com

Pattern Recognition

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


As I was putting together this issue, I realized that we have six repeat contributors this time around. Five of those are appearing for their second time: C.L. Bledsoe, Kate Gibalerio, Kimberley Idol, Charles D. Phillips and Janice D. Soderling. Two of those writers (Gibalerio and Phillips) have pieces in different genres than they did in their first appearance in Toasted Cheese. One (Bledsoe) is returning after a four-year absence. From an editor’s perspective, both of these things are rewarding to see.

After nine years, seeing familiar names is not unusual, but we generally don’t have so many in one issue. One reason for that may be that we limit submissions to one per person per submission period (a maximum of four per person per year).

We have this policy for a few reasons. For one thing, it’s hard to consider a new submission in an unbiased way when you’ve just sent a rejection or acceptance letter. Asking writers to wait to submit again gives us a bit of breathing room and means the new submission is more likely to be considered on its own merits. For another, if we allowed unlimited submissions, we might end up with issues dominated by just a few writers. One of our mandates is to be welcoming to new writers and limiting the number of submissions per person helps us to fulfill that goal by giving a broader range of writers a chance at publication.

There is, however, a legitimate way to circumvent this rule, one that few regular submitters take advantage of.

Enter a contest… or four! Did you know that Toasted Cheese holds four writing contests each year? We do! Three of the contests are for fiction, and one is for creative non-fiction. All of the contests are blind-judged, so your recent acceptance or rejection doesn’t come into play. Enter all four contests, and you increase your opportunities for publication from four to eight.

Earlier I mentioned there are six repeat contributors in this issue. The sixth is Liz Mierzejewski, winner of the Fall 2009 Three Cheers and a Tiger contest, who is appearing in Toasted Cheese for the fourth time. This is her third win of the fall Three Cheers competition, making her our winningest contest entrant.

I think Liz’s success can be attributed to a combination of things. First, she’s persistent. She keeps entering year after year, and has entered every Toasted Cheese contest at least once. That said, it’s probably not a coincidence that she’s been most successful writing stories with a science fiction element; science fiction is her favorite genre. Finally, she’s a regular at our forums. Being familiar with the judges’ likes and dislikes can’t hurt.

Of course, not everyone has the time or inclination to hang out at the forums (although we’d love to see you there). But there are other ways of getting to know the judges. One of the ways is to check out the past contest winners. Another is to read the Editor’s Picks in each issue. In the spirit of the season, I’ve made this easy for you. Below, I’ve listed each of the contests with links to past winners, as well as the editor’s picks of the respective judges.

By the way, Liz’s fourth publication? Best of the Boards. That’s right. If you do decide to join us at the forums, you actually have twelve opportunities for publication per year.

So why limit yourself to just regular submissions? Enter a contest. (I know the contests are a challenge; that’s the point.) Post at the forums. Who knows? Maybe you will be our first triple threat and have three pieces published in the same issue.

 

Baker & Billiard | Dead of Winter

The Dead of Winter contest has been judged by Stephanie Lenz (Baker) & Erin Bellavia (Billiard) since Toasted Cheese 4:1. The judges say: “Dead of Winter is a fiction contest (any genre) for stories with supernatural elements or themes. Ideally, stories should be set in autumn or winter. The most original, most haunting stories will be chosen for publication.”

DoW runs from November 1 – December 21 each year and winning stories are published in the March issue. Word limits are typically between 3,000–5,000 words.

Past themes & winners:

Baker’s Picks:

Billiard’s Picks:

 

Bellman & Bonnets | Three Cheers and a Tiger (Spring)

The spring Three Cheers and a Tiger contest has been judged by Amanda Marlowe (Bellman) and Mollie Savage (Bonnets) since Toasted Cheese 4:2. Three Cheers and a Tiger is a 48-hour short story contest. All entries must be composed within the contest time frame. The spring rendition is a mystery contest.

Spring 3 Cheers is held in March each year and winning stories are published in the June issue. The word limit varies, but is usually under 2,500 words.

Past Themes & Winners:

Bellman’s Picks:

Bonnets’s Picks:

 

Beaver | A Midsummer Tale

The A Midsummer Tale contest has been judged by Theryn Fleming (Beaver) since Toasted Cheese 4:3. A Midsummer Tale is a creative non-fiction contest. The “creative” in creative non-fiction means we are looking for non-fiction stories told using fiction techniques. Stories must take place in summer.

AMT runs from May 1 – June 21 each year and winning stories are published in the September issue. The word limit is typically 3,000–5,000 words.

Past Themes & Winners:

Beaver’s Picks

 

Boots & Ana | Three Cheers and a Tiger (Fall)

The fall Three Cheers and Tiger contest has been judged by Lisa Olson (Boots) since Toasted Cheese 3:4 and Ana George since Toasted Cheese 4:4. Three Cheers and a Tiger is a 48-hour short story contest. All entries must be composed within the contest time frame. The fall rendition is a science fiction / fantasy contest.

Fall 3 Cheers is held in September each year and stories are published in the December issue. The word limit varies, but is usually less than 2,500 words.

Past Themes & Winners

Ana’s Picks:

Boot’s Picks:

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

The Voice of the People

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


As I was leafing through my copy of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth, I came across two letters. I knew what they were, of course. I had heard the story behind them more than once, and read them, but it was still a thrill to find them tucked inside the book.

One letter was a copy of a letter my mother had written Mr. Wilder when she was sixteen:

(A note on it indicated it was copied from a scratch version in 1949 and had been sent sometime in May 1947)

Each year the Senior Public Speaking Class of [our school] presents a [festival] made up of scenes from well-known plays. This year our title was from Wilde to Wilder. We gave the first and third acts from The Skin of Our Teeth. I had the part of Mrs. Antrobus in the third act, which we did in assembly this morning. It was an experience. We had been rehearsing for months so that we could get as much out of it as possible in order to get across everything to our audience. Our director was a young man who had been in the Navy during the war and had carried your play with him throughout all the action he had seen. Because it meant so much to him and because its message hit us between the eyes, we tried very hard to create the right atmosphere. Each rehearsal found us deeper into the meaning of the third act. This morning’s performance was all that we hoped it would be. The play is so powerful that students from the seventh grade up were profoundly interested.

It meant a great deal to me to be able to work on Mrs. Antrobus. My interpretation was naturally lacking because I don’t think a sixteen year old girl could really understand her, but I learned an awful lot. Those students who had other parts had the same experience and it did something for us nothing else could. I wanted to tell you what your play meant to group of high school students and to thank you.

Also tucked in the book was Mr. Wilder’s handwritten response:

(dated June 27, 1947)

Forgive my delay in replying to your kind letter. I am delighted that you and your fellow students found the experience rewarding. On thinking it over I realize that that is a third act that can very easily be played separately. You can imagine with what interest I read letters from Germans who are seeing it in Berlin; who themselves are coming out of cellars; and who write me that they listen urgently to those “three things” that give Mr. Antrobus the courage to go on.

All best wishes to you in your work and again thank you for your letter.

Sincerely yours,
Thornton Wilder

sz9-3

Letter from Thornton Wilder

I had first read these letters years ago, when my mother first introduced to me to The Skin of Our Teeth, back when I was a teen. But several things struck me as I read this exchange again both as an adult and as a writer.

The first thing that struck me was how technology has made authors much more accessible. When I was a child, encouraged by my mother’s story of Wilder’s answer, I would occasionally send a letter to a favorite author, care of the publishing house. I had to take it on faith the mail made it there, as I was never graced with an answer as my mother was.

But today most of my favorite authors keep tabs on their email lists, posting occasionally, answering fan queries. Others have blogs, responding to fan comments as they can. They use Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and direct messages from them tend to be available 24/7. They may still only pick a few people to answer directly, but they answer in public for everyone to see. And there is something less personal about a public reply, meant for more eyes than just yours. There’s something a written letter gives you: the feeling that it is tangible, that it is your reply and yours alone, something you can show to your children, or leave for them to find as they leaf through an old book. I don’t think my children, who are digital age children through and through, would ever consider writing an author an actual letter, unless it was part of an assignment for a class. They would seek out the digital outlet first. Their children might come across an ancient blog comment, with a reply from the author. Maybe. However, they will never come across an unexpected letter signed by the author while leafing through an old book. There’s something a little sad about that.

The second thing that struck me was how both my mother’s letter and Mr. Wilder’s response referred to experience, and how different people bring their own experiences to a work. Act Three of The Skin of Our Teeth opens after a seven-year long war. Mrs. Antrobus and her daughter have been hiding in a bunker all that time. (The world has been destroyed and rebuilt several times. This is the first act in which we see the aftermath of the latest destruction of the world—both Act I and Act II end with destruction imminent.) The Navy man who directed my mother in Act III brought his experience to the play in a way that my mother, as a sixteen-year-old, could not. The Germans mentioned by Mr. Wilder also brought a uniquely heightened experience with them as they watched the play.

The author has one experience in mind when creating the work, but people’s reactions to and interpretations of it will vary widely. The work is not truly completed until it has been interpreted by someone else. And while authors and artists have control over the final work, they have no control over how it is interpreted. But that’s a good thing. It is the story that allows for this variation of meaning among readers, that speaks to people in different ways, that speaks to something inside that makes you uniquely you—it is that story that becomes “an experience.” It is the reader or the viewer who completes the work, and brings to it a deeper and richer experience that only they can understand.

And perhaps my mother’s connection to the play was one of the reasons I’ve always preferred it to Wilder’s better-known Our Town.

Antrobus:

Now I remember what three things always went together when I was able to see things most clearly: three things.
Three things:
The voice of the people in their confusion and need.
And the thought of you and the children and this house…
And… Maggie! I didn’t dare ask you: my books! They haven’t been lost, have they?

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

#writerwin

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


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

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

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

Editors, agents and publishers want writers to succeed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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