Evidence of Murder by Lisa Black

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Theryn Fleming


While most of my co-editors are into science fiction and fantasy, my favorite types of genre fiction are mysteries and thrillers. That’s why I was excited to learn that one of Toasted Cheese‘s first contest winners has become a bona fide mystery writer.

Lisa Black has published four novels about forensic scientist Theresa “Tess” MacLean: Takeover (2008), Evidence of Murder (2009), Trail of Blood (2010), and Defensive Wounds (2011). The fifth, Blunt Impact, is forthcoming in 2013.

Evidence of Murder is the second in the series but, like most mystery series, enough background information is sprinkled throughout the book that not having read the first doesn’t detract from this story. Some of that background might, however, be considered a spoiler to Takeover, so if you’re a fanatic about that sort of thing, you’ll probably want to read the books in order.

Jillian Perry is found frozen in the woods, seated next to a tree. The cause of death is not apparent. Did she freeze to death? Was it an accident? Suicide? Murder? She has a new baby, an even newer husband, and until recently worked as an escort for a sketchy character with a criminal past. She’s estranged from her parents—and, oh yeah, she has a stalker. His name is Drew Fleming. I have to admit Black won me over with this detail. (Your mileage may vary.) I love it when my namesakes are persons of interest. Just ask Baker.

The twist of Theresa being a forensic scientist, rather than a detective, police officer or lawyer, isn’t unfamiliar, with the many crime scene procedurals on television, but here the premise felt fresh, perhaps because Black’s real-life background as a latent fingerprint examiner and crime scene investigator lends authenticity to the scientific details. She’s obviously familiar with her setting, Cleveland, as well.

Supporting characters include the requisite cast of quirky lab mates, a gaggle of Theresa’s relatives—the most of important of these being her police detective cousin and her teenage daughter, and a hostage negotiator who doubles as a potential love-interest. Most of these characters only played a small role in this book, but Black has established a good base to build on as the series progresses.

There are numerous suspects and red herrings but, as the title suggests, ultimately, the real mystery isn’t so much the identity of the murderer, but the method. This makes sense, given Theresa’s profession, but I think it makes it more difficult to write a satisfying ending. Part of the fun of reading a mystery is attempting to arrive at the solution on your own—and I don’t think that was possible here. That said, Black’s writing style is very readable and Evidence of Murder is a quick and entertaining read that convinced me the rest of the series is worth checking out.

*

Evidence of Murder made The New York Times mass-market fiction best seller list in October 2010. Lisa Black’s story “In the Bleak December” placed second in the first annual Dead of Winter Writing Contest. She has also published two novels as Elizabeth Becka, Trace Evidence (2005) and Unknown Means (2008). Her website is Lisa-Black.com.

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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 Toucan Magazine

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Theryn Fleming


The Toucan Magazine was founded in 2008 by two students at Columbia College Chicago, Liz Baudler (whose story, “It’s All Ice,” was published in Toasted Cheese 11:1) and Laura Rynberg, who style themselves as editrices.

The Toucan is published five times a year, online and in print. The online version, which I’m reviewing here, is hosted on Blogspot. The background of the page is a bright lime green; the body is pale orange and white. Immediately below the masthead is a sticky post, welcoming readers and writers. At the top of the right-hand sidebar are the submission guidelines.

What I like about the layout: the text is plain, but readable. The toucan artwork—by Tom Besson—in the masthead adds an original touch to the standard blog template. The sticky post at the top of the page orients first-time visitors and the location of the submission guidelines makes them impossible to miss. The guidelines themselves are clear and succinct.

What I’m less fond of: the blog-as-magazine format can be difficult to navigate, especially when reading archived issues. While each piece gets its own post/page, it’s surrounded by the sticky intro post and sidebar, which feels a bit cluttered and can distract from the writing. There are also some issues with the formatting (fonts, colors, line spacing) of the posts.

The Toucan publishes prose, poetry, and artwork. The artwork appears alongside the poetry and prose selections. The images are quite small, and it would be nice to see them on a slightly larger scale.

As of this writing, The Toucan has published sixteen issues online, the latest in May, and thirteen in print (the print issues seem to be on hiatus at the moment). Some of the issues are themed. Each issue begins with an introductory post with table of contents and concludes with a post of contributors’ notes. Most issues also include an “Editrice Note,” a bloggy version of the traditional editor’s note. Liz appears to do most of the editorial writing, and her voice is friendly and enthusiastic.

The contributors come from a wide range of backgrounds and include both new writers and those who’ve published extensively. I recognized some names from here at TC: Gale Acuff, John Grey (who appears in this issue), Corey Mesler, and Kristine Ong Muslim.

In Issue 16, John Grey’s “These Hollows” depicts a scene many writers can relate to—writing through the night while one’s partner sleeps:

I’m at the computer
pounding away
like an insomniac’s heart.

In “Autumn Evening” by Tony Burnett the melancholy of the farmwife narrator who’s missing her only child, who has left home to travel the world, is echoed by the bawling of a cow who has lost her calf. The claim that “all is well” in the final line is belied by the unsettled tension in the story:

“Will she quit bellowing soon?” I ask. I know the answer.

“Not anytime soon.”

Later, after he washes away the prairie, we lie beside each other in bed. He kisses me softly and pushes a strand of gray hair away from my eye. We kiss again.

“Sweet dreams,” he says. We don’t waste any energy creating unnecessary heat.

“Good night,” I say and turn off the bedside lamp. All is well.

Issue 16 also includes fiction by Beau Johnson, Theodore Obourn, Nikki Dolson, T.W Townsend, Kato Harris, and Rory Margraf, and poetry by Michael Estabrook, Prairie L. Markussen, L. Ward Abel, and Davide Trame, as well as artwork by Eleanor Bennett and Denny Marshall.

According their introduction to the issue, Liz and Laura just graduated from college, so we offer our congratulations and best wishes with The Toucan and all their future endeavors.

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Email: beaver[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

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:

tweet

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

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.
pencil

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:

pencil

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

Carpe Diem

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


Last month, after the editors finalized their selections for the March issue and the notifications were sent out, we received word that one of our authors had died in December. This was sad news for us, as Homer had submitted to us several times over the past four or five years, and while we hadn’t published everything he sent us, we had always been entertained by his work. We are sorry that “Buzzards in the Projection Booth” is the last story we will see from him.

My first thought after I’d had time for the news to absorb was that I was sorry that he hadn’t got his acceptance before he died. Almost as quickly came a second thought: but isn’t it great that he went out the way every writer presumably wants to—writing and submitting until the very end?

Of course it’s a cliché, but none of us knows exactly when our end will be. But sooner or later, it will come. When it does, what will you be doing? Will you be writing your pants off or will you still just be thinking about doing it… someday?

When we take time to map out our goals and aspirations, it’s easy to single out the things that are most important to us. We often finish such exercises feeling inspired, energized, ready to take on the world. But back in our day-to-day lives, our To Do Lists aren’t generally organized from “most important” to “least important.” They’re organized from “the deadline for this was last week! ack!” to “this can wait.” In other words, things with firm deadlines (regardless of how trivial) get prioritized, and those without deadlines at all (regardless of how important) get pushed to “tomorrow” or “next week/month/year” or “when the kids leave home” or “when I retire.”

To my mind, this is why writing resolutions so often fail. Unless you have a firm deadline for a piece of writing, it’s likely to get pushed to the bottom of your To Do List—and keep getting pushed there, because there’s always going to be something that needs to be done first.

There are some who will say that if you’re putting off writing, it’s because you don’t really want to write, you just like the idea of being a writer. I disagree. It may be true in some cases, but I don’t think it is the real reason for most. I think the real reason writers put off writing is that we like it so much that we think of it like we think of dessert: it’s a treat. Just like dessert is the reward for eating our veggies, writing is the reward for getting our work done.

Writing on a deadline gets done because we mentally shift the activity from treat to work. But sans deadline, how do you convince yourself it’s okay to write today, rather than putting it off until later? I’ve heard the argument that the only way is to think of all writing, regardless of deadline, as work. That if you persist in thinking of it as fun, then you’re destined to be a dilettante. But here’s the thing: I just don’t think that reasoning—as rational as it may be—works for a lot of writers. As exasperating as their labor of love may be at times, it just doesn’t feel like work. They simply get too much pleasure from it.

But dessert is also pleasurable and yet it’s unlikely that you plan to hold off eating any dessert until your golden years (at which point you will stuff yourself silly with cake, cookies, and pie). While you probably don’t eat dessert at every meal, you might have it once a day or a couple times a week or on special occasions or when you eat out. And when you do have dessert, you probably don’t eat an entire cake or pie or batch of cookies. You eat a couple cookies, a piece of pie, a slice of cake. Why? Because treats are best in small doses. That’s how they stay treats.

Waiting until you have a stretch of uninterrupted time and then writing for hours or days without a break is like eating too much dessert: it’s delicious and thus you don’t want to stop, but eventually it hits you that you’re over-satiated. Afterward, you avoid desserts for a while because the thought of more sugar makes you feel a little sick. A long writing session can be great, but not if it leaves you feeling so wrung out that you put off your next session indefinitely.

Instead of putting off writing until you can binge on it, try giving yourself the occasional smaller reward. It might not seem like you can get much done in five minutes or even an hour—but it all adds up. One hundred words a day—about the length of this paragraph—adds up to 36,500 words in a year; in two years, you’d have a complete novel. So next time you reach for a cookie, why not grab your laptop or a notebook and treat yourself to a writing session while you nibble? Don’t wait until it’s too late.

pencil

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