Meanwhile, Behind the Scenes…

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

Some journals have editors specific to each section, like a fiction editor or a poetry editor. Although we’ve kicked that idea around, when it comes down to it, Toasted Cheese‘s editorial board works best as a collective. Think of us as a virtual queen-free Borg cube floating through space, accepting submissions on a rolling basis and sponsoring four contests a year, only with more dancing bananas.

For us, working as a collective makes the editorial process easier. We recently compared notes and found that even though we work individually when making our editorial decisions, when we pool those decisions, we pretty much arrive at them the same way.

Each month, two of our editors do a preliminary sort and submissions are labeled “consider” “no” or “disqualified.” At this stage we notify everyone of the submission’s status; the authors receive an e-mail and the other editors remove all but the “consider” submissions from their reading lists. This saves time and gives the writers updates on the status of their submissions.

After a submission period closes, we read all of the “consider” submissions and then give each piece either a grade or a simple “yes,” “no” or “maybe.” Submissions labeled “maybe” or given a borderline grade are reread until they fit into “yes” or “no.”

How do you get on the “yes” list? We’re pretty simple people to please and I think most editors would agree with this little list:

  1. Follow the guidelines. For example, we ask that “submission: [category]” is the title of your e-mail. We do that so that our spam filters, which put many legitimate e-mails into the junk folder, recognize the e-mail as a submission. For example, Gmail’s “star” system might add a star to any e-mail with “submission” in the title. When going through hundred of daily spam messages, that little gold star will rescue a submission from junk mail purgatory.
  2. Write well. Many of us don’t even read cover letters. We skip straight to the good part: the submission itself. Your credits are nice to add to your biography when we print your story but we like to see “this is my first submission” just as much as a list of impressive journals.
  3. Proofread. Make sure the technical errors are eliminated (grammar, spelling, homophones, apostrophe usage, etc.). Multi-character glyphs are enough to make some editors stop reading.

Okay, you’ve done those three things. Now, how do you get the editor to keep reading? Here’s how the Toasted Cheese editorial collective defines quality:

  • Tight writing, without wasted words
  • Stories and poetry that cause genuine emotional reactions
  • Pieces that stay with us long after we’ve read them
  • Vibrant settings and characters
  • Interesting language
  • Evocative mood
  • Believability and, when applicable, realism
  • Fresh narrative voice
  • Good flow of ideas and words

What are good ways to turn the editors off? Use gratuitous sex, gratuitous violence, dead pets or dead children to shortcut to an emotion. Send us porn (some of us don’t mind reading erotica but we can’t publish it so it’s wasted time on all sides). Rhyme your poetry. Rebut your rejection (and submit again). Instead of bringing your story to a natural ending, cut it off when you near the word count. For contests, take an old or pre-written story and force the theme into it. Better yet, don’t use the theme throughout and then toss it in as a line of dialogue or the unexpected twist. Finally, throw in a character who doesn’t know he’s dead or, better yet, is a vampire!

What are our favorite things to read? It may be shocking but really bad submissions are high on the list. We don’t mean the stories by new writers who just haven’t learned the basics but stories and poems that seem to have some effort put into making them truly awful (or x-rated—always crowd-pleasers, those). When it comes down to it, however, our favorite things to read are piece that make us say “wow” or “yes” on first read. Flash, when it works, seems to have the greatest appeal for the editors, outside of the contests they run. We also like creative non-fiction when the “creative” element is showcased.

When it comes to our contests, things are the same but different. The grading and sorting system is similar but we all tend to be more lenient or forgiving with contest entries. Judges of our “Three Cheers and a Tiger” contests, in which the authors have 48 hours to write a story within a set word count and using a theme, tend to give writers a pass on some things because of the time constraint. After all, it’s part of the challenge. Contest entrants still need to follow those three steps and meet our definition of “quality writing.”

Each editor, whether reading a contest entry or a regular submission, is rooting for you, not against you. We want to publish your best work.

Being a collective, we don’t always agree on what should go in the e-zine. Sometimes a submission is “on the bubble,” as we say. If an editor really wants Toasted Cheese to publish a submission that’s in danger of being rejected, that editor can use an “editor’s pick” or “EP.” We invented the EP to rescue pieces that had at least one editor’s seal of approval. Because the EPs are based on personal taste and are more selective, they can show off work that’s a little less mainstream than what one might find in the average literary journal.

One thing we definitely agree on is that we don’t want Toasted Cheese to be “average.”


E-mail: baker[at]

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