Fifth Anniversary Party:
Q & A With the Editors

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

Next month, Toasted Cheese marks its fifth anniversary. To start the celebration early, the editors had a virtual get-together to answer some of your most burning questions.

Q: Whatever inspired you to use Carroll’s poem as the backdrop for this wonderful online community? And just what the heck is a Bandersnatch!? Is it akin to a Jubjub?

Bellman: Well, we called ourselves Snarkers, and I’d always strongly associated the word Snark with the poem, which I tried to memorize at one point in my life. (I think I made it through Fit The Third, but no one would ever let me get terribly far in trying to recite it for some reason, so it was thankless work.) It seemed like a natural match.

Baker: In fourth grade, we were given the assignment to draw one of the characters from “Jabberwocky” and I chose the Bandersnatch. It looked a lot like Grimace from McDonalds. I don’t think it has anything to do with Jubjubs, which are birds, I believe. I also freely admit to being the one who coined “snark” as our code for bad writing. A snark is a kind of half-snort, half-huff with an eye roll—for flair.

Q: The “B names” the editors use as aliases are all taken from the poem. How did you chose your B-name (assuming you use one) and do you think it suits you?

Beaver: Well, the Beaver is Canada’s national animal, so it is apropos. Also, I can do a good beaver impression. And no, that is not obscene. I just have big front teeth. Okay, why does even that sound indecent?

Bellman: Since I got us the web site and was sort of the “ringleader,” I was the titular leader of the expedition. Which meant everyone else did more of the real work 😉 Besides, I was perplexed and distressed when the bowsprit got mixed up with the rudder…

Boots: “Boots” to me sounded like a cat and I like cats, so I chose it. It also reminded me of the classic song, “These Boots Are Made For Walking” and Nancy Sinatra, so it was a good fit all around. Yeah, it suits me. I found a great picture titled “Boots” of some slinky woman in big tall boots with high heels, and I love it. But, I still kind of think of cats when I hear it.

Baker: I really, really wanted my B-name (Baker) for two reasons. One was that it was the surname of a main character in the book I’d recently finished. The other was that I actually do bake quite a bit. I’d bake more if my husband weren’t so strong-willed about eating sweets. Baking is a good stress reliever for me.

Q: Do you call each other by your B-names?

Boots: Only in TC forums, really. I use their original online names, the ones they were when I met them, because it’s how I think of them. Guess I’m old and unchangeable.

Baker: The only people I really call by their B-names are Boots and Beaver and only in the context of TC. I’m like Boots in that I use their “real” names more often, even for myself.

Q: Which editors have met in real life?

Beaver: I’ve met Boots!

Boots: Beaver came to visit me in Portland, OR. and stayed a couple of nights while attending a writing “seminar.” She knows why that’s in quotes. She didn’t have trouble with the pets or the kids or even the husband. She and I did dueling chats and she logged on from my house to tag-team the rest of the TC gang. Sadly, I couldn’t show her much of Portland because I don’t know where anything is and I don’t drive! We went to Powell’s and went out for a drink with the “teacher” of the “seminar” to a school that’s now a high-end jazz bar (no joke). We still had fun.

Bellman: I met the Barrister once. It was fun! I was hoping to meet Billiard in January, but events intervened and it is not to be. Maybe next year, Billiard?

Baker: Billiard and I have met twice, both times in my town. I have a photo to prove it, taken in a restaurant which no longer exists. So I guess we win.

Ana: Haven’t met any of them in real life. Should fix that.

Q: Let us in on your favorite in-joke among the editors.

Ana: I doubt we should let them in on the all-time dreck list, but it kind of amuses me.

Beaver: That has to be either “bummer” (the final word of a story told from the PoV of a rabbit scooped up by hawk then dropped *splat* onto a highway) or “cough cough THUD” (description of narrator’s boss dying).

Bellman: cough, cough, thud.

Boots: My favorite is actually an icon. The little freakish pink icon you probably always wondered about on our icon list is an “in” joke. We call it the “paramecium”. What is it? It’s a HUG. It was someone’s idea of a nice, soft, cuddly hug. It looks like someone flattened a bear with a steamroller.

Billiard: Vampire cop comes to mind, as does “magic wand.”

Baker: Mine would be the butterknife. I forget exactly what the discussion was but it was during a live chat/class on the site where we’d all met (and coined “snarking” etc.). Someone was telling a “suspenseful” story that was just laughable and there was a prediction that the MC would use a butterknife to defend herself against the predictable intruder in her house. Sure enough, there was the butterknife. I said “aloud,” “Is she going to spread him to death?” Somehow it got all mixed up with our vampiric in-jokes and we now believe that you can use a butterknife to kill a vampire. There are a lot we have a vampires. The mere mention of a vampire can send us off on giggle fits.

Q: What are some of your favorite stories by other editors?

Beaver: I found this question really hard to answer because, like Baker says below, the reason I connected with my co-editors in the first place is because with each of them, there was something in their writing that clicked with me. So, picking one thing is hard. I am impressed by all of my co-editors who have completed novels.

Ana: One of Baker’s erotic stories made Best Women’s Erotica a couple years ago.

Bellman: TC 1-1. Pick one at random that isn’t mine…

Boots: Baker’s Whited Sepulchers tops my list. I read it in about 3 days, and it’s a full blown novel. It’s beautiful, interesting, and fun. Beaver’s articles rock and her recent one about copyright laws rocked my universe and saved my cookies in a sticky situation.

Billiard: Tough one. I think all of the TC editors are amazingly talented writers.

Baker: There’s Boots’s naked cooking story, which has to be on the list. Beaver’s silver balloons story and her work about Riley and well just about everything really. Billiard’s is the only chick lit I’ve ever liked b/c it’s actually about something; I like best the drafts she sends for feedback because I like to watch her process. Ana’s piece “How Long is the Night?” has stuck with me over the years because it was inventive and evokes such a feeling of comfort and gives a sense of character. When it all comes down to it, I think my softest spot is for Bellman’s comic mystery short story “From Soup To Nuts,” a printout of which I recently found in my files. It was the first online short story I ever commented on because I felt so moved by the quality of the writing, the structure, the humor, etc. After I commented, Bellman dropped me an e-mail thanking me for the comments and the rest, as they say, is history (and that was almost six years ago!).

Q: What’s your favorite piece of unpublished writing (your own)?

Beaver: I do have a soft spot for So Far Away… The killing a wild pig scene is a classic! 😉

Bellman: A fairy tale parody/parable I’ve been working on for about 15 years. I’ll finish it eventually!

Ana: I have this unfinished novel swirling around in my head…

Boots: “Photographs,” a piece of creative non-fiction based on my experiences with some pictures. It’s probably the best thing I’ve ever written because it’s memorable, short, and says a lot about the author herself. I submitted it to Writer’s Digest Short Story Contest, but it didn’t win anything. Haven’t really found a venue for it beyond that.

Billiard: I wrote a piece inspired by one of my favorite songs. It (the story) is called “Dissonance.” The song is called “Black Monday” and is achingly, heart-wrenchingly sad. I think the story does it a tiny bit of justice. Now, if I could only find someone to publish it…

Baker: I have a few short stories tucked away here and there but I think my favorite is probably the piece I’ve worked on most recently. It’s a novella, possibly a novel, with the working title Reasons For Moving. I usually just call it “Seth,” same as I call Beav’s So Far Away “Riley.”

Q: When did you know you had to be a writer?

Baker: I had written stories and poems for pleasure since I was in elementary school. I liked the idea of being able to entertain people without having to be in the room. I also enjoyed reading my stuff aloud, when invited. I never thought I’d write as anything more than a diversion. When I was a freshman in college, I had to write a kind of character profile for the character I was playing in my final scene in my actor’s studio course. I got a “10+” on the paper and my theater teacher commented, “Will you continue to write?” She also said, in front of the class, that she called a friend of hers to read the paper aloud because she thought it was so funny. I thought, “Maybe I should continue to write. Or she’s saying ‘please stop acting.’ One or the other.” So I switched to an English major and then went on to take more writing courses and I ended up majoring in creative writing.

Boots: I remember writing my first Nancy Drew-type “novel” in the 7th grade. I think that was my first honest attempt at anything truly literary. I know I wanted to be one before, but I was SURE I would be in the 7th grade.

Beaver: I decided that I wanted to be a writer when I was 12 (I actually wrote it down in my journal), but it’d been simmering for about a year, since I’d received some gushing praise for a poem I’d written. I knew that I was a writer when I was 28, when I made a conscious decision to get serious about writing after a long hiatus and a difficult year. The very first thing I wrote in the sketchbook that I turned into a notebook on the fly was: “I am a writer.”

Ana: I started writing in my 40s, in part as a way of finding myself by trying on other characters I’d invented.

Billiard: Probably in grade school, when I started writing a novel about being stranded in the ocean… my little brother had one of those tent-tops for his bed (remember those?) and I used to pretend I was in a boat by myself out on the ocean. And I started writing my little stories about it in a composition notebook. I have no idea what happened to that notebook.

Bellman: I think I was in 1st grade. I’d just published my first book, about my dog. The teacher published it for me. In third grade I started my own comic strip called “Wormy Apples” about worms in apples that told each other jokes.

Q: Do you do any other creative work?

Beaver: I used to do a lot of arty/crafty stuff, but not so much anymore. I choose to put that energy into writing. I do like photography. And I cook, which yes, is creative. I’m not a stick-to-the-recipe type person.

Baker: I bake. I knit. I scrapbook. I decorate. I webdesign. I take photos. I do whatever I can that has any element of creativity to it.

Ana: I love singing Renaissance Polyphony.

Bellman: I write songs occasionally, does that count?

Boots: I also make graphics in Paint Shop Pro. What I mostly do with it is create things FROM things, because I can’t draw a lick. But I do webset design (See all the stuff around here? That was me.) and photo alterations and awards and… whatever comes to mind. I’ve been doing a lot of icons lately based on Whedon characters (Buffy, Angel & Firefly) and whatever else strikes me as needing to be an icon. I also do some minor photography, mostly of the flowers in my yard and area.

Q: Do you write or edit as part of your real-life job?

Bellman: My job title is editor, actually. I both write and edit. Almost all the time. TC is rather like a busman’s honeymoon.

Billiard: Not currently, but I used to. I worked in journalism for several years.

Boots: Sadly, not even a little right now. However, I’m hoping for a promotion. Which means mostly MEMO writing, but will include some informational writing as well. Of course, TC is one of my real-life jobs, so I do edit all the time!

Q: If you went to college, what was your major?

Beaver: Biology. Though I was originally a creative writing major.

Ana: Physics and Math.

Bellman: Physics.

Boots: I went to technical college and my major was Travel & Tourism. See how much that helped in my current vocation of cellular phone customer service? Man, I’m glad I went and did that.

Billiard: Communication arts, with a minor in writing.

Baker: English, with a creative writing emphasis, and a minor in American history.

Q: Is editing satisfying?

Beaver: Yes. Like Billiard, I am amazed by the quality of the submissions. Yes, there’s a lot of crap in the slush pile, but at least once a quarter, we’ll get a submission that simply makes me go: “Wow.” And that makes wading through the slush worthwhile.

Billiard: Yes. I am constantly amazed and gratified at the quality of submissions to TC.

Bellman: For the most part, yes.

Ana: Mostly, yes. The babysitting aspects, not so much.

Boots: Editing your own work is always satisfying. Editing others can be kind of touch and go. It’s great to see when someone’s used at least some of your advice to strengthen their story. Or, when they’ve learned from some simple mistake you pointed out and don’t do it again in the next story they write.

It sucks when you see someone repeat the same simple mistake over and over from story to story. It’s worse when they don’t seem to understand why it’s a mistake and why they can’t choose to do it that way. Why they aren’t instantly qualified to make a million grammar mistakes or break writing and publication rules before they’ve been published.

Baker: It can be very satisfying, especially when someone sends something fantastic your way and even more so if the person has never been published. I love TC being someone’s first publication credit. I’m also very proud of the quality of work we get. I feel like TC is a strong writing credit to have in one’s portfolio. It’s also satisfying when you comment on a story and you see a later draft and your suggestion was used. I just proofread a piece by Billiard and saw where she’d used one of my suggestions and it felt great. It never gets old.

Q: What will make you stop reading a submission?

Beaver: Bad grammar/spelling/etc.—not typos, I’m not going to penalize anyone for a typo—but when a writer repeatedly makes the same error, it shows me that s/he doesn’t recognize it as a mistake. An implausible plot and/or one that I’ve seen a hundred times. Uninteresting characters. A story that doesn’t have a point, or degenerates into a rant, or that is near-incomprehensible because either the writing isn’t very good or the writer is trying too hard to be “deep.”

Ana: Lots of typos or grammatical errors will sometimes annoy me to the point that I stop reading. Also, if the piece fails to some to some kind of a point or at least introduce an interesting character in the first 10% or so of its length, I’m outta there. Conversely, interesting characters or ideas will keep me there. Another pet peeve: special effects that don’t come through in the e-mail or whatever version I’m reading (like, for example, Microsoft quote and em-dashes). Not every editor has or can run Microsoftware. Use standards (like pure ASCII).

Bellman: One of the main reasons I stop reading is eye fatigue. If a paragraph goes on for too long, my eyes hurt trying to read it. I’m also turned off by things that sound like catalogue descriptions and excessive exposition. I tend to skip over that kind of thing.

Boots: A poorly written and misspelled cover. We don’t ask for a lot in our covers, but a little professionalism goes a long way. If you’ve got bad sentences and misspelled words in the cover, the rest of the story can not be good. It’s very telling and will stop me from reading before I even reach the story itself.

Baker: A full name turns me off, like “Jane Smith sat in the doctor’s office…” So does a “police blotter” description: “Jane arranged her auburn hair and blinked her marine-blue eyes as she rose to her full height of five foot three inches tall.” A good or bad cover letter can also affect my reading of a story.

Q: What will make you keep reading a submission?

Beaver: Wanting to know what happens next. Interesting characters or premise. Writing that demonstrates a mastery of technique, that the writer actually reads, works at his/her craft, etc. If it’s a pleasure to read, regardless of what it’s about or where it’s going, I’ll keep reading.

Bellman: I keep reading if I’m emotionally engaged right away. You have to make me care what happens next. Stories are most memorable when they are really good, or when they are really horrid. The really good ones stick around as haunting memories, and the really bad ones stick around as in-jokes.

Boots: What keeps me reading is the first paragraph. If your first paragraph is compelling, I keep reading. If I’m bored by over explanations or backstory, confused by poor grammar, yawning from technobabble, or wondering when the next good TV show comes on, you’re done. Remember the first paragraph hits the reader over the head with a club so you can drag them off to your cave. Take me to your cave.

Baker: Good dialogue can keep me reading a story with mediocre prose aspects. I also like to be shown something new or unexpected. It really all comes down to character. Is this someone I want to follow through this adventure?

Ana: I really like strong or memorable characters.

Q: How do you get the ideas for the Absolute Blank articles you’ve written? Are you working on any right now?

Boots: A lot of my ideas come from editing the work of others. I see a lot of the same mistakes and think, “Oh, good idea for an article.” No, I’m not currently working on one. I’m currently working on having an idea for an article, which is… not working on one.

Bellman: I write about the things I struggle with most, or the things I do best. I should probably be working on one right now, but November just ended…

Beaver: I just keep my eyes open for ideas at all times, and when something strikes me as a possibility, I jot the idea down. Nothing at the moment. Just finished one with Baker (November).

Billiard: Not currently working on anything, and I usually get my ideas by divine inspiration. 😉

Baker: I usually get ideas from other articles I read or from postings on our forums (of questions, stories, whatever) or the ideas just come to me. I’m not currently working on any but I’m thinking of doing on on dialect in 2006.

Q: How did you come up with the ideas for your contests? How do you decide on the topics?

Ana: The latest Three Cheers contest we kicked around for a bit before we came up with the play-within-a-play theme. Seemed intriguing at the time, and a number of entries did really interesting things with it.

Boots: I get ideas from everywhere, really. Things I saw, things I heard, things I watched on TV, whatever and whenever. I write a lot of random stuff down as I think of it or overhear conversations or see it happening. Makes good fodder when you need it. I submit several ideas to the group that will be editing and they submit several, then we vote. Pretty democratic, but it works well and there haven’t been any fistfights I’m aware of.

Beaver: I got the idea to run AMT as a creative non-fiction contest because some of the best submissions TC had received were CNF. It’s something I like to read, and it gave us some variety in the contests. The topics—like AB articles, it’s just something I keep simmering at the back of my mind, and when I run across something I think will work, I jot it down. I try to keep them summer-related.

Baker: Dead of Winter was my baby. We were thinking about running a contest so I think we were all brainstorming possiblities. There are many good horror contests that close October 31, before anyone’s really in the Halloween mood. The phrase “dead of winter” came to mind and I thought it would be fun to open a horror or suspense story contest at that time of year and set the deadline on the shortest day of the year. The topics are fun to come up with. For DOW, I usually find inspiration in something I’ve read. I think, “I’d like to read more like this” so I set it as a DOW topic to get more stories. I think about possible DOW topics a little too much; I may have next year’s ready already.

Q: What’s your favorite section/aspect of Toasted Cheese?

Beaver: The Literary Journal and Absolute Blank.

Baker: If, for some reason, we had to get rid of all but one part of TC, I would keep the e-zine, including the contests. I enjoy reading submissions and giving people the opportunity to be published. I also like seeing the diversity of writing in our submissions, from beginners to those who’ve written for years. You can’t always tell which is which just from the submission.

Ana: I love the impromptu prompted writing. I’m always amazed at what comes out of my head.

Bellman: The forums.

Boots: I love Mustard & Cress—our “Resources” area. I recommend it to everyone and use it everywhere for everything writerly. Someone will ask me, “Know a good site for names?” and I can instantly say, “I know at least six, let me point you to them.” The other best thing is the forums’ “View Posts Since Last Visit” feature, which shows everything since my last actual visit and catches me up all around the TC forums in one blessed moment.

Q: Tell us about what you’re writing now and about the last creative writing you’ve done.

Ana: At the moment I’m involved in a NaNoWriMo novel (National Novel Writing Month: you write a 50k word novel in November). It’s a rewrite of a cool idea I started on 5 years ago, which stalled. Low-tech scifi, I suppose you could call it.

Baker: The last creative writing I did was on the aforementioned novella, in March. I had a few false starts on short stories but couldn’t get into writing them. I write a blog entry (or two or ten) about five days a week. I co-wrote the November AB with Beaver, our first collaborative project believe it or not. I also wrote the December Snark Zone, which is about how I never have time to write.

Beaver: I just finished NaNoWriMo for the second year in a row. My current writing project is of a more academic nature, but I’m kind of fired up about it. Because I’m geeky that way.

Bellman: Just finished a children’s fantasy for NaNoWriMo. Next is going to be a series for younger children, and lots and lots and lots of editing on the NaNo project.

Boots: I just finished, and won, NaNoWriMo’s 50,000 words in a month challenge. I wrote my 50k on a story I based off a Greek myth about Amazons. The myth is about a Queen of the Amazons named Lysippe who had a son. The son was favored by Athena, but Aphrodite wanted him for herself. He refused her, and she cursed him to be in love with only his own mother. Unable to bear the humiliation of it, he drowned himself in the river. Artemis tells Lysippe that the land is now cursed and she must take her Amazons and find a new homeland. My story is the journey of the Amazons to thier new homeland, from the point of view of thier chief healer. (whew) So, that’s the last thing I did… and that I’m still working on. 50k was maybe half. Guess I just need one more month! (heh).

Final Poll Results

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