What Do We Look For
In Submissions? Q&A
with the Toasted Cheese Editors

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

Q: Of the four genres that Toasted Cheese accepts (poetry, flash fiction, fiction, and creative nonfiction), which do you most look forward to reading? Is there a genre you dread (or skip)?

Ana George: I usually start with the less populated genres (flash, poetry, CNF), and try to read the longer fiction a few pieces at a time, so I’m not too overwhelmed, and not too likely to get the various stories confused with each other.

Stephanie Lenz (Baker): When we get a poem that’s exactly what I like, it’s my favorite find. For me, there’s no middle of the road with poetry submissions. I love it or I hate it on first read.

For first cut, I go through submissions very quickly. If I fall in love with something, which is rare, I give it a “yes” on first cut. Sometimes my mood can tip the scales; I try not to read if I’m giving almost all “yes” or “no” votes. I read everything that’s submitted (except for Three Cheers and Midsummer Tale entries). I save fiction for last because it takes longest to read and sometimes I don’t have the fortitude.

Lisa Olson (Boots): I look forward to reading the strange and unusual stories. It could be fantasy and science fiction or romance and horror. What appeals to me is something that isn’t ordinary, or that is ordinary but in an unusual way. My most favorite is any kind of genre fiction. Guess I like to be pigeonholed.

I don’t really ‘skip’ reading much, but I usually bow out of poetry. I’m not schooled in what’s good or bad when it comes to poetry. I’m most familiar with free-form and kind of think of all it as ‘free’. I do like it, but I’m not confident in my opinion so I usually opt out.

Theryn Fleming (Beaver): I can’t choose a favorite. I also find it hard to skip anything, which is why I volunteered to be one of the shortlist readers. Like Baker, I read all the regular submissions we receive. I generally read the poetry, flash, and cnf together, and then read the fiction separately. Because we get more submissions in this category than the others, more pieces fall into the “good” range than in the other genres (which tend be more polarized). So decisions are more difficult and take more time.

Q: What are you looking for in poetry? …flash? …fiction? …CNF? What do you not like to see?

AG: In poetry, I like a single unifying metaphor, something striking and original, or at least an original twist on something I’ve seen before. Flash needs to be very concise, but hint at a larger world; it needs echoes of a larger space than you actually see on the page.

For fiction, and perhaps for CNF, I don’t really have criteria. As Oliver Wendell Holmes said (of pornography), “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.” Thrill me.

SL: Poetry and prose need a good structure and strong, active word choice. I want a moment (or moments) with specificity, not broad brushstrokes. I don’t like moral judgments or preachy-religious overtones (although morality and religion are very welcome themes).

For poetry, I like free verse, concrete, grounded, and detailed as well as active. Think Mark Strand, Marge Piercy, Langston Hughes, Walt Whitman, Rita Dove, Billy Collins, William Carlos Williams, Gwendolyn Brooks, Carl Sandburg, etc.

Flash should be flash fiction, which has a certain style and feel. It’s not 500 words of fiction. Flash is tightly written with deliberate word choice and a density that short fiction doesn’t have (and shouldn’t have).

In fiction, characters should be flawed, interesting people who change over the course of the story. I’m easy to please in fiction. Write well and give me someone interesting to follow. Setting also holds weight with me. Show me a familiar place in a way I recognize or an unfamiliar place I can practically smell from what you present. I tend to like 20th century or contemporary stories set in the US but I’m not prejudiced against other settings.

For CNF I like a strong sense of place and I like a believable story but I don’t mind when a writer bends the truth to make the story compelling. For example, if you went to the market six times before the Interesting Event, I don’t mind if you let me assume it happened on your first visit.

LO: As I mentioned, I look for something new. I don’t like to see thirty stories on the same topic that all say the same thing. Take your story a little farther than where you thought it could go. You can always back up if you go too far, but see where ‘too far’ might be before you back off.

I find I favor character-driven stories rather than story-driven characters. If the ending doesn’t match the character or negates all the character’s work and strife, I usually don’t like the story. I follow characters that take stories into places I’ve never gone.

Amanda Marlowe (Bellman): I look forward to reading the fiction submissions the most. While I enjoy the other genres as well, I find the poetry and flash tend to feel less complete and more confusing than the fiction pieces. This, however, makes it all the more exciting when I find one of the shorter pieces that I really like. I like things that hang together as a coherent whole. Flash and poetry need to be connected to a larger whole, like glimpses through a window. I tend to struggle with ones that feel more like fragments of a broken window, or that are symbolic simply for the sake of being symbolic.

TF: With poetry, the most important thing for me initially is how it sounds; I’m not keen on prose masquerading as poetry. Sometimes you can win me over with one strong image or phrase. Similarly, I’m looking for flash that captures a moment or a scene that lingers and from which a story can be extrapolated. Think of something partway between poetry and prose.

For fiction, I value character and setting over plot. I love stories that can make me see/smell/taste/hear/touch places I’ve never been or that evoke familiar places in a way that makes me nod in recognition. That said, there has to be a reason for telling the story. I am most disappointed by stories that are otherwise well-written but that don’t seem to have a point.

Voice is especially important in creative nonfiction; it’s not what happened that matters so much as how you write about it. I’m looking for a nonfiction story, not an essay or a rant. Think fiction or flash, only with real people and real events.

Q: For fiction, what genres do you prefer? Are there any genres you aren’t interested in?

AG: I tend to be less interested in supernatural phenomena, though a good creepy ghost story will make my hair stand on end. Stories of things I’ve experienced, whether endless team meetings leading to something cool (or not quite…); or just dinner and a movie with some interesting twist… these things are interesting to me.

SL: I absolutely adore gothic, which in my opinion we don’t get nearly enough of for Dead of Winter. I’m pretty sure that gothic (horror with romance elements) would appeal to Erin as well as to me so that would be a big plus for future DOW entrants.

I also like literary (character-driven) fiction: the story could only happen to this character.

I’m not a big spec fic reader. I don’t seek it but if a well-written piece lands in my inbox, I’m happy to read it.

While TC doesn’t accept it, I’m a big fan of literary erotica. So don’t fear that your piece will be too sexually explicit for me (although TC might not be able to accept it). Just please don’t use euphemisms like “manhood” or “throbbing member.” TC has “members” and I believe that very few of them actually throb.

LO: There are no fiction genres I’m not interested in. I’ll read just about anything that doesn’t get out of the way. In movies, I don’t like horror but that’s not the case with fiction. If it’s a good story, I’ll read it.

AM: I like most genres. I tend to prefer SF/F and mystery for casual reading, which I why I like to judge our Spring Three Cheers mystery contest. But I enjoy the variety of submissions we get here at Toasted Cheese. It’s funny how some sort of theme tends to take over each reading period.

TF: While I’ll read anything, my preference is for literary or mainstream fiction. I also enjoy mysteries, and I’m open to experimental fiction. I’m not big on science fiction or fantasy, but I’m okay with some SF/F elements in story mostly grounded in the real world.

Q: Is there anything (e.g. topic, style, grammar peeve) that will earn a piece an automatic no from you?

AG: So-called ‘smart quotes’ look really dumb on the page if they’re resolved into question marks or some other glyph. Spelling errors: a few are forgivable, but wrong-word “but it passed my spell checker!” usages turn me right off.

SL: Flash submissions that are not flash style (these are usually excerpts or stories that happen to be under 500 words). Characters referred to by their first and last name followed by a police blotter description. All-caps. Multiple exclamation points. “Alright” “alot” and similar popularly-accepted words that grate on me, even in dialogue. Caricatures in lieu of characters. Telling instead of showing. A religious or moral message (i.e.: the “aren’t we all better people now?” ending). The “he doesn’t know he’s dead” twist. Gore for gore’s sake. Stilted dialogue. Poems that spell something down the first letters/words. Poems that make a shape just for the sake of making a shape. Rhyming poetry. Song lyrics the poet insists are also a poem. Contest entries that don’t follow the genre and/or theme.

LO: A lack of dialog will send the piece to the pile for me. I think any story is better and stronger when there are characters and action and dialog brings it forward better than long stretches of dissertation.

I also tend to avoid the without-purpose swearing. If swearing and cursing are not serving the character or the story, I’m out. Writers are all about words and choosing shock value over quality doesn’t work for me.

I suppose my biggest pet peeve is the non-ending ending. Not all stories need an end, but there should be a sense of closure. If a story just stops without resolving an issue or reaching a conclusion on some level I’m usually passing it by.

AM: It’s often not so much one specific thing than it is a combination of things. One thing, however, that makes me put down a piece really fast is eye fatigue. Long paragraphs of text make my eyes water, especially when I am reading on the screen. We get some paragraphs that would easily be two pages in a printed book. Often these are the opening paragraphs, too. While there are exceptions, people who use long paragraphs usually do it give us a very “tell-y” section of exposition, so that’s kind of a double strike. Show me, make me feel it, don’t tell me about it. Grab my attention in the first paragraph, and don’t let it go. If I read the first paragraph, then skip to the end to see “if things improve” before reading further, well, that’s not a good sign.

TF: First to go are pieces that are clearly inappropriate for TC: stories aimed at children, morality tales, men’s sexual fantasies. A multitude of grammar/spelling errors will also send work to my No folder. Everyone makes the occasional typo, but not bothering to proofread at all is sloppy and disrespectful. Next would be work submitted in the wrong genre: fiction submitted as nonfiction, prose submitted as poetry. Stories with scenarios that are overly familiar also go. I won’t generally reject just for bad formatting, but by now (2010) writers should have a grasp on how to copy & paste and format an email.

Q: Please share something from Toasted Cheese‘s archives that is a good illustration of what you like.

AG: I used my Editor’s Pick on Chris Yodice’s “One Last Storm” in part because of the wealth of small detail, which made the actual reading a pleasure, and the larger story: the ambiguity of intentions between the characters, amplified by adversity (in this case, the weather).

SL: For poetry, “Pause” and “4 Short Poems about Sex” (favorite published selection… so far) by C.L. Bledsoe, and for fiction, Kate Gibalerio’s “Malicious Acts.”

LO: Richard Wolkomir’s “Do Not Go Gentle.”

AM:Foolish Creatures” by Frank O’Connor is a good example of the sort of flash I like. There’s a whole story there, and and even larger one beyond what is there. The imagery works well, and the piece is grounded in details instead of generalities.

TF: Fatima M. Noronha’s “Abbey Road and Mister Maniappa” has a lot of things I’d like to see more of: a tangible setting that’s new to me, distinctive characters, and strong dialogue that drives the story forward.

Final Poll Results

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