Gifts For Writers

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

My kindergartner has taken to writing his own books. He uses markers, pencils, crayons and inordinate amounts of typing paper to illustrate them. Most are about trains but he’s currently writing about Christmas and Batman, including the character of “Mystery Man.” No matter how many times I tell him that’s The Riddler, it’s his story and he’s doing it his way. I’m supposed to help him spell the words he wants, then get out of his way until it’s time to staple the pages together.

Santa will be bringing him some blank books and crayons so he’ll write more books.

Writers are pretty easy to please, unless they’re newly six years old. All we need is something to write on, something to write with, time, and creativity. If you have a writer in your life, your gift shopping has just gotten easier. Not only are these great gifts for the holiday season but they work year-round for birthdays, Valentine’s Day, anniversaries, “I finished/sold the story” celebrations: any occasion or none at all. What follows are gift suggestions to create writers and to encourage those who already write, even those who aren’t yet old enough to write without help but want to tell stories.

Games:

  • Rory’s Story Cubes: Rory’s Story Cubes is a pocket-sized creative story generator, providing hours of imaginative play for all ages. With Rory’s Story Cubes, anyone can become a great storyteller and there are no wrong answers. Simply roll the cubes and let the pictures spark your imagination. All ages; no reading necessary.
  • The Storymatic: The Storymatic is a writing prompt, a teaching tool, a parlor game, and a toy. Combine a few of the 500+ cards, and watch a story take shape before your eyes. No wires. No screens. No batteries… Just a box of pure imagination. Ages 12+
  • Family Dinner Box of Questions: Gather your family around the table and strengthen family bonds with questions that get, and keep, the conversation going. Eighty-two thought-provoking questions encourage family members to share thoughts, experiences and memories…icing on the cake! Ages 6+
  • You’ve Been Sentenced: Use a hand of 10 pentagon-shaped cards with multiple conjugations of funny words, famous names and familiar places to score the most points per round. Construct the longest, grammatically correct, and sensible sentence. Each card used in a sentence is worth 5 points but using some of the more difficult conjugations on the card can earn you bonus points. Any player can object to another player’s sentence, on either grammatical grounds, or the fact that the sentence just doesn’t make sense and all players vote as a “jury” on whether the sentence stands and the author gets to defend the sentence, no matter how ridiculous. Ages 8+
  • The Origin of Expressions: Guess the origin of common expressions or bluff your friends! 12+

Subscriptions (print or electronic):

  • Poets & Writers
  • Writer’s Digest
  • Literary journals: Especially good if your writer works in genre fiction like horror. These can be print or electronic, often both. Many are available via Amazon or at your independent bookstore. A small gift card with a note can buy a writer the journals she’s been longing to read. Grab up some of the literary journals and zines for sale and bundle them for a gift.

Experiences:

  • Lecture series: Usually one night or a series of single evenings. If you can’t purchase a ticket for your writer, offer child or pet care services so she can attend.
  • Book signings: Same as the lecture series, offer the writer the gift of “a night free” when an author is in town or tag along to show your support. If your writer isn’t familiar with the author, preface the signing by giving the gift of the author’s work.
  • Writer’s retreats and conferences: These are available worldwide for varying periods of time and at varying cost.
  • Beta reading: This is the gift every reader wants but might be too shy to ask for. Offer your eyes and opinion. You don’t have to know anything about writing, the topic at hand, or how to correct grammar. All you have to do is read. Encourage your writer to produce and let him know that when he’s ready for a reader, your inbox and hands are open. Stay positive, even when you would like to offer criticism and remember that your criticism is of the work, not your writer. For more information on how to give your feedback, we have articles and tips for you.

Books:

(in addition to fiction, memoir, or whatever the writer in your life likes to read or write; many are available in electronic as well as print editions)

Books for young writers:

(some are also suitable for adult beginning writers as well)

Tools:

  • The Writers Block or The Creative Block: 786 and 500 prompts, respectively, to get your creativity flowing. Comes in a convenient desktop cube.
  • Blank books, Moleskine books, locking diaries or electronically password-protected diaries. Encourage writers to put it all down. Carry a little notebook with you to jot down your ideas. These are great books to encourage young writers. Even children who can’t yet write sentences can draw illustrative stories on blank pages.
  • Digital voice recorder. For the writer who gets inspired while driving or in flashes during a busy workday. Also great to capture real world dialogue or Aunt Sylvia’s story about the time Uncle Roy fell through the attic ceiling or Grandma Georgina’s recipe for homemade turkey stuffing.
  • Word 2010. Many writer-friendly changes exist in the latest incarnation of word, including the ability to create .docx documents. OneNote is another excellent tool, especially for novelists.
  • Netbook or Tablet. For the writer who doesn’t want to sacrifice electronic devices for portability.
  • Pens or pencils. Look at party supply places for pencils you can personalize. You can also get personalized pens in bulk at places like Pens R Us. Or spend your money on a fountain pen. All writers want one, even if they already have one.
  • Staples or Office Depot gift cards. For paper, ink, organizational supplies, you name it. Staples and its ilk are beloved by writers. If your writer wants a desk (for a writing space or for the lap), these are also available at office supply stores as well as second-hand stores or fancy furniture stores.
  • Nook, Kindle, Kindle Fire or other e-readers. Allows your writer to keep an entire library of reference and inspiration in a single place. More advanced tablet-style readers get your writer online as well.
  • Gift cards for bookstores, art supply stores, etc. Almost all bookstores—big or small—offer gift cards or certificates. You can never go wrong with a gift card that will put a book in someone’s hand, writer or not.

Final Poll Results

Back to School: Reflections on Taking a Continuing-Ed Writing Class

Absolute Blank

By Mark Paxson

I hated English classes in high school. There was nothing worse than having to read a story or a poem and then talk about what we thought the author meant or what the point of the story was. To me, I thought most stories were simply that, stories, and that there didn’t have to be symbolism in every word and turn of phrase. I just wanted to be able to read a story and enjoy it and not have to think about it afterwards. From high school, I went to college and promised myself I would never take an English class again.

Mission accomplished.

When I started writing fiction almost twenty years later, I just started writing. After a lifetime of wanting to write but never getting past a great first line, I came up with an idea and outlined it in my head on my way home from work one day. A year later, I had written a novel. A year after that, I had completely rewritten it, converting the story from first person to third person. That story opened the door to short stories and more novels. Although I was rarely published, I kept writing.

With one major exception, I have written pieces that are, to me, just stories. I don’t fill them with symbolism or hidden meanings that the reader has to work through to know what I really meant. In my stories, if the sky is blue, it’s because, well, the sky is blue.

After five or six years of this, my writing stagnated. Those few first stories that were published in Toasted Cheese and The First Line were followed by a couple of years of… nothing. Part of the reason is that I don’t submit a lot of what I write, but what I did submit was met with the same response. Not interested. Not good enough.

It was time for a change. I felt like I was writing the same story over and over again. If I wanted to keep doing this and moving forward, it was time to learn more about this thing I have stuck with longer than most any other type of hobby or interest I’ve picked up along the way.

I signed up for a creative writing class, Tools of the Writer’s Craft, offered by the University of California, Davis, Extension program. At the beginning of the first class, we were told the class was not a workshop, so we shouldn’t expect to bring stories to the class for significant feedback. For eight Wednesday evenings I spent three hours with about fifteen other budding writers and Greg Glazner, a published poet who is also about to publish what he refers to as a multi-genre novel. I still haven’t figured out what that is, but it sounds intriguing.

Here’s what I didn’t like about the class: for about two-thirds of the class time, I was back in high school English, discussing stories. If I had been asked to write an essay—one introductory paragraph, a body composed of three more, and a concluding paragraph—my flashback would have been complete. I signed up for a class to learn about the tools that writers use. Instead, I found myself in a classroom-sized version of Oprah’s Short Story Club.

One of the books we used for the class was The Ecco Anthology of Contemporary American Short Fiction, selected by Joyce Carol Oates. Each week, we read two stories from the collection. We talked about whether we liked characters. The instructor read portions from the stories and expressed his amazement at the quality of the writing. And then we’d talk more about whether we liked the characters. I wanted to scream during these discussions, but I didn’t. It’s not that the stories, most of them anyway, weren’t good. “Bullet to the Brain” by Tobias Wolff, “On the Rainy River” by Tim O’Brien, “Stitches” by Antonya Nelson—were incredible. Stories that showed the art form at its best. Other stories struck me because of their connection to my own personal situation. Even some of the discussions were interesting, but I didn’t sign up for this class to discuss the why of other authors. Very little of the discussion about these stories was ever brought back to the particular tools we discussed each week.

Then, there was the nature of the discussions themselves. Fifteen aspiring writers, half of whom hardly said a word for eight weeks. The other half? Dominated by one particular student who had a comment about everything, who never hesitated to interrupt the instructor, and who seemed remarkably out of touch with the real world.

I was also disappointed that the instructor’s comments on every assignment I turned in were all positive. That can’t be. There is no way I wrote seven gleaming, two- or three-page pieces and didn’t write anything worth a constructive piece of criticism. I have lost my patience with people who read my work and cannot provide me with real feedback. It does me no good to hear nothing other than “great!”

I waited patiently for the glimmer of a discussion about the tools we were supposed to be discussing. Each night, those discussions would eventually come, as well as five- or ten-minute in-class exercises. The first couple of weeks, these exercises were read in class but there was little discussion during the readings and even less reading as the weeks went by. At the end of class there was also an assignment to complete for the next week: two pages using that week’s tool. For the most part, the tools came from Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern. The following week, the instructor would read a couple of the assignments that had been turned in the week before and provide analysis that wasn’t much more in-depth than his “great” comments on my efforts.

The mechanisms to create a more dynamic story from Stern’s book were what provided me with the benefit I was looking for. Snapshot: how to create a scene with words. Iceberg: where the characters talk at each other, but not to each other, creating a scene where their lack of communication reveals that there is something lurking below the surface. Juggling: building tension with a character engaged in a physical activity, while mentally focused elsewhere. Façade: where a character’s thoughts and words are betrayed by his or her actions. Equally important were the conversations we had about pacing, dialogue, setting and distance, and the detailed looks at the different points of view from where a story could be told. I learned for the first time that there is more than one way to tell a story from the third person. Third-person objective, third-person omniscient, and third-person limited.

I used the first few writing exercises to take a different look at the characters I’m developing for K Street Stories—my interconnected series of pieces about some of the people I’ve seen while working in downtown Sacramento. I created some new characters and new stories with other exercises that I’ll eventually do more with.

It’s been a couple of months since I finished the class. I look back at it and wonder whether I’ll take another writing class. The answer? Yes. Without a doubt. Even with the frustrating aspects, there was value to the course. The class motivated me to write more than anything else since I first started writing. Just the few tools we covered provided me with a deeper way to look at writing. The boredom I felt writing the same story over and over has lifted. Since the class ended, I’ve started contributing to two different local blogs. I’ve had four essays published on those blogs. As well, I’ve re-dedicated myself to my own blog, writing for it several times a week.

I completed a short story with which I focused on how I told the story just as much as how I could get from the beginning to the end. Up until now, my writing efforts are about how get from point A to point B, and eventually to the finale of the story, following a fairly logical progression of event and character development. The different ways to add depth to a story have been a mystery to me. Before the class, I just wrote. Now, I think about it a little more. How can I make the interaction between the characters more dynamic? Are there subtle ways to create an undercurrent of tension that isn’t so obvious it slaps the reader in the face? Is there a better way to tell a story than to go from A to B to C? The short story I completed used two of the tools from the class to create a more subtle conflict while also giving the characters more depth than my usual story.

At the end of the eight weeks, I had some issues with how the class was taught. However, there was enough benefit that I would recommend a writing class to a budding writer looking for a little direction or some new approaches to the writing craft. If nothing else, talking about writing and trying some new approaches motivated me to write more in the past few months than I have in a long time. A writing class is a great way to learn, to expand how you look at your writing, and most importantly, to get yourself moving if you’ve stalled.


Mark Paxson is an attorney in Sacramento, California, who is still trying to figure out how to write a best seller. He currently blogs occasionally at Elk Grove Patch and has his own blog at King Midget’s Ramblings.

Final Poll Results

See Through a Glass, Darkly:
View Your Story Through Your Character’s Filters

Absolute Blank

By Amanda Marlowe (The Bellman)

All that we experience is filtered through our preconceptions, our previous experiences, our beliefs, our prejudices, our misunderstandings. No two human beings view things entirely the same way. In some way, there really is no objective truth. Four million people can read your story and come away with four million interpretations. Many may vary only by a small amount, but no two will be exactly the same, and none will be the same as the one you were working with when you wrote it.

Consider this exchange in Hamlet:

Hamlet:
What have you, my good friends, deserv’d at the hands of
Fortune, that she sends you to prison hither?

Guildenstern:
Prison, my lord?

Hamlet:
Denmark’s a prison.

Rosencrantz:
Then is the world one.

Hamlet:
A goodly one, in which there are many confines, wards, and
dungeons, Denmark being one o’ th’ worst.

Rosencrantz:
We think not so, my lord.

Hamlet:
Why then ’tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or
bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison.

Hamlet Act 2, scene 2, 239–251

Hamlet sums it up very well—thinking makes it so. How we think about things determines how we react, and how we think about things is determined by our filters. We all have filters. Some we are aware of, some we are not. Some filters help us see the glass as half empty, some help us see it as half full.

Some filters are so strong, they distort everything that comes into the brain. You probably know someone with a filter like that: the coworker that turns everything you say into an insult, the partner that takes any disagreeing statement as proof of your failure to be loyal, the friend that interprets every previous commitment as a passive-aggressive way to show that you no longer like him, the child that assumes that everything you say is a command… And eventually, the constant distortion ends up bringing about the very thing the filter is trying to prevent.

Your characters should have filters too. In fact, they do. You probably just think about it as “characterization” rather than filters. But thinking about your characterization in terms of filters can help you develop characters that are self-consistent in their reactions. Knowing their key filters and really thinking about what events look like through those filters is the first step. The next is to figure out what emotions would follow from the filtered event. Then figure out what the response would be to the filtered event—preferably while those emotions are at their peak. This process will give your characters truly authentic responses to key situations that show your audience how multi-dimensional and uniquely human they are.

Consider the following primary mental filters that three different characters might have:

Character 1: I can’t do anything right. Everyone hates me. No one respects me. They all think I am stupid.

Character 2: Everyone in my life leaves me. I am always alone. I can’t form any lasting relationships, and I don’t know why.

Character 3: I never have anything worthwhile to say. I don’t even know why I bother having any ideas, no one cares what I think anyway.

Now, imagine that each of these characters is a writer, and that they each get the exact same form rejection letter from an agent.

How would each feel?

Character 1: This character would probably get angry. The anger would start with the self (I never do anything right) and that anger would quickly move on to the agent that sent the rejection (Everyone thinks I am stupid).

Character 2: This character would probably feel betrayed. Even though the relationship did not yet exist, the character feels this is yet another example of being abandoned. The feeling of betrayal would probably lead to feelings of depression and loneliness.

Character 3: This character would probably feel worthless and insecure. They would withdraw inward. Once again, there is proof that they truly have nothing interesting to say.

Now, what might each of these characters do in response to the letter?

Character 1: This character is in a rage and blaming the agent. This state of mind would lead to a rash action that will boomerang on the character. Perhaps the character would send off a vitriolic and threatening letter to the agent and end up blacklisted.

Character 2: This character is feeling lonely and betrayed. In this state of mind, the character might seek out a bar hoping that a drink would dull the pain, and that they might be able to find some companion there that won’t betray them.

Character 3: This character would accept the judgement of irrelevance, and give up writing. Perhaps medical school would at least please the parents, who think writing is impractical anyway.

When multiple characters have very different filters, use the filters to up the tension. For example, suppose Character 2 and Character 3 are best friends, and 2 wants 3 to go bar hopping to “drown the pain of rejection.” Character 3 has given up on writing. The medical school application is due next week, and mom and dad have expressed their joy in the new plan. Character 3 says, “Sorry, can’t make it, and I won’t be in the writing group any more.” This plays right into Character 2’s major filter, and a blowup ensues that threatens the friendship.

Authentic responses come from the interaction of common events with unique personal filters. To get you started in thinking with filters, ask yourself the following questions:

  • In what ways are my character’s views of events affected by the way my character thinks? (These will be clues to identifying your character’s filters.)
  • What are my character’s primary filters? Do they color things in a positive way? In a negative way?
  • How strong are those filters?
  • How distorted are the filters?
  • How did the character get the filters? From a defining event? Gradually over time?
  • What types of inputs reinforce the filter?
  • What types of inputs “break through” the filter?

Then look through the glass darkly:

  • What emotions result from the filtered event?
  • What actions do those emotions lead to?
  • How does one character’s filter play off the very different filter of another character?
  • Does the story depend on the filter changing in some way? If so, what will make it change, and what will it change into?

And remember: there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.

Final Poll Results

Developing the Habit: Simple Tricks to Start Writing Every Day

Absolute Blank

By Erica L. Ruedas (pinupgeek)

You tell yourself that you’re going to start writing every day, starting today. You’re going to sit down at your desk, or in your work space, and take out a blank sheet of paper or open a blank document in your favorite writing program, and you will write masterpieces. But then a thousand things happen. You stay late at work, there are errands to be run, family and friends to see, kids to help with homework, and a thousand other little things that you want to do but don’t have the time for. You keep telling yourself ‘tomorrow’. Tomorrow I’ll start writing every day. But then you don’t.

Of course, telling yourself that you’re going to start writing every day accomplishes nothing. Getting in front of that computer screen or that piece of paper is a lot harder than just making a verbal commitment. It’s so easy to say “I’m going to write every day” because nothing happens if you do or don’t do it. Not getting that novel written or that freelance career you want isn’t going to make much of an effect on you today, when you’re at the end of a long day and trying to decide between writing another chapter in your novel, or watching TV.

What you need is a way to make it easier on yourself. You need to make your goal a lot smaller and manageable. So, instead of telling yourself you’re going to make a habit of writing every day, from now until eternity, make a commitment to write every day for just 30 days. Studies have shown that sticking to a new behavior for approximately 30 days is enough to make it a habit. Once you get past that 30-day mark, that behavior is ingrained inside your brain, and you’ll start performing it automatically.

Of course, writing every day, even if it’s just for 30 days, is still a difficult task. Thousands of people attempt it every November during National Novel Writing Month, and only twenty percent reach their 50,000 word goal. There’s always some excuse to not have the time to sit down and write. However, if you trick your brain into it, there are a lot of ways you can succeed in getting yourself to sit down every day and write.

Set an Achievable Goal

Take a look at your schedule and realistically consider how much time you’ll have to write. Is it 10 minutes waiting for your coffee to be ready in the morning, an hour during lunch at work, or 30 minutes just before you go to bed? Figure out how much you can get written during that time, and then set that as your goal. It doesn’t matter if it’s a paragraph, a haiku, a blog entry or a 10-minute journal prompt. Just make your goal a word count that makes you feel successful at the end of the day, and complete that every day. If you write more than your goal word count, consider it a bonus. Some days you’ll barely hit your goal, and some days you’ll surpass it, but as long as you get that little bit done, you’ll feel like you’ve accomplished something.

Reward Yourself

Reward yourself for a streak of writing. Experiment with different time frames to figure out what works best for you. For instance, you can try 7 days, or 14, or 5. Put a reminder in your calendar to check in at the end of your streak, and if possible, get a picture of your reward and tape it by your computer or your notebook so you can clearly see what you’re working towards. Whatever your reward is, make sure it’s something small but worth waiting for, such as an edible treat, some item you want to buy, or an event, such as a movie you want to go to. You can save the big reward for the end of the 30 days.

Give Up Something

If rewarding yourself doesn’t motivate you, give up something every time you miss a day. Make sure that whatever it is it’s something you’ll be sure to miss. For instance, missing a day of writing means getting rid of something from your closet. Or missing a day of writing means no watching your favorite TV show for a week. You can also give up something until you complete your 30 day streak. Experiment with a few different things and find out what works for you, and keeps you in your writing chair.

Put Your Money Where Your Pen Is

Write a check to your favorite charity and keep the check by your computer or notepad. If, during a month’s worth of writing, you miss a day, mail that check right off and start your 30 days over again. Alternatively, you can keep a jar by your desk, and deposit an amount in it for every day that you don’t write, and donate whatever’s in there at the end of your 30 days. You can also make a bet with a friend or family member. If you’re short on cash, use an object, like a nice jacket or a favorite pair of sunglasses, or service, such as babysitting or yard work. If you miss a day, your friend can cash in on the bet, and you can start over again.

Publicly Commit

Have a Facebook, Twitter, Google+, or blog? Publicly announce that you’ll be writing every day for 30 days, and update daily on your progress. If you’re not active in social media, send an e-mail to supportive family and friends, and tell them you’re going to write every day for 30 days. Send out updates once a week, so as not to spam them, and make sure you broadcast your failures, and start over again. By announcing your intention publicly, you’ll be more inclined to stick to your new writing habit to save face.

Change Your Environment

If writing at home just isn’t working, try changing your environment. When it’s time to write, move to a different room that will be just for writing. Or, sit in a designated writing chair or wear a writing hat. If you can, try changing locations completely. Go down to the local coffee shop with your laptop or notebook, and stay there until you hit your daily goal. Even if it’s the office supply closet at lunchtime, or a special writing notebook and pen, change something around you to signal to your brain that’s it time to write, and only write. And since it’s Writing Time, you won’t be able to do anything else until you’re done.

Enter a Contest

Try entering a contest. It doesn’t have to cost money or even have a prize at the end. This one works the same way as publicly announcing your intention to start writing every day. By wanting to save face, you’ll work hard to complete your contest entry before it’s due, which probably means writing every day, in some form or another. Even signing up for something like National Novel Writing Month or Script Frenzy will work, especially if you join and participate in the local groups. You’ll have the assurance and support from the others who are writing with you, and will be more likely to stay on track.

These are just a few of the ways you can develop the habit of writing something every day. Some writers swear by writing at the same time every day, others write the minute they wake up or just before they go to sleep, but what works for one writer won’t work for another. If you fail at writing every day the first, second, or tenth time, don’t give up! Reflect on what went wrong instead. Did the method you tried not work for you? Try something else. Are you not meeting your goal? Make it smaller. Finding it hard to come up with anything to write? Do a journal prompt instead. Test things out for a few days at a time, until you find something that gets you motivated. Then, keep writing!

Final Poll Results

If at First You Don’t Succeed,
Write Smut

Absolute Blank

By Ana George (Broker)

Writers’ block is a fact of life. There are a great many reasons for it, and the remedies are as varied as the causes. Stay tuned for some words about a remedy that often works for me: Smutwriting.

Now sex is a part of life for real people. It informs who they are in subtle ways. On the other hand, many fictional characters are flat, cardboard creations, caricatures of people, who appear, play their role, and disappear without a further thought from reader or writer.

In a novel with many incidental characters, most of them might be forgettable. But as Michael Cunningham once remarked at a reading, each of those people is the main character in his or her own novel. He also said that his fiction is autobiographical in the sense that he tries to be true to each character, her own needs, and fictional life course, even if he only tells a small part of the story of that character.

And sex is a part of that, for many people. And not, for others, but that’s also taleworthy. Perhaps even more so.

Let me be clear: I’m not (or at least not necessarily) saying all writing should be smutty or even contain romance or overt sexuality. Backstory, what happens to the characters off stage, the part of the story you don’t put in the book, is also important. It helps the author get to know the characters, so they behave more like real people, so you as the writer are not surprised by their motivations. Hemingway pointed this out in his Iceberg Theory.

So you’re stuck, trying to figure out where the story should go from wherever you left it. You have an idea for another plot element, but getting from there to there is not something you can see from where you’re standing.

Follow the characters home. Write everyday details of their lives. She comes home, wonders why her partner’s car in the driveway inspires such dread. She fixes supper, but one of the kids won’t eat it. Familiar, well-worn arguments, advanced incrementally, because, after all, you’re only writing one Tuesday night. And maybe she’s randy come bedtime and he’s not. Next morning when she reports to work in your novel, she’s grumpy and tired but for no reason she’s going to tell you, because it might end up in the book.

Or there was this guy she saw on her lunch break that had that certain dreamy hurt puppy look in his eyes that always made her knees weak, but that she’s ignored for years in an effort to keep her life together. Does she miss the feeling? Or is she grateful for being delivered from the need to pay attention to it?

In a way it’s like writing fan fiction (or even slash fiction) about your own universe. I suppose fan fiction is an examination of (usually someone else’s) a canonical text, asking what-if questions, what happened before this, what happens next. These two characters are so luscious, I want them together, dammit, and I’ll write the story myself if I have to. The resulting stories are in no way part of the canon: the actual story that’s in the book, on the screen, whatever. And yet, for the fanficcer, the existence of these backstories (erotic or otherwise) enriches the experience of the canonical story.

Sex is also a way people in real life express rebelliousness. It might be a way for fictional characters to do that, as well. You have this nice life all plotted out for them, a nice plot arc, and then in chapter twelve, they break the fourth wall, walk out of the book and into the writer’s studio, sit down, and say, “No, I’m not doing that for those reasons.” Is that rebellion because of some facet of their lives you haven’t written (or even thought) about? What would a teenager do in this situation? For another take on this, see Mikhail Bakhtin’s ideas of the Carnival and grotesque realism.

It is perhaps a truism that disappointment and regret are great sources of story ideas. If nobody does anything regrettable or disappointing, the story is the poorer for the lack. And, for many people, sexuality is rife with disappointments and regrets. Again, it’s not necessarily the case that you need to write about it explicitly (or if you do, to include it in the book) to reflect on the lifelong regret caused by an off-stage broken romance.

I recall being told as a young writer that sex scenes in stories must always advance the action, and significantly change a character. I set out to break this rule, if only because it’s not true of real-life people. Why is sex different from other biological needs and wants, such as eating or sleeping? Sex is something people do, some of them fairly often, and having life-changing experiences every time is just not in the cards. It may be true that the reader only wants to be in the bedroom on those rare occasions when something like that does happen, but the characters are there whether it does or not. Perhaps it’s our job as writers to convey this aspect of our characters’ personalities. For example, their familiarity (or lack thereof) with each other could convey a lot of information to the reader. I’m not convinced I’ve written a sexy scene that’s not transformative that is also worth keeping. So maybe the rule is a good one, but it’s a boundary and writers exist to push at the boundaries.

This past year has been a difficult one for me, largely because of events in my personal life. Sometimes I feel like writing, and sometimes I really don’t. Sometimes writing is therapeutic, or cathartic, and sometimes it’s just fingers moving, putting symbols in little rows on a computer screen.

Recently I found an erotic picture on the internet that was very engaging, for a variety of reasons. Certainly one of those was that the woman in the picture was strongly reminiscent of the way I imagine one of the characters in an ongoing saga-in-progress. Her body was mostly hidden behind her partner’s, and it was clear she was taking charge of the encounter.

And I found I had to write the story of a time my character did just that with her partner, whatever the larger context might have been. How did she feel about it beforehand? Was the experience memorable enough that she thought about it the next day? Was it wonderful? A disappointment? Forgettable? What about his feelings? Are they the same as hers (surely not entirely?) and if different, are the differences important? And which two scenes should I set this encounter between? How does it fit into their lives as they move through the story?

And so now it makes sense that she snaps at another character the next morning, that she seems distracted, that her eyes keep straying to her cell phone, wondering if she should wait for a call, or call her partner, and wondering what she’d say if they did talk. I’m sorry, what was that you said?

Backstory is important, and people’s (and characters’) sex lives are part of the backstory that forms their personalities. Characters will ring true if their authors think about who they are, beyond what appears in the story. When in doubt, write smut!

Final Poll Results

Running a Literary Journal
Part 1: Choices

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

Taking a cue from one of the more oft-repeated bits of writing advice—write what you know—this will be the first in a series of articles on starting and running an independent literary journal.

If you’ve spent any time at all online or in the writing section of your favorite bookstore, you know there’s no shortage of advice available for prospective writers. This series is aimed at prospective editors, who don’t have nearly as much advice to wallow in. Specifically, it’s aimed at those of you who want to found your own unaffiliated journal, since that’s where our expertise lies. In it, I and my co-editors will share what we’ve learned over the past decade as editors of Toasted Cheese.

In this first installment, I discuss some questions you should try to answer prior to putting out your first issue.

Why do you want to start a literary journal?

In journalism, the question of ‘why’ is traditionally left to the end of the article. However, when contemplating starting an independent literary journal, I think this is the question you should start by asking yourself.

In a nutshell, the only reason to take on this job is because you love it—and are good at it.

You won’t become rich editing an independent journal. (In fact, you’ll probably lose money.) You won’t become famous. Editors, no matter how good or how prestigious a publisher or publication they work for, maintain fairly low profiles. Accolades come mostly secondhand via the writers and pieces you publish.

At a bare minimum, you should have an interest in the kind of work you’ll be publishing (Do you read other literary journals? If you don’t, why do you want to start one?) and some skill at assessing quality. Are you able to identify a good piece of writing from one that is not so good—and explain the difference? Are you able to give constructive criticism?

An editor is part curator, part coach. These days, any writer can slap a piece of writing up on their blog. They continue to submit to journals because of the value added by the editorial process. As an editor, you’ll need to be selective and constructive, to choose pieces that are suitable—in quality and style—for the journal and to work with writers to polish those pieces as necessary.

As an editor of an independent publication, “editor” won’t just be a title on a masthead—you’ll actually be editing. And that can mean everything from reading slush to making decisions about what pieces work together or best fit the journal’s aesthetic to copy-editing to substantive editing to decisions about design and layout. You’ll inevitably end up doing things that editors at major publications would consider “not my job,” like taking care of correspondence or maintaining your journal’s social media presence.

But, of course, getting to wear all those different hats is part of the fun of it.

How are you going to manage the commitment?

Once you’ve expressed your desire to work long hours for no pay (yay!), the next thing you need think about is how you’re going to fit that commitment into your life.

Think of running a literary journal as a volunteer job, not a hobby. With a volunteer job other people are counting on you. In this case, the “other people” are all the writers who submit to your publication. If you say writers can expect to hear back in X days, they will expect to hear back in X days. If you say you’ll publish in month Y, writers will expect to see an issue in month Y.

While you might start your journal when you have lots of free time to devote to it, keep in mind, if it lasts, your circumstances will change. Work and school, relationships and family, illnesses and injuries, your own writing projects, even your hobbies—all of these things will compete with your journal for your attention. If you want your journal to weather these changes, be realistic about how much time and money you’ll be able to commit to it—not just right now, but in the future.

There are many ways of keeping the workload manageable, for example, publishing less frequently, limiting the types of work you accept, and taking on more staff.

One big decision you’ll have to make early on is whether or not to pay contributors. If you do, and this money is coming out of your own pocket, how long can you keep it up? What might be manageable when you start your journal may not be a year or five into the future.

Non-paying markets don’t have to worry about where the money’s coming from, but will tend to receive fewer submissions than paying ones. While this can be a drawback in terms of missing out on submissions from more established writers, it can also be a benefit in terms of a more reasonable time commitment.

Who will be on your journal’s staff?

Of course, how much time and money you have to commit to your journal will depend on how many people are involved in its operation. Will it just be you, Jack– or Jill-of-all-trades, or will it be a team effort?

Having a group of people involved is generally a good thing, as the workload can be shared and one person’s crisis doesn’t equal a crisis for the journal since the others can cover as needed.

If you’re assembling a group, it will be advantageous to have people on staff who can handle the technical (coding, design, layout, etc.) and marketing aspects of publishing, as well those with a talent for editing. While it’s great if people can do double duty, your web guru and publicist don’t necessarily also have to be editors.

It’s not important that everyone involved contribute the same amount. What is important is if someone says they will be responsible for a particular task they do it without having to be reminded—and that they don’t flake out on you. You should feel confident that if extenuating circumstances arise for someone or if they no longer want to be involved with the journal, they’ll inform the rest of the staff so alternate arrangements can be made. In other words, you want your staff to be reliable and considerate.

The drawback to a group endeavor is that levels of commitment will vary. With any volunteer activity, people will often express enthusiastic interest in being involved or even participate for a brief time and then—without notice—disappear. If someone you don’t know expresses interest in getting involved, get to know them before inviting them to join your staff. At TC, for example, we have an expectation that new editors will have been hosts or regulars at the forums first. Choose people you know you can count on.

What type of content are you going to publish?

It’s a good idea to establish your core staff first, because their reading interests will determine the direction your journal is going to go content-wise. There’s no sense focusing on content your editorial staff won’t enjoy reading. If your staff’s usual reading choice leans to science fiction, they’ll quickly tire of a steady diet of sonnets (regardless how good).

First, think about what genres you want to include. Will you be publishing poetry, fiction, essays, creative nonfiction, articles? What about reviews, translations, interviews? Will your issues include art?

Once you’ve decided on the general scope of your journal, narrow it down. Fiction, for example, is a big category. If you’re going to publish fiction, what kind of fiction? Will yours be a genre magazine, dedicated to a specific kind of fiction like fantasy or mystery? If it’s a popular genre or there’s a niche waiting to be filled, you can restrict submissions to a specific sub-genre, as with Shock Totem (dark fantasy and horror), 14 by 14 (sonnets), or Brevity (essays under 750 words).

Another way of narrowing the scope of submissions is geographically. For example, Zyzzyva is only open to writers from the west coast and The New Quarterly only publishes writers living in Canada or Canadians abroad.

While it might be tempting to say you’re open to “anything,” there are two major drawbacks to that approach. First, your staff is likely to be overwhelmed with the quantity and variety of submissions. And second, “anything goes” will make it difficult for your journal to develop a cohesive aesthetic, which in turn will be confusing to potential submitters who are trying to determine whether their work would be a good fit.

Where will your journal’s home base be located?

Once you’ve assembled your staff and decided what kind of material you want to publish, you need to decide where you’re going to publish. That is, will you be publishing a print journal or an online one? In neither case do you need to have a physical headquarters, but keep in mind, for some purposes you will need to provide a mailing address.

Despite the “print is dead” refrain, print journals still do have a certain cachet with writers, but print brings with it various logistical considerations. Unless you take a do-it-yourself approach and produce a zine, i.e. handmade magazine, you’ll likely need to invest in desktop publishing software and have someone on staff who knows—or is willing and able to learn—how to use it.

A traditional print-run will require some up-front funding, a physical location to store boxes of journals, and a plan for mailing them out. Print-on-demand may solve these issues, but you’ll still need to decide what service to use and make decisions with respect to the size, quality, and format of the journal. Furthermore, deciding to go the print route doesn’t mean you can forget about having a web presence. Your print journal should still have a website with, at a minimum, some background on the journal, submission guidelines for writers, and information on where readers can purchase copies.

Compared to print, online journals are relatively easy to set up and low cost to produce. If you decide to take the online route, your first major decision will be whether to purchase your own domain or start out on a free hosted site, such as WordPress.com or Blogger.

If you choose to obtain your own domain, you’ll have to decide how you’re going to build your website. Many online journals have shifted from traditional websites (which require the person updating to have some knowledge of HTML, CSS, etc.) to content management systems like WordPress, which make it easy for anyone to update. The drawback to using a popular CMS is that your journal will tend to look like all the other websites using the same software unless you use a custom theme.

While many journals do start out at hosted sites, if you have a bit of money to spend, securing a domain for your journal is a good idea, even if all you do with it for now is set up a redirect to your hosted site. Think of this domain as your journal’s virtual headquarters—especially important if it doesn’t have a physical one.

When (how often) will you publish?

Finally, before you open your literal or metaphorical doors to that first wave of submissions, you’ll need to decide on a publishing schedule.

Both print and online journals can be published in issues. The usual commitment for a volunteer-run journal is anywhere from one to six issues per year. More often, and the time and financial commitment will likely be too onerous for the average volunteer; less often, and people will begin to wonder if your journal is still operational.

An advantage to publishing in issues is that you and your staff get some predictable downtime each cycle. This can be good for the longevity of your journal, as there will less chance that people will burn out. Another benefit is the anticipation and excitement associated with the release of each new issue. Many journals, especially print ones, throw launch parties to celebrate.

Of course, online journals aren’t limited to publishing in issues. Online, you don’t need to wait until you have a batch of material to publish; you can publish individual pieces on a more frequent basis—once a week, every weekday, even daily.

There’s something to be said for taking advantage of the medium, but be realistic as to what you can manage long-term. As many bloggers have found, once the initial thrill wears off, daily publishing can be a grind. A very frequent schedule might not be the best idea if it’s just you running your journal. Do you really want to work on it every day? What happens when you get sick? Go on vacation? On the other hand, a frequent publishing schedule can be a great way to build readership if there are enough people involved with your journal that you can take turns spelling each other off.

In Conclusion (for now…)

If you like to read, write, and edit, running your own literary journal can be an extremely satisfying endeavor. However, it’s also a lot of work, and as soon as you put out that first call for submissions, writers will be counting on you to follow through on the promises you make. Think about whether you really want that responsibility before you leap into publishing.

In future installments of this series, I’ll explore each of the areas touched on in this article in more depth.

Final Poll Results

Toasted Cheese Success Stories:
Ryan Potter

Absolute Blank

By Lisa Olson (Boots)

Seven years ago, Ryan Potter submitted his first short story, “Dale’s Night” to Toasted Cheese. It was chosen as an Editor’s Pick by Boots (me) in June 2004. This February, he submitted again, with a very interesting cover letter.

Dear Toasted Cheese Editor(s),

My name is Ryan Potter. I basically owe my writing career to Toasted Cheese. I wrote my first short story back in 2003 and Toasted Cheese published it as an Editor’s Pick (Boots’s) in June 2004. That important first published credit led to others and, eventually, a solid agent who represented my novels. My debut novel, Exit Strategy, was released by Flux back on March 1, 2010, to good reviews. I’m still writing short stories and recently completed one that I think would make a nice fit with Toasted Cheese. With that, please consider for publication the enclosed 4,500-word story, “When God Bowls Strikes in Heaven,” a tale of one memorable summer morning in the life of a suburban father and husband.

Thank you for publishing my work seven years ago, and thank you for considering my current submission. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Sincerely,

Ryan Potter

This letter certainly caught our attention. Since this year we celebrated Toasted Cheese’s 10th anniversary, we wanted to explore Ryan’s relationship with TC and asked him to take us down memory lane.

Toasted Cheese: Can you remember how you found Toasted Cheese?

Ryan Potter: I found TC via Writer’s Digest in 2003. TC was listed as one of the best sites for writers that year or the year before, so I knew I had to check it out.

TC: What attracted you to TC?

RP: I was a new writer with no experience or publication credits. I’d just finished what I felt was my first story worth submitting. I liked how TC was so open to new writers. I wasn’t intimidated and felt very comfortable with the submission guidelines.

TC: Did you become a member of the community? If so, why? If not, why not?

RP: I did not become a member of the community, but it had nothing to do with not liking the community concept. Basically, I was having so much fun writing stories that I didn’t want to slow down for anything. Any free time I had was spent in the chair, writing as much original material as possible.

TC: What made you decide to submit that first story?

RP: Ah, that’s an easy one. That particular story, “Dale’s Night,” was the first story my wife actually liked.

TC: How did you feel about being published?

RP: Being published (“Dale’s Night” was my first credit) validated all of my hard work. I can’t describe the feeling of receiving positive feedback on my fiction from fellow writers and other people in the publishing world. It’s still an amazing feeling when it happens, and I don’t think that will ever change. That first credit gave me the confidence to keep writing.

TC: What did you do when you were told you’d be featured?

RP: Let’s see. That was almost seven years ago. I don’t keep a personal diary or journal, but I remember telling my wife right away and sharing a celebratory toast not long afterward. I’m a fairly private person, so I didn’t tell very many people.

TC: How many stories did you publish after that?

RP: Around seven to ten, I think. Again, I’m so bad at keeping records. Of course, I wrote a lot more than seven to ten stories. Some worked. Most didn’t. It’s all part of the process.

TC: When did you start and finish your novel?

RP: I started Exit Strategy (Flux, 2010) in June of 2005 and completed the first draft in September. Although it only took three months, there were several major revisions after that.

TC: Tell us a little about the book.

RP: Here’s a quick synopsis:

Looming above Zach Ramsey’s hometown of Blaine are the smokestacks of the truck assembly plant, the greasy lifeblood of this Detroit suburb. Surrounded by drunks, broken marriages, and factory rats living in fear of the pink slip, Zach is getting the hell out of town after graduation. But first, he’s going to enjoy the summer before senior year.

Getting smashed with his best friend Tank and falling in love for the first time, Zach’s having a blast until he uncovers dark secrets that shake his faith in everyone—including Tank, a wrestler whose violent mood swings betray a shocking habit.

As he gets pulled deeper into an ugly scandal, Zach is faced with the toughest decision of his life—one that will prove just what kind of adult he’s destined to be.

TC: How did you find an agent?

RP: I found my agent five years ago through one of those mass query blast sites. I’ve since heard many agents criticize that kind of approach, but it sure worked for me. However, I did my homework first and didn’t query anybody until I had a solid cover letter and a polished manuscript.

TC: I’m not familiar with “mass query blast site”. What kind of site* is that?

RP: I found the mass query service through ScriptBlaster. They specialize in screenplays, but they also offer an “agent blast” for novels.

TC: When was your novel published?

RP: Exit Strategy came out on March 1, 2010. It’s been over a year and so far it’s been an incredible experience. I’ve learned so much about the business side of writing and publishing. I feel much more prepared for future projects as a result of my experience with Exit Strategy.

TC: You’re still submitting to publications—didn’t you get instantly rich?

RP: Ha! Not quite. Even if I did, I’d never stop writing and submitting short stories. You never know when one of those short story ideas might blossom into your next novel. Actually, that’s exactly what happened with the project I’m currently finishing up (and hoping to sell).

TC: What brought you back to TC?

RP: TC gave me my start. I’ll always be grateful for that. I know for a fact that the TC story credit for “Dale’s Night” caught the eye of my original agent.

TC: I know your recent submission didn’t make the cut for the June issue—will you submit to Toasted Cheese again in the future?

RP: Yes, I have a polished story ready to submit to TC and will do so as soon as I finish the revisions for the young adult novel I’m wrapping up.

TC: What would you tell an unpublished author?

RP: Three words: Never give up. Okay, maybe that’s too cliché, but it’s so true. Find your story and write it. Don’t worry about agents and publication credits until you have the best piece of work you can produce. It all starts with your original material. Once you have a polished product, then you can start researching agents and checking out submission guidelines for agencies and/or publications.

Oh, a little about rejection. It’s going to happen. A lot. Get a thick skin and deal with it. The best way to deal with rejection is to smile, breathe, and try to learn something from it to make you a better writer. I realize you can’t learn much from form rejection letters, but if you’re fortunate enough to get some detailed feedback from people in the business, pay attention to it. These people are trying to help you.

TC: What other online sites should authors be submitting to or visiting?

RP: I think AgentQuery is the best place to start researching agents. It’s free and has an excellent reputation. Also, I make a point of checking the bestseller lists for the New York Times and Amazon weekly. It keeps me fresh on what’s selling. What else? Gosh, there’s so much out there online. Twitter is a great way to follow editors, publishing houses, agents, and writers. Having said that, I tend to use it only when I have a new project completed. The internet’s helpful in many ways, but for me it’s a huge distraction during the writing process.

TC: What are you working on now?

RP: I mentioned that I was finishing up something. It’s a young adult paranormal novel about demons, ghost hunters, and rock bands. That’s about all I can reveal at the moment! I’ve had a lot of fun writing it, so hopefully the right things will happen and it will make its way out there to the world.

Toasted Cheese looks forward to more stories from Ryan in the future, both at the site and in the bookstores.


Do you have a success story to tell? Email us (editors[at]toasted-cheese.com) or post it on our Chasms and Crags forum (which you don’t need to be registered to use). We love to hear how the community has helped authors!

Note: After some research at the suggested site, it’s basically a kind of “speed dating” for writers who need agents. At the site Ryan mentions, it’s a paid-for service and they send your query letter out to a number of agents (depending on cost). They also have some tips on query letters and as Ryan says, don’t query unless both your cover letter and manuscript are polished and ready. Remember you should research all agencies of this type thoroughly and understand the consequences before you pay for a service that you can do yourself for free.

Final Poll Results

Creating a Monster: Interview with Shock Totem Editor/Creator K. Allen Wood

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

Shock Totem is an American print literary journal specializing in horror and dark fantasy (horror-infused fantasy). Issue 1 was released in mid-2009, Issue 2 in mid-2010, and Issue 3 in January 2011. Editor K. Allen Wood (@kallenwood) is a friend to many of us here at Toasted Cheese and he was kind enough to take some time to discuss writing, editing, music, and giant Nazi chickens.

Toasted Cheese: Most important things first: what’s the latest addition to your music collection? What are you listening to these days?

K. Allen Wood: I like your style, Stephanie. Let’s see. I’m not sure I know what my latest addition is. I do have a small pile of recent additions on my desk, though; it includes albums by Foo Fighters, Cavalera Conspiracy, Therapy?, Jet Red, Cynthesis, Anathema, Ari Hest, Bad Religion, Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals, KMFDM and, get this, a 1992 demo by Wicked Maraya… on cassette!

As for what I’m listening to these days, it’s always an eclectic mix. I typically set iTunes to shuffle and press play. Currently iTunes shows that I have 85,758 songs on my external hard drive, so it’s always an interesting mix. For instance, the last ten bands played, according to Last.fm, were Queensrÿche, Shootyz Groove, Twilight Ophera, Ultimatum, Stuck Mojo, Incubus, 3 Doors Down, Live, Sprung Monkey, and Project 86.

It never gets old.

TC: What made you decide to create Shock Totem as a print rather than electronic journal? Do you ever feel pressured to create an electronic version?

KAW: Well, in the beginning we were going to be an electronic journal. I knew the traditional print cost for magazines was far beyond my budget. I’d seen too many publications close for that very reason, so I knew I couldn’t manage it financially. I didn’t even want to try. So creating an online journal was more practical, if less appealing.

But then Apex Digest shut down as a print magazine. I was bummed. They were my favorite magazine (I need issue 3, if anyone has an extra). I wanted Shock Totem to at least have the potential to sit on someone’s bookshelf like Apex sat on mine.

So I decided to look into print-on-demand publishing, which would all but eliminate the upfront cost of traditional printing. I tried a few different companies before choosing the one I felt was best and just went for it. I knew the stigma behind POD publishing would be a hurdle, but I also knew that it wasn’t the technology that was the problem, it was the horrible writers using it and the foolish critics that couldn’t comprehend the difference between the two. Done right, done well—which I think we’ve achieved with Shock Totem—it’s arguable that POD publishing is better than traditional publishing, at least for small-press outfits.

And no, I never feel pressured to turn Shock Totem into an electronic journal. It would save me some money, but I think we’d lose a lot of readers.

TC: Would you mind retelling how the title “Shock Totem” came to be, including the discovery that there already existed a book named Shock Totem (by Thom Metzger)?

KAW: It’s all John Boden’s fault. We’d been tossing around a long list of potential names for a while. Most were terrible, some laughable, and others kind of cool. But nothing really stood out. We had a short list of favorites—Nightfall Overture, Scrawl, Shades & Shadows, Blood Tells—but nothing really seemed fitting. It was basically a Best of the Worst list.

One day, John mentioned Shock Totem. Nick and I immediately liked it. It just sounded cool, you know. When asked where the name came from, John said something like, “I don’t know. The words just popped into my head earlier today.” So we added it to the list of potentials and kept thinking of more possible names. But we kept coming back to Shock Totem. At this point we’d already decided to be print magazine, so given that and taking into account the definition of shock and totem, it was the perfect name. And so it was decided.

Sometime later, Nick broke the bad news. He’d Googled the name and found out that it was also the name of an old book by Thom Metzger. That’s when John remembered he’d actually read the book back in college. Doh!

Of course, at that point, we were set on using it. We didn’t want to think of something else, so we decided to go ahead and keep it. We found that Thom Metzger taught at a college in New York, so to be gracious and professional, John contacted him and asked him if he’d be okay with us using the name. We didn’t have to ask, you know, as titles can’t be copyrighted, but we felt it was the right thing to do.

Thom gave us his blessing, and thus, we exist.

TC: Your cover art is amazing and diverse from issue to issue. Is it solicited or submitted?

KAW: So far the artwork for each issue has been solicited. From the beginning I had a very clear vision of what I wanted in terms of artwork. I don’t know that Nick and John were on board with that vision at first, but I think they dig it now. I just really like the digital medium, things that are fantastical but look realistic. Artists like Travis Smith have been a big inspiration to me and I wanted to see that kind of work as the face of our issues.

When we branch out into non-magazine releases, which will be later this year or next year, then we’ll go for a different kind of style.

That said, we are open to artwork submissions.

TC: How does the editorial process work for Shock Totem? In other words, once an author sends you a submission, what happens to it?

KAW: First, a team of five pigmy lady-boys transcribe each submission into handwritten script. Each story is then placed on a gold satin pillow, packaged inside a miniature Kiss Kasket, and flown out to each team member via a murder of crows. Most never arrive, for whatever reason, but those that do make the magazine. It’s unorthodox, but it works for us.

Some people probably think that way of doing business is unfair and unprofessional, so here’s the hooey-fooey but more acceptable answer: These days we have a submissions management system through which authors upload their stories. It’s a great system and much easier for us to interact with the authors. For me in particular. (You’d be amazed—and probably baffled—if I told you how submissions were handled for the first two issues.) While I may be the Head Cheese, we’re a team of five and we all have an equal voice. So majority rules. Three votes either way seals the deal.

TC: Are you able to meet face to face with your editors or do you handle much of Shock Totem’s business via Skype, email, chat, etc.?

KAW: We do most of our work through email and on super-secret forums. This past summer, though, Kurt Newton and I drove down to Pennsylvania and met up with John and Nick. I’d met Kurt at Rock and Shock the year before, but other than that it was the first time any of us had met. We stayed at John’s mother’s house, way up some mountain in Orbisonia. It was a ridiculously ridiculous week. (Ask Nick about the tragic and hilarious eruption of Mt. Pissuvius.)

This coming July, John, Nick and I will be at Necon, and I imagine it’ll be a good time. Next year, we hope to meet up with Mercedes at KillerCon in Vegas.

But I think it’s best that we handle Shock Totem business online and in emails. We joke around so much it’s a wonder we get anything done as it is; we’d never get anything done if we put this thing together in person.

TC: I’m positive that every submission is given a fair shake but what would make you stop reading a submission (a subject, a phrase, a technique, anything)? Is there anything you’ve seen enough of in the inbox?

KAW: Since I’m the one that does the main editing, I’m more inclined to quickly reject stories that have a lot of grammar issues, problems with flow or spelling or formatting. The other guys tend to look past those things. They read for story, but I don’t have that luxury; I have to think about what happens after.

We accepted a story for our first issue that had a lot of issues. There was a great story there, but it needed work, it wasn’t fully realized. Being new to editing and a little too inexperienced, I naïvely thought, with the author’s cooperation, that we could make the story shine. Unfortunately, it was a nightmare. The author fought me every inch of the way. In the end, after about six months, the story was getting worse not better, so I reluctantly passed on it. The author wasn’t pleased, to say the least.

So that’s why I quickly vote NO on stories that would require too much editorial involvement. There may be a good story in some of those, but I now realize it’s not my job to fix it that much. Typically, though, we all read the majority of submissions through to the end.

As for things we’ve seen enough of, there are a few things that elicit a collective sigh. The eat– or kill–the–baby endings are really lame. You can see those coming a mile off. I could do without the whole Nazi angle. We’ve gotten stories with Nazi zombies, Nazi werewolves, Nazi were-raccoons, giant Nazi chickens, and many more. Sadly. But we’re still open-minded enough to know there are exceptions to everything, so we have few restrictions on what we’ll read.

TC: You don’t do “themes” yet the stories always fit well together. Your reviews are eclectic—books, films, music, games—yet cohesive with the creative content. Is that due to consistency in the editors’ tastes or do you consciously choose pieces that jive thematically?

KAW: Well, I think our diverse tastes help with that, believe it or not. John likes surreal, bizzaro kind of stuff; Mercedes is into dark and whimsical tales. I like stuff that is more fantastical. We each have our favorite styles, we all dig a broad range of styles beyond that, but at our collective core, we like the same thing: dark fiction. And everything is tethered to that core.

I also think most if it comes down to us having the integrity to stay true to the standards we set before our first issue came out. And that really comes down to one thing: Publish stories that we enjoy. If you publish fiction for any other reason, you simply don’t care enough. We don’t publish our friends because they’re our friends. We don’t publish stories because the author is popular. We print what we enjoy.

TC: Shock Totem has earned a reputation for being a “tough” journal in which to be published. Do you enjoy that reputation and do you think it has an impact on the submissions you receive?

KAW: At first it was like a badge of honor. When you see other publications accepting eighty percent or more of their submissions, it feels good to not be like that. But it’s a childish way to look at things. Having a low acceptance rate doesn’t mean you’re a good publication, you know.

And I do think being a tough market makes it harder for us. I can’t tell you how many authors have complained to me about how many times we’ve rejected them. Some people do it to bust my balls, but others are clearly angry about it. A few have even told me they’re never going to submit to us again because we’ve rejected them too many times, as if the act of sending us five different kind of stories should guarantee an acceptance. It’s baffling and sad, especially when you know they’re good writers.

So yeah, I think having a low acceptance rate makes it harder on a certain level. Of course, if it were easy I guess there’d be a lot more magazines out there.

TC: Is the content of Shock Totem similar to what you write or is it simply what you like to read?

KAW: A little of both, I think. Probably for all of us.

TC: Shock Totem 3 is almost the size of Shock Totem 1 & Shock Totem 2 together. When did you notice an increase in submissions, considering the timeline of when you launched until today, and did the quality of the submissions follow suit?

KAW: We got an obscene amount of submissions at first. Like forty a day for the first few months. And most of them were atrocious. The moment we upped our pay rate to 5 cents a word, the quality increased tenfold. Eventually the amount of submissions dipped a bit, for whatever reason. Maybe because we’re considered a tough market, I don’t know. Now we average about ten to twenty submissions a day.

Our third issue is bigger because we got a large number of quality submissions during that reading period. If only it were always that plentiful! We probably should have saved a couple stories for Issue 4, though, because Issue 3 was damn expensive. Haha.

TC: Do Shock Totem‘s sales support your paying writers or does that come out of your own pocket? Has this changed over the course of the journal’s existence?

KAW: Profits from sales help, but the bulk of the cost comes from my pocket. Nick and John help when they can, and I’m grateful for it, but they have families, you know, so that comes first. But to give you a little more insight, we have recouped from sales half of what it cost to do Issue 1. But Issue 1 sold a hell of a lot of copies—over a thousand—in its first year of release. Unfortunately, Issue 2 and 3 have sold less. But I think—or hope—that says less about the product and more about why so many people bought our first issue.

In a recent interview with The Atlantic, Stephen King talked a bit about short-fiction outlets. In part, he said, “…a lot of the people who read those magazines are only reading them to see what they publish so that they can publish their own stories.” I think that’s why Issue 1 sold so well: A lot of writers were checking out the new pro-paying market, not necessarily the new fiction magazine.

That’s okay of course. We may be selling less now, but we’re still selling well. And hopefully our upcoming digital editions will increase our sales, thus reader base. We also have a few more things planned for this year that should help as well. My wallet could use the break. Haha.

TC: Has Shock Totem introduced you to new subgenres or writing styles? Are there subgenres you’d like to see more of as submissions?

KAW: I’ve always been a reader with broad tastes, so I don’t know that I’ve been introduced to new subgenres, but doing this magazine has definitely given me new insight into writing styles, or what works and what doesn’t work. I’ve learned much more than I would have otherwise, I think. Or at least much quicker.

And personally, I’d like to see more steampunk come our way. Of a darker sort, you know.

TC: Very often I say to someone, “You have to read this story” and hand them the journal (Brian Rappatta’s “The Dead March” in Shock Totem 1 springs to mind). Do you notice yourself especially eager to get an issue to print because you have to share your discoveries with your readers?

KAW: Of course. Traci L. Morganfield’s “The Music Box,” Leslianne Wilder’s “Sweepers,” John Skipp’s “Worm Central Tonite!” and Aaron Polson’s “Wanting It” come to mind. “Beneath the Weeping Willow,” by Lee Thompson, is one from our upcoming issue that I can’t wait to see what people think of it. It’s a heartbreaking tale, and the ending is so bittersweet.

But depending on the person, I may suggest any story. I really like them all.

TC: Shock Totem had a flash fiction contest in 2010 (the winning story “Ruth Across the Sea” by Steven Pirie was published in Shock Totem 3). Will you run the contest again this year? Do you plan to add more contests?

KAW: Yes. It’s ongoing. Our third bi-monthly contest started May 1. There will be two more after that. (The contests take place on our forum, for those interested.) The final judging will be done after our September contest is complete, and the overall winner will then appear in Issue 5.

And we plan to have other contests, just one-off deals, you know, where people can win books or CDs, things like that. Our new website—which is updated constantly and far more interactive than our previous site—is where we’ll hold those kinds of contests.

TC: In what ways has Shock Totem evolved away from your original expectation for the journal (for better or worse)?

KAW: We’re almost the complete opposite of what we first set out to be. We opened our doors as an e-zine paying 1 cent a word, and now we’re a print magazine that pays 5 cents a word. And despite the additional cost to us, we’re definitely better for it.

But as I mentioned at the beginning of Issue 1, our overall vision remains the same: Shock Totem is a magazine full of stories that we, as readers, enjoy the hell out of.

We’re also pissing fewer people off. Or I am, anyway. Haha.

Final Poll Results

Agents to Zombies:
Author Mira Grant from A-Z

Absolute Blank

By Erin Bellavia (Billiard)

Mira Grant is the author of the Newsflesh Trilogy—a story of a post-zombie-apocalypse America that, among other things, explores the effects of “The Rising” (the moment that people started rising from the dead in search of tasty, tasty brains) on politics and media. Deadline, the second book in the trilogy, will be released on May 31.

As Seanan McGuire, she has published four books in the October Daye urban fantasy series. Seanan was the winner of the 2010 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and her novel Feed (the first book of the Newsflesh Trilogy) was named as one of Publishers Weekly’s Best Books of 2010.

I interviewed Mira using the the A-Z interview, the brainchild of my husband, Rand Bellavia. Here is his explanation of how it works: “The structure of these interviews is simple: I email the interviewee 26 words/phrases, each beginning with a different letter of the English alphabet. Then it’s up to them. The interviewee is free to respond to each item as completely or as curtly as they wish.”

So I made my list, sent it off to Mira, and watched her go.

A is for Agent

I probably tell the story of how I hooked up with my agent a little more often than is strictly necessary, partially because I’m still a little amazed that I have her, and partially because she’s so perfect for me, and I sort of want to say, “See? You can get the right agent for you, if you keep looking, and don’t settle for someone who can’t handle your particular variety of crazy.” She’s my personal superhero. She rooms with me at conventions and doesn’t kill me when I leave my laptop slide show running all night. She understands my passion for My Little Ponies, the color orange, and Monster High dolls. Basically, she proves that sometimes when you’re very, very good, the Great Pumpkin gives you what you ask for.

B is for Buffy

Buffy the Vampire Slayer wasn’t my first fandom—that dubious honor goes to either Doctor Who or My Little Pony, depending on how you want to measure things—but it was the fandom that saw me through my teenage years and into my twenties. It was the fandom I grew up during, and that means that it will always, always be precious to me, no matter how much I may sometimes want to shake the show until its metaphorical teeth rattle. Buffy changed the game. It really did. For better or for worse, the landscape we’re playing in today, as authors and as readers and as people who enjoy this genre… it’s not the landscape we had before Buffy came along. My favorite characters are Anya and Faith; I am a shameless line-quoter and soundtrack singer; and I once flew to New Jersey just to sing Buffy Summers in a cabaret performance of “Once More With Feeling.” So yeah, this show kinda means a lot to me.

C is for Candy Corn

I took an experimental psych class in college. And one of the assignments was to basically self-condition. To create a passion or a phobia centering on something small, so that we could see how malleable the human brain really is. I chose candy corn, which I’d always been fairly neutral about, and spent three weeks convincing myself that it was the best! Thing!! EVER!!! It worked, maybe a little too well, since I remain passionately fond of the stuff… but only when it’s fresh. Fresh candy corn is the ambrosia of the gods. Stale candy corn is a punishment upon the wicked. People who say that they’ve just been re-selling the same three hundred pounds since candy corn was invented (you know who you are) have clearly never had the fresh stuff.

Oh, and here’s a fun candy corn fact for you: did you know that it’s seasonal not because of any specific ingredients, but because the original process of making it was so involved that it took weeks, and required that the molds be sufficiently cool to set? So they couldn’t make it in the middle of the summer, even if they wanted to. The candy wouldn’t harden properly.

D is for Dialogue

Writing dialogue is so much easier now that everyone has a cell phone. I just hold it up to my ear while I argue with myself, and everyone assumes that there’s another person on the other end, rather than it being just me, solo, running “lines” to make sure that everything sounds natural. It makes a nice change from the days where people would assume that I was crazy and cross the street to get away from me.

E is for Elvis

I loved Lilo and Stitch. Did you love Lilo and Stitch? Great movie. It was the last movie I saw with my grandmother before she died. This exhausts my knowledge of Elvis and his ways. Elvira, I can talk about for days. Elvis, not so much.

F is for Feed

This is what the cats want me to do for them.

More seriously, when I started writing Feed, it was a standalone novel called Newsflesh, and it was pretty much an accident. I sat down one day, and fifty pages of zombie science fiction adventure just fell out of me. I could tell just by looking at it that the rest wasn’t going to be nearly that simple… and that I wanted to find out just how hard it could be. It turned out to be harder, and easier, and more rewarding than I had ever dared to dream that it might be. I mean, everyone wants to write the book that moves them to tears, right? With Feed, I actually got to do that. Parts of it still make me cry, and I’ve read them and lived with them and agonized over them longer than anybody else.

G is for George Romero

The father of the modern zombie. I hope he’s proud of what he’s managed to do, and not just faintly puzzled and appalled.

H is for Habits

I am a creature of habit. Sometimes this is a good thing, like when my rigid adherence to word counts means I don’t miss my deadlines. Sometimes this is a bad thing, like when my rigid adherence to the to-do list causes me to neglect the twenty new things that have cropped up over the course of an evening. I have a planner that basically contains my entire brain, because without it, the bad habits would overwhelm the good, and I’d wind up sitting in my back room watching carefully hoarded episodes of So You Think You Can Dance? and iCarly for the rest of time, rather than actually finishing any of the books that I currently have approaching due.

I is for Influences

My influences are many and varied and faintly insane. I mean, you’ve got the literary, like Stephen King and Shakespeare and Tanya Huff and Diane Duane. But you’ve also got Wes Craven and Chris Claremont and everyone who wrote for Warren Comics during the Creepy and Eerie era, and the writers for the old 1980s horror television, like Monsters and Tales from the Darkside. Peter S. Beagle, Walt Disney, the Brothers Grimm, Sir Child, whoever wrote the scripts for the My Little Pony cartoons, the Counting Crows, Amethyst: Princess of Gemworld, Joss Whedon and Stan Lee… I’m like a weird human magpie that just sort of grabs things, mashes them together, and then attacks them with cookie cutters until they start looking like the literary equivalent of food. I’ve give up trying to make any sort of sense of them. You should probably do the same.

J is for James Gunn

He needs to call me.

K is for King, Stephen

The only two authors I wasn’t allowed to read when I was a kid were Stephen King and Robert Heinlein—Heinlein because Mom had heard that he was dirty, and King because she’d heard that he was scary. Naturally, I became obsessed with reading them, and managed to sneak a few of their books. I got a good King for my age—Cujo—and a bad Heinlein; I don’t even remember what it was. I decided that I had to be allowed to read Stephen King or I would actually die. I started to pester my mother, and believe me, I was a Grade-A pesterer when I wanted to be. I cajoled, I whined, I begged, and when all that failed, I wrote a twelve-page essay explaining why, after reading Lovecraft and Poe and Barker, King really wasn’t that big of a deal. Mom finally gave in, probably to avoid more footnotes. I was nine. Stephen King has been my favorite author ever since. I read him when I want to be comforted by the way he uses words. I recently reread IT for the first time in over a year, and it’s amazing how good that was for my mental stability.

L is for Lycanthropy

I am, like, the queen of accidentally stumbling over new projects when I’m not looking for them. One of those projects is a series of young adult novels about a teenage werecoyote named Clady Porter, who likes to watch horror movies, but never wanted to actually live in one. The first book is called Lycanthropy and Other Personal Issues, and it’s about her first year in the lycanthrope world. She’s probably one of the heroines I have the most sheer fun writing, because she’s a lot like I was in high school. Plus, you know, periodically shape-shifting into a predatory canine and eating the neighbor’s poodle. I really hope I get to publish these someday. I want to spend a lot more time with Clady.

M is for Music

Music is a hugely important part of my life, both creating it and listening to it. My favorite “retail therapy” involves crawling for hours and hours through the used CD racks at my local Rasputin Records. I even love the recording process. When I’m really stressed out, I start work on a new album. It’s very immediate and visceral for me, in a way that writing isn’t. You finish your part of a song, step back, and wait to see what the next person is going to do. It’s an amazing process. I’ve been listening to a lot of country recently, for reasons that are unknown even to me, and the new Christian Kane album is essentially auditory perfection.

N is for Nextwave

I randomly quote Tabitha Smith in conversation with people who do not even read comics. I have no shame over this fact. Tick tick tick boom.

O is for October Daye

Toby is my imaginary friend. Rosemary and Rue was the first book I really finished, and the process of writing it is what taught me how to write—it’s what taught me that I could write, that there was no length so impossible to overcome that it meant I should just throw my hands up and admit defeat. I’ve lived with Toby for literally over a decade. I know her so well I could never put all the little details into a book. And that’s why she’s so real to me. It can make reviews a little uncomfortable sometimes, because not everyone likes her, and it’s sort of “Oh, yeah? Well, I don’t like your talking banana!” Yes, my brain is a little odd at times.

P is for Poetry

There’s this old poetry exercise, where you ask for three words and then you use them to write a poem. For several years, I was doing a modified version of this exercise, called Iron Poet, where I would take three words and an optional poetic style from anyone who wanted to play, and I would write them a poem. I got some really good pieces out of that game. I also got some total crap. I miss having the time to play Iron Poet. I hope I can do it again someday.

Q is for Quidditch

The scoring system of this game makes absolutely no sense, and I’ve played Dragon Poker.

R is for Research

Research is like ice cream. There is no such thing as too much, and if you try to swallow it all at once, you’re probably going to give yourself a stomachache. Learning good research habits is almost as important to a writer’s career as learning good editing habits. Probably a little less painful, too.

S is for Seanan McGuire

Seanan is my good twin, which means she gets to wear fluffy orange and pink dresses and prance around declaring herself the Princess of Halloweentown, while I have to spend all my time bribing the monster under the bed to not eat the cats. Whatever. Who wants to be a stupid ol’ princess, anyway? I just wish she’d share the tiaras…

T is for Twilight

There’s this big hill near my house, covered in trees and scrub grass and little winding dog trails, and the absolute best time to climb it is when the sun’s going down, because the grass turns this sort of dusty gold, and the crows are all crying to each other, and the eagles come home to roost, and sometimes you’ll even see a coyote. Man, twilight on that hill is just plain magical.

U is for Unilateral nuclear disarmament

If we can take the toys away from absolutely everybody, I’m all for it. If we can’t, then I have no idea, and will let people who studied this sort of thing in college deal with it. I studied fairy tales. Ask me about unilateral magic lamp disarmament, and I’m there.

V is for Veronica Mars

Veronica Mars was one of the best things on television. There were a few bad episodes, and the show as a whole never found a mystery to rival the question of who killed Lily Kane, but it was an incredible ensemble, the writing was amazing, and I still miss it. Veronica + Logan forever, yo.

W is for the West Wing

When I started really working on Feed, I watched all seven seasons of The West Wing in like, three months. I was doing almost a full season a week. It was a hugely intense experience, and I will love this show forever. No one does political dialog like Aaron Sorkin when he’s bringing his ‘A’ game.

X is for X-Men

Someday, I am going to write for the X-Men. And on that day, I will have fulfilled every goal I set for myself when I was eight years old, and I will finally be able to return to my home dimension. Also, Emma Frost is totally the perfect woman for Scott Summers.

Y is for YA

I love love love what’s going on in young adult literature right now. There’s so much story, and so much risk, because it’s basically this wide-open field where no one says “you can’t do that, it’s a cliche” or “you shouldn’t do that, you’ll never do it as well as so-and-so did.” You know what? Who cares. We’re doing it. And so everything is amped-up and awesome and totally exciting, and it’s just incredible. I want to be writing YA so bad. I’m going to be writing YA eventually, just as soon as we can find the right excuse to set me loose on a whole new series. And it’s going to be awesome.

Z is for Zombies

Zombies are love.


Seanan’s LiveJournal
Seanan’s Twitter
Mira’s Twitter

Final Poll Results

Mentor March:
Writers Who Inspire Us

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

In the spirit of popular Twitter hashtags #FollowFriday (#FF) and #WriterWednesday (#WW), we bring you #MentorMarch, in which the Toasted Cheese editors share some of the working writers who are currently inspiring us. Not confined to any one genre, the list spans the spectrum of writing, including novelists, non-fiction writers, children’s authors, screenwriters, journalists, critics, bloggers, poets, and essayists, many of whom are multihyphenates.

Add your own inspirations on Twitter using the #MentorMarch hashtag.

Ana George (Broker)

Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself), of course. He blogs and tweets. He’s also on Facebook. And he seems to enjoy engaging his public.

Justine Larbalestier (@justinelavaworm), author of How to Ditch your Fairy and Liar among others. She’s mostly a young-adult writer, but I’ve enjoyed her rich plots and interesting fantasy writing for myself. She blogged quite extensively, but then developed carpal tunnel syndrome, and now she pours most of her limited supply of keystrokes into her next book. The blog archives include quite a lot of excellent advice to up and coming writers.

Chad Orzel (@orzelc) has written a delightful popular science book called How to Teach Physics to your Dog and blogs at Uncertain Principles. He also tweets. It’s nice to see somebody who can actually explain the subtleties of modern physics (quantum mechanics, with a second book on relativity in the works) to people, doing just that.

Lisa Olson (Boots)

Wil Wheaton (@wilw). Besides being the King of the Geeks, he is actually an author. I find his blog amusing, right on track, and entertaining. His three novels (Dancing Barefoot, Sunken Treasure, Just a Geek) are on my “to-read” list.

Felicia Day (@feliciaday). Not an author, but a writer of scripts. She was kind of the front runner of internet serials (The Guild) and a total success at it. She’s also an actor. I love her blog and her tweets.

Debbie Ridpath Ohi (@inkyelbows). A children’s book author, but full of sage advice, awesome cartoons and all kinds of wonderful. She does online cartoons such as Will Write For Chocolate, and she is illustrating a book (I’m Bored) written by Michael Ian Black due out in 2012.

Jayne Ann Krentz (@JayneAnnKrentz) (aka Amanda Quick and Jayne Castle). A romance writer, I went through most of her Amanda Quick books. I loved The Third Circle and see that Wicked Widow is on my shelf. She had a blog in conjunction with some other romance writers, but it’s since gone defunct. Her website is still going—as is she.

And last, I follow all of the Toasted Cheese editors. Beaver‘s tweets are usually really awesome for writers or just for a good belly laugh. Baker is always hysterical—you can’t make up the shit she writes down. Billiard is always sweet and full of life.

Erin Bellavia (Billiard)

John Scalzi (@scalzi) makes me laugh on a regular basis, but he’s also been known to make me cry. He gives great advice about writing, and he once famously taped bacon to his cat. Need I say more?

Meg Cabot (@megcabot) is endlessly entertaining. I love her sense of humor, her interaction with fans, and I am in awe of her productivity.

Laurie Halse Anderson (@halseanderson), author of Speak, is quite simply one of my favorite authors writing today. I especially appreciate all of the resources she offers for teachers.

Seanan McGuire (@seananmcguire). Full disclosure—Seanan is a good friend, but I’d follow her even if she wasn’t. Her dedication and work ethic are inspiring, and she frequently posts fantastic insight and advice. The fourth book in her October Daye series, Late Eclipses, came out earlier this month.

Debbie Ridpath Ohi (@inkyelbows). Debbie is also a friend, and she never fails to inspire me. It’s not exaggerating to say that she is one of my favorite people, and her optimism and joy are contagious.

Amanda Marlowe (Bellman)

Lois McMaster Bujold is a huge inspiration in my writing life. Her characters are incredibly well-rounded, and so very, very human. She has set the characterization bar high, but it’s a goal worth striving for.

On Twitter, I follow the awesome writers of the TV show Castle, including the creator Andrew Marlowe (@AndrewWMarlowe and full disclosure, yes, we are related) and his wife and fellow Castle writer Terri Miller (@TerriEdda). And of course I follow Richard Castle as well, but I will let Baker say more about him.

Judy Blume (@judyblume) was one of my favorite writers growing up. May my child characters carry the same authenticity that hers do.

I also find a lot of inspiration and good advice from the various editing and query-critiquing blogs. My two current favorites are Evil Editor and Query Shark.

I follow quite a few other writers, many of whom are already mentioned elsewhere in this article, and all of whom inspire me in one way or another.

And I would be remiss not to mention the influence that Shakespeare has been on me both as a person and as a writer. I haven’t been able to figure out which of the many accounts attributed to him on Twitter are actually his, however, as none have yet been verified…

Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

Roxane Gay (@rgay) writes short fiction, teaches English, and edits PANK amongst other things. Last year she had six (six!) stories make the Million Writers Award Notable Stories list. All of that is amazing, but she makes my list because of her blog: a brilliant mix of writerly angst, personal confession, breathtaking storytelling—and reviews of terrible (so bad they’re good) movies.

Tayari Jones (@tayari) is a novelist (her third novel Silver Sparrow comes out this spring), a creative writing professor, and a mentor to fledgling writers. That she finds the time to do all these things is an inspiration in itself. Of all the writers on my list, I’ve followed Tayari the longest, and having read her blog throughout the entire process of writing Silver Sparrow, I cannot wait to read it.

William Zinsser (born 1922) is the author of On Writing Well. You may have heard of him. What you may not know is that he blogs every Friday about “writing, the arts, and popular culture” at The American Scholar. He’s a fantastic storyteller and brings a unique perspective to a genre dominated by Gen-X and Millennial voices.

Kerry Clare (@kcpicklemethis) writes short fiction, essays, and book reviews. She’s also a long-time blogger (October 2000!) whose blog focuses mostly on books, reading and writing. A critic in the original sense of the word, she’s able to point out flaws without being mean and offer praise without being sycophantic. Her reviews have a double-goodness: they not only generate interest in reading the reviewed books, but are engaging reading in themselves.

Elisa Gabbert (@egabbert) is a poet and blogger. She’s written two books of poetry, That Tiny Insane Voluptuousness (with Kathleen Rooney) and The French Exit. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read of her poetry, but I really like her blogging voice. In this interview, she says that she considers blogging as much of a form/genre as poetry—and it shows.

Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

Susie Bright (@susiebright). I’ve followed Susie personally and professionally for at least ten years, after getting my hands on the early Herotica anthologies. Her passions so closely follow my own, I can’t not follow Susie everywhere I find her. I have an autographed copy of a collection she edited (squee!), several unautographed collections as well, and a naughty phrased pro-women button sent by Susie herself. I find her her “How To Write A Dirty Story” inspiring not just for writing erotica but for writing short fiction in general. I find her frequent Twitter and Facebook updates informative and inspiring as well. She can also be found regularly on HuffPo; her most recent column is “How to Get Your Favorite Author to Visit Your Home Town.”

Roger Ebert (@ebertchicago) I spend a disproportionate amount of time reading Roger Ebert every day. I’ve always read him and it never fails to surprise me how many people don’t think of Ebert primarily as a writer. His books are among my favorites, from his The Great Movies collections (also available in column format online) to Your Movie Sucks, his way with words has jived with my sensibilities (not to mention that we have similar taste, political opinions, etc.). Since losing his ability to speak, I’ve found Ebert’s ever-increasing proliferation of online writing still not enough to sate my thirst for his work. He tweets throughout the day, writes regular blog entries, and reviews current and classic films. He’s also on Facebook. I’ve subscribed to The Ebert Club (currently only $5 to subscribe, about to go up to $10 so get in while you can for $5) since the beginning and it’s so informative and fun that it takes me at least a day to savor everything in the weekly issue. I also own a rice cooker because of this.

Richard Castle (@WriteRCastle) is not only a fun writer, he’s quite a character. I follow him mostly on Twitter because he’s not on Facebook much. I hope that’s because he’s working on another Nikki Heat book. I was a little late reading Heat Wave but once I started, I could barely put it down. I don’t read many modern mysteries because it seems there’s a lot of clutter and “trying too hard” from the author (and not nearly enough female MCs). Castle’s laid back attitude (and extensive research) carries from his Twitter feed right into his fiction and it makes his writing a pleasure to read. Plus he’s 100% adorable so I tend to store his books face-down on tables.

Favorite writers/inspirations I follow include the already mentioned Neil Gaiman, Debbie Ridpath Ohi and TC editors & contributors. Feel free to follow my writing list.

Final Poll Results