Finding Forrester: A Film Review and Quandary About the Writing Craft

Absolute Blank

By Shelley Carpenter (harpspeed)

I recently watched the film Finding Forrester (2000) directed by Gus Van Sant. I saw it years ago and revisited it only this time with my writer’s lens. The film is about a fictional author named William Forrester (Sean Connery) who writes the great American novel and then disappears from the literary world like a Salingeresque legend until he is “found” by edgy teenager Jamal Wallace (Rob Brown), whom Forrester catches breaking into his Bronx apartment.

There inside the top floor apartment overlooking the basketball courts, Jamal discovers a writer’s haven as Forrester’s home is filled with books, typewriters, file cabinets, stacks of papers, and artifacts. Jamal, who meant no harm to Forrester, whose escapade was done on a dare, scrambles out of Forrester’s door forgetting his backpack and inside it, his writing journals. Consequently, this unexpected encounter leads to a cat-and-mouse game of words that aligns the two characters in purpose and, later, in friendship.

Finding Forrester: A Film Review and Quandary About the Writing Craft

What I like the most about the film are the short discourses the pair have concerning the craft of writing that often end in disagreement and argument. The chemistry between the two very different and likeable characters is amplified by Sean Connery’s magnanimous presence that made me almost believe he was William Forrester. They are archetypes: the wise master and stubborn young apprentice. Classic.

One such exchange concerns the usage of conjunctions. Forrester believes the use of a conjunction to begin a sentence is sloppy, egregious writing. Jamal disagrees and very eloquently defends its usage:

“It was a firm rule,” Jamal explains. “Sometimes if you use a basic conjunction at the start of a sentence it can make it stand out a little bit. And that may be what the writer’s trying to do.”

Forrester raises his eyebrow. “And what is the risk?”

“Well, the risk is doing it too much. It’s a distraction and it could give your piece a run-on feeling. But for the most part the rule on using and or but at the start of the sentence is pretty shaky even though it’s still taught in too many schools by too many professors. Some of the best writers have been ignoring that rule for years—including you.”

Beyond their relationship and the journeys these characters face is another theme just below the surface, one I recall hearing about several times in my undergraduate classes and in conversations with fellow writers. It is a common question that can be applied to many subjects, a quandary much like the chicken-and-egg riddle tailored to the writing craft: is talent in writing something a person is born with or is it something that can be taught? A gift or an education?

It would seem that Jamal’s character fell into both categories. From the beginning one can see the burgeoning writer. His writing is both meaningful and cathartic. Jamal behaves like a writer, hungry to learn and disciplined. He carries a journal and often pauses in his day to record his thoughts. It is Forrester who makes the connection. He is the one who recognizes Jamal as a writer regardless of Jamal’s young age or social status in the community.

Jamal’s self-awareness of himself as a writer is also notable. He wants to be better and is humble enough to know that his writing would improve greatly under Forrester’s guidance. He is also ambitious and pursues Forrester relentlessly for it in the film. He baffles school administrators, teachers, and professors alike with his intelligence and talent. Some believe in him and award him with opportunity while others don’t, and call him out for it: Jamal is accused of plagiarism.

Is writing a gift or is it something that can be taught? The film, Finding Forrester, is metaphoric in this quandary. Writers are indeed driven by desire beyond self-improvement, the heart of which is simply the love of the craft—the absolute joy in making meaning with words, putting those words into sentences and forming paragraphs and pages until there is no more to be said. It’s a love affair that we are born into, a gift we inherit, pursue, and enjoy all our lives. And that is something that just can’t be taught.

Yet there are other facets to the craft such as ambition. Like Jamal, many writers possess that personal ambition—an overwhelming desire to be better at what we do best: write. Writers may identify with the young Jamal but how many of us have a Pulitzer Prize-winning mentor like Forrester? Instead, we seek out our own “Forresters” by learning about the craft from a variety of resources: books, undergraduate and graduate programs, author talks and lectures, fellowships in various writing communities, etc. So, yes, there is some education to the craft. And that education serves a dual purpose: improving the caliber of one’s writing and creating new sources of inspiration to draw from.


13-12

Alien Worlds

Absolute Blank

By Amanda Marlowe (The Bellman)

Even with all the new special effects, the majority of aliens in the movies and on television tend to be humanoid. Sure, we all know that’s because you have human actors underneath the pointed ears or the tusked faces. But we don’t have that restriction when we are writing. Our aliens can be as alien as we want to make them.

So why do so many alien societies feel like the emotional equivalent of human actors in alien costumes?

Robert Lynn Asprin has a multiverse of creatures to pull from in his Myth Adventures series, but at core, all the different species act like regular humans and are pretty much indistinguishable culturally from humans. Elves in many books are simply humans with pointy ears and some magic talent. Even plants seem to develop human characteristics once they are sentient. At least Tolkien’s Ents moved slowly. But beyond viewing other life forms as “hasty” they still tended to think like humans while they were in front of the reading audience.

Part of that, of course, is because we are humans, and no matter what we do, we are writing from a human perspective. We want to be able to relate to our characters, so there does need to be some element of humanness to them. But is there a way to make aliens, alien worlds and societies, or even just “other” worlds and societies, feel less like the ones we know and more… well… alien?

When you sit down to build a world, you usually start out with a neat idea. Run with it. But take a good look at the ideas you use, and dig deeply into the consequences of your choices. This is what will make your aliens truly alien. Each time you make a choice about your alien and your alien world, ask yourself: what does it mean? Dig deep into the implications, so that you can build up a consistent picture based on your choices.

Background image: Garrette/Flickr (CC-by)

Background image: Garrette/Flickr (CC-by)

The Consequences of Physique

Sometimes the starting idea is about the type of creature you are creating. Maybe you would start with something like, “What if my aliens were giant lizards?” So you make them giant lizards. Now, you can, of course, have your giant lizards wander around talking and acting like humans. But wouldn’t it be more interesting if they acted like lizards instead of humans in lizard suits? Are they cold-blooded like Earth lizards? Then pay close attention to how they react to temperatures. Have them slow down when it gets cold. Or sleep when it gets hot.

If your reptiles have the ability to climb walls and stick to ceilings the way geckos do, then they should think like wall climbers, not ground walkers. Walls and floors and ceilings would be accessible. What does that sort of freedom do to the mind? Maybe they lay eggs in nests and leave the eggs to hatch, so that their children are born needing to fend for themselves. What would that lack of parental involvement mean for a lizard society? There wouldn’t be a close bond between children and parents. In fact, children may not even know their parents in such a case. So there would need to be some mechanism by which children become functioning members of a lizard society that is different from the “raise your kids to be members of society” model.

Ask Yourself:

  • If I’m basing my alien on a real creature, what things affect that creature?
  • How does that sort of creature behave when it’s alone? When it’s in a group of its own kind? When it’s with other kinds of creatures?
  • What are the implications of the physical characteristics I’ve picked?
  • What types of environments will my alien do well in? In what ways will it do well?
  • What types of environments will limit my alien? In what way will it be limited?
  • What are the implications of how my alien race reproduces?
  • What does this method of reproduction imply about my alien society?
  • What does it imply for my alien characters?

The Consequences of Environment

Sometimes you start with the type of world you are building. Consider the uniqueness of that world. Use that to explore what it means for your societies, and how it would affect the mindset of your alien characters. What if your aliens lived in gravity-free space? There would be no concept of down. Or friction. They would think in terms of propelling, action, and reaction. This sort of thinking should be implicit in your character’s words and thoughts. The word “walk” for instance, would be relatively meaningless to a gravity-free society. If your aliens live and breathe underwater, they will not have any native concept of fire. Their idea of day and night will be governed by the light patterns through the water—they may not, if they live deep enough under water, have any concept of a sun, or sky. So they wouldn’t be talking or thinking about these things as a matter of course.

Also think about the natural hazards your aliens would normally worry about, and the implications of these hazards. If predators are common, your aliens might prefer to travel in groups, or with some kind of weapon. If the terrain is difficult to navigate, your alien society might preferentially honor the members who are more agile. Think about ways your aliens might have evolved to cope with these hazards, and build that into the alien behavior.

Ask yourself:

  • What normal things around you would you think about or talk about that your aliens just wouldn’t know anything about?
  • What things around your aliens would they think about or know about that humans wouldn’t?
  • What things in the environment are important to your alien society?
  • What are the implications of the physical terrain for individuals? What are the implications of the physical terrain for society?
  • What sorts of plants and animals are on your world? How do individuals deal with these plants and animals? What deeper implications might there be for the alien society?
  • Is food and water plentiful? If not, how do your aliens deal with that?

Think about the words your aliens might use to describe their environment. What might be missing from their language? Would they need words we don’t use?

The Consequences of Cultural Norms

Sometimes you start off with a neat cultural idea. When you go this route, take the time to really explore the cultural nucleus. Try not to impose your own culture on it, however. Let’s say you think, “Hey, how about a planet ruled by women instead of men?” Think about what this would really be like. Don’t just flip each “he” to a “she” and each “she” to a “he” and make it about male-like women oppressing female-like men. (Yes, I’m thinking of something specific here. For a prime example of what not to do, I point to you the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Angel One.”) Instead, take a look at examples of matrilineal cultures, or animal cultures where the female dominates (like bonobos) and use those instead. Or come up with a society that you think the women around you might build.

Or let’s say you have a society where your alien could only have one child, ever. What would that restriction mean in terms of how members of that society treat their children? You could end up with a society where children are never allowed to do anything, and are kept in a total bubble until adulthood. Or one where no one has children early, but wait until they are able to ensure its safety and comfort. Every child might be the most important thing in an adult’s life, every child’s death a devastation to the gene pool.

By exploring any cultural norms you want to impose to the absolute limit, you can build a very rich alien society that goes deeper than a human in alien clothing society would.

Ask Yourself:

  • What effect does this cultural norm have on an individual? What does it imply about day-to-day living?
  • What effect does this cultural norm have on society as a whole?
  • Are there hidden ways in which I am imposing my own cultural norms, even if they don’t really apply to this society?
  • Am I basing this culture on a similar culture that already exists?
  • What is the same about that culture and mine?
  • What is different? How would those differences change what is going on?
  • Is my culture self-consistent?
  • Do I have conflicting norms? If my norms conflict, do they do so intentionally? What kinds of choices would be facing members of my alien society because of these conflicts?
  • What sorts of assumptions am I making about my society?
  • Which of these assumptions am I making deliberately? Which am I making unconsciously?

Thing about connections. Think about consequences. Keep digging beneath the surface of your ideas. The more deeply you can explore the implications of your choices, the more unique and alien your characters and their world will be.


13-11

 

Tell the Stories You Have to Tell: Interview with Tanya Huff

Absolute Blank

By Erin Bellavia (Billiard)

Canadian fantasy author Tanya Huff was born in Nova Scotia, but spent much of her childhood in Kingston, Ontario. She eventually moved to Toronto, and later, to “the middle of nowhere,” Ontario. Her first novel, Child of the Grove was published in 1988.

Blood TiesHuff’s “Blood Books” (a series of novels pairing human detective Vicki Nelson with vampire and novelist Henry Fitzroy) were adapted as the series Blood Ties for CBC Television. The series also aired in the US on Lifetime.

The third book in her current series (commonly referred to as the “Gale Girls” series) was recently completed. The second book, The Wild Ways, was released in November 2011.

Earlier this month, Huff’s 2012 novel The Silvered won the 2013 Aurora Award. (The Aurora Awards honor science fiction and fantasy works by Canadian authors.)

We here at Toasted Cheese were happy to have Tanya Huff share her experience and insight with us. (And be warned… a couple of her responses had the interviewer all choked up!)

Tell the Stories You Have to Tell

Toasted Cheese: When did you first know that writing was what you wanted to do?

Tanya Huff: The late George Carlin used to answer the question “Did you always know you wanted to be a comedian?” with “Not in the womb, but right after that.” I have a letter that my grandmother, who was taking care of me, wrote to my father while he was out to sea, when I was three. In it, she tells him a story I told her of a spider who lived at the bottom of the garden. (He made a web and ate a fly and then he fell asleep and his web got broken. —come on, I was three!) I also illustrated it. Badly.

The year I turned ten, one of my cousins had spinal surgery and had to spend the entire summer in bed. I spent a good portion of my summer telling her stories—and acting them out with our Barbie dolls.

The thing is, I have always been a storyteller but I had no idea you could make a career of it. My family is not exactly… bookish.

TC: How long have you been writing professionally? Did you do anything else before you started writing?

Child of the GroveTH: I sold two pieces of poetry when I was ten—but I don’t think you could call that writing professionally. In 1985 I sold a story to George Scithers at Amazing and then in early 1986 I sold Child of the Grove to Sheila Gilbert at DAW. I went on to sell another four stories to George and another twenty-eight books to Sheila.

Before that I spent a year studying forestry at Lakehead University, took a class C posting with the Naval Reserve (which I’d been in for two years at that point), spent six months in LA where if I’d had any idea of the way things worked, I’d be a television writer today, six months working for a security company, four months working maintenance for the YWCA in Toronto, three months in a coffee factory, then off to Ryerson Polytechnic for a degree in Radio and Television Arts paid for by working at Mr. Gameway’s Ark and selling sunglasses from a pushcart at Yonge and Bloor but graduated the year the CBC had massive layoff so went to work managing Gypsy Bazaar—the first of the flea markets as stores—and, finally, left them to work at Bakka Books for eight years where I was when I wrote the first four of my novels.

TC: We all know that the work of writing often involves just doing the work, regardless of whether or not the muse is in the building. That said, what inspires you?

TH: Hmmm, good question. People, definitely. Everyone has a story and a lot of those stories are distinctly stranger than fiction. And other people’s writing. When I finish a book that really touches me—emotionally, or intellectually—it gets me all fired up to go and write.

TC: Do you have any specific habits or rituals that help you get “in the zone”?

TH: Hot beverages are important. *g* It used to always be tea—plain black tea with milk—but in the last few years I’ve started drinking more coffee and green tea so just generally, the making of a hot drink. Boiling the water. Pouring into the pot. Waiting. Pouring it into the cup. Carrying it into my office. It’s one of the reasons I don’t work on a laptop—I’ve drowned any number of keyboards over the years.

TC: I know that music is important to you. Do you listen to music when you write? How does music inform your characters and their stories?

The Wild WaysTH: The only time I’ve ever listened to music while writing was during The Wild Ways when I had Cape Breton fiddle music on fairly constantly. Usually, I relate to music the way I relate to short stories, each piece is complete in and of itself and isn’t meant to be a creative layer in a larger whole. I listen when I’m running, and in the truck, and doing housework, and it often inspires creativity the way any other piece of another person’s writing may, but when I’m actually working and being creative myself, I prefer silence. Now, if things aren’t going particularly well, then I’ll throw on some music and play spider solitaire for a while until something breaks loose but, generally, if I’m at my desk, it’s quiet.

TC: Where is your favorite place to write?

TH: I have an office with a desk and my desktop and a whole lot of research books and, if I’m home, that’s where I am between one and six in the afternoon. I’ve never understood how people can write in coffee shops—I’d be too busy people watching. That said, I really like to write on trains. I don’t know what it is, but I can sometimes produce an entire day’s word count during the two-and-a-half hours it takes to get into Toronto.

TC: I know that this is like asking someone to choose their favorite child, but do you have a favorite of the books (or series) you’ve written?

TH: It is kind of a favorite child question… Unlike a number of writers, I still like everything I’ve ever written. There’s a few structural things I’d like to fix in some of the early stuff—although I think the Quarters books are some of my best writing, particularly The Quartered Sea—but for me, it’s all about the storytelling and I enjoy the stories I tell. I even still like the Ravensloft book I wrote for hire. Now, I can say that Valor’s Choice was the most fun I ever had writing a book. Fitting space marines and evolved dinosaurs into Rorke’s Drift was joy from start to finish.

TC: How about of the ones you haven’t written? (That is, that have been written by someone else… not imaginary ones. *g*)

TH: I adore everything Terry Pratchett has ever written. When there’s a hole in my life for whatever reason, I turn to Pratchett. He sees people, with all their complexities and stupidities and courage and cowardice and potential in a way that no other writer I know does.

I love Charles de Lint’s work and I think he knows secret things the rest of us only suspect exist.

TC: Earlier this year, Stephen King wrote about first lines for The Atlantic. Do you have a favorite opening line from any of your books or stories? How much thought do you put into those first words your reader will see? Are there any opening lines by other authors that you admire?

TH: Sitting here, without getting up and checking, I have no memory of what any of my first lines are. And I just sent my latest book of three days ago. This is not to say I don’t work at getting the first lines right, but once they’re written they’re part of the story and while I remember the story, I don’t remember the words that make it up.

So, let’s take a look at a few…

The Future Falls: 3rd Gale girl book, just turned in… She lay stretched out under a beach umbrella, long silver braid coiled on top of her head, the fingers of one hand wrapped around a Pina Colada—made with real island rum and fresh coconut milk—the fingers of the other drumming against the broad teak arm of the lounge chair. Hmmm, really needs the next line to make it work. She’d been watching a beach volleyball game and she hadn’t appreciated having her view of half naked, athletic young men bounding about on the sand interrupted by the Sight of a falling rock.

We’ve set up the Gale’s appreciation of handsome young men, given enough information that readers of the first two books can identify the character but—hopefully—intrigued new readers, and set up the entire A plot. Not too bad.

The SilveredThe Silvered: 2012’s hardcover release… Senses nearly overpowered by the scent of sweat and gunpowder and cheap pipe tobacco, Tomas followed his nose through the 1st Aydori Volunteers, searching for his greatcoat. Okay, that introduces a main character, lets you know he’s probably not human, sets the tech level as post-gunpowder, and suggests there’s going to be a military element. Decent set up.

Blood Price: 1991, the first of the Vicki Nelson/Henry Fitzroy books… Ian shoved his hands deep in his pockets and scowled down the length of the empty subway platform. Well, that pretty much establishes something’s definitely going to happen and that we probably shouldn’t get too attached to Ian given the lack of information about him.

Now, my absolute favorite line in any book ever is from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis: There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. Although honesty forces me to admit that I remember it as: Once there was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb…

TC: What was your favorite book as a child or teen (or both, if you like…)?

TH: As a child, I lived in the Narnia books. I’ve been trying to get through that wardrobe since I was seven. As a teen it was Andre Norton and Anne McCaffrey and Zenna Henderson and Robert Heinlein topping the list, but I read everything I could get my hands on so it was harder to have a favorite. Although, I did stand in line for two hours to have Anne McCaffrey sign Dragon Singer so…

TC: Earlier this year on your blog, you discussed an issue with some staffers at a bookstore chain warning readers away from your books due to LGBT content. Was it resolved to your satisfaction? Had you experienced any similar problems previously?

TH: Once I mentioned it in the blog, I was contacted by people from the chain who took it completely seriously and assured me this was an individual not a company policy and it was dealt with. I was impressed by their response and, as I said at the time, well aware that in other stores in the same chain my books have likely been recommended because of their LGBT content.

I’ve never, to my knowledge, had a previous problem with that sort of thing. My editor has never wanted me to change a character’s orientation. The Smoke books, which have a gay protagonist, did have an interesting drop in numbers from book one to book two, but that could have been because of the realization they weren’t continuations of the Blood books not because the gay was front and center instead of safely in the background. I do have to say though, people who love the Smoke books, really love the Smoke books.

TC: Can you tell us anything about any new projects that you’re working on?

The Enchantment EmporiumTH: As I mentioned earlier, I’ve just handed in The Future Falls, the third Gale Girls book (after The Enchantment Emporium and The Wild Ways). It tried to kill me—never write a book based on a clever idea you and your editor kicked around during a phone call. Or maybe you can. I need a little more mulling it over time. I’m now about to start on a new Torin Kerr book. I can’t call it a new Valor book because if you’ve read Truth of Valor you know there’s been some changes but I’m really looking forward to getting back into that ‘verse.

TC: Finally, any words of wisdom for our readers?

TH: Tell the stories you have to tell. Write a book, write a story, write a poem, write a song, bake cupcakes, bake cookies, bake pie, build a house, dance, sew, paint, draw, rebuild a car, garden, knit, quilt, carve, program a computer, raise a child, make a home, sit around a campfire and start with, “Once upon a time…”

It’s not how the story is told, it’s the telling.

Catch up with Tanya Huff online:
Tanya Huff’s LiveJournal
Tanya Huff’s Twitter


Final Poll Results

Write What You Learn

Absolute Blank

By Amanda Marlowe (The Bellman)

I’m a dabbler. I have a lot of interests, and as time permits, I explore them. Singing, acting, science, random online classes, reading… A stopping point in the list is arbitrary. And I discovered something interesting. No matter how varied the list, I always end up finding things in everything I do that apply to my writing.

I don’t mean that the information ends up in my writing, though that also happens. I mean that  with many of  the techniques and skills I learn, I find some way to turn those techniques and skills into writing techniques and skills.

Write What You Learn

Background image: Katrina Br*?#*!@nd/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Acting, for example, has been particularly fruitful for character development. I’ve written several articles on how I’ve applied what I’ve learned in acting to writing (“Point of View: The Director’s Cut,” “See Through a Glass, Darkly: View Your Story Through Your Character’s Filters,” “Stage and Scene: Finding Writing Tips in Acting Techniques“). Even brief forays into graphic design have helped my writing skills–I am better able to write description using some of those principles (“Textured Descriptions: Or, How To Describe Details Without Describing Details“), and keeping an eye on the big picture while paying attention to the smaller details (“Stepping Back“). I’ve used science for plotting, playing with the energy of the story the same way I would if I were approaching a physics problem (“Struggling With Plots“). And reading, well, that’s a pretty obvious one–I’m always looking at what other authors do that I should, or even shouldn’t, do as I write my own stories. Right now, I’m taking an online course in social psychology. About halfway through the course, I started brainstorming ways to use some of the stuff I was learning in my writing. Anything can be applied to your writing!

Think about all the things that you do that you can use to think about the way you write in a different way. One of the cornerstones of innovation is the accidental collision of seemingly unrelated ideas. In the process, something new forms. A new approach. A new vision. Crash ideas from a completely different area of your life into some of your writing.

Do you play an instrument?

Apply some musical thinking to your story. Does it have movements, like a symphony? How related are they? What are the recurring themes? Where does it crescendo? What key is it in?

Do you knit or crochet?

Apply pattern thinking. How do the different threads of your story intertwine? What color will they be? What’s the final pattern producing? How intricate are the knots and stitches you use?

Do you play soccer?

You’re aiming for the goal. Who’s in your way? What’s the offensive strategy? How do you get around the goalie? Is your kick blocked? Are your teammates helping? Is that the end of the game, or can you try for another goal? Who won?

Are you a photographer?

Frame the story. What do you focus on? What levels of lighting do you need to achieve the effect you want? Do you need a spotlight? Where are the shadows? The close-ups? The panoramic views?

Are you addicted to cooking or baking?

Gather your fresh ingredients. How will you mix them together? Do you need to break some eggs into it so the whole dish will stay together and not fall apart? Should you add sugar? Salt? Pepper? How long do you need to let the mixture cook before shoving a fork into it?

Are you a gardener?

Plant the seeds of your story at the start. Are your growing plants getting the water and sunlight they need? Or do they have to fight for it under the shade of larger plants? Is anything trying to force its way through a sidewalk? Have you weeded out the irrelevant ideas in your story so the ideas you are tending can grow?

I did say anything. I meant it.

Spend all your day making LOLCat images?

That pithy label shows you the way to the heart of your idea. What other odd juxtapositions can add humor to your story? Is your underlying picture a cute cat? An angry cat? What are you overlaying on that basic picture? How will it all work together? And is Comic Sans the right font to use, or should you use Impact Bold to get the shape of your idea across?

I iz gud writr!

Just about anything you do, anything you learn, will have lessons that you can apply to your writing. You just have to look for them. Use all your tools, no matter what toolbox they originally came from.

Write what you learn, and with what you learn. No matter what you learn.


Final Poll Results

Toasted Cheese Success Stories: Interview with Janet Mullany

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By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

In her author bio, Janet Mullany states that she “has worked as an archaeologist, classical music radio announcer, arts administrator, and for a small press.” Janet was also one of Toasted Cheese’s original forum hosts. A few of Janet’s stories can be found in the archives, including “Snow, The Seven and The Moon,” which won the first annual Dead of Winter writing contest.

In the decade since she left TC, Janet has published more than a dozen books in various romance sub-genres. Her books aren’t your typical romances, though; they’re infused with comedic elements and clever wordplay. Even if you don’t consider yourself a romance fan, you might be surprised to find yourself won over by Janet’s witty (erm, dare I say snarky?) sense of humor.

Her most recent book, Hidden Paradise, a contemporary erotic romance, was released in September 2012. I interviewed Janet by email earlier this year.

Toasted Cheese: In your bio, you state that you were “raised in England by half of an amateur string quartet.” I’ve always been curious—how did you end up on this side of the Atlantic? And do you have any musical talents of your own?

Janet Mullany: I marry Americans. Serially, that is. I’ve done it twice so far. As far as musical talent goes, I used to play the flute, but my major skill is being able to identify the composer within a few seconds of hearing a piece, within reason—I can identify most popular eighteenth- and nineteenth-century repertoire but sometimes only the nationality of the composer. I’m not any sort of idiot savant.

TC: Well, that seems like a talent to me, perhaps even one that might come in handy when writing historical fiction.

When you hosted at TC, it was prior to the publication of your first book. Can you take us back and tell us a little about your first book and how it came to be published?

JM: That was Dedication, which I wrote over a period of a couple of years, and which underwent a lot of rewrites and had some near misses. Then it won a contest sponsored by the Beau Monde, the Regency special interest chapter of Romance Writers of America (R) and I was offered a contract for it as a Signet Regency which was the traditional line. Now this was a bit of a problem. It was a very sexy book accepted for a notoriously “close the bedroom door” line, and when the editor made the offer and asked me to cut 20,000 words, I said, “Fine, but the sex has to stay.” To my surprise, she agreed. I didn’t know then but the Signets were on their way out, and I think they just weren’t that concerned about content; or, in a more charitable mood, they thought having a bit of heat mightn’t hurt. There was quite a bit of buzz about it because it had an older hero (early 40s) and heroine (late 30s)—children, their children—both of whom had been around the block and although they had fallen in love two decades before had since got over themselves and had gone on to have real relationships with other people. Apparently that was something new. Then a couple of years ago I had the rights back and put even more sex in it and published it with Loose-Id (excerpt).

TC: That’s quite the story, and an excellent lead-in to my next question. You write romance, which is known for having rules (or, at least, ‘rules’) about how stories should play out, but you write in several different sub-genres and play with conventions. Clearly you’re not afraid to break rules, but I imagine there are limits. Is working within the constraints of the genre part of the fun of writing for you? Do you have a favorite sub-genre?

JM: I always feel like I’m attempting to crack the romance code. I didn’t “choose” to write romance in the sense that I loved the genre or was even particularly widely read in it, but I was very impressed with romance writers writing to sell and being smart about the market. I also figured out that since it is such a huge genre I could find a niche in it.

The limitations are irritating. One is that readers and many editors are not particularly interested in language, whereas I love playing around with words and admire good, clean cliché-free writing. Also readers and editors expect a moral message (so eighteenth century) with a tremendous emphasis on sexual-emotional healing. To be honest I’m not that interested in people who look to a relationship to solve their problems. I wrote an erotic romance (well, I thought it was a romance! But obviously, what do I know…) called Tell Me More that was quite fantastically filthy with a heroine who screwed anything that moved and suddenly the editor asked what she learned in the course of the story. Um, that she liked sex? Sure enough, some readers loved it but others screeched that they hoped the heroine would get crotch rot and die [Found and read this review. Dying. Laughing, that is. -TF] and that she was incredibly screwed up emotionally. And it was odd, because I saw her as this daring, adventurous, yet very level-headed woman. I tend to like characters who are grown up enough to take responsibility for their behavior but also capable of making mistakes.

Fav sub-genre—to write, oh, I guess I’d say historicals, but so much of the market is obsessed with dukes wearing the wrong sort of shirt. I’m English and I don’t like aristocrats much, and I’m very fond of eighteenth-century shirts with frills and man cleavage.

TC: It’s interesting you mention romance readers expecting a moral message. One of the things I remember liking about your writing back in the day was your sense of humor, which definitely is on display in The Rules of Gentility. In fact, one of the notes I jotted down while reading was “hilarious.” However, when I perused reviews afterward, I noticed some readers seemed perplexed by the comedic elements. Do you think there’s perhaps a mistaken expectation that historical romances will be more serious than contemporary ones? How would you describe your style to potential readers? What reader reactions have most surprised you?

JM: I don’t think readers expect comedy in romance. Falling in love is a serious business! Most books billed as romantic comedies have a few funny bits with a dog or amusing secondary characters, or some snappy dialogue and one-liners. Mine have all that but a lot of physical comedy and I like to make fun of the most overused Regency clichés. My Regency chick-lits published by Little Black Dress did quite well in England because I have a very English sense of humor but sadly my niche in the US remains small.

TC: I’m not English, but I do enjoy your sense of humor, so I’ll keep those in mind.

2013, the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice, is a big year for Jane Austen fans. You were a bit ahead of the curve with your ‘Immortal Jane Austen’ series. Mashing up two extremely popular but seemingly-unrelated things—Jane Austen and vampires—was genius. How did you come up with the idea? Do you have plans to write more in this series or do you have something different in mind for Jane?

JM: An editor dangled the challenge of writing something paranormal about Austen, hoping to jump on the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies bandwagon. So I came up with the most outrageous idea I could, Austen as a vampire—my original titles were Blood Bath (the first book was set in Bath) or Austen Powers. I wanted to tie in the imaginary action of the books with Austen’s life, so I’m afraid she did die in 1817. But I set it in an alternate England where vampires—the Damned—are out and about in society and very fashionable, and I threw in a French invasion too. Why not. But I tried to keep the details about Austen as accurate as I could. I found channeling Austen very intimidating.

TC: Ok, those titles are fabulous. Just so you know, I now have visions of Jane Austen dancing to the Austin Powers theme and admonishing her fellow vampires with “Oh, behave.”

What would you say were the most valuable things you did to get to where you are today with your writing? Who or what have you found particularly helpful?

JM: Reading, absolutely essential, and outside the genre. I had a pretty strong voice right from the start because I’d read so much, and I instinctively knew to trust my voice, particularly when critique partners threw up their hands and cried “You can’t do that in a romance.” I have critique partners on and off, a community of cheerleaders including a very good agent, and a husband blissfully unaware of what I write. He likes books with pictures.

TC: Love the advice to read widely. What’s your writing process like? Are you a planner who outlines meticulously before starting to write or do you tend to write from the seat of your pants? Can you describe what a typical writing session is like for you—or is there one?

JM: I have to be able to write a synopsis to sell on proposal, even though I want to just let things sprawl. On the other hand my synopses are very vague and mercifully short. I usually start with an idea, which is basically a tagline, write a few chapters, and once I get to know the characters a little I can figure out what is going to happen, more or less. I claim to use the phrase “After many exciting adventures…” because god knows what they might be and possibly whatever they are might scare off an editor.

TC: This is a strategy I think many fiction writers don’t consider. Often the synopsis is thought of as something that can wait until the book is complete.

After seeing how many books you’d published in the past few years, I wondered if you were writing full-time now—but then I noticed you’d mentioned your day job in a recent blog post. As you know, many writers struggle to finish even one book while working another job. I’m sure our readers would love to know—what’s your secret to being so prolific?

JM: Ahem. At the moment I’m not particularly prolific, but when I was… I write very clean first drafts so I’m lucky there. On a practical level, I don’t get out much, have very little in the way of family responsibilities, and if I want to write I don’t watch TV. I think TV sucks the life out of you creatively. I use a kitchen timer, set it for twenty minutes and write like crazy, gritting my teeth at the beginning but hopefully getting into the zone by the time the bell rings and I jump out of my skin and keep going.

TC: The timer’s a great idea. I’m a big advocate of making appointments to write.

You have a website, you’re on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads, and you blog at The Risky Regencies. How important do you think social media is for writers? Did social media play a role in the pre-publication process for any of your books or do you find it’s more a place to connect with readers?

JM: Apparently social media is very important although I suspect writers spend their time marketing to each other rather than the readers who probably have better things to do. What does sell books is word of mouth and we have to try to make that happen using social media. I find the general chirpy niceness we’re expected to project online exhausting; I’m not naturally chirpy. I get the most traffic on my Facebook page when I post pics of the cat or things I have baked.

TC: Why does that not surprise me?

What’s next for you? What are you working on? Do you have anything forthcoming this year?

JM: The latest attempt to crack the romance code is a partial for a three-book historical series doing the rounds. There is an indirect duke and the closest I can get to an alpha male hero. I’m also one chapter and a synopsis into a partial for an erotic contemporary; I ended the first chapter on a tremendous hook and am now congratulating myself on a job well done, rather than setting the timer and squeezing out another two chapters. I’m also rewriting a book that did fairly disastrously a few years ago to be self-pubbed later in the year, no title yet, and a couple of novellas, one self-pubbed and a new one to go with the full-length book. So technically I’m very busy.

Thanks so much for the interview, Theryn!

TC: Thank you, Janet! Congratulations on all your success and all the best with your many works-in-progress.

Where you can find Janet:


Final Poll Results

Fish and Ships:
An Interview with Traci Chee

Absolute Blank

By Shelley Carpenter (harpspeed)

Traci Chee began her writing career in fourth grade, writing and illustrating and experimenting with characters and story-building games. Today, Traci Chee is a middle school teacher, as well as a freelance writer. She holds a degree in creative writing from San Francisco State University. Her writing has appeared in Prick of the Spindle, Thieves Jargon, Abjective, Able Muse, The Big Stupid Review and Toasted Cheese. When she isn’t teaching, Traci Chee may be spotted on the Golden Gate Bridge, mentally mapping her stories and crafting characters as she sits in traffic. She likes fish and ships. (Maybe bridges, too.)

Toasted Cheese: What were you like as a kid?

Traci Chee: My family would tell you that I was bossy as a kid. Tyrannically bossy. They would be right. But I’d also like to think that I was already a burgeoning storyteller. My two best friends and I had a series of three or four games that we would cycle through every couple months or so: Lemmings, that awesome nineties video game in which you try to save as many lemmings as possible but inevitably sacrifice some to stompers and chompers and being blown up; Stuffed Animals and My Little Ponies, which were pretty much what they sound like; and Dogs.

This is how Dogs went: Two of us got to be the dogs, wandering around on all fours, wagging imaginary tails, and begging for treats. The remaining person had to play all the human roles, including the cruel, capricious pet store owner, the kind new owner who buys the dogs, and the boarding school trainer, who now that I think about it was pretty much the same character as the pet store owner but with a whip.

The story was always the same: Pet store owner is mean. Dogs are sad. Kind new owner adopts one dog, then the other a day later. Dogs misbehave. Kind new owner gets fed up and takes dogs to boarding school to be trained. Drive to boarding school is the best part because you pretend the road is really windy and there’s a lot of leaning crazily and bouncing around on imaginary bumps. Boarding school trainer is mean. Dogs misbehave and try to get the best of the trainer. As far as I can remember, we never got to the end of the story because then it would be dinnertime and we’d stop the game to go eat. Yes, it was formulaic, but it became this shared storytelling experience between the three of us, knitting us together, even after months of being apart.

TC: You and your young friends were creating scripts—one might even say that you were child playwrights. When did you make that leap from playing stories to actually writing them?

Chee: I made my first conscious decision to make writing a huge part of my life when I was in high school. I had been playing a lot of video games, all role-playing games with a big focus on story, and I had gotten into writing fan fiction, taking someone else’s characters and expanding or retelling their stories in a way that seemed right, at least to me. However, I quickly realized that fan fiction was too confining—I wanted my own characters, my own world—so I quickly expanded into writing original fiction… and some pretty terrible poetry.

However, when I look back a little farther, I realize that I’ve been writing, seriously writing, with revision and editing and everything, since I was in fourth grade. My best friend and I had this old computer program called Storybook Weaver—released on floppy disk for Mac!—that allowed us to write and illustrate these sprawling stories. Our first effort was about a dragon who rescues a princess using a bomb shaped like a chili pepper, and our second was this epic never-finished story called “The Haunted Castle,” which featured every single one of our classmates as either monsters of the castle or as victims of it. We spent hours mapping out the castle, developing the characters, and plotting each event. Because we kept adding new characters, we had to keep revising the beginning, and we never really got anywhere past the middle of the story. Still, I feel like that was my first introduction to storytelling, and it really stuck with me.

TC: Who are your favorite authors and books?

Chee: My favorite authors are the ones who surprise and delight me with their work, ones that show me wonderful things I never knew existed, or ones that show me things I always knew existed but never had the right words for. Books like this include: Cosmicomics and Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie, and poetry. So much of poetry does this.

I also like books that are about books. They are curious, powerful objects that can do many things with many media, and I’m interested in the way that the form of the book (electronic, print, codex, fan, etc.) shapes the format of the book (margins, font, font size, etc.) and the content of the book (characters, plot, themes, motifs, etc.). Books like this include: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, and a lot of work by Jorge Luis Borges crosses both of these categories.

TC: In your short story collection, Consonant Sounds for Fish Songs, there are many themes and motifs, some repeating such as water and music. Where do your ideas come from?

Chee: Music has always been a huge part of my life. On long road trips, my mom used to play “Classical Kids” in the car. It was this series that told stories based on the lives and works of famous composers like Beethoven and Bach, introducing classical music to kids in this really engaging way. I begged her to let me take piano lessons when I was little, and with a bit of help from my grandmother, she bought a piano and I started lessons with a piano teacher who lived down the street. Playing the piano is hard! There were so many times when I didn’t want to practice, didn’t feel like I was getting any better, and wanted to quit. But my mom didn’t let me, and I’m so glad, because I stuck with the piano well into high school, and did a little flute, guitar, and choir along the way. Music is such a wonderful, universal way of communicating. Sometimes I feel like it picks up just as we lose the words to express ourselves, which is why I try to work it into my writing, hoping that some of the tones and rhythms will help to capture a story or character or theme.

TC: Yes! Music is so evocative in expressing unspoken emotions and feelings. And song lyrics can also fill in those spaces. Some of the stories in your collection have this added layer.

Chee: A lot of the stories in Consonant Sounds were actually inspired by songs—and not fancy-shmancy classical songs either. If you take a look at the back of the book, there’s a big list of music that has influenced the writing of the stories. While I was working, I would be listening to one of these songs and I would find inside it the kernel of a story: a character, a scene, an emotion. Then I’d put the song on repeat and write and write and write until the character or scene or emotion had become this fully independent creature, with just hints of the music inside it. Sometimes the song is obvious, as with “To Keep Me Awake and Alive,” in which the narrator recites “In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel in a desperate attempt to convince himself that he is still alive. Sometimes it isn’t so obvious, like with “The Fisherman,” in which I tried to capture some of that sense of melancholy, and small everyday things, and breathing, of Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek.”

TC: Also, for this reader, your stories had a heightened sense of being in “the moment.” Was this a craft effect that you created purposefully or did it happen in an organic way, spontaneously?

Chee: One of my favorite things about writing is that readers will notice themes, motifs, and arcs that you never—quite—intended, but that are somehow so perfect and so fitting for what you were trying to accomplish. I hadn’t intentionally tried to create a sense of “being in the moment” in these stories, but I love that it feels that way. Some BIG IDEAS in the collection revolve around dealing with death, searching for God, and being in love—sometimes two of them at once! For me, these tend to be “in the moment” sorts of actions: that blind grasping after the death of someone you love, that feeling of smallness-yet-total connectedness you might get at church, or in a concert hall, that sucker punch of young, stupid love. There’s not a lot of dwelling on the past or fretting about the future in moments like that; it’s more about that feeling of being right here, right now, experiencing this.

TC: What is your writing process like? Do you aim for a set amount of words each day? Do you have a special time or space to write? Do you belong to a writing group?

Chee: Have you ever read an interview where a super-established real writer gets this question, and s/he says something like, “Oh, I write eight hours every day on an antique typewriter that used to belong to my great-grandfather.” Or: “Oh, I write in a studio with a bulletin board on which I post all of the ideas that will for sure become award-winning pieces of literature.” I wish I could give you an answer like this.

The embarrassing truth is that my process is very fluid. I think this developed out of necessity. When I was in college, my writing options changed almost daily. Sometimes I’d write in my dorm room. Sometimes in a coffee shop. Sometimes outside on the grass. Those days, I listened to music. These days, only occasionally. Sometimes I need to type. Sometimes I need to write longhand. Sometimes I need to draw. Other times—and these are really frustrating—I can’t write a word—well, not one worth keeping—because the ideas and characters are still developing in my mind, still slowly taking on form and shape and color.

The trick to this process, I think, is learning to listen to myself. This means learning the difference between the times when I’m feeling lazy and the times when I really do need a while to ruminate over a scene. This means pushing myself to keep typing, even when my hands are cramping and my wrists ache, because the characters are taking a story where it needs to go. This means that some days—especially those really exhausting ones during the school year, when I’m so burnt out from planning and teaching and grading—the only “writing” I get done is mentally developing a character’s history while sitting in traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge.

TC: I like that image of you on the Golden Gate writing your stories.

Chee: I can’t advocate this process for everyone, because it feels very fickle and sometimes makes me feel a little like I’m just posing as a “Real Writer.” But I think it’s important to figure out how you work best, and go with that for as long as it keeps working. I suspect that my process will continue to change as I come to different points in my life. Maybe one day, when I’m ready to settle down in one place, I’ll have a settled-down process to match, one in which I sit at a desk for five hours every morning and three each afternoon. But for now, this is what works for me.

TC: So, what are you working on now?

Chee: Currently, I’m working on what I can best describe as a young adult literary fantasy novel. Unsurprisingly, it features fish, ships, and a girl with the only book in her entire world.

TC: What an interesting premise. I also like the idea of the novel being literary as well as a fantasy story. I look forward to reading it one day. But in the meantime, I have a burning question: Will you please tell us why you like fish and ships?

Chee: It sounds cool, right?

TC: Curiously cool.

Chee: For some reason fish keep showing up in my work without invitation. A goldfish appeared in “The Flying Fish and the Frying Fish,” then another in “Philematophilia.” Then Jeff, the main character of “Fish Songs,” decided that turning into a fish was the only way for him to cope with the loneliness of being human. Bear fought a shark in “No Place.” I didn’t plan any of this out beforehand, but I’ve realized that fish, and ships, and the ocean are all wonderfully rich metaphors. There’s freedom, and joy, and anger, and wildness, and that feeling of being very, very small but very, very connected to something vast and unfathomable.

Honestly, though, I get terrible, terrible seasickness. My family and I once went whale watching in the Monterey Bay, California—it was just a bay, not even the open ocean—and I was so headachy and nauseous by the end of the first hour that the best I could do when we found the humpback whales was video it for later and try not to throw up. I wonder if maybe my very incompatibility with the sea makes it appear in my work, as if by writing about it I’m trying to understand it, or to bring it into myself—an impossibility in real life.

TC: You mentioned earlier that you are a middle school teacher, how have your colleagues and students responded to your success?

Chee: I told my students at the beginning of the school year that I was also a writer. I don’t think they really believed me until fairly recently, within the last month or so, when one of them Googled me and found out I take up the majority of the first eleven pages of the search. Apparently, one of them posted this Facebook status: “that awkward moment when you realize your English teacher is famous.” Which I’m pretty sure prompted a bunch of other students to Google me, too. Within a day, students were coming up to me saying, “Ms. Chee, you have a Twitter account!?” and, “Ms. Chee, Imma follow you on Twitter!” Naturally, my response to all of this was to tweet about it.

tweet

Then it really exploded because someone took a screen cap and put it on Instagram, and they are all little Instagram fiends, so at that point pretty much the entire middle school knew and it became a running joke. Except I’m always serious about studying vocabulary.

TC: Funny! What other advice can you give aspiring authors, young and old?

Chee: I was trying to think of what advice would have sounded relevant and witty to my younger self—you know, maybe go for a metaphor or something cool—but I think writing, for me, comes down to two things, and while they’re not particularly clever, they are what gets me through.

First, hone your craft. For me, this means taking classes and studying with people who are better writers than me and getting criticized—harshly and justifiably—and criticizing back. This means looking at the shape of a book, looking at the shape of a sentence, or listening to the sound of a single word. This means reading books about writing and books about books and books that I would never read again and books that I will always read again.

I think the point is to never be satisfied, and to know that your writing could always be better, sharper, clearer, and to keep grasping after that. Or maybe the point is to always be learning something new about the way words can be put together. I don’t think everyone needs to take classes to hone their craft, but I do think that sharpening your writing until it cuts the paper is something we should all be after. Getting so fine an edge that it’s difficult to say whether it’s beautiful or devastating.

TC: And the second piece of advice?

Chee: The second piece of advice is obvious: Write. I mean, I guess it’s built into the first, but after all the learning and the striving and the refining, it really comes down to just doing it. Putting that pen on paper. Banging out that sentence on your keyboard. Write because you want to. Write because you have to. Write because the stories are a current of electricity running throughout your body and even when you aren’t working on them, they are always there, humming in the back of your mind, waiting in your forearms and fingertips. Write when it’s easy, and especially write when it’s hard. Write when people say that no one reads anymore. Write when people say that the publishing industry is dying. Write when you don’t get published. Write when you do get published. Write when your internal editor is looking over your shoulder and telling you that everything you do is cliché and overwrought. Write about the things that are inside of you, that are desperately trying to find their words.

TC: Those are great reasons to write. Yet, has there ever been at time when you didn’t write—maybe even avoided writing for any reason?

Chee: I make so many excuses every day, every hour, not to write. “I’m hungry. I’m tired. I’m burnt out.” Sometimes I believe the excuses, and I don’t write. This is because writing is hard, and watching TV and checking Facebook and eating are much, much easier. But I write because the writing is inside me and if I don’t write then I become a grumpy, shriveled up shell of a person. Writing fills me up. Writing makes me whole.

TC: How can readers discover more about you and your work?

Chee: Hooray! This one’s easy.

Blog: HELLO MY NAME IS TRACI and this is my blog
Twitter: @tracichee
Facebook: Consonant Sounds for Fish Songs

Final Poll Results

“You Shortlisted My Submission… Why Didn’t it Make the Final Cut?”

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

I want to begin this article with a word of encouragement. Please don’t give up on Toasted Cheese as a venue because your work is rejected once (twice, three times…). Be persistent! Many people submit to us only once and we never hear from them again. I obviously don’t know their reasons, but I hope it’s not because they think a single ‘no’ means ‘no’ forever. The ‘no’ applies to the submitted piece only and not to anything you might write in the future. Keep trying.

There is a much smaller group of writers who submit to us again and again, even when they repeatedly hear ‘no.’ If you fall into the former group—the writers who meekly retreat—you might think such writers are gluttons for punishment. But here’s the thing: eventually many of these persistent writers hear ‘yes.’

If we shortlisted your submission, we saw something in it—we think you’re on the right track—and when we say we’d like to see more work from you, we mean it. Keep writing, keep revising, and keep submitting.

Background Image: CC-by Patrick Slattery/Flickr

Background Image: CC-by Patrick Slattery/Flickr

Type A: Eager Beavers

Incomplete

The piece is well-written, and it’s the quality of your writing that caught our attention. What you have submitted is a polished piece of work. Yet, it’s incomplete. If nonfiction, it’s more of an anecdote than a story. If fiction, it’s a beginning without a middle or end. It’s the short-story version of polishing the first chapter of your novel to perfection, while failing to write the rest of the book.

Bellman says, “For me, it’s often that something feels like it’s missing—it doesn’t quite hold together, or something doesn’t make sense, or, in some cases, the writing is good, but it doesn’t seem to tell a story.”

Unfinished

The piece is complete, i.e. the whole story is present, but you’re not done with it yet. This is a first or maybe second draft that hasn’t been polished yet. Were you so excited to share—or so afraid you’d chicken out—you submitted the minute you typed ‘The End’? Did you spot a typo or realize you wanted to make a change immediately after you hit ‘Send’ and dash off a breathless addendum to the editor? If so, your piece is likely unfinished.

  • What these two issues have in common is writers who are impatient to get their work out there. We love that you’re excited about your work. But remember, part of writing is giving your work time to breathe. When you think it’s done, set it aside for a while. Work on something else. When you give it time, you can come back to it with fresh eyes and look at it more objectively. Alternatively (or in addition), take the time to run it past your writing buddy or group for feedback before submitting.

Type B: It’s Not You, It’s Us

Theme

You’re probably familiar with the term ‘fit’ from job interviews. While we don’t have preset themes for our issues, themes often arise organically during the selection process. If all of the pieces save one fit the theme(s), then that oddball piece might not make the cut. This isn’t something that’s set in stone—obviously if the piece is exceptional, it’s going in regardless of how well it fits with the other pieces—but if it’s something we’re waffling over, fit is definitely a factor taken into consideration.

Quality

Each month, we shortlist about ten submissions. Think of this like heats in track events. During each reading period, we read three months of shortlisted submissions. Think of this like the finals. When all the shortlisted pieces are read together and compared, inevitably some are going to rise to the top and others are going to fall to the bottom. The ‘bottom’ in this case is still good (you made it to the finals), but on this day, others were better. In addition, there’s an intersection between quality and subject matter. If two people have written pieces on the same subject (this happens more often than you think), we’ll likely choose only one of the two.

  • What these two issues have in common is that there’s an element here that’s beyond your control. You have no idea (nor do we) what other people are going to submit. If you’re going to write, you will have to accept that there’s an element of luck or serendipity to successful submissions. But there are some things you can do to improve your odds. Read back issues to familiarize yourself with what the editors are looking for. And always, continue working on your craft, making your writing the best it can be.

Type C: Houston, We Have a Problem

Error!

Sometimes a piece we might have accepted doesn’t make the cut because there are simply too many technical errors. Our staff is all-volunteer and we don’t have the time to do a line-by-line edit of your piece. While typos and minor usage errors are not cause for rejection, problems that occur throughout, and would require an intensive edit/extensive rewrite of the piece, are. Common problems that fall under this rubric are tense shifts (shifting back and forth between past, present, and future tenses) and point-of-view shifts, which can mean either head-hopping (jumping from one character’s point-of-view to another when you’re not using third-person omniscient) or shifting randomly between first- and third-person or first- and second-person.

Cobwebs

We’ll call this one cobwebs, after a poem I wrote in eighth grade that included the phrase ‘cobwebs of mist.’ Superficially, this poem was ok. It had some nice imagery. But that’s all it had. It lacked depth. It wasn’t about anything. There was nothing for the reader to make a connection with. This is perhaps the most common problem with poetry. Poems will contain imagery that makes them appealing at first glance, but on closer look there’s no substance—much like how when you try to grasp a spider web, your hand goes right through it. A good poem is more than just a description. What are you trying to say? What do you want to convey to the reader? Make sure there’s a there there.

WTF?

With longer fiction, and sometimes nonfiction, often we’ll be intrigued by the opening of the story, the premise. But somewhere along the line, things break down. The story becomes convoluted or impenetrable, bogged down by the writer trying too hard to be clever, mysterious, or deep—or goes off the rails completely (scary clown deus ex machina!). Remember: We’re readers, not mind-readers. We have no idea what’s in the eight-ninths of Hemingway’s proverbial iceberg that’s still in your head. All we have to go on is what is on the page. When you ask for feedback on your work, do you find yourself jumping in and explaining what you meant when readers say they didn’t understand where that clown came from or that the whole ‘clown thing’ didn’t make sense? Stop. Instead of explaining, listen to your readers. Then read your story again and ask yourself: is it really possible to figure out what the deal with the clown is knowing just what is on the page? Make sure readers can understand your story without an author’s note.

Bellman says, “I go for strong characters and a compelling tale that hangs together. If you are going to send me on a treasure hunt of meaning, at least give me a map.”

Ocean ChartNot this one.

  • What these issues have in common is they are all problems that can be solved by working on your craft. You have something to say and/or way with words, but writing is a process; as long as you are writing there will always be more to learn. Books on the craft of writing abound—make use of them. Pro-tip: your public library will have most of the popular writing craft books. Check out a wide variety for free first, then purchase the ones you find most useful to keep next to your desk. If you prefer more interactive lessons, sign up for a writing class, workshop, or conference. Classes and conferences are a chance to get a fresh perspective on your work, some feedback, and best of all, meet other writers, i.e. potential writing buddies or groupmates.

So there you have it: some common reasons why submissions don’t make it past the final cut. We hope you find this information helpful and look forward to seeing another submission from you soon!

Final Poll Results

“For Emily,
Wherever I May Find Her”

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

This winter, a friend of my nine-year-old daughter’s told me about a short story she’d written. Then she asked me, “How do you become a writer?”

The short response was “You already are a writer.”

I went on to tell her about how you can study writing in college but you don’t have to. I told her to read a lot of books and see how writing differs from author to author, how it changes in different time periods, stuff like that. I said she can write things to show other people or just write for herself. I told her to write stories, poems, cartoons, everything and anything. I also told her that I would write an article for her so she can use it over the summer.

Get inspired

Sometimes you need an idea to get going. You can use writing prompts. There are a lot of writing prompts for kids out there; you can find them in books (including ebooks) and online. You might be better off looking for prompts written specifically for children, not so much due to content but because your daily prompt could be “use ‘meretricious’ in your first sentence.”

But do you have to wait for an idea in order to start writing? No. There are writing-related exercises you can try.

  • Make a list of character names. This is something I’ve done for as long as I can remember. The first “roll call” I remember writing was in sixth grade. I wrote first names I liked, as well as surnames, then matched them up. Then I decided which names would be in the same social circles. I thought of which boys and girls liked each other, who had brothers or sisters, who lived in what neighborhoods, stuff like that. Then I wrote down the things I learned about the characters.
  • Holden writingDraw a map. Create a town or a neighborhood. Name the streets. Look around where you live and think of how many houses fit on each block. Are they apartment buildings? Farms that are miles apart? Old houses with big basements? What’s the history of these houses? What kind of person would like to live in the house at this intersection? You can also use Google Maps or Bing Maps (as well as old fashioned things called “atlases”) to see how neighborhoods are set up. Look at the layout of New York City and compare it to the layout of Washington DC. Think of rivers and lakes. Is it hilly where you want your imaginary people to live? What’s the weather like? If you do this with sidewalk chalk, look at how the colors work together. Who lives in that pink house next to the big hotel? What happens where the yellow-green river passes under the white bridge?
  • Play with toys. Act something out with Barbie dolls, Monster High dolls, LEGO, Avenger action figures, Star Wars guys, a sandcastle, plush toys, board games, Minecraft, whatever. Playing with toys is a way of creating a story. When you’re finished, write down a few notes about what happened. Let your imagination go wild. It doesn’t have to make sense or have an ending, like the stories in books do.
  • Create a video game on paper. My seven-year-old son struggles with writing prompts but he loves taking stacks of paper or a magnetic board and creating level after level of mash-up video games. His current is Plants vs. Zombies meets SpongeBob. But think about your favorite videogames. There’s a story to them. Even games you think might not have a story. For example. Wii Sports. “Oh you just play sport games,” one person might say. A writer might think of the Miis used and their implied personalities, how the games build on themselves and get harder the more you play, or you might use two friends playing Wii Sports as part of your story.
  • Use pictures to inspire you. In sixth grade, our English teacher showed us photos by artists like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. You can use famous pictures to give you story ideas or you can use the photos hanging on the wall at home. You can use paintings (and they don’t have to look realistic) to inspire you or even make your own artwork to get that creative part of your brain all warmed up and ready to work.
  • Read poems. I recommend the 100 Great Poems For Boys and 100 Great Poems For Girls collections. The books have many of the same poems in them so pick the one you prefer. Also your family might like The Poets’ Corner: The One-and-Only Poetry Book for the Whole Family edited by John Lithgow (it comes with a CD). Check out collections by Shel Silverstein or Judith Viorst. You can find lots of age-appropriate poetry websites.

Create a portfolio

A portfolio is a collection of your creative work.

Okay so you’re ready to write a story, a poem, a comic book, a cartoon, a song… what do you do now? Well you can write on paper or on an electronic device like a computer or tablet.

When I was in fourth grade, I attended “College For Kids” (held at FAMU) and we were allowed to choose two “courses.” My choices for these college course things (I did them in later grades, with other universities) were always (1) photography and (2) creative writing. I was really lucky to participate in programs like these and I know very few kids have access to these things (hence articles like these).

Zoe writing Anyway, the very first thing we did in the fourth grade writing course was to create a book. We used long sheets of recycled smooth paper and folded them in half. Then we stapled the center. We then created a cover out of cardboard, fabric and yarn. Our job over the course of the semester was to fill that book. We learned about some of the things that TC already has articles about: characterization, setting, and plot.

My book was a hodgepodge of poems, song parodies (writing new lyrics to existing songs), one-page stories, and one-panel or four-panel cartoons. Some kids wrote long stories that used the whole book. Some kids wrote a poem on every page. Some kids drew a picture on one page and wrote a story on the opposite page (like Great Illustrated Classics). There’s no wrong way to fill your book. There’s no wrong way to make a book. You don’t even have to make a book. It can be a good idea to make a folder to put your writing in, whether it’s a real folder or a folder on your computer.

Diaries and journals are also nice to have. You can find them in stores like Justice, at craft stores like Michaels, or in the school supplies (a.k.a. “stationery”) aisle at stores like Target. Grocery stores also carry notebooks, composition books, and loose paper.

Anything can be a journal. You can write about your day (non-fiction), you can write a story (fiction), a poem, draw pictures, anything your pen or pencil can put on that paper. Some people hide their journals. Whether you want to hide your journal depends on you. If you have a very little brother or sister who might color in it or rip it up, you might want to store your diary (and other writing) in a high place like a closet shelf or cabinet. Ask an adult where a safe place for your folder might be.

Your workspace

If you have a place to be alone and write, close your door. If you don’t have a private place, use a book or the board from a board game to make yourself a wall around your workspace. This lets your parents, grandparents, guardians, sitter, brothers and/or sisters know that it’s work time for you. You can write in bed, on the floor, at a table, on the front steps, even in the bathroom!

If you don’t finish, that’s fine. Next time, you can continue (leave some space if you’re writing on paper) or start something new.

You don’t have to finish everything you start. And once you decide you’re absolutely, positively never going to write any more of that story or poem, you can come back to it.

It can be fun to make yourself a “writing time.” Set a timer for 10 minutes and create something. Maybe you’re not sure what to write about during today’s writing time. Try one of the prompts from the first part of this article.

Then what?

There are a lot of places you can send your work to be published, if you’re interested in that. Look for established publications (in print or online). You should not send anyone any money in order to have your work published. Lots of magazines run monthly contests, sometimes based on a picture or word prompt.

You can also print your work yourself. There are reputable companies that can convert your drawings and words into picture books. This is something an adult will help you research. Having things printed this way does cost money. You will probably only want one or two copies, depending on who you would like to give your work to.

You can also print things on your home or library computer. If you create copies of a book, have a book signing at home and invite people to come and hear you read samples of your work. Sell copies of your book and autograph each one personally.

Or you could just keep your work in your folder and enjoy it for yourself. There’s no rule about what to do with your work. If you can keep it, do. It will be fun to reread it as time goes by.

I’m the grown-up here

You have a writerling at home or next door. You might wonder what you can do on that front, other than buying pencils and notebooks or giving rides to the library and schlepping bags of books back and forth. Here are a few things writers of all ages would like to get from those who care about their growth and passion:

  • Someone to read it
  • Someone to say “It’s great!” even when it’s not
  • Someone to say “What happens next?”
  • Someone to say “How can I make sure you get some uninterrupted writing time?”
  • Someone to offer refreshments, particularly to deliver them to the writing space
  • A place of one’s own to write, preferably undisturbed
  • A safe place to store writing materials (notebooks, pencils, pens, idea books, a personal login on the computer, a folder to put special bookmarks, a folder in which to save documents, maybe even password-protected to keep siblings from deleting)
  • Someone to help spell big words
  • Someone to help focus big ideas
  • Someone to offer inspiration (go for a walk, visit a museum, tell a story)
  • Someone who reads for fun
  • Someone who talks about books
  • Music to write to (or quiet, if preferred)
  • Encouragement of exploration of wild and crazy ideas (“An abandoned amusement park haunted by fire-breathing unicorns? Sounds great! What happens to the wooden roller coaster?”)
  • Someone to provide books (buy or borrow) so the writer can see how people write
  • Someone to take pride in having a writer in his/her life

This article is dedicated to Emily R, a writer in Pennsylvania.

Final Poll Results

So, You Wanna Start a Writing Group?

Absolute Blank

By Erica Ruedas (pinupgeek)

So you’ve decided that you no longer want to be a writer in solitary, locked in your room and scribbling madly away. You want to start a writers group. A writers group is a great way to help your writing, from getting past your writer’s block, to finding out if something is ready to submit, to just getting the motivation to write. Maybe you’ve already got a group of writer friends who want to join you—so it should be easy to just meet up regularly and write or talk about writing, right?

Recently, members on the Toasted Cheese forums chimed in with some advice on starting a new writers group, and how to keep writers coming back. TC Editor Boots started it off with this: “I just have a very simple advice—humility.” After that, there are a couple of things to think about when planning your new writers group.

First, decide what kind of group you want to be. Do you want to have a group of people meeting regularly to just get together and write? Do you want to have prompts at each meeting or just allow people to free write or work on their own projects? Do you want to have critiques on writing? Do you want to have writers bring in their work to read to the group for critiques, or email it beforehand so that everyone can come prepared? Planning out the basic format of your writers group will help new members get a sense of what to expect when they are considering joining your group.

Next, decide on where you’re going to meet. A quiet place is best, but make sure you’re allowed to talk and read out loud. A library is not a good idea, unless they have a meeting room. Coffee shops can work but can get crowded at certain times of the day, so make sure you figure out when it’s quieter. Sometimes even a restaurant will work, and can encourage people to keep coming back and stay longer if they can get food and drinks. Keep in mind, too, that some writers are shy and may not want their writing overheard by others, so make sure you accommodate or allow for them to submit their work by email before the meeting.

How often are you going to meet? And for how long? You can meet once a week, once a month, every other week, or something in between. Bob from the TC forums has a writers group that meets once a month, but for two to three hours. If you’re only going to meet once a month, a longer meeting works. However, if you’re going to meet more often, such as every week, a shorter time period is best, depending on everyone’s schedules.

How many people are you going to include in your group? And if you are critiquing, how many pieces can be read? It can be off-putting to members when the group is so big they have to sign up to bring a piece in, and spend most of your time critiquing without getting any feedback on their own work. It’s usually best to keep a new writers group small in the beginning so that people can participate every time. And if you have an eclectic group of writers, TC Editor Beaver has a tip: “Make sure your reading tastes are compatible… I’d suggest potential group members make a list of genres they don’t like to read.” Not everyone will want to sit through every style of writing there is. Additionally, you can also limit yourself to just short stories, or just novels, or just poems.

You’ll also want to decide if you want to admit new members. Several TC members have seen new writers come to a writers group only to never return again. And if someone brings in a lengthy piece, such as a novel, that they’ll read over several meetings, it can feel tedious to have to explain the novel’s premise every week to any new members. Do you want to make rules about attendance as well? Beaver says: “[I]f you’re not going to show up to a scheduled meeting, it’s nice to let the others know. It’s sad to show up to a meeting place at scheduled time and wait and wait and eventually realize no one else is coming.”

If you decide you’re going to admit new members, where will you advertise? Where will you stay up-to-date with current members? Facebook works well for a private group and is free. Craigslist is good for advertising but not for getting a discussion going. And Meetup.com is great for attracting new members, but costs money to start a group and can end up with a lot of members who don’t ever come to meetings. Decide on the format that’s best for your group—it may be that just email works the best.

And finally, harpspeed has some great advice about starting a writers group: “The best advice I could give would be not to be too fussy about rules.” While you want to get a good idea of how you’ll run your writers group, don’t be too strict on keeping it that way. It may not always go the way you planned, and could even evolve into something entirely different. It could end up changing for the better or fading away. No matter what, remember that your group will help you learn and grow your writing.

Final Poll Results

Combining Your Passions:
Interview with DeAnna Cameron

Absolute Blank

By Erica Ruedas (pinupgeek)

DeAnna Cameron started her writing career as a journalist before switching to writing fiction. After taking a writing class where she was inspired to combine two of her passions, writing and belly dance, she wrote and published her first novel, The Belly Dancer, about Dora Chambers, a young bride trying to find her place in society, who finds herself entranced by belly dancers at the 1893 Chicago’s fair. Her second novel, Dancing at the Chance, follows Pepper McClair, a dancer in New York at the beginning of the vaudeville era, who tries to realize her dreams as a dancer and find love.

Here she answers some questions about writing, marketing with a niche audience, and her love for belly dancing.

 

Toasted Cheese: You’ve said that when you published The Belly Dancer you had to learn how to market your novel very quickly. Did you change anything about the way you marketed Dancing at the Chance?

DeAnna Cameron: I did handle things differently the second time around. I think some of it worked better, and some of it didn’t, but it’s almost impossible to know for sure. The reality is an author can rarely pinpoint exactly what is working, so my philosophy is to do what you can and what you enjoy (belly dance parties!), but never to let marketing one book replace the importance of writing the next one.

One thing I did differently, and which I wish I had been able to do the first time around, was to attend reader conferences like the ones held by the Historical Novel Society, RT Booklovers and RWA, where I could participate in the huge book-signing events they hold. Another thing I did was to connect with a lot more blogger reviewers. As bookstores disappear, readers are less likely to discover new authors by browsing bookshelves. Following book bloggers has become one way readers have filled the gap, so it’s important for new authors to go where the readers are.

TC: For marketing The Belly Dancer, you reached out to the belly dance community. How would you say that helped get your book out there, and how did it help when it came time to market Dancing at the Chance?

DC: It was a terrific help. My love for the art and history of Middle Eastern dance was the driving force behind the story, so it felt natural to want to share it with other belly dancers when it became a book. And I couldn’t have asked for a more receptive community. Every belly dance publication I can think of featured either a review or article about it, and I’ve heard from belly dancers from all over the country about how much they enjoyed the story. When Dancing at the Chance came out, I think its connection to vaudeville appealed to them as well because it’s an aesthetic that’s popular with so many belly dancers. There’s a lot of cross-over appeal between belly dance and vaudeville, and of course there is some pure belly dance in Dancing at the Chance as well, and the main characters of The Belly Dancer make a cameo appearance.

TC: They say “write what you love.” How much of your novels began as just a personal interest in the Vaudevillian era and the late 19th century and in dance?

DC: Dancing at the Chance actually began as a sequel to The Belly Dancer. Since many of the Egyptian belly dancers who performed at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair stayed in this country after the fair ended and went on to perform in the vaudeville circuits, I intended to continue their story in that milieu. And what’s funny is that I thought I already knew a lot about vaudeville. But when I started doing the research, I realized I didn’t know it at all. It was so much crazier and more interesting than I ever imagined. And it wasn’t the belly dancers and the other headline acts that I found most interesting, but all the performers who worked at the opposite end of the spectrum, the acts that filled the least desirable spots on the bill. The scrappy, struggling performers who lived on little more than hopes and dreams, and all the people who worked behind the scenes to create the magic that happened onstage.

TC: What’s your tried and true method of organizing all your historical research?

DC: I don’t know if it’s tried and true, but my method involves a fat three-ring binder to keep my handwritten and typewritten notes organized, a slew of tabbed and earmarked historical resource books, and a carefully catalogued index on my computer of any online resources I come across that I think I might want to revisit later. It could be anything from a picture of a period dress that would suit a character or a picture of a building I plan to reference, maybe a biography of a historical person referenced in the story, or perhaps just an archived menu from a restaurant the characters will visit.

TC: How does your interest in belly dance fuel your passion for writing? Do you believe that they are both sides of the same coin or that they are two separate things you just happened to combine for your novels?

DC: I think it’s what you said before, about “writing what you love.” I’ve started stories about dozens of different things, but none of them hooked me long enough to turn them into novels. The story about The Belly Dancers at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, and then later with the plight of struggling vaudevillians in Old New York, captivated me and I think that passion fueled the stories and hooked other people too.

TC: There’s historical fiction, romance novels, and dance. What made you combine all three? Which part is more fun to write?

DC: I was so naive when I started writing The Belly Dancer that I didn’t even know I was writing historical fiction or romantic fiction or dance-related fiction. I was simply writing a story that interested me and that I thought might interest other people, too. It was only when it was finished, and when there was an agent and a publisher involved, that I realized how important these labels are. So there was no master plan on my part. Some authors figure out what kind of novel they want to write and then write it. I wrote the novel I wanted to write, and then tried to figure out how to label it.

TC: You went from a long journalism career to writing fiction. What did you take from your journalism career to help you write your novels?

DC: As a fiction writer, I think I use what I learned as a journalist every single day. I learned how to research quickly and the importance of vetting what you find. I learned to write fast and to write through writer’s block. I learned the importance of narrative structure and style. Really, it was an invaluable experience and I’m eternally grateful for all the mentors I had along the way.

TC: What are you working on now?

DC: I actually have a few things in the works. One historical novel is still in an early research stage. I’m also working on a young adult Victorian paranormal trilogy. And, finally, I have a contemporary romance that centers on a young woman whose life is changed by belly dance class. See? I always come back to belly dance.

TC: Any advice for the budding historical fiction or romance writer?

DC: To be a writer, you have to write, so make it a priority. Write every day if you can, but at least a few times a week. It sounds simple, but there are so many people who say they want to be writers but they never write anything. Or they don’t finish what they’ve started. If you can finish a novel, you’ve probably got the drive to do what it’ll take to become a published author. So keep writing, even when it’s hard.

Where you can find DeAnna:

Website: DeAnnaCameron.com
Twitter: @DeAnnaMCameron

Final Poll Results