We’re NOT Bored:
Interview with Debbie Ridpath Ohi

Absolute Blank

By Erin Bellavia (Billiard)

Debbie Ridpath Ohi with I'm Bored book

Debbie Ridpath Ohi is a Toronto-based writer and illustrator. Her illustrations appear in I’m Bored, a picture book written by Michael Ian Black that’s being published by Simon and Schuster this fall. I’m Bored recently received a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly. Debbie also has an illustrated short story included in TOMO, a Japan teen fiction anthology (Stone Bridge Press, March 2012) whose proceeds will benefit young people affected by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake.

Author of The Writer’s Online Marketplace (Writer’s Digest Books, 2001), Debbie’s nonfiction, fiction and poetry has also appeared in numerous print and online venues including Magic Tails (co-written short story with Michelle Sagara West, DAW Books 2005), Cottage Life, Applied Arts, Harp Column, Writer’s Digest and others.

Debbie was the creator and editor of Inkspot and Inklings, one of the very first websites and electronic newsletters for writers.

Debbie’s current projects include her own picture books, a teen novel that was nominated for the 2011 Sue Alexander Award, a compilation of her comics for writers, and a nonfiction book about board gaming.

As if that wasn’t enough, Debbie is also a talented musician and songwriter. In her spare time, she writes songs for and performs with Urban Tapestry, a filk music trio. (What’s filk? Click here.) Their songs have aired on national radio and are available on CD and in digital format.

We here at Toasted Cheese were very excited to talk to Debbie about her writing, illustrating, and experiences in the publishing industry.

Toasted Cheese: When did you first know that you wanted to be a writer?

Debbie Ridpath Ohi: I always wanted to be a writer. I wrote my first chapter book when I was in second grade. It had illustrations and was written in pencil, and I was so very proud of the fact that I used the word “horrendous,” which I had carefully looked up in Roget’s thesaurus before including it in my story. Unfortunately, I misspelled it, so the teacher wasn’t nearly as impressed as I had hoped she would be.

TC: How did you make the decision to take the leap from having a regular full-time job into freelance writing?

Life in a Nutshell: I'm Bored Process

DRO: With the help of my husband. Jeff was my boyfriend back then, when I was a programmer/analyst at the head office of a big Canadian bank. I used to wake up around 5 AM every morning, get dressed up in my business suit and head to the office, briefcase in hand. As time passed, I would stay longer and longer at the office. Then I began working weekends.

I loved programming, but I felt like I was working on a very small cog of a huge machine (in terms of our programming projects) … a stark contrast to the creativity involved in programming assignments in school. I also wasn’t used to all the corporate bureaucracy, with intimidating stacks of forms and memos and meetings involved in what seemed like every small decision.

Anyway, Jeff was full witness to my gradual progression from optimistic enthusiasm to frustration to misery. One day, he offered to support me so I could find a happier path.

After some intense discussions with Jeff, I resigned from my position and embraced the freelance life.

In addition to freelance writing, I also earned money in a number of different jobs along the way, including working in a public library and in a children’s bookstore.

TC: Your writing career began in nonfiction. Was it difficult to transition into writing fiction?

DRO: My first writing sale was actually in fiction: a short story for Hobnob magazine (now defunct). I was paid US$10 and won their Reader’s Choice Award; I never cashed the cheque because I wanted to keep it.

I’ve always been writing fiction, though I haven’t yet sold any novels. But I will! 🙂

TC: You obviously keep very busy. What tips do you have for managing time effectively and finding balance in your life?

DRO: Hoo boy, I could write a whole book on this topic. Someday, that is, since I haven’t yet completely succeeded in the life balance part.

My main piece of advice, though, is this: Be conscious about how you spend your time. Don’t just be a passive participant, letting other people and external circumstances dictate how you live your life. Learn how to say no.

TC: When did you start working as an illustrator? How did that begin?

I'm Bored DRO: I’ve been doodling for ages, and from time to time people would pay me to do small one-off projects, like a birthday or housewarming card. After joining Flickr, I began posting some of my doodles and drawings that I did purely for the fun of it. Sometimes people who liked the art I posted would contact me for small custom projects. I also had a few online comics going, some of which attracted a lot of readers. My Waiting For Frodo comic, for example, even had fans at Weta Digital!

However, my career in children’s book illustration didn’t start until the summer of 2010, when my friend Beckett Gladney convinced me to enter the SCBWI Summer Conference Illustration Portfolio Showcase. I was thrilled to win one of the SCBWI Illustration Mentorship Program awards, and learned so much from my mentors as well as my fellow mentees (see our blog). But that’s not all…

One of the judges was Justin Chanda, who is the publisher of three flagship imprints at Simon & Schuster: S&S Books For Young Readers, Atheneum, and McElderry Books. When he saw my illustrations, he immediately thought I’d be the right illustrator for Michael Ian Black’s I’m Bored (yay!).

You can read the full story here.

TC: What was it like collaborating on a picture book? What can you tell us about that process?

DRO: Working with Justin Chanda and Laurent Linn on I’m Bored was amaaaazing. Justin was editor on the project, and Laurent was my art director. I learned so much during the process, not just about illustration but also storytelling.

As a newbie illustrator, I had expected to be told pretty much exactly what I was supposed to draw, and have little input. Instead, Justin and Laurent were interested in my input throughout, and strongly encouraged me to be creative as I interpreted Michael Ian Black’s wonderful story.

I loved the back-and-forth in the discussions we had in person and on the phone. I was incredibly nervous at that first meeting but I remember that after only a few minutes, I was drawn into the conversation so deeply that I forgot about feeling self-conscious and focused instead on the book, and what we could do to make the book as strong as possible.

And as I write that, I realized that this was one of the turning points for me in the collaboration process: when I began to think in terms of what everyone was doing rather than only my part.

You can read my blog posts about collaboration and other aspects of working with Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers here.

TC: You are obviously incredibly successful at using the internet/social media to market yourself and connect with other writers. Do you have any advice for our readers about using the internet as a tool in this way?

DRO: Thank you for the kind words about my social media skills. I’ve worked hard at them and made many mistakes along the way.

My main piece of advice for writers wanting to use social media and the Internet to market themselves and connect with other writers:

If most of your posts have to do with self-promotion or trying to sell something, it’s unlikely you’ll attract many new readers.

Instead, offer something to people they can’t easily get elsewhere, that makes them want to come back. Once they feel they know you, then (and not before) they will be more likely to be interested in your projects.

In my opinion, the value of social media is much more about making connections with other people than in self-promotion.

TC: Who are some authors/illustrators you admire? Who would you say has influenced you?

DRO: My biggest influence and author/illustrator I admire the most: my sister, Ruth Ohi.

Watching my sister work over the years on over 50 children’s picture books, I have learned a great deal about the craft and business. She has also inspired me with her focus and productivity, especially how she managed her work time when her children were very young.

Ruth continues to support and encourage me. There were times during I’m Bored when I got discouraged about my illustrations (“OH MY GOD I SUCK WHAT IF THEY HATE WHAT I’M DOING AND FIRE ME” etc.); my sister talked me off the ledge. 🙂

Thank you, Sis!

TC: Do you have a favorite project, past or current, so far?

DRO: I’m Bored.

I had so much fun working on this. I am totally serious.

I also learned a ton about the craft and business of making a picture book.

TC: Earlier this year, you announced that you signed two book contracts with Simon & Schuster; one to illustrate another picture book, and another to write and illustrate a picture book of your own. Can you give us any update on those projects?

DRO: I’m in the very early stages of creating the picture book that I am writing and illustrating with Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers. So far, I have had two phone meetings with my editor, Justin Chanda. I would say that right now I’m working on the pre-pre-1st draft. 🙂

As for the other picture book, Simon & Schuster is still looking for the right project for me to illustrate. Fingers crossed!

I’m blogging about the process of creating picture books with Simon & Schuster, for those interested.
Toasted Cheese comic


Debbie Ridpath Ohi writes and illustrates for young people. She is the illustrator of I’M BORED by Michael Ian Black (Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers, Sept/2012) and her work also appears in the teen fiction anthology, TOMO (Stone Bridge Press, Mar/2012). Represented by Ginger Knowlton, Curtis Brown Ltd. URL: DebbieOhi.com. Twitter: @inkyelbows.

I'm BoredFor longer bios, see: Press Bios: Debbie Ridpath Ohi

WHERE YOU CAN FIND DEBBIE:

About I’M BORED:
Author: Michael Ian Black
Illustrator: Debbie Ridpath Ohi
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers
Ages: 3-8
ISBN 978-1-4424-1403-7

Final Poll Results

Poetry Essentials:
Sound, Rhythm, Image

Absolute Blank

By Mollie Savage (Bonnets)

I like to meet with various local writers to talk about their craft. Poetry always fascinates me because it seems so basic to being human. Recently, I got together with my friend, poet Sandy Longhorn, to talk about the essence of poetry and what makes it eternal.

Toasted Cheese: How do you think poetry evolved as a form of expression?

Sandy Longhorn: The quote that I always return to when talking about poetry is from Lucille Clifton, one of the most gifted and generous American poets of the latter half of the twentieth century, may she rest in peace. Clifton says that the very first poem was written the first time a cave dweller stepped out into the light, looked at the sky, and said “Ahhhhhhh.”

This ties in neatly with Donald Hall’s description of poetry as “the unsayable said” or really the attempt by the poet to give voice to those deepest truths about the world that often escape words. See Hall’s essay “The Unsayable Said” in Breakfast Served Any Time All Day: Essays on Poetry New and Selected.

So, poetry, which is the oldest literary art form, begins in the basic, physical, human need to express what presses and pulls within us, what yearns to be communicated to another human body. After all, poetry is created with the idea of both the poet and the audience. Yes, many people write poems that never see the light of day, but the drive to put those words down connects with the drive to share those words with others, whether that is the result or not.

TC: I’ve often considered poetry to be a mnemonic form to relate, repeat and remember cultural heritage and societal norm.

SL: As the oldest literary art form, poetry began well before the advent of the written word. It was oral and aural. It was sung, chanted, spoken, and most of all, it was memorized. The great stories that remain with us from the time before written texts (Gilgamesh, Homer’s epics, parts of the Bible and other religious texts) all began as pieces that were memorized and shared. In this sense, the idea of the singular author was not quite the same as it is today. Stories belonged to communities and regions. Each teller might tweak (i.e. revise) the story to fit his or her liking, to more accurately portray what needed to be said. Only with the beginning of written words did poetry make the transition to the page, and the poet’s work today is to be sure the words don’t languish there but that they leap from print and ask to be sung, chanted, spoken, memorized.

TC: What essential elements do you think make this happen?

SL: The three elements at play here—sound, rhythm, and image—all act together and are inseparable. To discuss one first is merely arbitrary.

As an oral/aural art form, poetry probably first relied on sound play as a way to ease memorization. Thinking of nursery tales and jump rope chants, we easily recall those rhymes that pleased us in our youth: “Jack, be nimble, / Jack, be quick, / Jack, jump over / the candlestick!” Say it out loud. Feel those Js striking on tongue and jaw. Hear the pleasing rhyme of quick and stick, but also the assonance of the ‘i’ in nimble that echoes the ‘i’ in quick and stick. Follow the consonance of the ‘j’ through the repeated Jacks and then jumped. Taste the roundness of “ump” right there in the middle. That is language at play. That is at the heart of poetry, even as we go beyond the simplicity of nursery rhymes.

Now, there is rhythm, which shows up in our Jack example as well. There is a clear beat that is repeated and, aside from the variation in line two, each line has four syllables. The variation in line two works perfectly as the shortened rhythm (only three syllables) emphasizes the word “quick.” Whether we recognize it or not, that variation contributes to the sense of urgency as we compel Jack on his task. So, the poet must think not only of what he/she intends to communicate, but also how best to use rhythm in that communication.

Sound and rhythm go hand in hand to build a physical memory, a muscle memory that was instrumental in the memorization of long poems like The Odyssey or The Iliad so that traveling bards could recite the various adventures and battles of the heroes and thus earn their supper along the way.

The third element, image, is also an integral part of the whole, as it is through image that we strive to express whatever it is bubbling up inside us. Of all the writers, poets rely most heavily on figurative language, in particular the metaphor. At its heart the metaphor, and its subset the simile, is a comparison between two unlike things that share some striking similarity. So, if I say that my hair is like the matted fur of an unwashed dog, that is one level of metaphor, but perhaps not very striking, as hair and fur are quite similar. However, if I say that my hair is matted and gnarled like weeds and sticks caught in an eddy at the river’s bank, that’s a bit more memorable and a bit more ‘wild,’ suggesting/saying something more strongly about my physical condition.

The poet’s work with image is to not only be memorable but to be precise. To chose the exact image for the expression that will communicate the idea most effectively. One of the long standing traits of poetry, even in long poems, is concision (compression). To create a poem charged with both meaning and craft, the poet must select each and every word and place it precisely where it belongs, not to mention placing punctuation marks and line breaks with care as well.

TC: Do you think codifying poetry, through writing, has changed its primal aspect?

SL: Historically, Western poetry was formal; it existed in set line lengths with set rhythms and set rhyme schemes. Think of the sonnet or Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter verse plays. The formal nature of poetry aided in memorization and provided a scaffold around which the poet crafted the poem. At its best, formal poetry joins the intellect and the emotion of the poet and uses the formal structure because it is the best way to communicate whatever it is that needs to be said.

After hundreds of years, poets began toying with formal structures and eventually branched off into free verse, poetry that does not contain a repeated pattern of rhyme or rhythm. While there are precursors as far back as the fourteenth century in Western poetry, free verse became firmly established in the nineteenth century and has become as widely if not more widely used than formal poetry today.

Some people would question the importance of sound and rhythm, then, when dealing with free verse. Here, the poet does not have to conform to meter and rhyme; the poet is able to bend and break lines according to different rules. Still, I would argue, sound and rhythm are hugely important. Otherwise, what is to distinguish a poem from a paragraph that is simply broken into lines on the page? Where is the poet’s craft, then?

TC: This is great, Sandy. Let’s ask our Toasted Cheese poets what else they would like to hear and continue the discussion. Thanks.


Sandy Longhorn is the author of Blood Almanac (Anhinga Press), which won the Anhinga Prize for Poetry. New poems are forthcoming or have appeared recently in 32 Poems, The Cincinnati Review, North American Review, Waccamaw, and elsewhere. Longhorn teaches at Pulaski Technical College, runs the Big Rock Reading Series, is an Arkansas Arts Council fellow, and blogs at Myself the only Kangaroo among the Beauty.

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 clichĂ©, 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 QueensrĂżche, 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 naĂŻvely 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

The 52/25 Challenge:
Interview with Lizanne Herd

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

In December 2010 I joined a brand new writing challenge group: 52/25. The idea is to write twenty-five stories over the course of fifty-two weeks. I joined in order to get into the habit of writing more short fiction and to meet new writers. For this month’s Absolute Blank article, I sat down (virtually) with group founder, fellow writer, and friend Lizanne Herd to ask her about her passion for 52/25.

Toasted Cheese: Where, when, how did you get the idea for 52/25?

Lizanne Herd: I’ve been participating in NaNoWrimo off and on for six years. I tried to get going on it this past November, but I became stymied almost before I started. I had big ambitions: I wanted to go untraditional by writing 50,000 words in short stories rather than a novella. I even had a list of story ideas and a plan. By Day Two I was done. I could not carve out the time I needed and frustration made it all fall apart. I had also attempted a NaNoWriMo mini-podcast, which I did for about four days before discouragement and embarrassment made me file that away as a “fail.” So, I had to think of a way to salvage my plan.

I still liked the idea of a portfolio of shorts. I’m not much of a novel writer as it is, so I got to thinking: maybe something that functions like NaNoWriMo but caters to the heart of the short story writer.

Once the wheels in my head started turning on this, the pieces fell together pretty quickly. I posed the idea to a few people who liked it and I decided to Just Make It Happen. I made the Facebook page, grabbed a little blog room and invited people. The guys at Dunesteef Audiofiction Magazine liked the idea and offered me ad space, so I threw together a fifty-second pod-ad and people started dribbling in. Here in the second week of February we now have nineteen people. Which isn’t too bad, considering NaNoWriMo’s first year was twelve.

TC: How do you use social networking, blogging, etc. as part of the 52/25 Project?

LH: Facebook is such a natural for this kind of interface. It is so immediate. Even solitary and secluded writers will take the time to share on Facebook. Plus, most writers look for excuses to stop writing for a moment and see what’s going on Out There. Irony: Writers are notorious loners, so getting them together on a social networking site makes me happy. It encourages a feeling of community and shared identity. For such a solitary activity, writers don’t really want to be that alone. Which is the whole reason I created 52/25.

I have the 52/25 blog mostly to post the podcasts. I was a bit nervous about doing the podcast, since I know so many people who are really good at it and I’m just some mook with a nice microphone and mixing board. But it seems to be working! Hopefully I can expand on the blog as the year goes on. Right now it’s just a placeholder. Any ideas?

TC: I dig the podcasts. I’m lucky to find time to sit and listen for those 10 minutes. I think people have thrown over traditional blogging for Facebook, Twitter, and podcasting anyway so you’re ahead of the curve. Tell us about the 52/25 podcast (technically, schedule, content, etc.).

LH: [Dunesteef Audiofiction Magazine co-creator] Rish [Outfield] encouraged me to do the podcast. The audience is limited, but I hope it is well-received within that circle. I have a fairly slim structure, where I talk about member progress, my own progress, some (hopefully) words of encouragement and either an interview or a contributed recording by one of the members. I have only recorded two episodes, but my plan is to record every two weeks to correspond to the story production rate. The episodes run from about ten to twenty minutes, depending on contributed material.

TC: I love that we’re all invited to participate in the podcast. It tightens that sense of community. Besides the two of us, who are some of the writers involved in 52/25 so far? What are some of their projects, that you know about?

LH: We have some amazing participants that don’t always wave their flags. So let me.

  • Big Anklevich and Rish Outfield: These are the creators of the Dunesteef Audiofiction Magazine. They’ve run this spec-fic fullcast production for over two years. Along with the stories they produce, they include abundant discussions after each story. In addition to fun stories, their discussions are well worth listening to, especially if you like to listen to funny, bawdy, sometimes edgy banter. They joined 52/25 to force themselves into better writing habits and to write more of their own material.
  • Nathaniel Lee: Nate is a very prolific writer. He writes a 100-word drabble every day on top of everything else. You can find a lot of his work at his site Mirrorshards. He’s had short fiction published all over.
  • R.E. Chambliss: She’s a novelist, not a short story writer per se. She joined 52/25 to beef up her writing time. She does podcasting, voicework and she writes writes writes! Her blog can introduce you to her work.
  • Most of the people I don’t know too much about. A few of them have their own podcasts, but since they didn’t join 52/25 for publicity, they’ve been somewhat reticent about giving me links.

TC: What have you written so far as part of 52/25?

LH: I have this enormous binder of story ideas. I took on as my first story an idea that’s been rattling around in my brain for a good long time, close to three years. It is a more scientific take on the Jekyll and Hyde story. It is a very long story coming in at just over 12,000 words. I think it could be fleshed out into a novel if I ever get the desire.

I then moved on to a story that I actually wrote three years ago for a contest. I am rather fond of the story and I always wanted to work on it until it was publishable. So, I took all the constructive crit I received on it and finally polished the thing. You can find an early draft of “The Marble of Notness” posted on the boards at Toasted Cheese.

I am currently trying to put butt on chair and fingers on keyboard for story three, but I’ve only gone so far as research and branch-outline. Sigh.

TC: That’s further than I’ve gotten. I haven’t done a new short story yet but the project is so flexible, I can catch up if I want to. It seems I have a thousand things to do and a lot of them are creative projects. What creative work have you done that doesn’t relate to 52/25, particularly since the new year?

LH: I am so glad you asked! I do a lot of pencil art. You can find some of my work posted on the art page of my personal website. I am in the regular artist rotation for The Drabblecast, which if you aren’t listening to it, shame on you! It is one of the best spec-fic podcasts out there.

I have been working on art pieces to send to Illustrators of the Future, which is a high-profile contest, both for writers and artists.

My friends and I just started a new trivia podcast called Guru Showdown. Each week a contestant challenges trivia gurus for fame and notoriety and hopefully prizes in the future. Want to be a contestant? I am the Animal Guru. I am undefeated. Hear me roar. Seriously—I roar.


Speaking of roaring, Lizanne has roared three times as the “Gold” winner of our Three Cheers and a Tiger 48-hour short fiction contest: “The Ships Come Tomorrow,” “In Memory of Maggie,” and “Dante’s Grid.” Her entry “Picasso’s Guitar” received an honorable mention in our 2007 A Midsummer Tale creative non-fiction contest, her poem “Ideas” was our Best of the Boards in September 2007, and her story “Offal” was our Best of the Boards in December 2010.

Final Poll Results

Storming the Castle:
Interview with Richard Castle

Absolute Blank

By Amanda Marlowe (The Bellman)

The Toasted Cheese editors spent some time in the Hamptons this summer trying to wrangle an interview with Richard Castle, author of the the popular Derrick Storm series and, more recently, the best-selling Nikki Heat series (the first Nikki Heat book, Heat Wave, reached #6 on the New York Times Best Seller List). Our plans to waylay him at his Hamptons home were stymied by his publisher, who claimed he was too busy finishing his latest novel, Naked Heat, to talk to us. Luckily, one of the locals clued us in to the fact he was actually off solving the mystery of the fallen angel. By following him on Twitter, we were able to stalk… er… follow him and catch him in a quiet moment.

Toasted Cheese: We understand you have been hard at work on your new novel, Naked Heat, which will be available on September 28, 2010. Tell us a bit about it.

Richard Castle: Writing Naked Heat was a tremendously gratifying experience. It allowed me to relive some of my favorite memories from the past year of doing research with the NYPD.

TC: Is it different writing about a female police officer instead of a male detective?

RC: Well, unlike Derrick, Heat’s not always trying to get into bed with everyone she meets. The difference is more psychological. Derrick considered himself a man of action, an agent provocateur, so to speak. He’d walk into the bad guy’s lair without a plan. Heat’s much more methodical. She works from evidence, not from her gut. In a lot of ways she’s smarter than Derrick, though Derrick was more charming. There’s a hint of Derrick Storm in Jameson Rook, although Derrick’s much manlier.

TC: Where did you get the ideas for your Derrick Storm novels? Any plans for Black Pawn to reissue them?

RC: Derrick Storm grew out my desire to cross the traditional detective with the kinds of protagonists you’d find in a spy novel. What if James Bond had become a P.I. instead of a secret agent? I wanted to try to capture that kind of cool and sex appeal within the structure of a detective story.

No current plans for Black Pawn to reissue them, however I am currently in discussions with a comic publisher to turn them into a series of graphic novels. I’ll keep you apprised, or maybe I’ll keep you guessing.

TC: What was the first piece of writing you used to pick up a girl? Did it work?

RC: It was a Shakespearean sonnet. Yeah, it worked. I was nine. We held hands.

TC: Tell us about your history as a writer. Are you mostly self-taught, or did you take classes or workshops?

RC: My mother was an actor and spent a lot of time at the theater, and instead of getting me a babysitter, she’d drop me at the New York City library. I spent hours and hours reading mystery books—Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Nero Wolfe. And then when I was a teen I took a Learning Annex course: “How to Become a VIP Matchmaker” (the course on mystery writing was full). After I successfully matched over a hundred couples, I sat down and wrote my first book, In a Hail of Bullets. I love the Learning Annex. I’m taking a class now called “How to Talk to Your Cat.” Now I don’t have a cat, and I’m not particularly interested in getting one. No, what I want to do is talk to other people’s cats. How cool would that be? “Hey Cleopatra, you know whose head you should jump on next?” Or maybe tell their cat a joke and it starts laughing and everyone’s like, why’s that cat laughing? Dude, what’d you say to my cat? And maybe cultivate my own feline army…

TC: Wait a minute. Wasn’t In a Hail of Bullets inspired by the soap operas your mother parked you in front of?

RC: Yes, well… that’s my mother’s version of events.

TC: What do you do when you get writer’s block?

RC: I eat more fiber.

I don’t believe in writer’s block. I believe in writer’s embarrassment. That’s when you’re too embarrassed by what you’re writing to continue. But if you do continue, something strange and wonderful happens. After a few pages your drivel becomes interesting drivel and often times you find solutions naturally emerging for whatever problem you were facing.

TC: What do you consider the most important element of a mystery novel? Why?

RC: The most important element of a mystery novel is mystery. I know it sounds like I’m being flip, and usually I am, but not now. The question the reader is always asking themselves, whether they know it or not, is “Why should I keep reading?” If the writer’s done his job, the answer is usually pretty simple: “Because I want to know what happens.” Any good writer creates multi-level mysteries—mysteries of plot, mysteries of characters—to keep the reader engaged.

TC: What advice would you offer to people who want to write mystery novels?

RC: Stop talking about it and start doing it. And make peace with the prospect that at first it’ll probably be really bad. That’s okay. The first draft is just clay to sculpt. Keep working it until it’s good.

TC: A lot of people view you as an extension of Nathan Fillion, the actor. How do you deal with this?

RC: An extension? Like I’m somehow .nfil? (That was a computer joke. Not a particularly good one either.)

I know Nathan pretty well. Handsome fella. People say we look alike, but I think he looks more like Jason Bateman.

TC: And our editor Lisa Olson asks: I haven’t seen your mom since graduation. How has she been? Does she still play her Beatles albums backwards?

RC: Yes. It drives me crazy. And apparently Lisa borrowed a pink sweater that was quite flattering. My mom would like it back, along with the boy Lisa stole from her.

TC: We’ll send Lisa along with the sweater sometime, but we’re not sure she kept the boy…

We shouldn’t keep you from your writing any longer, so we will let you get back to your, uh, research. Thank you so much for your time.

You can watch Richard Castle gain his inspiration for the third Nikki Heat novel on Mondays on ABC at 10:00 pm ET (9:00 CT).

Final Poll Results

Kissing Zombies and Blowing Up
the World: An Interview
with Adam Selzer

Absolute Blank

By Erin Bellavia (Billiard)

Adam Selzer, a Chicago-based author, musician, and ghost-hunter, has published nine books. His most recent young-adult (YA) novel, I Kissed a Zombie and I Liked It, has been praised by Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, and the School Library Journal, and the film rights have been optioned by Disney. On the deal, Selzer says, “I don’t know if they’ll actually make it, but it’s an honor just for them to think of me.”

The idea for I Kissed a Zombie came from a song Selzer wrote in 2000 called “I Thought She was a Goth.” His editor at Random House heard the song and suggested that he write a novel based on it.

His Smart Aleck’s Guide to American History, a history book for young adults, has been compared to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert by Publisher’s Weekly and the School Library Journal. In addition to his YA novels and nonfiction books, Selzer has also published middle-grade novels. His latest, Andrew North Blows Up the World, was released last year.

His first novel, How to Get Suspended and Influence People, was nominated for a Cybils 2007 Young Adult Fiction award. In 2009, Selzer and the novel made national news when a parent tried to have it removed from a library in Idaho.

Toasted Cheese had the chance to talk to Selzer about his writing.

Toasted Cheese: When/how did you get started writing?

Adam Selzer: Kindergarten—as soon as I knew how to construct words out of letters, I got right to it.

TC: Who influenced you as a writer?

AS: Daniel Pinkwater* is probably my biggest influence. See, it’s like this: when you watch a Busby Berkeley musical scene in a movie, you think “now here is a guy who figured out that he could do things in movies that he could never do onstage.” With Pinkwater, I got the idea that you could do stuff in books that you could never manage in movies. And it helped me develop the sense that there’s a whole weird world lurking under the surface of everyday life, a lesson I badly needed to learn before I could become a decent writer.

TC: Every writer dreams of the day they can quit their day job. When (and how) did that day arrive for you?

AS: Well, I never really had one, unless you count eleven years of retail and restaurant gigs. I still don’t exactly make big bucks as a writer, but I found I was making better money than I did washing dishes or slinging coffee. I still pick up odd jobs—I worked as a copywriter for a miserable company downtown for a couple of months, and, I worked for the census this spring, which was a lot of fun. The threat of going back to retail work still looms large in my nightmares, though.

TC: Describe a typical “workday” for you. Where do you write? For how long?

AS: I have the coolest desk in the world. It is a go-go-gadget desk. It’s a rolltop that I customized to have secret compartments, locks, and all kinds of cool stuff. But for some reason, I absolutely can’t write at it. I almost never even try. But I’m the first one in at the coffee shop down the block most mornings—if I’m not in by 7:30, they expect me to bring a note explaining my tardiness. I usually write a few hours per day.

TC: You’ve published both fiction and nonfiction. Can you tell us about the processes involved in each?

AS: Other than the research, it’s pretty much the same process of organizing ideas and shuffling stuff around, really.

TC: What’s the hardest part of writing for you?

AS: Usually the middle part of a first draft. I can come up with concepts for books, and how to end them, without too much trouble, but figuring out how to get from point A to point B can be tricky—especially in a middle-grade book, where you can’t just let the narrator run his or her mouth off for a few pages here and there.

TC: What are you working on now?

AS: Revisions for the follow-up to Zombie, a book that takes place three years later in the same town, as well as making notes for another paranormal YA, a non-paranormal YA, and a couple of middle grade books and, hopefully, another Smart Aleck’s Guide. The key to keeping out of retail is to work a lot, I think, so I do! I’m also editing a documentary about a statue of a naked guy with angel wings riding a tricycle that was at my mall when I was a kid. I never realized there was anything unusual about it back then (man, did I need Daniel Pinkwater!) and a collection of essays on pop culture and life in Chicago.

TC: Like most writers, you have an active online presence (website, Facebook, Twitter, etc). How important is the social media aspect of marketing, and how does it work for you?

AS: It’s important because it’s an easy way to get attention, which I’m not ashamed to admit I love. I don’t know how well it works, exactly, but it sure doesn’t hurt. Having a Facebook fan page is a much better way to connect than an old-fashioned mailing list.

TC: What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

AS: Read. Read a lot. Read classics and figure out why they’re classics (and don’t just say it’s because some professor said so). Then read bad books and figure out what makes them bad.

I gave Adam five topics and asked him for a “list of five” on each. Here are his responses:

Five authors you admire:

  1. Daniel Pinkwater—I’ve based my life on his teachings, and travel to places he wrote about around Chicago regularly. Those that haven’t been torn down for condos or a Starbucks, anyway.
  2. Charles Dickens—especially the mid-to-late novels.
  3. Bill Bryson—my fellow Des Moines native.
  4. Harlan Ellison—I discovered him in 8th grade—there was a copy of Paingod and Other Delusions in this little bookshop that was also a tanning place in Urbandale, Iowa, and I just couldn’t pass up a book with a title like that.
  5. Gordon Korman—I wonder if he’d let me write a new Bugs Potter book?

Five books you’d bring with you to a deserted island:

  1. Tristram Shandy by Laurence Stern—a very long, post-modern 18th century novel that makes very little sense. It’d be good to have on a desert island because it would keep me busy for years.
  2. I Hated Hated Hated Hated this Movie by Roger Ebert—to remind me that there are worse things than being stranded on a desert island.
  3. Bleak House by Charles Dickens—pretty much the same reason as Tristram Shandy, only it has the added bonus of having a character who spontaneously combusts midway through the book.
  4. 5 Novels by Daniel Pinkwater—all in one volume, so it only count as one, not five. Ha!
  5. A blank one so I can write things down—plus, I could obsess for weeks over how to make ink using stuff on a desert island.

Five CDs you can’t live without:

  1. Bob Dylan, Bringing It All Back Home
  2. Tom Waits, Nighthawk at the Diner
  3. Bruce Springsteen, The Seeger Sessions
  4. Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer, Drum Hat Buddha
  5. Nirvana, Unplugged

Five favorite movies/TV shows:

  1. Almost Famous
  2. Night of the Hunter
  3. Star Wars
  4. The West Wing
  5. The Simpsons

Five things on your dresser or nightstand:

  1. a Han Solo in Carbonite action figure (which is really an inaction figure)
  2. a broken clock, soon to be replaced by a nifty Bakelite art deco model
  3. about fifty books
  4. a half-empty can of pepsi
  5. clip-on sunglasses

*Daniel Pinkwater is the author of The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death. Coincidence? We think not. -The Snarkers

Final Poll Results

Writing Frontiers: Podcast Writing

Absolute Blank

By Lisa Olson (Boots)

As writing moves into the 21st Century, new media are being explored by intrepid authors looking to showcase their voices. I’ve recently discovered a few of these and wanted to take a closer look at how the writing behind them works.

This month, I will be taking a look at podcasting. Podcasting takes its name from iPod and broadcasting. The name sums it up well—it’s like a radio show for your mp3 player, your computer or your cell phone.

Podcasts can be about anything the broadcaster would like to showcase. There are many different podcasts and settling on just one or two from a specific topic can be daunting. They typically fall into one of three categories: news and information, entertainment, and education. No matter which category you choose, there are going to be hundreds of different topics and hundreds of different podcasts for each topic. If you love something, there’s probably a podcast about it. Finding a podcast you want can be daunting, but there are many search engines to help you, including a large list on iTunes that is fairly easy to use. Other good references are PodCast Alley or PodFeed.

Some podcasts are “pay to play,” but many are free. I listen faithfully to only one of the million podcasts out there—The Signal. This podcast is about news and entertainment that in some way relates back to the television show Firefly and the movie Serenity. Everything about The Signal—the news, the music, the drama, the comedy, the articles, and the host comments—all relate back to the show and movie in some fashion.

Last winter, The Signal put out a call for new blood to add to their staff—specifically for writers and editors. Their quest got me thinking—what were they looking for? Luckily for me, they put together a segment that reviewed what kind of audio editors and writers they were looking for.

Still, I wanted to know more about the writing and the writers. How did they get into podcasting? What do they like about it? What makes it different from scripts or novels?

I asked if anyone minded if I interviewed them and Nick Edwards and Helen Eaton of The Signal volunteered. You can find biographies for both here.

I was then approached by Peter Wilson, a writer for Buffy: Between the Lines, which is a dramatic podcast based on the Buffy: The Vampire Slayer TV show. This podcast is vastly different from The Signal in format; it’s a drama that’s acted out every week instead of a news and information program. Nick Edwards had also been involved with Buffy: Between The Lines as a writer and actor there.

Below are the interview questions and answers from all three writers.

Toasted Cheese: How did you get into podcasting?

Nick Edwards: Firefly. Pure and simple. My interest in the show was such after being pointed to it by fans on the Larry Niven mailing list, I went looking online for more information and one of the first things I found was The Signal and other Firefly-related podcasts. I’d never listened to a podcast before, didn’t even have an mp3 player, so I listened to a few on my computer and got hooked. I had no idea there was so much going on in the fandom and The Signal quickly became my “Firefly Fix” (I guess I started listening mid-Season 1 before Serenity came out).

Then, at the start of Season 3 in 2007, I went to a Shindig (gathering of Firefly Fans) in London. I already had met Wendy, Toni and Andrew of the UK-based Sending A Wave podcast (which I enjoyed enough to write and record an article for them reviewing Songs From The Black, the downloadable CD of Firefly fan music that The Signal had made at the end of 2006) and knew that Jill Arroway and Kari Hayley of The Signal would be at the Shindig. I had also been emailing Jill about her Dark Places project and had wanted to talk with her about that (I’d already said I wanted to be involved in this original Firefly audio drama project). The Shindig was great, and in talking to Kari and Jill, who essentially ran The Signal, I was offered the chance to join the crew. The conversation went something like:

“Can you write?”

“Yes, I guess.”

“Can you act?”

“Yes, did some drama years back.”

“Can you record yourself?”

“Yes.”

“OK, you’re in.”

My response was along the lines of “You have got to be shitting me!”

And that was that. I couldn’t believe it. I was a fan being asked to join what was (and still is for my money) the best (and most original) Firefly-based podcast out there. Doing a few Sending A Wave shows since has also been a hoot and I am still involved with Dark Places. The Signal stuff also led to me being asked to audition for and getting the role of Spike in Buffy: Between the Lines (a whole different scale of podcasting!) and doing a few other podcast-related bits here and there. And I love it.

Helen Eaton: I found The Signal in 2006 when looking for information on Firefly on the internet. I don’t think I knew what a podcast was before then. I thought it would be fun to be part of the team creating The Signal, but I only applied to join at the end of last year because before then I’d not had a good enough internet connection. (I’m British, but I live in Tanzania, East Africa. Internet connections here are not the greatest!)

Peter Wilson: By listening to the podcast and hearing that they needed beta readers for scripts. After doing that they asked if any beta readers wanted to write anything, so I volunteered.

TC: What kind of writing do you do for the podcast?

NE: Well, I do a bit of everything now. Initially I began with feature articles focusing on a particular aspect of Firefly, which I still do as these are a staple of The Signal. This fairly quickly widened to include SciFi Review segments, where we took other shows and reviewed them, usually comparing them to Firefly in the early days. This segment gradually widened its focus and has included comedy and straight drama shows, such that we now call the segment “Broadwaves.” The other thing I took on quite early was the audio drama segment “Badger’s World” which ran for two seasons and twenty-seven episodes. I also do editorials, as well as sometimes doing the scripts for the host banter, Feedback sections and News segments (not all at the same time though!).

HE: I’ve written some articles that discuss different themes in Firefly and Serenity. I’ve also done a review of a different television show and compared it to Firefly. And I’ve written some episodes of a humorous audio drama about two inept terraformers!

PW: Script writing.

TC: How much do you write for the podcast?

NE: A fair bit. I often write an article per episode (every two weeks). When “Badger’s World” ran early on, it was an episode of audio drama every two weeks. I’ll always have some writing input as a rule (we have seven or eight regular writers).

HE: On average, one piece per podcast (which comes out every two weeks). Each piece—an article, a review or a skit—is usually about 800 words.

PW: I’ve written two scripts in the past year. That being said, there are some people that write way more.

TC: Do you write alone or in conjunction with others?

NE: Alone, but the effort is collaborative in that all articles are put up for crew review and any crew member can make edits to the article. In terms of crew editing of articles, simple stuff like typos and minor grammatical corrections are just made without needing to consult the author. We use a wiki so all changes are traceable and recoverable if something is done that fundamentally alters a meaning, say. Crits are made and generally the author goes back to make the changes if they agree with them. Authorship credit stays with the original author. We have not really had any joint pieces due to the rapid turnaround we need to maintain (two weekly schedule), but the input of the other writers and rest of the crew is very important in keeping the quality high.

HE: I write alone, but sometimes an idea for a skit comes from someone else. There is also the editing process later, when others can help by suggesting changes.

PW: I’ve only written alone, which is unusual. As a rule of thumb every script gets two writers.

TC: Do you focus on certain topics? If so, what’s your focus?

NE: Do you focus on topics? If the article calls for it, yes. I started out being given topics and going really in-depth into them, which made for good articles, but is a lot of work for a newbie. Over time though, as you learn the show, what’s been done, what works, the research doesn’t always have to be as onerous. You relax a little and learn you can rely on other people’s experiences and opinions. There’s a huge fund of knowledge within the crew that you can tap into as a primary source, which is great.

What’s your focus? Phew. Difficult question. What I’d like to hear on the show I guess. Having stared out as a listener, I know what I enjoyed on the show and so try to remember that when writing or when assigning someone else to write something. With the audio drama stuff, keeping to a format becomes important to an extent, but having fun with it and making it amusing is the primary goal.

HE: My favorite kind of writing involves looking at the themes of different episodes, comparing storylines or characters, and examining the structure of episodes.

PW: Well the topic my writing focuses on changes every time. But the focus that all my writing has in common is trying not to suck. Because if it sucks I feel like I’m letting down a whole team of people with sub-par garbage if it sucks. I write about what interests me and hope therefore it will interest others.

TC: What do you look for in a podcast topic?

NE: Well, it has to be interesting enough to want to write about it, so no articles on cutlery in the ‘verse are pending. I guess it has to be in line with the sort of things we generally do on the show. So we have various threads like “Serenity Speculation,” “Broadwaves,” “They’ve All Got Stories,” that sort of thing. But we also go out in unusual directions sometimes with the special features and editorials. Quality is the key though. We try to be as interesting, accurate, and entertaining as we can and all the writing goes through a crew review process before being recorded and edited and we are all expected to bring articles up to scratch and are free to edit each other’s work in the crew wiki we use for the purpose. So there’s no room to be precious about what you have written. (Most editing is minor stuff like grammar and readability, but sometimes major changes are needed to improve articles, so it has to be a collaborative process where the show comes first.)

PW: To be honest, glory. It makes me feel bad, but yeah. I think most people are looking for it even if they don’t admit it. I also look for constructive criticism. After the glory fades the criticisms are really the only things that help you.

TC: What kind of freedom do you have when writing for a podcast?

NE: Complete freedom (to a degree). It’s a podcast, we don’t make any money from it, people don’t have to listen to it. We could say whatever the hell we wanted.

HE: There’s a freedom associated with your words being spoken rather than read. An informal style is more appropriate and the more unnatural-sounding grammar rules can be ignored!

TC: What kind of restrictions do you have?

NE: Several self-imposed ones. The podcast is about Firefly. We will not bring real-world politics or religion into it other than for comparison purposes. We try to keep it PG-13 level, though we make no claim to be a PG-13-rated podcast. This is for adults. We’ll use the word “shit,” but generally not “fuck” or stronger (though we may imply it). You wouldn’t believe the fuss a few folk made over a promo we ran with JC Hutchins and Scott Sigler which appeared to have them both swearing like troopers, but where every actual expletive was bleeped out (though you could figure out what word it would have been). It was hilarious, but some folk didn’t like it. Won’t stop us doing it again though; like I said, it’s a grown-up podcast. (In contrast, on “Sending a Wave,” which I have taken part in, there are no such self-imposed restrictions and folk swear as much as they do in everyday speech (it’s not scripted), which is good, ‘cos I swear like a total ****.

We try to keep things “international” in that any article that starts talking about “here in the States” or “of course here at home in the UK” gets changed. We have crew (including me) in the UK and Africa as well as the US and Jill in the UK started it all off. Our listeners are from all corners of the globe, so we are self-consciously an international podcast. Hmm, what else? We don’t accept submissions from listeners (not always true, but when we have, it’s always been by invitation). And we won’t plagiarize someone else’s work or use outside sources of material without credit. (Again, unless by invitation).

What we do try to do is maintain the character of The Signal. Stuff that gets too far away from the essential “feel” of the show is not pursued, or will be adapted to fit in more with the type of segments we do. Which is not to say we don’t experiment, but other ‘casts do things like forum reviews, read out fan fiction they like, or run convention recordings in full. Which is fine, they don’t need us treading on what they do. (The Firefly podcasts do actually talk to each other and are friendly 🙂 The Signal does have a particular, quite highly-produced flavor to it. This works, the listeners like it, it works for the crew, so why dick with it?

HE: None in particular, except that for the podcast I write for, it is important not to be too long and wordy as it doesn’t fit the tone of the podcast.

PW: Well, at the beginning of the podcast season when I’m being assigned the episode I’m going to write, I’m given an overview of what should be in the episode. Most of it is stuff that I pitched anyway, so it’s not a real problem at all.

The only other restriction I can think of is that I have to watch my language as I kind of have a filthy mouth. Whilst the podcast is technically flagged for language anyway, I really don’t want to drag it down to the vile depths that I could. Beta readers check everything over before the script goes into production and they usually point out what I’m doing wrong. They really are the unsung heroes of the podcast and everything I write would be tacky and offensive without their guidance. Thank you beta readers.

TC: How do you handle writers block—can you even have it?

NE: Yes, I can get it. “Badger’s World” stalled for a while because I couldn’t see how to continue it as it was. So I didn’t. I ended it with a six-episode arc that departed from the existing format in many ways, but which was some of the most enjoyable stuff to write. Generally though, if I stall on something, I’ll leave it for a day or two before going back to it. Or I’ll ask my wife, She’s great with ideas.

HE: If the deadline isn’t close, I just leave what I’m doing and come back to it another time. If the deadline is close, I usually don’t struggle with writer’s block!

PW: For me writer’s block is just another word for video games. I don’t handle it by playing tons of video games.

TC: What other kinds of writing do you do?

NE: Um… not a lot. The Signal takes up about all the free time I have outside of work and family and sleep.

HE: Academic writing for linguistics conferences, journals, books, etc. I also write teaching material and grammatical descriptions of languages as part of my job. I write a blog-style email to a group of friends every two weeks.

PW: Mostly comic book scripts.

TC: How is writing for a podcast different from other writing?

NE: I don’t know, how is it?

Apart from work-related stuff (science, technical, reports) and doing a few things for QMX and Jason Palmer Studios (not professionally), The Signal is pretty much all I have written for.

I guess one of the things though, is having to write for the spoken word. Some stuff just doesn’t work when read out, though it may look OK on the page, so you learn to slant towards ease of reading if it’s an article. I often have to edit myself on the fly when I realize I’ve written an overly long or complex sentence for myself and get tied in knots trying to read it! With the audio drama, especially a comedy-flavored segment like “Badger’s World,” it’s more theatrical as you have to write believable dialogue that sounds good or funny or both. So that’s a whole different approach in itself.

HE: The only other kind of writing I know is academic writing—I’m a linguist by profession. The podcast writing I’ve done has been very different! The individual pieces of podcast writing tend to be much shorter than the average linguistic article. The deadlines come much faster too! It is also very different writing something that will be heard rather than read. For example, long sentences might work well for a reader, but often shorter ones work better for a listener. I can be more informal in style in podcast writing too, which I enjoy.

PW: For me podcast writing is different because there is so much work done on the episode after it has left my hands. It gets edited and then tons of people have to act out the dialogue, contributing a lot to it. It doesn’t just get posted on the internet somewhere. Instead, way more work goes into it than I could really fathom.

TC: How is it the same?

NE: Well, at a guess, you have to be able to express ideas clearly, be able to write coherently, spell reasonably well, and have a fair idea of grammar.

HE: I try to apply some of the same principles to both kinds of writing. For example, I try to be honest about the level of confidence I have about something I’m saying. Do I say “This shows that…” or “This appears to show that…”? I also try to back up any point I make, whether it is for a podcast audience or for a lecture hall full of linguists.

PW: I still manage to work jokes about Street Sharks into the script.

TC: Have you been published? Where?

NE: Only a few scientific papers and posters at academic meetings (which other folk actually wrote, just using my data: that’s actually normal practice—first author actually writes the paper, others are generally contributors and final author is usually the group leader/professor). I have written the descriptions for some of Jason Palmer’s Serenity art on his site, but that’s about it.

HE: I have had some linguistic papers published in books, conference proceedings, on the internet and so on.

PW: Yes, and I wish it was good enough for me to plug here. It’s isn’t. It’s the kind of thing where I’m embarrassed it ever saw print and I actively encourage you not to look for it.

TC: What do you like best about writing for the podcast?

NE: When it all comes together and you hear an article you wrote performed and edited well, or an audio drama piece come to life with all the other actors adding their talents. When you know that it’s good and someone else (outside the podcast) agrees with you. When folk like it (and believe me they’ll say when they don’t!).

HE: It is fun! I enjoy creating something just for pleasure and doing something very different from my day job.

PW: Well, I think my favorite thing is to just tell a story that is incredibly specific. Very few people will really care about it but the fact that I can tell it and have a genuinely interested audience is really terrific.

TC: What do you like least about writing for the podcast?

NE: The time pressure mostly. We have a regular two-weekly rolling production schedule that lasts all year (apart from short summer and Christmas breaks), so we typically produce 22–23 regular shows per year, plus several bonus shows, which may contain material that’s not up to the sound quality levels of the regular show say, or stuff that just doesn’t fit in a regular show (there are far fewer self-imposed rules).

HE: Nothing so far, but I’ve only been doing this a few months!

PW: On the flipside, that audience frightens me half to death. Nothing makes you try to write better than the fact that people will inevitably listen to your terrible, clichĂ© dialogue. I suppose it’s really better for my writing in the long run, but it makes me incredibly nervous.

TC: What kind of advice do you have for writers interested in podcasting?

NE: Do it! It’s fun and folk will give you feedback if they like (or dislike) what you are doing. It can be very rewarding, especially if stuff you do has a resonance with listeners or they get attached to characters you have created. But do it for yourself. If you are passionate about something, you are probably not alone and there may already be a podcast you could join. If not, start your own! At the simplest level, it’s very easy, you just need to give it a go. If other folk are involved, it will improve your writing as well, as that tends to bring everyone’s game up, when other folk are looking over your work.

HE: Make sure that whatever you’re going to be writing about is something you are passionate about.

PW: If you know you might want to write for a podcast, get involved in that podcast any way you can. I started as a beta reader and advertiser of the podcast. Eventually you’ll have an opportunity to pitch an idea.

Also, there’s really nothing to stop you from starting your own podcast. You may not have a full voicecast or tons of listeners but if you like doing it, who cares? Some of my favorite podcasts have way less than 250 downloads per episode, but damn, are they good.


You can find as many podcast lists as there are podcasts. You can find them on iTunes very easily, which is a good place to start.

My thanks to the three podcast writers who volunteered to answer my questions. I appreciate their patience as my interview was originally scheduled for April and got pushed back to the end of the year.

Final Poll Results

Delicious Morsels:
Interview with Bizarro Fiction Author Jeremy C. Shipp

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

Jeremy C. Shipp’s writing includes short fiction, novels, a screenplay and more. Visiting his website is like taking a trip through a liquid funhouse with the ghost of Hunter S. Thompson. Naturally we snatched him up for an October interview, coinciding with the release of several delicious morsels of new work.

Toasted Cheese: October is a busy month for you, with Cursed and Harlan County Horrors both being released. What other work do you have coming out?

Jeremy C. Shipp: I love October, because of Samhain/Halloween, and so this is an extra special month for me. I also have stories upcoming in Cemetery Dance, Apex Magazine, and other publications. I’m not sure exactly when these stories will be published, however.

TC: For your Harlan County Horrors anthology story “Kingdom Come,” you were given a setting—Harlan County, Kentucky—for a horror story. Where did you go from there? Tell us about your process for writing the story and what it’s about (without spoiling the surprises). Was the process typical of how you work?

JCS: My process for writing “Kingdom Come” was not typical for me, because I don’t often research a specific place before writing a story. With “Kingdom Come,” I read everything I could about Harlan County, and found a place I connected with, Kingdom Come State Park.

With “Kingdom Come,” I wanted to write a dystopian tale that reflects, in a fun-house mirror, the systemic evils that Harlan County has faced in the past. The story is about a man who goes on vacation with his family, and begins to lose everything. His family, his mind. And only by losing everything does he find the truth about himself, and about Kingdom Come.

TC: In other interviews, you’ve said that the theme of equality—and the danger of hierarchy—runs through your work. Is this a conscious choice or something you discovered in looking back at your work?

JCS: I never attempt to convey certain messages in my writing, but my worldview is reflected and explored in my writing. I believe whole-heartedly that hierarchical thinking is one of the greatest evils in the world, and so many of my characters must face this evil. I do what I can to make the world a better place, even in the smallest of ways, and so my characters do the same.

TC: Even though you write fiction that encompasses multiple genres, do you consider yourself primarily a writer of “bizarro” fiction? How fluid do you find genre and how do you play with it and the reader’s preconceptions?

JCS: I never set out to write a bizarro or horror or dark fantasy story, but these are how many of my tales are categorized. And I’m glad. Genre, to me, has more to do with community than literary conventions. The bizarro and horror communities have embraced me and my writing, and I have embraced them back. Within these communities I’ve found writers and readers and editors who connect with my writing. This is a blessing.

As far as my actual writing process goes, I write what’s in my heart and mind and spleen. I try to open my mind, and travel beyond the boundaries of my own preconceptions of what a story is or isn’t. This is not only a meaningful experience for me. It’s fun.

TC: Tell us about the theme of “transformation” and how you use it.

JCS: The transformations in my stories are usually emotional, spiritual, ideological transformations. For example, Bernard in “Vacation” experiences a major paradigm shift. And his shift reflects my own ideological transformation.

My characters aren’t heroes. They’re ordinary people, with insecurities and prejudices and weaknesses. Sometimes they must help save the world, by defeating the darkness in themselves. They must learn to love and accept themselves. They must discover their inner power. And so, they must transform.

TC: Darkness and humor aren’t what some would consider a natural combination. Tell us something about your opinion on the combination or separate elements.

JCS: First of all, on the subject of darkness, I want to say that while I believe in evil systems and ideas, I don’t believe in evil people. In my mind, everything in existence is inherently worthy of respect. Anyway, I believe that humor can be used to battle evil. Also, the darkness of our world is often ridiculous and absurd. And so, for me, darkness and humor go hand in hand.

Of course, I’m very conscious about my use of humor in stories. My goal is never to make light of serious situations. But humor and absurdity often exists, even in the darkest of times.

TC: You write a lot of strong, central female characters. Tell us about some of your favorite female characters and how they evolved as you worked on their stories.

JCS: My goal is always to create characters who will be viewed as whole human beings. I don’t want to create stereotypes or archetypes. And so, my female characters are strong, fragile people. Because everyone in the world is strong and fragile.

My favorite character so far, probably, is Cicely from Cursed. She’s a passionate, creative, weird human being. When I first started writing Cursed, I didn’t understand her completely. She was a stranger to me. As the story continued, my understanding of her deepened, and she became more and more complex. This is the reason why I love writing novels so much. I get to stick with the same characters for so long.

Another character I’m very fond of is Bridget, from the novel I’m working on now. Bridget is a depressed, unhappy person, with a lot of love bottled up inside her. There are forces in the world that want to claim her, and hopefully, she’ll find the strength to follow her own path. She believes she’s an uncaring and unworthy person. She hates her body. But I hope she’ll learn to love herself. I’ll do what I can to guide her in that direction, but in the end, she’ll have to make all the hard decisions herself.

TC: Do you find that fans gravitate toward a certain aspect of your work? How vocal are your fans?

JCS: Judging by the feedback I’ve received over the years, my readers seem to be people (and yard gnomes) who enjoy stories that are both entertaining and thought-provoking. I try to write stories that are socially, emotionally, and spiritually conscious, and my readers appreciate this. I’m very lucky to be a cult writer who has a very vocal and very supportive fan base. It’s because of my fans that my readership grows every day.

TC: Have you found that online/electronic publishing opens your work up to a greater audience or is it difficult to find readers open to taking that ride?

JCS: Most of my readers seem to enjoy both online and print media. Many of my online stories are free to read, which is nice, because this allows readers to try out my work without spending any money. Then, if they connect with my writing in a positive way, they might end up buying my print books or subscribing to Bizarro Bytes.

TC: Tell us about Bizarro Bytes.

JCS: Bizarro Bytes is my story subscription service. For $12, subscribers get twelve new, previously unpublished bizarro tales written by me. They get a new story every month, delivered to their email, in the e-book format of their choice. Higher level subscribers also get added bonuses, like their name in one of my stories. You can read more about Bizarro Bytes here.

TC: Who are your influences (not only writers but directors, musicians, artists, etc.)?

JCS: Myriad artists inspire me. Hayao Miyazaki, George Orwell, Kurt Vonnegut, Takashi Miike, Terry Gilliam, Jim Henson, Chan-wook Park, Pink Floyd, The Flaming Lips, David Firth, George Lucas, Joss Whedon, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Arundhati Roy, and many, many others.

TC: What inspires you? What challenges you?

JCS: I’m inspired by all the wonderful artistic creations that I love. I’m inspired by my friends and my family and the people I overhear in the grocery store. I’m inspired by the horrors of our world. Civilization as a system challenges me. At times, I have to work hard to stay hopeful and positive. So every day, I write out ten blessings. Ten things, big or small, that touch my heart. This helps.

TC: What writing advice do you wish you’d heeded sooner? What writing advice do you wish you’d never listened to?

JCS: I’m lucky, because most of the advice I’ve been given over the years has been helpful in some way. And when someone gives me bad advice, I can usually recognize that fact.

TC: What are you consuming lately?

JCS: I’ve been consuming daal, green smoothies, bizarro books, American Born Chinese, The Dark Crystal, Return to Oz, Ponyo, Spirited Away, Let the Right One In, Kare Kano, Naruto, and The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra.

TC: What are you working on?

JCS: I’m currently working on a new novel called Bridge, a story collection called Fungus of the Heart, a short film that might end up being called Fairy, and a comic series. I can’t say much about any of these at this point.

TC: Please tell us about your short film Egg and the process of creating it.

JCS: Jayson Densman, director extraordinaire, is a fan of my books and stories, and he approached me about doing a project together. So I wrote the script for Egg, specifically for him. Egg is the story of a man’s shattered psyche. He’s searching for the truth about his past, but this is difficult, because his memories are always changing. You can watch the trailer on YouTube.

TC: Finally, what do we need to know about the gnomes?

JCS: Yard gnomes are compassionate, magical creatures that live in hunter-gatherer-based eco-villages. They believe that every word they speak and every muscle they move should be an act of love. Also, they’re doing everything they can to prepare for the collapse of civilization, but they try not to worry too much about it.


Jeremy C. Shipp is a weird author of bizarro, horror, dark fantasy, and magic realism. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in over 50 publications, the likes of Cemetery Dance, ChiZine, Harlan County Horrors, Apex Magazine, Pseudopod, and The Bizarro Starter Kit (blue). While preparing for the forthcoming collapse of civilization, Jeremy enjoys living in Southern California in a moderately haunted Victorian farmhouse with his wife, Lisa, and their legion of yard gnomes. He’s currently working on many stories and novels and is losing his hair, though not because of the ghosts. His books include Vacation, Sheep and Wolves, and Cursed. And thankfully, only one mime was killed during the making of his first short film, Egg.

Final Poll Results