Toasted Cheese Success Stories:
Ryan Potter

Absolute Blank

By Lisa Olson (Boots)

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

Dear Toasted Cheese Editor(s),

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

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

Sincerely,

Ryan Potter

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

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

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

TC: What attracted you to TC?

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

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

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

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

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

TC: How did you feel about being published?

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

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

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

TC: How many stories did you publish after that?

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

TC: When did you start and finish your novel?

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

TC: Tell us a little about the book.

RP: Here’s a quick synopsis:

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

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

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

TC: How did you find an agent?

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

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

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

TC: When was your novel published?

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

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

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

TC: What brought you back to TC?

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

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

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

TC: What would you tell an unpublished author?

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

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

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

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

TC: What are you working on now?

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

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


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

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

Final Poll Results

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