Writer’s Glossary, Part III: The Business of Writing

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

This is the third installment in the ongoing Writer’s Glossary series. Part I covered Elements of Fiction Construction and Part II covered Genres, Subgenres and Supergenres.

Background Photo: SpeakingLatino.com/Flickr (CC-by-sa).

Background Photo: SpeakingLatino.com/Flickr (CC-by-sa).



  • Hook: the opening sentence or sentences that involve a reader. A narrative hook may be found in a novel. The hook of a query letter is a single sentence that intrigues the recipient.
  • Synopsis: shares what the work is about, including the major characters and plot points (including the ending). Synopses can vary in length. Some synopses should be two or three paragraphs; some should be two or three pages. Synopses are most often used in query letters. (See: 10 Secrets Of A Synopsis That Sells)
  • Pitch: usually a single paragraph, a pitch is used to “sell” a novel to an agent or publisher. Pitches are often spoken synopses and allow for flexibility as they’re a form of verbal communication. Include the opening conflict, the journey and the opposition. Pitches come in handy at conferences and other face-to-face interactions with agents or publishers. (See: Your First Writers Conference: A Guided Tour)
  • Query: a letter (increasingly in e-mail form) asking an agent or publisher if there would be interest in reading a full manuscript. Query letters generally include a synopsis, contact information, and a brief biography, including publishing credits (if any), a.k.a. “backlist.” Every agent is different and many are strict about what to include in (and exclude from) a query. (See: The short, sweet guide to writing query letters)
  • Cover letter: accompanies a submission, including contact information and a brief biography. Summarizing this story or poem is not always necessary; check the submission guidelines of the publication. (See: Please and Thank You: The Purpose of a Cover Letter)

Word count standards:

These vary by publication but this is a basic guideline. Always check on the expectation of word count with the publication. For example, Toasted Cheese has a maximum word count of 500 words for flash, 5000 words for fiction.

  • Micro-Fiction: up to 100 words
  • Flash Fiction: 100 – 1,000 words
  • Short Story: 1,000 – 7,500 words
  • Novellette: 7,500 – 20,000 words
  • Novella: 20,000 – 50,000 words
  • Novel: 50,000 -110,000
  • Epics: Over 110,000 words


(See: Five Quick Tips for Getting Your Story Published )

  • Page Counts: industry standard preferred length is 250 words per page (ex: a 400-page novel = 100,000 words)
  • Simultaneous submission: a single piece sent to several publications at once
  • Multiple submission: more than one piece sent to a single publication at once
  • Slush pile: a collection of unsolicited manuscripts
  • Lede/lead: the introductory sentence; this term is most often used in journalism
  • Byline: a printed line giving the author’s name
  • WIP: Work-in-progress
  • Manuscript: the raw copy
  • (Un)solicited manuscript: When someone asks you for your manuscript, either via your query or other means, it becomes a “solicited manuscript.” Otherwise, it is “unsolicited.”
  • Partial: A portion of a manuscript. The length varies. Standard is up to 25 pages or perhaps up to 10,000 words, likely less. Partials are usually requested or you will be given other indication as to what the length of your partial should be.
  • Pseudonym: a false name under which an author’s work is published/credited


  • Copyright: the exclusive right to make copies, license, and otherwise exploit a literary, musical, or artistic work, whether printed, audio, video, etc.; as a verb “copyright” means “to secure a copyright.” Copyright is automatically created with the creation of the work. (See: Automatically Yours: Introduction to Copyright)
  • First Rights: the right to be first to publish the material in either a particular medium or a particular location
  • FNASR: “First North American Serial Rights.” When submitting a piece for publication, the author sells or gives the publication the right to be the first in North America to publish the material once. Unless the author grants other rights or licenses as well, all copyright to that material reverts to the author.
  • First American rights: the right to publish a piece first within the United States
  • First Canadian rights: the right to publish a piece first within Canada
  • First British rights: the right to publish a piece first within Britain
  • First Australian rights: the right to publish a piece first within Australia
  • First World English rights: The right to be the first in the entire English-speaking world to publish the piece including Australia, Canada, the UK and the US (including FNASR)
  • One-time rights: the publication is purchasing the right to print the piece once and only once (not necessarily first)
  • Reprint Rights, or Second Serial rights: the right to print as a reprint
  • Nonexclusive Reprint Rights: the right to sell reprint rights to the same piece to more than one publication, even at the same time
  • Anthology Rights: the right to publish a piece in a collection or anthology, often as a reprint
  • Translation Rights: the right to print the piece in a non-English language
  • Excerpt Rights: the right to use excerpts from the piece in other instances (example: an educational environment, such as a standardized test)
  • First Electronic Rights or First World Electronic Rights: the right to be the first to publish the piece on the Internet, via e-mail, as a downloadable file or program, on CD or tape, etc. FER/FWER are negotiated separately from other First Rights like FNASR.
  • Archival Rights: the right to archive or make archived works available on the Web
  • All Rights: the author remains nominally the copyright holder but without economic rights left to exploit including reprints, anthologizing, electronic publishing and further sales without further remuneration
  • Moral Rights: include the right of attribution and the right to the integrity of the work; generally, moral rights cannot be assigned to another party like economic rights can, but they can be waived
  • Work for Hire rights: “work for hire” rights apply to writing done within the scope of employment (such as a newspaper journalist or textbook writer) wherein the actual copyright belongs to the employer
  • Exclusive rights: the publisher asks that the piece not appear anywhere else while they are exercising their right to it, usually a set period of time
  • Nonexclusive rights: the piece may be displayed, published, copied, transmitted, etc. elsewhere while under right.


  • Print Run: a batch of copies of a book, produced by the same single set-up of the print equipment
  • Lead time: the time between the undertaking and completion of a project. For example, the lead time on a newspaper article would be from the assignment of the story until the print deadline.
  • Advance: payment given in anticipation of the completion of a project
  • Royalty: a percentage of sales given to the creator of the work (i.e. the author)
  • Self-publication: the publication of material by the author of the work, without the involvement of an established third-party publisher, vanity presses, or print on demand (POD). Many authors began or continued their literary careers as self-publishers.
  • Vanity Press (a.k.a. “subsidy” or “joint venture” presses): appealing to the “vanity” of authors, these publishers make the majority of their money from fees charged authors rather than from sales, paying little to no attention to quality of the work or of the published product
  • POD: Print on Demand, a form of technology that allows small print runs of media. Unlike vanity presses, POD publishers generally have connections to booksellers and have a reputation for creating quality finished products but also pay little attention to the quality of the content. Sales and fees are both sources of income for POD publishers. (See: Publishing and Print-on-Demand: What POD is, what it isn’t, and when it might be right for you)
  • ARC: Advance Review Copy; a type of galley
  • Galley: an unformatted version of a manuscript, usually distributed for review purposes
  • ISBN: International Standard Book Number. Defined by ISBN.org as a way to “establish and identify one title or edition of a title from one specific publisher and is unique to that edition, allowing for more efficient marketing of products by booksellers, libraries, universities, wholesalers and distributors.”


  • Sell-through: the percentage ratio of the number of copies produced/sold to the number of copies returned to the publisher for credit. Basically supply and demand.
  • Modeled: A book is “modeled” when it remains available in a store, typically on the shelf. “In line” generally refers to a store’s available stock, including their warehouses or possibly other locations. So while the book might not have a full table of copies near the door, a single copy available for purchase on a shelf in its genre section means it’s “modeled.”
  • Remainder: a book no longer selling well, reduced for sale by the publisher, distributor or bookseller and marked in a distinctive way (usually with a felt marker slashmark on the page edges near the spine)
  • Stripped book: a mass market paperback stripped of its cover and meant to be pulped or recycled. The covers are returned to the publisher as evidence that the book has been destroyed although “stripped books” may not always be pulped
  • Chapbook: a small, pocket-sized book, usually with a flexible cover (of cloth or paper). Most often chapbooks are collections of poetry although they may also contain short stories or other creative media, usually with a unifying theme.
  • Zine: a small circulation publication usually created by hand instead of by a press; cost of creation usually exceeds profit. (See: Been There, Zine That)

Final Poll Results

Writing Frontiers: Steampunk

Absolute Blank

By Lisa Olson (Boots)

About three years ago during NaNoWriMo, I noticed a sub-genre popping up that I’d never heard of—steampunk. I read through the posts, which could be found in the forums under Genre Lounges and then Other Genres, and came away a little confused, but wanting to know more. I researched a little bit and found it was something I was interested in but that I wasn’t aware had a name or a culture.

Steampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction where the focus is steam-powered devices and Victorian-like settings and themes. Steampunk asks what could happen in a world where imagination, possibility and science combine. The term is thought to have been coined by the author K.W. Jeter in a letter printed in the 1987 issue of the science fiction magazine Locus.

Steampunk has been growing in popularity over the past few years. For the cosplay inclined (dressing up or role-playing) there are many fashion sites, like Stormcrow’s Arcane Objects and jewelry sites like 19 Moons. There are YouTube serials like the League of Steam where you can watch cosplay in action. At Comic Con 2010 there was the “World’s Largest Steampunk Photo” which was documented for entry into Guinness World Records 2011. There will be conventions, including Steamcon II in Seattle, Washington, happening November 19–21, 2010 and Anomaly Con which is being held in Denver, Colorado in March 2011. In October, steampunk was featured in the Castle episode, “Punked,” in the comic strip Luann, and the SyFy online series Riese: Kingdom Falling.

Background Image: Ian Usher/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

Why is steampunk growing so quickly? What about it interests readers and writers?

One theory is that as a people in the twenty-first century, we’ve become too hands-off. Today, most of us do not know, or care to know, how our devices work. We replace them when they break. In the Victorian age, we were learning how things work and how to make them work. We were interested in creating and exploring every inch of what we used and handled. We couldn’t afford to have it repaired or replaced, so we learned everything we could about it to fix it ourselves.

Another theory is that the age was more romantic and interesting. Alli Martin, a steampunk author, explained, “It’s about a feeling of limitless possibilities. That’s one reason I think it appeals to so many people; in a time when the economy is bad, we’re facing problems with overpopulation and pollution, and we feel downtrodden, we’re looking for something to bring us hope. Steampunk offers that hope as it’s looking back to a time of high adventure, innovation, and discovery.”

The pendulum of steampunk swings from historical fiction to speculative fiction and back again. There are many sub-genres, or perhaps co-genres, like clockpunk, dieselpunk, and cyberpunk. Clockpunk is set in the Baroque period when clockwork mechanics were being developed. Dieselpunk is set around World War I or World War II and uses diesel-type engines and war themes. Cyberpunk is set in a futuristic world and uses advanced science like robots and computers while focusing on political themes.

One thing I noticed is that “normal” is not a word in the steampunk dictionary. The characters, both good and evil, are larger than life—they can do anything and aren’t afraid to try anything. Impossible machines work and monsters are around every corner. Situations are dire and only the hero can save the day. Still, they’re driven by what any novel is—good writing, an interesting situation, and emotional conflict.

Where can I learn more?

Steampunk is still being formed as a genre and it was hard for me to find a lot of resources that focused on the how-to of writing it. There was one helpful article, “SteamPunk: A List of Themes,” at Writing.com that focused on steampunk themes and covered a wide variety of topics. Another, “Tips for Writing Steampunk,” at Ripping Ozzy Reads, had basic writing tips that point new authors down the steampunk path.

I did find one writing community, The Steampunk Writers Guild, but it is in its infancy, so there weren’t many posts or information there—yet! The host is happy to welcome new and curious writers—and lurkers—to the fold and joining was free and easy. They will be holding Twitter chats once a week starting in December and will post the transcripts for all to read and enjoy at their site, Steampunk Chat.

Weird Tales, a magazine founded in 1923 and featuring stories of gothic fantasy, horror and sci-fi, will publish steampunk stories. They are currently closed to submissions, but will be taking them again in January 2011. SteamPunk Magazine is not currently taking submissions, but has a host of back issues where you can find both fiction and non-fiction articles about any topic steampunk in nature. Steampunk Tales offers a pulp-adventure magazine available through downloads to most smartphones and devices, as well as PDF documents, for a small charge. Authors are paid a percent of the sales and the submission guidelines are specific, so be sure to read them all.

Amazon.com carries quite a few novels and more are being published as the genre becomes more mainstream.

It can be interesting to discover a genre that’s just beginning to set rules and parameters. Authors right now have the opportunity to help mold and shape steampunk simply by writing and sharing their stories. What is being written now will someday be the benchmark that other authors use to write theirs.

So if you’re looking to write something a little different, yet is very familiar, you might don a hat and some goggles and give steampunk a try. You might find what you’ve been looking for.

Steampunk Magazines:

Steampunk Novels & Anthologies:

Steampunk Communities:

Twitter Chats/Hashtags:

Steampunk Conventions:

Steampunk Online Movies:

Steampunk Music:

Steampunk Fashion:

Final Poll Results

Non-Fiction Book Writing Seems Fun! Part II: Trying to Find a Fiancé

Absolute Blank

By Faith Watson (fmwrites)

Recap: A few months ago, when I finished up with Part I of this topic, Sell First, Write Later? Non-Fiction Book Writing Seems Like Fun!, I was gung-ho and ready to go, on the verge of fleshing out my straw-man idea for a non-fiction book. After preliminary research and careful consideration, I had selected a promising book idea of mine as my pet project.

My Unique Selling Proposition (USP) was compelling and concise: The Pilates Cue Guru: How to Make Magic with the Method is the only handbook for fitness instructors and Pilates teachers that specifically teaches creative ways to effectively cue all the different principles, exercises and goals of the Pilates method.

I settled on using guidelines and templates from two different reference books to create a proposal and the initial query letters. With my “presearch” now done, I was set to move on to the crafting phase: pull the query and a proposal outline together. I was lookin’ to get hitched. Who were my prospects and what would they want from me?

Background Image: JewelleryMonthly/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

The Pre-Proposal Period

Before I could query, I needed to research the market-at-large, identify possible selling statistics, and be able to provide my prospects with factual information on the audience for my title. The next step was to develop a list of potential publishers with similar titles or similar categories of books. The idea at this stage is to be able to speak knowledgably of publishers’ lists and specifically appeal to the readers of the queries. Finally, I needed to learn exactly what each of my publishing targets wanted to hear or see from me. Did they want sample chapters or just a query letter? Did I meet their stated criteria for authors?

Here what I learned as I made my way through these three steps of the pre-proposal period:

1. Selling statistics, my audience, and the market at large. A sound approach to finding out what sells is to go to a place where they are selling items similar to yours, and snoop around. There’s a reason the average grocery store carries a lot of flavored coffees and teas, but very few limburger-flavored coffees or eye-of-newt teas. The same applies to the books stocked on the shelves on a big chain book store, and what’s being sold on Amazon.com. Since I’m a Pilates instructor, I also have an extra level of information at my fingertips among my professional references. I learned a lot by looking at my own office shelves and internet bookmarks, as well as at bookstores and online.

What I learned: Big chain stores stock one or two perennial favorites in the Pilates subsection of the Fitness and Exercise subsection of the Sports and Fitness aisle. They are written by well-known or well-respected instructors—trainers to the stars, or Pilates elders (original teachers). They are published by imprints of large publishing houses. Expanding my search to the yoga and other fitness categories, I found a similar pattern. The fitness books sold in stores and frequently bought online by consumers are “how to do” books, not “how to teach” books. This is the lay of the land at the point of sale.

Among my professional references are a few self-published books, and a few more published by specialty houses on behalf of large professional organizations. For example, certification exam study guides have been published by every reputable Pilates certifying body. A few illustrated guidebooks for Pilates anatomy, or books for teaching special populations (pre-natal Pilates, Pilates for seniors, and the like), also exist. You buy them through proprietary companies that also sell Pilates equipment and host national conventions. Joe Pilates’ original Return to Life through Contrology has been republished and is selling again, but mostly to instructors. I know Joe Pilates himself had quite a bit of trouble getting his book published; in 1998 it was updated and edited with the copyright assigned to Presentation Dynamics. Duly noted in my notebook of pre-proposal possibilities.

My takeaways: My title is not going to make it on consumer shelves. It’s a “how to teach” not a “how to do” book. It won’t be a public library staple, either. Its salability is going to be tied to either professional organizations’ interests (like the educational arms of large certifying bodies) or Pilates-related corporate interests (like how Weight Watchers and Yoga Journal added to their empires, which now include cookbooks and yoga kits respectively). This is not the greatest of realizations. What I need is the Pilates equivalent of a university press or a niche-merchandising brand.

I already had the specifics on my audience—I am part of my audience—and I remain prepared with numbers on new instructors in training, how many certified in the last x amount of years, etc. These figures are published in trade journals with some regularity. The good news is Pilates is still popular and the number of teachers and participants continues to grow.

I also found something out about my market that seems positive —there really are no other books out there quite like mine. I’d be filling a hole.

Your takeaways: If you want to craft a non-fiction book proposal, determine what books your book would be next to on store and library shelves, then see how your book fits in. Look at your favorite books in your category to find out who published them, and when. Keep notes on every publisher of several books related to or comparable to yours. This list will later help you connect positives for your queries to editors (they’ve published three books about coffee beans but never one on tea leaves; hole in the market I will fill) or negatives for your own notes (dozens of comments and reviews on the coffee-related books online but no one ever comments on the tea books). Finally, pour through your trade journals. Look for books being advertised in the back pages, read book reviews, and find out if the journal publishers also publish books.

2. Potential publishers. First I looked up the most promising potential publishers from my master list of books and their publishers from Step 1 above. I found two possibilities with actual websites and guidelines for authors. Both are smaller presses that might be interested in a Pilates title, but have none so far. I ran into several dead ends on the web as well. Dead ends, because the publishers were either too big to post submission guidelines on their websites, or they no longer seemed to exist. A few were swallowed up by big guys, and some others were just not findable on the internet.

Next, I went back to the bookstore and pulled the most recent Writer’s Market off the shelf and spent time cross-referencing the potential publishers I had left on my list. Yes, I did that at the bookstore. I bought an overpriced latte so I didn’t feel too guilty about it. I must say, the market for writers has changed since I last looked in “The Most Trusted Guide to Getting Published” ten years ago. I learned a lot flipping through it.

What I learned: 2011 Writer’s Market features a chart of seven publishers that are masters of the domains of dozens of others they have merged into their own universes. It’s just a list of names really, so you don’t get specifics in Writer’s Market about submitting to, say, Random House or any of its 70+ imprints. I learned a few trainers-to-the-stars had books published by bigger houses. How did they do that? I’ll guess: an agent. That, and/or a reputation with a recognizable celebrity or sports name as a testimonial. I looked up several of the smaller publishers I had searched for on the internet, and found most of them not to be present in Writer’s Market, either.

My takeaways: I was left with the couple of maybes I found online and in Writer’s Market, and a protruding pout. Back to the drawing board to figure how I can get hooked up with my “Pilates equivalent of a university press or a niche-merchandising brand.”

Your takeaways: You can pout, but you have to keep trying till you’ve exhausted your avenues. (The latte does help.) A few months ago, I thought that non-fiction book writing seemed like “fun!” but I’m here to tell you it feels a lot more like “work!” at this stage. Keep your trusted notebook of possibilities at hand. There’s more to do.

2.5. More Potential Publishers. Since I only found three promising potential publishers, instead of the eight that was my goal, I decided to travel a little farther down the professional trade road. I began with a couple of magazines and online publications I myself read and refer to. PilatesStyle magazine has a readership that overlaps my book’s market—niche consumer along with a lot of instructors, as it is the only Pilates-specific magazine out there. I found some articles on the path to teaching, and featuring other teachers. Nothing much new as far as book publishing goes, though. Next I went to IDEA, the world’s largest association of fitness professionals, of which I am a member. Their collection of articles on mind-body fitness pursuits is hard to beat. I search through the giant Inner IDEA website for anything related to my book proposal, and guess what comes up? An article: “The Art of Cuing” by Rael Ishowitz. He’s pretty famous in the modern Pilates world.

What I learned: It’s a lovely article. No, it doesn’t do what I say my book is going to do, exactly. Phew. Instead, it’s a more general article on why cuing is important and it discusses how one can improve one’s instruction with attention to the art of cuing. So yeah, there’s some overlap for sure. But not a lot of specifics. (This is all me talking to myself after reading the article.) My book has specifics. As my USP says, it’s a handbook. For people to refer to when trying to develop better cues for exercises, or to get ideas on new ways to help people visualize exercises—

—Uh-ohhh. A revelation. I think I know why there’s a hole and it hasn’t been filled with a book. It’s not the market, and it’s not the audience, and it’s not even the subject—it’s the function of the book. The function of the book (I repeat to myself, nodding for emphasis) in relation to the subject and the audience. How will this book be used, and when? I can answer that question myself (I am my audience, after all) in two words. It won’t. Instructors will take an illustrated guide to pre-natal exercises off their shelf and use them to plan such classes ahead of time. They will take down their anatomy book to look up a muscle group that is giving someone trouble. They will read their study guides before testing or retesting and they will read Joe Pilates’ book to understand the historical context of the method.

They won’t pull out a little book that lists several effective and creative ways to talk about the shoulders while teaching The Rollup. They can’t refer to this book during class and they won’t think of consulting something like that in between classes when they’re researching anatomy or prenatal exercises. It’s a reference book that can’t be referenced when you need it. They won’t be going about their business thinking “If only I could think of something different than ‘string of pearls’ when cuing the spine.” They won’t.

My takeaways: I’m okay, I’m okay. Even though I’ve come this far only to realize I cannot propose my book because I, as my own audience, know that I won’t read my book of lists of ways to cue the body in Pilates classes. I will however go to a workshop or seminar and have an engaging expert speak to me on the topic for an hour or so… and I will read an article or a series of articles on this topic to spark some ideas and give me a few new cues to try out. I will even save the article or series of articles and use it to help inspire other teachers who I might be training… but (wah!) I won’t read my own book. Time to outline my workshop idea. Time to research magazines and online sources that will publish my article (IDEA and PilatesStyle come to mind!).

Your takeaways: When developing your non-fiction book idea, aside from considering your expertise as the author, the market for your topic, your audience’s needs, trends in publishing for your genre, the potential for selling this book, and your USP, also consider the function of your book. How and when will this book be used in the format you’re suggesting? An encyclopedia of tea leaves is one thing, but The Tourist’s Pictorial Guide to Selecting Teas at any Market in Asia better be a slim little thing—like maybe a brochure that an Asian tea company gives away.

Afterward: I still want to write a non-fiction book—a book that sells. I’ve got a new idea, the best one yet (I think), and I’m applying everything I’ve learned so far to develop it through to the official proposal period. So, there just might be a Part III on this topic, if all goes well and I find that “special someone” (a publisher willing to commit).

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

Please and Thank You: The Purpose of a Cover Letter

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

Recently, Toasted Cheese received a submission in which the writer asked in her cover letter whether such a letter was really necessary. After all, she reasoned, shouldn’t the work speak for itself? Indeed it should. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t include a cover letter with your submission. Here’s why.

The purpose of a cover letter isn’t to sell your story. It’s not a query, i.e. “May I please send you my work?” A cover letter is a letter included with a submission. Since you’ve already sent your work, the editors don’t need a synopsis or a pitch. They have your work. They’ll read it. You also don’t need to bombard the editors with pages of credits, credentials, and accolades (though, of course, a few are fine). Again, they already have your work. It’ll either stand up on its own merits or it won’t.

A cover letter is, first and foremost, a friendly way to introduce your submission. It’s like saying please and thank you rather than making a demand. Editors read many submissions at a time, and frankly, it’s just more pleasant to open one with a brief introductory note than one with the work and nothing else. It’s not so much what you say. It’s that you said something.

Background Image: Ben Rimes/Flickr.

Background Image: Ben Rimes/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa).

No, a cover letter won’t convince editors to select your work if it’s not what they’re looking for. But a concise, courteous letter will put the persons reading your work in the best possible frame of mind to read it. It may even make them more inclined to encourage you to submit again. And, after all, short of the coveted acceptance letter, that’s what you want.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some real cover letters Toasted Cheese has received in the past year to see what they got right—and wrong. We’ll start with the letter that inspired this article:

To Whom It May Concern:1

This isn’t the first time I’ve submitted to Toasted Cheese. This is, however, the first time that I’ve included more than just my work in the submission email. I never bothered2 with a cover letter before because I felt that it was unnecessary. I thought that if you (the editors of Toasted Cheese) liked my work, then you would accept it and publish it without needing to know anything more of me. In other words, I wanted my work to speak for itself.3 Please let me know if I have been mistaken.

If you do want to know more about me, then please read on. I am, perhaps like many of your contributors, a writer in my spare time only. I do wish that I could claim writing as my profession; only the reality of my abilities has hindered me, but I believe that practice makes perfect. And perhaps by the time I retire I would have mastered my craft.4

What follows are two poems inspired by a couple of Toasted Cheese writing prompts. The first is an interpretation of _____, and the second is on the theme _____.5

A Would-be Writer7

P.S. Please let me know if a cover letter is required for all subsequent submissions.8

Here are my thoughts on this letter:

  1. “To Whom It May Concern” implies the writer doesn’t know whom she is addressing. It seems out of place here because (as shown in the first paragraph) she does indeed know. “Dear Editors of Toasted Cheese” would have been a better greeting.
  2. Using a phrase like “I never bothered” is a red flag. If you can’t be “bothered” to write a couple lines introducing yourself and your work and thanking the editors for their time, why should they be “bothered” to read your work?
  3. As noted above, a cover letter isn’t a pitch; it’s a courtesy.
  4. A little self-deprecating humor is fine, but don’t over-do. This essentially says, “my writing isn’t ready for publication yet.” If that’s the case, why are you submitting it? If it’s not the case, say something more positive about yourself/your work. Most creative writers have day jobs that pay the bills. What’s important is that you’re a doer rather than a dreamer.
  5. This brief introduction to the submitted pieces is more than sufficient. One tweak: including the title(s) of the piece(s) you’ve submitted in your cover letter is always appreciated.
  6. This is perfect.
  7. This is not. If there’s an outright don’t for cover letters, this would be it. If you can’t take yourself seriously, why should we?
  8. This is a valid question and I’m glad the writer asked it, but I’d have preferred to see it asked at our forums or on Twitter. By asking at the end of her letter, the writer has reminded the editors what a “bother” it was for her to write it, thus distracting them from her submission.

Here’s an example of a short cover letter that leaves the editors with a favorable impression of the writer:

Editorial Staff
Toasted Cheese

Dear Editors:1

Pasted below is a short story titled _____. It is approximately _____ words in length.2 In the past few years I have published freelance articles in magazines relating to _____ and have an essay entitled “_____” to be published in the book ____ in spring or fall of 20__. I have not yet published a work of fiction.3 I would appreciate your time and consideration of this manuscript for publication.4

First M. Last

  1. As far as TC is concerned, this opening is ideal. Since we have several editors, a joint greeting such as “Dear Editors” is appropriate. For a publication with a single editor or one that has divided responsibilities (e.g. fiction editor, poetry editor), it would be better to use the editor’s name.
  2. This writer begins by telling us two things we want to know: the submission’s title and word count. By adding that the story is pasted in the email (the format we request), she indicates that she has read our submission guidelines.
  3. Including a few details about your writing credits, relevant degrees, or writing-related work or volunteer experience is one way to show editors that you’re serious about writing.
  4. Letting the editors know you appreciate the time they’re taking to read your work is arguably the most important part of your cover letter.

This is a good letter that hits all the major points. Two suggestions:

  • Toasted Cheese publishes a short bio with each piece, so it’s helpful if writers include a paragraph that is easily convertible into a bio, or a separate third-person bio that can be used as-is.
  • Make sure there is no ambiguity with respect to your byline by clearly stating how you would like your name to appear if your work is published.

Here’s another letter that does both those things:

Dear Flash Fiction Editor:1

Toasted Cheese first came to my attention through the Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market; after more research I determined that some of my writing might be a good fit for your publication.2 I am submitting a ____-word flash fiction story entitled “_____.”3 If accepted this would be my first published work.4

Brief Biography:
First Middle Last is a writer and _____ living in _____. She watches films and writes poetry, fiction and screenplays. She is happily married and learning about parenting through experience.5

Thank you for taking the time to consider my writing and I look forward to hearing from you.6

First Middle Last7
Phone Number8

  1. This isn’t a perfect opening for TC; we edit as a collective and as such we don’t have a “flash fiction editor” per se.
  2. Letting the editors know you’re familiar with their publication and/or have done your research is never a bad idea.
  3. Like the letter above, this writer clearly states the submission’s word count and title.
  4. If you’d like to share that you’re unpublished or haven’t published before in the genre you’re submitting, this is a good way to do it—it comes off as optimistic. Don’t be an Eeyore by bemoaning that you’ve never been published (or “only” been published in a venue you clearly don’t value) .
  5. This format is nice because it leaves no ambiguity as to a) what information you want included in your published bio, and b) how you would like your name to appear.
  6. A thank you is always appreciated.
  7. This writer is consistent with the version of her name used in the letter, which we appreciate. When your name appears several different ways in your letter—e.g. Elizabeth Smith, Lizzie Smith, E. Zillah Smith—it can be unclear which version you want to be published under (or even be addressed as).
  8. By including her contact information, the writer appears confident and professional. One tip: writers often include their email, phone number, and/or mailing address. Not so often included, but perhaps more relevant to an online publication: a link to your website/blog and/or the social networking site you’re most active at. We are happy to include a link in your published bio, so please include this information.

Keep in mind these are just examples; there are of course countless other ways you could include the pertinent information in your letter. When in doubt, err on the side of brevity. Here is a very short letter that is perfectly acceptable:

Dear Editor,

Here are my bio and short story, ______ (approximately _____ words). Thank you for considering my work.

First Middle Last

First Middle Last is a writer and _____living in ______. Most recently, she has been published in _____, the literary journal of ______ University. You can read more of her work at firstmiddlelast.com.

As I hope these examples have shown, your letter needn’t be flawless to fulfill its purpose. Writing a cover letter shouldn’t be an onerous task. Save the multiple drafts for your creative work; a utilitarian cover letter works just as well as a clever one. And once you’ve written a letter you like, you can use it as a template for future submissions.

To summarize, in a cover letter you want to:

  • Greet the person(s) you’re writing to.
  • Introduce the work you are submitting.
  • Tell the editors a little about yourself.
  • Thank the editors for reading your work.
  • Close the letter with your name and contact information.

A few tips:

  • Rejection and re-submitting is part of being a writer. By all means, keep sending out your work until it finds a home. But please, freshen up your submission before submitting to a new publication! No editor wants to be able to count how many times your email has been forwarded.
  • Avoid generic openings. If there is a single editor, use the editor’s name. If there are multiple editors as at Toasted Cheese, you can address your letter to the editors as group (e.g. Dear Editors; Dear Toasted Cheese Editors). Alternatively, if you have a rationale for doing so, you can address it to one of the editors. For example, if you particularly like my Editor’s Picks, you could address your letter to me. This would signal to us that you’ve gone above and beyond in researching the journal and its editors.
  • Make sure to “sign” your letter. A good rule of thumb with email is to start formal. First contact should always include a greeting and closing/signature. You can drop the formalities as the conversation progresses.
  • Save the area below your signature for your contact information. Other personal information can be included in your bio, if you wish. “Jane E. Jones is a 38-year-old arctic researcher who lives with her husband and children in Iqaluit, Nunavut” sounds personable, whereas the same information in a list after your signature comes off a bit psychotic.
  • Before sending, read the submission guidelines one more time to ensure that nothing in your letter conflicts with them. In particular, make sure a publication accepts simultaneous submissions before sending a piece to more than one journal.

Ideally, the person reading your cover letter should come away with the impression that you’re polite, professional, and would be easy to work with. Do we toss submissions without cover letters? No, of course not. They’re a nicety, not a necessity. But the goodwill you generate by including one makes the few minutes it takes to write one more than worthwhile.

Final Poll Results

Interview with a Dark Lord: Creating Villainous Characters

Absolute Blank

By Amanda Marlowe (The Bellman)

In my never-ending quest for good writing tips, I, intrepid Toasted Cheese Editor, braved the Dark Lord’s lair to get some first-hand insight into what makes a good villainous lair.

Unfortunately, this editor fell into the first trap in the first Dark Tower. In order to gain enough time to escape, I used the old “get them talking about their evil plans” trick. So, change of plans. Instead of a piece on the villainous lair, a piece on the villainous character, gleaned from our conversation.

Background Image: Ivan Vranić/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

TC: So, Evil Villain Character, how are you feeling these days?

Dark Lord: Frankly, I’m feeling a little flat. But what do you expect when you are continually described as “The Lord of Evil” or “The Ultimate Killing Machine” and never given any other motive or depth in your evil doings?

TC: Well, labels are a quick way to identify a character type. What do you have against that?

Dark Lord: Look, I know as the Antagonist I’m playing second fiddle to the Lord High Fully-Realized Protagonist, but that doesn’t mean I’m just a cardboard cutout villain. Your standard protagonist comes complete with a past, motivation, and a flaw. Why can’t I get the same kind of attention?

TC: A flaw? You want a flaw?

Dark Lord: Damn right, I do. People are complicated. Look at Darth Vader, for example. First movie he is the ultimate in villainy. Black cloak, black mask, kills anyone who gets in his way. A stereotypical Lord of the Sith, if you will. And then what happens? Give him a little popularity, and suddenly he’s the protagonist’s father, and much more complicated than anyone ever imagined. And then we see how he was lured into evil, and how his flaw, caring too much, turns him into the evil guy we all know and love, or maybe hate. But why couldn’t we see some of that in the original movie? Was he really designed with that flaw? Not much evidence of it at the beginning.

And that’s what is bugging me right now. I’m just this evil dude. No one knows I was tortured as a child, no one knows I believe I am doing the right thing for my people, they just think I’m evil, and that’s the end of it. Take Sauron from Lord of the Rings for example. he is a total cardboard Dark Lord. He sits in his dark tower and sends his minions forth to do evil. You don’t really know why, or if he’s anything more than evil. He is just there to be defeated. Maybe I was good once, but became so proud that I turned into a dictator, thinking I knew better than everyone else. Like that Boromir dude in Lord of the Rings, who might have turned into something awful if he had survived. I mean, he just wanted the ring of power to save his people, but he was proud, and his pride would have been his downfall. Or maybe I loved a woman who ditched me for another, and I swore my revenge on her family. Or maybe I have good intentions, but can’t see the dangerous consequences of my actions, and don’t notice how I made it all the way to hell.

TC: So what kind of flaw do you want?

Dark Lord: Well, the best kind is a flaw that is either similar to the protagonist’s, so that the reader can see how “there but for circumstances goes the hero” or one that is opposite to the protagonist’s, so they can play off each other and feed each other’s weaknesses and strengths. Either of those choices makes for good dramatic tension.

TC: But what about the ultimate battle of Good versus Evil? If you are complicated, and have a flaw like the protagonist’s flaw, doesn’t that make things messy and uncertain?

Dark Lord: Life is messy and uncertain. That’s the joy of fiction, to explore the mess and uncertainty. The best villains are the ones you love to hate. No one loves a stereotype. Really. Look at Shakespeare. None of his villains are cut and dried. They have their own agendas, and they do very evil things, but in the end, they are only human. Take a look at Richard III for example. All twisted evil, but why?

“I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.”

That’s really all I am asking for: to be human. I just can’t be interesting if I am not human. Even if I am an evil monster, even if I control millions of evil minions, even if I am a mass murderer, or even if I am just a schoolyard bully, and yes, even if I am some weird sort of alien, I am still human. If you prick me, do I not bleed? Why can’t I bleed meaningfully, instead of stereotypically?

TC: So you are saying you don’t want to be an archetype?

Dark Lord: Not at all. Nothing wrong with an archetype. But don’t confuse that with a stereotype. People are comfortable with archetypes, the various character types that permeate our literature. We expect, in the ultimate battle of good against evil that there be a villainous Dark Lord. That’s why we have them. But stereotypes are shortcuts, cardboard cutouts, and the lazy writer’s way out of understanding a character. Nothing wrong with making me a Dark Lord. But make me a specific Dark Lord, with my own personality and my own issues. Then I will be an archetype. But if you can’t tell me apart from a host of other Dark Lords out there, I’m a stereotype.

TC: So, what is it that you are asking your author to do?

Dark Lord: Just give me the same amount of thought as you give your main character. It’s fine to make me evil, but keep me human. Make me more than just Dark Lord #21,403. Use the same character development lists for me as you use for the protagonist. You can even base me on people you know the same way you might your protagonist: what might drive you or someone you know over that line between good and evil? What characteristics of good do you or others have that could get twisted into something hideous, or even just into something twisted?

TC: Wait, I’m not evil… how can I base something evil on me?

Dark Lord: Mwahahaha! I think that is one reason I tend to end up so two-dimensional. Totally evil people are far removed from our own flaws. We might have cracks, but hey, we aren’t totally evil like that character, so that’s ok! People are often afraid to acknowledge their own flaws, their own cracks. Afraid that if they admit to having a bit of the beast in them, the beast will win. That’s human, too. But we all know there is a dark corner in everyone. If you allow your villain to have a bit of the hero inside, and your hero to have a bit of the villain inside, then both characters can connect with the reader on a much deeper level.

TC: Well, I think it is time to free myself from this trap now. Thanks for the long backstory and lecturing while I undid my bonds and let my friends in…

Dark Lord: Eh, well, some conventions are still hard to overcome. But be careful on the way out: my evil minions actually practice aiming and hitting their targets.

Final Poll Results

Fresh air and verbs are good for you: Writing and Summer Vacation for Teen Writers

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

Over the summer, you might want to find or create a writing workshop or writing group. What are writing groups and writing workshops?

Background Image: 826CHI/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

Writing circles and buddies

A writing group (sometimes called a “community” or “circle”) is an informal get-together where writers get together to talk about what they’re writing, to get advice and to share their writing with the group so they can get feedback. Feedback is a reader’s opinion about the writing: what the reader liked, didn’t like, would change, would keep, etc. The purpose of getting feedback is to make your story or poem better, to increase your confidence in your writing skills and to create a personal connection with your readers. Examples of feedback are movie reviews and book reviews, like you see on Amazon, GoodReads and Library Thing. Sometimes the group has a leader who guides the discussion, like a teacher would. Every group is different.

Writers’ circles may be in person or online. Circles may be found at high school or college campuses, bookstores, libraries or community centers. Sometimes groups meet at members’ houses. Some groups require membership (Pennwriters is an example in my area), complete with yearly conventions, monthly meetings and more. Barnes and Noble’s “Writer Within” series is free and meets in their stores once per month, a good option for bringing an adult along (she can browse and give you privacy while you participate in the group). The size of writers’ groups varies. Just because you live in a small town doesn’t mean your local writing groups will be dinky. If it’s the only game in town, it might be huge!

I recommend that young writers look for free groups with minimum posting and writing requirements. Find out if you like meeting with a group before sinking one cent into it. Put your writerly money toward pens, ink cartridges, your own laptop or some technique books.

Chances are good that your local writing group won’t have a lot of people your age unless it’s a group specifically designed for young writers. This can mean a lot of things for you. A good group will let you get comfortable, encourage your participation at your pace and encourage your work. Some writers automatically believe that young writers aren’t good writers. This isn’t true. No matter how much experience you have or how old you are, you can write a great story (or you can write junk). Don’t let anyone in a writing group make you feel that your writing isn’t worth pursuing. You might feel you have to leave a group because of prejudice and that’s fine. That’s not quitting. It’s experimenting. You found one group. You’ll find another. If you can’t find one, make one.

Creating a writing circle

All you need for a writing group is a couple of writers who want to become better writers. Trade files and do some feedback (you can do this online as well as in person). If you have a writing mentor at school (an English teacher, for example), let her know you’d like to create a writing group and ask if she thinks other students would be interested. It might become an extracurricular activity complete with a supervisor. If not, you can get a few leads of who might be interested in getting together a couple of times over the summer (or online) for a writing group.

Before you set up your group, decide how often, if at all, you want to meet or chat. Summer is full of vacations, visiting relatives, stuff like that. The fewer structured get-togethers you have, the greater your chance of success.

Figure in the time and hassle of travel. If you don’t have a way to get to a writing group (or if your friends can’t get to yours), online groups might be a better alternative, even if it’s a group you create.

One way to create an informal online group is to make a Facebook group that’s invitation-only (to keep your work somewhat private; read Facebook’s privacy policy for more information). I suggest you share your work in another way, on a free private message board or via e-mail, but the “meetings” can happen on your group’s wall. You can make a quick, free private forum at sites like proboards.com. You can also create a Tweet Chat by using your own specific hashtag. If you do any of these, invite a TC editor so we can congratulate you on taking the plunge!

For some advice on giving and receiving criticism of your writing, we have articles about those topics. There are more articles online if you search “fiction (or poetry) critique how to.”

Writing alone

If you need some feedback, writing circles and writing buddies are great. But you don’t need anyone else to read your writing. You might feel more at ease keeping your work to yourself right now. Keep practicing the basics. Try new things and if they don’t work, try something new.

Writing books and websites are also essential (and easy) reading. I’ve included a suggested reading list of some books and websites at the end of the article. If you’re feeling bold, you can enter writing contests that give away writing books or bookstore gift credit as prizes and earn your writing books through your writing.

Writers work alone. Even writers who collaborate primarily work by themselves. And not sharing your work doesn’t mean you’re not a writer. You know the definition of a writer? Someone who writes. That’s it. You don’t need to be published. You don’t need to write a certain number of words, pages or lines of poetry.

Stay Motivated

Write for fun. No one writes because it’s a chore. Writing is a passion and a delight. Enjoy it!

Allow “shitty first drafts” (see Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott in our suggested reading list) It’s okay to produce junk. It’s like getting lost to find out where you are. It’s practice. And yes, I used the s-word. Sometimes a word that gets bleeped on TV is the best word for a situation. The entire English language is there for you to use so use it. Pick simple, straightforward words.

Everything you write is worth a second draft. Even if you hate it, that’s okay. It’s practice. No one expects a novice athlete to score on her first time on the field. Don’t be embarrassed by what you write; the best cure for embarrassment is practice and everything you’re writing is practice. Don’t be afraid to fail; failure is subjective anyway.

Writers do not magically know everything once they hit 18. Or 21. Or 30. Or 50. Age means nothing. Publication credits mean nothing. What matters is experience, a writer who writes, who continues to learn and who shares with you what he’s learned without insisting it’s a Great Truth.

At the same time, don’t tune out well-intentioned writing advice. Even blowhards might have a valuable tip you can use. Writers love talking about writing. Come up with a couple of open-ended questions for writers (these can come in handy at writer group meetings). In the book you’re writing, what does your main character want? What poets inspire you? What were the first things you wrote?

Feel free to imitate your favorite writers. Think not only of stories, poems and books but songs, TV shows, movies, vlogs, blogs, anywhere you feel moved by characters, story or other aspects of writing.

Review with writing in mind. Why did you like it or dislike it? What worked? What were your thoughts about the characters or setting? What can you use for your own writing? You can post at sites like GoodReads or start your own blog (or create a category in your existing blog) for your reviews. It’ll be a good way to preserve your thoughts and can inspire you later.

Read a lot. Not just your summer reading lists but for pleasure as well. This article counts. Blogs count. Read news articles, sports recaps, TV reviews, graphic novels, fanfic, anything you can get your eyes on. This can help you learn things like structure, pace and word choice without hitting you over the head. Notice style differences among all the things you read. The copy on the back of a shampoo bottle is different from the “program info” on your TV menu.

Maintain a journal. You can do it online via a blog, which is an easy way to stay organized (set your privacy settings when you begin). You can keep a journal on your computer (consider password-protection for your file). You can also keep a longhand journal. You don’t have to write true stories. Include fiction, poetry, whatever you’re into writing. Write using collages.

Write songs. If it helps, think of yourself as a collector rather than a writer. Collect bits of writing, pieces of inspiration, a sentence or paragraph as the mood strikes. You can piece together later.

Try wild things. The only limit is your imagination. Writing is a creative pursuit. Challenge your creativity! Express yourself and who you are.

Use timers. Fifteen to twenty minutes is a good place to begin. If you find yourself zoning out, you’ll learn to snap back to attention. If you find yourself on a roll, you’ll learn how to leave off in a good place for your next writing session. Try not to stop your session without knowing what will happen next.

Keep an idea file. Keep all your abandoned pieces in it. Jot down writing prompts (check Twitter for free daily writing prompts from a variety of sources).

Eavesdrop. Pull inspiration from what you overhear. A good trick is to go to a busy place and pretend you’re listening to your MP3 player (or listen with the sound low) and write down snippets of what people are saying. You can also write down how they look, their body language, their action, anything that might come in handy for future characters.

How-To Basics

There are a lot of resources out there to help you with your basics, like how to punctuate dialogue or what the parts of a story or poem are called. You’re here because you’re ready to move beyond that.

For stories and poems, you need structure and organization of ideas.

You’ll need a narrative voice. People seem to think a narrator is obvious in fiction but not as obvious in poetry. You don’t have to write poetry as yourself any more than you would fiction. Give yourself the freedom to be someone else on paper.

Keep your dialogue realistic. Read it aloud (or whisper it or mouth it) and think, “Do people talk like this?” Dialogue can be fragmented, interrupting, incomplete and incoherent. The attribution tag “said” is your friend and it doesn’t need an adverb to go with it.

You can set your story anywhere geographically or anywhere in time. Don’t discount your own backyard.

There are lots of kinds of fiction and poetry you can write. Check out our Writer’s Glossary for more on genres (and try the exercises).

You don’t have to finish everything you start. If it’s not going anywhere or doesn’t feel right, shrug it off, put it in the file and start fresh.


Create your own prompts. Set them aside in your idea file or get writing immediately. Trade prompts with a writing buddy or post in your group for everyone to write something based on the prompts.

  • Find five images to use as visual prompts
  • Write or copy five text prompts (like on our calendar)
  • Write five opening lines.
  • Write five end lines.
  • Create characters and build stories or poems around them
  • Write five random lines of dialogue. The more detailed or weird, the better.
  • Make five lists of five things each. Five things you touched the last time you went to a grocery store. Five smells in your school’s hallways. Five things that irritate you when you’re in a crowd. Five people who make you curious. Five jobs you’d like to try.

Getting unstuck

It happens to everyone. If you feel stuck but aren’t ready to quit the piece, here are some things to think of while you work:

  • What happens next?
  • What happens if…?
  • What’s something bad that could happen here?
  • What’s something wild that could happen here?
  • Who could come into the scene?
  • Have a character do the opposite of what you would do.
  • Give your main character a best friend or romantic interest.
  • Use a character from one of your favorite stories. Change the name and a feature or two to make the character fresh. You can change more when you rewrite.
  • Set your story in a different time.
  • End the scene and begin a new one.
  • Write something based on a dream or give your story a dream-like twist.
  • Start with your ending in mind and write towards it.
  • Write in a different place. If you usually write in your room, go to the kitchen or a cafe. If that’s not an option, sit in a different spot or position in the room you usually use.

Now go write something already. Then play outside. Or both.

Suggested reading:

Final Poll Results

Sell First, Write Later? Non-Fiction Book Writing Seems Like Fun!

Absolute Blank

By Faith Watson (fmwrites)

Boy, was I jealous of Julie Powell when I saw the movie Julie & Julia. Writer on the side, loves to cook and eat, in the right place at the right time for her first little blog to become a popular blog, then become a book offer, then a bestseller, then a movie deal. Starring the greatest actress of our time.

I’ll take one of those, please. Yes, the one-hit wonder. That’s fine with me. Non-fiction you say? Mmmm. Even better, maybe. There doesn’t seem to be much of a market for my poetry after all, and I do have a couple of great ideas for non-fiction already brewing. One is handbook for Pilates instruction and the other is a self-help guidebook to personal health and wellness.

I also have this article brewing, the first of at least two to go along with the process of me aiming to become a published author of a non-fiction book. Make that a non-fiction book that sells.

Yes, I absolutely want to write a book in order to sell it; that’s my first established goal. I know making money off my book might be a premature idea. It sure was with all my past creative writing projects. I haven’t seen a cent from those pursuits, but I’m done questioning the desire to make money as a writer now. It seems like non-fiction is calling me to this task so I am going for it.

So, how does one go about writing a non-fiction book that sells?

Background Image: Matt|drift-words/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

Step 1: Research to learn that answer.

Let me tell you what I did, and where I’m at. First, I thought about non-fiction book markets that I’m familiar with and feel I could sell in. Just gut feelings here. I want it to be somewhat easy to write my book. That’s right, I just said I want to make money and I want it to be somewhat easy. I am a businesswoman who works long hours at a physically and mentally demanding job as a fitness studio owner. I’m also writing on the side as a service journalist for an online content provider, delivering simple articles on health and fitness topics for extra money—my fledgling studio hasn’t put me in the black yet. I don’t want my book project to be the death of me. I want it to pay off. I want to be good at writing it, so I can maximize the return on my time investment. These are my demands.

Turns out, being good at writing non-fiction is one of the first conditions of writing a non-fiction book that sells. Lucky me! Intuitively, I’m on the right track. Research tells me I need to have loads of experience, or a special unique perspective, or clear expertise, to write this book and sell it. I believe I do.

My second step was to learn about what makes for a successful journey to non-fiction book publication from the three non-fiction books I bought on the subject. But first,

Step 1.5: Decide to go for it.

In between thinking about what I might write and buying my reference books, I stumbled upon this nugget of information that sent my vision into warp speed: In non-fiction, you don’t write the book first. You write a proposal, and that sells the book. It’s no joke—you sell the book before you write it!

Basically, I’ll have to create a marketing plan in order to sell my book. Woo hoo! It so happens I have a marketing background. I developed brand strategies for large clients and the communications that would support them. So my heart went aflutter. Perfect.

Step 2: Secure reference books to guide the process.

I looked at reviews and picked three highly-rated guides to help me understand winning ways to approach the non-fiction book market. After that it was full speed ahead, consulting the three books, comparing advice and taking notes. Here are the titles:

Wow! Non-fiction seems like fun!

There are a few different approaches and actual proposal outlines offered among these books. In Camenson’s book, she recommends crafting a stellar query letter and sending it simultaneously to several editors or agents at once. The query offers up the full proposal to those interested. Before all that, of course, comes the research that will show up in your proposal, and be used to beef up your query: competitive and similar titles, what makes your book unique in the market, who the target audience is, and more. This is the approach I already imagined.

In Lyon’s book, the same is recommended but with a few more caveats. There’s a lot to be said for the writer who can devote a lot of time to the business of being a writer. For example, going to conferences each year, to hopefully meet editors or agents, knowing other established writers, or being able to talk with someone who can give you a referral to an agent or editor. But for me, this book is pretty much my fourth job. Industry networking isn’t happening. I’m on my own, a little minnow in the Unsolicited Sea.

The idea of finding an agent always sets me back, I must admit. It seems just as hard to get an audience with an agent as with an editor. To me, it looks like an extra set of locked doors to break through. There’s other good stuff in Lyon’s book, but maybe this mindset isn’t the right match for me.

In Whalin’s book, a really strong case is made for finding an agent. I pout. But, at least he provides some direct resources for doing so, even if it is only a listing or association to scour for possibilities. Again, it’s like a double door—do I want to bother with a whole extra layer of researching agents and their clients so I can select which ones to query? No, but maybe I have to. I thought this process seemed more fun than all that.

Finally, I go back and find a better answer in Lyon’s book. She recommends trying to snag an agent only if your market is medium to large. Many non-fiction markets are small, and if your book is a specialty book best suited for a small publisher, an agent isn’t the way to go. This offers me clearer direction.

At the moment, I haven’t yet decided which of my two ideas for non-fiction books I’m talking about here. Both are a great start to being able to craft a solid proposal, but the Pilates instructors’ handbook is suited for a smaller specialty publisher while the self-help wellness guidebook would have more of a mass market appeal. I have to decide which one to work with.

Step 3: Decide on the approach.

For me, this means first picking the book idea I will work with, since I have more than one. They lend themselves to different approaches so I really can’t move forward until I commit to a path. Here’s what I’m choosing from:

  • A) The Pilates Cue Guru: How to Make Magic with the Method is the only handbook for fitness instructors and Pilates teachers that specifically teaches creative ways to effectively cue all the different principles, exercises and goals of the Pilates method. Cuing is vital to the success and enjoyment of mind-body exercise and Pilates in particular, which features core principles of concentration, precision, flow, and more.
  • B) Project Pick One Thing: Rediscovering, Caring For and Honoring Every Bit of Your Beautiful Self is an engaging, accessible health-and-wellness guidebook in an easy-to-reference format that encourages positive lifestyle changes among busy adults interested in self-improvement. It is the first book to offer a customizable approach to taking care of various aspects of body, mind and life in an informal encyclopedic style that is informative but never dry; credible, but not clinical.

I have chosen, for my first attempt to take place this year, to go with A.

I’m just a little deflated by my choice because I’m pretty sure B is the real money-maker of the two, and I’m not going to get on Oprah with choice A. Plus, Project Pick One Thing is the most developed of my ideas, as I have been blogging in that very format for months now, and could clearly demonstrate its direction and my writing style with samples from my posts. However, my blog doesn’t have that many readers at this point, and while I love it and believe in it, I feel that it’s a harder sell.

Remember, I not only want to write a non-fiction book that sells; first, I have to sell the proposal. I have strong credentials and experience as a Pilates instructor and my cuing is bar none (if I do say so myself), which is why I came up with the book idea in the first place. Every other instructor or advanced student I meet confirms my gift in this area. It will be easy to define the size of my potential market and I can personally back up book promotion with published articles, my award-winning Pilates studio, and testimonials.

After perusing my guidebooks and considering the approaches they recommend, I’ve decided to go straight for smaller or specialty publishers. I’ll use Camenson’s and Lyon’s approach to query first, simultaneously (in small batches), and get requests for my proposal. I’ll use a sample query from Lyon’s book (Page 211, Sidebar 14-1) as my template. It works well with my topic, although it is aimed at getting agent representation, so I’ll need to change that aim to getting a request for proposal from an editor.

I want to find eight potential publishers to query, two or three at a time. I’ll query my leading contender within the first batch I send out, with the goal of landing it, or learning from the ‘no.’

The format I’ll use for my proposal will be the one from Whalin’s book (Page 154, Figure 1). Its marketing-esque slant, including the call for a Unique Selling Proposition (USP), which I have already started to do in my overviews of A and B above, feel like the right fit for me.

Step 4: Find Publishers, Query the Editors.

Check back in October for a progress update!

Final Poll Results

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

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Background Image: Becky/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Poll Results