9 Years, 9 Percent: A Look at Toasted Cheese’s Submission, Rejection & Acceptance Rates

Absolute BlankBy Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

Inspired by other journals that do monthly, quarterly, or yearly public posts about their submissions, I did some very rough and dirty math about Toasted Cheese submissions over the last 9 years of our 15-year existence. This includes the last three quarters from 2007 and the first quarter of 2016.

Where did you get this information?

In 2007, I began to use Gmail to help me sort and label my TC email. Anything that comes through with “submission” in the subject line is automatically labeled as a TC submission. That’s one of the reasons we ask that you title your submissions that way.

I also use labels to mark a first-read piece to be rejected or considered for second read. After that, I use another set of labels for a final rejection or acceptance.

For my archive, I have labels for the year a submission was sent and a label for the issue for which the piece was submitted. After that issue is published, the submission is re-labeled for the year in which it was intended to be published. For example, a submission received on November 1, 2015 would be for the March 2016 issue and is filed under “All Subs/2015” and “TC Subs/2016.”

How accurate is this?

It’s not scientific by any means. First of all, these are only my picks, not the picks of TC’s editorial collective. Because these are only my picks, they aren’t TC’s official acceptance and rejection rates. I’m one of the more generous editors. I have more “yes” pieces in my final stack than other editors. Therefore, these numbers probably reflect a higher acceptance rate than TC actually has.

Not everything I choose as a “yes” or a “no” is published or rejected. The information I can access reflects only my personal choices. There are times when a first-read “no” for me is eventually published.

Some writers send their submission to the wrong place. Sometimes they send only to me. Sometimes they send a new submission as a reply to a rejection (those are sent by Beaver). When we manage to catch those, we forward them to the editorial collective even though they’re disqualified. So the overall submission rate may be higher simply because we don’t actually get some intended submissions.

Due to the volume of data I worked with, I’d guess these discrepancies might only reflect a percentage point or two of difference. I feel confident in saying that my personal choices are a fairly accurate reflection of TC’s overall rates of acceptance. When I’ve investigated a month’s or a quarter’s acceptance rate over the years, these numbers fall in line with what I found.


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

Okay, let’s hear it.

We had approximately 4600 regular submissions (not contest entries) in the last nine years. Of all regular Toasted Cheese submissions, 60% are rejected on first read, 13% are disqualified, and 2% are withdrawn before first read. This means 75% of submissions don’t make first cut.

Our shortlist is therefore made of 25% of total submissions. Of those, two-thirds (16% of total submissions) are rejected on second read and one-third (9% of total submissions) are accepted for publication. Of that 9%, some are withdrawn (for example, the piece was simultaneously submitted and accepted elsewhere) while some of the rejected pieces are salvaged by an editor (as an “Editor’s Pick”).

Note: writers can submit up to five poems in a single submission; often we accept only one or two of these. The data here considers any number of poems accepted as an acceptance (e.g. 5/5 poems submitted is an an acceptance, but so is 1/5 poems).

These number run pretty parallel to rates we see month-by-month, quarter-by-quarter, and year-by-year.

Our submission rates have been quite steady: an average of 510 submissions per year (over 40 submissions per month, 10 of which pass through to second read); between 500-620 per year during and before 2011; and 410-496 during and since 2012. We have light months and heavy months. January is traditionally the month we see the most submissions, likely due to New Year’s resolutions. All other months are pretty equal.

As I write this, we have had 174 submissions in 2016. At that rate, Toasted Cheese will receive 525 regular submissions.

So when you hit “send,” you have a 1 in 4 chance of being shortlisted and a 1 in 10 chance of being published in TC. And you’re 100% ahead of all the writers who never click that send button.

If you’d like to see us share more in future about our submission, rejection, and acceptance rates, let us know in the comments.

TC Site Update!

Ta-da! The secret project is unveiled. TC has migrated to WordPress!

With the new design, all the Absolute Blank articles and A Pen In Each Hand exercises will appear on the main page. If you subscribe to our feed, you’ll now get the full articles in your reader.

All the articles have been tagged, so you can easily find all of the articles on a particular topic (e.g. poetry writing) or all of the articles you’ve written for TC (e.g. here’s everything by Baker).

For now, it’s just the main site, not the forums or lit journal (but we plan to update those eventually, too). We’re still tweaking things, so if you notice any issues, please let us know.

Mentor March: Writers Who Inspire Us

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

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

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

Background Image: Suzy Hazelwood (Public Domain)

Ana George (Broker)

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

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

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

Lisa Olson (Boots)

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

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

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

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

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

Erin Bellavia (Billiard)

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

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

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

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

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

Amanda Marlowe (Bellman)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

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

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

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

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

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

Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

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

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

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

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

Final Poll Results

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

Fifth Anniversary Party: Q & A with the Editors

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

Next month, Toasted Cheese marks its fifth anniversary. To start the celebration early, the editors had a virtual get-together to answer some of your most burning questions.

Background Image: Shai Barzilay/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Q: Whatever inspired you to use Carroll’s poem as the backdrop for this wonderful online community? And just what the heck is a Bandersnatch!? Is it akin to a Jubjub?

Bellman: Well, we called ourselves Snarkers, and I’d always strongly associated the word Snark with the poem, which I tried to memorize at one point in my life. (I think I made it through Fit The Third, but no one would ever let me get terribly far in trying to recite it for some reason, so it was thankless work.) It seemed like a natural match.

Baker: In fourth grade, we were given the assignment to draw one of the characters from “Jabberwocky” and I chose the Bandersnatch. It looked a lot like Grimace from McDonalds. I don’t think it has anything to do with Jubjubs, which are birds, I believe. I also freely admit to being the one who coined “snark” as our code for bad writing. A snark is a kind of half-snort, half-huff with an eye roll—for flair.

Q: The “B names” the editors use as aliases are all taken from the poem. How did you chose your B-name (assuming you use one) and do you think it suits you?

Beaver: Well, the Beaver is Canada’s national animal, so it is apropos. Also, I can do a good beaver impression. And no, that is not obscene. I just have big front teeth. Okay, why does even that sound indecent?

Bellman: Since I got us the web site and was sort of the “ringleader,” I was the titular leader of the expedition. Which meant everyone else did more of the real work 😉 Besides, I was perplexed and distressed when the bowsprit got mixed up with the rudder…

Boots: “Boots” to me sounded like a cat and I like cats, so I chose it. It also reminded me of the classic song, “These Boots Are Made For Walking” and Nancy Sinatra, so it was a good fit all around. Yeah, it suits me. I found a great picture titled “Boots” of some slinky woman in big tall boots with high heels, and I love it. But, I still kind of think of cats when I hear it.

Baker: I really, really wanted my B-name (Baker) for two reasons. One was that it was the surname of a main character in the book I’d recently finished. The other was that I actually do bake quite a bit. I’d bake more if my husband weren’t so strong-willed about eating sweets. Baking is a good stress reliever for me.

Q: Do you call each other by your B-names?

Boots: Only in TC forums, really. I use their original online names, the ones they were when I met them, because it’s how I think of them. Guess I’m old and unchangeable.

Baker: The only people I really call by their B-names are Boots and Beaver and only in the context of TC. I’m like Boots in that I use their “real” names more often, even for myself.

Q: Which editors have met in real life?

Beaver: I’ve met Boots!

Boots: Beaver came to visit me in Portland, OR. and stayed a couple of nights while attending a writing “seminar.” She knows why that’s in quotes. She didn’t have trouble with the pets or the kids or even the husband. She and I did dueling chats and she logged on from my house to tag-team the rest of the TC gang. Sadly, I couldn’t show her much of Portland because I don’t know where anything is and I don’t drive! We went to Powell’s and went out for a drink with the “teacher” of the “seminar” to a school that’s now a high-end jazz bar (no joke). We still had fun.

Bellman: I met the Barrister once. It was fun! I was hoping to meet Billiard in January, but events intervened and it is not to be. Maybe next year, Billiard?

Baker: Billiard and I have met twice, both times in my town. I have a photo to prove it, taken in a restaurant which no longer exists. So I guess we win.

Ana: Haven’t met any of them in real life. Should fix that.

Q: Let us in on your favorite in-joke among the editors.

Ana: I doubt we should let them in on the all-time dreck list, but it kind of amuses me.

Beaver: That has to be either “bummer” (the final word of a story told from the PoV of a rabbit scooped up by hawk then dropped splat onto a highway) or “cough cough THUD” (description of narrator’s boss dying).

Bellman: cough, cough, thud.

Boots: My favorite is actually an icon. The little freakish pink icon you probably always wondered about on our icon list is an “in” joke. We call it the “paramecium”. What is it? It’s a HUG. It was someone’s idea of a nice, soft, cuddly hug. It looks like someone flattened a bear with a steamroller.

Billiard: Vampire cop comes to mind, as does “magic wand.”

Baker: Mine would be the butterknife. I forget exactly what the discussion was but it was during a live chat/class on the site where we’d all met (and coined “snarking” etc.). Someone was telling a “suspenseful” story that was just laughable and there was a prediction that the MC would use a butterknife to defend herself against the predictable intruder in her house. Sure enough, there was the butterknife. I said “aloud,” “Is she going to spread him to death?” Somehow it got all mixed up with our vampiric in-jokes and we now believe that you can use a butterknife to kill a vampire. There are a lot we have a vampires. The mere mention of a vampire can send us off on giggle fits.

Q: What are some of your favorite stories by other editors?

Beaver: I found this question really hard to answer because, like Baker says below, the reason I connected with my co-editors in the first place is because with each of them, there was something in their writing that clicked with me. So, picking one thing is hard. I am impressed by all of my co-editors who have completed novels.

Ana: One of Baker’s erotic stories made Best Women’s Erotica a couple years ago.

Bellman: TC 1-1. Pick one at random that isn’t mine…

Boots: Baker’s Whited Sepulchers tops my list. I read it in about 3 days, and it’s a full blown novel. It’s beautiful, interesting, and fun. Beaver’s articles rock and her recent one about copyright laws rocked my universe and saved my cookies in a sticky situation.

Billiard: Tough one. I think all of the TC editors are amazingly talented writers.

Baker: There’s Boots’s naked cooking story, which has to be on the list. Beaver’s silver balloons story and her work about Riley and well just about everything really. Billiard’s is the only chick lit I’ve ever liked b/c it’s actually about something; I like best the drafts she sends for feedback because I like to watch her process. Ana’s piece “How Long is the Night?” has stuck with me over the years because it was inventive and evokes such a feeling of comfort and gives a sense of character. When it all comes down to it, I think my softest spot is for Bellman’s comic mystery short story “From Soup To Nuts,” a printout of which I recently found in my files. It was the first online short story I ever commented on because I felt so moved by the quality of the writing, the structure, the humor, etc. After I commented, Bellman dropped me an e-mail thanking me for the comments and the rest, as they say, is history (and that was almost six years ago!).

Q: What’s your favorite piece of unpublished writing (your own)?

Beaver: I do have a soft spot for So Far Away… The killing a wild pig scene is a classic! 😉

Bellman: A fairy tale parody/parable I’ve been working on for about 15 years. I’ll finish it eventually!

Ana: I have this unfinished novel swirling around in my head…

Boots: “Photographs,” a piece of creative non-fiction based on my experiences with some pictures. It’s probably the best thing I’ve ever written because it’s memorable, short, and says a lot about the author herself. I submitted it to Writer’s Digest Short Story Contest, but it didn’t win anything. Haven’t really found a venue for it beyond that.

Billiard: I wrote a piece inspired by one of my favorite songs. It (the story) is called “Dissonance.” The song is called “Black Monday” and is achingly, heart-wrenchingly sad. I think the story does it a tiny bit of justice. Now, if I could only find someone to publish it…

Baker: I have a few short stories tucked away here and there but I think my favorite is probably the piece I’ve worked on most recently. It’s a novella, possibly a novel, with the working title Reasons For Moving. I usually just call it “Seth,” same as I call Beav’s So Far Away “Riley.”

Q: When did you know you had to be a writer?

Baker: I had written stories and poems for pleasure since I was in elementary school. I liked the idea of being able to entertain people without having to be in the room. I also enjoyed reading my stuff aloud, when invited. I never thought I’d write as anything more than a diversion. When I was a freshman in college, I had to write a kind of character profile for the character I was playing in my final scene in my actor’s studio course. I got a “10+” on the paper and my theater teacher commented, “Will you continue to write?” She also said, in front of the class, that she called a friend of hers to read the paper aloud because she thought it was so funny. I thought, “Maybe I should continue to write. Or she’s saying ‘please stop acting.’ One or the other.” So I switched to an English major and then went on to take more writing courses and I ended up majoring in creative writing.

Boots: I remember writing my first Nancy Drew-type “novel” in the 7th grade. I think that was my first honest attempt at anything truly literary. I know I wanted to be one before, but I was SURE I would be in the 7th grade.

Beaver: I decided that I wanted to be a writer when I was 12 (I actually wrote it down in my journal), but it’d been simmering for about a year, since I’d received some gushing praise for a poem I’d written. I knew that I was a writer when I was 28, when I made a conscious decision to get serious about writing after a long hiatus and a difficult year. The very first thing I wrote in the sketchbook that I turned into a notebook on the fly was: “I am a writer.”

Ana: I started writing in my 40s, in part as a way of finding myself by trying on other characters I’d invented.

Billiard: Probably in grade school, when I started writing a novel about being stranded in the ocean… my little brother had one of those tent-tops for his bed (remember those?) and I used to pretend I was in a boat by myself out on the ocean. And I started writing my little stories about it in a composition notebook. I have no idea what happened to that notebook.

Bellman: I think I was in 1st grade. I’d just published my first book, about my dog. The teacher published it for me. In third grade I started my own comic strip called “Wormy Apples” about worms in apples that told each other jokes.

Q: Do you do any other creative work?

Beaver: I used to do a lot of arty/crafty stuff, but not so much anymore. I choose to put that energy into writing. I do like photography. And I cook, which yes, is creative. I’m not a stick-to-the-recipe type person.

Baker: I bake. I knit. I scrapbook. I decorate. I webdesign. I take photos. I do whatever I can that has any element of creativity to it.

Ana: I love singing Renaissance Polyphony.

Bellman: I write songs occasionally, does that count?

Boots: I also make graphics in Paint Shop Pro. What I mostly do with it is create things FROM things, because I can’t draw a lick. But I do webset design (See all the stuff around here? That was me.) and photo alterations and awards and… whatever comes to mind. I’ve been doing a lot of icons lately based on Whedon characters (Buffy, Angel & Firefly) and whatever else strikes me as needing to be an icon. I also do some minor photography, mostly of the flowers in my yard and area.

Q: Do you write or edit as part of your real-life job?

Bellman: My job title is editor, actually. I both write and edit. Almost all the time. TC is rather like a busman’s honeymoon.

Billiard: Not currently, but I used to. I worked in journalism for several years.

Boots: Sadly, not even a little right now. However, I’m hoping for a promotion. Which means mostly MEMO writing, but will include some informational writing as well. Of course, TC is one of my real-life jobs, so I do edit all the time!

Q: If you went to college, what was your major?

Beaver: Biology. Though I was originally a creative writing major.

Ana: Physics and Math.

Bellman: Physics.

Boots: I went to technical college and my major was Travel & Tourism. See how much that helped in my current vocation of cellular phone customer service? Man, I’m glad I went and did that.

Billiard: Communication arts, with a minor in writing.

Baker: English, with a creative writing emphasis, and a minor in American history.

Q: Is editing satisfying?

Beaver: Yes. Like Billiard, I am amazed by the quality of the submissions. Yes, there’s a lot of crap in the slush pile, but at least once a quarter, we’ll get a submission that simply makes me go: “Wow.” And that makes wading through the slush worthwhile.

Billiard: Yes. I am constantly amazed and gratified at the quality of submissions to TC.

Bellman: For the most part, yes.

Ana: Mostly, yes. The babysitting aspects, not so much.

Boots: Editing your own work is always satisfying. Editing others can be kind of touch and go. It’s great to see when someone’s used at least some of your advice to strengthen their story. Or, when they’ve learned from some simple mistake you pointed out and don’t do it again in the next story they write.

It sucks when you see someone repeat the same simple mistake over and over from story to story. It’s worse when they don’t seem to understand why it’s a mistake and why they can’t choose to do it that way. Why they aren’t instantly qualified to make a million grammar mistakes or break writing and publication rules before they’ve been published.

Baker: It can be very satisfying, especially when someone sends something fantastic your way and even more so if the person has never been published. I love TC being someone’s first publication credit. I’m also very proud of the quality of work we get. I feel like TC is a strong writing credit to have in one’s portfolio. It’s also satisfying when you comment on a story and you see a later draft and your suggestion was used. I just proofread a piece by Billiard and saw where she’d used one of my suggestions and it felt great. It never gets old.

Q: What will make you stop reading a submission?

Beaver: Bad grammar/spelling/etc.—not typos, I’m not going to penalize anyone for a typo—but when a writer repeatedly makes the same error, it shows me that s/he doesn’t recognize it as a mistake. An implausible plot and/or one that I’ve seen a hundred times. Uninteresting characters. A story that doesn’t have a point, or degenerates into a rant, or that is near-incomprehensible because either the writing isn’t very good or the writer is trying too hard to be “deep.”

Ana: Lots of typos or grammatical errors will sometimes annoy me to the point that I stop reading. Also, if the piece fails to some to some kind of a point or at least introduce an interesting character in the first 10% or so of its length, I’m outta there. Conversely, interesting characters or ideas will keep me there. Another pet peeve: special effects that don’t come through in the e-mail or whatever version I’m reading (like, for example, Microsoft quote and em-dashes). Not every editor has or can run Microsoftware. Use standards (like pure ASCII).

Bellman: One of the main reasons I stop reading is eye fatigue. If a paragraph goes on for too long, my eyes hurt trying to read it. I’m also turned off by things that sound like catalogue descriptions and excessive exposition. I tend to skip over that kind of thing.

Boots: A poorly written and misspelled cover. We don’t ask for a lot in our covers, but a little professionalism goes a long way. If you’ve got bad sentences and misspelled words in the cover, the rest of the story can not be good. It’s very telling and will stop me from reading before I even reach the story itself.

Baker: A full name turns me off, like “Jane Smith sat in the doctor’s office…” So does a “police blotter” description: “Jane arranged her auburn hair and blinked her marine-blue eyes as she rose to her full height of five foot three inches tall.” A good or bad cover letter can also affect my reading of a story.

Q: What will make you keep reading a submission?

Beaver: Wanting to know what happens next. Interesting characters or premise. Writing that demonstrates a mastery of technique, that the writer actually reads, works at his/her craft, etc. If it’s a pleasure to read, regardless of what it’s about or where it’s going, I’ll keep reading.

Bellman: I keep reading if I’m emotionally engaged right away. You have to make me care what happens next. Stories are most memorable when they are really good, or when they are really horrid. The really good ones stick around as haunting memories, and the really bad ones stick around as in-jokes.

Boots: What keeps me reading is the first paragraph. If your first paragraph is compelling, I keep reading. If I’m bored by over explanations or backstory, confused by poor grammar, yawning from technobabble, or wondering when the next good TV show comes on, you’re done. Remember the first paragraph hits the reader over the head with a club so you can drag them off to your cave. Take me to your cave.

Baker: Good dialogue can keep me reading a story with mediocre prose aspects. I also like to be shown something new or unexpected. It really all comes down to character. Is this someone I want to follow through this adventure?

Ana: I really like strong or memorable characters.

Q: How do you get the ideas for the Absolute Blank articles you’ve written? Are you working on any right now?

Boots: A lot of my ideas come from editing the work of others. I see a lot of the same mistakes and think, “Oh, good idea for an article.” No, I’m not currently working on one. I’m currently working on having an idea for an article, which is… not working on one.

Bellman: I write about the things I struggle with most, or the things I do best. I should probably be working on one right now, but November just ended…

Beaver: I just keep my eyes open for ideas at all times, and when something strikes me as a possibility, I jot the idea down. Nothing at the moment. Just finished one with Baker (November).

Billiard: Not currently working on anything, and I usually get my ideas by divine inspiration. 😉

Baker: I usually get ideas from other articles I read or from postings on our forums (of questions, stories, whatever) or the ideas just come to me. I’m not currently working on any but I’m thinking of doing on on dialect in 2006.

Q: How did you come up with the ideas for your contests? How do you decide on the topics?

Ana: The latest Three Cheers contest we kicked around for a bit before we came up with the play-within-a-play theme. Seemed intriguing at the time, and a number of entries did really interesting things with it.

Boots: I get ideas from everywhere, really. Things I saw, things I heard, things I watched on TV, whatever and whenever. I write a lot of random stuff down as I think of it or overhear conversations or see it happening. Makes good fodder when you need it. I submit several ideas to the group that will be editing and they submit several, then we vote. Pretty democratic, but it works well and there haven’t been any fistfights I’m aware of.

Beaver: I got the idea to run AMT as a creative non-fiction contest because some of the best submissions TC had received were CNF. It’s something I like to read, and it gave us some variety in the contests. The topics—like AB articles, it’s just something I keep simmering at the back of my mind, and when I run across something I think will work, I jot it down. I try to keep them summer-related.

Baker: Dead of Winter was my baby. We were thinking about running a contest so I think we were all brainstorming possiblities. There are many good horror contests that close October 31, before anyone’s really in the Halloween mood. The phrase “dead of winter” came to mind and I thought it would be fun to open a horror or suspense story contest at that time of year and set the deadline on the shortest day of the year. The topics are fun to come up with. For DOW, I usually find inspiration in something I’ve read. I think, “I’d like to read more like this” so I set it as a DOW topic to get more stories. I think about possible DOW topics a little too much; I may have next year’s ready already.

Q: What’s your favorite section/aspect of Toasted Cheese?

Beaver: The Literary Journal and Absolute Blank.

Baker: If, for some reason, we had to get rid of all but one part of TC, I would keep the e-zine, including the contests. I enjoy reading submissions and giving people the opportunity to be published. I also like seeing the diversity of writing in our submissions, from beginners to those who’ve written for years. You can’t always tell which is which just from the submission.

Ana: I love the impromptu prompted writing. I’m always amazed at what comes out of my head.

Bellman: The forums.

Boots: I love Mustard & Cress—our “Resources” area. I recommend it to everyone and use it everywhere for everything writerly. Someone will ask me, “Know a good site for names?” and I can instantly say, “I know at least six, let me point you to them.” The other best thing is the forums’ “View Posts Since Last Visit” feature, which shows everything since my last actual visit and catches me up all around the TC forums in one blessed moment.

Q: Tell us about what you’re writing now and about the last creative writing you’ve done.

Ana: At the moment I’m involved in a NaNoWriMo novel (National Novel Writing Month: you write a 50k word novel in November). It’s a rewrite of a cool idea I started on 5 years ago, which stalled. Low-tech scifi, I suppose you could call it.

Baker: The last creative writing I did was on the aforementioned novella, in March. I had a few false starts on short stories but couldn’t get into writing them. I write a blog entry (or two or ten) about five days a week. I co-wrote the November AB with Beaver, our first collaborative project believe it or not. I also wrote the December Snark Zone, which is about how I never have time to write.

Beaver: I just finished NaNoWriMo for the second year in a row. My current writing project is of a more academic nature, but I’m kind of fired up about it. Because I’m geeky that way.

Bellman: Just finished a children’s fantasy for NaNoWriMo. Next is going to be a series for younger children, and lots and lots and lots of editing on the NaNo project.

Boots: I just finished, and won, NaNoWriMo’s 50,000 words in a month challenge. I wrote my 50k on a story I based off a Greek myth about Amazons. The myth is about a Queen of the Amazons named Lysippe who had a son. The son was favored by Athena, but Aphrodite wanted him for herself. He refused her, and she cursed him to be in love with only his own mother. Unable to bear the humiliation of it, he drowned himself in the river. Artemis tells Lysippe that the land is now cursed and she must take her Amazons and find a new homeland. My story is the journey of the Amazons to thier new homeland, from the point of view of thier chief healer. (whew) So, that’s the last thing I did… and that I’m still working on. 50k was maybe half. Guess I just need one more month! (heh).

Final Poll Results

Putting It All Together: An Absolute Blank Retrospective

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

Toasted Cheese celebrates its 4th anniversary on January 18th. In honor of that occasion, I thought it would be a good time to take another look at the Absolute Blank articles of the last four years and put them all together in a way that makes searching for an article on a particular topic easy to find.

Background Image: Daša|dashsinclair/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

We kick off our retrospective with a quiz of sorts. Do you ever wonder if you really are a writer or perhaps what kind of a writer you are? Take a few minutes and find your writing style—or styles. This quiz pokes a little fun at the foibles that every writer exhibits to some extent. The good news is that the flip side to every flaw is an asset that a writer can use to his or her advantage.

Want to write, but not sure where to start? Here are some suggestions for beginners. When starting out, first and foremost, write because you must, not because of dreams of fame or fortune. But even if you’re not earning a living from your writing, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t respect yourself as a writer.

If you’ve long dreamed of writing, and have finally carved out the time and space to do so, you may find yourself at a loss for material when you actually sit down to write. What can you write about? Why anything at all. Write about what you know or write about what you don’t know—or anything in between. The first draft is all about putting words on paper—it doesn’t have to be perfect.

Remember starting is hard and blocks happen. We all procrastinate. You can overcome those obstacles by setting realistic goals. And when you meet a goal, don’t forget to reward yourself!

If the idea of writing a story, poem, or article is too daunting to begin with, try something less intimidating: journaling, blogging, or fan fiction are all great ways to get your creativity flowing without the pressure of having to finish something.

If you’ve decided to try your hand at a story or novel, you’ll need to come up with some characters and give those characters names. You’ll also need to decide whose point of view you’re going to write from. Your characters will need to talk to each other. If you’re writing a fantasy story, you may need to create a language.

Your characters will also need a place to live, real or imagined. Description can be difficult—too much? too little?—especially when it comes to those pesky sex scenes. Keep going! Eventually you’ll reach the ending.

Or not. Have trouble finishing the stories you start? If you need a “gentle nudge” in that direction, or have just always dreamed of writing a novel, but never attempted it, why not join thousands of other crazy writers in November and get a novel under your belt in one month or less.

If fiction isn’t your thing, you can write about your life experiences, pick up some freelance assignments, or turn an area of expertise into a book.

If you keep at it, one thing’s guaranteed: eventually you’ll reach the end of something. Maybe a story, an article, a poem, or yes, perhaps even a book.

Yay! Awesome. Way to go. You rawk! Stick your work in a drawer (literal or metaphorical) and take some time to celebrate.

Okay, finished celebrating? Great. ‘Cause you’re not done yet. Now you’ve got your first draft down, it’s time for some editing. Start by cleaning up your grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Think you’re finished? Step back and look at the big picture. Does it sound like you? Have you picked the right words? Does it flow?

Once you’ve done all you can do, it’s time to let someone else have a stab at it. While he or she is going over your work with a fine-toothed comb, don’t forget to reciprocate.

While you can submit stories, poems, and articles as-is with just a brief cover letter as an introduction, if you’ve finished a novel and are ready to look for an agent, you’ll need a query letter and a synopsis. Beware, the query process can be wearying. Expect rejection and don’t take it personally—all writers go through it.

If you want a break from the standard submission process, try entering a contest.

Writing can be a solitary, inward-looking activity. Don’t forget to look outward occasionally. Writing conferences can be sources of inspiration, particularly if you get to meet a favorite author. Talking to published authors can give you perspective on the process. If a conference isn’t in your near future, don’t be afraid to contact a favorite author and strike up a conversation—many have e-mail addresses or other contact information on their websites.

Let us know what kinds of articles you’d like to see here in the future and keep on writing!

Final Poll Results