Monday, December 28, 2009

Six Questions for Stephanie Lenz, Founding Editor, Toasted Cheese

The mission of Toasted Cheese "is to provide a place where writers can get honest feedback on their work and honest information about issues important to writers." The site publishes flash fiction, fiction, creative non-fiction, and poetry. Read the complete guidelines here.

SQF: What are the top three things you look for in a story and why?

SL: It might seem simple, but one main thing I look for in a story is a beginning, middle and end. More often in our contests than in our regular submissions, we get stories with structure and pace that could be improved (or is non-existent). It feels like the writer does a word count, sees she’s getting close to the max, and just stops the story or tacks on an ending.

Another thing I look for is a strong voice. A story with characters that aren’t fully realized, dialogue that’s not quite plausible, or a setting that’s just a little off, can be redeemed when the voice works. Voice also speaks to an editor from the first word. If your fantastic character doesn’t appear until the second paragraph, you can rely on your voice to bring the reader to that paragraph. This is also true in poetry and creative non-fiction.

What makes a story stick with me is a clear visual created by the author. I might be washing dishes hours later and start thinking about a submission I read earlier. So as I read a story, I like to watch the action unfold and watch the characters change. If I go along on a memorable journey with a character, I’m likely to add his story to my “yes” pile. In fact, I’ve retrieved submissions from my “pass” folder to my “consider” folder based on how memorable the story is.

SQF: What are the top three reasons a story is rejected, other than not fitting into your answers to question one and why?

SL: One easy way to keep your submission from being rejected is to follow the submission guidelines. For example, we ask that authors use a specific subject line depending on what the submission is (fiction, flash, poetry or CNF), all with “submission” in it. The word “submission” triggers a filter that puts your story into our reading queue. Without it, it’s likely your story will go into a spam folder and never be seen. Sending to the right address is important as well. Sometimes people send a story to a specific editor, like me, rather than to our submissions e-mail address. Since we edit as a group, all editors need to see the story and sending to one editor to “skip the queue” is a bad idea.

Another reason I find myself putting a story in the “no” pile is that the idea is too big for short fiction (this also happens with our poetry submissions). Specificity is your friend. Write about a moment or a series of moments. Use your word count to get in close and tell a better story, not to stay on the surface and tell more story. If you feel uncomfortable diving deeper, I’d take that as a sign that there’s something good hiding in there.

Sometimes I reject a story based on my personal taste. That’s one of the great things about editing as a collective. The story may still be printed in Toasted Cheese because every other editor may love it. Just because a story is rejected by one editor doesn’t mean there’s not another editor out there who won’t fall all over himself to publish it.

SQF: What common mistakes do you encounter that turn you off to a story?

SL: A lack of proofreading is a turn-off. I understand a few typos but when it looks like a story was rushed to my inbox, it’s usually indicative of poor overall content. We do allow more flexibility with submissions for our 48-hour contests, Three Cheers and a Tiger, since we prefer authors use those hours to write rather than edit. For our other contests (A Midsummer Tale, open May 1-June 21/22 and Dead of Winter, open November 1 to December 21/22) and regular submissions, we expect submissions to be technically good. In fact, when I judge stories for Dead of Winter, I use a point system and technical errors count against an entry.

It also turns me off when the e-mail is addressed to another journal, copied to several journals (we don’t allow simultaneous submissions), only one of our editors (myself included), or has no cover letter. I might not reject a submission based on these things but it doesn’t work in an author’s favor either.

SQF: Do you provide comments when you reject a story?

SL: We don’t provide comments on rejected stories or poems; but if a story is close, or just not quite a fit for Toasted Cheese, we do ask that the author submit another piece of work. We don’t send these requests very often so if a writer receives one, she should know it’s genuine.

We do have password-protected feedback forums, frequented by our editors, editors of other journals and writers. Our writing community is free to join, has no posting requirements and doesn’t spam or share your e-mail address. If anyone wants feedback or comments on a story, he’s more than welcome to post that story to the forum.

SQF: I read a comment by one editor who said she keeps a blacklist of authors who respond to a rejection in a less than professional manner. I'm sure you know what I mean. What do you want authors to know about the stories you reject and how authors should respond? Along this same idea, do you mind if authors reply with polite questions about the comments they receive?

SL: We have gotten nice letters from authors whose stories we’ve rejected, and we don’t mind those in the least. Sending a nastygram to a journal that’s rejected your work is never a good idea. As a writer who’s had her share of rejections, I know where that’s coming from. You’re better off sending that rejected piece to another journal and spending your writing time working on something new.

We do keep a “blacklist,” and I block people who send us particularly nasty e-mails. In my experience, the authors who write nasty notes in reply to a rejection don’t have the quality of work we would consider. It always makes me want to suggest they work on their craft and join a writing community to learn how to accept critique and rejection. I’ve also noticed that people who write impolite notes after a rejection seem to think they are being rejected, not that the submission is rejected. In any case the only person who can solve the situation is the author himself, not the editor, agent or publisher.

If someone posts a rejected story on a forum, the editors are among those who reply, offer feedback, ask questions, etc. In that case, an open discussion in which the author participates is beneficial to everyone. It has happened where an author has posted a story and asked, “Why was this rejected?” Members of Toasted Cheese make suggestions about what might have landed the story in the reject pile. Our purpose is to make everyone’s writing better. We want you to get published, if that’s what you want for your work.

It amuses me when we get a rude note in reply to a rejection due to disqualification (not following our basic submission guidelines). The author clearly hasn’t read our guidelines, and then blames us for that. If a story is rejected, the author is free to resubmit the following reading period. So sending a nasty note gets you blacklisted when you might have been published instead.

The best response to a rejection is to send a better submission. We have seen rewritten stories submitted and a new draft is always given fresh consideration. A different piece from an author whose work has been rejected is also always welcome.

SQF: What one question on this topic do you wish I'd asked that I didn't? And how would you answer it?

SL: What’s the easiest way to put your submission ahead of 25% of the submissions a journal or contest receives?

Answer: Follow the directions/guidelines. Write well and you’re ahead of at least half the submissions we receive.

Fewer than 25% of the submissions we receive make our first cut. Those that do are written by authors who have followed our submission guidelines and have written something we find appealing. If someone makes the first cut at Toasted Cheese (which we do at the beginning of every month; our rotating submission periods are three months long), they should consider submitting to us again, whether they make the final cut or not.

Maybe also: What do you love about editing a literary journal?

Answer: Reading a cover letter that includes the phrase “this is my first submission” or “I have never been published” and then reading excellent work as the submission. That thrill is worth all the nastygrams. ;)

Thank you, Stephanie. We all appreciate you taking time from your busy schedule to participate in this project.

NEXT POST: 1/4/10 -- Six Questions for Jason Jordan, Editor-in-Chief, decomP


  1. Terrific interview, Jim. Thanks for the great information. Stephanie, I think every new writer dreams of invoking that feeling in an editor. I'm hoping we'll see a lot more of that in 2010!
    Happy New Year

  2. Thanks, Jessi. I'm glad you found Stephanie's comments helpful.