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How Literary Journal Publishing Built My Career
Author reflects on her time studying and targeting lit mags
Welcome to our weekly column offering perspectives on lit mag publishing, with contributions from readers, writers and editors around the world.
I never had to query an agent. Agents queried me five times over four years before a young editor at Simon & Schuster read my work and connected me with two other top agents, one of whom helped me sell my book to a Big 5 publisher within six months. I know, I know: emerging writers shouldn’t put too much stock in the advice of people like me, because a lucky break is hard to replicate. But I maintain that hard work and publishing strategy put me in places luck tended to lurk.
So let me share what I learned about building a career through literary journal publishing.
When I left my job in public health in 2012 to pursue an MFA at the University of Arizona, I didn’t know much about the literary journal landscape, but I was already dedicated to submitting. Six years earlier, a mentor in my undergraduate creative writing program had advised me to submit my work to college-student-only contests, suggesting that early accolades (while I was a “big fish in a little pond”) might get me in the habit and make me more resilient to rejection. I arrived at grad school with a bunch of undergrad lit mag publications, rejections for a novella, a few poems and a flash fiction piece published in Camas, and an Honorable Mention in the A Room of Her Own Foundation’s short nonfiction contest—venues I’d mostly found through random internet searches.
The nonfiction professors at U of A became my first structured “portal” into the publishing world. As I wrote and revised weird essays for their assignments (emulating Rick Moody’s hermit crab “Primary Sources,” for instance, or playing with collage and braiding for the first time), I’d shoot them quick emails asking, “Who publishes this kind of stuff?”
Although in a few cases I submitted to the journals my professors recommended without reading them (cringe; I know!!), mostly I tracked them down. Ninth Letter, Creative Nonfiction, Passages North. I hadn’t heard of many of them, but the University of Arizona has a world-class Poetry Center with shelves of journals. Some I eventually snagged at the AWP Conference Bookfair, for cheap or free; others I received by submitting to contests offering an automatic subscription.
Every once in a while, I’d spend an evening on the couch at home reading journals cover-to-cover. I put down issues that bored me or journals that didn’t seem right for my work. I scanned essays I loved into files on my computer for use in teaching (this became my eventual “secret sauce” as a teacher: great essays no one else knew). I looked at issues in which my grad school peers published, to understand where writers I knew fit in the mix.
Over time, I began reading only nonfiction in journals, to speed up my “screening” process.
In this way, I got an actual, visceral sense for when something was “a Gulf Coast essay” or a “Black Warrior Review essay.” During the same years, I read submissions for the Sonoran Review, and began to see how aesthetics could shift at grad-student-run publications but remain stable somewhere with a paid editor at the helm.
I also followed the advice of my “literary elders” and began reading The Best American Essays every year to see which publications made regular appearances on the “Notables” list in the back—and to notice what essays were landing in the front. I knew that it would be impossible—and stupid—to focus on writing essays that didn’t feel authentic to me, just because they fit in a certain publication. But as I looked up the contests well-known writers had won early in their careers, I understood that once you develop your craft, it’s not about publishing just anywhere—it’s about finding the right home for your work. I still submitted simultaneously, but my lists became carefully curated. I took essays that weren’t landing back to the drawing board, revising mercilessly, asking my grad school friends and professors to tell me what wasn’t working— sometimes following my vague sense that a particular essay was ready to rest in peace.
It’s not about publishing just anywhere—it’s about finding the right home for your work.
The first agent who reached out to me had nothing to do with a literary journal. During my second-to-last semester in my MFA program, I raised nearly $17,000 on Kickstarter for what would become my first book Lightning Flowers (then titled Mountains In My Body). For a year I’d been applying to every graduate school grant available, seeking funds to do primary source research at a particular mine in Madagascar. After committees repeatedly didn’t find my project viable, I snapped—and found another way to gain the funds I needed to move forward.
The agent who reached out in the wake of my success seemed immediately like a poor fit—he was a junior agent who mostly represented books of a different genre. But the experience tutored me in the fact that a certain enterprising type of agent is paying attention, watching for talent in venues most of us don’t think of. A mentor surmised that 286 people rallying behind my book project—and my own willingness to ask publicly for support—bode well for both my being able to finish a book and for my future publicity stamina.
The second agent who reached out, a year later, read my essay “Shock to the Heart: Or, A Primer on the Practical Applications of Electricity” in The Colorado Review. It was a braided essay placed in a publication I knew sometimes took on unconventional structures, which I knew had a paid editor maintaining the aesthetic. Agent #2, the President of a boutique agency based in Boston, saw that my bio mentioned a memoir-in-progress, and we hopped on the phone to talk. Ultimately, I didn’t feel ready—I didn’t know enough about my book’s structure, and hadn’t built a proposal—but I kept his information.
In the final months of my MFA, I was polishing an essay called “In Praise of Contempt” for my thesis when I realized it was an Iowa Review piece. My colleague Dave Mondy had been their contest’s nonfiction finalist the year before, putting it on my radar—so I knew submissions ran January 1-31 each year.
Between Dave’s essay and the other issues I’d pored over, I understood that The Iowa Review liked works framed by narrative, not overly researchy but culturally relevant—essayistically bold in their ideas. “In Praise of Contempt” is about having sex with a married man I didn’t really like—a manifesto about our right to sexual pleasure, even within a chronically single life. Edgy and a little explicit, it was guaranteed to make certain people uncomfortable, and other people outright dislike me. This essay wouldn’t be for everyone.
But when I saw the upcoming Iowa Review contest judge was Wayne Koestenbaum—a gay man who writes about sex—a smile broke across my face. It’s usually a mistake to assume you can predict judges’ tastes—but I suspected he wouldn’t reject the premise of the essay.
Something in me knew I would win. Five months later, I did.
The impact from winning the Iowa Review Award (a contest with a particularly prestigious history) was immediate. Agent #3—a junior agent at a well-known, NYC-based agency—swung into my inbox upon seeing the results. Although after a conversation I suspected we weren’t a fit, she began checking in by email a few times a year—outright pursuing me. Agent #4—the founder of one of New York’s best-regarded boutique agencies—followed on her heels by six months, reading my essay in the Winter issue and issuing me a lifelong invitation to submit to him.
Agent #5 headed up the New York office of a DC-based agency and kept an eye on University of Arizona as a program producing a lot of top nonfiction writers. When she reached out to my mentor asking for advice on up-and-coming talent, “especially voice-y memoirs and narrative nonfiction that seeks to catalyze social change, challenge the status quo, and uncover hidden truths about our world,” he recommended my work to her. By then, my bio also included bylines from The Normal School, Fourth Genre, Cutbank, The High Country News, Fugue, Terrain.org, and The Indiana Review, demonstrating that my work consistently resonated with the editors of long-running publications. We began to correspond.
But in the meantime, something life-altering had happened: Jonathan Franzen selected “In Praise of Contempt” for The Best American Essays 2016, lauding it as “fresh and arresting and risky.” As soon as the table of contents appeared on Amazon, I heard from an editor at W.W. Norton; then, after the anthology came out, a new editor at Simon & Schuster reached out, captivated by my voice and curious about my memoir-in-progress.
It took me six months to take advantage of the editor’s interest because of a car crash, a medical crisis, and general confusion around how to write a book proposal. When I took too long, he circled back—offering to send letters on my behalf to a few agents he thought I’d like. UM, YES?! Within weeks, I had representation with Bonnie Nadell, an L.A.-based agent representing a few literary superstars, who loved my work and actually preferred to build book proposals hand-in-hand with her clients.
I had sent her several of my essays published in literary journals as my “sample.”
What’s the takeaway?
There’s no way to ensure that if you submit to a contest you’ll win—or that if you win, it will be picked for BAE—or if it’s published in BAE, that an editor at a Big 5 will take interest. But if you’re submitting, say, to New England Review, and your work is much more Quarterly West, you’ll get a rejection instead of stepping into the flow of a river meant for you.
If you’re submitting, say, to New England Review, and your work is much more Quarterly West, you’ll get a rejection instead of stepping into the flow of a river meant for you.
Differentiating between the two is your own responsibility, and usually requires legwork. My legwork meant tracking down journal names, acquiring copies, and spending long afternoons and evenings reading issues back to back, paying attention to the subtle aesthetic shifts between journals in order to devise a strategic submission strategy. I stopped thinking of $20 contest submission fees as a scam and started thinking of them as subscriptions to journals I cared about publishing in (which… they were!). I made use of my investment by reading each issue carefully and passing the journals along to other aspiring writers when I finished.
My Colorado Review essay “Shock to the Heart: Or, A Primer on the Practical Applications of Electricity” was accepted after two rejections, at which point I withdrew from one other journal. “In Praise of Contempt” won the Iowa Review Award in Nonfiction on its very first submission.
Three of my other essays have been named “Notable” by The Best American Essays series, and their stats are remarkably consistent:
My essay “Wilderness” (Notable in 2017) was rejected three times before it was accepted by Cutbank, at which point I withdrew the submission from four remaining journals.
My essay “The Unmaking” (Notable in 2019) was rejected three times before it was accepted by the New England Review, at which point I withdrew the submission from four remaining journals.
My essay “At the University Inn” (Notable in 2020) was rejected four times before it was accepted by The Kenyon Review Online, at which point I withdrew the submission from four remaining journals.
Other essays of mine never placed in journals, or took upwards of ten tries—but not the ones that changed my career. I believe this speaks to the power of knowing both when your work is done, and where your work belongs.
An equally important takeaway: agents are still reading established literary journals and looking at contest results!! Based on the conversations I had, most of them do care whether you have published before—whether your work is consistently beaming electrically out of editors’ slush piles—and will view this as a sign of promise. Do note that they’re probably not reading super-new journals unless the publication is something of a phenomenon; legacy journals have earned their reputation showcasing up-and-coming writers over time. It’s worth exploring the ones that are long-running, in case they’re a fit.
Other engines, like Kickstarter and MFA programs, contain pipelines to pairing with an agent, but these wins, too, will be bolstered by a publication history—proof that your talent is regularly making it past gatekeepers.
Submitting to literary journals helped me test out whether my essays were truly done or not, and they helped me understand my place in the literary landscape. Ultimately, they also gave me judges’ and anthologists’ blurbs to include in my book proposals.
None of my literary journal successes would have unfolded without years of hard work honing my craft. Nor would my essays have landed without the targeted work of getting intimate with the literary journal landscape.
However time-consuming, these two forms of work allowed the essays I published in literary journals to become the foundation I stand on: beautiful in themselves, but also a path to my larger goals.
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