Back in September, The New Republic published an article entitled, “Cheat! It’s the Only Way to Get Published.” but not everyone was so convinced. Here is one rebuttal from writer, Rachael Warecki reposted here from Zoetic Press, first published October 5, 2015.
First, let me say that I’m aware I have several legs up in the literary world just by dint of being white, middle-class, over-educated, and employed in a white-collar job. My family and friends have always been supportive of my desire to write, even when they haven’t understood it; I’ve never had anyone tell me that writing is something I shouldn’t do. I have time, space, and a room of my own: in many ways, to many people, the life I lucked into could be considered its own literary cheat.
In the fall of 2011, though, I was recovering from several serious medical issues, unemployed, and in the middle of my first semester as a graduate student in Antioch University Los Angeles’ MFA program. (In the spirit of encouraging fellow emerging writers, it’s perhaps pertinent to add that I did not just sail into an MFA program; Antioch accepted me off the waitlist.) I didn’t have any literary connections to recommend my work. I didn’t have any prestige-journal stationery on which I could write my cover letters. While looking for literary magazines that might publish my short stories, I noticed a call for submissions for the inaugural issue of The Masters Review, a lit mag that—at that time—was only open to writers attending grad school.
Back then, my assets consisted of my words, my classmates’ assurance that my stories were ready for publication, and the generosity of a literary magazine truly committed to helping new writers succeed. Because The Masters Review’s author demographic was so narrow, I thought my work might have a better chance of successfully making its way through the slush pile. As it turned out, I was right: my short story “The Rites of Summer” was published in The Masters Review’s 2012 issue.
In the years since, I’ve worked to build those post-slush literary relationships. I’ve kept in touch with one of The Masters Review’s editors, and I’ve continued to submit my work to their contests and anthologies, which have now expanded to include all emerging writers—not just those in MFA programs. My most recent submission, “10:25 a.m. EDT,” earned an honorable mention and a pending review from a top literary agency, which is an amazing career opportunity for which I’m eternally grateful.
More importantly, I’ve also continued to work those slush piles. Although I had zero relationships with any of the top-tier literary magazines, once I had work I thought was strong enough, I started shooting for the moon. Out of those long-shot submissions, I’ve received personal rejections and encouragement from fiction editors at Tin House, The Atlantic Monthly, Agni, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Blackbird, and PANK. I say this not to brag, but to point out that you can submit to slush piles of top-tier magazines and, if your work is a good enough fit, editors will start to pay long-term attention to you, even if you don’t have a list of previous publication credits or a fancy lit mag’s letterhead to back you up.
Here’s the rub, though: at the most basic level, if you want to be published without “cheating,” you need to be selective about what you send. Three years later, I’m still proud of “The Rites of Summer,” as I am of every story I’ve published, but I’ve also written stories that I’ve stopped submitting for now because I know they’re not yet strong enough for the markets in which I want to be published. Of my unpublished work, I have three “powerhouse” stories making the rounds of contests and top-tier literary magazines, but I also have five other stories, all written almost two years ago, that I’m still pumping up to that heavyweight level. Beyond that, everything else is unsalvageable for various reasons. That’s one of the most important lessons I’ve learned in my fledgling writing career: my work can be well-written and well-constructed, but it can still be too unoriginal, too white-bread, and/or too autobiographical to be publishable. Not everything is fit to print.
Which leads into the fact that you also need to be selective about where you send your work. If you’re an emerging writer, look for literary magazines that are committed to finding, publishing, and promoting emerging writers; that way, you won’t be competing for limited page space with the likes of Joyce Carol Oates and Adam Johnson. The Masters Review is a great place to submit since it’s only open to new voices, but many other top-tier publications, such as Glimmer Train and A Public Space, hold contests and grant fellowships specifically designed to attract new writers. If you’re working in a certain genre, submit to magazines that appreciate that genre rather than disdain it. If you think a certain publication might be a good fit for your work, get a hold of some back issues to make sure—even print journals usually have one or two stories available for free online.
The world of literary journals and publications can seem exclusive, insular, and elitist, and that reputation is in many ways deserved. But it’s not a completely impermeable membrane, and you don’t have to cheat to make inroads. Just be strategic and selective about your submissions, and don’t be afraid to cultivate relationships with other writers, wherever you may find them.
Rachael Warecki received her MFA in Fiction from Antioch University Los Angeles. She is also an alumna of Scripps College, Loyola Marymount University, and the 2008 Teach for America Los Angeles corps. Her fiction has appeared in The Masters Review, Midwestern Gothic, The Los Angeles Review, and elsewhere. In her spare time, she enjoys rooting for the Cleveland Indians and the Ohio State Buckeyes. She is currently at work on a novel.