The Nervous Breakdown just got a new fiction editor: writer, photographer and Women Who Submit organizer Rachael Warecki! If you are looking for a place to submit your fiction, consider The Nervous Breakdown, a fun and irreverent blog of essays, stories, poetry, podcasts, and interviews.
While Rachael was spending two weeks at a writing residency at the Wellstone Center in the Redwoods, she took a few minutes to step away from the beautiful view of Santa Cruz to answer some of my questions.
As the new fiction editor at The Nervous Breakdown, tell us what you’re looking for in pieces. How do you hope to make TNB’s fiction section stand out?
For our original fiction section, I’m looking for short literary fiction from authors of many different backgrounds, featuring characters who have traditionally been underrepresented in literature. I’m new to TNB and our fiction section has only been open to original fiction for a short time, but I previously served as a fiction editor at another literary magazine, and I can say that in my year and a half at that journal, we never had a shortage of submissions from men. And I’m starting to see that a little bit here at TNB: men don’t need to be encouraged to submit their work, because they’re already doing so.
I’d love to see more submissions from and about women and non-binary writers, particularly writers of color, older writers, queer writers, and writers with disabilities. I’d also love to see more asexual characters in fiction, preferably written by authors who identify as asexual themselves.
When reading (in general, not just reading submissions), I pay close attention to sentences and language. I particularly love well-done figurative language, deployed with precision and judiciousness. Jesmyn Ward and Colson Whitehead, for example, are two writers who craft high-impact stories with beautiful sentences. There’s also this passage from Yewande Omotoso’s The Woman Next Door, which someone posted last week on Facebook and which has stayed with me so forcefully since then that I went back and looked it up so that I could share it with you as an example of writing that really, really works for me:
“Sometimes they did make love, but it was duty. Hortensia remembered her father telling her about hurricane scares when he was a boy. When the electricity was cut off, how to keep the eggs fresh: every few days turn them over. That was how they made love. It was a domestic task to keep something from rotting.”
I just about swooned reading it again right now. If you’re writing passages like that, please send your work my way!
You are at work on 2 (3?) novels right now, as well as short stories, and you’ve published many short stories as well. How does your work as a writer inform your work as an editor, and vice versa?
I think my work as an editor has exacerbated my perfectionist tendencies as a writer. I know I always appreciate when a piece that feels polished and finished shows up in my inbox, addressed to me with my name spelled correctly. But because I’m also a writer, I look for the pieces that feel well-loved, too, pieces that feel polished and finished precisely because their authors cared enough about them to make them the best stories they could be.
What’s going on in the contemporary fiction landscape these days? (As a poet, I’m a little oblivious.) What are some trends and themes you’re seeing? What do you like/dislike?
“Contemporary fiction” encompasses such a wide swath of books. One trend that’s been going on for a bit now, and which I’m enjoying, is increased acceptance of genre elements in U.S.-based literary fiction. I love novels like Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist and Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, which are speculative fiction mysteries that also tackle big, literary questions and social issues. I supposed you’d consider those older books now, but I feel as if more and more literary authors are using elements of genre as lenses through which to approach important topics. It’s something many genre writers (think Octavia Butler) have already done well, but I’m glad to see that it’s continuing to gain ground in lit-fic circles.
I’m not a huge fan of autofiction, longitudinal novels/series, surreal writing, or abstract work. I suppose this makes me a bad half-French person and an even worse literature major, but my brain just does not engage with any of those modes. I like plot, concrete details, and stories that take place over defined and limited amounts of time. My brain can manage that.
For submission newbies, how does a fiction writer know if their piece is ready for submission?
Have trusted readers look over your work! If you don’t have trusted readers yet, ask some of your writer friends — maybe friends you’ve made at a WWS submission party? — to look over your story before you hit that “submit” button. Listen for the feedback that sounds like it aligns with your vision. What did they like? What did they dislike? Where did they need clarification? What areas did they think needed more revision? Sit with their feedback for a while, revise, and then have your trusted readers take another look. As you gain more experience, you’ll develop a better inner sense of when your own work is done, but when you’re just starting out, rely on your readers to help you know when a piece is ready for submission.
In all your years of submitting and publishing writing, is there anything you’ve always wished editors would do?
This wish is based more off of anecdotal evidence rather than actual data, but I wish that editors spent a little more time reading cover letters. The last time I was a fiction editor, the literary magazine I worked for used Submittable to process its submissions, and it became really clear to me as soon as I logged in that, when you’re working in Submittable’s desktop interface, it’s really, really easy to ignore a writer’s cover letter. And I realized that editors at larger lit mags, the ones that get over a thousand submissions a month, probably don’t look at cover letters unless they find a story they like. And if a literary journal’s policy is to read submissions anonymously, then some editors probably aren’t seeing cover letters at all.
At TNB, writers’ submissions come straight to our fiction inbox, which means I get the cover letter front and center. I’m not going to prioritize the cover letter over the story itself, but I do want to know a little bit about the writers who are submitting to TNB. Keep your cover letter brief and professional, but don’t be afraid to drop in a sentence or two about who you are and where you’re writing from along with your publication credits. (I like meeting writers, even if it is only through email!) And if you’re submitting to TNB because you know me, or you read this blog, or you heard about us through a WWS meeting, mention that, too!
Rachael Warecki is a native of Los Angeles with an often-painful lifelong love for Ohio sports teams. Her fiction has appeared in The Los Angeles Review, The Masters Review, Midwestern Gothic, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles, and is an alumna of the Tin House Writers’ Workshop. Learn more at her website.