Cover of Subs and Chill with Chloe Caldwell

Subs and Chill
with Chloe Caldwell

Subs and Chill is a bi-weekly conversation with writers on rejections, the submission process, and all the moments in between, before hitting submit. This week. Chloe Caldwell, author of The Red Zone and Women, talks gut instincts, knowing your writing isn’t going to be right for everyone, almost being published in the New York Times at 26, and her advice for submitting to lit mags.

“But also, who cares? I feel so lucky to be able to publish the books I want, and I don’t need everyone to like my writing. If they’re taking the time to write a harsh or intense review, it means something was stirred up.”

When you were first starting out, how did you take rejection? What did you learn from those first few rejections?

For some reason, I took rejection pretty well. When the first review for my first book, Legs Get Led Astray, was released, the reviewer said she wanted to throw the book against the wall. The reviewer was well-known for being hard on books; Allison Hallet in The Portland Mercury.

Since I didn’t come into publishing with any expectations, I was so ecstatic to be publishing a book at all. Of course, when that review came out, I felt sick to my stomach for an hour, and I never forgot it, but I bounced back really quickly.

I think that was a formative experience; getting a negative (mixed!) review so early in the game. I was twenty-six. I already knew not everyone would be obsessed with my writing, and I was okay with that. Sometimes I read the reviews of my books on Goodreads and actually take some of the criticism as helpful.

One shattering experience was in 2011 when I submitted an essay to the New York Times’ Townies column. It was accepted by a senior editor. They had a couple of notes, and it had to be cut down, but it was accepted. I was freaking out, like 26 years old, and so excited.

I’d submitted in December and got notes by January. After a few months, my book was supposed to come out and I let her know and she retracted the piece. I panicked and told her I’d take it out of my book to have it published in the New York Times, but she said that on second thought, cutting 2k words would be challenging and never mind. It was April now, four months later, so I’d been thinking for four months I’d be published in the NYT. I was devastated!

What was the first piece you got published? How did you celebrate? Also, what does your process look like for researching where to submit your work? (do you browse or just submit to anyone with subs open regardless?)

I wanted to say The Sun Magazine because I published under their reader’s write section for the topic “Borrowing” and it was my first print publication. But I feel like being anally honest in this interview, so I just looked back in my emails with the friend I used to talk about this stuff with. And I found I wrote this in 2009:

I think if I write what I want and the way I want, then I can only be posted or published on/in trashy erotica sites/books. Oh, well. i submit to shit all the time and get rejections but i kind of like it, because they are encouraging rejections.

Apparently, I’d just published a piece in a small erotica lit journal called Clean Sheets. It is now defunct. I also would publish in many anthology type books like these Six Sentence anthologies.

For a short piece like a story or a poem, how many places do you submit it to at a time? Do you keep track of your submissions? What does your editorial process look like before you hit submit?

I don’t submit stories or poems, only personal essays or pitches. I’ve never kept track of them. Back when I started writing, I was the worst with this. I’d binge-submit and send to like eight places in one night. I’ve continued doing this with pitches and nothing bad or complicated has ever happened. I’m impulsive, so it worked for me.

Some of my students keep beautiful documents with the piece they submitted and the date they submitted it. I don’t do this; it feels too right-brained for me.

Before submitting, I might show a couple of writer friends, get their thoughts, revise, then hit send. We used to have “hit send” parties in my in person writing classes on the final day of class.

What type of writer are you when it comes to submitting your work: Do you hold on to a piece for a long time and then have to give yourself a pep talk (if yes, please share) or do you subscribe to a more fuck it hit submit right away approach? If your piece gets rejected, are you one to power through and move on to the next publication or do you sit with it a little longer and try to figure out where you might’ve gone wrong?

Every piece is completely different. Some pieces of writing need more time than others, so it’s impossible to speak to. As for moving on or not after a rejection, this also depends. Was the feedback from the person helpful in any way? Did it resonate? Or did it feel copy and pasted? It really comes down to a gut-instinct and trusting yourself thing. Obviously, if a piece gets rejected and has similar feedback from the editors of why, it is up to the writer to decide if they want to implement that feedback or not

Problem is, I don’t think most editors from smaller lit journals give much (any) feedback of why they aren’t taking something.

Is there a rejection letter that stands out in your mind? Something particularly harsh or intense? Or maybe even comical?

I guess the throwing-the-book-against-the-wall review is this for me. Though, I’ve been publishing for fifteen years and have some hilarious ones. My book WOMEN has hundreds of reviews that range wildly from 1 star to 5 star and they’re all charged. Reviews that annoy me are when people get a major detail totally wrong, like saying I have an MFA. I don’t. Or saying my book is set somewhere it isn’t. Or getting the genre totally wrong. But also, who cares? I feel so lucky to be able to publish the books I want, and I don’t need everyone to like my writing. If they’re taking the time to write a harsh or intense review, it means something was stirred up.

What publication or magazine would you love to see yourself in someday? Or, if you have already been published in your dream pub, tell us about the experience.

Taco Bell Quarterly would be fun. I like places that have silly merch. I was also really into Taco Bell as a teenager.

I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I was excited when the NYT took two of my pitches during 2019 and 2020. Jess Grose worked as an editor there and was fantastic. I’ve also loved working with Sari Botton in Longreads.

Once, I published 500 words in Men’s Health, when they were covering the six senses in a sexual way. It was my weirdest publication to date, but paid a dollar a word. I can’t even remember which ‘sense’ I was assigned.

Is being published all it’s cracked up to be? What is your advice for writers who are working on getting published?

There’s a difference in publishing books versus stuff online. It takes a lot more effort for a reader to go to a bookstore (or website) and financially invest in a book. Then to take the time to read it. This question really depends where the person is being published. As with anything, people have different experiences everywhere.

Lots of places I published my most cringey stuff are defunct now but you never know which stuff will be online forever, so publishing places where you’re proud to be published (though this can change over time!) is something to consider.

Be familiar with the journal/magazine! I think it’s crazy how often people want to submit work online yet don’t read any magazines to learn what’s out there and where their work would fit.

Also, aiming too high. Why are people who have never published before sending their stuff to these huge glossy magazines? There are so many other places to publish if you do your research. Some super cool lit mags are just a Google away.

What is your all time favorite sandwich order?

Tuna Melt. I’m not a sub person.