Cover of Subs and Chill with Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya

Subs and Chill
with Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya

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, Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya, author of Helen House and editor of Autostraddle, chats about submitting to many places at one time, the importance of community as writers, the joy of working with other editors to better your work, and celebrating publication wins with champagne and KFC.

“The more you approach the submission process as an open-ended journey and collaborative experience, the easier it is to carry the burden of those rejections”

Do you remember your first rejection? How did you feel about it? Looking back, is there anything you learned from that experience?

If we're talking my very VERY first rejection, it was when my semi-autofictional short story Center Stage wasn't even longlisted for a literary prize at my middle school in which I was up against my fellow sixth graders, and obviously the fact that I can remember this means it left an impression on me!!!! In all seriousness, I don't actually remember what my "first" rejection was when I started regularly submitting work to literary journals, because it was more like a batch of firsts. From the start, I submitted to several places at once, so I cannot recall what the actual first rejection was, although I'm sure it was a form rejection. If I had to guess, I probably let myself be bummed about it for a day and then moved on.

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 am very lucky in that the first short story I had published was via solicitation by Patrick Cotrell for the Queer Fiction issue of McSweeney's Quarterly Concern. But around the same time, I also had a story accepted from slush at Catapult. If it hadn't been fall 2020, then I would have celebrated in my favorite way, which is by going out for food and drinks with my girlfriend. But at that time in the pandemic, that wasn't possible. I'm sure I ordered something tasty for us though! When I got into the Kenyon Writer's Workshop, for example, I distinctly remember having champagne and Kentucky Fried Chicken delivered. This was actually something I struggled with during the pandemic: how to make writing wins feel real. Especially when it came to being awarded certain fellowships or workshop acceptances. As for researching places to submit work, I'm very lucky to be in a writer4writer relationship. We resource-share all the time! If she sees something she thinks I'm a good fit for, she tells me, and vice versa. Our work is very different, but we're both queer, and in the beginning I quite literally looked at journals in her bio and submitted to them. I did the same thing with other writers I admire.

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 am a big proponent of submitting the same piece to many places at a time. I typed "several" at first and changed it to "many," because I'm talking literally 8+ places, sometimes a lot more. I kept a spreadsheet in the beginning. I generally avoid publications that don't allow simultaneous submissions because I think it's silly, frankly. Especially from my own work as a fiction editor and the assistant managing editor of TriQuarterly, I know how much of this is a numbers game. There are so many submissions for so few spots. Getting something picked out of slush is SO HARD. Just because a piece isn't right for one place doesn't mean it can't find a home. One of my favorite short stories of mine probably got close to 30 rejections before it landed somewhere.

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?

Ha, I'm not much of a pep talk person. That's not to say that I don't experience insecurity or self-doubt, but I have a pretty healthy relationship with submitting work. I lean more "fuck it, hit submit." And then I don't get in my head about rejections; I very rarely revise once I've decided a piece is done/ready to submit, even if it receives a few rejections. And if I do, it's because I genuinely want to revisit something — not because I'm trying to make it more palatable or attractive to an imagined reader/editor. I have to still be interested in the story myself to want to go in there again.

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

I've been lucky to not have any really bad rejection letter experiences! Form rejections suck, but they're inevitable. I think it helps that I've had to send them myself before! And then in my job at Autostraddle, I also have to turn pitches down sometimes, so that helps me have a thick skin about rejections, too.

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.

I mean, some of the obvious ones will always be the dream, like the New Yorker, Guernica, Gulf Coast. But truthfully, I had a very dreamy pub experience already when I got to work with Dantiel W. Moniz as my editor at Joyland. That's a story I was really proud of from the start, but then it super benefited from feedback and edits from writers I admire, including Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, who I workshopped it with at Tin House, and then Dantiel when she was my editor on it. I know not all writers like to be edited or can get prickly about it, but I fucking love working with editors and other writers. Maybe it's because I'm also an editor myself, but I also just think that the more collaborative a process feels, the more queer it feels. If I think of every single publication experience I've had so far, I can name so many people who helped me get there, whether it was because they told me about an open submission period, gave me feedback on a story, just generally encouraged me to submit, edited me, saw the potential in something that maybe needed a little finessing, etc. The more you approach the submission process as an open-ended journey and collaborative experience, the easier it is to carry the burden of those rejections. I'm lucky to have some amazing support in my life, especially from my fiance, who is so open about her own history of rejections. And continued rejections! She's an accomplished novelist, but no matter what point you're at in your career, you still get rejected. I find it simultaneously daunting AND comforting.

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

That's a tough question! It's hard, because I want to say that you should be doing it for you and because YOU really want to be doing it, but I don't think it's useful to downplay the very real pressure to be published and ways it leads to other opportunities. There's so much gatekeeping in this world, and getting stories accepted can be like getting a foot in the door. It can feel like a weird game sometimes, I won't lie. But that's why I do emphasize finding other people to be in community with, even if it's just to be able to complain about shit to someone who understands. It's easy to say "don't compare yourself to others" and harder to adhere to that in practice, but truly if you can just remind yourself that rejections fucking suck for everyone, it makes them suck a little less. It's scary and vulnerable to put yourself out there, but when someone says no, it doesn't automatically mean you're a bad writer. If you have one story that you can't get anywhere to take, don't stop. Keep submitting it. So long as you believe strongly in that story, that's fuel you shouldn't stop burning.

Okay, you are really hungry and in front of a sub shop. What is your all time favorite sandwich order?

So hard to choose! My favorite sandwich is probably a classic triple decker club, but if we're talking sub shop specifically, I'm probably leaning something in the style of a classic Italian sub and adding hot peppers, pickles, and extra cheese.