Subs and Chill is a monthly conversation with writers on rejections, the submission process, and all the moments in between, before hitting submit. This week, writer Nicole Zhu, talks about first rejections, how sometimes revision doesn’t always make something better, her love of One Story and focusing on the things you can control.
“Read widely, concentrate on the stories you want to tell, reflect on your progress, feel your feelings, make the process sustainable and enjoyable (whatever that means to you), and keep submitting!”
When you were first starting out, how did you take rejection? What did you learn from those first few rejections?
I think my first rejection ever was from The Neopian Times and I was devastated. I’d written a ten-part epic called “Neopia’s End” which absolutely nobody asked for.
For my first few rejections as an adult (whose Neopets are eternally “Dying”), I was disappointed but not surprised. I knew I was just starting out and that publishing would take time. In some cases, I later saw what the places I’d submitted to ended up publishing and it helped me understand that my writing hadn’t, in fact, been a good fit. I also learned that there are many reasons editors might pass on your writing, many of which aren’t necessarily related to your work.
But the thing that really changed my outlook was Lisa Ko, who wrote about setting an annual rejection goal. That’s helped me change my relationship with rejection. My friends and I message each other “got a rejection!!” and send back “congrats!” Rather than seeing rejection as something I dread, it’s almost like a badge of honor. I can’t control whether or not I get published, but I can control how much I put myself out there.
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?)
My first published piece was an essay on the intersection of eating disorders, comfort food, and my Chinese American identity for Slant’d, an indie magazine about the Asian American experience. The magazine hosted a really fun launch party and a good friend treated me to dinner afterwards!
When it comes to researching places to submit my work, I always look at places that publish stories I’m already reading or I see where authors I admire are publishing. I don’t submit to places I don’t read. I subscribe to literary magazines’ mailing lists because that’s the easiest way to see upcoming submission periods, or I follow lit mags on Submittable. It’s been really great to have more resources like Chill Subs and Write or Die (not sponsored!) that do monthly roundups of submission opportunities.
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 usually submit in batches of 2-3 publications and wait as long as is reasonable to hear back before submitting to more places. I’ve grown more discerning about where I submit and think a lot about where my stories would be the best fit. I track my submissions in a spreadsheet I’ve uncreatively titled “Submissions.” I use it to track submission fees and add notes to myself like “waitlisted then accepted” or “rejected but invited to submit directly to an editor.” The more I’ve submitted, the more I appreciate the spectrum of rejection—and acceptance—that exists!
Most stories go through at least 2-3 rounds of edits, unless I’m using submission deadlines as a way to generate new work (I need the accountability sometimes!). I always have trusted readers or my writing group provide feedback, and I’ll often incorporate their edits before hitting submit.
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?
This tweet captures my submission tendencies perfectly lol, but I think I have a tendency to hold onto pieces for a long time before sending them out. I don’t really give myself a pep talk, but I do ask myself some questions to see if the story is ready for submission. Have other people read it yet? Am I still making big edits or am I just moving some commas and words around? If this were published as is, would I be proud of it?
Whether I pause submitting depends on the types of rejections I’m getting. If they’re form rejections, I’ll move on to the next publication. If I get personalized rejections where editors have offered more granular feedback, that can be helpful information and inform revision.
Is there a rejection letter that stands out in your mind? Something particularly harsh or intense? Or maybe even comical?
Years ago, I submitted to a literary magzine’s flash fiction contest. An editor reached out and said the piece hadn’t been chosen as a contest finalist, but they saw potential in it if I was willing to work on it with them. They made it very clear upfront that this wasn’t a guaranteed acceptance, but I was really excited since it was the first positive response I’d gotten for my fiction. I said I was interested, and I ended up doing four rounds of edits over the course of three months, only to have them ultimately decline the piece. It was strange and definitely bummed me out, but it taught me a valuable lesson about editing (revision doesn’t always make something better!) and not counting your eggs before they hatch. Fortunately, I submitted the original draft to another publication, where it was accepted!
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’m a huge fan of One Story. My friend got me a subscription for my birthday one year and I’ve been a devoted reader ever since. I love the range of stories they publish, and they’re a great literary organization. As much as I love publishing work online, there’s something about seeing your work in print that feels really special.
Is being published all it’s cracked up to be? What is your advice for writers who are working on getting published?
Publishing is definitely exciting and personally fulfilling. On a practical level, it also provides opportunities and can connect you to literary communities. But I don’t think it should be a writer’s north star. The target always shifts. I appreciate places like Taco Bell Quarterly, which is kind of irreverent about publishing and turns a process that can feel really serious into something fun and weird.
My advice to writers is to focus on the things you can control. Read widely, concentrate on the stories you want to tell, reflect on your progress, feel your feelings, make the process sustainable and enjoyable (whatever that means to you), and keep submitting!
The sub question! What is your all time favorite sandwich order?
I love anything with tuna—in New York, Golden Diner makes one of my favorite tuna melts with salt and vinegar chips inside the sandwich and the Tuna Berry at Court Street Grocers is a revelation (tuna salad, cranberry sauce, and arugula).
Nicole Zhu is a writer and engineer based in New York. Her stories and essays have appeared in Catapult, Eater, Electric Literature, The Lumiere Review, and elsewhere. She was the winner of the 2022 Pigeon Pages Flash Contest and has received support from Tin House, the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, and Aspen Words. She writes a biweekly newsletter about the writing process and how to sustain a creative life.