#86: A Sneak Peek at the Slice Literary Writers’ Conference: An Interview with One Story’s Lena Valencia, by Fiona Furnari

When, after a last frantic round of edits, you send off a piece to a literary magazine, it’s hard to picture the editor on the other end as anything but a “yes,” “no,” and “this isn’t right for us at this time” machine. But there’s something more here than just clicking submit and hoping for the best – you’re building a literary relationship.

We spoke to One Story’s managing editor Lena Valencia about life at a literary magazine, where editors usually turn out to be writers rather than robots, and her suggestions for budding writers looking to submit. Lena will be speaking at the panel “It All Starts At A Literary Magazine” at the Slice Literary Writers’ Conference on Sunday, September 11.

As the editor of a literary magazine, you are always reading the writing of others, and usually with an accept-reject mindset. How has this affected your own writing, and your writing process?

It has definitely made me slow down. When I’ve put a lot of work into a story, my impulse is to send it off as soon as I’ve completed it, rather than to let it sit for a few days (or even weeks). Working at magazines has helped me to control this impulse and wait until a story is the best I can possibly make it before submitting. This is not easy for me—I’m a very impatient person. But I also know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a rushed story. I read a lot of pieces in slush that have great elements but don’t feel entirely finished. Maybe there’s a fascinating premise, for example, but there’s no ending; or the dialogue is spot-on, but the characters need a little bit more fleshing out. The writer might have talent but the story just isn’t there, and I have to decline the piece. While slowing down means that I’m not churning out stories as quickly as I was before working at a magazine, I’m ultimately happier and more confident about the work I’m producing.

There’s also a lot to learn about the craft of writing from reading the work of others, especially unpublished work. It’s illuminating in a different way than reading the published work of accomplished writers can be. When you read a piece before an editor has had a chance to polish it, you notice where the writer succeeds and can also identify their missteps. You become more critical of your own work, and in turn become a better self-editor. You also discover what your tastes are. I highly recommend spending a couple of months volunteering as a reader for a magazine, if you have the time.

Literary magazines have changed a lot over the past couple decades. Do you think change is accelerating or plateauing, and where are we headed?

Let me preface this by saying that I’ve been in this industry for under a decade. However, I have noticed that number literary magazines, small and large, are diversifying and becoming not just showcases for talent but incubators. Some are offering classes, both in person and online. Some, like Tin House, One Story, and Slice, offer multi-day writing conferences. A Public Space offers a writing residency in their office as part of their fellowship program. These classes, conferences, and fellowships are put in place partly to generate income and/or increase the visibility of the journal, but they also build a community of writers. Oftentimes they provide more affordable alternatives to MFA programs and are useful places for writers who may also work full-time jobs to meet and work with editors and industry professionals. It’s also a great way for magazines to discover new talent.

Another change I’ve observed is that more publications are actively seeking out work by marginalized voices (with some, like The Offing and Apogee Journal, making this part of their mission statements). There’s been some incisive critique and discussion around equity in publishing and I think that literary magazines and their editors are in many ways at the forefront of creating this change, since they can be instrumental in launching a writer’s career. I’m hoping that we’re heading in a direction where diversity on mastheads and in tables of contents is the norm, but I also think that there is a lot of work that remains to be done.

As a young writer, I’m always thinking about where I should get my start, and literary magazines seem like one of the best ways to go. What do you think is the most important thing for a beginning writer to consider when sending in a submission? Are there any common mistakes that writers make when just starting out?

The most important thing is to read the magazine you plan on submitting to, and if you really love it, show your support by subscribing.

It’s also important to remember that rejection is a huge part of the writing life. It can be incredibly demoralizing to put time and energy into writing a piece only to have it turned down over and over and over again. I don’t care how many times this or that famous writer was rejected, it still stings to get that email informing me that the story I just poured my heart into was “not quite right for us at this time.” However, a rejection letter is not necessarily a closed door. Hannah Tinti, the Editor-in-Chief at One Story, once said that a rejection letter is the beginning of a relationship with an editor or literary magazine, which I think is a great way to look at the whole submission process. Take the personalized or encouraging rejections seriously—if you get a letter asking to see more work, that’s something to be proud of, and to follow up on.

Are there any myths or misconceptions about literary magazines that you’d like to clear up?

Some new writers think that they won’t have a chance at publication in a magazine unless they’ve been published elsewhere, when many magazines are actually eager to publish writers who have never published or who have only placed their work in a few small magazines. Don’t be afraid to mention that you’ve never been published in your cover letter.