An Interview with the Dream Foundry’s Writing Contest Judge Sarah Gailey

Sarah Gailey is a Hugo Award Winning and Bestselling author of speculative fiction, short stories, and essays. They have been a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards for multiple years running. Their bestselling adult novel debut, Magic For Liars, was published by Tor Books in 2019. Their most recent novel, The Echo Wife, and first original comic book series with BOOM! Studios, Eat the Rich, are available now. Their shorter works and essays have been published in Mashable, The Boston Globe, Vice,, and the Atlantic. Their work has been translated into seven different languages and published around the world. You can find links to their work at and on social media at @gaileyfrey.


Writers are frequently looking for the “key” to win or be published, but there’s no singular piece of advice that can be universally applied. With that in mind, how do you find yourself navigating and evaluating submissions? What stands out to you?
 Author A. B. Guthrie Jr. once said that the secret to writing well is a constant undercurrent of the unexpected. Delight takes many forms and can come from many sources, but in the end, I find it to be the one unifying feature of the media I remember and value. For me, that delight often comes from seeing a brilliant craftsperson in their element, taking risks and delivering things I wouldn’t have known to ask for. A story that delivers the unexpected will always delight me.
Professional development spaces for emerging writers are not necessarily easily accessible to those who need it most. How do you see open submission opportunities fitting into the professional development of new and upcoming writers?
In the publishing industry, as in many media and entertainment spaces, everyone’s looking for a ‘sure thing’ — a product that reproduces the successes of the past. This naturally has a flattening effect that does a disservice to everyone involved — creators, consumers, and publishers alike — but it’s difficult to make the idea of ‘risk’ appealing to an industry that constantly reminds itself of how thin it’s already stretched. Open submission opportunities sidestep questions of risk and certainty by reframing risk as opportunity. People love the notion of discovery, of being the first to recognize something great, and the open submission call promises the opportunity for discovery. It serves as a cushion for those who might otherwise close themselves off to new writing styles, new voices, entirely new stories. I think open submission calls can be incredibly stressful for new and upcoming writers who feel that each chance might be their last — but for me, open submission calls have also been energizing, giving me the opportunity to grow comfortable with the pace and practices of the publishing world.
Do you have any advice on how emerging writers can get the most out of participating in the writing contest?
I usually hesitate to offer ‘advice’ because every experience is unique and so is every person. This question is an exception. I have advice and it’s this: don’t write anything just for this contest. Never write a piece that is designed to be strictly and solely for any one contest, submissions call, anthology, podcast, magazine — never limit your stories that way. If you yoke your tender creative heart to a single outlet, you will find yourself creating stories to try to drop off at that outlet. When your story is rejected you will feel that it has failed you. When your story is accepted you will end up feeling that you’ve left it behind. Be inspired by outlets and submission calls, be galvanized by them, but do not write for them. Write for yourself. Connect yourself to your story first and foremost, then walk up to the contest with it to find out if there’s a good fit between the two. Hold the tiny soft hand of your story and know that if the place you tried to go together doesn’t work out, there’s still a whole world for the two of you to wander.
What kind of experience do you believe transfers from the writing contest to publishing at large? What can emerging writers learn from this process?
Emerging writers can use this contest to learn how to write to deadline, how to write to spec, how to aim a story at a specific audience; they can use it to learn patience with the pace of the publishing world, patience with their own creative minds, patience with contracts; they can use it to learn gracious acceptance of victory and sturdy acceptance of rejection. No words are wasted words. All writing is learning.
It’s been increasingly difficult for creatives to feel motivated given the state of the world. How have you been finding joy in your craft these past few years? How are you finding yourself navigating the state of publishing?
I don’t seek joy in my craft. That’s not to say no-one should seek joy in their craft, it’s just not my thing. In my craft I try to find the edges of what I’m capable of and how I understand stories, and then I try to peel those edges back to find what else might be possible. Exhaustion deserves respect and accommodation and so does despair; I don’t look to fix or escape either one through my work. That’s where the motivation lives: in the understanding that when I turn to my work it is not for relief or respite but to whet my imagination, which is the finest tool I have.
As for the state of publishing, I am a jellyfish. The water takes me where it goes.