21 October 2017

One More Time, From the Top

Please join me in welcoming my friend Michael Bracken as a guest blogger today. For those of you who don't know Michael already, he has written several books but is better known as the author of more than 1,200 short stories. He's recently had stories published in, or accepted for publication by, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Black Cat Mystery MagazineEllery Queen's Mystery Magazine, SnowboundNoir at the Salad BarPassport to Murder, Tough, Weirdbook, and other anthologies and periodicals. He is currently reading submissions for The Eyes of Texas, an anthology of private eye stories that Down & Out Books will release at Bouchercon 2019. You can find the submission guidelines here.

One more thing: Michael will be officially joining SleuthSayers next month as a regular columnist. All of us at the SS asylum are of course thrilled about that, and hoping he doesn't come to his senses in time to back out. (As for me, I'll return in two weeks.) --John Floyd


by Michael Bracken

I've had a good run. Since my first professional sale in the late 1970s, I've sold more than 1,200 short stories, and through October 2017 I've had one or more short stories published each month for 172 consecutive months. This long streak of good fortune may soon end.

In an October 23, 2013, guest post for John Floyd here at SleuthSayers, I wrote about the ladder a short-story writer climbs from being a "write-first, market-second" writer to becoming a "market-first, write-second" writer, and I gave several examples of how I had reached a point where most of my short fiction was written to order, to invitation, or for repeat markets.

I also noted that "[p]ublishing is changing and everything I know about it may be obsolete before the year ends." I was only off by a few years.

During the past two years, the foundation of my writing career crumbled beneath me. Anthology editors who often invited me to contribute are no longer editing anthologies, and magazines I counted on for multiple sales each month have ceased publication. Some genres in which I had established myself have disappeared or are clinging to life only in low- or non-paying markets.

In many ways, I am starting over, rebooting my career by once again becoming a "write-first, market-second" short-story writer. The only advantage I have over a beginning writer is that past sales prove I can write publishable fiction. What I do not yet know is how well I can write publishable fiction in new or long-neglected genres. So, for the first time in years, I am actually nervous when I submit stories, and each time I receive a response I have a moment of trepidation just before I open the email.

I'm not taking my situation lightly, and I have a plan. Following are the key steps I'm taking to restart my writing career:


Over the years I left many stories unfinished because there were no discernable markets for them. Rather than let these stories continue to languish, I returned to several of them, finished them, and sent them into the world, following the traditional path of submitting to the best market first and working my way down the markets as rejections roll in.

Outcome: Since the reboot I have sold a handful of newly finished stories.


Relying on inspiration as motivation is degraded as the amateur's approach to writing because perspiration creates more work than inspiration. Even so, a working writer should never dismiss inspiration. Occasionally, a story idea comes unbidden, and I am so taken by it that I find myself driven to write. In the past, I set these inspired stories aside in favor of sure-bet sales. Now, I let inspiration take me where it will.

Outcome: Since the reboot, I have sold five inspired stories.


This is what I advocated beginning and early career writers do back in 2013 when I laid out the steps for transitioning from a write-first, market-second writer to a market-first, write-second writer.

I spend time surfing the Internet seeking anthology open submission calls and submission guidelines from publications with which I am not already familiar. I study guidelines, read publications when they exist, and then, as best I can, write stories that fit the guidelines.

Outcome: Since the reboot, I have sold three stories written to open-call anthology specifications.


In addition to seeking markets to which I might send completed but unsold stories, I also continually compare submission guidelines to finished work to determine if anything I have could be revised and repurposed. Occasionally, I can.

Outcome: Since the reboot, I have sold one repurposed story and one story that had been languishing in my files before I discovered a new market.


Without detailing every sale and rejection since the beginning of my career reboot--and, trust me, rejections outnumber the sales--let's examine my experience with a single periodical: Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.

Five years passed between my previous rejected submission to AHMM and the first submission after my career reboot, and I've submitted eight stories since the reboot. Three are awaiting a decision, two have been rejected, and three have been accepted.

The first acceptance, published last year ("Chase Your Dreams," AHMM, June 2016), is a repurposed story originally written in another genre. The first third and last third are essentially as first written, but I extensively revised the middle third before submitting to AHMM, and then revised the middle third again at Linda Landrigan's suggestion to move it even further from its original genre.

The second story accepted by AHMM is an inspired story, one that came to me as an opening image with a character facing a life-altering loss.

The third story accepted by AHMM is one I began, set aside, and returned to several years later.

Outcome: Were any of these three written to specifications? Other than representing various sub-genres of crime fiction and fitting within the magazines's length requirements, no. I have yet to find strong commonalities among the stories AHMM publishes. On the other hand, the three stories AHMM accepted share something the two stories rejected do not, so I am developing a profile of which stories are more likely and which stories are less likely to be accepted if submitted to AHMM.


There is a fine line between being confident and being cocky, and it was easy to cross that line when almost everything I wrote sold to the first editor who saw it. I'm still confident, but my wife tells me I'm not so cocky.

Previously, I would submit and forget, but now I fret about each submission, and I sweat rejections in a way I haven't for at least a decade. When rejections are more common than acceptances, they carry more weight, and that weight forces me to examine my stories and my marketing efforts to determine if rejected stories are flawed or if my submission targeting is flawed.

I am working harder than before because I want to regain my status as a market-first, write-second short-story writer. Alas, that may never happen. I worked for thirty-plus years to reach that point, and I enjoyed the ride for nearly ten years. Having just turned 60, I might not have another thirty years of writing left in me, and, having done it once, I know there is no shortcut back to that level.

On the other hand, I think I've written some of my best work since the foundation of my writing career crumbled beneath me. I've been forced to examine the market for short fiction from a different perspective, and I've been forced to reexamine how and why I write. While I still have my eye on the markets, I'm producing more work aimed at pleasing myself first and then hoping I find editors to publish it.

And I have a plan. If I follow it, maybe--just maybe--it won't take thirty years to climb back to the top of the ladder and once again be a market-first, write-second writer.


  1. Michael: Great post here, and look forward to having you at SleuthSayers on a regular basis! I was surprised to read here about the idea of your career "crumbling" and about your new nervousness about submitting. I always think of you as so very successful and can only see that success continuing ahead! I do appreciate, however, the reflections here about how to approach stories, how to rethink/reevaluate that approach, how to push ahead--good insights for all of us, whether aspiring writers or veterans either one.
    Great success ahead!!

  2. It sounds as if you have a really intelligent approach to your career.

    I do think writing is harder thane ever now except in the technical details, that is, no more typing with carbon paper, little hard copy, and print only submissions.

    Welcome to Sleuthsayers!

  3. Great post, Michael--and an interesting and helpful followup to your previous column on this subject.

    Once again, welcome to SleuthSayers!

  4. Fascinating and helpful post, Michael. And I'm looking forward to learning more from you now that you'll be joining the line-up regularly.

    Your comments on repurposing and re-finishing a story are especially intriguing. But it's scary to realize that you sell more stories in an average year than I've even written in my misspent life.

    Welcome to the club.

  5. Wise words from the master. Glad to have you aboard, Michael.

  6. Great post, Michael, and welcome to SleuthSayers. And your post is both disheartening and encouraging at the same time. I think we're all trying to figure it out as we go and you make a lot of good points to help light the way.

  7. Good stuff, and I suspect you'll have success with your new approach and plan. In fact, you're already having enviable success!

  8. First of all, it was great to finally meet you in Toronto. There's a reason you are an Ed Hoch Award recipient, my friend. A lot of us find inspiration in your persistence, your pub rate, and your writing itself. Keep plugging. This is a crazy Calvinball kind of business, the rules seemingly always changing. Sounds like you're adapting nicely.

  9. This is so much my own experience, Michael. I won my first crime fiction short story award in 1991. Soon after, I had a contract to write stories monthly for a magazine in the States, at $700 a pop. That magazine has disappeared, and the market has changed such that I don't recognize it. Absolutely, they keep changing the rules!
    Great to meet you at Bouchercon - and welcome again to our humble gang here.

  10. Michael, welcome to the SleuthSayers family as a regular. See you again at the Dallas Bouchercon. In the meantime, keep on writin'.

  11. I ditto everything already said here, especially the welcomes to the blog, Michael. It was great to meet you and your wife in Toronto.

  12. I apologize for not responding sooner, but I've spent my day flying home from a marketing conference in New York City that followed right on the heels of Bouchercon.

    Thank all y'all for all the kind comments about my post and for the welcomes to SleuthSayers. Temple and I enjoyed meeting many of my fellow SleuthSayers--and so many other writers--in Toronto, and didn't spend near as much time with all of you as I would have liked.

  13. Great piece, Michael. As you know, I am an admirer of "Chase Your Dreams" and the story in SALAD BAR. GLad to have you on board at SS, a pleasure to meet you at Bouchercon! Welcome abouard!

  14. Inspirational post, Michael. I totally understand about the career that bites the dust. My non-fiction writing career did that around the year I turned 50. The resource books I had written for years almost became obsolete overnight when people started posting the same information online--for free.

    I stepped out on a limb that year and published my first mystery novel, and have been writing predominantly fiction ever since. But after eleven years, I'm still struggling and wonder if I made the right decision. But writing fiction is a lot more fun than the NF ever was, so there's that, if nothing else. :-)

  15. Your persistence continues to amaze me. I keep hoping a couple of those "lost" markets will resurface, but not holding my breath. You could always start your own magazine. Just a thought.

  16. The rules of the game aren't what change. It's the game itself that changes, sometimes so quickly, so quietly (you never see an announcement) that you don't even realize.

    David Mamet's A LIFE IN THE THEATER kind of gets at that. So does Ionesco's BALD SOPRANO.

    I've sold a few short stories myself over 52 years, enough to have once been considered prolific but your own humility, energy and persistence are an admonition.

    Barry N. Malzberg

  17. Great words about today's marketplace and your adaptation. Thanks, Michael, for this guideline.

  18. Great stuff, Michael. You've proven what we've all known for a long time -- you're the consummate professional. When your world changed, you didn't cry in your beer. You opened a fresh bottle and kept the party going. A tip of the Stetson to you, my friend.

  19. Michael,

    I've been familiar with your work since we were both published in one of the Dreamspell anthologies some years ago and know you are an excellent professional writer. I believe it's gotten more difficult to be published than ever before. Publications come and go more quickly. With the ease of internet submission, more people are submitting work than ever before as well. Love to read your analysis of what AHMM accepts and rejects.

  20. Barry: Your comments were a wonderful and pleasant surprise. Many years ago, when I was only dreaming of becoming a professional writer, I edited a science fiction fanzine to which you contributed a couple of letters of comment. Though science fiction wasn't the genre in which I ultimately found success, you and many other SF/F writers had a great influence on me directly and indirectly through my contact with you via my fanzine.

    Jacqueline: At Bouchercon's short story panel, one of the panelists--or it may have been the moderator--noted that Linda Landrigan likes stories that appear to be about one thing but actually turn out to be about something else. My three sales seem to confirm this assessment. All three stories are, on the surface, crime stories. Ultimately, though, all three are variations on love stories: what it's like to lose your lover when you're gay and closeted in small town Texas, how one man copes when he loses the love of his life, and how two people find love (or something like it) in the midst of a crisis. I can't say this can be applied universally, but I know I'm paying more attention to the non-crime elements of my stories than I was previously.

    Again, thank you to everyone for your comments. I'm hard a t work on my first official post, scheduled for next month.

  21. Michael, what an amazing ride you've had publishing your short stories. I wish things had remained the same for you, but they never do, do they? It looks as if you will find new ways to stay in the game. All the best of luck to you.

  22. Do you think part of your newly-restarted career will be any kind focus on self-publishing works to which you have gotten back the rights? Or collections of such works?

  23. We need a book of your collected stories, Michael!

  24. Gosh, I remember him from an earlier incarnation as an SF fan. Did a darned good fanzine last century:


  25. Yes, Andrew, that's me. Fanzines (and being a fanzine publisher) played a big role in my becoming a professional writer, just as it did for many writers of my generation and the generations before me. I'm not certain how large a role fanzines play in the careers of newer writers, or if things like blogs and group blogs (like SleuthSayers) have supplanted that role.

    Bryce and Alison: I have done a small amount of self-publishing, making previously published work and a few pieces of never-before-publshed work available for Kindle, but most of my work is traditionally published. You can find much of it on Amazon by visiting my Amazon page:

    And you can find even more under the Amazon page for my pseudonym Rolinda Hay:

  26. That's a really interesting piece for me in particular, because I only started submitting stories 18 month ago, when I was heading for 60. Conscious of the time factor, I went single-mindedly for 'market-first, and have sold thirty plus stories since. But I'm now looking at 'write-first', because these days there are a limited number of high paying markets in any single genre. My one advantage was that I subverted - I sold a number of stories which had direct or peripheral connections, even though they were fine as standalones. So I managed to get a linked collection out this Autumn, which effectively paid twice. Cheating, perhaps. Many thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  27. Thanks for sharing your journey, Michael. I enjoy articles where successful authors divulge facts and numbers.


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