12 March 2019

It Isn’t You

by Michael Bracken

There’s a fiction writers tell one another, though the advice is aimed squarely at newcomers: Editors aren’t rejecting you, they’re rejecting your manuscript.

The editor's toolkit.
While mostly true, it isn’t the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Sometimes editors are rejecting you, but they aren’t likely to admit it.

I’ve edited a handful of crime fiction anthologies, a consumer magazine, a tabloid newspaper, and several newsletters, and I’ve held various non-editorial positions in book publishing companies.

So, I have my personal list of writers I’m likely to reject even if they send me brilliant manuscripts that exactly match my calls for submissions or publications’ guidelines, and I’ve overheard a bit of behind-the-scenes gossip as well.


Several years ago, I caught a writer plagiarizing. When confronted, the writer provided several excuses but no apology. Had I heard, “I’m sorry. I made a mistake. I’ll be more careful in the future,” I might have given that writer a second chance. I heard no apology and sensed no remorse, so that writer’s work will never again appear in anything I edit.

Many writers serve double-duty as editors. A few years ago an editor included one of my stories in an anthology and, despite a contract and the knowledge that the publisher paid the editor (side note to new writers: sometimes the publisher pays writers directly for anthology contributions; sometimes publishers pay the editors and the editors pay the writers), neither I nor other contributors of my acquaintance were ever paid. If I ever receive a submission from that editor/writer, I’ll boomerang it back.

Ready? Go.
Writing may be a solitary act, but publishing is a group effort. There are writers I’ll likely not work with again because they lack professionalism. The process—revisions, copyediting, etc.— was a colossal fustercluck, and timely responses at each step of the process were nonexistent, causing me to work harder than should be necessary. I’m an editor, not a babysitter, and I’ve no desire to again babysit these writers.

There are other reasons writers get on editors’ shit lists, but among the most common seems to be inappropriate behavior. Writers who trash editors in public forums, especially those who identify editors by name or by easily identifiable traits, burn bridges at an alarming rate. Even if those writers never say an unkind word about me, I wonder what will happen when their attention turns my direction, and I’d rather not find myself in their crosshairs.

(Note: If you think you’re one of the writers alluded to above, you’re likely not. The fact that you think you might be, though, is a sure sign you should reevaluate your professional relationships.)


Another fiction writers tell one another, and again this is aimed at new writers more than the rest of us, is that good work will always rise to the top of the slush pile.

What's that word?
While mostly true, it isn’t the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Sometimes the best manuscripts don’t have a chance because editors develop stables, whether consciously or unconsciously.

The more time I spend on the editorial side of the desk, the more I appreciate writers who deliver manuscripts on time and on subject, and the more I appreciate writers who respond promptly and professionally.

If I’m assigning work or if I’m editing an invitation-only project, there are a handful of writers who will always be at the top of my list. These writers have proven themselves time and again. Not only will they deliver what I need when I need it, they are also sufficiently self-aware of their skill and their commitments to decline opportunities outside their comfort zone or which conflict with other projects.

When I’m editing an open-call anthology, I want to discover new writers, so I try not to rely on my unofficial stable. Everything else being equal, though, there’s less risk selecting work by writers with whom I have developed strong working relationships than selecting work by writers with whom I’ve never worked. So, new writers must be just a little bit better, a little bit more imaginative, and a little bit more professional than the writers with whom I’m already familiar. New writers must give me a reason to want to work with them.


I know what I want, and the editor side of me puts the writer side of me at the top of the list of writers in my unofficial stable. But the editor side of me is a heartless bastard. I’ve twice rejected my own work for open-call anthologies because it wasn’t as good as what I found in the slush piles.

The bottle was full when I started.
The writer side of me has some choice words to say about the editor side of me, and this is the perfect forum to tell everyone what a tasteless, good-for-nothing, S.O.—

Wait. What? Did I just trash an editor in a public forum?

I guess I’ll never work with me again.

And that’s a fiction none of us can believe.

During the first half of my writing career, I wrote a great deal of erotic fiction—erotic crime fiction, erotic science fiction, erotic horror, and regular erotica—and recently some of those stories have resurfaced as audiobooks. Andrews UK/House of Erotica has released 14 of them since late 2018 and several more are in the pipeline for 2019. I won’t list titles, but if you’re interested, they aren’t difficult to find.


  1. Hard work. Oh, yes. Good article to wake up to. Some writrs are just jerks. Cool news about your erotic fiction.

  2. Michael,

    Just went back and re-read your article. There is no way I can do what you do. I tried editing a couple times and I am not good at it. My passion is writing. My wife edited an anthology called EROTIC NEW ORLEANS in 1999. She had me re-write the story I submitted twice and she was right. Working with a good editor (I would name a few but I would inadvertently omit someone) helps a writer enormously.

  3. An interesting post from the other side of the editorial desk!

  4. The hardest part of any job involving creativity is having to say "No."

    This is a great look at the reasons besides the writing why that "no" can happen. Nobody likes to think his writing isn't good enough, but it's probably better to think that than to go with the alternative, which is "You're really a jerk."

    Thanks for posting this.

  5. Agreeing with Steve here. I'd rather think that the problem is with the story and not with me.....
    And we've got that same bottle of bourbon in our bar at home too!

  6. I could never be an editor, so hats off to you, Michael, and all who do so!
    As for me as a writer, I try to behave myself, get my submissions in on time, do my rewrites when asked, and keep plugging away.
    And I do know you can get to the top from the slush pile. That's how my first mystery story got published at AHMM.

  7. You rejected yourself? Twice? Wow, that's harsh.

  8. This is great Michael! I think editing anthologies could be a tough gig-I heard one editor refer to it as "herding cats." How do you handle editing suggests to writers who don't like editing suggestions? Anyway, thanks for a peek on the other side.

  9. I've been lucky, Lawrence, because I've not yet worked with a writer who wasn't open to editing suggestions. On one hand, I don't generally accept fiction that requires substantial editing. On the other hand, many of the non-fiction writers I work with (subject-matter experts, not professional writers) expect it.

    I think the key, when editing fiction, is suggesting changes that improve the story without diminishing the writer's voice. Most stories though, require some minimum level of copyediting, if only to correct spelling and punctuation, or to conform to house style (spaces before and after em-dashes or not, spelling out numerals or not, etc.).

    I'm always open to a dialog about changes and edits, and many times the end result is better than my initial suggestions.

    Barb, one must have standards, and if the stories I find in the slush pile are better than my own potential contributions, I have to eliminate my own work.

    Eve, we all started at the bottom of the slush pile, and we worked hard to get noticed so our stories moved to the top.

    Art & Steve, looking in the mirror is tough. We are all the heroes of our own lives and, even if we are jerks, we never think of ourselves that way.

    Janice & O'Neil, I enjoy editing, but the more I do it, the more I realize I still have to learn about it...but I hope some day I'll be on the list of "good" editors.

  10. Great article, Michael. I've spent a lot of time on the editorial side of things too. It really does change your perspective as a writer. :)

  11. Michael,

    Having recently been edited by you, I can say that your editorial suggestions were a) at least 99% correct, b) improved the work, and c) did nothing to impose upon my writerly voice.

    I still can't believe you rejected yourself. Twice.

    Frank to Editor Michael: Principled move, man. I admire it.

    Frank to Writer Michael: Dude, he rejected you twice? What a dick. Don't send him anything else.

  12. Aeryn, you are so right about the change in perspective that comes from sitting on the editor's side of the desk.

    And, Frank, each half of me admires at least one of your pithy assessments.

  13. Chiming in from sunny Cozumel: Great piece, Michael. The editor side of me hasn’t yet encountered a writer too dickish to consider, thank goodness, but once upon a time I co-wrote a story with a guy who encouraged me to submit it as by me only, because he knew the editors all hated him. I refused, kept his name on what I remain convinced was a fine piece of work ... and the editors all rejected it. We finally gave it away to a semiprozine, where it was read by maybe fifty people. My co-writer has since passed on, but I’ll leave him nameless here....

  14. I don't know what I'm doing wrong, Josh, but "sunny Cozumel" never seems to be part of my daily routine.

  15. Great piece, Michael. I've done some editing and it always brings to mind the 80/20 rule: 20 percent of the people take 80 percent of the work (or however you want to characterize it).

    This is a good reminder that success in any field means more than being able to write (or code or whatever).

  16. A fun piece! But seriously, what goes better with rejection, Baby Blue, Johnny Walker, or Crown Royal? Asking for a friend.


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