10 December 2019

Pull on Your Galoshes, We’re Headed into the Slush Pile

Earlier this year I joined Black Cat Mystery Magazine as co-editor, replacing the irreplaceable Carla Coupe. Unlike Carla, who performed multiple duties for Wildside Press prior to her retirement, my primary responsibility as the junior co-editor is to read and assess submissions.

This isn’t new territory for me—I’ve edited six published anthologies, including, most recently, The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods (Down & Out Books), and another (Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir) that’s scheduled for publication next year. I also co-created and co-edit (with Trey R. Barker) the invitation-only serial novella anthology series Gun + Tacos, and I’m currently reading submissions for Mickey Finn 2 and the second season of Guns + Tacos, and I’ve begun work on yet another anthology to be named later.

There is a distinct difference between reading slush for my own anthologies and reading slush for Black Cat Mystery Magazine. The most obvious distinction is the type of stories appropriate for each. My anthologies have all been themed, and most have favored hardboiled, noir, and/or private eye stories. The stories in BCMM are more representative of the many subgenres of mystery.

The second distinction is the decision-making process. With my anthologies I make the final decisions and the anthologies succeed or fail due to those decisions. BCMM, on the other hand, has two decision makers. Though John Betancourt, as publisher and senior co-editor makes final decisions, the co-editorship is structured such that every accepted story has been approved by both editors.

Though there’s not yet any interesting statistical information to report on my most recent editorial efforts, the seventy-four stories in my first five anthologies earned seven award nominations (Anthony, Derringer, Edgar, Shamus, etc.) and four “Other Distinguished Mystery Stories” or “Honorable Mentions” in annual best-of-year anthologies.


All of the above is to establish my bona fides before this:

Editors often discuss the “indefinable something” that separates an accepted submission from a rejected submission. We sit on panels and discuss plot and setting and characterization. We debate whether certain words—such as Dumpster/dumpster—have lost their trademark status and can now be rendered all lowercase. We arm wrestle over the use or non-use of the Oxford comma. We do all of these things when talking to writers and amongst ourselves, but we never seem to mention aloud one of the most telling signs that a manuscript will be rejected.

The manuscript itself.

Sure, we often tell writers to follow Shunn or some similar format, but the appearance of a manuscript when printed on paper isn’t all that we see. With the vast majority of manuscripts now submitted as Word documents, I’ve discovered how little many writers know about using one of the primary tools of their trade.

And, perhaps not surprisingly, the writers least familiar with Word also seem to be the writers most likely to have their submissions rejected.

If I open a file and discover a return at the end of every line as if the story were written on a typewriter, or if I see the title centered on the page through the use of a zillion spaces, or if I see any of several other signs that the writer has not mastered the fundamentals of Word, I’m already negatively predisposed toward the manuscript.


Because the writing often displays the same inattention to detail.

I read anyhow because I am sometimes surprised. Sometimes.


If I were king of the world, the czar of publishing, or in some other authoritarian position to impose my will upon writers, I would do the following: Make it mandatory for every writer to master the basics of Word.

Perhaps we could start by having every creative writing program offer a mandatory class in the use of Word as part of the degree plan. Perhaps we could have every writing conference offer a mandatory seminar in the use of Word. Perhaps we could have every critique group treat themselves to an annual refresher course from their most experienced tech-savvy member (or from someone outside the group, if appropriate).

Perhaps, and this may be a radical thought, we could suggest that writers and would-be writers read the instruction manual, use the help menu, or use a search engine to find instructions on the internet for how to do things such as indent a paragraph, center a line of text, insert an em-dash, insert headers and automatically number pages, and do any of a number of other things that should already be part of a writer’s skill set.

Love it or hate it, Word is the de facto word processing program, and it is a fundamental tool of the trade. If you don’t know how to use the tools of your trade, you hobble yourself. Sure, a brain surgeon might be able to repair your aneurysm with a pipe wrench, but how confident would you feel on that operating room table when he opened up his toolbox?

So, before I’ve even read a word of your manuscript, show me that you know how to use the tools of your trade. Then show me you can write.

Recently published stories include: “The Town Where Money Grew on Trees” in Tough, November 5, 2019, “The Show Must Go On” in Black Cat Mystery Magazine #5, “Who Done It” in Seascape: The Best New England Crime Stories 2019 (Level Best Books), and “Love, or Something Like it” in Crime Travel (Wildside Press).

Earlier this month subscribers to Guns + Tacos received episode 6 of the first season, “A Beretta, Burritos and Bears” by James A. Hearn. Subscribers also received a bonus story that I wrote, “Plantanos con Lechera and a Snub-Nosed .38.” If you want to read all six episodes and the bonus story, there’s still time to subscribe!


  1. Best of luck with your new role wrangling the slush pile!

  2. Great advice, Michael. I'm happy to say that I've learned (I won't say "mastered") most of the skills you mention.

    Now, if I could just figure out how to plot...

    Best of luck in the slush pile, too.

  3. Wow, I'm shocked. As you know, Michael, I've also edited a number of anthologies, but I've never — except for once upon a time, way back in the '80s, with one particular author I won't name here — seen the sort of sloppy presentation you describe. I guess maybe that's because the things I've edited have either been reprint collections or by-invitation-only, so I'm getting work that's already passed through the hands of a previous editor or was at least prepared by an author with enough of a track record to know how to prepare a professional ms. Now at long last I understand why it's called a "slush" pile. Bless you for your patience!

  4. God bless you as you wade through the slush pile.

  5. I hope this advice is taken

    I did a little slush pile reading back in the 1990s before internet submissions. I remember one woman writer who submitted her short stories printed on heavy-weight pink 50% silk paper and used a hard-to-read cursive font. One man sent his on gray 100% cotton paper. He explained he had to put everything in bold for it to be clear on his nice paper. One 15-year old sumitted an pretty good story on loose-leaf paper. He had excellent penmanship. Although his story was rejected it went with cudos from the editor and lots of encouragement.

  6. When editing for a client, Michael, the first thing I do is format the manuscript into something readable. I can't imagine the extra work it takes to manually press the Return key at the margin of a page.


  7. Has anyone else heard a rumor that MS is making or planning to make users RENT Word and other Office applications installed on new computers? I shudder to think what might happen if there are disincentives for us all to use the same program. Also, my beef as an editor of anthologies has been more with authors who don't know how to use Track Changes than with those who can't format Word, still double space between sentences, and insist on using fonts other than Times New Roman.

  8. Liz, Well, basically we do rent MS Office, because we have to pay a yearly fee or not get any upgrades, which in turn means that if editors demand certain things that our old version might not have, we'd be screwed. So... yearly fee of almost $100.00.

  9. Thanks for your comments, everyone.

    And, Elizabeth, I'm with you about writers who don't know how to use Track Edits...and even worse are the ones who say they do and then demonstrate that they don't.

    Unfortunately, software is moving to a subscription/lease basis rather than outright purchase. Microsoft Office is just the latest one I have to deal with. The Adobe suite of tools—many of them necessary for the creation of printed products—moved to a subscription/lease basis a few years ago. The good news: the per-year lease for the entire package is substantially less than what it once cost to purchase them all outright. The bad news: Srop paying and your software stops working. Gah!

  10. Always good to get your perspective, Michael.

    The rising cost of software is one reason I switched from Windows to Linux more than ten years ago. Linux is free and maintained for free by volunteer programmers. It's designed from the ground up to run better on computers than Windows, meaning it can run on older or lower-end computers than Windows can. Changing from Windows to Linux is an adjustment, but the free word processing and image editing programs can open and save in widely-used formats such as MS Word .doc, .rtf, .jpg, and .pdf.

    Making the switch isn't for everyone, but I'm glad I did.


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