18 July 2020

Stranded During the Pandemic

It's been 22 years since editor Andrew Gulli launched the rebirth of The Strand Magazine, which was originally published in London and turned out 711 monthly issues from 1891 to 1950. The new version is quarterly instead of monthly and published in the U.S., but still includes short fiction by some of the world's best-known writers.

And, occasionally, by me. My latest story there, "Biloxi Bound," is my 19th in The Strand, and its path to publication turned out a little different.


Everything started off as usual. I wrote it the way I write most of my stories: I came up with a plot, I then created a few of what I hoped were interesting characters (six, in this case) to do what needed to be done, I plugged in a couple of storyline reversals (I can't resist that, no matter what), and during the rewriting phase I tried to smooth out any problems that popped up. The whole thing took about three weeks--two weeks of brainstorming and a few days of writing and editing. The writing itself went pretty fast, as it usually does, because I'd spent so much time putting together a mental outline beforehand. As I've said before at this blog, I admire the seat-of-the-pantsers who don't have to bother with all that planning, but this is the way I do it, and the process is actually fun for me.

Anyhow, when I was done with the story I started looking for a place to send it. Stories of mine don't sit around the house long--I kick them out and tell them to go try to make something of themselves. The embarrassing thing is, I always advised my writing students to let their work cool off for a few days or weeks before submitting it . . . but I rarely do that, myself. I probably should. I also told them to do as I say and not as I do.


My first mystery-market choices for this story were the same as always: AHMM, EQMM, The Strand, Black Cat Mystery Magazine, Mystery Weekly, Down & Out: The Magazine, maybe two or three more. There weren't any current anthology calls that seemed to match my story, and Woman's World wasn't a possibility because of the story's length and format. I should mention also that those half-dozen publications that I listed meet all the requirements I think are important. They pay their writers, they reach a lot of readers, and they have editors I know and respect.

If I remember correctly, I chose Strand Magazine for this story because I thought it might be a good fit for them in a couple of ways: subjectwise, it was a modern-day urban crime story with all kinds of gangster involvement and plot twists, and lengthwise, it was about 4800 words (their sweet spot is between 2K and 6K). But one never knows. I had sent The Strand several other stories over the past months that seemed to fit also, and I'd never received any word back about those. In military terms, they were deployed but MIA. Regardless, I had a pretty good feeling about this one, so one morning in mid-February I sent it in and crossed my fingers.


I was pleasantly surprised. The editor emailed me only a few days later, saying he wanted to publish it. The quick turnaround was unusual, but not quite a record; I once had a short story accepted via email two hours after submission to an overseas market (but that's, literally, another story). Record or not, I was pleased. I did find myself wondering, though, which issue this story would wind up in. The acceptance note didn't say. I figured it was too late for it to make The Strand's Feb-May issue (sometimes called the Spring Issue), which usually comes out in early March. The truth is, it didn't matter a lot--I was just happy that the story had found a good home.

As fate would have it, the editor emailed me a day or two later to tell me they had decided to rush my story into the Spring Issue, so it would be on newsstands shortly and I would be getting my contributor's copy right away. Another fast and unexpected turnaround.

And then everything changed.


As the Covid-19 cases appeared and began to spread here in this country, I kept writing and sending out stories as always, but I started noticing delays across the board, at several markets--delays in payments, responses, contributor's copies, subscription copies, anthology edits, and publication of already accepted stories. Especially in the case of my Strand story. I heard nothing more about it or the issue or the magazine for several months. Throughout March, April, May, and most of June, their website and Facebook page continued to say the "current issue" was still the Holiday Issue (Oct-Jan). Once I thought about it, though, I realized the silence wasn't that surprising--The Strand is published in Birmingham, Michigan, and nearby Detroit was hit fairly early and fairly hard by virus outbreaks. I could picture a mostly empty building and a staff struggling to do their work from home.

I certainly didn't inquire about it. I figured the folks at the magazine, and everyone else too, had more to worry about than listening to the whining of an impatient author. I just kept writing other stories and sort of forgot about it.


So I was all the more pleased to see a post at the Strand Facebook page in late June announcing the publication of the delayed Spring Issue. Shortly afterward, from its description on their website, I found that the issue also contains stories by Irish author Eoin Colfer and The Papers of Sherlock Holmes author David Marcum, and a previously unpublished story by Louisa May Alcott. There's also an interview with Alan Furst. I've not yet seen anything except the cover, but I expect my subscription copy and contributor's copy will be here soon. The issue might be on the shelves of my local bookstores right now, for all I know, but I haven't darkened their doors since early March.

As for my story itself, "Biloxi Bound" is a tale about two brothers, Mitch and Danny White, who own and operate a small diner called the White House in an unnamed northeastern city. The problem is, their cafe's neighborhood has become a hotbed of violent crime, and there are even rumors that a Chicago mobster has recently moved into the area. As their business steadily declines, one of the brothers, Danny, comes up with the idea that they should relocate to the relatively obscure (and considerably warmer) Mississippi Gulf Coast, a region that he's heard features wealth and casinos on the one hand and regular old country folks on the other. Mitch agrees; it sounds like a plan. But there's also a growing romantic relationship between Mitch and a mysterious customer at the diner, and--as you might guess with this kind of story--crime arrives in a big way at the White House before the two can make good their escape.

So that's the lowdown on this story and the strange trip it took to get into print. Have the rest of you experienced similar delays or other problems at the markets you work with? Are they still ongoing (the problems, not the markets)? How has that affected you and your literary output? How has the pandemic in general affected your output? If you're isolating yourself, and I hope you are, are you treating that isolation as a rare break from work or a chance to produce even more? I've heard some writer friends say they're writing like never before, and others say they've had writer's block ever since all this began.

In closing, I have a piece of good news. Yesterday afternoon The Strand accepted another of my stories, this one submitted several months ago. Once again they didn't specify when it'll be published, but I'm not complaining. I'm just pleased it got a thumbs-up. I wish all my stories did, the first time out.

As for "Biloxi Bound," if you happen to read it I hope you'll like it. With the world as it is, you might see it before I do.

Wait a second. Was that the mailman I just heard . . . ?


  1. Congratulations yet again, John. (You know what YAC means!) And I love those plot reversals. Well done!

  2. Nice story of how it went down. Your output is amazing at times. Goes to show what a writer can do if the writer just keeps writing. Beginners should take note. Find that opening and run to daylight.

  3. Congratulations yet again, John. Your constant output amazes me.

    I'm still writing, but I really miss the time at the health club during the pandemic. I do/did a lot of my rewriting and editing in my head while on a cardio machine, and I wish I still could. When I'm less active, I find that my brain turns to mush along with my butt.

    And, as always, it's good to see your favorite markets.

    Stay safe.

  4. Congratulations on your stories!

  5. Hi Leigh--many thanks! (Youth Advisory Committee? Just kiddin.) As for plot twists, I love 'em. When somebody says "surprise ending" I think first of PRESUMED INNOCENT, or THE USUAL SUSPECTS. Going one direction and then being thrown into another is a fun thing, when reading AND writing.

    O'Neil, every story's story is different, isn't it? As for my output, remember I do mostly shorts. If you add up the wordcount of all your novels and stories, you'd be way ahead of me. And yes, all of us have to keep writing, all the time.

    Thanks, guys, for the comments.

  6. Steve, I too find that when I'm exercising I ALWAYS seem better able to construct storylines, figure out plot problems, etc., than when I'm sitting down. During all this isolation, our back yard is my private health club. I've worn a sort of footpath through the trees back there, and with all the heat and humidity here lately, a 30-minute walk on my "track" is a pretty good workout.

    I can't imagine anyone going to a gym right now. The idea of people huffing and puffing all around me, whether they're socially distanced or not, isn't appealing. By the way, I've recently written a couple of Covid-era crime stories, with masked characters, limited gatherings, etc. They were fun! We'll see how they do, out there in the real world--they've already been sent out to do battle.

    Thanks for your kind note. Keep writing!

  7. Whoa, Janice, I just saw your comment. Thank you for the kind words!

    Be safe!

  8. Congratulations, John! And it's always interesting to see other peoples' methods and way of approaching things.

  9. Thanks, Paul. Yep, we all do things differently. I think the thing I almost always do--start with the plot--is different from the way most other writers write. A lot of my author friends, and many of my students when I was teaching, start by creating interesting characters, and only then give them something to do. I start with a storyline and then plug in the characters to do what the story requires. Different paths to get to the same place, I guess.

    Thanks for the note. Keep up the great writing!

  10. I need to create a macro that allows me to type, oh, Apple-JF, and it'll immediately print out "Congratulations, John, on your latest sale! Keep 'em coming, buddy!"

    Hmm, while I'm at it, I guess I also ought to program Apple-MB for Michael Bracken....


  11. You're too kind, Josh. As soon as you get that programmed, I'll probably have a long dry spell. I've just been fortunate lately.

    Hope all's well with you, in your new digs. Have a good weekend!

  12. As always, congratulations on yur successes.

    As far as writing style goes, I'm a seat of the pantser. I start with the germ of an idea and write, discovering the story as I go. The drawback is that I do a lot of rewriting and reimagining as I go. It slows things down, but-- that's what works for me.

    You mentioned an acceptance in two hours. Wow! In the days of mailed manuscripts, I once received three rejections in the mail in one day. I considered that a sign of a good work ethic-- get the stories out there. In the digital age my record is a same day rejection. Unfortunately, no records for rapid acceptances. Oh, well. They take a while but are worth the wait.


  13. Congratulations on both short stories being accepted, John. I wish I had your output. I also wish I had the amount of time you have for writing. Maybe one day...

  14. Thanks, Bob! As for outlining vs. pantsing, I admire you--I wish I could just sit down and start writing, the way you do. I have to have most of it mapped out in my mind, first, before I ever start typing. It usually changes when the writing starts (sometimes it changes a lot), but I must have that path in mind, all the way to the destination, before I climb in the car and start driving. If I didn't I would either wind up in the wrong place or wander around forever looking for the right place. But you're exactly right: what works for you is what you have to do!!

    That fast acceptance was a fluke. It had never happened before and will never happen again. The story was a very short one, and I wrote the whole thing in only an hour or so, late one afternoon, and sent it immediately via email to a magazine in the UK. The editor happened to be staying late in the office that night (he said, when he emailed me back two hours later), and because my story was so short he saw it come in and read it and liked it, and sent me a contract right away. The thing is, even though it almost never happens that way, it CAN happen because of the electronic submission process.

    By the way, I too have received same-day rejections. I just try to think about them for very long.

  15. Hey Barb! Thanks so much.

    You are exactly right, about having the TIME to write. Makes all the difference in the world. I still wrote a lot when I was gainfully employed, but it was at odd hours. I retired when I was 52, after thirty years at the same company, and since then I have been happily worthless and writing almost all the time.

    Take care, and keep in touch!

  16. Congratulations, John! The Strand is a market that I've not only never been able to crack, but when I do send them something, I've never even heard back from them. Oh, well. Meanwhile, keep it up.
    I, too, write better when I can take a walk - today it's too hot & humid (108 degree heat index), so I just wear a pattern around my house, but other days, I'm down by the Big Sioux River, walking where there's almost always a breeze.

  17. Thank you, Eve. With regard to the submissions, it's not just you. When they reject my stories, they never respond to me either. That makes it hard, but when they do accept one it's worth it. (Don't stop sending them stories!) Woman's World has started doing the same thing--they let you know if it's an acceptance, they don't if it's a rejection. What I do is let my stories languish there awhile, and if they're not accepted after several months I send a withdrawal note or (sometimes) just rework the stories into a longer format and send them elsewhere.

    As for the walking, I lasted only twenty minutes outside this morning, then came inside and did what you did: we have a long house, so I traipsed back and forth from my little office on one end to our bedroom on the other and back again for ten more minutes. Just too dern hot outside, already! The difference is, your winters would freeze me like an icicle.

    Keep up the great writing. I'll always remember sending stories in to AHMM years ago while being inspired by seeing your stories there!

  18. Thank you, John! I'll definitely take your advice.

  19. I always enjoy reading about your process, John. You're a pro, and I'm inspired by how you regularly turn out stories that are invariably of such great quality. I've never even tried to submit to The Strand; I can't even find their actual submission guidelines/process, and for a long time I assumed they only solicited stories.

  20. Thank you, Joseph--it's always good to hear from you.

    I haven't seen a set of their guidelines in a long time. I'll get with you offline and fill you in on what I know about their likes and dislikes, but the main thing is: mystery stories (a crime has to be integral to the plot) of between 2000 and 6000 words, and I believe they still want first submissions to be snailmailed to their postal address in Michigan, which you can get from their website. Editor's name is Andrew F. Gulli. And be sure to include your phone number in your contact info--Andrew has been known to call with an acceptance. Remember, though,they don't usually respond with anything but an acceptance. Hope this helps!

  21. Inspiring article, John. I've changed my acceptance/rejection process for the 2020 BOULD Awards Anthology. In the 2018 and 2019 editions, I waited till the submission window closed on the 31st of the year, which then caused a rush to get the books published by late November. This year, I've started sending emails just recently, and for the rest of the year and the 2021 edition, I'll be sending those within a month. The judges have never taken more than three weeks to get their scores back to me; it's normally about a week and a half.

    This past week, I did get one 70-word story in that I accepted as soon as I read it, before even sending it off to the judges. A few tweaks and it's ready to go.

    The lockdown here in SW Florida didn't really affect me, except that I found time to write first drafts of 13 of my weird, wacky shorts for my next collection ... and I missed my times at the beach.

  22. Congratulations, John. I continue to admire your productivity as well as your individual stories. For me the lockdown hasn't been bad at all. I've been writing a lot more and enjoying a lot of walking and reading, but every now and then my brain sags and I take a few days off, focusing on admin stuff, and then go back to fiction. Fortunately, we're having a beautiful summer up here in New England, which makes everything easier to take.

  23. Thanks, Jake. And congrats to you on the success of the BOULD anthologies. I'm sure that's been fun but challenging as well. Sounds like you have the process down pat.

    As for the lockdown, I suppose full-time writers (I'm sort of a full-time bum who spends most of his time writing) have had it a bit easier than most. We're isolated anyhow, most of the time, and--sure enough--I've heard a lot of folks say the same thing you're saying: the shelter-in-place orders and all the other restrictions have provided an opportunity for quite a bit of uninterrupted writing. Hey, the beach'll still be there for you when all this is done.

    Thanks again for the comment.

  24. Hey Susan -- I didn't see your note before replying to Jake. Thank you for the kind words.

    Something you mentioned made me think again about some of the rare good things about the pandemic: not only are writers writing more, a LOT of people seem to be reading more. I wonder if magazine subscription rates, Amazon book sales, etc., have increased along with that. I suspect they have--I know my publisher's moved quite a few of my books lately. And I would've been watching more movies as well, but I already watch too many.

    Like you, we've had good weather here, and that makes being stuck at home a lot easier, too.

    Keep up the good writing, and stay in touch. Thanks again for stopping in here at SS.

  25. Congratulations yet again!

    But I have a question.

    Why is a monthly magazine called Mystery Weekly?

  26. Thank you, JLW. Just trying to do all those many things you've taught me!

    You do ask the hard questions. Maybe it's a magazine that's published monthly but that you're supposed to read weekly. (Yes, Billy, you'll need to wait until Wednesday to take another look at that story . . .)

    Anyone know the answer to this? Bueller? Anyone?

  27. James and John:

    From Mystery Weekly's website: "The name Mystery Weekly refers to the stories published in our weekly newsletter. These sample stories are intended to build awareness of our paid monthly issues, which include our weekly stories plus bonus stories and content."

  28. Michael, I should've known you'd either know the answer or find the answer.


    JLW, this is no longer a mystery.

  29. John, congratulations and I wish you continued success.

  30. Hey Amy! Thank you so much. And thanks for stopping in at SleuthSayers!

  31. John, I write as you do - start with a plot, and then create the perfect characters to make it happen. Yes, even for a novel, I do that. Stephen King of course would say that of course it's about plot, in that that's what your characters *do*! Must find that quote somewhere. Congrats on yet more terrific stories in the Strand! I have yet to crack that one :)

  32. Hi Melodie -- Yep, that's proven to be the best way for me to write a story. Plot first, then characters. I've forgotten too what King said about characters first or plot first, but I do remember that he once said the plot is everything, because when a reader picks up a piece of fiction, he or she is thinking "tell me a story." And that if the story's good enough, you can get away with a lot of misfires in the other areas. I think my favorite quote of his involves the difference between literary and genre. King said, in an interview I saw once, that literary fiction is about extraordinary people doing ordinary things, and genre fiction is about ordinary people doing extraordinary things. I think those are perfect definitions.

    King also says he never outlines his stories and novels--he just sits down and starts writing and only then knows where the story will take him. Elmore Leonard said the same thing. But I'm fairly convinced that they do (or did, in Leonard's case) have a pretty good idea beforehand of where the story's going, because they've been through the process so many times. I once heard that if guy has built a hundred houses, he can probably build his second hundred houses without needing a blueprint.

    Anyhow, thanks for the comment. Keep up the great writing!

  33. Hi, John. Great post, as always. Congratulations for your acceptance at the Strand. That's a high bar to hurdle! And I know you've done it more than once. I do that circuit around the house most every day because it's way too hot and humid here in south Texas to walk far outside in any comfort. And I started thinking about what to do next in my current work in progress during that walk. I sit down to write after it. The other day I read about jotting down ideas just before going to sleep at night, letting the subconscious work on next steps. I'm trying that next. Fastest acceptances for me was with my first published novel--emailed one day, accepted two days later, and just the other day, a short accepted within about four hours via email. What a jolt of joy that can produce. Keep writing. Obviously your way is working great for you.

  34. Jan, I think you've found the formula, with those fast acceptances. Good for you!

    I think the only way to do this and have any success at all is just to keep writing and keep submitting stories. If they're rejected, send them out again, and if they're good they will eventually find a home. I've always got at least one story idea in my head, so when I finish one story I usually start up another that same day, sort of the way a chainsmoker lights a new cigarette off the butt of the one before. As for when to do the brainstorming, I do it almost all the time. I even find myself thinking about stories at night after going to bed, but I try not to because if I get too much into it then, I can't sleep. I have always maintained that the most fun I have with all this is the plotting, before I even sit down and start to write, and the most fun I have while writing is the dialogue, because I absolutely LOVE writing dialogue. Description and exposition not so much, but I know all of them are important.

    Anyhow, keep doing what you're doing, and keep me posted. Thanks for the insights!

  35. John,
    As usual, you are both kind and generous in your blog sharing great information/tips and in your comments. I love reading about your process--when I stop and think about it, plot does usually come first in my short stories and then I see the characters that will make it happen--for longer pieces, my novels, it was/is a combo of both.
    Still trying to make the Strand, tho Andrew did take a piece of mine, non-fiction, for their blog which made me very happy. Look forward to reading this issue.
    Joan Leotta

  36. Hey Joan--thank you, and thanks for stopping in here at SS.

    I too like hearing about the process each of us uses when coming up with piece of fiction. I know a LOT of folks who choose their characters first--or probably, most often, one character--and then "give them something to do," which means building a story around them. Other writer friends say they sometimes start with a captivating setting and then imagine interesting things happening there. And a few have told me they begin first with a theme or life lesson and then come up with a plot that would deliver that theme (which I think would be the hardest, and the least fun, but that's just me). As has been said here in these comments, whatever works, works. I suspect there are writers who use a combination of these approaches, or different approaches depending on the story. I do know that plot almost always comes first for me, because without that I wouldn't know what kinds of characters to create.

    Wishing you great success with all your stories and novels. Thanks again, and keep in touch!


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