01 December 2020

Once More, With Feeling

Though writing has gone well this year, I’ve spent a great deal more time on the editorial side of the desk than in any previous year. Editing involves everything from pitching ideas to writing guidelines, reading submissions, editing accepted submissions, formatting files for publication, reviewing publisher copyedits, reviewing covers, assisting in promotional activities, and so much more.

Rereading the full ms. of
Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir
vol. 2. Note the pandemic-
influenced hairdo.
So, this year, in the midst of a pandemic that has shut down or curtailed wide swaths of our economy, I’ve worked (in one way or another) on multiple issues of Black Cat Mystery Magazine, three volumes of Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir, two seasons of Guns + Tacos (with Trey R. Barker), Jukes & Tonks (with Gary Phillips), and Groovy Gumshoes. Some of these were or will be published in 2020, some in 2021, and some in 2022.

Additionally, and not mystery related, I edited six issues of Texas Gardener, a bi-monthly non-fiction consumer magazine, and 52 issues of Seeds, a weekly electronic newsletter. Though there are some similarities in the editorial processes between a non-fiction consumer magazine and a mystery anthology, that’s a discussion best saved for another time.


The mystery projects I’ve worked on this year have included both invitation-only and open-call, each with unique challenges, but once submissions start rolling in there isn’t much difference in what happens: A great deal of reading.

1. The first read is cursory. When I receive a submission for any project, I give it a quick read to determine if it adheres to the guidelines and is competently written. Some submissions don’t survive this stage and are rejected. Other stories are held for a second reading.

2. The second read is an in-depth examination of the manuscript and the story. At this point I’m looking at several things. Among them: Does the plot hold together? Do the characters engage me? How much work is involved in preparing the story for publication? If it’s a submission to a themed anthology, does it differ in any way from other submissions? 

3. An accepted story gets a third read. This is the editing pass, a combination of developmental editing, copyediting, and formatting, where I examine every element and correct errors (spelling, grammar), confirm factual information (dates, product names), ensure consistency (character names, place names), and look to plug plot holes. Were I editing novels, development editing, copyediting, and formatting would likely be three separate and distinct processes. Because I work with short stories, I tend to do them at the same time.

4. The edited manuscript usually* gets sent to the author with corrections, changes, suggestions, and questions inserted into the document via Microsoft Word’s track changes function. Any extensive comments or revision requests are included in the cover letter, and the fourth read happens when the manuscript is returned. This read is to ensure that the author has addressed every correction, change, suggestion, and question. This read also involves ensuring that the author did not insert new errors and that I did not miss any in my original editing. This stage may be repeated several times depending on the author and the story. 

5. After all the mss. are merged into a single file, the entire anthology gets the fifth read. This time, I’m looking to ensure consistency across all stories. For example, are words with various spellings spelled the same throughout the entire project (barbecue, barbeque, bar-b-cue, bar-b-que, BBQ), and, if not, are the different spellings justified? I also try to ensure that nothing is lost or has lost its formatting during the process of merging all the files into one.

6. The next read happens when proofs come back from the publisher. I read to see what the publisher’s copyeditor changed and why. I’m checking to ensure that everything is formatted consistently. Often, but not always, proofs are shared so that each author has one last chance to review what the publisher’s staff has done to their story.

So, by the time a story appears in an anthology or periodical I edit, I’ve read it at least six times.

And, sadly, I still miss things.


Once of the most important lessons I take away from all this reading is to be judicious in my selection process. Knowing that I will be reading a story at least six times helps ensure that I select stories I will feel as good about on my sixth reading as I did on my first, either because they were great stories or because, through working with the writer through the editing process, they have become great stories.

On the other hand, is it any wonder why I can’t keep up with all the anthologies and periodicals in my to-be-read pile?

*Sometimes a ms. is so clean there’s no reason to return it to the writer for correction or revision. Sometimes the deadline is so tight that there isn’t time to return it to the writer. At the consumer magazine we rarely involve writers in the editing process, and, as a writer, I’ve worked with many editors, both inside and outside the mystery genre, who do not involve writers in the editing process. 

Speaking of projects I’ve read at least six times:

Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir is a crime-fiction cocktail that will knock readers into a literary stupor.

Contributors push hard against the boundaries of crime fiction, driving their work into places short crime fiction doesn’t often go, into a world where the mean streets seem gentrified by comparison and happy endings are the exception rather than the rule. And they do all this in contemporary settings, bringing noir into the 21st century.

Like any good cocktail, Mickey Finn is a heady mix of ingredients that packs a punch, and when you’ve finished reading every story, you’ll know that you’ve been “slipped a Mickey.”

Contributors include: J.L. Abramo, Ann Aptaker, Trey R. Barker, Michael Bracken, Barb Goffman, David Hagerty, James A. Hearn, David H. Hendrickson, Jarrett Kaufman, Mark R. Kehl, Hugh Lessig, Steve Liskow, Alan Orloff, Josh Pachter, Steve Rasnic Tem, Mikal Trimm, Bev Vincent, Joseph S. Walker, Andrew Welsh-Huggins, and Stacy Woodson.

Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir, vol. 1 releases December 14 from Down & Out Books.


  1. Best of luck with Mickey Finn and thanks for the timely reminder of the work editors put in!

  2. Ah, the exuberance of youth. You'll show down when you reach thirty.

  3. Always interesting to hear what happens on the other side of the submission process. Thanks for the insights!

  4. I wouldn't want to be on the receiving end of your patented one-eyed glare, Michael, intimidating enough in the photo but must be terrifying in person. Don't worry about your COVID hair… my has to be a ghastly 15 inches long by now.

    I truly admire the work involved. I hadn't realized how much time was involved, but I understand why books can take a year or more to reach the market.

  5. I needed to hear more about the editing process because I get too impatient and think it all should be as easy as making a latte but no, I'm so distracted by what's wrong I stop seeing what's right and it feels like hell. Great to hear someone's got a good sight on things and looking forward to my visual improvement.

  6. I thought *I* had a busy year, Michael, but you make me look like a slacker! Long may you wave ... and I look forward to lots more fine reading over the coming years, thanks to your talented editorial hand (and eyes!)....

  7. I doubt many readers have any idea of how much work goes into compiling an anthology. When I co-founded the Larcom Review (now gone), I worked with two other readers in selecting stories, which ensured we had a broad range of fiction. But the editing all fell to me. I'm impressed with the way you've separated out the individual steps.


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