06 April 2021

Killing Dreams One Rejection at a Time

At the time I wrote “Rejected!” in 2018, I had received 2,552 rejections. I have no idea how many more I’ve added since then, and I don’t feel brave enough to count them.

Because I now edit Black Cat Mystery Magazine for Wildside Press and various anthologies for Down & Out Books, I’ve lately been sending far more rejections than I’ve been receiving. Along the way, my attitude toward rejection has changed. I once viewed rejection as evidence of editors’ inability to recognize genius. Now I realize how small a role one’s writing ability plays in rejection.


160 submissions spread over
31 days, with the greatest
number arriving on the
first and last days of the
submission window.

As I write this, the end of the submission period for Black Cat Mystery Magazine Presents Cozies—a special themed issue that follows up on last year’s private eye-themed issue—is four days in the past. I received 160 submissions and will accept approximately 10 for inclusion in the issue. As I did with the private eye issue, I may accept a few additional stories for use in non-themed issues.

Of the 160 submissions, I held 60 stories for a second reading, which means 100 have already been returned to writers. Some of these were great stories, as evidenced by their acceptance elsewhere.


There are many reasons stories didn’t make the first cut and others may not survive the second cut. Among the reasons:

Not following guidelines. I was seeking a specific subset of cozy stories, as specified in the guidelines, and I received several stories that did not fit that specific subset. Additionally, BCMM has guidelines—likes and dislikes—that apply to all submissions, and some submissions did not take those guidelines into account.

Identical protagonists. Many of the submissions had a protagonist who was a mystery writer/wanna-be mystery writer/voracious mystery reader. Because so many stories shared the same generic protagonist, few of these stories stood out.

Theatrical settings. Many of the submissions had a theatrical setting, which made me think—right or wrong—that I was seeing all the stories that didn’t make the cut for Malice Domestic 15: Mystery Most Theatrical (Wildside Press, 2020). Because so many stories shared the same setting, few of them stood out.

Before submitting a
ms. created in Word, press
the paragraph symbol on
the menu bar to examine
all the weird coding you’ve
inserted. Then clean it up.
Weird Formatting. Past experience has proven that a writer unfamiliar with the fundamentals of Microsoft Word is going to be difficult to work with. To be accepted, a manuscript with weird or inconsistent formatting must be so good that I’m willing to risk the pain I will suffer when I prepare it for publication.

All the Usual Reasons. Spelling, punctuation, and grammar are important.


The 60 stories I’m holding for a second reading have survived the initial cut. How do I decide which will make the final cut and which won’t?

I wish there were a magic formula, but there isn’t. There are, however, three key elements that play a role in the next round of cuts:

Amount of work required. The less work required to prepare a manuscript for publication, the better its odds of acceptance.

How well the stories work together. The stories selected for inclusion need to work together. Stories that don’t play well with others won’t make the cut.

Editorial taste. This is the purely subjective element of editing. Every editor has likes and dislikes that play a role in decision-making. They are not always obvious, even to the editor.


I remember what it was like as a new writer, sending my submissions into the void and hoping that someone, somewhere would publish something I wrote. I remember how much I appreciated the personal notes I sometimes received with my rejections, and I wondered why every editor didn’t take the time to do the same.

I now know why. There just isn’t enough time in the day to send a personalized response to every submission.

If there’s a lesson here, it’s that editors aren’t trying to kill your dreams.

So, don’t let rejection stop you. Learn whatever you can from a rejection—whether it’s a form letter or a detailed personal response—and move forward.

Send your story to another market. Then write a new story and send it out.

It may be a cliche, but every rejection puts you one step closer to an acceptance. And once you have an acceptance, you’ll know that dream killers like me didn’t win.

Jukes & Tonks, co-edited with Gary Phillips, is coming April 19 from Down & Out Books. This anthology includes one dozen crime fiction short stories set in and around juke joints and honky-tonks from some of today’s hottest writers, including Trey R. Barker, Michael Bracken, Jonathan Brown, S.A. Cosby, John M. Floyd, Debra H. Goldstein, Gar Anthony Haywood, Penny Mickelbury, Gary Phillips, William Dylan Powell, Kimberly B. Richardson, and Stacy Woodson.

My story “Fading Memories” appears in Unnerving Magazine #15.


  1. Its a good thing for writers to hear from the other side of the editorial desk!

  2. Good post. My attitude has always been that rejection means that at least someone's seen it.
    Take another look at the story, and keep sending it out. Plus, we all know, if you can't handle rejection, the life of an artist (of any kind) is not for you.

  3. Good post, Michael! Appreciate the perspective from someone who's written and edited as much as you have. Good luck with your projects, and looking forward to the Black Cat cozy issue!

  4. Lot of good information here. Hope people read this and learn.

  5. When I edited a couple of anthologies back in the 1990s, my biggest discovery was that contrary to the conventional wisdom about slushpiles, there was a relatively small number of undeniably bad stories in the slush. But there were a LOT of "okay" "decent" "adequate" "good" stories that checked all the story boxes...but never came to life for me. It was the stories that went to a higher level, that excited or impressed me, that got serious consideration. (And there were several excellent or extremely promising stories wildly outside the guidelines. Had to reject, with some regret.)

    The distribution was like the proverbial bell curve, with smaller amounts of bad and excellent stories on each side, and the large lump of "okay" stories in the middle.

    The takeaway: "Good" isn't good enough.

    One anthology was open market (I also solicited stories from some of my favorite authors, with about a 10% success rate.) The other was mostly invitational, with several over-the-transom stories in the final selection. Overall, I enjoyed doing the open market book most; probably because opening a new batch of envelopes (Yes, kids, writers used to MAIL their stories to editors! Crazy, huh?) had a "Mystery Box" aspect to it, hope springing eternal that there'll be a new treasure in the batch.

    1. The "okay" stories clinging to the excellent side of the bell curve but not quite there are the heartbreakers. Occasionally, as an editor, I can see the problem and can suggest a fix. Sometimes what's missing is difficult to define and whatever it is is what separates great writers from the rest of us.

      I've edited both open-call and invitation-only projects, Bruce. There are advantages and disadvantages to both, but I agree with your assessment of open-call providing so many opportunities to be surprised. Discovering a new writer or a new-to-me writer makes it worth working through the many submissions an open call can generate.

  6. Michael, this is a terrific post! Thanks for giving us the other side, and so precisely. I smiled at the theatrical story mention (and yes, all my students will now know to take care about sending what was so obviously rejected by the last themed call- smile). Ditto, the aspiring mystery writer. I've just come off being a judge for the Crime Writers of Canada Arthur Ellis awards. Nuf said.

  7. Early on, I learned editors want writers to succeed. Aside from personal taste, rejection tells me I'm not doing something right. So I stew and grumble and fret, trying to figure out how to improve. It can make an additional mystery for mystery writers.

  8. So of the three key elements, there's one ('Amount of work required') that the author has complete control over, another ('How well the stories work together') that the submission guidelines give the writer partial control over, and the last ('Editorial taste') over which the writer holds no sway whatsoever.

    Not the worst odds ever, I guess...

  9. Thanks so much for this, Michael! Every writer (like me!) should read this!

  10. I'm having trouble posting a question, but I wonder when Black Cat resumes accepting submissions?

  11. Anonymous, we plan to open BCMM to general submissions late this summer. This will probably be a brief submission window—maybe a month—and we will be looking to fill issues 13 and beyond. Keep your eye on this page: https://wildsidepress.com/submissions/ for submission dates, guidelines, and more.


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