02 November 2021

Killing Dreams One Rejection at a Time, the Sequel

Michael Bracken, Dream Killer
In my April 6, 2021, SleuthSayers post “Killing Dreams One Rejection at a Time,” I wrote about my experience reading 160 submissions for Black Cat Mystery Magazine’s forthcoming cozy issue. Let me tell you, the days when I could kick back and relax with a mere 160 submissions is but a fond memory.

BCMM’s most recent submission window ran September 1 through September 30. Over the course of the month I received 264 submissions, and I responded in one way or another—rejection, hold for second read, and/or acceptance—September 5–October 26.

Of the 264 submissions, three were withdrawn before I could read them, and I accepted eight stories upon first reading. Of those eight, two were stories I had previously read when they were submitted to, but were not appropriate for, an anthology I edited.

From the balance, I held 59 for a second read and, of those, ultimately accepted 32, for a total of 40 acceptances. That’s a 15% overall acceptance rate.

But that also means I rejected 221 submissions. If you’re gnashing your teeth right now, I can safely presume yours was one of those stories.


Despite my best intentions, I did not read every word of every submission. Before I explain some of the reasons for rejection, let me note that all of the stories I held for a second reading, and many that I did not, were publishable as is or with minimal editorial work.

So, why did so many stories fail to make the cut? The most obvious is limited space. My goal was to fill two and a half issues, which, depending on story lengths, requires approximately 25 stories. By accepting 40, I filled approximately four issues. I won’t know exactly how many issues I filled until I have time to organize everything and schedule the stories for specific issues.


Other editors have suggested that once submission volume reaches a certain point, they no longer look for reasons to accept stories, but instead look for reasons to reject. I found myself doing the same.

Because this was an open submission period, I read stories representing all sub-genres of crime fiction. So, I didn’t see any clear subject-matter trends, such as an abundance of stories with theatrical settings, the way I did when reading submissions for the cozy issue. What I did find were three things that weighed heavily against writers:

1. Not starting the story in the right place. Several stories began too soon or provided too much back story before anything of significance happened.

2. Bad dialog. Several stories began well enough, but the first patch of dialog kicked me out of the story.

3. Weird formatting. As I mentioned in my April 6, 2021, post, previous experience has proven that a writer unfamiliar with the fundamentals of Microsoft Word is going to be difficult to work with. In the past, I’ve been willing to suffer the pain of working with such an author, but this time I was not. Bad formatting led to rejection, even for otherwise fine stories.


The most stories submitted by a single author: Six.

The most stories accepted from a single author: Two—a pair of stories by a female author and another pair by a male author.

Accepted stories written by two authors in collaboration: One.

Accepted stories translated from another language into English: One.

Five accepted stories came from authors with addresses in Canada, two came from authors with addresses in the Netherlands, and the rest came from authors with US mailing addresses.

Twelve stories were written or co-written by female authors. The rest were written by male authors or authors whose bylines were not gender-specific.

I wish I had time to delve deeper into the data to determine, for example, how the ratio of male/female acceptances correlates to the ratio of male/female submissions and how the ratio of accepted stories from non-US residents correlates to the number of submissions from non-U.S. residents.

Alas, I don’t.


With a 15% acceptance rate, the odds are clearly stacked against any one particular submission, so your goal as a writer is to improve your odds. If you’re submitting to Black Cat Mystery Magazine or to any project I edit, you can improve your odds considerably by doing the following:

1. Read, understand, and follow the guidelines. Though I have seen many submissions from writers who didn’t follow guidelines, this, thankfully, was not a significant issue during this submission window.

2. Learn how to properly use Microsoft Word. Seriously. A writer not knowing how to use Microsoft Word is like a carpenter not knowing how to use a hammer.

3. Don’t dawdle. Get your reader into the story as quickly as possible.

4. Master dialog. Bad dialog is a story killer.

And then let me see your stories the next time Black Cat Mystery Magazine has an open submission window. I look forward to reading them.


  1. Michael, thanks! I remember reading about a legendary pulp writer back in the 1920s and 30s who would have sold more stories except most of his submissions were handwritten!

  2. I always find an editor's comments helpful, Michael, and yours even more than most. This is a great lesson in how to self-edit a story after it's supposedly "finished."

    Your statistics are especially enlightening, and your advice so clear that anyone who takes writing seriously can learn from it.

  3. Michael, this has to be one of the most helpful posts I've seen on the matter of rejection and how to avoid it. Several points you made are those I've also heard from other fine editors: (1) good stories are often rejected for space reasons, (2) bad dialogue can sink a story faster than almost anything else, and (3) stories must be properly formatted to be considered.

    I also agree with what you said about looking more for bad stories than for good stories. I think I first read this in a book by Noah Lukeman called The First Five Pages. He said editors/publishers/agents read submissions looking first for those to throw OUT, not those they want to keep--and I wondered about that until I judged several fiction contests and edited an anthology. I then understood what he meant. Getting your stories accepted, for either a magazine or an anthology, doesn't only mean you must do the right things; it means you mustn't do the wrong things. Publishing is a crazy business . . .

    A great and informative column, as usual.

    1. John, Chris Roerden has the same advice as Lukeman in her marvelous book Don't Sabotage Your Submission. She lists 24 "Red Flags" that screeners use to save time, and two of them are bad dialogue and too much backstory. She suggests that backstory often means, as Michael says above, that you've started your story in the wrong place.

    2. Steve, I heard a good example of the too-much-backstory issue once. The writing teacher tells her student, after giving him a bad grade, "You started your story on page 7." "You're wrong," he says--"I started my story on page 1. See?" She shakes her head and says, "You started typing on page 1. You started your story on page 7."

    3. Damn, that's good. And Michael, the whole piece is a solid hunk of great advice. Thanks. Let those with eyes, read it, as they say.

  4. Any smart author would use this information to gain an edge over the mass of authors submitting stories.

    Thanks for the clear feedback.

  5. Thanks for the feedback. I am so glad I don't have to read 264 submissions: bless you for having the patience to do it.

  6. R.T.'s right. Use this information. Michael, you are a busy, busy man. Thank goodness you're young.

  7. This is an excellent post. Thanks so much!

  8. Very helpful post. I can remember, many years ago (too many to admit) all hat really mattered was that your submission was typewritten and double spaced. Nowadays, with electronic submissions, proper formatting is very, very important.

  9. Michael, I read this when it came on-line last night and found myself thinking what everyone else has said. Your article is extremely helpful giving us a peek into the editor's world. Thanks, Michael.


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>