04 December 2021

The Z-Files


We've seen a lot of recent posts at this blog about mystery short-story markets--their editors, content, guidelines, response times, pay rates, preferences, etc.

Today I'd like to talk about preferences again, and specifically about a story of mine that was accepted by Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine earlier this week. It's a 6000-word story called "The Zeller Files," one I wrote and submitted to them just over a year ago. It includes a crime that's essential to the plot--all mystery submissions should have that--but it's not your usual mystery/crime/suspense story. In fact it's as much science fiction as mystery, which as the months passed led me to suspect it might not stand much of a chance. But it also features something else that I thought made it an even bigger longshot, for publication: It's set during the pandemic.

I don't just mean it was written during the pandemic, although it was. I mean it includes references to the wearing of masks, social distancing, and other things most of us never even thought about until early last year. Some of that ties into the crime itself, which in this story is a bank robbery and its aftermath.

The plot

Here's what happens: Software engineer Eddie Zeller and his wife Lisa find out from their local newspaper's gossip-column that a couple named Fairmont from another part of the country are moving to their small town. The problem is, Andrew Fairmont and his wife were once famous because of their highly publicized report of being kidnapped and observed by aliens many years ago--and so was Eddie Zeller. (Lisa jokingly refers to Eddie's story as The Z-Files.) He and Lisa also know that the number of self-professed alien-abduction-survivors in the U.S. is tiny, and Eddie suspects that the federal government keeps a file and a close eye on all these victims and their activities. So, what are the odds that not one but two of these people would wind up in the same town as a third who already lives there? Could the Feds--or even the victims' otherworldly kidnappers--somehow be trying to gather all of them together for some reason? If so, why? 

Eventually the Zellers, who are unemployed and struggling because of the impact of Covid on their careers, resort to extreme and criminal measures to try to get the funds they'd need to get out of town, possibly even out of the country, to avoid whatever disaster Eddie is now convinced is being planned for them. During all that, they of course run into the Fairmont family, who have their own mysterious agenda, and Eddie soon comes to understand that it's not only the government who's been tracking them, all these years. 

Concerns and conclusions

My point is, this story has two liabilities. It is (1) mixed-genre and (2) set during the pandemic. The first oddity, since what I mixed in was science fiction, would automatically make the story unsuitable for mystery markets like EQMM, Black Cat Mystery Magazine, the Strand, and others, and I was afraid the woo-woo element would make acceptance doubtful even for places like AHMM, which is a little more receptive to the occasional western, humor, fantasy, or SF story. Mostly, though, I was worried that the second odd thing--the Covid angle--might prevent it from being accepted anywhere.

Let me explain that. Since the pandemic began, I've written several mystery stories featuring the virus and the restrictions and requirements it presents. (After all, that's been the reality of our world for the past two years--and besides, how could a crime writer resist using a situation where everybody's already running around with masks covering their faces?) But alas, no matter how much I liked those stories and how much fun I had writing them, all were rejected soon after I'd submitted them. Some of them were rejected immediately, and some more than once. 

Since Mama didn't raise no fools, I finally got the message and started changing those stories by removing any and all references to the pandemic (enter Dr. Watson, exit Dr. Fauci)--and when I did that and submitted them again, every one of those stories sold. All, that is, except one. I had submitted "The Zeller Files" to AHMM almost fourteen months ago, on 10/6/20, so that particular story had not yet been changed. It had also not yet been rejected, since the jury was still out--and then, lo and behold, it was accepted by AH this past week. Say Hallelujah.

Here's what I learned from this: Never say never, with regard to questionable or controversial story content. If you believe it works, and if the guidelines for the market(s) you're targeting don't specifically say no, give it a try. The odds of success might be less, but--and I truly believe this--if a story seems to the writer to be good enough, it probably is good enough, and will eventually find a respectable home. As for "The Zeller Files," if you happen to see it when it comes out, I hope you'll have half as much fun reading it as I had writing it.

Questions for the class

Now . . . what's your opinion on writing pandemic-based or pandemic-setting stories or novels? Have any of you tried it? Have you even wanted to try? I've heard some writers say it would be too depressing, for both the reader and the writer. And if you have written those stories, have you seen any success at placing them in a magazine or anthology? If you've created a novel containing pandemic references, have you been able to find a publisher for it? 

How about mixed-genre short stories? I feel sure you've written those, but have you submitted any of them to mystery markets? Any successes, there? What about stories that include both a different genre AND a dose of the virus?

In summary, I can certainly understand if the only masked characters you choose to put into your fiction are either committing a crime, skiing in Aspen, trick-or-treating, or riding a white stallion to the tune of "The William Tell Overture." But I'm here to tell you, you might want to try writing a Covid story now and then, and see what happens.

Sometimes it works.


  1. Congrats on the sale, John! I'm looking forward to reading the story when it comes out.

    I haven't done much writing in recent months, but the one new story I have written included a direct reference to the pandemic. I submitted it to Mystery Magazine, and editor Kerry Carter asked me to take out the word COVID. I did, replacing it with a mention of "the world situation" that made it impossible for two friends to meet at a bar to toast the memory of an old actor they'd admired as kids, and with that small change Kerry took the story. (It's called "The Brimley/Cocoon Line," and it ought to show up in MM in a couple months or so....)

    1. Ha! That's interesting, Josh. It's especially interesting to me that Kerry requested the removal of the direct reference to Covid. I've been submitting stories regularly to Mystery Magazine (formerly Mystery Weekly) for a long time now, but so far none of them have contained pandemic references, and I see now that they probably shouldn't!

      It seems that most editors, at least those of mystery markets, are still reluctant to call attention to the virus in the fiction they publish--and I can understand why. On the one hand, it's a distraction and a downer, but on the other hand, that's our world right now, and we all know it.

      Many thanks for your thoughts!

  2. Is it the pandemic generally, or that it's contemporary? Why I'm asking...would it be easier to set a story in the years of the bubonic plague, or the world-wide killer flu of the early 20th century? Does distance in time mitigate the impact and implications of a pandemic, because we know that we survived it?

    1. Could be, Don. Maybe the mention of the pandemic is just too current, too real and scary.

      If fiction is intended to be an escape from our real world and our real problems, readers might not want to hear about things like that. Interesting point.

  3. Thought-provoking post, John.

    I've written far more short stories than I used to over the last 18 months, and none of them have mentioned Covid. In fact, I'm in the early planning stages of a story now in which I have actually considered mentioning masking and social distancing for the first time. Now I'm not sure if I will do that or not. It's going to depend on how the whole thing develops, and it's still very early. I haven't actually put down more than a few random ideas on paper.

    As for the year for acceptance, that's about normal at AHMM, isn't it? I have some stories out there, and none of them is more recent than about January. Two were sent in 2020. I expect to hear one way or the other by the end of the year.

    1. Steve, I'd say you're right not to mention Covid. It seems odd not to, but I've certainly found it harder to sell stories that include any such references.

      Yep, AHMM seems to respond anywhere from 11 to 13 months after submission. I've had some acceptances and rejections a little earlier or later in the cycle, but a year seems about right for most of them. Publication can take awhile too, after acceptance. I now have five stories that have been accepted and haven't yet appeared in the magazine. BUT . . . there are many writers, and I'm one of them, who'll tell you it can be worth the wait.

      Another point: I believe editor Linda Landrigan has said she's the only one who reads submissions--she doesn't rely on screeners--and I think that's still true.

      Even so, a year's a long time to wait, especially if an anthology pops up in the meantime that would be a good fit for a story.

      Thanks for the note!

  4. I've overtly used the pandemic in one story, though tangentially. COVID-19 is an another anxiety in a POV riddled with anxiety. It's a mainstream lit story, which is a very hard thing to sell anywhere.

    The subject is hard because it's a multi-layered and ongoing tragedy. For me, that rules it out as direct fair game for comedy, at least until it's behind us a bit more. But mid-pandemic is the world we're all dealing with. At some point, it's dishonest not to incorporate the real impacts.

    1. Bob, I agree, especially on the point of not using Covid in a comedy. I doubt that would work at all, and if it did it would certainly have be written by someone more skilled than I am. Also, yes, if we continue to never refer to it in fiction our writing is going to eventually look dishonest or at least uninformed.

      I've so far read (I think) only two novels that refer to Covid at all--SQUEEZE ME by Carl Hiaasen and NEVER by Ken Follett. Neither used it extensively, and it didn't affect the plot in any way.

      Thanks for the thoughts!

  5. I haven't used Covid in a story yet, because - despite Boccaccio writing about the pandemic plague while it was ongoing - with our generation, it seems that it's too soon all the way around. And even Boccaccio just used it as an excuse to get 24 wealthy gorgeous people on a Medieval Love Island.

  6. Good thought, Eve. One point I might make, here: my use of Covid in this story was only as a setting. Throughout, I described a number of characters using facemarks, etc., but included no mention of infections, illnesses, deaths, or any of the suffering and tragedy of the pandemic. Or vaccines, for that matter, since this was written before they were developed. Even so, I did worry that my inclusion of ANY reference to Covid might've backfired.

    As always, one never knows whether a submission will work or not. I was fortunate, here.

  7. There have been two at least two anthologies that were specifically about the pandemic, and a third that often referred to it: https://lbcrimes.blogspot.com/search?q=covid I have written one story set very much in the pandemic but haven't sent it to a publisher yet. I think I could rewrite it without covid, and have considered doing just that, but the pandemic seems to be such an influence on the characters' thinking (especially the hero who would like to build a closer relationship with a female co-worker) that I feel it wouldn't work as well. We shall see what happens.

    As for the Z Files, have you read Christopher Buckley's hilarious novel Little Green Men? He offers a different theory about the alien abductions, one that is depressingly reasonable.

  8. Rob, I didn't know about (or didn't remember) those anthologies. I hope they're doing well. As for your story, it sounds good to me, and I hope you WON'T rewrite it. As I said, my references to the pandemic weren't a part of my plot, and yours is.

    I do continue to find it a little surprising that the ONLY thing I deleted were those several stories of mine that I referred to, that I couldn't sell, were my occasional uses of facemasks, distancing, etc. Could've been a fluke, but when I changed them that way, they sure sold fast. It's a strange world . . .

    I have indeed read LITTLE GREEN MEN, and all the other Buckley novels. I think he's one of the best at writing that kind of book. And I enjoyed his take on the whole alien-abduction thing.

    Thanks for the comment!

    1. Oops. Correction.

      Instead of: The only thing I deleted were those several stories . . .
      I should have said: The only things I deleted IN those several stories . . .

      Good grief.

  9. One more challenge of writing about the pandemic: hunting for references to your characters smiling, frowning, or otherwise using their mouths to demonstrate emotion to others...

    1. Good point, Rob! It would be just like me to screw up that way and then miss it in all the edits I try to do between writing THE END and actually sending it off. Sure hope I didn't do any of that in this story, and if I did I hope Linda'll catch and correct it.

      I have certainly been known to make boneheaded errors like that in the past.


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