04 July 2022

What Are The Odds

Over the past 15 years, I've won a couple of awards and not-quite won a few others. RT's discussion of his Edgar-winning story last week made me think about what that really means. This is a completely unscientific assessment, but maybe there's something you can take away from it anyway.

If you're barely published, some of these figures may apply to your chances of making a sale as well as your winning an award. The salient feature in either case is that you have to write the best story you can. You've heard that before.

Gamblers know the odds before they toss money on the table, and here are some of the numbers for publishing. They keep changing, but this will give you the idea.

Years ago, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine received over 40,000 story submissions a year, and published about 75 of them. If all the stories were of equal quality, which, of course, is not the case, your chance of being selected was one in 533. I don't know how many stories come in now, but the magazine now publishes six issues instead of ten, and roughly the same 75 stories. If there are fewer submissions, the odds are slightly better. 

This morning, the Mystery Writers of America Edgars site lists 173 books eligible for the Best Novel of the year and 166 stories for the Best Short Story. The eligibility period runs from December 1 to December 1, so it's slightly more than half over. The year I was a finalist, there were 408 short stories, which meant the chance of becoming a finalist (again, all things equal, which they aren't) were 81 to 1. Theoretically, the chance of winning from those finalists was five to one. Getting there was the problem. The weeding out is the same in other awards, too, the Agatha, Derringer, Shamus, and all the others.

In the 1990s, Connecticut introduced the Connecticut Academic Performance Test (CAPT) in high schools. I've never been a fan of standardized tests, but the Language Arts portion of that test had the clearest and most concrete set of criteria I've ever seen for evaluating writing. When my colleagues and I used it for grading practice tests, we almost never disagreed on a score. I liked it so much I've used something like it for a rubric when I edit or judge even now. 

Several years ago, I was a judge for the Al Blanchard Award, sponsored by MWA New England. I read all of the 141 stories submitted because only a few came in early and 41 were submitted the last day of the three-month deadline. Really. I rated each story from 1 (low) to 10 (high) and kept a spreadsheet of why: too much backstory, unbelievable or impossible ending, inconsistent character, good/bad dialogue, etc. It was inspired by the CAPT test from the 90s.

I gave 50 stories--over 1/3 of the entries--a grade of 1. Only a dozen earned a grade of 7 or higher, one of them an 8.

Now, the important part. I was one of four judges who had to turn in their top ten stories so the others could read the top 40. I'd already read every story (No, I don't have a life), so I already had notes on the other stories already. I looked at my notes and re-read the stories, but changed no scores. NONE of my top twelve stories made the cut from any other judge. In fact, the eventual winner only got a five from me. 

I've had a similar experience judging the Derringers for the last two years. I read many of those stories before they're nominated because I subscribe to several of the source magazines. Stories that I consider brilliant seldom make the cut. Obviously, I have tastes that run outside the lines. But in judging the Flash Fiction (the only length I can judge because I don't write in it), three of my top five stories have been finalists both times I've judged because the other nine judges agree. 

We can objectify and quantify only so much, and it's true of both judges and editors. People with experience and (maybe) training can narrow down a group of stories that are "better" or "worse" than others, but within that select sample, it's a matter of individual taste and preference. One person doesn't like noir. Another wants a surprising plot twist. Yet another pays more attention to prose style than the others. And so on.

How do you stand out? You write a damn good story. MAYBE you include something a little exotic that readers can latch on to. RT's Edgar winner involved a landmark in Hawaii. People know it and it's unusual. That's not the only reason he won, but it certainly didn't hurt.

Remember to add a little bit of yourself. THAT will make the story unique so the editor or judges notice it. You've got to be noticed.

Easy, huh? Sure it is.

Now forget about all the odds and go write that damn good story.


  1. Interesting, Steve!

    For what it's worth, AHMM editor Linda Landrigan recently said, in an interview with Jane Cleland (it's on YouTube), that they receive roughly 100 stories a month, which sounded low to me. One would think that with their online submission system they'd get more than that. But even if that estimate's low, I guess the odds are better than they once were.

    I agree with you--the few times my own stories have achieved some kind of recognition (a win, a nomination, a selection to a best-of anthology, etc.), I think there was always something different and *unusual* about those stories. An extremely odd character, a seldom-seen plot, an unfamiliar (or, as you said, a faraway but familiar) setting, something that in some way set it apart from what the reader often sees. But that doesn't always work, and I doubt there's anything that always works. We just have to keep trying, right?

  2. Contests and awards are among the strangest aspects of the writing life, and there is much to say about them. The year I read for the Edgar Best Novel we had over 500 books to read, and few of them held my attention for more than a few pages. And yet, somewhere an editor thought each of those books was worth the investment. But the few books that deserved recognition stood out and I still remember them. Despite all the hoopla I'm not sure winning an award matters all that much. But that's another blog post. (Go for it, Steve.)

    1. Again, I'm not anonymous. I'm Susan Oleksiw.

  3. Steve, I think you understand the situation quite well and have put out some good information. Basically, it is write the best story you can, and try to add something special. You never know for sure whether that something special will resonate with the editors and judges. Getting published is the next step and the author has little control over that except for submitting the best story they can. After that, the author can only hope that they and the judging panel FOR THAT YEAR are on the same wave length. I will admit that since I was on a roll, I did buy lottery tickets, but it seems that my luck had moved on.

    And yes, there are years when I count up the submissions in my category for the Derringer and the Edgar, figure the odds, then go have a drink and forget about it.

    Good blog article.

  4. Good piece, Steve. I have been listing my best-of-the-week and best-of-the year stories for over a decade and it is humbling to notice how infrequently my faves line up with any of the contests. (Sometimes an author thanks me for choosing their story and I tell them I have probably guaranteed they won't get any prizes.) Seriously, my theory is that in any given year about 10-20% of published stories are good enough to receive some sort of honor. Among that group, it's just a matter of which judge is doing the selection.

  5. Thanks, R.T., and congratulations again. There are so many factors you can't control in judging that you can go crazy, so a tall cool one is absolutely a good coping mechanism.

    Susan, I agree about awards. While they're great to win, especially if they come from your peers, I don't think the average person/reader has any idea what they are or how much clout they might have. Being a finalist or winner has never affected my sales at all. But they still make you feel good.

    John, the 100 stories a month for Alfred sounds wrong to me. Maybe 100 a week? If it really is 100 a month, it shouldn't take them a year to respond to a submission, should it?

    1. Sounds low to me too, Steve, but that's what she said, plain as day. She said about 20 a week, and then said that would be around 100 a month.

    2. My thought exactly. Derringer judges read 75 a month. It didn’t take me anywhere near the whole month, and it wasn’t my actual job. Also, I started at the beginning of the month. I know Linda reads slowly, as she always says, but only 1,200 submissions a year and 14 months lag? Are more and more writers afraid to submit? Assumption of failure? Discouraged by length of wait? Hmm. Maybe she meant to say “a week.”

    3. She may have meant she read 20 a week.

    4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    5. She said they *receive* about 20 a week, and then clarified by saying about 100 stories a month. Not trying to be difficult, here--I was surprised by that, too. But listen to her interview and you'll hear what she said--it's right around the 1-hour point into the interview. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kHv3jYM0Iuc&t=3604s)

  6. I'm one of those fortunate enough to have sent my first mystery story to AHMM and it got picked for publication. Woo-hoo! But I knew the odds were long even back then. Meanwhile, I judged for the Edgars Best Mystery Novel one year, and there were some novels that were amazing, and some that were such dogs that I gave them nicknames: One was "50 Shades of Green". Those of us who burned our time on that one will remember...

  7. You're right. Write the best story you can every time. When something I've written wins an award it's always a surprise, like some giant reaching into a huge bag of stories and pulling mine out. Same giant that pulled my number out of the draft lottery of 1971. The giant has a helluva sense of humor.

  8. This is why I'm glad we have two "Best Of" collections for short mystery now. What one person sees as best, another may not see as good.

  9. A few years ago, a Midwestern chapter held a competition that became scandalous. Apparently one judge went rogue with the result of invalidating the competition. Maybe she had to read Eve's 50 Shades of Green.

    Steve, where could interested parties find the Connecticut CAPT criteria you mention? As a state program, it would be in the public domain, wouldn't it?

  10. Leigh, you might check the Department of Education first. I helped pilot the test in the early 1990's and I THINK it was first administered around 1994 or 5. I retired in 2003 and, when I subbed off and on a few years later, they had modified the test, but I don't think they changed the scoring criteria.

  11. Steve, you should always be able to judge the Derringers in two categories, because you can submit only two stories.

  12. Liz, editors can submit stories for authors.


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