Showing posts with label Michael Bracken. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Michael Bracken. Show all posts

17 January 2023

Guest Post: You Can Go Home Again

Filling in for me today is James A. Hearn, a writer I’ve known ever since publishing his first short story in The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods back in 2019. Hes since published several more stories and was an Edgar Award nominee this past year.
—Michael Bracken

You Can Go Home Again:
The Story behind “Home Is the Hunter” in Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir, Volume 3

by James A. Hearn

“All art is autobiographical; the pearl is the oyster’s autobiography.” — Federico Fellini

The dream of the Old House is always the same. I’m walking through the woods with my dad; he’s alive and well. Robust. Immortal. I am both the boy I was—scrawny, quiet, hair so blond it’s almost white; and the man I became—fuller of face, quiet, the white now represented in my beard.

We’re walking through the scrub brush of West Texas, along one of the innumerable trails crisscrossing 150 acres of family land. We called this property the Old House. The name stood both for the hunting cabin someone had built there and for the land where it was situated. I’m not sure who named it that; maybe Sidney, my older brother with Down syndrome, took one look at it and said to my dad, “Pop, that’s an old house.” Sid loved going there to enjoy his comic books or listen to his cassette tapes; we all loved it. The Old House was to be our legacy.

View from the Old House’s front porch
on a snowy day.

In the dream, my dad and I are just walking. We have our hunting rifles, but we’ve no wish to disturb the tranquility of these sacred woods. There’s the live oak tree where I nearly stepped on that copperhead. Over there, the entrance to the gully that gets progressively deeper as it runs westward, until you’re walking between lichen-covered boulders taller than houses. These are the woods where I learned at my father’s knee how to skin a buck and run a trotline, as the song says.

It is home; I am at peace.

And I wake up and remember. Dad has been gone since 2007, the victim of a rare bone cancer that began in his skull and touched his brain, and the Old House has been sold. In the final year of his illness, I tried in vain to persuade my dad not to sell the property.

James, no one has mowed the grass around the Old House. It must be waist-high by now. Don’t worry about that. I’ll mow the grass when I can. James, the water pump in the well house needs to be drained before the next freeze. Dad, I’ll take care of it. We need to get you better, first. I’m not going to get better, Son. I don’t want there to be fighting about who owns the Old House. We won’t fight, I promise you. We’ll share it. There needs to be money for Sidney’s care when I’m gone. This will help. Barbara will take care of Sid. Grace, Jon, and I will help her. Don’t sell the Old House, please.

Scale model of the Old House as a birdhouse.

But my dad’s mind was set, and the Old House was sold. It gave him a kind of peace I didn’t understand, but I eventually accepted. Then on November 15, 2007, Howard Wade Hearn—retired schoolteacher, huntsman, craftsman, veteran of the Second World War, and the best father a boy could hope for—passed away. My sister Barbara and her husband Larry took on the enormous responsibility of Sid’s care, just as they’d promised. The money from the Old House’s sale, in part, helped to pay for an additional bedroom, one just for Sid, and other renovations for my brother with special needs. Maybe that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise; maybe my dad made the right decision.

After the funeral, I returned to Georgetown, Texas, and settled back into my life. I was an attorney with a mortgage, a wife I loved, and a job I tolerated. With my dad’s passing and the Old House’s sale, childhood was officially over. I guess it had been for a while, since I was thirty-six. It might sound strange, but up until that time, I hadn’t felt like an adult. Not really. I hadn’t felt the burdens of life on my shoulders until I became my dad’s executor. I hadn’t felt old.

At fifty-one, I still have dreams about the Old House and the lessons I learned there. Even waking, I find myself thinking about sitting in deer blinds with my dad. We designed and constructed them ourselves, even putting one on telephone poles for a commanding view of a clearing frequented by deer. I sometimes use Google Earth, starting from the I-20 exit for Gordon, Texas, and I retrace from memory the highways and dirt roads leading to the Old House. I could bookmark the location, but I like finding it this way better; it’s like a treasure hunt where you find yourself.

Destroyed by fire.

Unless I win the lottery, I’ll probably never have enough money to buy the Old House and restore it to the family. Not in this economy. And even if I did, the actual Old House, the hunting cabin, has been destroyed by fire.

My sister, Barbara, and her sons discovered this on one of their occasional drives to West Texas from Fort Worth. Like me, they enjoy recalling the good ol’ days; unlike me, they live close enough to make the actual trip. Every so often, they’d drive by the property, look over the barbed wire fences, and remember. I’m thankful Sid wasn’t with them on that trip; though we miss him terribly, his passing in 2019 at least kept him from seeing his beloved cabin in ruins.

When Barb sent me photos of the rubble, the news was a gut-punch. There was the Old House’s tin roof collapsed over a burned-out husk, the roof I’d helped my dad put on during a windy day when we were both nearly blown off. Oddly, the flames didn’t reach the nearby shade tree, and the horse tire swing my nephews loved still hung from its branches, forlornly waiting for a rider. Seeing those photos, it was like I lost it all over again, and home never seemed more far away.

But sometimes, through writing, you can go home again. In “Home Is the Hunter,” my third entry in Michael Bracken’s Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir anthology, Joe Easterbrook returns to his roots in the wilderness of West Virginia. When Joe sets foot on the land he loved, his emotions are my emotions. When he recalls hunting with his father, his memories are my memories. And when he rebuilds his father’s hunting cabin, I’m holding the hammer.

This one’s for you, Dad. We’ll be together again one day, and we’ll take that walk.

An Edgar Award nominee for Best Short Story, James A. Hearn writes in a variety of genres, including mystery, crime, science fiction, fantasy, and horror. He and his wife reside in Georgetown, Texas, with a boisterous Labrador retriever who keeps life interesting. Visit his website at

Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir, vol. 3, is available here.

27 December 2022

Deer in the Headlights: 2022 in Review

As I write this year-end review, there’s still a week left in 2022. I doubt anything significant will happen before the new year, so I’m jumping the gun.


Though my productivity remained low this year, I managed to write fifty percent more stories than in 2021, completing nine versus only six the prior year. The shortest was 1,300 words and the longest 14,100 words, for an average of 4,567. Eight were crime fiction. The ninth was a horror story I rough-drafted in January 2006, and all it really needed were some minor tweaks and a title to reach completion.


Even though productivity was low, I placed 72 original and reprint stories.

Eleven stories, including a collaboration with Sandra Murphy, appeared in Black Cat Weekly, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Fried Chicken and Coffee, Groovy Gumshoes, Haus, Malice Domestic: Mystery Most Diabolical, Starlite Pulp Review, and Vautrin. Four of the 11 were reprints, with one story being reprinted twice.

Only two editors are represented multiple times: Janet Hutchings published two original stories in EQMM and Cynthia Ward reprinted two in Black Cat Weekly. I included one of my stories in Groovy Gumshoes, a private eye anthology I edited. Six editors or editorial teams each published a single story.

Including stories accepted this year and those accepted in previous years, I have stories forthcoming in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Black Cat Mystery Magazine, Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir, vol. 4 (a collaboration with Stacy Woodson), Mystery Tribune, Prohibition Peepers, Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, Starlite Pulp Review, Tough, and Weren’t No Other Way To Be.

Also forthcoming: three collections of erotica containing 58 stories—two originals and 56 reprints—all written back in the days when erotica represented a significant portion of my fiction output.


“The Downeaster ‘Alexa’,” published in Only the Good Die Young, received a Derringer Award.

“Aloha Boys,” published in Hallmarks Of The Job / Aloha Boys: A P.I. Tales Double Feature, was short-listed for a Derringer Award.

“Blindsided,” co-authored with James A. Hearn and published by Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, was short-listed for an Edgar Award.

“Disposable Women,” published by Tough, was short-listed for a Shamus Award.

“Dead Man’s Gorge,” published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, was named “Best Short Story of the Week,” by Anne van Doorn, who reads a short story each day and picks his favorite each week, much like fellow SleuthSayer Robert Lopresti does at Little Big Crimes.


Nine rejections. The only way to avoid these pesky things is to stop submitting.


As mentioned earlier, editing occupied a significant amount of time this year. I over-committed myself, and, though I don’t think I missed any, I spent much of the year staring at oncoming deadlines as if I were a deer caught in the headlights.

This year saw the release of two issues of Black Cat Mystery Magazine (issues 11 and 12). As Associate Editor of Black Cat Weekly, I was responsible for acquiring and editing 52 short stories, one for each weekly issue. This year also saw the release of Groovy Gumshoes: Private Eyes in the Psychedelic Sixties, and Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir, vol. 3.

I also edited two additional issues (13 and 14) of BCMM, both of which should appear in the first half of 2023; edited the anthologies Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir, vol. 4, More Groovy Gumshoes, Private Dicks and Disco Balls, and Prohibition Peepers, all of which will appear in 2023 or early 2024; and co-edited (with Barb Goffman) an anthology to be identified later. This is the first time I’ve edited an anthology without having a publisher lined up in advance, so I’m learning how to pitch a finished project.

I also co-edited (with Trey R. Barker) the last season of the serial novella anthology series Guns + Tacos.

Outside the mystery world, I edited six issues of Texas Gardener, a bi-monthly consumer magazine, and 52 issues of Seeds, a weekly electronic newsletter for gardeners that, incidentally, published three short stories. I also continued my part-time position as marketing director of a professional orchestra, creating, editing, and managing a variety of advertising, marketing, and promotional materials for print, radio, television, and social media.

Adding all the editing projects together, I had the honor of directly or indirectly shepherding 120 short stories and novellas through to publication.


This year, several stories from projects I edited or co-edited were recognized:

“Two Tamales, One Tokarev, and a Lifetime of Broken Promises” by Stacy Woodson, published in season three of Guns + Tacos, received a Derringer Award.

“Burnin Butt, Texas” by Mark Troy, published in Black Cat Mystery Magazine, issue 10, was short-listed for a Derringer Award.

“An Ache So Divine” by S.A. Cosby, published in Jukes & Tonks, was selected for inclusion in The Best American Mystery and Suspense and was included in the Honor Roll in The Best Mystery Stories of the Year.

“Return to Sender” by Gar Anthony Haywood, published in Jukes & Tonks, was selected for inclusion in The Best American Mystery and Suspense.

“Everybody Comes to Lucille’s” by John M. Floyd, published in Jukes & Tonks, was included in the Honor Roll in The Best Mystery Stories of the Year.

“The Last Gasp” by H.K. Slade, published in Black Cat Mystery Magazine, issue 10, was included in the Honor Roll in The Best Mystery Stories of the Year.

“Washed Up” by Nils Gilbertson, published in Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir, vol. 2, was included in the Other Distinguished Mystery and Suspense list in The Best American Mystery and Suspense.

I had the honor of publishing several equally amazing stories in 2022 and hope to see many of them recognized during this coming year’s award season.


In February, I’ll be reading submissions for Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir, vol. 5, and I will soon be editing the novellas for Chop Shop, the serial novella anthology series that replaces Guns + Tacos. Work on Black Cat Mystery Magazine and Black Cat Weekly continues, as does efforts to place the anthology Barb Goffman and I co-edited.

I have several anthology concepts I plan to pitch, but first I need to take a bit of a breather. I have several short stories that are near completion, and I’d like to get them off my to-do list and into the hands of editors before I again dive deep into editing.

Additionally, I was elected to the Board of the Mystery Writers of America, will attend orientation in January, and will soon learn what my duties and responsibilities will be during my term in office.

I hope you all had a productive 2022, and I look forward seeing what 2023 brings us.

15 November 2022

Batter Up!

My disinterest in baseball probably stems from my single season as an outfielder for the worst team in my local Little League when I was a fifth grader. The coach rarely showed up, and my mother, the only parent who regularly attended practice, would stand at home plate and belt fly balls and grounders to us.

That may be why I’m surprised to realize, around the time of this year’s World Series, that two of the best stories I’ve recently read were baseball themed: Joseph S. Walker’s mystery short story “Give or Take a Quarter Inch,” first published in Tough and reprinted in The Best Mystery Stories of the Year (Mysterious Press, 2022), and Aeryn Rudel’s horror novella Effectively Wild (Grinning Skull Press, 2022).

Walker writes about a kidnapping where the ransom demand isn’t money. Instead, Ryan Vargas, a retired, Cy Young-winning pitcher whose wife has been kidnapped, comes face-to-face with a batter he had struck out three times during the batter’s only major league game nineteen years earlier. To save his wife, can Vargas give the kidnapper one last at-bat?

Rudel writes about Martin “Wags” Wagner, a washed-up catcher relegated to the minor leagues who is presented with an opportunity to return to the big leagues. All he must do is mentor a promising young pitcher—a pitcher with no experience that the organization keeps separated from the rest of the team and who gets stronger each time he takes the mound. When Wagner discovers the pitcher’s secret, he must decide how much he is willing to sacrifice to relive his own dreams.

Both Walker and Rudel captured and held my attention through their characters. In Walker’s story, Vargas’s nemesis—Mickey Loch—was as finely drawn as the protagonist, and Rudel presented an excellent portrayal of Wagner as an everyman desperate to hold onto his dream career.

While baseball is important to both stories, I found I was not hindered by my lack of knowledge of the sport. Each author provided enough information for me to understand what was happening without burdening the stories with arcane details that only true fans would appreciate.

My memory is hazy on this point, but I don’t recall my Little League team ever winning a game. On the other hand, Walker and Rudel both—to use an already over-used cliché—knock it out of the park.

My story “Little Spring” was reprinted in Haus (Culture Cult Press), marking my first official publication in India. (Several years ago I had a story published in India without my permission or prior knowledge.)

13 September 2022

Editing Evolution

My process for editing has changed over the years, and especially more so lately as the number of editing projects has increased. My first editing projects happened back when manuscripts arrived in the day’s mail, and all editing was done on hardcopy. Some of those manuscripts bled red (or blue, or whatever color pen I was using that day) by the time I finished.

At the back: A novella in progress.
The other three piles:
Anthologies in progress.
Email eliminated the need for authors to send hardcopy, but not the way I worked. I printed, read, and edited on paper before entering my edits and comments into the appropriate Word documents. Over time, I realized my process was responsible for the decimation of much of the world’s forests.

My current process, which may evolve yet again in the future:

1. Before I read a submission, I reformat it to double-spaced 12 pt. Times New Roman; flush left, ragged right; .5” paragraph indents, and no odd spacing between paragraphs. Then I do a quick search-and-replace to fix common problems such as improper dashes and improper quotation marks. I do this because I’ve discovered that the visual appearance of a manuscript (font, font size, etc.) impacts my opinion of it. By making every submission look the same before I read, I find it easier to judge the work based solely on the writing.

2. I read the manuscript on my computer, and I have track changes turned on. As I read, I correct obvious errors (their for there, for example), delete extraneous words, and make notes about things that confuse me. If I find myself making multiple corrections and changes, or find myself  inserting multiple notes, I’ll stop reading and reject the submission.

3. Then I run the file through spellcheck, which almost always identifies something of concern. Sometimes spellcheck finds an error I missed and sometimes it identifies non-errors, such as slang words and dropped gs (goin’ for going).

4. At this point, anticipating an acceptance, I print a hard copy and read the story one more time. Occasionally, I find something serious I glossed over when reading on the computer screen, and I reject the story. The likelihood, though, is that if I’ve reached the point of printing a hardcopy, I’m going to accept the story.

5. If I have identified any additional corrections or have any additional questions, I input them into the Word document.

6. I then send the edited Word document, which might be clean as a whistle (I love those writers!) or may look like the electronic version of a paper manuscript bleeding editorial red ink, to the writer.

7. Upon receiving the edited manuscript, the writer curses me, my ancestors, and my progeny (I may be projecting because that’s what I do when I get an edited manuscript back from an editor).

8. At some point, the manuscript returns. Sometimes writers accept every correction and change, sometimes we arm wrestle over something, and sometimes—if my corrections, changes, and notes are extensive—there may be another back-and-forth exchange with the writer.

9. Once I have all the edited manuscripts in hand, I collect author bios, write an editorial or an introduction, and then organize everything, determining in which order stories will appear in the anthology or magazine issue.

10. Then I spellcheck the completed manuscript and print a hardcopy, which I read cover-to-cover.

11. If there are any additional corrections necessary at this point, I input them into the final manuscript, and then send it to the publisher.

I have had the opportunity to work with three co-editors—Trey R. Barker with Guns + Tacos, Gary Phillips with Jukes & Tonks, and Barb Goffman with A Project to be Named Later—and each brought a different skillset to the party. Even so, the process remained much the same, with each co-editor having a pass at each manuscript and adding their corrections, changes, and notes.

The ultimate goal, regardless of my process and regardless of whether I’m working alone or with a co-editor, is to ensure that each published story is the best it can be and that the final product is worthy of a reader’s time.

Though this is published post-Bouchercon, it was written pre-Bouchercon. I hope I had the opportunity to meet some of you there!

23 August 2022

Can I Trust You?

Temple and I have been together for nine years, married for seven, and for several years now she’s been reading nearly everything I write before it ever gets submitted to an editor. It’s taken a while, but I have learned to trust her judgement.

Temple not only improves
my writing, she also makes
me dress better.
I mention that because for the past two weeks I’ve been wrestling with the end—and by “end,” I mean the last sentence—of a private eye story that otherwise we both like very much.

This trust didn’t happen overnight. Initially, showing Temple my final drafts was more me showing off: “Look what I wrote. Aren’t I great?”

The first few times she dared—dared, I say!—to suggest I might be able to improve something I had written or that some plot element didn’t make sense or that what was so clear in my head had never made it to the page, I was—to put it mildly—a bit huffy.

Over time, though, I’ve realized that any problem she notes with one of my stories is something to which I need pay attention. I don’t always agree with the solutions she suggests, but her suggestions always help me find a solution that satisfies us both.

This was brought home in a big way earlier this year with “Blindsided,” a story I co-wrote with James A. Hearn. Andrew’s wife, Dawn, also reads most of what he writes, and when Dawn and Temple saw an early draft of “Blindsided,” they told us we had written far past the actual end of the story. We grumbled, and moaned, and cut until they were satisfied.

And the story sold to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and received an Edgar nomination.

Temple’s not the type, but if ever there was something she could hold over me, that would be it. After all, without her comments and Dawn’s comments, Andrew and I might have written a decent story and it might have gotten published, but it certainly wouldn’t have been nominated for an Edgar.

So, that last sentence of the private eye story I’ve been wrestling with for two weeks? I’ll keep wrestling with it until Temple gives it her seal of approval.

“The Ladies of Wednesday Tea” was reprinted in Black Cat Weekly #50.

“Little Spring” was reprinted in Black Cat Weekly #51

Everything is Relative” was published by Fried Chicken and Coffee, August 13, 2022.

02 August 2022

Deadlines, Shmeadlines

One of the many attributes of successful writers and editors is the ability to meet deadlines, and the ability to meet deadlines is one of the ways I have managed to sustain a multi-decade writing and editing career. I try not to over-commit my available time, and I try to plan large projects with built-in buffers in case unexpected events—family emergencies, for example—demand my attention or a high-value project with a tight turn-around drops into my lap.

How do you keep track of projects
and meet deadlines?

On the rare occasions when it looks like I might miss a deadline, I work with my editor, publisher, or client to find a satisfactory solution. Not to be too cocky, but it’s been a long time since I missed a hard deadline.

Until three weeks ago.

Y’all were treated to one of Shifty’s animated adventures on July 12 because I whiffed the ball. I wish I had a great excuse—while on a humanitarian mission to rescue zoo animals from Ukraine, I resuscitated a penguin that had choked on a sardine, midwifed the birth of twin albino Siberian tigers, and taught a malformed baby porpoise to swim with a prosthetic tail I crafted from Mountain Dew bottles—but I don’t.

My excuse is far more mundane: I entered my SleuthSayers deadline on the wrong calendar date.

By the time the secret master of SleuthSayers emailed a reminder that my blog post was due that night, I had already shut down my computer and had shifted my attention elsewhere.


Meeting deadlines means learning to juggle. I edit a bi-monthly consumer magazine and a weekly newsletter, and I’m associate editor for a weekly magazine. These publications all have hard deadlines, as do the anthologies I edit. I also edit a quasi-quarterly mystery magazine, which has spongy deadlines, and I create marketing material (TV, radio, and print ads along with brochures, flyers, social media posts, and more) for a professional orchestra with constantly changing deadlines determined by concert dates and media requirements.

And in the nooks and crannies between all these deadlines I’m also writing new stories, some of which have hard deadlines (when I’m writing to invitation, for example) and some of which don’t.

Once upon a time I was able to keep all these deadlines in my head and remember what I ate for breakfast. No longer. I’ve grown older at the same time I’ve become busier, and I just can’t remember every deadline. I’m now relying on my computer’s calendar and a to-do list I keep next to my computer.

But when I fail to add something to the to-do list or I enter a deadline incorrectly into my computer calendar...well, that’s when I risk missing a deadline.


I have found ways to ensure that I (nearly always) meet my deadlines, but as an editor I find it difficult to ride herd on writers. Professional writers know that editors have deadlines. We can’t publish anthologies, magazines, and newsletters with blank pages. And, unless you’re George R.R. Martin writing the next volume of the A Song of Ice and Fire series, not many editors are willing to wait until you get around to putting words on paper. We’re going to press with you or without you.

But beginning and early career writers don’t always understand how important it is.

Get a reputation as someone who fails to deliver promised manuscripts on time, fails to approve copyedits and page proofs on time, fails to show up on time for a panel, or fails to meet any of dozens of other deadlines and commitments that are part and parcel of being a professional writer and the opportunities will slowly disappear.

And that once-promising career becomes nothing but memory dust.

I stumbled. I’ll recover. And I’ll turn in this post several days early.

But what about you? How do you keep track of your deadlines?

My story “Sparks” appears in the Summer 2022 issue of Vautrin.

My co-authors’ blog posts for AHMM and EQMM appeared the same week. Read Sandra Murphy’s “Add (Your) Life to Your Writing” at Something is Going to Happen and James A. Hearn’s “A Writer’s Tears” at Trace Evidence.

And I’m moderating a panel at Bouchercon next month. “Groovy Kind of Death: Murders Set in the 60s/70s” is scheduled for 1:45-2:30 p.m., Thursday, and panelists include Lou Berney, Wanda M. Morris, Richie Narvaez, Marcie Rendon, and Gabriel Valjan.

21 June 2022

Miles of Files

I started my writing career long before personal computers were anything more than a plot device in science fiction stories. Despite making the transition from a manual typewriter to an IBM Selectric and from there to a series of ever more powerful PCs and then to a series of ever more powerful Macintoshes, my record-keeping system has remained almost entirely manual.

The file folder and tracking
system I used for “Disposable
Women,” currently
shortlisted for a Shamus.
I’m uncertain if this is ironic or pathetic, given that for most everything else in my life I’m a heavy user of computers and computer programs, but I think it may be the result of long-established habit and the knowledge that if I did convert to a more sophisticated system I wouldn’t be satisfied with a spread sheet or two for new work. I would want to build a sophisticated database that includes everything I’ve ever written and includes every possible bit of information about each story.

I would want to know at the click of a few keys which is my shortest story and which my longest, which had the most submissions before acceptance, which has been reprinted most often, my sales/rejections ratio with Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, how many times I submitted to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine before I received an acceptance, and so much more.

The time it would take to input all of that information, and the time I would later spend using the data to create charts and graphs and all manner of interesting reports, would consume a significant amount of time and eliminate what little writing time I have these days.

These six filing
cabinets may soon be
joined by a seventh.
For now, I remain with the tried-and-true: Every finished story gets a file folder, and into it goes a hardcopy of the story and a cover sheet where I track submissions, rejections, and other important information such as the dates I returned the signed contract, copy edits, and page proofs, and the story’s publication date. Also in the folder goes a copy of the signed contract, copies of important research, and a copy of the published version.

This file folder travels through a series of file drawers: awaiting submission; under submission; accepted, not paid for; paid for, not published; published, not paid for; and so on until the folder moves into its final home after the story has been published.

There are six of these filing cabinets in my second office, containing everything I’ve had published since my first sale back in the mid-1970s. In my first office—the one where I do much of my writing—are three file drawers containing the work under submission or awaiting submission, as well as several bookshelves filled with my novels and short story collections, anthologies I’ve edited, and many books and magazines containing something I’ve written (short stories mostly, but essays and non-fiction as well).

A 5.25" floppy disk
containing an early
version of the novel published
as All White Girls.
Hard copies of finished manuscripts take up a great deal of space—hence the six filing cabinets—but I can still read every one of them. Many of the earliest stories were written on typewriters, so hard copies are the only versions that exist, and the on-going evolution of computer science has left me with 5.25” floppy disks, 3.5” diskettes, and Zip drives for which I no longer have appropriate drives. Even if I had appropriate drives, many of the files were created with WordStar and I no longer have a program that will allow me to open the WordStar files and save them as Word documents. Luckily, I so rarely need to access the oldest files that it is easier to retype anything I might need.

Temple and I have reached the age where retirement is in her foreseeable future (writers don’t retire, so it isn’t in my future), and we’ve discussed downsizing to a smaller home with less upkeep. The biggest obstacle, though, is my antiquated record-keeping system—a system I started using long before personal computers stopped being a science fiction plot device and became a reality.

My story “Disposable Women,” published in
Tough (July 19, 2021), has been shortlisted for a Shamus Award.

“Sit. Stay. Die.” A story I co-authored with Sandra Murphy was published in the July/August Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. This is our fifth collaboration and my second consecutive appearance in EQMM.

31 May 2022

Where I Write

Even after a half-day spent
cleaning, my desk is still
a mess.

Over the years, I’ve written in many places, most often a room in my home that is (or was) a dedicated office, though when I was single and living in a one-bedroom apartment, the dedicated writing space took up a significant part of the living room and, for a few years when my children were small and my home didn’t have enough rooms, my writing space occupied half of the master bedroom.

Back in the early days of personal computers, I kept a few works-in-progress on a floppy disk that I kept in my briefcase. During my lunch hour, I would slip the floppy into my work computer and bang out a page or two. I still sometimes write away from home (or thumb-type notes into my cell phone), but home has always been, and remains, my primary writing location. Part of the reason is that I’ve been tethered to desktop computers. My first portable computer was far too heavy to tote around. My first laptop computer had a flakey battery life and would never stay connected to my desktop when I tried to work from other rooms in the house.

A month ago, the entire
table was filled with

When Temple and I married almost seven years ago, I sold my home and moved into hers, and my office moved, too, from a bedroom in my home to a bedroom in hers, and that room has been my writing center ever since. Unfortunately, try as I might, I can never keep my desk as neat and organized as I would like. Every so often, I clean everything off, filing what’s important, discarding what isn’t, and doing my best to maintain a welcoming writing environment.

This past December I purchased a new laptop computer, hoping to break free of my desktop, and it may have worked too well. During the first few months of this year, I was working on five book-length projects at the same time. I needed space to spread out all my research materials, notes, and so on, and I took over the dining room table. By the end of April, I had delivered all five projects, but my laptop computer and various projects still occupy half the table.

My new outdoor office, easier
to keep neat because a
stiff breeze will blow
everything away.

Earlier this week, Temple purchased a chaise lounge for the back porch, and for a few hours each day since its arrival, I’ve parked myself and my laptop in it. (It’s where I sit right now, Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, drafting this SleuthSayers post.) While sitting out here, I’ve read submissions to current editing projects, and I’ve written part of a novella. The sunlight, fresh air, and minimal distractions are a nice change from the underlit bedroom office with distractions everywhere I turn.

This morning, Temple decided that my outdoor workspace needing sprucing up, so we cleaned off the porch, rearranged the outdoor furniture, and turned this into an inviting environment.

I think she’s hoping I’ll get all my stuff off the dining room table.

Maybe I will, or maybe I now have three writing spaces to choose from.

10 May 2022

I Went to the Edgars and All I Got was this Hoodie

Let’s not bury the lede: R.T. Lawton received the Edgar Award for Best Short Story at this year’s Edgar Awards ceremony in New York City. His first nomination resulted in his first win.

I also received my first Edgar Award nomination this year, for a story co-authored with James A. (Andrew) Hearn, and, unlike R.T, this was the first time I had ever attended the Edgar Awards.

Michael (in his new
hoodie) and Temple
in Central Park.

Temple and I spent the prior weekend at Malice Domestic in North Bethesda, MD, rode a bus from there to NYC, and spent the days leading up to the event visiting with friends and getting a whirlwind walking tour of various parts of the city.

New York was unexpectedly cold, and I had not packed a jacket or a sweater. So, as we walked from our Times Square hotel to Central Park on Tuesday morning, I stopped in the first store that had sweatshirts in the window and walked out with a hoodie that I wore constantly until time to dress for the awards dinner Thursday evening.

After our walk to Central Park, we met Ann Aptaker for dim sum in Chinatown and, following lunch, she gave us a walking tour through parts of Chinatown, Little Italy, NoHo, SoHo, and Greenwich Village, ending with a too-short visit to The Strand bookstore.

Dawn and Andrew

Andrew and Dawn Hearn arrived late Tuesday, so the four of us met for dinner. The next day, Andrew and I had lunch with Elizabeth Zelvin on Restaurant Row while our spouses had high tea elsewhere in the city. That evening Andrew, Dawn, Temple, and I met up with Stacy Woodson for dinner, and the five of us went to the Mysterious Bookshop for the launch of MWA’s latest anthology, Crime Hits Home. I met fellow SleuthSayer Steve Liskow, a contributor to the anthology, at the signing, and also met Otto Penzler and Michele Slung (who have been very good to me as a writer and an editor, selecting my stories and stories from projects I’ve edited for several best-of-year compilations). I also met a few writers I only knew online, and a great many I did not previously know.

The following day was the big event. It began mid-afternoon with a reception hosted by Dell magazines where we met Linda Landrigan, Janet Hutchings, and Jackie Sherbow from Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and we visited with many AHMM and EQMM contributors we knew or knew of. After a quick change of clothing at the hotel, we attended the pre-Edgar reception for Edgar nominees, drifted out to the general reception, and then headed into the banquet hall for dinner and the ceremony.

Temple and Michael
dressed to the nines.

The three Edgar nominees published in AHMM—R.T., Andrew, and me—and our spouses sat with editor Linda Landrigan, Brendan DuBois, Chris Begley, and Abby Browning, and anticipation continued to build after dinner as each award was presented, with Best Short Story one of the last few.

When Schrödinger’s Edgar was revealed (see my previous post), R.T. experienced the joy of winning, and it was an incredible moment to watch someone I know receive the award.

That moment was also the culmination of a week spent wallowing in my nomineehood, something I had been unable to do until Temple and I began our trip to Malice Domestic and the Edgar Awards Ceremony. As mentioned in my previous post, real life had prevented me from truly enjoying my brief moment in the sun. But once we began our trip the Thursday before Malice, it began to hit me, and I rode an Edgar-inspired high that I still haven’t completely come down from.

And if I’m still floating on air from the nomination, I can only imagine how much longer it will be before R.T.’s feet touch the ground.

Though the Edgar eluded me, several other good things happened this week:

Nominated for two Derringer Awards, I received one for “The Downeaster Alexa,” published in Only the Good Die Young (Untreed Reads, edited by Josh Pachter).

My story “Dead’s Man’s Gorge” was published in the May/June Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and my name is on the EQMM cover for the first time.

“Locked Mesa” was published in Mystery Most Diabolical (Wildside Press), the Malice Domestic anthology.

19 April 2022

Schrödinger’s Edgar

The grooviest editor holding the
grooviest anthology.

Until the envelope is opened and the winner announced a week from Thursday, I am simultaneously an Edgar winner and an Edgar loser. Though there is no radioactive substance within the envelope and no feline is likely to die if there is, the situation calls to mind Schrödinger’s classic thought experiment, wherein a cat in a box that also contains a radioactive substance and a small flask of hydrocyanic acid is simultaneously alive and dead.

I first learned that “Blindsided” (co-authored with James A. Hearn and published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine’s September/October 2021 issue) had been short-listed for an Edgar Award when Art Taylor messaged me on January 19 (an event closely followed by a telephone call from Barb Goffman). My first phone call was to my co-author and the second to my wife.

Unfortunately, beyond the euphoria I felt the first few days, I’ve not been able to fully enjoy the nominee experience. Real life—you know, the things that happen outside the made-up worlds we writers create—has been a stressful highwire act for the past several months. So, I’ve been unable to relax and fully contemplate all that it means to be a Edgar nominee.

(Some of the stress is self-generated and none of it is inherently negative, so I’m not in need of thoughts and prayers.)

Part of me wishes I could travel several months backward in time to undo or clear away the things that have recently stressed me so that I could have spent my time wallowing in nomineehood. Alas, time only travels in one direction.

Perhaps the best way to enjoy nomineehood is to ensure that the envelope is never opened. Just as Schrödinger’s cat remains simultaneously alive and dead as long as the box is never opened, I remain simultaneously an Edgar winner and an Edgar loser as long as the envelope is never opened.

I can live with that. Even if Schrödinger’s cat may not.

In other news: Two of my stories—“Aloha Boys” (Hallmarks of the Job/Aloha Boys, P.I. Tales) and “The Downeaster ‘Alexa’” (Only the Good Die Young, Untreed Reads)—have been shortlisted for Derringer Awards. Two stories from projects I edited or co-edited—Mark Troy’s “Burnin Butt, Texas” (Black Cat Mystery Magazine) and Stacy Woodson’s “Two Tamales, One Tokarev, and a Lifetime of Broken Promises” (Guns + Tacos, Down & Out Books)—have also been shortlisted.

And hitting the virtual newsstands last week was Groovy Gumshoes: Private Eyes in the Psychedelic Sixties (Down & Out Books), fifteen private eye stories by Jack Bates, C.W. Blackwell, Michael Bracken, N.M. Cedeño, Hugh Lessig, Steve Liskow, Adam Meyer, Tom Milani, Neil S. Plakcy, Stephen D. Rogers, Mark Thielman, Grant Tracey, Mark Troy, Andrew Welsh-Huggins, and Robb White.

Attending Malice Domestic this week? So are Temple and I! Stop us and say howdy. To find me, or to find any of my fellow SleuthSayers, use Barb Goffman’s handy guide to where we’ll all be: “Have Mask, Will Travel — I’m Ready for Malice Domestic.”

12 April 2022

Have Mask, Will Travel – I'm Ready for Malice Domestic

After a two-year hiatus (thank you, covid), Malice Domestic is resuming its annual in-person convention next week. I don't know where the time has gone. While I'm nervous to be in such close contact with so many people (freaking covid), I'm excited to see (and hug?--still a question mark) these friends I haven't seen in so long. It will be great to get back to normal and see my Malice family.

Normal. That's a concept, isn't it? Will it be "normal" considering a lot of the regulars won't be there? Some because of scheduling conflicts. Some because they're still being careful due to covid. (I so get that. I'll be checking in with a gazillion masks.) And some people won't be there because they're simply not around anymore. We've lost too many people we love since the last Malice, authors and readers.

But as they say, the show must go on. So, I've compiled information on where you can find me and my fellow SleuthSayers attending Malice. If you'll be there, I hope to see you.

Michael Bracken

  • Michael will be moderating the panel Murder in Few Words: Short Stories on Friday at 4 p.m.
  • He'll be participating in the signing for the new Malice Domestic anthology, Mystery Most Diabolical, on Friday at 9:30 p.m. 
  • He'll also be in the signing room on Saturday at 10 a.m.

Barb Goffman (yes, that's me!)

  • I'll be on the panel Make It Snappy: Our Agatha Best Short Story Nominees on Friday at 2 p.m.
  • I'll be signing in the signing room on Friday at 4 p.m.
  • I'll be participating in the signing for the new Malice Domestic anthology, Mystery Most Diabolical, on Friday at 9:30 p.m. (And if you're interested in getting a copy, it should be newly on sale at Malice!)

Art Taylor

  • Art will be moderating the panel Make It Snappy: Our Agatha Best Short Story Nominees on Friday at 2 p.m.
  • He'll be on the panel Last Night, I Dreamt I Went to Malice Again: Romantic Suspense Influences on Saturday at 11 a.m.
  • He'll also be in the signing room on Saturday at noon.

Mark Thielman

  • Mark will be on the panel Murder in Few Words: Short Stories on Friday at 4 p.m.

If you haven't read the five short stories nominated for the Agatha Award, there's still time to read them for free before you get to Malice to vote. Click here and scroll down to the five story names. They are links. And if Malice Domestic is new to you and you want to learn more about this annual fan convention celebrating the traditional mystery, click here.

So, that's it. Get packing. (Oh, who am I kidding. I bet some of you are already packed.)  See you next week!

29 March 2022

You’re Only Famous When You Die

Leigh Lundin was the first to notify me of my untimely death, when he emailed me on March 16:

Michael, while speaking this morning with my friend Cate in South Africa, she bloody nearly gave me a stroke.

She: “I’m sorry to hear about your friend, the one we were just talking about.” (We’d been talking about how prolific you and John Floyd are, masters of quality and quantity.)

Me: “What? Who are you talking about?”

She: “Michael Bracken. I saw his obit. It’s online.”

Me: “No!”

She pulled up the article and read it to me. Whew. It quickly became clear the obituary was referring to someone else, BUT… here’s the kicker. That early edition of the article spoke of the novels and numerous short stories you’d written, mentioned EQMM/AHMM, and that you’re editor of Black Cat. They conflated your career with the other guy!

Cate emailed me the URL, but by the time I got it this evening, the mix-up had been resolved. I regret I couldn’t get a copy to show you the conflation, but better for us, they had the wrong Michael B. I don’t know if there’s a way to get that early copy. I include the URL below.

I haven’t said anything to anyone else in case you might find an article/story in this, Michael. AND—this is exciting—you are definitely renown internationally.

I often wonder what will be written about me after my death and, apparently, I almost found out.

But I do wonder, so much so that I once attempted to draft my own obituary when I suspected no one in my family would do it justice. After I discovered that the cost to publish my bloviated paean to myself would cost my heirs more than I’ve earned for most of my short stories, I decided the paltry inheritance I’m bequeathing them—what is the going rate for half a ton of recyclable paper?—might better be spent on a twelve-pack of Mountain Dew to be shared at the Wake while everyone listens to “Highway to Hell” and “Stairway to Heaven” in an unending loop because I want all my bases covered.

So how is it we wish to be remembered after we’re gone? Loving parent and devoted spouse? Or hermit-like creature whose occasional screeds entertained tens of people? Will the list of the left-behind be a litany of children’s and grandchildren’s names or a screen capture showing all the unfinished manuscripts residing on our hard drive?

Either way, most of us are likely to be forgotten soon after our passing… unless we have stories in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine’s submission queue. Then we will live forever.

Until then, may you live long enough for your friends to read your obituary and to express relief that the report of your death had been greatly exaggerated.

08 March 2022

Writing Lessons from Top Chef

I recently became addicted to Top Chef, a cooking competition program that airs on Bravo, and I’ve been binge-watching the program during the past several weeks. I started watching with episode one of season one when I found reruns of the series on Hulu, and I’ve almost reached the end of season eleven. (Bravo recently began airing season nineteen, so, please, no spoilers.)

The season begins with twelve to nineteen chefs competing to be the last chef standing and to be named the “Top Chef.” Sometimes the chefs compete singly and sometimes they compete in teams, and each episode typically features two competitions: a Quickfire Challenge and an Elimination Challenge. The winner of a Quickfire Challenge is often granted immunity in the Elimination Challenge and may win a prize. Though the winner of the Elimination Challenge may also win a prize, the loser of the Elimination Challenge must leave the show.

Much like publication editors, the host (Padma Lakshmi ) and judges (Tom Colicchio, Gail Simmons, and a rotating cast of guest judges) issue a “call for submissions” in the form of a challenge. They provide the competing chefs with a description of what they want, the parameters of the task, and a deadline.

A Quickfire Challenge is much like a flash fiction call for submissions: Create an appetizer using a Milky Way, a prawn, and a kumquat, and do it in twenty-seven minutes. The judges then taste the food, tell the chefs who prepared the worst dishes, who prepared the best dishes, and who won the challenge.

The Elimination Challenges are more complex. The competing chefs must prepare one or more dishes, often to a theme, and often for a crowd of diners. At some point during the season, the chefs are encouraged, or specifically instructed, to “tell a story” with their food.


At some point during the first few episodes of season eleven I began to see a parallel to what we encounter as writers. Editors provide us with guidelines that define what genre of stories they want to see, what elements the stories must have, and how many words we’re allowed to use to tell the stories. Sometimes the guidelines are quite specific, and other times they are vague or even nonsensical.

But the parallels become even more apparent when watching what happens at the Judges’ Table after the Elimination Challenges, both the conversations among the judges and their conversations with the competitors when trying to determine which chef gets the boot.

The chefs’ dishes are judged for adherence to the parameters of the challenge, creativity, and technical proficiency. Editors—though the debates are more often internal than among a group of editors sitting around a table—judge submissions much the same way. Does a particular submission meet the guidelines? While adhering to those guidelines, how creative is the final product? And, has the author displayed technical proficiency through proper spelling, punctuation, formatting, and so on?

And one dilemma that the chefs often face when a challenge involves preparing food for several hundred diners: Should they cook for the crowd or should they cook for the judges? During the seasons I’ve watched, food that seemed well-liked by diners has scored poorly with the judges. The lesson, repeated often through the seasons, is that pleasing the judges is critical to winning, just like pleasing editors is critical to getting published.


Top Chef is a reality show, so we know the stories told over the course of each episode and over the course of each season must be taken with a large grain of salt. How much is real, how much is staged, and how much of what we see has been manipulated to feed viewers particular story lines? Does it matter?

Maybe not.

But what does matter is something Tom Colicciho says, in one form or another, at least once each season: “We can only judge by what’s on the plate.”

Editors make publishing decisions much the same way. They can only judge your work by what’s on the page.

Ensure that it’s appetizing.

Black Cat Mystery Magazine 11 was released at the tail-end of February, and it contains new stories by Mike Adamson, Lis Angus, Marlin Bressi, Mark Bruce, Leone Ciporin, Veronica Leigh, Anita Murphy, David Rudd, Max Devoe Talley, and fellow SleuthSayers Robert Lopresti, O’Neil De Noux, and Elizabeth Zelvin. It also contains a classic reprint by Richard S. Prather.

15 February 2022

Continuum of Editors

I am currently reviewing and preparing some of my published short stories for a potential trio of collections, and I’ve realized that there are three types of editors. One type stands alone and the other two represent opposite ends of a continuum upon which most editors can be placed.

The first is the Compiler. The Compiler does no actual editing, publishing work exactly as received. Though this type of editor is often found at the bottom end of the publishing heap, I have worked with a few well-known editors who may be compilers. I wish I could say that my work is perfect and needs no editing—well, I could say it, but no one would believe me—but when editors provide no feedback beyond an acceptance letter and/or contract and I later discover mistakes (typos, for example) in the published work that match errors in my manuscript, I suspect that editor is a compiler.

The two ends of the continuum are represented by the Writer is God editor and the Editor is God editor.

The Writer is God editor has the writer confirm every change and correction, no matter how insignificant. A manuscript may pass back and forth several times before it is put into production, and then the Writer is God editor has the writer review and sign off on page proofs—no one produces actual galleys these days—before approving the finished product for printing.

The Editor is God editor never shows changes and corrections to the writer, and never shares page proofs. The writer only knows what’s happened once contributor copies arrive, if they arrive because the Editor is God editor sometimes doesn’t even bother to send contributor copies.


Most editors exist somewhere on the continuum, and I’ve worked with editors at or near both ends. Even so, I have probably been published by more Editor is God editors than Writer is God editors.

Regardless of where an editor may be on the continuum, a good editor will improve a writer’s work, regardless whether the writer’s input is sought. I’ve been lucky. I’ve only once had a published story harmed by editing—and that one did not have my byline on it.

Early in my career, I always compared my original manuscripts to my published work in an effort to learn from the editing. Many years ago I stopped doing that, though I do still read the published versions of most of my stories, sometimes surprising myself at how good they are.

Apparently, I should have continued comparing my published work to my original manuscripts. While preparing stories for the potential collections, I’ve discovered that several stories have substantial changes, and the ones that do were all edited by the same person. He published a few of them in a magazine and, after he left that position, published several more in a series of anthologies.

I grumbled when I first discovered all the changes he’d made to one of my stories, and then I grumbled even more when I realized how much he’d changed all the stories he published. I stopped grumbling when I realized how the changes had improved each of the stories, and I wonder how much I could have learned a decade or so ago if I had taken the time to do then what I’m doing now.


As a writer, I love working with Writer is God editors, but as an editor I understand why so few exist on that end of the spectrum.

Writers submit sloppy manuscripts, filled with weird formatting, extra spaces, improper quotation marks, backwards apostrophes, and the like, and a fair bit of time gets spent just cleaning things up. It’s a waste of time to ask writers to approve corrections of things they should not have screwed up in the first place.

Additionally, many writers do not follow—and may not even know—a publication’s house style. Is it Associated Press, Chicago Manual of Style, or something the publisher created specifically for its own use? And what about things like British spelling vs. US spelling or word selections such as “OK” and “okay”?

It takes time to convert everything in a manuscript to house style and, again, it’s a waste of time to ask a writer to approve the conversion to house style. Publishers establish and use a house style to ensure consistency of their products, and writers are not often given the opportunity to express an opinion about whether they like it or not.


The Editor is God editor is not an inherently evil entity. Deadlines, budgets, and corporate policies create situations where it just isn’t practical to touch base with writers every time there’s a change to a manuscript.

Despite the shock of seeing one’s words changed without one’s knowledge, professional editors often improve, and rarely harm, the material presented to them. Rather than being offended by what an Editor is God editor has done to a manuscript between submission and publication, it might be best to learn from it.

For example, many years ago I wrote short stories for a group of women’s magazines. I soon discovered that each time I used a brand name in one of my manuscripts, the brand name had been changed to a generic term in the published version. So, McDonald’s became “a fast-food restaurant,” a Quarter Pounder became “a hamburger,” and a Coke became “a cola.” This was not stated anywhere in the publisher’s guidelines, but as soon as I realized what the editor was doing, I stopped using brand names in my submissions.


I edit several projects—a consumer magazine, a mystery magazine, various anthologies, and miscellaneous other things—and each requires a different approach.

For the consumer magazine, which only publishes non-fiction, the approach is Editor is God. The magazine has three editors, each of whom takes a pass at every article. The only time writers may be involved in editing is during fact checking. For example, if a writer quotes “Steven Smith” and we believe the man’s name is “Stephen Smith,” we check with the writer to determine which is correct.

When editing fiction, I lean toward Writer is God, but do not fully embrace the concept. My approach is more like Writer is Minor Deity. After I’ve fixed all the wacky formatting and made the work conform to house style, I involve writers in more substantive changes. Usually, it’s a single pass: I return manuscripts with the changes indicated using Microsoft Word’s track changes function, and writers have the opportunity to accept the changes and/or to work with me on changes with which they disagree.

With Black Cat Mystery Magazine, the next thing writers see are page proofs, and I may or may not make additional minor corrections/changes to their work between the time I receive the edited manuscripts back from them and the time I deliver the files to production for typesetting and page layout.

With anthologies, there’s often an additional editing step. After I’ve delivered the fully-edited manuscript to the publisher, the publisher’s copyeditor takes a run through it, correcting errors the contributors and I missed and suggesting improvements (better word choices, sentence restructuring, and the like). I review all these changes, accepting the obvious corrections and some of the suggestions, before letting the writers review the copyeditor’s work. Sometimes this is the last thing the writers see; other times they also see page proofs.


Compilers aren’t really editors. So, because you never know if you’re submitting to a compiler or an actual editor, always strive to present your manuscripts as error-free as possible. You don’t want to be called to task by a reader blaming you for mistakes you thought your editor would catch and correct.

On the other hand, if you’re working with editors whose approaches can be placed somewhere on the God continuum, remember that their goal is to publish the best work possible. If they are Writer as God editors, appreciate their efforts to include you in the editing process. If they are Editor as God editors, learn from your final published pieces so that future submissions to those editors require little or no editorial intervention between your submission and the final publication.

My story “The Fishmonger’s Wife,” which first appeared in Pulp Literature, was reprinted in Black Cat Weekly #22.

25 January 2022

Building the Perfect Editor

A magazine issue, an anthology,
and a couple of collections
make for a pile of editing.
Over the years I’ve had several thousand pieces of writing accepted for publication, ranging from fillers, jokes, and anecdotes to essays and various forms of non-fiction, to short stories in a variety of genres, to a handful of novels. My work has appeared in anthologies, journals, magazines, newsletters, newspapers, webzines, and other types of publications. I have sold original work and reprints. I have written on assignment, on invitation, and on spec. I have been paid bupkis for some projects and have received payments in the low four figures for others. I have been paid promptly but often not, and too often promised payments never materialized. Through all of this, I have worked with many great editors and with a few who should die from a thousand paper cuts and be left on the side of the road for feral hogs to devour.

Because I have recently been doing more editing than ever before and because I don’t wish for my paper-cut-riddled body to be left on the side of the road, I’ve been pondering the attributes of the perfect editor.

For me, that editor responds promptly, pays promptly (and handsomely), publishes everything I submit, edits with a deft touch that puts a brilliant shine on my near-perfect prose, puts my name on the cover, sends numerous contributor copies, ensures that my work is seen by the most influential reviewers (all of whom recognize my brilliance), and ensures that my work is considered for every appropriate award and best-of-year anthology. No matter how much of an ass I am to work with, a great editor never badmouths me, my work, or my highly inflated ego, and always picks up the tab when we go for dinner and drinks.


The reality is that no editor can meet my expectations. All are constrained by the budgets and policies of their publishers as well as by their own strengths and weaknesses.

Still, I can dream, and my dream is to play Dr. Frankenstein and build the perfect editor from the best parts of the editors with whom I’ve worked, all the while hoping my assistant doesn’t bring home the brain from “Abby Normal.”

I would start by creating the environment in which the editor works: A well-funded publishing company that believes in treating content providers (writers, artists, photographers, and others) as important collaborators to be respected and not as necessary evils to be tolerated.

The editor would have an unlimited amount of time to accomplish tasks and would have stellar support staff, from editorial assistants to designers to contract managers to bookkeeping and accounting staff.

The editor would have all the necessary tools, from the latest hardware and software to appropriate reference materials to comfortable seating and favorite writing implements.

The editor would have the ability to focus on a single task when appropriate and the ability to juggle multiple tasks when necessary.

The editor would have a superior sense of story and the ability to pinpoint exactly where and why a story jumps the rails.

The editor would have superior copyediting skills or a trusted assistant editor with these skills.

The editor would have infinite patience to work with new writers and guide them through the publishing process as well as to answer the same questions ad nauseam.

The editor would have exemplary people skills and, perhaps more important, a sense of empathy that allows the editor to understand what writers experience when they sit at the keyboard to create or when they anxiously check email every thirty-seven seconds awaiting responses to queries, submissions, and revisions.


Alas, once I release the perfect editor into the world of publishing, the newly created creature, lovingly assembled from the best of every editor who has ever existed, is likely to become a jaded, foul-mouthed, chain-smoking, hard-drinking SOB whose days consist of rejecting the brilliant work of new writers, publishing the work of washed-up hacks, introducing errors during editing, complaining about the production department, lobbying for a raise (if on-staff) or a bigger advance (if freelance), and bemoaning its failed writing career.

Damn, I really need to quit staring in the mirror when I write these things.

DISCLAIMER: Nothing in this post is intended to resemble any actual editors, living or dead, except those devoured by feral hogs.

James A. Hearn and Michael Bracken
at the 2019 Shamus Awards Banquet
in Dallas.
“Blindsided,” co-authored with James A. Hearn and published in the September/October 2021 issue of
Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, has been nominated for an Edgar Award.

Congratulations to fellow SleuthSayer R.T. Lawton, whose story “The Road to Hana” (AHMM, May/June 2021), was also nominated for an Edgar.