Crime fiction is a competitive field, and three of the best places to showcase your short fiction or nonfiction are the Strand Magazine, Shotgun Honey, and Spinetingler Magazine. These publications have housed past masters and today’s best, and most writers are understandably eager for their work to be included in their pages. But the better the publication, the higher the rejection rate, and every writer has felt that sting when their work was refused.
So who determines what makes the cut? We interviewed three people who help decide what gets accepted and what doesn’t, as well as how they manage today’s busy publishing climate.
As you’ll see, all three of our guests are very nice and encouraging, and you should feel bad that you’ve (probably) said something unprintably rude about them when they rejected your work.
Andrew Gulli has been the managing editor of the Strand Magazine for the past eighteen years. During that time, the magazine has published a diverse set of writers from unpublished works by F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Steinbeck to Michael Connelly and R.L. Stine. For more information visit www.strandmag.com.
Sandra Ruttan has been hit by a car, had her foot partially severed, survived a crash in the Sahara Desert, and almost drowned after she fell down a waterfall. She has no idea how she’s still alive. Her published novels include Harvest of Ruins, What Burns Within and The Frailty of Flesh. Visit www.sandraruttan.com for more information.
Angel Luis Colón is the author of No Happy Endings, The Fury of Blacky Jaguar, and the upcoming Meat City on Fire (and Other Debacles). He’s an editor for the flash fiction site Shotgun Honey, has been nominated for the Derringer Award, and is published in multiple web and print pubs such as Thuglit, Literary Orphans, All Due Respect, The Life Sentence, RT Book Reviews, and The LA Review of Books. He’s currently repped by Foundry Literary + Media.
Click on the cover below to learn more about Angel’s newest book, No Happy Endings:
How many submissions do you review on an average week (or month, if that’s a better metric)? How many do you accept?
Sandra Ruttan (Spinetingler Magazine): That has varied widely over time. There have been months when several dozen come in and other months when only a handful are received. When there’s been a profile or feature that’s drawn attention to the site the submissions will increase. I’d estimate an acceptance rate ranging from 5-10%. Early on, it was higher, but as submission numbers grew it leveled out considerably.
Andrew Gulli (The Strand Magazine): About twenty a week. We accept, from new writers, about six stories a year.
Angel Colon (Shotgun Honey): Depending on the time of the year, we see 30-40 submissions a month. Of those, maybe we say yes outright to 5-8 of those stories.
Have you ever referred a story to another site? For example, if you liked the story, but it wasn’t a good fit?
Sandra Ruttan: Yes, and the people who contribute to the editorial team have done this as well.
Andrew Gulli: I always say go to my friends at EQ or Alfred Hitchcock, but I’ll make sure that I like the story and know the writer is a professional. I would never dream of inundating my friends with a story that is not polished.
Angel Colon: Absolutely. If the story’s solid but doesn’t meet our word count requirement (700) we’ll refer them to sites like The Flash Fiction Offensive. We’ve even sent stories back to writers and told them to expand upon an idea and reach out to markets that do longer fiction. Sometimes a writer needs the nudge.
How much work will you put into a submitted story or article that has potential, but needs help?
Sandra Ruttan: It depends. When submission numbers are really high, you’re going to pick the work that’s compelling and clean. I know at different points I’ve worked with emerging writers, and that Brian (Lindenmuth, Spinetingler’s non-fiction editor) has as well. How much effort I’ll put in largely depends on the writer. If a writer isn’t receptive to the editorial process, you can’t help them. In some cases, I’ve reached out to a writer years after the fact to see if they’ve done anything with the project.
Andrew Gulli: If I like the story, the voice, plot, and that sense of vision you’ll get when you read something you like, then it goes to the fiction editor, who labors on the stories like mad. At times she’ll go through a lot of fine-tuning, research, editing, and “shaping up” until we’ll feel it’s ready to be published. There are times (and those are wonderful) when the story is so polished you just need a few tweaks and it goes to the illustrator.
Angel Colon: We tend to provide feedback with almost all rejections, but if a piece has potential and needs some adjustment, we’ll offer notes to see what the writer can do with the piece. That’s the rare occasion we ask for a rewrite directly. Even then, it’s no guarantee we’ll publish the piece even after the rewrite’s been completed. Sometimes the story just doesn’t click.
Has an author’s behavior/attitude ever result in a potential story (say, one that needed rewrites) getting rejected?
Sandra Ruttan: An author’s behavior has resulted in them being banned. Although we had a release from the writer that we were buying first worldwide publication rights, they sold the same rights to another publication on the other side of the world. That publication threatened us with a lawsuit until everyone realized that the writer was the one who’d blindsided both publications. Spinetingler has always been a labor of love, funded from the pockets of the people behind it. I won’t work with people who put Spinetingler, or Spinetingler’s staff, at risk.
Andrew Gulli: We try to be diplomatic. Most of the time the writer weighs things – “be published in the Strand and have some changes, or lose that opportunity” – and every single time authors have agreed that some editing made their work stronger.
Angel Colon: I don’t recall any distinct moments of bad behavior. Sometimes we’ll have writers misunderstand feedback as a request for a rewrite and we’ll break it to them that no, we rejected the story with a little guidance – that doesn’t mean we want to read it again. If we wanted to read it again, you’d be told.
Obviously, we’ve gotten a handful of snarky answers to rejections, but I try not to let that inform my attitude if the writer sends a new piece after the fact — but I won’t comment on how successful those attempts are, though (I kid, I kid)!
What’s been your best moment at your respective publications?
Sandra Ruttan: The best thing is seeing some people get a shot who go on to show their talent. James Oswald is a great example. He’s gone on to international success. I use his clip on Craig Ferguson’s show as an illustration to writers about the need to persevere.
Andrew Gulli: Publishing Jeffery Deaver in the Strand was incredible. I think he’s been our generation’s greatest thriller author. And also publishing a never-before published short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. When the agent (Phyllis Westberg) gave me the go-ahead I was jumping up and down in my office. My pal in the office next door said, “Is this jumping up and down from elation or agony, Andrew?”
Angel Colon: I really appreciate the writers we’ve knocked down again and again who never quit. They put the work in and finally land a solid landing. That always stands out for me. I know how it feels to get rejected too and it’s hard to brush the dirt off only to get knocked down again, so the folks that do deserve credit.
Question for Andrew: Magazine publishing is a famously brutal business, but the Strand Magazine has seemed resilient to the industry’s pitfalls. In your opinion, what accounts for that success?
We mix things up. You can read a noir story that has never been published by James M. Cain, a reboot of Frankenstein by R.L. Stine, or an interview with Christopher Plummer. So we always keep our readers guessing. And everyone from the copyeditor to the illustrator loves what they’re doing. A lot of my good friends work in the auto industry and like talking about how they work day-to-day on the wiring of an engine or a heating system. I think that when you work on something tangible, you feel it’s really rewarding.
Sandra, how do you manage your workload, given that you run both Spinetingler and Snubnose Press, in addition to your own writing?
Snubnose has really been on hiatus, and I’m not sure what we’re going to do. We’ve been talking about it. The reality is we burned ourselves out and, at points where work and family have taken over, everything else has been set aside. It’s been four years since I’ve had a book out, and although I have a manuscript now, it feels like I’m starting from scratch. I’m personally focusing on doing interviews for Spinetingler and occasional features. Jack Getze has taken on the short stories for now, and Brian and I have had several conversations about the long-term plan. However we move forward, my schedule has to include writing time for myself. Now that I work contract work, and work from home, I do have more time. Instead of commuting and all that, I go to work in my PJs and have more hours in my day. I’m looking at reducing my time blogging to have more time to focus on Spinetingler and Snubnose, and we’ll see how that goes.
Angel, how did you first get involved with Shotgun Honey, and did you worry about the workload?
I’d been pubbed by them three times prior and an outgoing editor recommended me to Ron Earl Phillips (our head honcho) as a replacement; I’ve been known to be a rat bastard of an editor (no joke, I WILL research the facts in your 700 word story – I don’t mess around).
The workload wasn’t worrisome at all. I’m a quick reader and working with Shotgun Honey gives me a reprieve from writing AND my day job, so it can be a bit of an exercise in decompression at times.
That said, it’s always important to approach something like editing for a site without anger or malice stemming from your own writing career. I always try to buffer my time and never work the Shotgun queue if writing has me in a bad mood. It’s not fair to ever take out writerly frustration on another writer.
On the plus side, reading other writers at their best and worst is perhaps some of the best informal education you can have as a writer. These folks teach me so much on a day-to-day basis.
On a related note, writers seem more active nowadays – it’s not unusual for a novelist to also contribute to a blog, run a podcast, or work in some aspect of publishing. In your opinion, what are the advantages and disadvantages of that approach?
Sandra Ruttan: On the one hand, the more you learn about the business, the easier it is to navigate. You begin to realize why publishers have submission guidelines, and why you need to pay attention to them. There was a chat recently on Facebook that prompted a number of writers to mention how unfair it is for a publication to expect them to send in a story and wait several months without letting anyone else look at it before knowing if the publisher will accept it. All I could think was, “Then don’t submit it to them.” Find a publisher who allows simultaneous submissions. It would be different if I was independently wealthy and could devote hours per day to Spinetingler or Snubnose, but I have to work full-time. I have a family. I have my own writing, and when you’re trying to devote personal time to something like this, you feel jerked around if you put time in on a story (or, worse, you reject other stories that were close to the one you plan to go with) only to find out after you send an acceptance that the writer had it published somewhere else, or is waiting to hear back from another publisher. As a writer, I understand the frustration, but if I want to send material to more than one publisher, then I make sure they do not have a policy against simultaneous submissions.
The risk for writers is that we’re spreading ourselves too thin. I find myself wondering if my own writing suffers from the lack of time focusing purely on craft. You read differently when you read to publish, read for pleasure, and read for craft analysis.
The other consideration is that we run the risk of being omnipresent. If you’re everywhere, there’s no reason to make a special effort to hear you talk or read your work because you’re always accessible. I remember one of my first author events was seeing Ian Rankin at Wordfest in Calgary, and it was a sold-out event on a Friday night with a crowd in the hundreds. You get that when access is limited. I have a cousin who’s in the music business who said the same thing. You can’t go play your hometown every year; people will think there’s always a next time and not make the effort to get to that concert because they think they’ll have more opportunities.
It’s really very tricky. Writers who aren’t getting five- or six-figure book deals already are trying anything they can to be seen as marketable, because in today’s publishing world it’s as much about being marketable as it is about the writing. Back when I was a kid dreaming about being an author I never thought I’d need to be pretty, or to be funny on a panel and do public speaking. I thought I’d stay home and write books, because that’s what authors did.
Is it good for our industry overall? There’s no easy answer to that. Read Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves To Death. From studying communication theory it’s clear that how we communicate affects our message. At the end of the day we all need to consider if we’re comfortable with what we’re doing, if what we’re doing is meeting our personal objectives, and whether or not it’s interfering with our priorities. I would personally love to devote myself full-time to Spinetingler and Snubnose, but as long as I have a day job my priorities are my family, my work, and my writing.
Andrew Gulli: I think that the key to success for authors is to be aggressive, blog like crazy, build an audience, create loyalty. Publishers are a wonderful and a dedicated group, but they too have pressures where everyone is trying to get their attention. So if you’re an author and you’re telling them you’ve built of a twitter following of 20,000 and have a weekly podcast, you’ll make their job easier and more effective and they’ll love you.
Angel, what’s the best lesson you’ve learned for your own writing from your time at Shotgun Honey?
The importance of brevity in my novella and novel writing. We’re often consumed with word count or the need to describe things down to the minutiae, but it’s important to know when that isn’t necessary in a piece. Flash fiction, to me, is almost like High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) – quick, short, explosive. Learning those skills will help you with the big work and help you to become a sharper editor of your work as well.
Those are invaluable tools.
Sandra, what’s the best lesson you’ve learned for your own writing from your time at Spinetingler?
I’ve learned how important it is to follow submission guidelines. I know as soon as I send this I’ll spot a typo, but it really impresses me when I see generally clean material. I’ve also learned how important the hook in a story is. Short stories have to get in and out quick and hit the target.
I’ve learned that it’s important to take every rejection as a learning opportunity. Sometimes all you learn is that an editor doesn’t connect to what you do. That’s okay. That doesn’t mean your work is bad, or that they’re an idiot. It just means it isn’t the right fit. I’ve learned to go back and see content with fresh eyes, and sometimes it can really make a huge difference. I apply that to editing as well. I might read something and be unsure about it, so I’ll put it aside for a few days and read it again, and it might all click into place.
That’s the value of exclusive submissions. Sometimes I’ll send a story out one place and when it’s rejected I can go over it, and enough time has passed for me to see how to tighten it up and improve it. Going through the process of rejecting material as an editor, and working on material as a writer, has helped me tell when something is being rejected because it’s bad or because it just wasn’t to their preference.
I think I’ve had a tendency to want quick results. We’re living in a culture that thrives on the ‘get rich quick’ and ‘drop 5 sizes in a month’ push. We want to see results immediately. The problem is that if you’re published prematurely, it can deter readers. Being published isn’t just about the author. It’s about the readers. Are we giving them a solid product? Have we told a compelling story with strong writing? Or is this just another publishing credit on our list?
Sometimes, it’s better for time to pass and return with a stronger work than to rush something out the door just because you can. I’ve been trying speculative fiction projects in my spare time this year. It’s a huge learning curve, but if it helps me really think through the process of developing a story and I improve as a writer, then it’s worth it. Even if none of that material is ever published.
Thanks so much to Sandra, Andrew, and Angel!
E.A. Aymar is the managing editor of The Thrill Begins. His latest novel is You’re As Good As Dead, and he writes a monthly column for the Washington Independent Review of Books. He is also involved in a collaboration with DJ Alkimist, a NY and DC-based DJ, where his stories are set to her music. For more information about that project, visit www.eaalkimist.com.