by Elizabeth Zelvin

The editors of the premier mystery magazines get thousands of submissions a year. They pick the stories they like the best, and they don’t change a single comma. As editor of a new anthology of short crime fiction, this was not my experience.

Background: The Me Too movement has already inspired enough novels to be a trend. And we’ve heard the sad and powerful testimony of real-life women on public media as well. But short stories haven’t caught up. I hoped that an anthology of short stories might give women another kind of voice and that women mystery writers would be inspired to speak their truth in that format. (Me Too: Crimes Against Women, Retribution, and Healing will be out in September.)

But how to choose? There must be enough stories for a book, and the stories an editor selects may not be perfect as submitted. But they’d better be perfectible, because the manuscript has to be terrific. It’s got to impress a publisher and reviewers and readers.

What are the seven most important things I look for in a submission?

1. Formatting

It arrives correctly formatted. I tell authors how in the submission guidelines. Read them. Follow them. If you need to, ask a writer friend for help before you submit. If you don’t know how to format an indent in Word, we’re going to have trouble later on. If you don’t do it, guess who’s going to have to fix it, line by line? Who knew so many of you would leave two spaces between sentences instead of one? It drove me so crazy that I corrected many of them myself, sentence by sentence. Next time I’ll put that in the guidelines too.

2. Grammar

The spelling, grammar, and usage are impeccable. I’m talking about narrative, not dialogue. A typo or two are forgivable. Split infinitives and misplaced apostrophes are not. They mean that I’ll be picking this writer’s clothes up off the floor throughout the edits when I need to be working on more important things. I need to be able to trust her to know the basics and take care of them.

3. Track Changes

You’re familiar with the basics of Track Changes. I put that in the guidelines. I don’t have time to give you a tutorial. But it’s the editorial process in the 21st century, not just mine, and it’s a joy if you know how to use it. In fact, it creates connection and community between editor and authors. So I need authors who have that skill set and are ready to join in.

4. Guidelines

This one is particular to my anthology, but most anthologies have a theme and other criteria spelled out in the guidelines. So most editors will have an analogous requirement. And all of them have a word count. I made it very clear that I wanted stories. Many of the submissions were heartfelt and moving testimonies—fictional or fictionalized, it doesn’t matter—about experiences of harassment, assault, and abuse. The authors appreciated the chance to write them, and I’m glad they had the opportunity. But the stories I accepted took such material as a foundation and built on it, using the elements of fiction: character development, plotting, conflict, suspense, a story arc with some kind of resolution.

5. Cooperation

You play well with others, especially me. I knew a few submitters from the mystery community and got to know others as we exchanged emails. If I picked up any hint that they might be resistant to critique, I did not accept their stories. I was not up for any power struggles. A potential Edgar-winning story by a prima donna? Not worth it.

6. Great Storytelling

I’m looking for a story that pulls me in and makes me want to know what happens next. In fact, we did a lot of work on pace during the editorial process, and I think readers will experience what we did as strong storytelling throughout the anthology.

7. Writing

Fresh images rather than clichés. Dialogue that sizzles. Characters who leap off the page, characters we care about. Trust me, you’ll be rooting for the banshee as well as the pastor who’s a single mom and the teenage hooker and girl on the red velvet swing—you get the idea.

Have you ever been rejected from an anthology and wondered why? Have you ever edited an anthology and faced similar—or different—dilemmas? Let’s talk about it on the Career Authors Facebook page.


Elizabeth ZelvinElizabeth Zelvin is the editor of the anthologies Me Too: Crimes Against Women, Retribution, and Healing, coming in September, and Where Crime Never Sleeps: Murder New York Style 4. Her stories have appeared in EQMM and AHMM and have been nominated three times each for the Derringer and Agatha awards for Best Short Story. She is the author of the Bruce Kohler Mysteries and the Mendoza Family Saga, a Jewish historical series.