How a Regional Writing Conference Led to Publication in The Best American Mystery Stories 2019

The Best American Mystery Stories 2019 cover

About a year ago, I attended the 2018 Maryland Writers’ Association Annual Conference, this led to my first short story publication in a genre I don’t typically write, and a reprint in the prestigious The Best American Mystery Stories 2019 anthology edited by Otto Penzler and Jonathan Lethem. The anthology is available nationwide today, on October 1, 2019.

Writing conferences and events can pay off in unexpected ways. So next time you’re on the fence about breaking out of your shell and attending another open mic, book festival, or conference, keep my story in mind.

Attending the MWA conference in 2018

I found the Maryland Writer’s Association when trying to rebuild my writing community after leaving San Francisco in 2017. Luckily, their 2018 conference was around the corner and they still needed volunteers. A huge thanks to Jessica Williams for giving me a last-minute opportunity. Volunteering is a great way to see the complexities of a writing conference, appreciate how much work is involved, meet presenters, and attend on the cheap. Sometimes, you even get a fancy title.

Jessica Williams invited me out for drinks at the hotel bar the first night of the conference after a day of wrangling volunteers. I don’t drink, but I’m always happy to meet other creative folks.

Jess introduced me to her friend Rick Ollerman, the editor of Down & Out: The Magazine. I quickly understood that he worked in crime fiction. This took off some of the pressure when I picked his brain about writing because most of my stories are literary. I admired how hard he worked for his magazine. He was knowledgeable about the genre and eager to recommend what to read to experienced readers and those like me, who’ve only enjoyed the occasional Lawrence Block Keller novel. At his seller’s table, he sold his own books as proudly as issues of Down & Out.

Most importantly, I watched Rick solicit a bestselling author for a potential story in the magazine. I commented that as someone actively submitting unsolicited stories, it was humbling to see the solicited side. Rick turned to me and said, “Send me a story!” I mentioned that I don’t write crime, but would keep it in my back pocket.

Following through after the conference

Most writing conference connections end up as ephemeral as the colorful stack of business cards bulging out of my pocket on the last day. I appreciated the volunteering opportunity and Rick’s enthusiasm, so I wanted to follow through.

I went home and read the debut issue of Down & Out. Not only did I dig most of the writing and appreciate Rick’s intros as to why I should read each story, but two of them reminded me of the style and tone of “A Damn Fine Town.” My short story asked—what happens when a luggage thief picks the wrong target on the early-morning airport train? After 5 drafts and 24 rejections, traditional literary journals didn’t care to know. If “A Damn Fine Town” didn’t have a home and I enjoyed Down & Out, what was there to lose?

Who says crime doesn’t pay?

85 days after submitting, I read the following email:

Hey, Art,

… I’d like to publish your story, “A Damn Fine Town.” Attached is a version with a couple of notes in red. If those are okay with you, just let me know and I’ll send you a contract …

Rick

After nearly a year of flash fiction acceptances, my first short story had found a home. I agreed with Rick’s edits, withdrew my one outstanding submission, and signed the contract. When the issue arrived in the mail, I rejoiced at my name on the cover with a very serious photo:

Rick mentioned that Down & Out was able to offer “only” the minimum payment specified by the Mystery Writers of America (ha, another MWA). This was still more than any of the token payments I’ve received for my published flash fiction. I joked with Rick and my best friend Kyle who inspired the story, “who says crime doesn’t pay?”

And it was flattering to read Rick’s intro above the story, the same kind I admired in the first issue I read:

Anthology Acceptance

In February 2019, nearly a year after the 2018 MWA conference, I read this email:

Dear Arthur,

I am very pleased to inform you that your story, “A Damn Fine Town,” which appeared in Down & Out Magazine, has been selected for inclusion in the 23rd edition of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s The Best American Mystery Stories 2019.

As the series editor, I picked the 50 stories that I regard as the most outstanding to have been originally published in North America during the 2018 calendar year. As the guest editor, Jonathan Lethem selected from that short list the 20 stories he regarded as the most outstanding for publication in this prestigious anthology.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt will be in touch with you with an offer of a reprint fee. Congratulations again, and thank you for writing such a distinguished piece of fiction.

Yours sincerely, Otto

Otto Penzler, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and Rick Ollerman were nothing but professional. I’d be delighted to work with any of them again. I promptly took care of the legal side of things and have eagerly awaited the anthology’s publication.

After I celebrated and traded emails with too many exclamation marks with Rick, I sat back with gratitude for this story’s journey. What if I let 24 rejections be too many and never made that 25th submission to Down & Out?

Submit elsewhere. Do a fresh draft. Get another reader’s perspective. Join a new critique group. Or start one. Find the heart of the story and revise to make it beat stronger. But don’t let any rejection stop you.

As I mentioned in my original post to publication, a huge thank you to everyone who had a hand in making this story go this far: Kyle Stout, Jessica Williams, Rick Ollerman, the Lemon Tree House Residency—especially Julie Jolicoeur, Jennifer Matson, Jan Schaffer, Katie Bannon, Alyssa Oursler—the Writers Grotto and Laurie Ann Doyle, critique partners like Allison Payne, Allison Landa, Kathleen Boyle, Eric Chang, Sean Marciniak, and Erika Franz.

What’s next?

My best friend and I would love to make a short film version of “A Damn Fine Town” on the grungy BART trains running to the SFO and OAK airports that inspired the story. So on your next early morning airport train, keep an eye out for characters like Mr. Suitcase or Kid Cape. And keep an eye on your luggage.

Read “A Damn Fine Town” today:

5 thoughts on “How a Regional Writing Conference Led to Publication in The Best American Mystery Stories 2019”

  1. Hi Arthur. I found you on the Glimmer Train goodbye email. Loved this post. Thank you for sharing this inspiring and informative publication journey. I have a short story that has been circulating for a year. After several drafts, I received several almosts and “send us more” and “finalist” but no publication offers. I really believe in the story and am going to take some of your suggestions. At this point, it looks like I need an editor or critique partner.

    1. Evelyn, thanks for the kind words. Good job earning encouraging rejections. Definitely keep at it.

      My favorite story is at over 30 rejections, and I still believe in it. I always stay open to another draft.

      How is your local writing community? Even in relative isolation, you can always try to do critiques online with more distant readers or writing friends.

      Thought it sounds like you’ve got the submission basics down, feel free to check out my Learn to Submit resources if that provides more ideas: https://arsenalofwords.com/learn-to-submit/

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