Guest Article: What Crime Fiction Editors Want and Don't Want by Scotch Rutherford
Scotch Rutherford, Switchblade Magazine's own managing editor, drops a smoking hot take on the current state of crime fiction publishing. He lays out a road map for anyone who is new to the street and looking to score, as well as hitting the highlights for you veterans. I found this article to be insightful, hilarious, and raw. You will find it either enlightening or infuriating. Either way, it's one-hundred proof pure Scotch. ECR is proud to host it on the inter-webs and grateful Mr. Rutherford took the time to speak truth to power. If you don't know the man's work be sure to check out back issues of Switchblade Magazine the Home of Outlaw Fiction and Noir here and his novella, The Neon Glare.
By: Scotch Rutherford
What Crime Fiction Editors Want and Don’t Want
Do Editors of Crime Fiction Digest mags inject their own philosophy/morality into their decision-making process when selecting fiction?
You bet your ass they do.
Chances are, if you’re new to writing crime fiction, you’re plying your trade in short fiction journals/periodicals. Michael Pool, creator of the now defunct The Crime Syndicate Magazine (he decided he needed more time for kicking people’s asses on the Jiu jitsu mat, working as a real life P.I., and writing novels) once laid it out in a podcast that new authors typically spend about 10 years polishing their chops at short fiction, before transitioning into novel writing, where they again spend another ten years building their craft. Joyce Carol Oates advocates new writers beginning their journey with short fiction, because it’s something you can “finish”, and there’s a sense of satisfaction in that. If you’re a new author it really is the best place to start.
So what makes the various Crime Fiction journals different?
Taste. Or lack of taste. Depending of course, on your definition of taste, and your assessment of style. Just like the rest of First World society, everything starts at the top and trickles down. For the 96 percent (*I’ll address the remaining 4 later on, down below), commercial success is the paramount goal. And let’s face it, being a successful writer of any generation, is a crap shoot when it comes to entertainment media. The choice to pursue such a lofty goal in itself, is a crap shoot. How many holiday gatherings will she endure trying to justify that journey, juxtaposed against her sister’s PHD? Commercial success is paramount for self-esteem. At least, for most of us, anyway. For the 96 percent, the best way to succeed is to write clean. But aren’t there levels of clean?
After all, even commercial Hollywood films (highly dependent on family-friendly advertisers) have some profanity, and even a tiny bit of nudity. So what are the do’s and don’ts? And who employs these limits? Well, again, there’s a trickle-down effect.
So what are the limits? Well, to answer that I’ve compiled the The Crime Zine Do Not Cross List:
1) Vulgarity. This is a big one with 98 percent of Crime Fiction publishers. Sure, you can detail a murder, or a dismemberment, but full-on prurient overly descriptive sexual scenes (even if it’s clearly a crime story and not erotica) are for the most part, forbidden. Sure, you can describe burying your face in a sloppy cheeseburger in all its gory detail—the voluptuous bun, the taste of the meat that’s still pink inside, the juices running down your face. But please, no overtly sexual descriptions. Keep it classy, okay?
2) Political Incorrectness. We all like to be a little unorthodox, but there are things you just can’t write about. Now this can range from (typical) mildly stringent—a non-black person writing a non-black character who calls a person of color a "n****r”.(even if the racist offender meets his demise) To even more stringent guidelines that (unofficially) stipulate that you shouldn’t be writing about a person of color, or especially a female person of color, if you are a white male. Also this could be further compounded if you featured white characters defying the guidelines of cultural appropriation—like a Swedish guy with his hair in corn rows, for instance. (unless maybe he’s an antagonist who ends up brutally murdered) Remember to be cognizant of the rules of Political Correctness for right now. (they change frequently) Sure there was probably a five year old white kid back in ’86 who dressed up as Mr. T and had brown face paint, and managed to trick or treat in a mixed neighborhood, without offending any black people, but we all know that that child and his parents deserve to be put on trial with the court of public opinion, and possibly endure a constant barrage of cyber bullying indefinitely if this was attempted in 2020.
3) Rape. Not allowed. (meaning you can’t describe it) Well, not a woman being raped by a man anyway. Sure, that happens in the real world, but we don’t want to read about it in fiction. Not in gory detail, anyway. Can you write about men raping men, or a woman raping a man with an object? Possibly. For a lot of the ‘rebel at a safe distance’ crime fiction journals, this is acceptable. But you must still tone down the gory detail.
4) Violence against animals and children. Got a story where a guy shoots a litter of puppies, or barbecues a school bus full of kids? Not gonna get published. Is a dog’s life more valuable than your uncle Jimmy’s? For fiction sake, it is. I mean, your protagonist could murder his uncle over his stash, but if he blew away uncle Jimmy’s ten month old Pomeranian, Ziggy, with a shotgun…(for yapping incessantly) Well, your story is probably going to be rejected. This is a rule that pretty much extends across the board for almost all fiction journals.
So what’s fair game?
Violence of any kind (other than rape). Violence is an American staple. Drugs—everyone loves drugs, and drug-related stories in crime fiction. You can describe the needle going in, the haze of bath salts sizzling inside a head-shop crack pipe, under the flame. Go crazy—this is allowed in just about every crime fiction journal. Even EQMM, as long as they don’t use four letter words, or write about the character having a lot of descriptive sex while high.
That said, let’s get into the rules of the road, starting at the “top” of the crime digest magazine dichotomy:
Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine—since 1941 (talk about longevity) they have been the premier publisher of clean cut* mystery/detective short fiction. This is the one that’ll look the best on your bio, when you submit to NY literary agents. For the 96 percent, the best way to succeed is to write clean. And for Ellery Queen, you need to be ‘squeaky clean’. It’s tough to get into, but not impossible. For those new crime writers looking to write clean, but don’t quite have the chops for EQMM, there are some indie league equivalents: Mystery Weekly, Black Cat Mystery Magazine, and Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine are clean crime equivalents that are albeit less prestigious, but very similar in tone and moral compass. Good places to work your way up to EQMM.
From here on, we get firmly into “Indie Territory”. It’s important to recognize that although Mystery and Noir/Crime are lumped together, Mystery will always be first, and far more commercial. (some might even claim they are two entirely separate genres) New York Five thrillers are almost always ‘Mysteries’. But that doesn’t mean writing a little dirty will deter lit agents from considering you ‘marketable’. What do I mean by that? Well, there’s such a thing as rebelling at a safe distance.
Definition of ‘safe-distance rebellion’
When I was a kid, I’d watch one idiot threaten a bigger idiot’s life, from behind the arm of a moral tough guy Steve Wilkos, on The Jerry Springer Show. Case and point, it was at a safe distance, provided Steve was there. Otherwise the idiot might have gotten his face split open by the bigger idiot. Another metaphor would be a Mohawk, and/or sleeved tattoos. A 35 year old guy with sleeved tattoos in downtown SF with a green Mohawk, on a skateboard in 2020, is a dot com CEO (claiming of course, that he doesn’t look like most CEOs). A guy with sleeved tattoos and a Mohawk walking out of a Food Lion in South Carolina in 1976, might however, quickly become a homicide statistic in the parking lot. Or a gram of weed in 2020—about as rebellious to have that in your pocket in L.A., as a bag of oregano. But still, these things are associated with rebellion. So they’re ‘bad ass’, but nothing that’ll get you in trouble. Now try tweeting that ANTIFA is the left wing-extremist equivalent of a white nationalist militia, when you live in Portland Oregon, or saying the word “f****t” out loud on your podcast (even for reference-sake and nothing more) if you’re not part of the LGBTQ community, and see how quickly your luck changes. You don’t want to be an actual rebel. Unless you are one (more on that down below)
So now let’s get into Indie Crime ‘Zines that print ‘fucked up shit’. The top of the heap is
1.) Tough Magazine, edited by Rusty Barnes. Tough is the modern equivalent of Thug Lit. Tough’s submissions are ongoing (no designated ‘reading periods’) and It’s a best-of-the-best crime-lit web and print magazine. This is the one that is most respected amongst the ‘independent crime fiction community’. It’s also respectable in the eyes of lit agencies, as many of its authors are members of The Short Mystery Fiction Society, responsible for the annual Derringer Awards. They push the envelope, but within reason.
2.) All Due Respect. The seminal hardcore crime blogzine from the ‘10s. In the beginning it was No Limit, and featured the true birth of modern gutter noir. Created by Indianapolis hardcore noir author Alec Cizak, who also forged the seminal pulp mag, Pulp Modern. It existed for about three years, before Cizak handed the reigns over to Chris Rhatigan. Rhatigan took it to new heights—making it a hardcore noir print mag, and later, an independent book publisher; now under the umbrella of Down & Out books. Now in 2020, All Due Respect is back, as a webzine. Its enduring brand of crime fiction has transitioned into more commercial territory, and is no longer associated with ‘no limit gutter noir’. They will print ‘fucked up shit’, but within reason. So keep it ‘somewhat classy’.
3.) Down & Out: The Magazine. This should be on every 96 percenter’s radar. Just like Bouchercon (or any crime fiction con), it’s a union of Mystery and Noir authors. Although the magazine itself is nowhere near the unstoppable force Down & Out books is, it is a great place to get influential and professional eyes on you. They will accept some expertly written prose that flirts with taboo territory, but a moral compass is advised.
From here on, there are a number of reputable, new and enduring publications to add to your crime fiction works bio. In no particular order, there is, Hoosier Noir, Noir Nation, The Dark City, as well as flash fiction (a lot harder than it sounds, if you haven’t written it) sites like The Flash Fiction Offensive, Shotgun Honey, as well as a host of others that fade in and out of internet consciousness.
And finally, at the bottom of the list, there’s Switchblade. The only no-limit all crime fiction digest magazine currently on the market. This is the one where literally anything goes. That means prurient vulgarity, and a complete lack of political correctness (meaning they aren’t subject to following EVERYTHING under the blue religion umbrella) Let alone anything close to conventional morality. It isn’t the best of the best. Getting published in Switchblade isn’t like unit selection for the Green Berets. It’s more like joining The French Foreign Legion. Is it good? Sometimes. Prominent noir authors have stopped by for an issue or two. Everyone likes to slum (even if it’s with a pen name) every now and then. Is it bad? Always. There’s nothing safe-distance about this mag. It’s a far cry from charismatic badassery of the WWE, and more like a stare down at a UFC weigh in. When you pick up an issue, you don’t know how far things are going to go. It isn’t that hard to get into, but it’s a cautionary tale, if you do: you may find yourself sharing a 5 x 8 spine-bound pulp cell with writers with no stops. It isn’t for everyone. But it’s perfect for about 4 percent of indie crime writers.
So who are the four percent?
These guys (sadly, there are very few women in this category) are gutter noir purists. And to be clear—these folks aren’t dabbling in gutter noir, while they work on their Rizzoli & Isles style commercial mystery for the NY5. They’ll take a NY5 deal, and a 5k advance—but only on their own terms. Gutting the inappropriate levels of vulgarity and political incorrectness from their prose, at the behest of the mainstream publishing community is out of the question. Their goal is to tell their story, their way. And they only care about advancing their craft, in that way. Sure, they recognize and respect the success of James Patterson, but they also recognize that Kim Kardashian and Stephenie Meyer also have NY5 deals. And while you might be thinking, ‘I’m glad I’m wise enough not to be a 4 percenter’, it’s important to understand that you simply are not. Real rebels never chose to be. They just are. And although they represent the tiniest portion of those who ‘succeed’, if they do, it’s usually big time.
Let me give you a couple of entertainment media examples. Name a famous radio DJ. Now name a famous radio DJ other than Howard Stern. That’s a little more difficult. Stern is a glowing example of a 4 percenter. He rose to fame defecating on every moral convention, and iota of PC culture, and rose to the pinnacle of radio prowess—he’s still there, BTW. (only now he’s free of the FCC) If I asked you to name a famous rapper, it would likely take you six minutes before you came up with this name—Ice Cube. But long before gangsta rap was mainstream white pop music, it was counterculture and incendiary. Cube’s old group NWA (I’ll leave it as an acronym, in case you’ve been reading this out loud—and don’t want to use an illegal word again) was the seminal gangsta rap group. They were banned from MTV, and even had a file jacket with the FBI. They pissed on all conventional morality of the time, and created a gateway for underrepresented voices from the gutter. Fast forward to 2018, Dr. Dre (another founding member of NWA) became the first billionaire-rapper. And Cube isn’t far behind.
Write the best criminal prose you can. Order digital copies (everyone can afford 2.99) of mags you’re curious about, and see if they’re the sort of publication you want to be a part of. And if you like it, even part of it, for fuck’s sake, write a review! I don’t recommend being a rebel. Don’t do anything (even one thing) blasphemous against the blue religion. Doing so will label you a red religion sympathizer (even if you support abortion and hate capitalism) and don’t write overly sexual material (unless it’s gay—only special interest material gets a pass, and even then, do it sparingly), or rape (murder is fine, though). Unless you’re a rebel (Switchblade will reopen submissions on April 15th) Otherwise, keep your nose clean, and keep writing.
Scotch Rutherford has a snowball’s chance in hell at mainstream acceptance. Anti-hate hating haters should stifle themselves, and enjoy his vulgarized candor.