The Wrong Story: A Cautionary Tale


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I’m in the final stretch of an edit for my next suspense novel, One Last Secret. It has to be  in my editor’s hands by close of business today. Fortunately, I’m past the “dropping potato chip crumbs all over the keyboard as I type in a blind panic” phase. Today is the “last read to make sure I didn’t leave in embarrassing formatting and continuity mistakes” portion of the program.

So I’ll be brief.

When I first started sending out short stories, I concentrated on contests and fellowships. Things with specific deadlines and guidelines. It’s a method I highly recommend to newbies.

I was newly married, living in West Virginia when I decided to submit a story to be considered for a West Virginia Arts Fellowship because it was a literature year. (I don’t know that they still have the same program in place. Perhaps something different.)

I submitted a very nice story about–okay, I honestly don’t know which story I thought I submitted, but I do remember that it was very PG-rated. I was new in the area and I didn’t want to shock the nice West Virginia committee.

Lo and behold, I won a fellowship. It was a couple thousand dollars, I think. A real boost to my ego and burgeoning career. There were festivities and news articles, etc. But when I read the title of the winning story, I thought, “How odd. I don’t think that’s the story I sent in.” And then I turned bright red and got woozy. The story that won was not a PG story at all. It was a dark, shocking tale about a woman who hooks up with a rather pathetic married businessman in a hotel bar. I was mortified. Pleased, but mortified. Because I was a young writer, you see, but I was also a new mother, and someone whose husband’s family was well known in the state and in their small town. Just call me Jezebel.

I assumed no one would actually read the story. West Virginia is a relatively small state, and people always say they’ve read things when they really haven’t, to be polite. But unfortunately, one of the women on the executive board lived in our town, and I ran into her at a cocktail party. She was forty years my senior, and very proper.

“Congratulations on your award,” said she.”It was a very interesting story. Was it autobiographical?”

And then I died.

Please tell me you have your own horrifying submission or publishing stories. Misery loves company.

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About Laura Benedict

Laura Benedict is the Edgar- and ITW Thriller Award- nominated author of eight novels of suspense, including the forthcoming The Stranger Inside (February 2019). Small Town Trouble, her latest book, is a cozy crime novel. Her Bliss House gothic trilogy includes The Abandoned Heart, Charlotte’s Story (Booklist starred review), and Bliss House. Her short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and in numerous anthologies like Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers, and St. Louis Noir. A native of Cincinnati, she lives in Southern Illinois with her family. Visit her at

15 thoughts on “The Wrong Story: A Cautionary Tale

    • Must have been the case, Brian. Because the PG story apparently didn’t do anything special if I can’t even remember it.

      This part of editing is fun, indeed. Thanks!

  1. A horror story of a slightly different, but related, kind.

    I put the same excerpt up on authonomy and on YouWriteOn. In both cases, through reader feedback, I reached the relevant Editor’s Desk, which entitled me to a critique and feedback from an editor at a major publishing house.

    I got an extremely useful critique and tons of encouragement from Natalie Braine at Orion (I think it was Orion), but no offer, of course, via the YouWriteOn site (which I recommend for reasons totally unrelated to the utility of the feedback from either editor.)

    From the unnamed editor at HarperCollins I got told that my concept was unpublishable and that I should write something else. My books are about a conspiracy of women who kill pedophiles; the first has won three awards, the same book that the unnamed HarperCollins editor slammed. BTW, the feedback was public, so I couldn’t cry silently; however, I did write up a public response that summarized what I learned from the feedback. For example, the one good suggestion I received was that I had an extra character I didn’t need. I also talked about what a writer does when told something like this: First, you cry… and then how you regain confidence in your project to keep on writing. In other words, my public reaction wasn’t sour grapes, and I believe it may have helped some writers.

    I don’t recommend authonomy (if it still exists) because there’s too much opportunity for the other writers to scratch each other’s backs, i.e., I give you a good review and then you give me one. Also I found that the feedback there from the other writers wasn’t as comprehensive or as useful as the feedback I received on YWO… plus getting to the Editor’s Desk on YWO takes fewer hours of your time despite the requirement to critique a minimum number of excerpts.

    I got over it, but not until I’d shed actual tears, a rare occurrence for me.

    • Good for you, Sheryl. How wonderful that you’re having success despite that editor’s comment. Different tastes. I know having the feedback and public must have been a nightmare. It sounds like you had a healthy, constructive response. Brava!

  2. I guess I should consider myself lucky, but I’ve never done a boneheaded thing in publishing. But I have been embarrassed — by the very first review for my very first book. Kirkus savaged me. (It’s still up there on Amazon for all to see…nothing dies in cyberland). It stung a lot but taught me something about growing a tough skin. I survived. 🙂 And others have since told me it is considered something of a badge of courage to get a bad review from Kirkus.

    • You’re my hero, Kris, to be so adept at navigating these treacherous waters!

      Ah, Kirkus. A badge of courage and honor, indeed. Their review of my debut novel included the words “tiresome” and “sordid” and several others I’m too permanently stung to mention. Good times.

  3. My embarassing story happened with my first novel. I had recorded the audio as a podcast series (this was before ACX existed for indie authors to make audiobooks). It took off and within a few weeks, maybe two months, had almost 15,000 downloads. Then I got a message from the owner of the podcast,

    “Uh, Basil? Check out episode 13, about 11:45 into it. Is that sound what I think it is?”

    I go to episode 13, about 11:45 into it. And discover that yes, that sound is most definitely what he thought it was. No mistaking it whatsoever.

    During a silence between paragraphs, out squeaked a long, high pitched, and very clear. I had farted, and somehow missed it in editing.

    Worst part though, in my mind at least, was that of the previous 15,000 listeners not a single one had taken a moment to drop me a line to say, “Hey Mr. Flatulence, turn off the gas!”

    • Basil, that’s brilliant! What a great story, and I love that you shared it here. Maybe the listeners got a kick out of it!

      I was on a conference call once for an ITW meeting for Thrillerfest. There were several big deal writers on the call. In the background, we all heard someone urinating and then flushing the toilet. Conversation stalled as we all wondered if we’d heard what we’d just heard. Nobody fessed up, of course. It certainly took the shine off some stars for me, though–in a good way.

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