Friday, August 11, 2023

How an Anthony nomination brought a story’s long journey full circle

By Curtis Ippolito

I was watching TV with my wife when I received an email on a Sunday night in early May informing me that my short story, “The Estate Sale,” was a finalist for an Anthony Award at Bouchercon 2023. My first reaction was disbelief. Maybe the Bouchercon board chair had typed in my email address on accident? Or was someone pranking me?

When I read the email again, though, I found my name, story, and all the corresponding information contained within a clean grid along with the other four nominees in the Best Short Story category.

Two thoughts struck me. First: how surreal this was. The other thought went a bit deeper. This honor had completely validated the arduous, two-and-a-half-year journey that spanned the time from writing “The Estate Sale” to finally getting it published in the Summer 2022 issue of Vautrin magazine.

It had been a time filled with rejection, discouragement, and fits of imposter syndrome, and yet somehow, an award-nomination had resulted and brought this story’s journey full circle.

So often, we writers take more time anguishing over our failures and rejections and consequently don’t take the time to truly appreciate and savor our wins. While attempting to do the latter, I reflected on the journey of the “The Estate Sale,” and decided I wanted to share what went into becoming an Anthony Award finalist and what I’ve learned, in hopes that it might help other writers with their own journeys.

Before I get into it, if you haven’t read “The Estate Sale,” it features a quirky middle-aged couple, Dan and Donna, who run an estate sale business. On the day we meet them, they’re preparing to open a sale they desperately need to go well to help pay-off gambling debts Dan has incurred. However, things take a wild turn when a door-to-door magazine salesman knocks on the door, spiking the couple’s fears and suspicions.

You can read “The Estate Sale,” and the additional four terrific finalist stories for the Best Short Story Anthony Award here. 

A little backstory. I wrote “The Estate Sale” in December, 2019, while I was letting my novel, BURYING THE NEWSPAPER MAN, cool before edits. Writing this short story marked a couple highlights for me. It was the first short story I had written in seven years. It was also the first crime fiction short story I had ever written. 

After a few drafts, I sent it to a couple friends, who both said they loved it. It was quirky and odd, and good. The idea had come to me while watching one of the seasons of Fargo, so I was definitely tapping that vein of Coen brothers sensibility.

My first submissions were to a few literary journals I was familiar with from my college lit days. Form rejections resulted. Next, I moved on to crime fiction journals and magazines. One of the more prominent magazines responded with a no, commenting the story fell flat and lacked any suspense. That one stung.

The next rejection I received said “The Estate Sale” made it all the way to their final round, but narrowly missed being selected due to many quality submissions. What a mixed message from those two back-to-back responses.

I’ll spare you further submission-by-submission accounts, but I’ll share a few stats.

From December, 2019, until May 7, 2022, when I received an acceptance, “The Estate Sale” was rejected 20 times. That’s not a huge number, but count up all the paying crime fiction magazines and see if you can list 20… Eight of those rejections were form responses; four said the story wasn’t a fit; and three places had the story make it to their final round. As with those two submissions I mentioned above, the input I was receiving was disparate, to say the least. 

I should point out, during this time I had additional writer friends beta read the story and all said it was good. Several told me they loved it. That was reassuring. I believed it was good. I believed in it, yet at the same time, some editors rejected it without comments while others slotted it in their final rounds.

So, what was the issue?

Fit. With time and experience comes clarity. And I’ve come to see for this story it all came down to “fit.” That undefinable, catch-all editors and publishers often use in rejections. I can acknowledge now how fit was a legitimate issue for many publications. While I believe it would have fit in just fine at a half-dozen of the places that rejected it, I respect their visions and prerogatives. I mean, by my own definition, this is a quirky story.

Back in the middle of those two-and-a-half-years, however, I wasn’t seeing things as clearly.

There was even an eight-month period from September 1, 2021, to May 1, 2022, that I got so despondent, so discouraged, that I didn’t submit the story anywhere. I whined to so many friends about not being able to find a home for my story. I let it gnaw at me. I debated trunking it for good. (I should also mention that during this journey I successfully sold more than a dozen other short stories. Only to say, I knew I could do this.)

I was still at a loss. I didn’t know what I was going to do with “The Estate Sale.” I believed it was good enough to run in a print publication, and a paying one at that. But I had exhausted nearly all of the places that qualified.

Then came a submission call for the Summer 2022 issue of Vautrin magazine. I was very familiar with the publication, which had put out several previous issues, featuring many crime fiction heavyweights. In the call, editor Todd Robins said something to the effect of, “shoot your shot.” That’s exactly what I needed to hear at the time. Shoot my shot. Yeah, why not? Nothing to lose at this point.

I sent in the story and less than a week later Todd emailed and said “The Estate Sale” was really good, a lot of fun, and he wanted to publish it. HOLY SHIT. I felt like a dark cloud had finally moved off of me.

Later that summer, when I saw my story in print, in the beautifully-designed presentation Todd accomplishes for every issue, I couldn’t stop smiling. All of that hard work and perseverance had paid off.

Fast-forward to May of this year, and receiving an Anthony nomination absolutely blew my mind.

How had this short story, which I fought so hard just to find it the right home—and believe me, Vautrin is the PERFECT home for it—now become a finalist for one of the top awards in our industry? For that, I thank every person who nominated it. I’m honored that enough people enjoyed the story to nominate it. And I couldn’t be more thrilled to share this distinction with four talented writers I admire: E.A. Aymar, Bruce Robert Coffin, Barb Goffman, and Gabriel Valjan.

This Anthony Award nomination is by far the biggest win of my fiction writing career so far, outside of writing and getting my novel published.

The cherry on top of all this for me has to be it occurring at my hometown Bouchercon, in San Diego. I’ll be on such a high that week. For real, if you see me in the hall and want to talk about San Diego, let’s do it. I can’t stop talking, and writing, about this city. I love San Diego and I can’t wait to share it with you all.

I’ll end with this thought. Too often in this writing game we get discouraged, question our talent, give into imposter syndrome—at least I know I do. But those feelings mean we’re doing the work. It means we care deeply about our art. We’re all going to experience lows—it’s what make the highs feel so surreal. So, when we get a win, we should take a moment—many moments—to embrace the good feelings that result, and in my case, attempt to learn something from all the effort it took along the way. 


Curtis Ippolito lives in San Diego and is the author of the crime novel BURYING THE NEWSPAPER MAN. He is an Anthony Award Finalist (2023) and a Derringer Award Finalist (2023). His short stories have appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Vautrin Magazine, Shotgun Honey, Mystery Tribune, and many more, as well as being included in several anthologies including the Anthony Award-nominated Trouble No More. He is a member of Sisters in Crime and serves on the board of the San Diego SinC chapter. Learn more about him at


1 comment:

Holly West said...

Having read and loved this story, it’s interesting to learn about both its origins and journey. I can’t wait to celebrate with you in San Diego!