07 September 2014

Behind the Scenes

Jackie Sherbow
Jackie Sherbow
by Jackie Sherbow

We SleuthSayers are very fond of the ladies at Dell’s mystery magazines. A name that often arises is that of Jackie Sherbow. Jackie works as the Senior Assistant Editor for Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. She's been exclusively employed by the magazines since 2011, and her previous jobs at Dell Magazines spanned from customer service to subsidiary rights. She also writes poetry and her work has appeared in Newtown Literary and at Go Places.

Today’s article is aimed more at writers than readers, but readers might find themselves enjoying the insider's view. Please welcome Jackie Sherbow here to provide tips about submissions.
— Leigh Lundin

Behind the Submissions Scenes at AHMM and EQMM

As the senior assistant editor for AHMM and EQMM as well as a writer, I have firsthand experience with both sides of the submissions process. My time working at Dell Magazines predated my first experience with sending work anywhere, so I’ve always tried to remind myself when addressing the unknown editorial staff of various publications that they are—like myself, Janet Hutchings, and Linda Landrigan—human. That doesn’t always assuage the hesitance, anxiety, and general unease (“just click send!”), that can come with submitting your work and waiting for a response, but hopefully my experiences shared here can help demystify the operation behind the scenes, at least at EQMM and AHMM.

I’ll start off by saying that it’s hard to proclaim any hard and fast commandments about what not to submit. Every submission (depending on the targeted magazine) is read either by me, our Editorial Administrative Assistant, Linda, or Janet. So if the plot works and interests us, the characters are intriguing and believable, or (yes, or) the voice is compelling, your piece is likely to get at least a second look.

Here are some words about the types of stories that we see a lot of but are less likely to make it through. Sometimes after a few hours of slush reading I feel like I need to take a hot shower. Why? Well, mysteries and thrillers are bound to have violence. But the violence needs to be purposeful, not gratuitous. Violence for violence’s sake—and violence that outweighs what we know about a character and their motivations—usually doesn’t cut it. A piece that reads only as a twisted, gory revenge fantasy isn’t likely to make it through.

The same idea goes for supernatural, fantastical, and science-fictional elements. Both magazines have published plenty of pieces with these motifs. But the rules of the tale’s world need to make sense and remain consistent, and there still needs to be a crime or mystery. The otherworldly elements need to fit in with and enhance the mysterious, puzzling, or criminal aspects of the story, not overwhelm them.

The types of characters who appear most often in the submissions piles are criminal and/or adulterous spouses. For AHMM, we see a lot of hardboiled private eyes and genius serial killers, and for EQMM, we see a lot of hit men. This doesn’t mean we don’t want to see these folks, and they certainly do appear in the magazines, but they can’t just be a reiteration of what we’ve already seen. Invoking genre conventions can work well in homage or as pastiche, but it can’t be all there is to the narrative.

What we don’t see a lot of, by the way, are classic mysteries. (How’s that for a clue?)

About those cover letters: If you’re comfortable with it, good marketing probably doesn’t hurt you. But if you’re spending a lot of time thinking about that special “thing” that will get you through the door, it’s better that that “thing” be in your work itself than in your cover letter. There are no magic words or pass codes to figure out. A clever or friendly letter is fine, and of course feel free to let us know where you’ve been published and if someone sent you our way. But spend more time polishing your piece’s prose than coming up with a way to woo the editors. That can feel like wining and dining, and in the end, your yarn ends up in the same place as the rest of them.

One among the myriad of evolving norms in the game is the growing popularity of e-submissions. While EQMM was already on-board with electronic submissions when I began as editorial assistant, AHMM is currently making the transition. The e-subs process makes it easier (and less costly) to submit and also makes it easier for us to keep track of submissions. Ultimately, though, the effects are broader.

For one thing, since it’s easier to submit, it’s easier to submit … a lot. That’s fine, and it’s good to try and try again. But if you have dozens of stories stuffed in the pipeline, ready to send in every week or so, your writing might instead benefit from some time spent editing and getting feedback. It’s not unheard of that Janet or Linda might write back with some criticism or suggestions, or offer to look at a revision, but even a form rejection tells you something about the way your writing could (or couldn’t) fit in with a publication. Revisiting your work before continually submitting takes thought, and that thought is fruitful and necessary.

Another change that e-subs systems brought is the visual homogenization of every offering. While small identifiers and quirks of style are discernible with hard-copy manuscripts, submissions seen on a computer screen or an e-reader look basically the same. This could be taken negatively, since brightly colored paper or a fancy paperclip won’t catch our mail-opener’s attention (please refer to above notes about cover letters and marketing!). But it can also be a good thing. Your story is judged by … your story! Bare bones, and your words only.

Speaking of your words: Be aware, in your writing, of your voice. As much as a “hook” of an opening line can make us want to keep reading, so can an authoritative and authentic tone. Plenty of interesting characters and creative plots that crop up in the submissions fall flat when that’s missing. On the other hand, authors whose stories are lacking in plot or character might receive an extra look and perhaps a personal response if the voice is gripping enough.

As some final advice, I’ll iterate something that has proven true for me as both an editor and a writer: The best way to ready yourself to submit to the magazines—or wherever you’d like to submit—is to read them. Better than I could explain, those pages will tell you what sort of work fits in, as well as provide influences that will only help out.

To read more by Jackie on the topic, visit Alfred Hitchcock's Trace Evidence  and Ellery Queen's Something is Going to Happen for Tuesday, the 9th of September.

29 comments:

Janice law said...

A most useful piece- and it's fun to meet one of the people on the other side of the desk!

Leigh Lundin said...

We're pleased to have Jackie with us. I'm not certain if she'll be available today to answer questions or will check in tomorrow.

Be sure to look for Jackie's follow-up article on trace-evidence.net

Anonymous said...

Much appreciated advice! I will re-read & heed well. Thank you!

Louis A. Willis said...

As a reader and critic, I find the advice on violence and voice useful not just for mysteries and thrillers but for all types of stories. Gratuitous violence and gratuitous often make me stop reading. I sometimes have trouble with getting the flavor of voice and now I realize it might be because it isn’t authoritative or authentic.

Thanks for some good advice.

Dale Andrews said...

One of the most useful articles SleuthSayers has posted. Thanks, Jackie!

R.T. Lawton said...

Jackie, that's good advice for beginners to learn and for already published contributors to remember. Thanks.

I've got one last old-style, paper manuscript in Linda's slush pile for AHMM. My next submission will try out your e-sub procedure. Looking forward to the new age.

Bobbi A. Chukran, Author said...

Thank you for this! Lots of good information.

Anonymous said...

I sent in a submission long, long years ago. The editors promptly sent it back with a note suggesting my cover letter was better than my story. I'm certain she was right.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Great to see you here, Jackie, and your well written piece is a good example of "show, don't tell." Liz (SleuthSayer emerita)

John Floyd said...

Jackie, this was a real treat. Thanks so much for the great advice!

(It's also nice to be able to put a face with the name.)

Looking forward to the "Trace Evidence" piece as well.

Jan Christensen said...

Thanks so much for this insider look at the slush pile at both AHMM and EQMM. Very useful information for all!

Stephen Ross said...

I agree with Dale! Thank you, Jackie. That was a fascinating insight.

E-submission will certainly make it easier to send in a story, although I will miss my usual paper submission ritual... I don't know what I'm going to do now with all the leftover boxes of candles, incense sticks, holy water, and bat wings.

Eve Fisher said...

Thank you, Jackie! I, too, still have a couple of manuscripts in the slush pile at AHMM, but the next will be e-submissions. And someday, I hope to get into EQMM. (Stephen, can I borrow some bat wings?)

Deborah Elliott-Upton said...

An informative read for both writers and readers.

David Dean said...

Thanks, Jackie! This was both well-written and useful. You are wise beyond your tender years. I would have bought it for my own magazine if I actually had one.

Terrie Farley Moran said...

Hi Jackie,
Terrific, informative post. Thank you.

Robert Lopresti said...

Good and useful stuff, Jackie. On SMFS list someone read it and asked: What exactly is a classic mystery? Want to take a shot at that?

Melodie Campbell said...

Jackie, one of the things I treasure is my annual Christmas card from Dell Magazines. Just wanted to let you know that authors you have published appreciate the time you take to recognize us after the fact.
Thanks so much for giving us the insider scoop here today!

Jackie Sherbow said...

Thank you, Leigh and the rest of the Sleuthsayers crew, for having me! And wow, thanks everyone. Janice, Bradley, Louis, Dale, R.T., Bobbi, Liz, John, Jan, Steven, Eve, Deborah, David, Terrie, Rob, and Melodie-- I'm glad you enjoyed the article and found it useful!

R.T. and Eve, I hope you enjoy the e-subs system over at AHMM with your next submissions. Stephen, there's definitely something to be missed with the change. Maybe there's a bat-wings app?

Rob, thanks for passing along that question. The type of story we define as a classic mystery is one where the main object is to solve a puzzle or problem, using the logic and clues that the tale provides. This includes whodunits and locked-room mysteries. There are other traits typical to the classic mystery, such as setting in a closed community with a contained group of suspects, and the lack of graphic sex or violence.

Again, thanks to you all for reading, and thanks for having me! I'm honored to appear here.

Anonymous said...

I so do enjoy the magazines and I'm very happy to meet one of the women behind the scenes. Beth Avery.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Thanks for an informative article. It's always helpful to get insight into what editors want to read.

Jeff Baker said...

Yes! Thanks so much!

Dixon Hill said...

Terrific info, Jackie. Really appreciate your posting it (and your willingness to "slum around" with us on SS lol).

Those looking for pics of the current EQMM and AHMM office, can find them posted by Jackie at Something is Going to Happen, the EQ and AH blogsite, by clicking HERE.

Jackie Sherbow said...

Melodie, meant to say-- thanks for your kind words. (The holiday cards are one thing that still haven't gone electronic!)

And Jacqueline, Jeff, and Dixon, my pleasure. Thanks, Dixon, for sharing the Something Is Going To Happen link.

Take care, everyone!

Evan Lewis said...

Great job. Sounds like you're the heir apparent for the next editorial opening.

Diana Marie Delgado said...

Wow, I insightful, Jackie!

Anonymous said...

This was great information!

Phyllis Tendre said...

That is great, sensible advice. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I'm late to the party, but I'm glad to glimpse the inner workings1