Ever since EQMM changed from monthly single issues to double bimonthly issues, a lot of my reading for the magazine has been concentrated in the “off” months, when there is no issue to release. This presents a challenge. No matter how much anyone enjoys reading—and I enjoy it a lot—when you read only fiction (indeed, only certain types of fiction) for many hours a day, day after day, it can be difficult to come to each new story unfatigued by what can come to feel like a sameness in themes, content, and styles. Fortunately, the crime-fiction field comprehends a vast literary space; the strength of the Dell mystery magazines, it seems to me, is precisely that there is so much variety in what we offer. But variety in the subgenres into which our submissions fall doesn’t necessarily result in a complete change of pace for us as we evaluate those submissions.
Even the most voracious readers have their favorite authors. I’m no exception. There are authors who brighten my day when their names appear in our submissions queue. Nevertheless, all authors have themes and types of characters and plot motifs that they revisit from story to story (or, for that matter, from book to book), albeit in ways that may not at first be apparent. When I am first becoming acquainted with an author’s work, it may take a while before I spot the elements that will be repeated in future submissions. It can be something as large as a type of plot—an author is irresistibly drawn to conspiracy stories, for example. Or it can be something as small as a descriptive element—such as always mentioning the specific height of each character (as one of our award-winning authors often does). In between those big and small preoccupations, there are innumerable ways in which the things that absorb a given writer shape the story. I recently listened to an audiobook by an author I’ve read before (and like) whose approach is mostly realistic, with the exception of a slight slant towards what seem to me to be unrealistically dark outcomes.
There is nothing wrong with such preoccupations or predispositions. They’re necessary, I think: Good fiction derives from concerns that are deeply absorbing to the creator. But for a professional reader it can be a challenge to put expectations based on an author’s previous work aside and see each new submission in a fresh light. When I’m feeling a little daunted looking at a particularly long list of submissions, I’ll often start by reading those that come from authors whose names I don’t recognize. My hope, I suppose, is to encounter a new voice, and to see a plot unfold without any preconceptions on my part as to how it’s going to play out. If I find something new that’s right for us, it gives me energy to delve into more of the queue.
Of course, as just about any editor at any magazine will tell you, the majority of the good submissions we receive are from established authors, with whose work we are already familiar. A lot of anthologies in our field accept only blind submissions and require that authors not employ series characters who might be recognizable to the judges. I always felt that this would be an inadequate precaution against bias if I or any of my colleagues at the Dell mystery magazines were asked to serve as an anthology judge. I was pretty confident that I would recognize the work of many of EQMM’s regular contributors even with the names stripped from the manuscripts and no series characters appearing. Yesterday, however, a misclick on my computer resulted in the opening of a submission that I believed was by one of our regular authors (whom we’ll call Author A) when it was actually by someone else we often publish (Author B). I recall thinking, as I was reading the story, that it was something of a departure for Author A. However, I happened to know that Author A had an interest in the world in which this story was set and in the subgenre to which the story belonged, so I didn’t question that it was, in fact, by Author A. It was only when I returned to the submissions list that I saw my mistake. It occurred to me, then, that it might be more interesting to read submissions if one did not know who the author was. One would be reading from a fresher perspective. In this particular case, had I realized who the author really was, I might have seen where the story was headed—because I’d have remembered how other stories by Author B had unfolded. And as I mentioned above, all authors (at least all that I’m familiar with) repeat or reuse, consciously or unconsciously, some elements of their earlier fiction.
My point in sharing these reflections is, in part, to suggest a strategy to writers in making fiction submissions. EQMM allows multiple submissions, and we truly appreciate every author who thinks of EQMM as a potential market. We try to give careful consideration to everything submitted to us. But we receive a lot of stories, and if you want your work to be read with a fresh eye, it really is best to try to space your submissions out a bit. A number of unpublished authors make a new submission to EQMM every couple of weeks, and in such cases it is nearly impossible, after many have had to be turned down, to open the next submission with the anticipation of finding a story we can use. Even established authors risk having their submissions not stand out as much as they otherwise would when a large number of stories are submitted in a short period of time. It’s sort of like binge-watching a TV series. Do you remember each episode as clearly when you watch that way as you would if the episodes were spread out as originally aired? I don’t, and the same thing holds for me with multiple story submissions from a single author.
Of course, the problem from a writer’s perspective is that there are so few good markets for short stories. How can you avoid submitting too frequently to a given publication when there are so few alternatives? I don’t have a good answer to that. All of us in the mystery community need to figure out how to generate more readers of short crime fiction. If we could crack that tough nut, a proliferation of publications would likely follow. —Janet Hutchings