Monday, August 29, 2011

Six Questions for Marjorie Merle, Editor, Underneath the Juniper Tree

Underneath the Juniper Tree publishes dark, strange, or whimsical children's literature (think Brothers Grimm and Edward Gorey rolled into one) in the following forms: short story, poetry, limerick, and more. Read the complete guidelines here.

SQF: What are the top three things you look for in a story and why?

MM: First, we check that the writer (or artist, as we publish art as well) has followed the guidelines. We have challenges and contests that require varying amounts of text and requirements. If the writer does not adhere to those (for example, some of our challenges want only three sentences) then we won't continue with their piece.

Second, the piece must be creative. I know that "creative" is a very vague and all-encompassing word. Since our niche is eerie and Grimm-like stories or art, we look to see how the writer or artist interprets that. There are so many stories that are macabre and creepy, so we like to see something that surprises us. We especially like when a writer takes an old idea and does something new with it. For example I recently received a piece about a headless boy who, we discover, is the son of the Headless Horseman. The whole story is about how that came to be and all the peculiar things that happen to this boy. We love that sort of thinking. We are particularly fond of robots, as well. We don't get many robot stories in (hint hint).

The third thing we look for is good writing. Good writing not only requires a skill in stringing together words and sentences, but using grammar correctly and effectively. I cannot tell you how many people still double-space after a period. And some pieces I've spent hours just dealing with commas, periods and spaces. This is frustrating when it comes to formatting the piece for our monthly issues. A person doesn't have to be perfect at grammar (that's what we have editors and proofreaders for), but I've seen some writing that looks like it was tossed in a blender and then emailed to us. Commas in the middle of the sentence! "I went, for a walk the sky was blue." It kills me.

SQF: What are the top three reasons a story is rejected, other than not fitting into your answers to question one and why?

MM: 1) If a story has nothing to do with our niche, I will not accept it. If I'm feeling particularly nice, I will read through the whole thing and give my opinion on the story in and of itself, but I will let the writer know that it doesn't fit our genre. And really a writer should be looking at some of what the publication has published to get a feel if their piece fits in or not.

2) Using "he said" or "she said" or "they said" a lot. There are so many words in the English language, I'm sure you can find something else that could replace "said". Reading writing like that is like eating cardboard.

3) Sending an email with zero information (including the name of the person sending the email) other than their written piece. I don't like writing a person back asking them for their name and what on earth are they sending this to me for? Including a little information pertaining to the publication: "Dear Marjorie, I really love the dark whimsy of Underneath The Juniper Tree. Also, I think you are a very amazing person" is a good start. Then info about yourself. "My name is Mr. Penhands, and I'm writing to you about my submission Some Such Story to be considered for your magazine. I've been writing since I was a fetus and have found myself traveling the world writing all manner of such and such, so and so on."

At Underneath The Juniper Tree we are all volunteers doing this because it's something we're passionate about. Wasting our time is not a good foot in our door. We want to showcase new (and used) talent and don't have time to diddle dawdle through people who like to shoot off work to everyone.

SQF: What other mistakes do you encounter that turn you off to a story?

MM: All these negative questions! Bad writing and inconsiderate people are big turn offs for us reading stories.

SQF: What is the best part of being an editor?

MM: We get to read such amazing work and intriguing stories that we (or at least I) wish we had written. We've also come across some really talented artists that we never would have connected with if we had never started UTJT. What I also love about editing is that I am the one outside this writer's world, and I have a more objective view of the piece. I love being able to stand back and say, "How about this?" and really getting to work with the writers on their pieces. We had one piece come into us that was completely bonkers (not in a good way), and once we were through with the edits (I think we sent the piece back and forth between the editors and the writer about five times) it was a really strong and interesting story.

SQF: I read a comment by one editor who said she keeps a blacklist of authors who respond to a rejection in a less than professional manner. I'm sure you know what I mean. What do you want authors to know about the stories you reject and how authors should respond? Along this same idea, do you mind if authors reply with polite questions about the comments they receive?

MM: When someone tells you your story or artwork isn't good or isn't for them, it's hard to not feel personally scorned. I completely understand that feeling. If I'm not going to accept something, I will tell them in a way that I feel is constructive why it's not right for UTJT. I'll try to think of where their piece might fit better. I've yet to come across really, REALLY horrible writing or a very angry person, so we'll have to cross that bridge when we get there. If I do come across it, I would get feedback from Tex (my ever faithful and disturbing companion) about what he thinks. I wouldn't mind at all if a writer wrote me back (after rejection) and asked me questions as to why I didn't take the piece. If they tell me why I should take the piece, then there might be a problem. But I have no qualms about talking over with a writer what didn't work for us and if they want to try to rework it so it does, I'm completely happy with that.

SQF: What one question on this topic do you wish I'd asked that I didn't? And how would you answer it?

MM: "How long should a writer wait for an answer from an editor or publisher about their piece?"

I would say for our publication that if we haven't gotten back to the writer in a week, then their email either was put in our spam folder or flew out of our email sight really quickly. What I would suggest specifically if dealing with us is to email us again just as a reminder. I love reminders. I wouldn't be offended or feel like the writer was wasting my time. Often, I've looked at a piece, but so many things have happened that I haven't had a chance to email back. 

Thank you, Marjorie. We all appreciate you taking time from your busy schedule to participate in this project.

NEXT POST: 9/1--Six Questions for Sam, Editor, Spilt Milk Magazine


  1. Wow, two spaces after a period is wrong? I was like are you kidding me? So I verified with Grammar Girl. Who knew? (not me) She wrote that those who learned to type on typewriters (me) use two spaces, and now this old dog needs to learn a new trick. (good luck with that) Also, my daugther always used one space and that just killed me. Now it turns out she's right. Crazy.

  2. Dear Marjorie, I really love the dark whimsy of Underneath The Juniper Tree. Also, I think you are a very amazing person and Tex has a very special place in the darkest part of mine own heart. :}

    "We especially like when a writer takes an old idea and does something new with it."


    I love doing exactly that. Seriously, I think one of my strengths is breathing new and unexpected life into old worn tales. I mean they're not worn. They're brilliant and long lasting but I'm sure you get the gist.

    I came to know of UTJT through a really gracious and talented woman and I'm glad I did. This meeting has given way new writing opportunities.

    As far as the correct steps to take when attempting to reach your heart of hearts-brilliant.