April 7, 2022

BEHIND THE ZINES with Laura Blackwell, Copy Editor at THE DEADLANDS

This month’s BEHIND THE ZINES interview features the wonderful Laura Blackwell. She talks about her work as copy editor for The Deadlands. and many other writerly things.

More about Laura Blackwell:

Laura Blackwell is a Pushcart-nominated writer of speculative fiction. Her stories have appeared in magazines and anthologies including Nightmare, PseudoPod, Strange California, and 2015 Locus Recommended and 2016 World Fantasy Award-winning She Walks in Shadows. She co-hosts the online reading series Story Hour. You can find her on Twitter at @pronouncedLAHra.

Q. First up, what's your background: where did you grow up, and what do you do outside the world of speculative fiction? What first drew you to speculative fiction? And what kind of speculative fiction are you most into?

LB. When I was very small, my mom would write me little picture books and have me illustrate them. I was a weird, dreamy kid who was always making up stories and drawing comics about fairies and cute animals. I loved fantasy and science fiction first, just the sheer wonder of them, the boundless potential in other worlds. Horror worked on me very well as a kid—still does, really—and so it took me a while to come around to the idea that most of what I write is horror. I’d love to tell you that I read very broadly, and it’s true that I like to mix up reading different styles and settings, but I have to admit that supernatural horror and ghost stories are much more attractive to me than tales about serial killers and other real-life monsters.

Most of my bread-and-butter work is copyediting, and I’m not terribly specialized at this point. I edit short fiction and novels from various genres, and I have a few clients for tech blogs and interviews as well. I enjoy the variety. One of the wonderful things about copyediting The Deadlands is that I get to work on the entire magazine, from the short stories to the poems to the nonfiction articles and the Ask a Necromancer column.

Q. You're the copy editor at The Deadlands and you were previously the copy editor at Shimmer which is where I first met you when you did copy edits on a story of mine. (By the way, these are two of my favourite speculative fiction zines, past and present!) How did you get involved in zine-publishing business and what is it about the work that keeps you involved?

LB. I spent about a decade at a consumer tech publication, and had the great fortune to work with several top-drawer copy editors (this is back when magazines were printed on dead trees and had copy editors). They taught me some of the basics, and at some point I realized that I enjoyed reading style guides. This is apparently not a typical thought, and it suggested I might be happy copyediting.

When I ran across Shimmer, I was very taken with it, as you were (and thank you for saying so). It was so thoughtful and beautiful. And it turned out that Shimmer’s publisher was Beth Wodzinski, a college friend I’d fallen out of touch with. So, while catching up with Beth, I asked if there was any way I could help out with Shimmer. When there was an opening for a volunteer copy editor, Shimmer editor E. Catherine Tobler gave me a shot. She’s now the editor-in-chief at The Deadlands, and I’m so happy to be working with her again.

Q. What does a copy editor do? What does the job involve for you on a day-to-day basis? What are the most enjoyable things vs. the hardest things about your work? Do you have any pet peeves?

LB. The way I see it, a copy editor’s job is helping all writer’s words and ideas get into the reader’s brain. Often that means standardizing spelling, hewing to the style guide, and literally making sure numbers add up, just to keep things consistent. I do light fact-checking. Little things can catch a fraction of a reader’s attention and distract them from what matters. Questions of nuance are trickier, but also interesting and fun to think about.

Q. The work of a copy editor involves working very closely with a writer's text. What is that like, to offer corrections and suggest changes to someone's work, and do you find writer's are usually receptive to that kind of teamwork?

LB. One thing I enjoy is seeing not what’s wrong, but how many different ways there are to be right. The order of the words and phrases change emphasis and the way they work into a reader’s brain. Synonyms can have slightly different connotations or very different sounds that make a difference. My job isn’t to make a story “better” (whatever that means) but as much itself as it can be. That’s especially important for The Deadlands, which takes writer voice very seriously.

I tend to write a lot of notes and queries rather than “just fixing it.” By the time I get a story, it’s working fine; the question is if it’s working the exact way the writer wants it to work. This takes more time for everybody, but I think most writers are okay with it once they understand that I really am trying to help the stories live up to themselves and I’m not just marking things up to be a know-it-all. Sometimes they write me comments back, and that is a treat! I love geeking out over stories.

Q. What is something about your job behind the scenes that you think most people DON'T know but that is a major part of it when you're active behind the scenes?

LB. Language changes quickly! Once I copyedited a contemporary YA and literally spent an hour adding new words to my dictionary. I’m always looking for changes to Chicago style (and AP, which is faster on some things) and thinking about what to recommend to different clients for their style guides. And sometimes I’m the fuddy-duddy who doesn’t want to give up what I learned in eighth grade. CMoS, I love you, but I really do not think “important” and “importantly” should be interchangeable.

Q. Do you have any favourite stories that you've copy edited that you'd like to recommend?

LB. I can’t pick favorites. I love them all! But having just copyedited the fiction for The Deadlands’ April 2022 issue, I have to say it’s a good time to subscribe. Both the stories were so precise in their intent and their voice that they were very easy to copyedit. One of them absolutely gutted me, and the other awakened a roiling hatred for a famous poet. Powerful stuff.

Q. You're also an excellent writer, how do you feel the work as a copy editor has influenced your own writing, if at all?

LB. Copyediting challenges me to look at subtle differences in style and voice, which is always useful. It also challenges me because I have to pay very close attention to really stellar work, which makes me want to give my best not just when I edit, but when I write as well. Whether it’s helped me become a better writer, I can’t say, but thank you for your kind words.

Q. For those writers and readers out there who might be thinking about getting involved in working for a zine in any capacity, what would you say to them? Any tips and / or advice?

LB. I suggest thinking about the kind of work you’d like to do and who and what you’d like to work with, then looking at your skill set and seeing what you have to offer. Unless you have specialized skills, you may start out volunteering as a slusher (I did, ages ago, for a now-defunct publication). It certainly helps if you can point to success at meeting deadlines. Let the folks you work with know what else you’d like to learn, too. And of course, being easy to get along with helps in any career.

Q. You're also one of the people behind the wonderful weekly event Story Hour. I've been part of Story Hour and absolutely love the format. How did Story Hour come to be, and what kind of feedback have you received?

LB. At first, Story Hour was just Daniel Marcus and his friends reading to one another (“just Daniel and his friends” includes Pat Murphy and Nisi Shawl, among others, so there were impressive readers from the start) once a week on Zoom and Facebook. I really liked the format, which emphasized full stories. In those anxious early days of the pandemic, it meant a lot to see real live humans and hear stories that had definite closure. Daniel also gave a shout-out to a worthy nonprofit at the beginning of each hour.

After a while, Daniel said he might scale back to monthly Story Hours. I thought that would be a pity, because it’s so much harder to remember events that happen only once a month versus once a week. I asked what I could do to keep it weekly, and he asked if I would be willing to co-host. It’s worked out really well. He set up the website, and I do some promotion. We both recruit readers, although the website also lets readers come to us—which is great, because we don’t know everybody. We alternate hosting duties now, and we bring in guest hosts from time to time. I have heard some phenomenal stories and met some lovely writers who I might not have known otherwise. Story Hour gives me something to look forward to every Wednesday, and has for two years now.

(Find out more about Story Hour at https://www.storyhour2020.com/)

Q. Finally, some writerly questions. You are part of the new Chiral Mad anthology, tell us a bit about that, and any other projects you have coming up.

LB. Award-winning Michael Bailey of publisher Written Backwards started the lauded Chiral Mad psychological horror series about ten years ago, and this volume will be the fifth and final. It includes one of my favorite stories of my own, “What Is Lost in the Smoke.” It’s personal, because I live in California, where we have “fire season.” Even if the community you live in doesn’t catch fire, the air is full of ash for days on end—and when you stop to think what that ash is made of, it’s deeply disturbing. A survivor of California wildfires, Michael immediately saw the heart of the story. Any story sale is exciting, but knowing an editor really gets it is a wonderful feeling.

I get the chills just looking at the ToC for Chiral Mad 5. It’s too many to list—this will be a big book!—but the name “Stephen King” rings a bell, doesn’t it?

(Find out more about Chiral Mad at https://blog.nettirw.com/anthologies/)

Later this month, I’ll moderate a panel on editing for Flights of Foundry, which is a first for me! This year, I have two very different stories coming out in Nightmare and Weirdbook. In the background, I’m revising a science fiction gothic novel and drafting a suburban fantasy.

Find out more about Laura Blackwell on her website!

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