June 16, 2022

BEHIND THE ZINES with Maria Schrater - Assistant Poetry & Fiction Editor, and Submissions Reader at APPARITION LIT

This month’s Behind the Zines interview features Maria Schrater. She is an assistant poetry and fiction editor, and a submissions reader at Apparition Lit.  I am so grateful to get a chance to talk to her about her work at the zine!

More about Maria Schrater:

Maria Schrater is a writer & poet living with two spoiled cats and dozens of menacing pigeons. Her work has appeared in Sycorax Journal and in Air & Nothingness Press’s Wild Hunt and Future Perfect in Past Tense anthologies. She is also an associate editor for Apparition Literary Magazine. When not writing, she can be found imitating bird calls in the woods.

Each Behind the Zines interview is first published on my Patreon, and later here at Maria's Reading.

Q. Tell us a bit about yourself. What’s your background, where did you grow up, and what do you do outside the world of speculative fiction?

Maria Schrater: I’m originally from Minnesota, mostly in the Twin Cities, and moved to Chicago for college – then stayed. I’m the oldest of five children, which definitely had an impact, I feel like I can be very classic Oldest Sister and I tend to root for oldest kids in books, media, and so on (imagine my deep 6-year-old frown of disdain when reading Grimm’s fairytales and seeing only the youngest succeed). My maternal grandmother is from Japan, so we had Japanese art, food, toys, etc. growing up – my favorite times of year were when Obahchan would send us candies from her trips to Tokyo. Outside of speculative fiction, I have a full-time job, and I have two cats and a puppy that take up most of my free time. I’m also obsessed with birds and escape rooms.

Q. What attracted you to the speculative fiction genre initially - as a child or young adult (or adult)? Were there any particular stories, books, movies, TV-shows, or something else that sucked you into the world of speculative fiction?

MS: I was a very early and voracious reader, and my parents had a rule that I could read just about anything on our bookshelves – but it was authors like Dostoevsky, Tolkien, Homer, and the Brontës, along with the occasional Magic Tree House. Once I graduated from Chicka Chicka Boom Boom it was either those Usborne science books or Lord of the Rings; there wasn’t much in-between those levels. Besides that, my media intake was restricted: I grew up without TV, didn’t watch a lot of movies, library books had to be approved by my mother, and my parents pushed me to read “above my grade.” I was also homeschooled until 6th grade. Chronicles of Narnia and Lord of the Rings were what really brought me into genre fiction, especially LOTR. I must’ve read the trilogy ten times during middle school. Everything since then has only whetted my appetite.

Q. Apparition Lit has been around since 2018, publishing some outstanding speculative fiction and speculative poetry. You have a few different roles at Apparition Lit: Assistant Poetry & Fiction Editor, and Submissions Reader. Can you tell us a bit about each of these roles and what’s involved for you in your work at the zine? What are some of your favourite things about the work you do at Apparition Lit?

MS: I originally started as a submissions reader in 2020, and that still makes up the majority of my role. I sometimes read for our monthly flash fiction contest, but it’s mostly for the quarterly issues. I have some background in poetry, and we get less poetry submissions, so I try to read pretty much all of the poetry we get – and choosing what to hold gets harder every issue! When reading submissions, I make a choice on whether to reject a story – maybe it needs a few more passes, the beginning’s too long, or so on – whether to get a second set of eyes on it because I see promise, or if I’m going to put a long string of exclamation points in the comment box like take this one!!

When we’ve chosen which poems are going into the latest issue, another editor and I work with the author on any tweaks. Poetry is such a delicate thing to edit because you have to take into account the rhythms, the length and shape of the lines, the flow of the piece: even changing a word can sometimes change the whole meaning, so I’m extremely surgical about it. I also sometimes do the audio versions of stories if our authors decline to do it themselves.

One of my favorite things every issue is when all the editors read through the stories on hold and leave their comments. At that point, we’ve narrowed the field down to some stellar stories that fit our theme, and I can start to put the issue together in my mind. I’m also very argumentative so I love pitching why we should take a particular story, though as an assistant editor, I don’t get to vote in the final meeting.

Q. How did you get involved with Apparition Lit? And did you have any hopes or worries before you started as to your own work and/or the fate of the zine? How has the actual work, and the situation for the zine, turned out compared to what you expected?

MS: I was just getting into the writing community on Twitter, and I happened to see that Apparition put out a call for volunteer submission readers and threw my hat into the ring. I wasn’t familiar with their work before then, but I read their latest issue and loved what I saw, and I was so excited when they invited me to join. I was hoping to learn more about editing, more about the industry, more about the craft, and make some connections – and everyone at Apparition is brilliant and kind and lovely, and I adore all our guest editors!!

Getting into it, I wasn’t sure what the workload would be, and that work has certainly grown over the last few years as we get more submissions. Still, it’s a bit of choosing how intensely you want to go at it: I read a ton for our latest issue, but the issue before that, I wasn’t in the slush as much as some of my fellows. Apparition is wonderful about offering the junior editors & submissions readers opportunities.

Q. What have you learned since you started at Apparition Lit, and what are some of the most enjoyable things vs. the hardest things about what you do?

MS: My critical eye has sharpened immensely since starting with Apparition. My first quarter, I read pretty much every story I picked in the slush from beginning to end, just to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. The problem with that is, if you’re waiting to get to the end to see if the story is any good, it needs more work. Plus, it takes forever. I’m still pretty generous with how far I’ll read into a story that’s not quite grabbing me, because I think all sorts of things can affect an editor – mood, sleep, weather, biases (hard sci-fi is just not my thing), but I have a much better idea of what kind of work a story needs and if it’ll make the cut.

Rejecting stories is, of course, one of the hardest things I have to do! We get so many great stories but being great isn’t always enough; it must fit our theme as well. There are stories I love that I’ve turned inside out and backwards looking for an interpretation of our theme and just didn’t find it.

One of the most enjoyable things I can do is mark a story with a Hold. In our spreadsheet, it immediately highlights orange, like a shining lighthouse beacon beckoning to the other editors: read me next! I’m amazing! I also love working with our poets on edits, and our group call before each issue starts, where we discuss the theme and get to catch up a little bit. I’ve yet to meet any of the other editors in person but the energy through the call is palpable!

Q. You read both poetry and fiction for Apparition Lit. What do you look for in a poem or a story when you’re going through the submission pile for the zine? And is there any advice you would give to writers wanting to submit stories or poetry to Apparition Lit or any other zine?

MS: Language and rhythm are so important to me, in prose and poetry. I want to feel that momentum pulling me along – I’m much more forgiving than some of the other editors on pieces that need to be tightened or the beginning is too long if the prose and imagery is pulling me in. We also look for speculative elements to be present early in the piece – if the twist is that it was aliens or magic all along, and that twist happens on page ten, it’s likely not for us. I love strong character voices, worldbuilding concepts, and visual language. A great character or plot tension will get you farther than interesting worldbuilding, though.

For poetry, I want vivid, unusual imagery. Build me an intense mindscape, build me an emotional journey! I love narrative in poetry as well. If there’s a lot of lists, or if the spec element is mostly in metaphor, it’s probably not for me. I’m open to forms like sonnets, etc., but I think English is a particularly difficult language to rhyme in, and I will be checking your meter! Fair warning, though, other editors at Apparition are much harder to sell on form and rhyme.

Q. Do you have any thoughts on the interest in, and attention paid to, speculative fiction vs. speculative poetry, among readers and more generally in the “world” of speculative fiction publishing?

MS: I see a lot of magazines that focus only on speculative fiction and don’t take poetry, or take poetry in smaller increments than prose (which Apparition also does). I also think the readership for spec poetry is lower. My sense is that sometimes people find speculative poetry intimidating or feel like they don’t have the chops to write or read or edit it – and it is certainly a skill and requires a different way of thinking, but why should that keep you from trying? We certainly get poetry that I don’t feel equipped to understand, and I’m always trying to get better. In general, I think everyone should be more exposed to poetry – if you haven’t found a style or genre you enjoy yet, it’s definitely out there.

Q. What are some of your favourite pieces of fiction and/ or poetry published in Apparition Lit? Do you have any favourite speculative poets?

MS: I am so proud of everything Apparition has published!! It’s impossible to pick favorites. However, there’s something incredible about being the first person to read a story in the slush pile, write a glowing note about it, see it move to the shortlist, and from there be chosen for publication. It’s total luck of the draw at Apparition what stories you’ll wind up reading – I tend to move chronologically from when they were submitted, though I think some of my fellow editors skip around by title or have other methods. Some pieces I discovered were Six Steps to Become a Saint by Avi Burton, The Godmaker’s Cure by December Cuccaro, and träumerei by Ewen Ma, among others.

Q. Has being involved behind the scenes affected your view of the business of genre fiction publishing, compared to your perspective before? Have you gained any insights you didn’t previously have? And has being involved behind the zines changed your own writing, or how you think about your own writing?

MS: I now personally understand the agony of loving a piece and not being able to publish it, whether it’s not on theme for our issue, too similar to another piece, or just doesn’t hit the other editors in the same way, or a million other reasons. There’s a difference between hearing that rejections aren’t just about quality as a writer, and then actually being on the other side of that. I think it also gives me an appreciation for just how much work goes into these magazines, and what labors of love they are. Support your short fiction magazines if you can!!

As far as my own writing, I’ve touched on it in other answers, but it’s definitely helped me level up my own work. I’m much more comfortable writing long-form, but through the sheer volume of reading I’ve done, I’ve learned a lot about structure, pacing, and so on for shorter work. Flash writers, I don’t know how you do it. It’s still a mystery. I also learn so much from the poets who submit, in their gorgeous use of language and form.

Q. For writers and readers out there who might be thinking about getting involved with a zine in any capacity, what would you say to them? Do you have any tips and / or advice (or warnings!)?

MS: Do it!!!! We always need more paying magazines, and extra hands to hold them up. No matter which role you take you’ll learn so much about the way short fiction markets function and read some spectacular work. I usually see a few calls for submissions readers every year, but there are also experts who are willing to discuss launching your own zine. I’ve also found that it helps me spot problem areas in my own writing: why’s a hook not grabbing me? Where does the story actually start (because it’s often not on the first page)? How can I write better dialogue? Reading hundreds of stories with a critical eye is hard work, but there’s few better ways to learn. My tip would be not to overextend yourself, because I often do that. Longevity in the field is important, but it’s something that has to be planned for. You never know how many submissions you’ll get in a particular period, so pacing yourself and scheduling more time than you think you’ll need for tasks are a must.

Q. You’re a writer of speculative fiction and poetry as well. What’s up next for you as a writer?

MS: I’ve gotten off to a slower start to this year than I would like, thanks to a number of things in my personal life. I’ll have a nonfiction essay out in Apparition’s Omen issue. Other than that, I’m still submitting short fiction & poetry, and in the last stages before I start querying a novel for the first time! I lurk on Twitter @MariaSchrater.

Huge thanks to Maria for doing this interview.


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