Guest Editor Q&A: Maria Dong

Greetings and Salutations!!

Here we are again, friends! Our latest issue has arrived; you have greedily devoured it and it’s many tasty morsels. We have just a few bits of entertainment left to offer you between this year and the next submission window, and that is where I come in, once again, with our Guest Editor Q&A.

This issue, we were honored to work with the fan favorite, and greatly accomplished, Maria Dong. Maria does an excellent job of participating in panels and interviews in her own right, and so I was nervous that my questions would pale in comparison to her recent efforts (I’m looking at you, FIYAHCON). But of course, as graciously as Maria accepted our request to work with us, she also completed this Q&A with incredible insight.  Every answer holds knowledge for our readers and submitters to enjoy, and I am beyond excited to bring this one to you today!

Without further ado, please enjoy! 

Q: First things first; let’s start with the standard. What was your experience like working with Apparition Lit? What would you want our readers to know about how we choose our TOC? I do want to note/acknowledge the absolutely banger of a thread you published on twitter about your experience reading and choosing submissions. Now that the issue has officially come out, is there anything else you would add to that thread or any other thoughts to share about this experience? 

A: I absolutely loved working with Apparition Lit, and would love to return again sometime in the future. (You haven’t heard the last of me!) I was incredibly impressed by the entire team–Apparition is really an amazing establishment, with dedicated, professional people at every single level, from first slush all the way to the top, and everyone involved takes so much care with the work received. It’s a truly collaborative shop, where people will reach out to each other with questions about the best way to make a suggestion to an author, if a piece fits under the masthead, etc. That kind of environment really made for a lovely first experience of magazine editing.

For prospective writers, I just want to stress again how important “fit” is–and that doesn’t just mean fit with the magazine. Sometimes, that means fit with a particular editor, in a way that you can’t possibly know going in. For example, there was one story where the setup, environment, tone, language–all of it was like, just my thing, and I was absolutely salivating for it–but there were some areas that made it a harder sell for the group overall.

Luckily, in this case, the editorial vision for that one just hammered into me–I think because some of the weaker parts of the story were ones that I used to struggle with myself. The group convened, and we wound up coming to the decision to send out a “we’d like this piece, but only with specific edits” kind of letter.

If you really take a step back and think about it, so many factors had to align for that story to make it into the issue–the first readers had to like it and pass it up, someone had to have a good editorial vision for it, the group had to agree on said vision, and then the author themself had to sign onto that. It’s a lot of steps. More and more, I’ve come to believe that so much in this industry comes down to luck and timing, so if you’re sending things out there and getting the good rejections–the almost-but-not-quite rejections, the we liked this enough to give you some feedback rejections–you’re close. Just keep going.

As a final thought, I think I’d also like to mention that editors, too, are nervous. In the case of the story above, when we sent notification that we’d like to accept, but with some specific edits, I was on the edge of my seat until we heard back.

Q: The first issue I joined Apparition Lit as a submission reader was also the issue that featured A Bird Always Wants More Mangoes. It set the bar very high for my first foray into slush, and from the moment I read it, I was struck with it’s imagery and unique main character. As I take a look at your other work, I find your work to be just as diverse and unique in voice as Birdie. I was also delighted to find commentary and non-fiction works, which I find is quite rare for many fiction authors in this field. How do you choose which projects you will focus on, and for what channels, when you are capable of such a broad array of work? And perhaps, most importantly, how did you find time in all of these projects and upcoming publications to write your forthcoming book?  

A: Wow, what a wonderful compliment to receive. I’m honestly humbled and touched and just a bit weepy, but I’ll try to pretend to be a professional and press on—

As for “how do you choose”: what a question. I’m something like 20+ manuscripts in (and who knows how many short stories?), and I’d love to be able to sit down and say, okay, here’s my process–but in my case, the only constant is that the work dictates the process, and it’s always very opaque to me until it’s over.

Recently, I got this weird little winding pattern of sounds embedded in my brain somewhere, and so I penned up this story that kind of fit the cadence and sent it over to a CP, and he was like, yeah, this is a poem. I was kind of distraught–no shade against poetry, I just don’t read enough of it to feel comfortable in my ability to sell it. But I’m also very tenacious–you can’t sell what you don’t submit–and so I subbed it a few places, and I wound up placing it in Fantasy Magazine. The point of this story is, I had no idea how that was going to go, obviously.

It’s really important for me to write all over the place–different genres, tenses, structures–and push myself as a writer. I like to do sub calls, even when I know I won’t place in them, because having artificial constraints forces me to try something new or different. (One of my favorite pieces, EZ2Luv is Hard to Leave, was originally written for a sub call about near-future space travel for a prize for Baen. I knew they weren’t going to pick it–I am not their kind of thing–but I wanted to see if I could actually come up with something that technically fit the criteria.) The trick with sub calls is to get really inventive with the theme, so that you have the chance of selling the piece somewhere else when you inevitably don’t get in.

(One thing I want to mention is that once you start getting some traction, opportunities find you. Both of my non-fiction pieces were solicited–i.e., I knew an editor that liked my stuff, who had an opening, and that person reached out to me and said, hey, do you wanna pitch me an essay?)

As for time–I wanted to address this specifically, because it’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. The human ability to engage in cognitively intense work is only about 40 mins before you start to see large declines in creativity. I’ve known that my entire life, but I steadfastly refused to believe it–and then, sometime in the last three years, I started to experience really wicked burnout. It was hard to do anything, and I couldn’t get motivated.

I wound up moving to a 40 minutes on, 20 minutes off approach to all creative work. Programming, writing, editing–whatever it is, I set a timer, and I give myself a 20 minute break every hour, in which I engage in actual leisure. It was initially terrifying–but you know what? My productivity was not only the same, but all my work was fresher, my concentration better. I stopped engaging in the kind of time-wasting you do when you’re burned out but you don’t want to call it quits. More importantly, I started to really enjoy what I was doing again.

I also believe strongly in the power of the brain’s Default Mode Network–a collection of structures that is active during “wakeful rest”, like daydreaming. I think we’ve all experienced situations where we’re trying to solve a plot issue or something, and we’re just getting farther into the weeds–and then we’ll be stuck in the shower or a long drive, and the answer will just pop into our head. That’s how I used to solve all my plot issues–commuting to work–but when I started working from home, I had to deliberately create opportunities to activate my DMN.

Q: Speaking of your very expansive voice and array of skills, I found an episode of “It’s Not Just In Your Head” which features an Occupational Therapist by the name of Maria Dong who curiously uses your same twitter handle.

Can I confirm this is you? I was surprised to learn in our pre-issue meeting that you have quite the day-job and career happening completely separate from your writing. I, too, have quite an extensive career completely separate from all of my creative ventures. How have you found it to be striking a balance between two equally full, and successful, careers? Does it feel like having a secret identity, or do you find that your skills are, in actuality, quite aligned and cohesive? And do you find that you hope to write full-time, or are you happy with your current mix of opportunities? 

A. My goodness, you are a very good stalker. Yes, that’s me–but I don’t work as an occupational therapist anymore. I got COVID at the beginning of the pandemic, and the working environment wasn’t great, and I got sick of commuting and not getting paid enough. I’m a computer programmer now.

I think that generally, being able to write well involves also being able to experience or understand things. So many aspects of past jobs wind up in my writing. I was an apartment manager for a while, and I used to cut a lot of keys–and that wound up giving me a clue in my forthcoming novel (as did an internship I did at the Tor Project, a previous job I had at a back-end healthcare insurance rebiller–you get my drift.) I read a lot of nonfiction, and also try to read outside of my genre for that reason.

I think that as a writer, my perfect work situation doesn’t really revolve around the concept of “full time” or “part time”. I think that what I’d really like (and have been luckily moving toward) is more flexibility to move time around to where I feel like I want/need it. I find that the demands of writing for me are kind of sporadic–like most days, I’m happy to just have an hour or two to write, (two is perfect–one in the morning, one in the evening, with plenty of time in the middle to process and daydream)–but sometimes, I feel really compelled to just smash through a draft, and I like to do an edit pass all at once (like, one pass in a few days if I can, so everything stays fresh in my head. I have a terrible memory). And then, you know, there’s “being under deadline”, which is really stressful.

As such, I’m currently self-employed. I do contract-based programming work, which gives me a lot of flexibility–but also a lot of risk. I don’t know that this is a path I could take if I wasn’t married–the money is good, but my contract could end any day, and if I depended on my own work for health insurance, that could get pretty dicey.

Q: Last but not least for these serious questions, congratulations on your very successful FIYAHCON panel, Folklore as Liberation and Empowerment. I saw rave reviews all over twitter! I also feel it is very consistent with how outspoken you are about the ways in which it’s important for authors to decolonize their work and lift up the voices of marginalized communities. You do a lot of advocacy for BIPOC creators and methods. We heard about your efforts in our editorial meetings, but for our readers, can you share more about the nature of this advocacy and the support you provide? How did it come up for you in working Apparition Lit and this issue? 

A. That was a lovely panel to be on–everybody was searingly intelligent and incredibly thoughtful. I’d kill to hang out in that room again!

I think this is a weird question for me, because I don’t conceptualize my own actions as advocacy, and I don’t have a highly formalized process or anything like that. I do mentor a lot of writers–particularly Black writers, because they are specifically and uniquely disadvantaged by the American publishing system–but also writers from other minority groups. So, I guess you could say that the majority of the advocacy I provide is based on one-one-one peer mentorship, trying to help people learn the ins and outs of the publishing industry so that they can get their foot in the door and more effectively represent themselves.

I think that also, being a person who did not grow up seeing herself represented in fiction–it’s made me highly competitive and very tenacious in regards to both craft and the business side of publishing. I write a lot. I submit ruthlessly. My goal is to write so well that despite how queer/Asian/disabled/whatever my manuscript/story is, the editor/publisher has no choice but to accept it.

I think the other way this affects my own work is just in interrogating things we assume are inevitable, but are actually just (capitalist, colonialist) convention. I recently finished a book in a quasi-victorian setting that examines suffrage and labor unions in like, uh, a magical way (don’t ask me to pitch my own work, I am real bad at it) and I found myself constantly going back to the institutions represented, asking myself what I wanted them to look like and why. Are there states? Nations? Cooperative government collectives that haven’t yet been invented? Where are the levers of power–who wields it, how do you gain or lose it, and what can you do with it? Are narrators always agentic? What does a character arc look like in a revolutionary context? (Etc., etc., etc.)


There you have it, folks!

A heartfelt thank you to Maria for this endlessly thoughtful and meaningful insight! It’s normally at the end of this Q&A that I ask one last fun, yet equally revealing, question. In honor of old Hallows Eve, I asked Maria more than one. I asked her a literal TON of questions in the penultimate “This or That” Halloween Edition bonus round! And her answers, much like this Q&A, did not disappoint. Tune in tomorrow, folks, to see her answers and also snag a free printable version of our special “This or That” to use at your own parties this weekend!! 

Until next time, friends!

Blog Photo by Lucas Benjamin on Unsplash  

  • Marie Baca Villa
    Marie Baca Villa Blogger/Submission Reader

    Marie Baca Villa is a Chicana writer and artist in California. She has a master’s degree in psychology and used her education to build a long career in crime victim advocacy. As a fan of speculative fiction, she loves anything involving strange worlds, complex characters, and unexplained phenomenon. She’s a bonified cat lady, covered in tattoos, and she loves cussing, beer, and flaming hot cheetos. You can find Marie on Twitter @okay_its_marie

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