Interview: Lin Codega on Queer Pop Culture Journalism

Welcome to the second edition of “How Tho,” my new blog interview series in which I pick the brains of fellow creatives and publishing pros on aspects of craft, community, and how they go about doing the amazing things they do. I love to get people talking about their unique paths and creative passions. To that end, I have more “How Tho” interviews lined up and coming soon!

Today, I’m excited to chat with pop culture journalist Lin Codega about their work as a staff writer for I09 and G/O Media. I met Lin when we recorded a WriteHive panel together on “Writing Tools: Tropes and Cliches,” where I found myself nodding along and vibing with everything they said. Grabbing them for this interview is totally not an excuse to further nerd out with them about stuff we love.

Linda H. Codega (they/them) is a queer, nonbinary Southerner living in Yankeeland. They are an avid reader, writer, and fan. They write about pop culture and focus on tabletop role-playing games and science fiction and fantasy books, TV, and film. Their writing appears on Polygon, Observer, Tor.com, and Dicebreaker, among others. They are currently a full-time Staff Writer at io9.

They are a Hugo-nominated first reader for Strange Horizons and a former editor for the speculative fiction publication Luna Station Quarterly. They are also the game development editor for Codex, a monthly role-playing game magazine.

Linda is represented by Bridget Smith at JABberwocky Literary Agency.

Knowing that other people who share my identity see themselves in my writing has made me unafraid and proud to be who I am at every level of my personal and professional life.

Lin Codega

Erin Fulmer: Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview, Lin! I’m thrilled to have the opportunity and really appreciate you taking valuable time out of your day to talk about your work.

Let’s get into the questions because I have a LOT. 😊

To start off, I’ve often wondered how freelance journalists and staff writers get into the business, especially when they’re writing about passions I share like fandom, culture, and media. Full disclosure, I’m a little envious—and my blogging endeavors have made me curious about nonfiction writing and freelancing.

How did you got started with professional nonfiction writing and what has your career journey looked like so far?

Lin Codega: A lot of it is getting the right gigs at the right time. I started at Chronogram – a local publication in the Hudson Valley, writing for their online blog and working on their graphic design team. I shifted gears to get a full time job as a marketing manager at a non-profit that was very writing and content focused.

I used that time to build up my portfolio of nonfiction writing–this is when I did a lot of writing for free at places like Luna Station Quarterly and Story Screen. I landed a Features Editor gig at an ad trade—shots—after that, where I really learned the ropes of working a news desk. This was when I began writing for Tor.com, and started to get the confidence to pitch other places. I eventually landed bylines at places like Polygon, Observer, Immerse, and Dicebreaker.

When I was let go from shots during a restructuring I was lucky enough to get a decent amount of severance and was able to take my time in my job search–I knew I wanted my next job to be someplace where I could actually write about things I liked, and I was able to be picky. I landed the job at io9 in early 2022 because some of my clips really showed off what I could do and I came to the interview table with a vision for what I would be doing, and here we are!

It’s been about ten years since I started writing for that local magazine, and it has been a lot of hustle, hard work, lateral moves, and luck. It takes time, and I wish there was an easier way to make it as a cultural critic and pop cultural commentator but the media landscape is competitive and undervalued.

EF: Oof. I feel that! The undervaluation of creative work is a drum I beat a lot on this blog. It’s hard to know the right path forward to build a lasting career and make a living. You freelanced before you started as a staff writer with i09, so how do freelance and staff writing differ? What are the pros and cons of both?

LC: The big difference is security. At least for me, working a desk is easy compared to freelancing–that’s partially because io9 is a union shop. While there’s a lot more strings attached, I feel like I have a lot more ability to pursue long pieces while a staff writer.

I also have the opportunity to fuck up. If a story doesn’t pan out or something falls through, it’s not a big deal. But if you’re a freelancer and something goes wrong, that’s a bite out of your paycheck.

Freelance writers have to constantly hustle to be on top of their pitches, editors, and beat, while as a staff writer it’s all rather focused. I did get to do some amazing pieces while I was freelancing, but for me the cons outweigh the freedom. I like having a regular paycheck and health insurance.

You can’t just love or hate something, you have to justify it in an articulate, interesting way or you’re just writing a fluff piece.

Lin Codega

EF: Give us a peek into a day in the life of a pop culture journalist—it’s not just writing about and consuming books, shows, and games you love (or love to hate/hate to love), right? What’s the reality check?

LC: The reality check is that quite often you have to work a news desk and you must write about the new Sonic trailer, or the ALF revival, or the latest Marvel press junket–often these things are boring fluff pieces, and that’s just the way a news desk goes. Yes, you’re given some time to read books, watch TV, and play games, but most of that is done on your own time, and then you turn it into content the next day. So it’s hard to divide up ‘fun’ time and ‘work’ time.

During the day I answer emails, shoot the shit in our Slack channel (utter chaos) in between writing short news blogs, research sources for longer features, set up interviews, and try to spend 3-4 hours actually writing. This is all without mentioning that you, as a pop culture writer, have to come up with commentary, opinions, and angles on pop culture every single day.

It helps that you have a place to bounce ideas off other people, but the fact is that pop culture journalism is a lot about finding what makes your voice different and interesting amid all the other people who are just as different and interesting as you are. It can be stressful, and it’s definitely hard work. You can’t just love or hate something, you have to justify it in an articulate, interesting way or you’re just writing a fluff piece.

EF: For readers like me who don’t really know the first thing about writing articles professionally, walk us through how you take an idea from pitch to published—what’s your creative process, who’s involved at each step, and what are your deadlines like?

LC: So this is pretty different if you’re freelancing or working staff, but I’ll try to go through both quickly since I suspect most people might want to try to write an article or two themselves. This is for feature articles, by the way, rather than quick news pieces.

For both, the first thing you have to do is have an opinion. Then you have to ask yourself, “Why does this opinion matter?” This is the important bit, and the thing that most often trips people up.

You have to be able to justify why people should care about your opinion, and not just why your opinion is justified. Sometimes it’s cultural relevance–an anniversary, a celebrity coming back up in tabloids, a sequel, or it’s important for some other reason–sometimes it’s political relevance, such as a social movement or the current outrage over the Supreme Court. You need to ask yourself, ‘why will people care?’ What’s the point?

Here’s where the difference is. If you’re staff, you Slack your editor and tell them ‘hey, I have this idea’ and give them an estimated return date. If they like it, great, go forth! If you’re freelance you have to polish the pitch into an email format, find the right editor at the right publication, send the pitch off in batches of two or three, and then sit on your hands.

Once you have the pitch approved you start writing! I usually outline the basic points I want to make, find sources, then fill it all in. Afterwards I tend to rearrange things, set it aside, and then reread it to make sure it all flows before booting it to my editor. If I’m really feeling a pitch (and I get lucky with slow news) I can turn an article around in a day or two. Sometimes it takes longer–a week or two of finding sources, rearranging, polishing.

My deadlines are flexible! I try to give myself a week or so to really dig into an article, but often I have to turn stuff around fast. If I can’t I communicate with my editor and we figure something else out. Honestly talking to your editor is key, especially if you find yourself struggling to finish an article.

I think that fandom has really taught me that the plural interpretation is key to understanding art.

Lin Codega

EF: From our panel conversation and stalking researching your work, I get the idea that like me, you experience media from a fandom-informed perspective, grounded in the joys of active engagement in pop culture and with a working knowledge of A03 tags. How has fandom shaped your work and/or how does it distinguish your perspective from traditional media criticism?

LC: I absolutely write from a fandom-first perspective. One of the great things about io9 is that everyone at the pop culture desk is a fan of something. Even if we’re not all in the same kinds of fandoms, everyone is a big old nerd.

I think that fandom has really taught me that the plural interpretation is key to understanding art. Fandom allowed me to be critical and loving of the media I consume at the same time. I think that for me a fandom-first perspective allows me to step away from my work in a way that I find a lot of traditional media critics sometimes don’t do.

There are a lot of people out there who want to fight over who’s right about something, or who knows the answer to a question. I am not interested in being right when it comes to pop culture. There is no ‘right’. I am interested in having an opinion, and being able to think critically about my own work.

EF: It’s so refreshing and, in these times, crucial to read a queer perspective on pop culture on a mainstream media platform. I hope you know how much it means to be able to read an article from someone who shares my excitement about shows like Our Flag Means Death or books like Tamsyn Muir’s Locked Tomb series and AK Larkwood’s The Serpent Gates duology. How has your identity as a queer, trans, and nonbinary writer informed and impacted your work?

LC: It has made me fiercely dedicated to uplifting other marginalized perspectives and work. A lot of my work is dedicated to smaller projects, designers, and art. Knowing that other people who share my identity see themselves in my writing has made me unafraid and proud to be who I am at every level of my personal and professional life.

I think that knowing I’m not alone has made me a stronger person, and has helped drive me to tell these stories and share my excitement and experiences with others. One of the pieces I’m most proud of is On Being Trans and Watching Everything Everywhere All at Once. Not because of the writing, but because so many people reached out to me, personally after reading it to tell them how it affected them. Those are the kind of moments and articles I really strive to write.

Be passionate, unabashedly. Write about what you love–someone out there loves it too.

Lin Codega

EF: In that vein, what specific advice or encouragement would you give to aspiring queer journalists and writers?

LC: Be passionate, unabashedly. Write about what you love–someone out there loves it too. Rejection is part of the process. Keep going anyway.

Don’t write about your identity or your trauma if you don’t want to (some bylines aren’t worth your personal stories). Learning the difference between your identity and your perspective is the difference between a great queer writer and a great writer who is queer.

EF: You’re also a game developer and write about tabletop gaming. This could probably be its own separate interview topic, but what are your thoughts on games as a storytelling medium as opposed to, or in conversation with, more traditional forms of media?

LC: I think that there is an intentionality towards interpretation that is more a part of the conversation when you write a Tabletop Roleplaying Game. Storytelling is always interpretive, but I think that there is a difference between storytelling mediums that has to be considered when creating in that media. The beauty of TTRPGs is that they are, for the most part, teaching you how to make your own story, within a framework, often collaboratively, the latter of which is my favorite part.

My advice is that if you want to write, you read. Find writers who inspire and interest you.

Lin Codega

EF: What advice would you give newer writers interested in pursuing nonfiction freelancing or media journalism? For instance, how important is a journalism degree, MFA, critical theory, or other related education—or is it more about interest and passion?

LC: So, I didn’t do any of that! I got Cs through college and graduated with a GPA of 2.7. Formal education is great, but what’s more important is your writing.

My advice is that if you want to write, you read. Find writers who inspire and interest you. I really love the work of Emily VanDerWeff, Gavia Baker-Whitlaw, Robert Daniels. Subscribe to their newsletters. Find the people who are writing in the same beat you want to write and read their work. It’s not just about interest and passion, it’s ultimately about being able to write a good story and compellingly present your argument.

EF: Thank you so much, Lin! It was fantastic to get your insights and an inside peek at working a newsroom. I loved your comments on formal journalism education and how the writing itself matters more, because I think that will be encouraging to a lot of people interested in this kind of work. Your fierce dedication and passion for representing a queer perspective in media is inspiring—I look forward to reading whatever you write next!

Follow Lin on Twitter and read their writing on games and media! And be sure to check out the free WriteHive conference, where you can sign up to attend panels from an amazing slate of writers, agents, and other publishing pros.

If you enjoyed reading this interview, you may also enjoy my first foray into interviewing with my mentor Ren Hutchings, who graciously shared her thoughts on how to shepherd up and coming talent as a writing mentor.

If you are interested in being interviewed for this series, please use my contact form for inquiries with a short pitch about you and your work (nothing super formal, just let me know what you want to talk about). I will be prioritizing interview guests who are queer, ND, and/or BIPOC for this series but always love to hear about fellow writers’ journeys!

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