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The Writing Life: Starting a Literary Magazine, Part One, from Whole Beast Rag

2012 July 3

Editor’s Note: We kicked off our Hazel & Wren journey wanting to start a literary magazine. We got, uh, kinda side-tracked by what Hazel & Wren has now become, and that’s ok. We like, no, LOVE our baby. But, for those of you who are still working towards that goal, take some notes from Katharine Hargreaves and Grace Littlefield, the women behind Whole Beast Rag. They’ve got something fantastic and erotic and creative percolating in their feasting minds, and we think you might just benefit from their perspective. So here goes. Part 1 of 2 (stay tuned for Grace’s equally fabulous Part Two next Tuesday).


Katharine Hargreaves, Whole Beast Rag

by Katharine Hargreaves

So you want to start a literary magazine. That’s cool. Or as Grace, Whole Beast Rag‘s Executive Director would say, “Cool, I’m moist.” When people get excited about collaborating and creating whose panties don’t get wet? But any endeavor of sizable scope requires more than pure enthusiasm to get things off the ground. I would know, because after two years of plotting and procrastinating (all good things take time, kids, that’s the first lesson to jot in your notepads today), Whole Beast Rag was born. Regardless of your reasons for reading this column today, chances are you’re curious as to what happened behind the scenes and why we were motivated to launch a magazine given the complicated position of printed matter in our culture today. Okay class let’s begin.

Let’s start with introductions. Officially, I am the Artistic Director and Co-Editor-In-Chief of Whole Beast Rag. Grace and I work in amazing tandem to make this magazine run but our individual approach and aims are unique although they work towards a mutually agreed upon goal. We share a vision to publish provocative ideas and to constantly be challenging and re-evaluating the ways in which our culture is either facilitating or prohibiting that end. Needless to say the edge of that intention is always in question, which makes my job equally intriguing and intimidating. However, ego aside, I see my position as a curator who connects people with ideas. What speaks to me of course is a matter of taste but most of all I want to feel like an adult baby when I read good work. I want to feel abashed, unlearned, stupefied. I want to begin again with all my assumptions rearranged.

Generally, that’s what I do in the vaguest sense. Extracting the tasks is a bit more difficult. For starters, beginning a literary magazine requires a lot of whittling down of your grandiose ideals. Start with one solid statement and work from there. If  you decide on the right one it will allow you room to work and breathe while remaining focused. For brevity I will list the rest so we can get onto the real meat of this piece. You will need to understand the audience you hope to reach and in order to reach them you must network your little tushie off. Learn how to design a website. Get engaged in your creative community. Understand your ideals and know where you can compromise on the small stuff. Ask for feedback. Don’t expect help but if it knocks, say yes. Shoulder responsibility humbly and with humor. Always be open to evolving because in the end allowing for your idea to grow will make you much better. Oh and know what separates the good literature from the bad. You can publish mediocre work but why would you want to? Practice saying no in a way that is kind. Be prepared to pour your motherloving soul and bank account into the project without recompense because that’s not the way these things work. Besides, that’s not the point. If you want to make money, sell drugs or something.

Now, let’s talk the nitty gritty of putting out your first issue. Once you’ve more or less got your head on straight by adhering to the above and you’ve got your workhorse of a website putting your name out into the world and submissions are pouring in (HA that’s a joke) it’s time to start the actual process. Because unless you have something to publish you’re a literary magazine in name only and that’s great, but people will expect a product. Here’s a general run-down of our timeline and tasks:

  1. Curate. This is the first step of paring down your submissions. The way I recommend going about the laborious process of finding your footing when it comes to content is to accept anything that immediately gives you the shivers/makes you sick with delight (yikes, those are the best!). Anything that you stop reading after the first paragraph (even if it’s by a name you recognize—yes big name writers still write shitty pieces) is not to be published. You should be hooked all the way through. After all, don’t you want people to read your magazine? Pieces in the middle are the most difficult to discuss because it comes down to gut intuition. Thankfully, we didn’t have to compromise our goals in selecting the pieces that went into our first issue, HUNGER, but there were moments of consideration that necessitated further reflection on what our standards were. Do not ever settle because you don’t need to. Unless, of course, you’ve set the bar too high. In this portion of the phase you will find yourself constantly questioning and re-evaluating, which is good. Every time you say yes you will say yes stronger and with more conviction in what you’re doing.
  2. Edit. Let’s hope that you have some experience doing this prior to running a magazine. The editing process merits a post in and of itself and I’ll let Grace talk more about the actual specifics of style since she’s better at it than me. In the situation of Whole Beast Rag, my part in the editing process is more of a generalized one in that I’m looking for how the piece fits into the overall magazine rather than picking apart the writing itself. I edit for aesthetics and thematic adherence. Does each piece contribute a unique voice or perspective? Is it substantial? If a body of poems, for instance, do they fit together? Does the piece justify its inclusion? If yes, proceed.
  3. Curate again. Now that you have a body of work you need to decide how it will read. Think of the reader as a lovely sheep and you the benevolent shepherd. Or another euphemism that suits your preferences, whatever. In any case, you want your magazine to feel balanced and read with intention. For some this part might come easier, and for others it can take more work. If you’ve never approached it and have a hard time conceptualizing so many varied pieces of writing/art, my best advice is to print them out and play with the physical arrangement. Things to consider as you play around with the order: how two voices or ideas play against one another. While it can be good to put like after like, it’s better to surprise or offer a contradicting statement for the reader to consider. It’s also important to balance poetry with longer pieces. Keep in mind that some people will simply skip around while others will read it all the way through. Ideally, you want to appeal to both parties but if it comes down to it, always err on pleasing the latter.
  4. Implement. Hey now! You’re getting close. You’re probably overindulging in caffeine at this point, and or crying in the Seward Co-op like someone I know (guilty on both accounts). As the Artistic Director, most of this portion of the process fell into my hands. To start putting the issue together you’re going to need a program such as InDesign, Pages, or Serif. Lucky us we got the first for free from our Art Editor. However, what I didn’t account for was the learning curve. And seriously folks this is no laughing matter but you will want to practice how to use this program before you have to make an awesome magazine yesterday if you’re a noob like me. I know, I know, you’re an artiste! This shit comes naturally! But guess what: a beautiful magazine takes work. Our focus with Whole Beast Rag was on minimal design to better let the content speak for itself. That meant putting more thought into the fonts we used and deciding on rules for balanced placement of pieces. If you’re printing out the pages anyway, my suggestion is to get cray-cray with the fonts you like and try different pairings to see how they work together visually. In our case, deciding on approximately four fonts fit our needs and prevented me from hysterics (although that did happen eventually anyway). Balancing the look of the magazine is important and requires some basic understanding of positive/negative spaces and how they best please the eye. Do not be afraid to be generous with space. A crowded page is a boring page.
  5. Edit again! Wee, aren’t you ready to die of monotony by now? You’ll never regret going over everything one more time. You’ll want to double-check: are all the names correctly spelled? Are there any glaring errors? Do the page numbers align? Have you forgotten anything? Get additional help and give people a list to check against. By now you’ve looked at this so long you will not catch the small stuff, guaranteed. Don’t forget that the small stuff will set you apart.
  6. Printing. Yeah baby. You’re on third base and itching to slide into home. You just want to hold the damn thing in your hands already; you want to have a night of sleep that doesn’t involve dreams of InDesign (yes this happened). If you’re going digital this step is easy as extracting your file to a PDF and uploading to a website like Issuu or Magcloud. This is what we originally planned to do and leave it at that. Yet physical objects have their own allure and allows people to own something special. It makes you a little tingly inside just to think about. Printing is more about scrutinizing tiny details than artistic visions: how the paper feels, how big you want to go, how much you’re willing to pay to get there. You’ll want to familiarize yourself with terms such as collate, margins, weight, etc in order to not sound like a poser at the print shop and to ensure you get a magazine that looks how you imagined. Don’t be stupid. Do a test run ALWAYS. If that looks good, go ahead and slide into home.
  7. Distribute. Your magazine is printed! Time to get it in the hands of everyone you know. Then throw a party or don’t. Cry tears of relief or don’t. Do it again or don’t. But whatever you do after this, know that you’ve done something that matters. So feel proud. Pat yourself on the back and have a drink or eight.

Looking over this it’s hard to convey the all-consuming aspect of this endeavor. From concept to fruition, we put out our first issue in six months. All the same, this doesn’t necessarily reflect the two years prior that we had under our belts which helped us hone our vision. Not having full-time jobs gave us the time and gumption required to go ahead and do the damn thing already. So if anything consider this a series of suggestions. Know your goal before you begin and once you do, get there. Chase that dream until you taste it. Be realistic, be honest, be brave. Learn from your mistakes and apologize for them. Then apply the lesson and do it better next time. There is no formula for success. There is only what you do, and how you do it.

Pssst: Whole Beast Rag is taking submissions RIGHT THIS SECOND for their second bomb-ass issue, called Edge. Do it, to it, folks. 


P.S. Hazel & Wren will be taking a break from the normal “What We’re Reading” schedule, due to the holiday this week. See you next week!