Skip to content

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

2012 July 10
Comments Off on The Writing Life: Starting a Literary Magazine, Part Two, from Whole Beast Rag

Editor’s Note: For those of you interested in starting a literary magazine, 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. Part 2 of 2 (find Part One here).


Grace Littlefield, Whole Beast Rag

by Grace Littlefield

Kat went over most everything you need to know about starting/producing a literary magazine extremely well. There are just a few things I’ll add to make this blog post even more long-winded than it already is, though, and they’re slightly less interesting: compatibility within your staff and contributors, spreading yer tentacles wide in the community you’re based in, reading as many other lit mags, books and other media that you can, and editing consistently.

To start: staff/contributor compatibility. I’ll use a personal anecdote, since this is the first time anyone’s formally asked my opinion on the matter, and I love our staff: If you don’t connect with someone you’re trying to create art with on an other-worldly level pretty immediately, do not try to create art with them. Especially if they’re a partner. Meeting Kat back in the summer of 2009 was a birth of its own; I’d just moved to Minneapolis from northern Minnesota, and there hadn’t really been anyone I’d connected with, holistically, before that period. Aside from her introducing me to a lot of amazing artists and writers, letting me live in her broom closet, and sharing her booze with me from time to time, we opened up with one another and had quite a few successive conversations that concreted our friendship and our mutual desire to create a lit mag that served our mutual interests.

That mag did not begin the same way it’s presented now, though—it began with our hope to create a literary erotica magazine, which is hard to do and to get people into. I, like most everyone on Earth, have quite a few repressed sexual memories and desires. It just so happened that I met the right person at the right time in the closet of her house, and I was able to communicate those things to her better than anyone else. That relationship is rare enough that I wanted to capture it, write about it, talk about it, and get other people involved.

At first, we mostly tried to write erotica ourselves, and to be perfectly honest, I’m really terrible at writing any erotic moment; I genuinely applaud any person able to do so (well). Kat could—her first piece completely shamed me (along with all her other writing). But the context of sexuality, tension, the “edge” —to hearken back to the theme we’re trying to hone in on for our September issue—is, we’re now realizing, the most erotic part, and simultaneously the part that shapes our everyday lives in a way that we don’t directly associate with sexuality, gender, et al.

After Kat and I got to that level of understanding ourselves and our hopes for the magazine, more people became interested in the magazine. We could talk about it clearly and meticulously, and that confidence convinced people. And because we both know where we want the magazine to go, we both know how to talk with other staffers and contributors.

When Bernd Sauermann, our Poetry Editor, approached us and asked how he could be involved in the magazine, I left the decision up to Kat; she knows what I like in terms of poetry, and can tell if someone else has that same personal taste, which Bernd does. The same situation applied to Aaron Bickner, our Art Editor. I hadn’t met Aaron until our launch party back on June 2, but had absolute faith he’d kick ass in that role, based on Kat’s suggestion. And he did. If I was running this operation with someone I didn’t entirely trust, in terms of taste and objectives, there is absolutely no way I would have let them make such a decision without evaluating the potential staff members much more thoroughly. Submissions work the same way.

Number two: spreading yer tentacles. Most people, even if they read pretty often and/or have a vested interested in literature of any kind, will not give a shit if you start a literary magazine (even if CK Williams is the featured interview for it). People are gonna read it if their friends/roommates/crushes and lovers/brothers and sisters/neighbors have content in the magazine. They’ll ooh and ah at the one they’ve been asked to read, and hopefully—cross your fingers—will read other content in the magazine, too, and realize that the magazine isn’t a poorly-constructed Brooklyn export that just sits on your coffee table intimidating everyone; it’s full of the stories and interactions you wish you’d thought of (because it’s crossed your mind once or twice) or had (because we all get drunk on the back porch during a heat wave at some point in our lives). As icky as it is that we’re all so dependent on social media and word of mouth, knowing that fact and owning it like Kanye will get the word out much sooner.

Read, too. Read read read read read. Have money for an obnoxious new Best Coast album on iTunes? Skip it and buy a lit mag or two or a book that’s highly recommended by your local bookstore clerk instead. Read through it, take notes, process and become more literate; it’s amazing how many slush pile submissions I went through at Graywolf Press, the authors of which didn’t seem to hold a basic understanding of English grammar. Or if the author used awesome slang, it was random and hard to follow; there has to be a patterned syntax that flows, otherwise it sounds and reads like a nightmarish stream-of-consciousness manure pile. But even if the book or mag ends up being kinda bad or not really your cup or tea, you’ll know what’s out there and will begin to understand why rejecting certain pieces betters your magazine and gives a more crystalline image of what content you want. Plus you can recruit from these books and mags for your own future issues, wink wink.

Editing, as annoying as it is to writers, is also vital to the success of a magazine. Editing strictly with the 16th Edition of the Chicago Manual of Style doesn’t necessarily guarantee success in this realm, though; you need to develop a flow that’s yours alone, and if you’re the lead editor of a magazine, like I am, you need to lay down the law but also give reasonable explanations as to why you’ve edited a piece a certain way. And if writers aren’t willing to edit their work in a way that makes it fit within your issue, be honest—sometimes you just need to say no in order to make other pieces in the magazine shine like they deserve.

I’ll also reveal that there is no way in hell your first issue will look the way you imagine it. But this isn’t a bad thing: Either it’ll be slightly less than you had hoped for, but you’ll finally have finished the fucking thing, or it’ll be much more than you’d hoped for, and you get props from organizations like Hazel & Wren. But finish it. That’s important. Over and out.


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


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!