A Student-Run Lit Mag Teaches, Grows and Inspires
Sonja Crafts has served as the editor of TINGE Magazine since its start in spring 2011. She is a recent graduate of the M.F.A program in creative writing at Temple Univerity, where she teaches writing. Currently residing in Philadelphia, she is at work on a collection of linked short stories that take place in Pittsburgh.
Interview by Shannon Smith
TINGE is relatively new and is student-edited. How did it get started? What existing journals did you feel influenced by?
TINGE Magazine was developed by Don Lee, head of the Creative Writing Program of Temple University and former editor of Ploughshares, beginning in fall, 2010. The purpose of the journal was to provide an opportunity for students to learn the logistics of running a literary magazine, while creating an affiliated journal for Temple's program, both of which were considered important components of a flourishing creative writing program.
The first issue premiered in spring of 2011, at the end of the first semester of a special topics course in journal editing. All students in the class served as readers for the submissions, and the first editorial staff members were selected from the class, as well. We looked at what we considered to be examples of good and bad online literary journals, with a focus on navigability, readability, and overall aesthetic presentation. Some of the journals that we looked to for inspiration and form included Memorius and GRANTA, among others.
What challenges did you face in starting a new journal?
The challenges we faced fell along two lines: educating a staff with little to no editorial experience, and creating a functioning WordPress site on a tight budget and schedule. Briefly, on WordPress: WordPress.com (to be used when you have your own domain, not to be confused with WordPress.org, which, in its free version doesn't allow for much customization) is a wonderful platform on which to build a literary journal, and once our site had been professionally constructed and the kinks had been worked out, uploading a new issue is a breeze. However, I would definitely recommend working with someone with extensive knowledge of WordPress if you want something more customized than the provided templates. Getting TINGE's website up and running was a huge undertaking, and the success of the final product can be credited to Don Lee and the web designer, Randy Skidmore of Sudpar Design. The finalization of the web design was being worked through and debugged through the publication of the first issue.
Beyond that, the difficulties we faced in the launch of TINGE had to do with the fact that everything had to be learned: how to read and rate submissions, how to copyedit, how to communicate with authors, and how to use WordPress. Selecting the pieces, particularly fiction, to be included in the first issue also proved challenging.
While we each had been trained to workshop creative writing, reading finished pieces and determining their suitability for publication is an entirely different skill. Learning to copyedit writing, and not only how to copyedit (which is a language unto itself), but also how much to copyedit an author's work also requires you to let go of much of the workshop mentality you have as a student.
How did you decide to be an online journal over a print journal? What advantages or disadvantages did you see in that?
An online format was chosen because it is not only more financially sustainable, as the overhead is relatively lower than print formats, but also allows students to work with new industry technologies while gaining the same traditional experiences of journal publication: soliciting writing, working with authors, copyediting and proofreading, promotion, etc.
I believe the advantage is that it allows greater accessibility to the work for readers, and also allows the authors to be more involved in their own promotion, as much publicity is done via Twitter, Facebook, as well as personal blogs and other websites dedicated to the promotion of fiction.
I think that a disadvantage at one time may have been a stigma that something appearing online has less prestige than something appearing in a physical, print form, I believe that this is largely fading. However, the underlying financial implications for print-vs.-online remain the same. In the literary world, there still seems to be a prejudice against digital formats, perhaps because of a sentimental attachment to the printed book, perhaps because it is still evolving, and the experience of reading digital formats improving. Regardless of where this feeling comes from, people will more readily pay for a physical copy of a journal, while online content (whether it be a literary magazine or newspaper) is expected to be free (or funded through advertisement). Because of this, unless an online journal has a reliable source of outside funding, it will have a different mode of operation than the print journal--that exists almost exclusively outside of monetary exchange. Though, as I mentioned earlier, a professional web-builder was hired to create the site, we don't have the funding to pay for staff, advertisement, and, for the time being, contributors. Everything is, and must be, done for free.
I would venture to say that our lack of funding is almost an advantage for the staff, as we do not have to deal with all of the financial concerns that a magazine with greater overhead entails: we can simply focus on the selection and publication of the work itself. Because we are all students, with limited time, this is especially beneficial.
The disadvantage of not offering payment to contributors, however, is that our submissions pool is limited to those who don't expect or require to be paid for their writing. But this is more of a general concern for online literary magazines. At TINGE, we are looking more to publish emerging authors, and whether right or wrong, emerging authors often see compensation as a bonus, not a requirement.
In addition to this, now that many quality literary magazines have at least some content available online, I think there is less of a need and a desire for the reader to pay subscription fees for similar content. I believe that the fact that we are not reliant on funding for the publication of our magazine will prove to be an ongoing advantage as subscriptions to traditional literary magazines continue to decline.
As a journal just starting out, how did you gather submissions for your first issue?
For our first issue we advertised in The Writers' Chronicle, solicited work from friends and colleagues, and sent our call for submissions to contacts in other creative writing graduate programs. As our magazine has expanded we now use the usual methods of advertisement: NewPages, Duotrope, Poets & Writers, etc.
Could you describe the current selection process?
Just to warn you, I'm going to get a little technical here. We accept all submissions via Submittable (formerly Submishmash), an online submission manager. Using their platform we've developed our own system of rating works and voting on highly rated pieces. Because we are only dealing with hundreds (and not thousands) of submissions, and have a relatively large reading staff comprised of current and past students, we have the luxury of giving each piece we receive careful consideration. Each work is given an initial “screening” by at least two readers, where it is given not only a numerical rating, but usually written feedback, too. Highly rated pieces are then passed on to the genre editors (there are two for fiction and two for poetry). The genre editors put in a “yes” or “no” vote for all highly-rated pieces (for us, a 4 or 5 on a 5-point scale) that they would like to be included in the issue.
As editor, I review these selections and approve all final picks. This is the official system, where each piece is read and approved by at least five people before publication. In reality, works tend to receive a lot more attention: pieces that make it through the first round are assigned and reassigned to members of the staff and readers for additional feedback, sometimes multiple times, and we discuss the pieces in depth at our staff meetings. Though the final decisions are made by the two main genre editors and myself, the selection process is a communal affair.
As submissions come in, have you noticed any reoccurring themes, styles, types of stories?
Over the past few issues, in fiction we've noticed there is a trend in first-person narration and stories that feature a child as a main character (and, compounding these, a first-person adult narrator reflecting on his or her childhood). Our first priority is to publish quality work, so it is not that we wouldn't publish a piece of this nature on principal—if it's good, we will want to publish it. However, when we review pieces like this, I think that our scrutiny for originality is heightened.
Your website says, “We do not have any specific aesthetic criteria, except to say that we seek pieces of exceptional literary quality, not genre work.” That is a broad request – do you find the editors leaning towards anything more specific as you’ve been reading? What do you consider TINGE’s strengths to be, in terms of the writing it presents?
Many literary magazines will feature some variant of “send us your best work.” When I read this, I ask myself what this request really means, because I feel like only submitting your “best work” (and not something you know to be “lesser” work) should be implied, right? I believe what this request, (and our request, too), is code for is this: let us decide if what you are doing is right for us, because we don't want to potentially eliminate a very good piece from our submissions pool because it doesn't mesh with a pronounced aesthetic criteria. With that said, I think we are drawn to original narratives, though above all else, we want a finely crafted and polished piece. We publish on a tight deadline, so we don't really have the luxury to work with authors in getting a story with a lot of promise to the point of being publishable. We need pieces that are ready to go with minimal copyediting.
How do you find balancing time between the journal and your schoolwork?
The timing of the publication in both the fall and spring exactly coincides with the end of the semester—which means that it can be quite a difficult balance! However, we have a very specific timeline that distributes the workload over the course of the semester. Our reading periods are complete over a month before publication, we have a few weeks spent finalizing selections, and about a month to get from acceptances to issue release. If we stick to our schedule, in the week or so leading up to publication it's only minor, last-minute things that we have to contend with.
How does working as an editor affects your own writing, or the way you might submit work elsewhere?
I think serving as editor of TINGE has been of great benefit to my understanding of how publishing works, to the effect of feeling a lot less intimidated by the process or discouraged by rejections. Even as a relatively small literary journal, we can accept only a tiny percentage of the submissions we receive, and the selection process itself is not a science. I've also learned that elaborate author bios and witty cover letters will get more eye-rolls than cred, and a clean manuscript and good writing counts for more than a publication track record.
As far as benefiting my own writing? I think being a reader has helped me hone my, as Hemingway put it, “built-in bullshit detector.” It's much easier to stop myself from gravitating toward cliché and stereotype because I've been trained to spot these same shortcomings in other works.
What is the relationship with Don Lee, the faculty advisor, over the course of putting out an issue?
Don Lee made the journal happen, so to speak. He was the editor of Ploughshares and saw the development of a literary journal as a crucial and beneficial component of Temple's Creative Writing Program. While he was developing the journal on the sidelines, he led the first course at Temple in journal-editing, teaching us how to proceed once the structure of the magazine had been established.
Now the journal is almost entirely student run—we do the readings and selection, we contact and work with the authors, and we load the issue onto the website and promote its release. Each semester new staff is added, and as students graduate they are welcome to continue on as readers. Next fall Don Lee will offer his journal-editing class once more to train new staff and further develop and expand the journal. However, the day-to-day business of the journal will continue to be a student-run endeavor.
What would you like readers of The Review Review to know about TINGE? What would you like to see more of in your submissions?
As a relatively new literary journal, I would first like readers of The Review Review to know that we are out there and that we welcome “exceptional literary” submissions! But more than this, I encourage readers and aspiring writers to check out the magazine itself. Beyond publishing new work from emerging writers, we have some interesting and informative interviews and new writing from established authors and poets. For instance, our last issue featured an in-depth interview with best-selling author Ron Rash, as well as the first chapter of his new novel, The Cove.
What advice do you wish you’d had when starting TINGE that you’d pass on?
Much of the groundwork for establishing the magazine should be credited to Don Lee, and the use of WordPress makes the actual publication of the magazine fairly easy and problem-free. However, one important thing I learned is that, especially when working on a journal with a volunteer staff with other commitments, it's important to have a realistic production schedule. Authors go on book tours, contributors forget to check their “professional” email accounts, and sometimes readers need another week to get through their assigned submissions. Establish a time line with a lot of wiggle room, and, even though you have the extra time built in, stick to the schedule as though you don't.
What is the literary scene around Temple and the Philadelphia area like?
Philadelphia is a large city with so many outlets for the emerging author that I am sure I am not aware of half of them and I've taken advantage of even fewer. Traditionally more known for its poetry scene, on any given night you can just as easily attend a number of story readings, as well (regular series that come to mind include StorySlams at The World Cafe/L'Etage and Tire Fire Readings at Tattooed Mom, but there are many more). Temple's Creative Writing M.F.A. Program, the only one in Philadelphia, has only recently been established (formerly an M.A.), and I expect it will continue to grow. The University of Pennsylvania is another cornerstone in the literary scene, offering workshops, readings, and other literary events through its Kelly Writers House. However, what I like about Philadelphia and what I think is the benefit of living here, as a writer, is that it still feels like what I think of when I think of a real city: if you were to ride a bus from one end of Broad Street to the other, you would see a glimpse of each socio-economic class, dozens of cultures and ethnicities, and at least one funeral parlor or strip joint for every center-city beautification planter. Everything you need is here. And I can afford the rent.
Shannon Smith is a writer living in Boston.