Tuesday, July 17, 2018

10 Years of The Bitchy Stitcher: Magazines

In the years before, and at the beginning of, my foray into quilting I worked as an assistant editor and writer for two local publications, both now defunct: Inside Annapolis and Taste of the Bay. For the first magazine, I managed to sneak in a wee bit of humor now and then, but never in the second as the publisher/editor-in-chief actually had no sense of humor at all. Also, it was a publication that existed solely to serve advertisers, as our articles were actually purchased ads, and no one wants jokes in an article that they paid an exorbitant amount of money for about their tree trimming business. Never mind that I could brainstorm tree trimming puns ALL DAY. After too many jokes got pruned, I had to branch out and leave.

I had been blogging here for roughly a year when one of my 2 or 3 readers alerted me to an article in an issue of Quilter's Home magazine, wherein the founder/editor Mark Lipinski talked about submitting writing to magazines, including his own. So, thinking what the hell, I submitted my "How to Bind a Quilt" blog post, and it was accepted. For all I know now, it probably wasn't actually Mark who read and accepted it, but more likely one of the women who eventually became editors-in-chief there (Jake Finch and Melissa Thompson Maher), because there was a major blow-up at the publication shortly thereafter and Lipinski left.

That piece never went in because it had been "previously published" on the blog, which I still say does not even remotely count because literally no one was reading me back then, but rules are rules. As it turned out, this forced me to write something new, since they still wanted to publish something of mine, and I ended up writing three. I said, here—pick one. They picked all three. And so my first published piece as a quilt humorist appeared in the October/November 2009 issue of Quilter's Home: "Zen and the Art of Crappy Quilting."

The upheaval at the magazine at this time can be seen several places. My name is wrong in the intro (Smith is my legal name, Dougherty my pen name), I've never been a member of anything called a Pickle Posse because good grief, and the article description in the table of contents is for something from a previous issue. But I didn't care. I was in print. I was funny in print. Somebody somewhere read something I wrote, and wanted to publish it. Except for, you know, marriage and birth of children and all that, this was—hands down—the best thing that has ever happened to me.

Jake and Melissa asked me to be a regular columnist, and eventually my column was called "In the Ditch." I had a humor piece in 12 consecutive issues, the last in August/September 2011. By that time, I was also writing an uncredited column on sewing related collectibles (my piece on antique spool cabinets is notable for it's repeated use of the phrase "sausage tongs") as well as other feature articles, such as one about thread sketching and one about quilters who live off the grid.

I was pretty sure I would not be able to come up with enough topics to fill a continuous humor column. I was also pretty sure that I could not write them at 1000+ words as they eventually asked me to do. No quilting humor premise can survive that many words, I said. They said, Oh, we think you can. They were right.

When QH was shut down by parent company F&W Media (they're good at that), Jake and Melissa were ready with a plan to start a new magazine, with the same sensibility as QH but aimed more squarely at a modern market. They planned to call it Generation Q and asked if I would help. I said, oh, hell yes.

Jake got someone to do the initial build of the website, but after that I was basically the webmistress as I had the most experience dealing with such things (next to none, but that's technically more than none, so...). We had an absolutely grueling goal to publish new content every single day. On top of that, the eventual goal was to go into print, and almost everyone had day jobs, so there were a lot of late nights. But with a few minor exceptions, we did manage daily content for several months until the print side was up and running.

As we were setting up the website, we needed a logo. I casually mentioned my limited and self-taught experience with such things, and from that point on, I became the art director. I designed the logo, and the banner for the website, and web buttons for people to share on their sites. I still assumed that Jake had someone up her sleeve who would do design and layout for the actual print publication, because I had never done an entire magazine before. A book, yes, a single book, but a magazine? Different ballgame altogether and there was no possible way I could do that. It would require so much more knowledge and skill than I could ever possibly hope to acquire in the timeframe we were looking at.

And Jake and Melissa said, yes, you can. You can absolutely do this.

Now, they needed me to do this. I was willing to work for nothing, and as a stay-at-home mom, I had the time (technically). They could not afford a professional. It was in the magazine's best interest to convince me to do it. But what if I failed? This haunted me all day every day. I cried on my husband's shoulder about it endlessly. I was going to fail these people who had given me a start as a humor writer—my dream—and we would end up with an embarrassment of a publication and get laughed out of the quilting industry. And I honestly even now don't necessarily think I was being over-dramatic. Had I been in charge, I would never have given that task over to someone with as little actual experience and training as I had.

So, while getting published as a humor columnist for the first time was the best thing that ever happened to me (besides kids and husband, blah, blah, blah), being handed an entire magazine to design and layout was probably the most valuable thing that ever happened to me.

It's one thing to hear, "you can do anything you set your mind to." It's another to actually do it. I acquired the Adobe Creative Suite, got some books on how to use them, and set to work. If you pick up any magazine and flip through it, you see that it has a "look and feel" that runs throughout the publication, which, if done right, is uniquely its own. There are elements that need to be consistent, and others that can display more creativity and flights of fancy. You need a readable font, consistent and readable leading. Are you going to do one column, or two, or three? Where do the page numbers go? The choices you have to make are not just aesthetic, they're also logistical. You're creating a template that will be reused but that template needs to be flexible, because you never know what will throw things off in the next issue: more ads, fewer ads, a sudden change in the subject or scope of planned content. In many pieces, such as poll results or the Test Drives, or other list-type articles, you have to figure out how to present data as well as prose. It's a million tiny pieces that have to all add up to a coherent publication with its own personality.

There was no "how to design and layout a magazine" book or website out there that I could find. I had to wing it from what I had observed at my time at Inside Annapolis and from laying out a book years before with different software, and just from looking at tons and tons of magazines. We were aiming towards (and I say towards because our aim wasn't real good there) modern quilters, and so I initially wanted a very spare, clean look with artful use of negative space. But Jake and Melissa had chosen to do a smaller format than most magazines. Instead of something along the lines of 8x11 (publications vary), they went for 7x9, the thinking being that in a smaller size, a newsstand would have to put our publication out front so it wouldn't get swallowed up and overlooked. This didn't always happen, but it was strategic thinking. Unfortunately, it meant I had less real estate to work with and I couldn't just make everything proportionally smaller. Sometimes I really felt like I was cramming too much in, but it turned out the challenge was food to my soul.

It was never easy. Sometimes there were compromises which threw a wrench into the design I envisioned. I was the person at the end of the assembly line, and if people got backed up on their end (read: didn't get their shit done on time) it made my timeline even tighter. I had to proof final pages in a mad rush for one issue because my brother died and I had to leave town to go to his funeral. And I still wrote my humor column, plus two other pieces.

Even when it made me want to rip my hair out and throw things, it was still the best thing I've ever accomplished. And I thought I couldn't do it.

I stepped back from my role after 5 issues. At that point, they wanted to go from quarterly to bimonthly, and with two elementary school-age kids, one who was having some problems and needing therapy, I didn't feel I was up to the ramped-up schedule. I needed to be realistic for myself and my family, and knowing how hectic the last few weeks of each issue would get, I knew trying to compress that into double-time would probably break me. I stayed on with my humor columns and the other pieces I was writing and kept an associate editor title for a while.

I helped out as co-art director on one issue in 2014, and after that I left altogether. It was time to move on, though to what I wasn't certain. I wrote half a novel and made a bunch of bags and art quilts and managed to patch together one last book. But I also had three surgeries and my husband had two sets of stents in his heart and other life things took over my field of view. Some are still there.

Quilter's Home and Generation Q represent some of the best years of my life and some of the best work I've ever done. I grew an audience for my humor writing; I developed my design sense which translated over into quilting and into my books. I helped create an independent publication from the ground up.

But most of all, every time I said, "I can't," Jake Finch and Melissa Thompson Maher said, "Oh, we think you can."

And then I did.

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