Tuesday, April 21, 2015

the writing life: book manuscripts, the down and dirty

Sandy Marchetti culs some good advice on pulling together a manuscript and it got me to thinking about the different ways in which my own projects have come together over the years. the fever almanac, perhaps because it was the first, was probably the most challenging.  I began pulling the poems together in late 2003 and this version, which was titled simply almanac, had a lot of chaffe that later got trimmed off, most noticeably the structure, four parts, one for each season (yawn.)  The poems were what I had been working on since 99/00' when good things first began happening in my poems.  I had already landed a chapbook acceptance from a small, local, feminist press., but I felt like I finally had enough decent work to attempt something more ambitious that fall (we won't even talk about my actual first manuscript before that, Taurus,  finished in 1999 and mostly scrapped and only sent to one contest, mostly because I felt like I needed to have a manuscript done by the time I was 25. It was terrible.)  I started sending what would become the fever almanac off that fall to a couple contests, one of which it was actually a finalist, even in that rough, early version.  Meanwhile, I was starting my MFA and writing  a lot of work that was going toward what I thought would be a second book which I had tenatively started calling the fever poems.

Those were the years I had a sort of ridiculous first book mania, something which seemed like it was going to take forever to happen. I joked that it was my version of baby-fever.  I had just turned 30.  I'd been writing for over 10 years.  I was publishing quite regularly in journals and winning prizes here and there.  I felt like I should have a book by now, shouldn't I?  I wasn't getting any younger.  All my friends were doing it.  I'd spend hours quite regularly caressing the spines in Borders.  I didn't have a lot of money to enter contests, but I managed a few , maybe 10, not only with almanac, but also with that second mss. which I finished in mid-2004.  But I was getting a whole lot of nothing.  Those two years felt like a decade.  In early 2005, since I was already working on a new book with an entirely different feel (what would become in the bird museum) I decided maybe I should do some cutting and trim those two manuscripts into one.  I called it the megascript, and at first had no idea on a title.  I cut things.  I revised a few things. I pulled the whole squirming morass together and started another round of submitting.  That summer I was named a finalist in the Crab Orchard Prize and undertook another round of re-organization, this time, spending hours with each poem making notes on the pages and thinking how it fit into the narrative structure of the book and how I could stem some of the chaos I felt was happening there and holding the book back.  I delineated three sections.  I resubmitted it, this time after querying Ghost road Press out of the blue,  a small Denver press that had just published another po-blogger (Steve Mueske) first collection.  Yes, they would look at it.  And two months later, they called to say they were accepting it.    I walked around for days with the surreal feeeling like the top of my head was coming off.

My main struggle with that manuscript was the challenge of pulling together a dispirate number of poems on all sorts of things into a cohesive whole.  How could I successfully wrangle poems that were all over the place, poems about family, about relationships, about travel, and voice, and the limitations of language? How could I make them make sense together, especially since they all seemed to vary in terms of point-of-view, tone? There seemed to be more variances among them than similarities.  I really think that threading of somewhat of a narrative structure (even if it wasn't perfect) went a long way towards making the book work, even if it was skeletal, it was something to hold onto.

I've since gone on to write books in very different ways--as either larger whole  projects (girl show and the shared properties of water and stars) or linked smaller ones that form a larger whole (in the bird museum, major characters..., salvage.)  These books sort of order and organize themselves for the most part, so there is a lot less hair pulling than that first manuscript.  I've had amazing luck as well in getting those other books into good homes without having to hit the contest route again.   Dusie Press, who I cold- queried Susana Gardner with in the bird museum based on our our love of victoriana.  Kristina Marie Darling who solicited the shared properties... serendipitously right as I was  finishing it. major characters in minor films, which I sent to Sundress initially because they published the James Franco poems as a chapbook, and they wanted to publish the entirety.  The only bumps in the road were with  girl show, which Ghost Road accepted in 2007, but which was left unpublished when they went under in 2010. I then sent it out to BLP, who was on my radar not only for making gorgeous books, but publishing authors who shared my aesthetic. They luckily accepted it in the fall of 2011, and now, the forthcoming book in spring 2016, which I submitted during their open reading period last fall.  Even though I've had more luck placing manuscripts than any one author should expect to have, there is always the next book. The anxiousness.  Will someone love it enough to make it happen.  It's something that never goes away.

That first book was the hardest in more ways than one, but my only advice is find that thread that ties everything together and then build from there. Also, consider other ways of getting (particularly the first and most difficult book) into the hands of publishers.  Contests are nice and have the money bonus, but sometimes good stuff slips through the cracks in the contest system, so don't be afraid to query and approach presses one on one.  Follow guidelines, submit during open reading periods. Investigate the presses that are putting out the books you love, the books you would love to have written. The worst thing they can say is "no thanks".

{all this NAPOWRIMO month I will be blogging about poetry-related things --inspiration, publication, other verse-related randomness-- so stay tuned for more...}

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