Carol Guess is the author of six books of poetry and prose, including the prose poetry collection Tinderbox Lawn. Forthcoming books include a novel, Homeschooling, and a prose poetry collection, Doll Studies: Forensics. She is Associate Professor of English at Western Washington University, where she teaches Creative Writing and Queer Studies. Find out more at her blog.
Selecting and arranging the pieces for a flash fiction or prose poetry collection can be just as difficult and time-consuming as writing the manuscript. Here are some pragmatic tips.
- For starters, think of the table of contents (whether or not you actually have one) as the final piece you need to write. You aren’t imposing an arbitrary order on your work; you’re creating something new. The right order to a manuscript allows juxtaposition to do a certain amount of work for you, and creates a particular mood, just like writing an individual story or poem.
- Even in introductory level workshops, I tell my students to think in terms of book or chapbook preparation. I ask them to call what they’re working on a book–to say the word “book,” so as to see it as a possible goal. This creates a coherent feeling to the work you’re doing. It’s also a great exercise in confidence-building. If visual cues help, you might use a binder to hold your material, and give the binder a cover. Sometimes I have my students write imaginary back cover copy or blurbs to add to the effect.
- Choose a theme or structure that will hold it all together. Gone are the days when collections of vastly dissimilar stories or poems are easily published. The trend right now is toward coherence; for better or worse, that’s what publishers are looking for. Think outside the box; the theme of water is too broad, but flash fictions named after particular oceans, lakes, puddles, or tears might make an intriguing collection. You’ll want to walk the line between bland and quirky. Choose too bland a theme, and your manuscript won’t stand out; too quirky, and some readers will be put off by the gimmick.
- Kill your babies. This advice was given to me long ago by my friend John Clower; I’ve since heard it repeated in other guises. Often the pieces you love the most, the stories or poems you’ve built the manuscript around, will seem irrelevant once a final order is in place. Yes, as individual pieces they’re perfect. But if they don’t fit the manuscript, you need to cut them, no matter how attached you might be. Cut ruthlessly, but save everything you cut for future use.
- Step outside yourself and think about your audience. Although you can’t control how a given reader will interpret your manuscript, you can aim for a particular reading experience. Do you want to set a certain mood–edgy, sad, uplifting, dry? Do you hope your reader will read the manuscript from beginning to end, or would you like it to be read at random, with each page potentially isolated from the others? Understanding what impact your words may have should help you make decisions about order.
- Narrative arc or no? This one’s crucial; you should at least engage with it. It’s fine (exciting) not to create a narrative thread for your readers, but if you take that away, you need to offer something else. Some readers insist on linking individual stories together to create a larger whole. This is just a common way of reading, a common way of moving through the world. If you aren’t going to give this pleasure to your readers, offer them something else: beautiful language, surprises, facts, chaos.
- First word/line/piece. Last word/line/piece. Title. These three aspects of the manuscript will remain with readers for a long time; make sure they’re strong, and speak to the overall feeling of the manuscript. It may seem obvious, but the first word/line/piece is readers’ entry into your world. Will they keep reading? The final word/line/piece is the gift you give your readers to take away with them. Is it something they’ll want to hold onto?
- How does your manuscript engage with time? Are you playing things out in chronological order? If there’s no sense of movement in time, what takes its place? Is there a relation to history, to time on a larger scale? A manuscript lacking any relation to time may come across as naive, as assuming its importance without doing any kind of contextual work. Similarly, your manuscript should engage with both the wider world of writing (literary history/contemporary literature) and the wider world, period. You may write in a vacuum, but that’s not how your book will be read. Engage. Engage. Engage, or risk irrelevance ten, twenty years down the line.
- Exchange manuscripts. There’s an unspoken etiquette here; it’s sort of rude to ask someone to read without offering some kind of exchange, now or later. So find another writer in a similar place (beginning writer, first book, mid-career, etc.) and ask if you can trade manuscripts. I try to have at least two outside readers; the exchange itself often pushes me to write better. Plus, it’s fun to see someone else’s work before it appears in print. When you exchange, be very clear with your fellow writers about what to focus on. Do you care about line edits or just overall order? Are you open to intensive criticism or do you need to feel supported and encouraged?
- A while ago on Facebook, poet Richard Siken posted pictures of his most recent manuscript arranged across his living room floor. I can’t tell you how sexy those photos were to me. There should be a kinesthetic element to ordering. Lay the manuscript down on the floor and shuffle. See what happens when you actually look at the pages side-by-side. Try dropping them in random order, moving things around, reading, re-reading. Once you have a few different orders that make sense, read them through in one sitting. Try to imagine (this is hard) you’re seeing the manuscript for the first time. What’s your impression? What changes for you as the order changes?
- I once heard a writer say she’d never read her own manuscript from start to finish, and never intended to. To me, this seemed horribly arrogant. Don’t ask your readers to do all the work. You owe it to them to create something beautiful, whatever your idea of beauty might be. Maybe most readers will flip through the collection, but there’s some nerd out there (probably me) who will read it start to finish, and expect to get something out of that process. Something extra. So do the work, on your end.
- Watch out for unintentional meanings; go through the manuscript carefully and be sure that none of the juxtapositions create problems. To give an example, in Tinderbox Lawn I have a prose poem about a woman whose violence manifests when she kills a squirrel. The poem ends on a note of irony, when the woman says, “I hate men.” I was calling attention to the fact that women are capable of violence and murder, just like men, and that to deny this is naive. In the original order of the book, I set this poem very close to a poem in which two women murder a man who threatens them. The juxtaposition of these two poems depleted the first poem of its irony, ruining the entire meaning of the poem. By spacing them out, I allowed both poems (and their very different world views) to coexist, as they do in real life.
- Don’t rush it. If your manuscript isn’t really ready, don’t send it out. Once a book is published, you have to live with it forever. Moreover, sending out a manuscript is incredibly exhausting and expensive. There’s no point in wasting time and money on something you’re not fully committed to. This goes hand-in-hand with another piece of advice; don’t compare your progress to anyone else’s. Every writer’s pace is vastly different. Some writers spend five, ten years writing and ordering a successful manuscript. Other writers can whip something out in a few months and get it picked up, pronto. Your pace is okay; it has to be. Rushing in order to compete with another writer (or to please your thesis advisor, your parents, your inner dictator) will just result in shoddy work you’ll feel ashamed of later.
I can’t wait to read your book! Now get busy.
For further reading, check out FlashFiction.Net’s suggested readings of flash fiction and prose poetry collections, anthologies, and craft books, by clicking here.