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Flash Guest Carol Guess: 13 Ways of Looking at a Manuscript

Carol Guess Flash Fiction Writer

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.

  1. 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. 
  2. 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. 
  3. 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.
  4. 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. 
  5. 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. 
  6. 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. 
  7. 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? 
  8. 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. 
  9. 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?
  10. 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? 
  11. 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. 
  12. 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. 
  13. 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. 
  14. I can’t wait to read your book! Now get busy.

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2 comments

From Gay Degani

Such excel­lent advice. I’ve book­marked this for ref­er­ence. Thanks Ran­dall and Carol.

From Kathy Fish

This is fan­tas­tic. Thanks, Carol!

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