26 June 2008

On the Other Side of the Envelope: Part I

This is the first of a series of personal observations I'll be sharing about the poetry book submission and editorial process. The ideas in this series may not be representative for all presses, and any trends I'm mentioning are just that: trends. Don't worry that I may be alluding to the ugly yellow binder clip that you sent. Suggestions for future postings are very welcome (though I certainly don't know everything, at least not yet).

Note: only one envelope was slightly harmed by the carving knife above.

On the Other Side of the Envelope: Part I

What I Wish I Had Known All Along

When I sent out my first boook ms (for years) I had a crazy mojo thing about the way the exterior of the packet looked. If I didn't seal the envelope nicely, I ripped it up and used a new one. I made the fanciest 5160 labels. And then there's the kissing (which I still do). But now I realize that the editors probably never even saw that handiwork, and that the recycling bin probably didn't care how pretty the stamps were. Tobin and Marissa rip through those things in seconds, for example. I should've saved my energy for the ms itself.

Maybe I'm old fashioned, but I think that a ms should have a table of contents and page numbers, and page numbers that match up with the TOC. You don't have to grapple with the .......... 34 on every line, but the TOC is helpful.

That said, I feel like the layout and formatting of the ms should be transparent to the reader. The editors should jump right into the poetry, and not keep referring to a ms as "The one in Hattenschweiler" or "the one with the huge clip art donkey on page one." Most of us have experimented with fonts in the past. Maybe even some big and/or hideous ones. You don't have to limit yourself to times new roman. But anything that might make the work look juvenile, too slick, or just hard to read, isn't doing the editor (or your ms) any favors.

A big ms deserves an appropriately generous binder clip. I want to get carried away by your poems, rip that clip off, stack the pages on my desk, hand them to a friend, gallop around the library waving them over my head. That's not possible if the clip is so tiny that it pings across the room when I shimmy it off.

If a contest or press allows/requests an acknowledgements page, don't feel compelled to include everything you've ever published, or "published," ever. Quote reprinted on coffee mug for Aunt June. Kinko's: Exchange Street, Akron, OH: 1-12. is certainly not necessary, and will do more harm than good. It's your call, too, but if you are going to mention that your ms was a finalist at other places, perhaps mention that it was an earlier version of the ms.

I used to think that every poem in a ms should be published in a journal. By the time my first book got picked up, most were. But I don't think that a ms needs to wait that long unless it has to. There's nothing wrong with a ms that has a third of the poems published, as opposed to 99% published in journals, some of which closed up shop in the 1980s.

Finally, there is a school of thought that you should "front load" a book contest ms with all of your best work at the beginning. If you do that, at least transition gently and skillfully into your non-best-work, so it isn't like stepping from the shallow end into the diving tank. You might also consider why certain poems are so much stronger than others, and whether the marginal work really belongs. There's no need to pad your ms with juvenilia, split one poem up into one-line-per-page, or perform other tricks. Just wait until they're all as good as the best.


jeannine said...

OMG! My yellow binder clip! Just kidding.

Thanks for posting this, Mary. It is very helpful to know more about the mysterious "other side" of the process.

Jay Robinson said...

I don't think every poem needs to be published either, not even half of them, especially if it's not your first book and you've had good publications before.

And I don't like those little cotton-pickin clips either.....

Anne said...

That was not a clip art donkey! It was a Great Dane!



I'd actually be interested in hearing your take on sections within manuscripts. I realize that it's going to be different for every manuscript, and some don't want to have sections at all -- but in general do you think sections with dumb titles can hurt your chances? Or sections that are too short or too long? or... ?

I fussed with fonts on individual poem submissions for years (Bookman Old Style vs. Garamond vs. whatever) and finally came to the same "transparency" conclusion you offer. I figure nobody's likely to say "Oh ugh, she used Times New Roman! What an amateur!" It's sort of generic, but that seems OK. :)

Karen J. Weyant said...

Interesting series idea -- I would be interesed in hearing about what you think about titles.

newzoopoet said...

Waiting until all my poems are as good as my best is why I haven't shopped my manuscript yet. I am perpetually replacing poems. Someday I'll stop.

Penultimatina said...

Anne, I am totally going to post about the sections thing.

This may just be personal preference, but I'm a little wary when there are 5+ sections *if* they all seem totally different, as if there were 5 tinysides all jammed in there. I'm always impressed when folks can pull it off in one long section. I always end up with three sections in my own mss. It's great when someone can have two sections without it feeling like two books.

Karen, this sounds so silly, but I feel like titles are temporary, so unless they are a complete and disastrous turn-off, they make no difference to me. The current UA Press book I've been working on edits for went through several title changes as it was out for review, but it still remained the same ms throughout. Sometimes I think the title is mostly for the author, at least in the "shopping around" version of the book. It's a way of understanding (or not understanding) the ms's motivations and energy.

Okay, back to being on vacation. (Gotta love one of the last few hotels that actually has free wifi)

Anonymous said...

Interesting and informative stuff for one who's just emailed off several batches of poems and is preparing material for a first (if ever) slim volume. Thanks for this.

Radish King said...

Hells bells! I kiss all my submissions. Wow. I used to make my son kiss them too, but he's 27 now and when I ask he just gives me the LOOK.

Radish King said...

ps. I had 3 sections in my first collection, none in my second and there will be none in my third, but my third book has a very long assed poem in the exact middle which splits the book, secretly, into halves.

My next book, which I just figured out I was writing yesterday, will have two sections. One section will contain one poem and then there will be the rest of the book.

There are no rules. Just write good :)


Keith said...

i just wrote a long post about my experience with some of this stuff (as new as it is for me), and considering your position in both cleveland state and akron (in addition to all the experience with your first book), i think this is a great idea and will keep reading.

i would say, though, that if you're (the collective "you" -- myself included) worried about what kind of clip, what font and what size, what kind of envelope, and how thick your paper is, then you probably shouldn't be sending out your book. the biggest thing i've struggled with, and am still struggling with, is everything having to do with sections (and i've gone through many of the things you mentioned). many of us would be surprised to see how many title changes recent books have gone through also, mostly from acceptance to publication. allison titus's "barter, fasten" to "the sum of every lost ship" is a recent example. the core of the book's what matters, and the title can always be changed later if the press thinks it's necessary.

but this is all good stuff, so thank you for taking the time to discuss it, and i look forward to the rest of your posts.

J. Newberry said...

Me? I love Garamond. My favorite font of all time.

Of course, I love Bookman Antiqua, too.

Take on May

It's the first day of finals week and I already have that loopy off-my-routine feeling. Waiting for things to grade, and when those ...