Monday, October 26, 2009

The History of a Manuscript

So I've been meaning to share how many times I sent in my manuscript before it was rejected, but haven't been able to find my journals with the notes in it. Or maybe I don't really want to know...but I think it's important to share this information as I know many poets believe if their mss isn't taken after X number of times it isn't good enough.

So let's go back to Poetry Contest Past and see where I've sent my mss (and what it was previously titled) and what happened, why it wasn't accepted, where it was close, and and and...

The first time I submitted this manuscript was November 5, 2004. It was titled An Alphabet Between Us and I submitted it to the Tupelo Dorset Prize.

What I can you is that it was a completely different manuscript and definitely not as strong as what was chosen five years later. However it must have been okay because I do see I had a couple "semi-finalist" marks in my notebook for some other contests.

In 2005, I submitted my mss to 12 different presses.

In 2006, I submitted my mss to 9 different presses.

In 2007, I submitted my to 16 different presses.

Also, I must have been getting bored of the title as I submitted it under the title Grey Alphabet. It was a finalist in one or two contests. At the end of 2007, I could see the manuscript was getting better responses.

At this point (fall 2007), it's getting closer to the book it is now.

But it was something in my MFA program that someone said that really helped me improve my work. Someone made the comment to me that they liked the poems that felt more "vulnerable" and not just my wordplay poems. It was kind of a tough thing for me to hear as a poet and writer, sometimes I put up walls around my work. If you read this manuscript, you will find that some of the more emotionally vulnerable poems are in the middle sections which has a lot of "letter poems." But it was a good comment for me to hear as I taken out the gravitas of the manuscript and replaced them with wit and brains (if that makes sense).

The manuscript I had been submitting was a pretty good manuscript, but it was missing what it has now, vulnerability, tension, evolution. The manuscript was filled with good poems and many of the poems in this manuscript are still in there, but the manuscript never evolved for the reader. I was keeping back some of the poems that made me as a poet feel vulnerable or I was concerned what someone might think.

Note: this is not a good thing to do. Do not be afraid of what the reader will think of you.

In 2008, with a newly revised manuscript (including the poems that were difficult for me to write and include), I submitted to 27 presses.

The title changed a lot this year, which made the manuscript change as well. I realized that in the year before there were two books very similar to my Grey Alphabet name, there was Dark Alphabet and Ghost Alphabet, so I figured we didn't need another alphabet title so I dropped Grey Alphabet and An Alphabet Between Us, and went to Sympathetic Magic, then finally onto Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room after spending a few days with friends on a writing retreat at the Sylvia Beach Hotel, where I stayed and wrote in the Emily Dickinson Room.

If you're keeping track that makes 64 presses (contests and open submissions) I submitted to.

But there's one more year, 2009. I submitted to 12 presses before it was accepted...however, I had just started submitting it to all the fall contests (9) and had to withdraw it from those. Yikes on that. I also submitted in 2009 in a version called Hourglass Letters & Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room.

It was a finalist (1 of 40) out of 1400 mss in the National Poetry Series. This was a first for me in this contests and a good sign I was close to being chosen. From that, I kept becoming a "finalist," this is very much the "always a bridesmaid never a bride" syndrome, or so it felt at times, but I always tried to believe my turn would be soon.

So in total, 76 presses had the opportunity to consider it over 5 years (plus 9 that ALMOST got to consider it...) Don't do the math on how much it cost me in postage, paper, and contest fees (I'm estimating about $30 a shot) or you'll end up with about $400 a year on submissions (I'd guess about $2000 total). This makes me a little ill as that's a lot of money. Thankfully, it was over 5 years, so my family still ate well and was fully clothed while I tried my best to be published.

At this point, some might say, why not just self-publish since you're going to spend that kind of money anyway. I guess one reason is, had I self-published back in 2005, I'm afraid I may not have had a very good book. I was excited about my work and started submitting too early. If I published myself now, while I would have a good book, I'd have a huge learning curve and time suck for putting the book together, getting an ISBN number, designing it, etc.

I have said this before, you need to find the best way for you. I think with poetry books, self-publishing is a very very good option if you want to go that route. I had a goal of a traditional publisher, one that had a print run and a good distributor, that was how I found White Pine Press. I loved the quality of their books and their reputation. This was how I chose the presses I was going to submit to.

I think you need to know what you want and what would make you happy.

Also, I think waiting until you have a good strong mss is important, not submitting too early, before your mss is done. I could have saved a lot of time and money had I not submitted in 2005, 2006, and even most of 2007. My manuscript really didn't take it's strongest form until after August of 2007.

But I'm human and was ready for my second book, even if my second book wasn't ready.

I hope these numbers don't depress you, but instead remind you that it is competitive, but not impossible.

And it's not a lottery (I can't stand it when people say that) as a lottery is built completely on luck and while I admit, being chosen does require luck and timing, it's not all of it. Some skill, craft, music, etc. is involved. It's not all luck though. It's not a lottery-- it's challenging, but it's not about randomly selecting 6 numbers, it's about doing and submitting your best work.

So there you go, some more details on how I got to this place and how long and how many people said no or almost or no no no. It was kind of tough for me to look at this information just because it's somewhat painful and quite expensive and 5 years is a long time or maybe it's not.

As you can see, I received a lot of no responses, but I just needed one yes, one person to get what I was doing. And one did. Thankfully!

Hope this helps you as you submit to know you're not alone.

If you have any specific questions on the publication process or submitting, let me know as I'm happy to share the details. I kind of feel I'm standing here in my bare bones anyway, so feel free to ask away if there is something I forgot to cover...


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