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 and  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...


UPDATE:  Oh, and that book, Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room, no one wanted?
It went on to win the Foreward's Book of the Year in Poetry (2010), was a Finalist for the Washington State Book Awards, and was in the top 15 GoodReads Reader's Choice Award for poetry books.  

Not bad for a poetry book that was rejected 76 times?

Moral of this story? Keep on keepin' on. Be persistent, poets! Your time will come.


  1. Thanks for such an honest post! I find these numbers both inspiring and intimidating, but in any case I think writers need to know about successful publishing experiences-the good, the bad, and the ugly. (And I just subscribed to Crab Creek this weekend--can't wait to read it!)

  2. Wow... While I can see those kind of numbers can be sobering, this remains a in the end a success story. Perseverance, learning and the whole process of growing the manuscript from the early work to the final form; these seem to all be experiences of real value that will benefit your future writing process.

    Thanks for being so willing to share the details of the journey.

  3. What an intriguing, eye opening post. I am not an aspiring poet, but I commend you for your fortitude and determination -- which certainly paid off. The part about vulnerability is quite true -- the best poems for me strike a chord in my heart.

  4. WB, Michael, & Grace--

    Thanks for your note. This was much harder to write than I thought it would be.

    I really appreciate hearing from each of you. Thank you.

    And WB, thanks for your subscription! Hope you enjoy Crab Creek Review!

  5. Thank you so much. As someone who continues to submit my manuscript, which I substantially revised several years ago, I found it wonderful to hear about your process--it makes me feel more sane.

    Some people spend their hard-earned dollars on cable TV--I spend mine on book submissions and keeping small presses afloat. If I look at it that way, that, too, helps me feel sane.

    In the meantime, I've been writing poems for a new manuscript, poems that scare me, but get a good response from others. I plan to spend Veteran's Day putting the manuscript together.

    I wonder at what time one abandons an old manuscript. Some of those poems in the old manuscript are getting older, although all have been written in this decade (this decade which is fast approaching its end).

    Again, thank you for your honesty!

  6. Wow! I'm shocked and impressed! Your tenacity and talent are amazing. And, sadly, your story is not uncommon. But talent almost always rises to the top.

    I know you're enjoying thoughts of book #2, but are you planning book #3 yet?

    Amazing post. I must share it with others.

  7. thank you for being so honest about this. i love the word january chose: "tenacity." yes! it means that although you had doubts along the way, you believed in yourself.

    what an incredible journey! i am humbled and inspired. i must keep working!

  8. Thank you for this!
    I have been doing a lot of thinking as to how I was going to send around my 2nd manuscript and this really helped me to focus.

    I have run into quite a few poets who say that 5 years is about right for getting a manuscript published.

    I especially like what you say about being ready to publish versus the piece itself being ready to go. I know for my 2nd manuscript I am going to find some good readers before I send it out. Some tough readers! instead of just sending it sort of willy nilly like I did my first.

    Congrats again!

  9. Awesome post, Kelli. It's honest and true. I makes me feel better as I think about the road ahead with my second book manuscript. I think the second is harder than the first. Anyway, I'm very excited to read your book when it comes out!

  10. Thanks everyone! And no worries, I'm feeling good about sharing. It was an interesting for me to see how it all worked out.

    And thanks again for all the congrats.

    I really appreciate your notes. It made the sharing much easier!

  11. Thank you for sharing this. I am not at a manuscript stage yet, but it's good to read this and have it in the back of my mind when I get there.

    I have a question - you wrote "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 do you think the process of submitting helped the manuscript evolve, or do you think it was primarily your revisions based on feedback from your trusted readers? (You mentioned your MFA colleague?)


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