Throwing the Baby Out with the Bath Water

Obviously when you’re sharing bath water with your family, you want to make sure not to throw your baby out with all the nasty muck once everyone’s done bathing.

Writing is a bit different. Sometimes, I need to let go of what I’ve become attached to in order to get to the really good stuff. I’ve got to chuck the apple meat to get to the core.

I’ve been trying to get my full-length manuscript, Swallow Tongue, published for a couple of years now. It’s been accepted for publication once, but after hearing from several people who have read it that they love it and think it’s strong recently, it’s more than about time to shove it, clean and edited, on some nice paper and smack an ISBN on the back.

A dear friend of mine, Heather Dobbins, edited my manuscript for me a couple of months ago, and I’m just now getting around to really enacting her edits. A lot of people have helped me along the way on this little manuscript, and it’s all been out of love. I’ve edited several people’s manuscripts, and I’ve only done it out of love for them and a earnest belief in their work. I’m grateful to have friends like Heather who have shown me so much love, even when I’ve felt very discouraged about my own work.

Heather’s a tough editor, and a tough editor is what I needed. I’d been keeping some poems in the manuscript without touching them because I couldn’t envision how to re-enter them or I was too proud of their publication credit and felt like they were perfect just as they were published in whatever journal and shouldn’t be changed. The former is imaginable: sometimes I’ve outgrown a specific style or the old obsession isn’t as easy to come back to. The latter is unpardonable: a poem can always be edited, even if it has some fancy publication credit.

Heather also cut 10 poems. TEN! In a full-length collection of a mere 52 poems, that’s nearly a 20% cut. That’s HUGE! I’m following her reckoning through. The ten she cut weren’t as strong as the other poems to be able to stand alone or were just too similar: other poems had the same ideas, but did them better. I can mine these old poems for great lines, word choices, images, etc. to include in these or other poems, so all is not lost, but cutting ten poems, phew.

She also completely re-ordered the whole manuscript. I’ve only walked through the first 20 poems so far, but her order makes so much sense, but would never have seen them this way. I kept ordering the whole manuscript in a way that felt chronological: these poems are about children, these about lovers, these about more mature lovers, these about parents. Her way focuses entirely on images (and many of them are animals, not surprisingly, since I seem to like to write about a lot of animals), which makes total sense, but I couldn’t see it that way. Again, throwing the baby (what I think is best) out with the bath water.

What’s also interesting is that several poems in her iteration of Swallow Tongue weren’t in the latest version I finished editing in November, and she likes them and wants them to stay and has great places for them. How could I say no to that? I also have several poems in my latest version that aren’t in the one she edited, so I can possibly use those and not feel the pinch of ten fewer poems as much.

Right now, I’ve created a new document titled “Swallow_Tongue_2015Redux” and am diligently following her line-edit and ordering suggestions. I’m seeing really how the new poems feel. Several of them now seem so much clearer and brighter, like she just scraped off a layer of grime to reveal a perfectly maintained ’52 Ferrari. Others I think I will have to get used to, or I’ll need to go back in again at some later point.

I also looked up several book contests and have three or four I plan to submit to by March 31st. I also found a great list over at Nancy Chen Long’s blog that covers First Book Contests. Some of the links are now defunct or the contests only take submissions on even-numbered years, but I still found the list helpful in figuring out what places I could send my little manuscript to this year.

I’m grateful for a writing community and writing friends in my life today. I’m also hopeful. Let’s get you published, Swallow Tongue! 


I just submitted Predator’s Tongue to its very first First Book Award. It feels like I put it on its very first bus to kindergarten and that I hope it’ll make friends and see more of the world. It also feels really, really weird, like, “I just did that? Wasn’t I freaking out about doing that like three days ago?”

In any case, my manuscript needed an overhaul and somehow, magically, the time and the right ideas came together.

After going back and forth for a few hours, I finally decided to cut my section-break headings. Keep the pages with the italicized quotes, but leave off the names (“Animal,” “Child,” “Adult”). Really, I felt like the “titles” were too constricting. It was suggested to me to put my best work in the front of the manuscript, as well as work that hints at what comes later, so I needed some dark farm, some confessional, some myth, and I needed that to all go together and create a harmony. It wouldn’t make such sense with the “Animal” heading shadowing everything.

Then, I moved onto re-ordering, which is quite possibly the most fun and least fun part of dealing with a collection.

I started with re-ordering the first section. Most of the poems in this one haven’t moved around much, but I wanted to add in another poem and re-order some to help foster this new one. What I look for when I order is things that ring off each other: similar subjects, similar ideas, words, lines, images, etc. For example, I have poem that is the story of a woman who loses a pet lamb that she had that was sort of like a baby to her. I then follow it with a poem called “The Sheep Child.” Some are less obvious than that. One poem ends with the line “becomes young again,” and the poem following it is about a speaker reflecting on themselves as a baby.

I also choose the placement of certain poems based on whether they’ll create interesting incongruities. For example, having one poem about a really awful marriage followed by a poem about a speaker talking about her husband. Because the reader has this idea of the “awful marriage” already in his or her head, it shadows the meaning of the marriage poem that follows it. I’m always really interested in how to create different shades of meaning and how to form narratives from placement.

In terms of re-ordering, I’m also thinking about arc: does this section or whole book lead to something? I had the biggest trouble with the second section. While I really liked the order and progression of it, the stronger poems were really at the end, and I needed to have some at the beginning of the section. I tried moving the stronger poems to the beginning, but then, that left the not-as-strong poems just at the end of the section, which I didn’t want either. So, I started folding them in. Maybe one or two strong poems, with a not-as-strong poem after it.

I also decided I wanted to take two poems from the third section and put it in this section. These two poems were more “cross-over” poems. Originally, my second section was just poems about children or parent/child relationships, and my third section was about adult relationships. The two poems I wanted to put in the second section were obviously written by an adult speaker about the adult’s present, but the focus was on their parent relationships, so I wanted those to be included in the no-longer-titled-but-loosely-defined “child” section instead. Once I did that, I had a real clear sense of the arc. I still had the strong poems at the front, a clear progression, and some fun turns I discovered, as well as two poems that could end the section and clearly facilitate a transition into the next one. Wowza.

Lastly, I worked on the third section. I added a poem back in I had recently deleted, and added in two new poems that had pretty clear places to go. I re-checked how this section progressed and was really pleased with it.

Before sending it off, I then did one last read-through of the whole manuscript, paying attention to cutting any words, and checking that the order felt solid and made sense. There are some places that I felt were a little shaky. For one, there are a couple of poems that I chose not to revise. I’ve been thinking about revisions for them, but nothing has really come up, and I wanted to focus on the work I could picture changes for. Also, some of the pieces in the second section did still feel a little out of place, which could be because they’ve been in the same place for a long time, or because they haven’t found their fit yet. If my book doesn’t win its very first First Book Award, this is a section I think I’ll come back to. It may require replacing some poems, but we’ll see how time weighs out on that matter.

Thanks to all of you that talked me down on my last post! I’m really excited about letting my book out into the world for the first time. Who knows what might happen?

Happy writing (and editing and submitting and editing and submitting…)!

Manuscript Pre-Send Out Panic

The deadline for the First Book Award from Crab Orchard Review is just four days away. I had this idea that I would work on my manuscript, “Predator’s Tongue”, while I was in Spain for a month and have a well-hammered piece by today. Well, that didn’t happen. Then, I wrote a couple of poems I really want in the manuscript, which requires more work: looking at how pieces ring off each other, how the narrative arc is developed, etc. etc. and so on. I’ve also been working on revisions for a couple, and they don’t feel done yet. Sort of far from done, really. I feel incredibly unsure. I do still have FOUR days to do something about this, but I’m finding myself feeling like I should just hide my manuscript in a box and wait until I feel like pulling it out (which may be never).

So, I’ll sort of brainstorm thoughts on here:

1.) My manuscript is currently divided into three sections (Animal, Child, Adult). The first two focus on different types of trauma (emotional, spiritual, physical, sexual, etc.). Many of the poems in the “Animal” section could be put into the “Adult” section, which means I could just have two sections. But I do like how the poems in the “Animal” section have a different ring to them because of the section heading. I also like having three instead of two section breaks, so if I decided to change it, I’d need to figure another one out, or cut the headings and just have blank pages…I think blank pages look weird in poetry books…Have any of you used blank pages for section breaks? Why? What do you think it accomplishes?

2.) This manuscript is a mix of myth/mythical poems and regular ones. Sometimes, I think that’s working since they balance one another out and break up the flow; other times, I look at the more confessional-style poems and think, “All of these need to be weirder! WEIRDER IS BETTER!” Other times, I think I should scavenge this manuscript for all the myth poems to stick into another manuscript, and leave the bones of this one to rot in some box in my computer room (Isn’t that a happy thought?).

3.) The other train of thought I’m following is, “Why don’t I just send it out as it is and see what happens? Yeah, it’s $25 that could be wasted, but wouldn’t it be cool to have enough faith in my work and in the process to TRY?”


Argh, argh, argh. Let’s see what happens in the next four days, shall we? Might be nothing. Might also be something.