I was sitting at the San Francisco Giants baseball game the other night with poet Judith Serin, and we started talking about the order of poems in a book, and almost lost track of the outs and balls and strikes on the field.
“You have no idea how many problems it solved just to change the order,” Judith enthused, discussing a series of poems she’s writing based on dreams and how they illuminate her waking life.
Writers are generally a rebellious bunch. “Order” is something we like about as much as a hard drive crash. But the order of pieces in a book is as important as the batting order of a baseball team, or the order of dishes in a meal. In baseball, you don’t want to have your power hitter bat first, where no one would be on base when he hits a home run, or your pitcher hit leadoff, where he’s likely to start the inning by striking out.
Writers assembling a collection of poems, short fiction, or essays for the first time are drawn to putting the selections in the order they were written. This can work in certain limited cases, when the writer is telling a linear story and begins at the beginning and ends with the story’s conclusion. But that’s rare outside of the novel or a book-length work of nonfiction.
For a collection of short stories, poems, or essays, it’s best to let go of the chronology of when you wrote the pieces. You wouldn’t serve the dessert before the appetizers, even if you’d baked the cookies the day before the meal. When you're serving a meal, you consider the experience of the diners, not your preparations. Similarly with a manuscript, think about the reader’s experience of your book, not your experience writing it. What is the story the pieces tell as an ensemble, rather than individually? How do the pieces fit together to create the curve that shows that a transformation has taken place, from the beginning to the end of the collection?
When I have a fairly good idea of which poems I want to include in a book manuscript, and I’ve got a reasonably finished draft of each poem, I go back to the old school way of choosing an order. I print them all out, and lay them down one by one on the floor, where I can see all of the pieces at once, or at least their first page.
Oddly enough, the pieces begin gathering themselves into groups almost on their own. They choose companions they have something in common with, like kids on a playground. These groups are fluid—they can shift around. One way of looking at the overall arrangement can produce a very different order from another. Make sure you’re telling the same story that the pieces are telling.
Once the pieces begin forming into groups, it’s much easier to see the way the groups want to line up. And within each group, there is also the question of an order. But that’s a much easier problem to solve than an order for all the poems or stories or essays. Once you see the arc of the whole collection, the order of the sections is much clearer, since each section needs to move the story forward.
By the end, it’s like the final step of a card trick. You’re sweeping up poems or stories or essays quickly into bundles, and collecting the bundles into one sheath.
There could be an individual piece that doesn’t fit into any of the groups. That suggests to me that the piece may not belong in this collection at all. It could possibly stand apart as a prologue or an epilogue, but that requires a certain tone, an introductory or conclusive note that very few pieces are likely to have. Consider saving the piece that doesn’t advance the story for a different project, even if you like it on its own. No, don’t just consider it, do it!
In my next blog, I’ll discuss the beginning and endings of book manuscripts.
Other recent posts on writing topics:
Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry?
Poetic Forms: Introduction; The Sonnet, The Sestina, The Ghazal, The Tanka
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer