Thursday, March 6, 2014

How to Get Published, Part 5: The Orphans of a Collection of Poems or Stories

There are certain poems or short stories in a book-length manuscript that I think of as the orphans. They are difficult to place on their own in magazines or anthologies. You could send them out twenty times, and they get rejected in twenty different places. All their poem/story-roommates have been adopted by different journals, but these guys are still in the literary orphanage, unable to find a home. 

An Orphanage.
This orphan is completely overlooked by every prospective parent who drives up in a fancy Bugatti, wearing an elegant ensemble. 

Why? And does this mean you should take the orphans out of your manuscript?

Sometimes the fact that a particular poem or story can’t get published on its own means that it is not of the same quality as the rest of the work in a manuscript. Other times, it’s just a matter of luck—a poem or story needs to be in the right place at the right time in order to get adopted.

Here’s an example. I had an odd poem in my last full-length book, My Mother and the Ceiling Dancers. The title of the poem was “Terrestial Extra,” and the piece was a bit of a concrete poem, with a fairly elaborate layout on the page. Most magazines steer clear of poems like that. Also, it wasn’t very personal. The poem was speculative, dealing with whether the earth contains all the shapes that life could assume anywhere in the universe. Not everyone’s cup of tea. Not even a few magazine editors’ shot of crème de cacao, apparently.

This is where a good book editor can make all the difference. An experienced editor will either give you the confidence to believe in a poem or story that hasn’t made it into print, or tell you the hard news that you’ve got a literary piece of spinach right between your two lower front teeth and you just have to get rid of it. In the case of “Terrestial Extra,” my editor, Sammy Greenspan at Kattywompus Press, thought well enough of the poem that she encouraged me to include it. Thank you, Sammy! Sure enough, the poem got accepted right before the book appeared, and by a superbly printed anthology, Overplay/Underdone, published by Medusa’s Laugh Press, a collection of poems with strong visual elements. My awkward orphan had found the perfect foster home!

My poem "Terrestial Extra" in the anthology Overplay/Underdone

But good editors are hard to find these days. Sometimes you feel you have to include a particular orphan in your book because it would leave an unexplained gap to take it out. Sometimes an orphan does have to go, if there is not a compelling reason why it belongs with the others in a collection, and/or it seems to be lowering the bar for that book. I wish I had five dollars for every poem I’ve written like that, poems that I’ll never publish. There are many more of them than there are orphans that I end up leaving in a manuscript after the final cut. Other times, an orphan just needs a little cleaning up and a new outfit. It has never quite come together the way the other pieces in the collection did, and it is asking for your help to make it better.

Sometimes you get lucky with an orphan. An editor may say to you, “I’ve got some space at the bottom of a column, the magazine is going to press tomorrow, can you send me a poem?” That’s when I bring in the orphans. I know I’ve got an editor who is not going to be super choosy, they will just be happy to have a poem. That’s often the only way that orphans find a home.

I have to confess a stubborn fondness for those strays, like the matron at the orphanage who takes a liking to a certain sniffly boy with a rabbit nose and terrible cowlicks. There is something about their awkwardness, their inability to even strive for perfection that makes them compelling to me. At least, when they are my own work. 

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4 
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
How to Be an American Writer

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