The Process Redux

Posted: August 10, 2009 in Uncategorized
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With the publication of Death In Common on the horizon, I thought this would be a good time to repost an entry I wrote back in November dealing with the process I went through of getting accepted.

When Rich first announced his anthology over on SL, I was intrigued, and intimidated. Intrigued, because I loved the concept of poems based on a serial killer, but intimidated because I don’t know jack about writing poems. I did have an idea of what I wanted to write. When Rich kind of prodded me in an email to submit something, I thought hard about whether I should or not.

My idea was simply a reinterpretation of an unpublished story I’d written many years ago. It concerned a guy who finds a homeless man shading himself by the side of a building. He offers help and gets no response. Somewhat discouraged he drops some money and a business card in the man’s hat and walks away, never realizing he was talking to a corpse. It was about lost opportunities, wasting life, and offering help when it’s too little, too late. The finished poem, now, in no way resembles that, however. As I wrote my first draft, a prose poem, it didn’t exactly fit in with the the theme. I’m going to be careful and not give anything away in what the content is, though I can describe the process I went through.

The first thing I did was read some prose poems that Rich sent me some link to, in order to get an idea of how to frame my story. What I did, ended up being a 750 word flash fiction piece. What that did was give me the story I wanted to tell (though even that changed as well). Rich advised me to make some cuts, add some actual poetic content and revise.

The next revision was closer to a prose poem, but still not quite there. Rich asked me to make each sentence its own paragraph. I did this sent it to him and he said, “Now pick 20 sentences that are the most important.”

I groaned. This was really the hardest step for me. It was like him telling me, “Pick which organs are the most important in order for you to live.” What I tried first was printing out the whole piece, cuting each sentence into a strip, (there were 45 or so) placing them in a bag and picking 20 at random. That worked about as well as you could expect. It may have been successful for William Burroughs, but Burroughs, I’m not. I went through each line as if it were someone else’s piece I was editing and not my own. It was the only way I could make this work. I spent a few days on this, but finally decided on the ones I wanted to keep. Gone was my first line, “A year after his birth, Gary’s Mother stuck her head in an oven and turned on the gas.” I liked the line, and still do, but it was about paring down; taking a block of clay and sculpting it into something recognizable as poetry. I sent the results to Rich and sat on pins and needles as I awaited his notes.

And I got them. He restructed the result into stanza form, suggested some deletions, asked for some additions and more structure. This was the equivalent to me of jumping out of a plane with no parachute. It didn’t help that work was asking for mandatory OT, my nephew was with me for a few days, and I was stuck on what to do.

Oh, and did I mention, I also needed to shape it into something that fit into the structure of the collection? At this point, the connection to the commonality of the poems was tenuous at best. It amounted to an almost complete rewrite.

Line by line, I went through it all. Keeping more than I thought, deleting lines that were more plot than descriptive, adding more, changing words, removing small words. By the time I was finished, I had no clue whether what I’d written was even readable, let alone publishable.

And here is where the tide began to turn. The light at the end of the tunnel, if I can beat a dead horse phrase. There were many changes to make, but not major ones. I still had to add an element that really tied the piece to the rest of the collection, and I did that based on one word I’d taken out in an earlier revision. The changes in the next couple of passes were clean up, refining the piece to its final state.

It’s a piece I’m incredibly proud of. Not because it’s my first sale, but it was something I never thought I’d been capable of writing. I drew on resources and an inner determination I never thought I possessed.

Is it any good? It’s not for me to decide. As we know a lot of crap gets published, but given the pedigree of writers, the excellence of the editor, and the track record of the publisher, I’d like to think it’s an okay piece.

Once the collection has come out and people have had a chance to read it, I’ll put up the first draft, so you can judge how well I’ve done.

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