When I decided to turn 40 years of poetry into a debut book I had a running start and it was tempting to get ahead of the manuscript and jump into the many other elements required to publish a book. I was advised, however, to focus on the manuscript first because so many decisions depend on the manuscript. There is no universal template for taking an idea from from a blank page to a design-ready manuscript; here is the approach I took with my first book.
My challenge started with curating forty years of poetry. What are the themes of this book? What poems should be included? How should they be grouped? Which poems will need to be re-worked? How long does the book need to be? How many new poems will be needed?
I found it very hard to visualize the book on my computer, drafted in a Google Doc, so I printed out a subset of poems I felt were “book ready” and laid them out on my family room floor. I used a storyboarding technique: arranging poems in groups to help identify gaps and to choose poems to cut. I didn’t finalize the initial order in one day but over the course of a week, giving me multiple opportunities to “sleep on it”.
Do I have named chapters? No chapters at all? I started by assuming I would have named sections, but found that was forced and ended up with a simple number, written out: “one”, “two” … with section section featuring a short excerpt from one of the poems.
I decided to include a few of the very first poems I wrote in high school, poems that had stood the test of time, but where should I include these? Right up front? Somewhere in the middle? I ended up including these poems as an epilogue which made it easier to provide context. Using my family room floor as a canvas for laying out the poems was very helpful.
I’ve always enjoyed coming up with titles for my poems (for some poets titles are the biggest challenge). For my debut book the decision was easy – the poem I’m most proud of, “canvas”, written at the height of the pandemic also provided a wonderful name for a book. My poetry is very visual and in many cases autobiographical, words are my brush strokes, paper is my canvas.
Beyond the text of your book there are additional details your book designer will ultimately need so when I had a very solid first draft I worked on those elements – an introduction, an about the author paragraph, acknowledgements, cover / back cover text and the copyright page. The copyright page will require knowing more about copyrights, ISBNs and LCCNs. The back cover needs a barcode. All of these I’ll cover in a future article.
My key advice – if you have a partial manuscript and are tempted to dive into the many other elements of publishing a book resist the temptation. Focus on your manuscript until it is book ready – everything that follows builds on your manuscript.
“canvas” by James Morehead is available for pre-order here. Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notification of new posts by email.