Finding the Right Arrangement for your CNF or Poetry Collection with: Elizabeth Ferris

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I often work with writers who have generated a large amount of written work over their writing journeys—sometimes entire suitcases’ worth of journals and manuscripts. The thought of pulling it all together can be overwhelming, and sometimes writers never take that next step because they don’t know where to begin. Here, I’m sharing three questions I think can be helpful to ask when figuring out how to arrange your work. These questions apply most directly to collections of short essays, vignettes, or poetry, but I’ve found they help writers working on more traditional narratives, too.

What does the reader need to know earlier on?

The beginning of a CNF or poetry book gives the reader a sense of who the writer is as a person—What are the most important parts of your background? What are the central conflicts, predicaments, or desires that drive you? What people, events, and themes anchor your story or identity? For example, for Traveling the River (L10 Press’s inaugural title), Hope’s childhood in southern Virginia and her love for reading and nature were things we wanted the reader to learn about her right away because they inform who she is and how the collection should be read—so we picked poems that established this and placed them in the first part of the book. The thread is then woven throughout the collection, but it’s fixed in the reader’s mind early on.

How do different pieces play off each other?

Pieces here might mean poems, but they can also be scenes or vignettes. Human brains seek patterns, but we also respond really well to contrast. Writing is a lot like a musical composition this way. Having an emotionally heavy scene followed by one of levity or humor, for example, not only gives the reader a moment to breathe, but it captures life as it really is—filled with ups and downs, laughter and tears, great triumphs and great defeats. Particularly when writing about a difficult person (an estranged parent, perhaps) having moments where we see another side of that person can help them feel more three-dimensional, and can, in an unexpected way, make the moments of abuse or cruelty more impactful. Kelly Sundberg’s exceptional essay, It Will Look Like a Sunset (about her relationship with her physically abusive ex-husband) is a powerful example of contrast at work.

What are you building toward?

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Increasingly writers seem to be getting away from tidy resolutions in favor endings that reflect the bumpier, more cyclical way we experience conflict and growth in our lives. I think this is a good thing. Still, books tend to be most satisfying for readers when they move in the direction of something—perhaps some sense of peace or increased awareness. One way this sense of movement is achieved is through tone. Thinking about the tone you want to end your book on, and then searching for pieces that match it and moving toward them is a great way to make sure your reader feels like they’ve gone somewhere with you while reading your work.

When I’m working with a manuscript, I like to print it out and arrange the physical pages, rather than copy and pasting on my computer. Maybe this is just because I’m an old-fashioned physical-book reader and pen-to-paper writer, but pieces come alive for me differently when I hold them in my hand. Plus, this may be the one area where it’s still faster to do it analog—you can try out more rearrangements more quickly when you have your pieces all spread out in front of you.  

My final word of advice is don’t be afraid to leave things out if they just don’t fit the work. Have a pile of killer writing that didn’t make it into your manuscript? Lucky you! It looks like you’re already started on your next book.

Elizabeth Ferris is the executive editor for Life in 10 Minutes Press. She has edited for Vanderbilt University Press and freelance clients including journalists, educators, novelists, and memoirists. When not editing, Elizabeth contributes regularly to Richmond magazine. She received a BA in English from The College of William and Mary and is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at Queens University of Charlotte. Find a list of her upcoming classes at Life in 10 Minutes here.

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