The first time I received a semi-finalist spot was thrilling, more so the first time I received a finalist spot. But by the time I'd accumulated six of these close calls, it was getting stale. I felt stuck in place, always writing poems that could go into that book, unable to move onto the next book. Then I got lucky and found a home for my book, no contest involved. Since then my publisher has stuck with me for the following book and the forthcoming one for which I am hugely grateful. What a relief not to have to do the contest thing.
But recently I saw the process from the other side of the fence, i.e., I served as a first reader in a book contest. After reading through the pile of manuscripts, I put together some thoughts that perhaps someone out there might find useful before pulling out the next roll of stamps and the next batch of checks.
1. Do not overload the manuscript with poems. Too many is too many. I read one manuscript that had close to 100 poems! Now come on. The poet had simply failed to edit his own manuscript. Nor had he followed instructions in regards to number of pages. A collection that long has virtually no chance of being accepted anywhere.
2. I'd always heard that it was essential to have a strong first section. True! A weak first section discourages the reader from moving onto the second section. Weak first section and your goose is cooked.
3. After getting a really strong first section, make sure that the following sections are equally strong. You cannot get away with a weak section. Anywhere.
4. Be mindful of variety. This applies to subject, form, length. Too much sameness leads to boredom.
5. Work really hard on arranging the order of the poems. For many poets this is the most difficult part of putting together a manuscript. That's what friends are for. Ask a few poets whose judgment you trust to read the manuscript for order. Avoid the inclination to group similar poems together. Again, too much sameness leads to boredom. You want some kind of thread or threads running throughout, pleasing leaps from one poem to the next, surprises, and connections. Poor order was one of the main weaknesses in the manuscripts I read. You want a collection of poems, not a bunch of poems.
6. Here's another thing that separated the good from the not so hot: Diction, diction, diction. Why use boring words when there are so many good ones available? The language in the strong manuscripts immediately distinguished those collections.
7. Avoid excess baggage, e.g., accessorizing sections with numbers, plus titles, plus introductory poems, plus epigraphs. Keep it simple.
8. Don't go too highbrow with a bunch of unnecessary End Notes. Don't be pretentious. Nobody likes a stuffed shirt. If the information in the End Notes is essential, maybe it should be in the poem? or on the same page as the poem? I'm not saving never; I'm saying consider carefully the necessity. Likewise, avoid a bunch of ridiculous dedications of individual poems. I dedicate this one to Emily Dickinson, this one to my plumber, etc.
9. Remember that competence is not enough. The collection must stand out. The strong ones had something that was unique, that was special, that made them different from the others.
10. Good looks matter. Make sure your manuscript has a professional appearance. I was surprised to see manuscripts with the title uncentered, with dreadful fonts, with blurry pages. Don't crowd the pages, please! And please, in your Table of Contents, do not insert a hideous line of periods between title and page number.
Now here's the good news: If you have a good manuscript, you have a really good chance of winning. Don't send it out before it's ready, but when it's really ready, believe in it and send it out.