Anatomy of a Book: Choosing and Organizing Your Writing

When I first contemplated choosing pieces and organizing them for Composition of a Woman, I naively thought it would be fairly quick and straightforward process.  I had recently served as the editor for an art show chapbook that included pieces from 12 very diverse girls and women and as the primary editor for Anthology Volume I: Writings from the Sudden Denouement Collective, which included the writing of 29 writers from 7 countries.  How hard could it be to organize my own book?

The first challenges I faced was the sheer volume of writing I had done since I started Brave and Reckless and my own lack of foresight.  Normally, I write my first draft in a Word document and then post to my blog.  I do save those Word Documents but oh, how I love to tinker!  Once I copy and paste into the draft blog post I tend to reread and make revisions right in the draft post.  Revisions that I don’t routinely save back into the Word document.

I also repost my own work fairly regularly.  Sometimes I leave those pieces of writing intact and sometimes I revise them.  Sometimes I revise them quite a bit.  Without saving them to Word documents, of course, because hey, they are readily available on my blog!

This would be a perfectly reasonable system if I had only written a hundred pieces since October of 2016.  But I apparently had a lot to say when I started my writing journey! Much to my amazement, it turns out that I had written over 450 pieces of poetry, prose, essays and short fiction since I launched Brave and Reckless. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that I found dozens of pieces that I had forgotten I had ever written.

Some of my writing had only appeared once on the blog but some of my early pieces have been published- and possibly revised- 2, 3 and sometimes even 4 times.  The only way to be certain that I had the most recent, most polished version was to download all of my blog posts.  Can we say time sink?

I am a highly visual person and being able to hold each piece in my hand and make notes on it is critical to my creative process when assembling a manuscript.  That meant printing all 450+ pieces of writing.  As you can image, this took hours spread across days, several reams of paper, and more than one toner cartridge.  If printers could collapse from nervous exhaustion, mine was close.

Once all the pieces were finally printed, I started the process of carefully reading each one and making notes about the theme of the piece. This is how I had approached the chapbook and the Anthology and this is how I like to work.  But it was harder than I expected.  On one hand, I knew intimately what had inspired each piece, what I had been feeling and experiencing when I wrote it. Without the emotional distance that I enjoy when reading other people’s writing, however, I got a lot more bogged down with how pieces could fit into more than one theme.  How they could speak to more than one part of me.

I also found that when I would sit down to work on my book, I would like all the pieces but after two or three hours of reading and organizing, I hated everything.I.had.EVER.written and wanted to shred it all.  That was usually my sign that it was time to stop for the day.

Eventually, I completed the first read through and was left with countless piles of writing sorted into themes as well as growing piles of paper labeled ‘Pass’ and ‘Ambivalent.’  I then sat down and reread all of the pieces still in consideration a second time, removing at least a quarter of the pieces that just didn’t seem to fit in well or I had expressed a similar thought or feeling better in another piece of writing.  I really loved some of those pieces that didn’t make the final cut, but I knew as an editor that sometimes excellent pieces of writing simply don’t work in a particular manuscript and should be saved for a future project.

Finally, I was ready to organize the manuscript into sections and then determine the flow of pieces within each section.  I knew early on that I wanted to organize the book into sections named after parts of the body.  Pieces about my health challenges went into the section titled ‘Nerve’, pieces about depression went into ‘Brain’ while writing about love went into ‘Breast’.  ‘Rib’ became the home for pieces about loss and ‘Blood’ contained pieces about identity, feminism, and finding my voice.  Some of this organization was carefully planned while some was organic and instinctive.  Some pieces just flowed better into each other than others.

As I mentioned in previous posts, my original manuscript was much, much longer than the printed book.  When processing the feedback that the manuscript was simply too long, I made the hard and risky decision to move whole groups of writing to a second manuscript.  I could have arbitrarily divided each section in two, but I decided to go with a more thematic split.  Writing about childhood trauma, PTSD, and survival now form the core of my second manuscript, The Myths of Girlhood.  I really worried that this decision would weaken Composition of a Woman and a lot of editing hours went into strengthening it.  In the end, however, I feel that this allowed me to create two very different but strong books.

One of the unexpected discovery of this process was learning that my writing can still surprise me.  I had literally never seen all my writing about living with chronic illness together in one place before.  It was written over nine months and was scattered throughout my blog.  Intellectually I knew that the individual pieces were strong but the emotional impact of reading the pieces back-to-back and experiencing it as a journey had a whole new power.

I bet that makes you wonder what story your writing might tell.

© 2018 Christine Elizabeth Ray – All Rights Reserved


4 thoughts on “Anatomy of a Book: Choosing and Organizing Your Writing

  1. Thank you for sharing your experiences, Christine. My experience putting The Darkness of His Dreams together was similar. Fortunately I rarely, if ever, edit my poems on the blog, so all of my edits were present in my Word docs. But I totally know what you mean when you say you had to wade through 400+ pieces, some of which you may not remember. And, as you say, seeing them all grouped together can change your perspective on them. I started to notice themes and recurring images in my poetry that I hadn’t been consciously aware of before.
    Some of my poems I already had mentally reserved for future collections (specifically most of my mythologically themed pieces), but that left a lot to consider. It sounds like my sorting process was similar to yours with at least three stacks of paper: Yes, No, and Yes but not for this book. Then I spent days trying to arrange the poems into a cohesive whole, with some kind of flow (which I hope I did!). I considered themed sections & had them in and out several times, ultimately desciding against them. Honestly, in some ways, putting the book together was much harder than writing all the poems in the first place. To me, a good poetry collection should be a work of art unto itself, a large poem made of smaller poems, creating a whole.
    One step that I took that I found very helpful in the last stages of editing my manuscript was saving the manuscript file to a flash drive and taking it to a local print shop and having it printed (2 sided) and bound like a report. It really helped me see what it would look like when it was actually in book form.

    Again, thanks for this post. Sorry if I rambled a bit too much, its what I do 😉

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks, Christine. I liked hearing about your process as well, especially because much of it sounded familiar!

        I think the hardest part about choosing poems for The Darkness of His Dreams was that I had no overarching theme, other than wanting a book that represented me as a poet at the time. As such I wanted to include as many different topics and styles as I could to properly represent me as a whole. My next project may (I hope) be a little easier to put together because I’m concentrating on my poems about or inspired by mythology.

        Liked by 1 person

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