06 February 2013

“stack it up to experience”: using theme stacks to develop your chapbook

The Our Lost Jungle CB Challenge: Picking Your 30 Pages
On Monday we sorted our work into common threads, or themes, to give ourselves a sense of the various chapbook collections we could create from our work. Today, we’ll be taking individual theme stacks and using them to actually begin developing a chapbook!

One thing that’s always desired from a chapbook is cohesion. Whether you want your chapbook to tell a narrative story, or if you want your chapbook to focus on a shared theme or narrative “thread,” every work within the chapbook should work together as a whole. And guess what? When you Pull-Thread-Weave your work, you automatically sort your work into cohesive themes! The question becomes how to sort and organize the works within a single pile, and how to pick and choose between pieces that will and will not make it into the final chapbook.

The bad news...

...is that the “pick and choose” process can be extremely hard. Chances are as you sorted you came across pieces you forgot about, pieces you love … and pieces that, despite how much you love them, just don’t seem to “fit” anywhere. The hard part here is twofold. First, you must avoid the urge to spend too much time figuring out “where this piece can go.” It’s like being the conductor of a train: just because you love that field of flowers to the left doesn’t mean that’s where you’re meant to go right now. Leave the pieces that simply don’t fit out.

This is the second hard part. You cannot force a piece into the mix, no matter how much you like it. To throw in another analogy, you might feel like that mom with three kids in concert choir and one kid who’s tone-deaf. It might not feel good to leave little Fiona Flat sitting in the bleachers, but you’re not doing her any favors trying to force her up on the risers with the rest of the gang, either. The same goes for your writing. Just as you don’t want to waste time trying to place a piece that doesn’t fit, you also don’t want to potentially damage the cohesion of a chapbook—or embarrass that one piece—by trying to force that piece to belong.

The good news 

...is that from here on out the hardest work you have to do is continuous organization. That might not sound like particularly good news, but hear me out! If you completed the task on Monday, you already have the really hard part of organizing your work done: you’ve developed several theme stacks that you can pick and choose from. For the rest of the challenge, you’ll just work with your favorite stack (heck, you could play with multiple stacks at the same time if you want!) and get things narrowed down and sorted.

Starting today, we’re going to focus on getting a single stack—a single “eventual chapbook”—sorted and weaned down to the best of the bunch. We’ll start by narrowing the playing field of works you’ll be working with through the remainder of the month. Then we’ll move on to pinpointing the three pivotal parts of a chapbook, which are the same as the major sections of just about any work: the beginning (“crown”), the end (“slippers”), and the middle (“robes”).

Your Task

Today’s task is to pick the theme pile you’ll work with for the rest of the month and start whittling that pile down to 30 pages. There are several ways to get started with this task:

1. By the Numbers. Read through the work in your pile and assign it a number between 1 and 5, where “1” indicates a piece you could easily toss aside (for now) and “5” represents a “must-have” for your chapbook. Once you’re finished, your chapbook will consist of all your 5s, followed by 4s to fill empty slots, and working your way into 3s if necessary.

2. Look Into Your Heart. Read through the work in your pile and pull the pieces that you feel the best about. You’ll do this in maybe one round of reading, or maybe several rounds. Make sure you’re reading when you’re feeling fairly amiable about your writing. At the same time, make sure you’re also looking at your work realistically: don’t become so enamored that you’re saying “Yes!” to everything!

3. Spaghetti! I’ll admit it … this is one of my favorite ways to “get organized. If I’m working with a really big pile of poems, I’ll just toss it—yes, the whole pile—across the room (see why I like to work with printed materials?). I’ll spread the scattered works out with my feet, pick a corner of the room to start in, and just start picking up poems. If I like it, I hold onto it; if I’m not feeling it, I’ll toss it again. Go ahead … give it a shot. Keep picking until you have thirty pages—poems, stories, pictures, whatever you’re working with—in your hands. Then stop. If your favorite piece is missing, you can hunt it down … but my personal advice? Don’t. be organic! Go with the flow. Beware paper cuts.

4. “Fubsoy.” Fubsoy is a made up word for the acronym “FBTSOYP” … better known as flying by the seat of your pants. If you have another method you want to use to select your 30 poems (asking friends for help, using a random number generator, picking the pile that has exactly 30 pieces in it right now, etc.) go for it!

Your Turn

Now that you have your piles of work, how are you feeling about the amount of work you have left to do to develop a 30-page chapbook? How will you go about selecting the pieces you’ll work with? Share your methods and tips (or games) in the comments below!

Note: Just as a reminder, right now you’re only picking the pieces you’ll include in your chapbook … You don’t have to start organizing them yet. you can, but don’t overwhelm yourself! And don’t rush the process of picking your 30 pages. You have from now through Monday to get that done. Take your time, and have fun with it! Good luck!


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Join in the Our Lost Jungle Chapbook ("CB") Challenge!

18 comments:

  1. This all makes so much sense. It also makes it not feel so overwhelming.

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    1. I'm glad, Margo! On both counts--and especially in regards to not feeling overwhelmed, which is a *big* goal for this challenge!

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  2. Great post Khara.
    I’m still pulling and threading but hope to finish soon. As I pull and thread, I have this insatiable urge to --oh, I hate to admit this – polish a word here and a phrase there. I know, I know I’m bad. I’m fighting the urge as best I can. The good news is I have five threads that have more than enough material but I want to finish my pulling and threading before I start to prune.
    Will I get a bad grade for not turning in my work on time?

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    1. Kris, there's no need to fight that urge ... The only urge I'd recommend fighting is the "overhaul effort" on any piece! Whenever I pull-thread-weave I *always* wind up changing a word or two here or there (or even a full line); I just don't let myself get caught up in the edit process ... yet!

      And despite all the teacher urges in me, no, I won't flunk you for late work :)

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  3. Well, Hmph!

    I want to stick to one theme but have only 20 pieces/20 pages, maybe 30 pages depending on what size print, and /or chapbook.

    Not sure of next step.

    Still narrow down the number of pieces to be used to 15?

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    Replies
    1. Well, after some thought, I could add 8 more pieces, in the same theme...stories, not poems, each considerably shorter than more than a few of the poems. :-D

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    2. Play around with it, Kiril, and see what happens! There's also always the option of "cheating" and using more than one theme in a chapbook; it's not technically cheating--in fact, it's done all the time--but rather a matter of finding the "cohesion" between the different themes!

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    3. Well, I think I solved the problem.

      I went ahead and included my cat themed Cinquain, Tanka, Haikus, and Limericks, 9 short pieces altogether, plus another poem.

      This gives me 30 pieces in all.

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  4. i like that you use the number 1 to 5 system. i should have used that years ago! and the spaghetti system cracks me up!

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    1. The number system is one that I actually semi-stole from working on a lit mag editorial staff; we'd rate submissions 1 (must include) 2 (maybe) or 3 (absolutely not), which made us very selective! I like the 1-5 method because it gives a little more leeway.

      As for the spaghetti system ... well it's just remarkably fun :)

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  5. I'm so excited! Not only am I learning some organizational skills, but I get to have fun doing it! Yay! This is great. Thanks, Khara!

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    1. Thanks, Linda! If I were to hope this could be anything more than helpful, I would hope this challenge can be fun! :)

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  6. No way do I have 30 pages of finished pieces that will cram into even the broadest definition of a theme, so the overhaul (which was not a temptation, believe me) is a necessity. I have managed to convince me not to use too many of those.

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    1. Combining themes is also always an option, or revamping a theme to be a bit broader, to open up the spectrum of what gets included. There are a ton of great ways to "play the system" ... I hope you have fun exploring them!

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  7. Finally finished the sorting phase. Scrivener is helpful for dealing with large numbers of poems - I have close to 300 Momaiku. Being able to lay them out visually made the process easier.

    After going through the mess, and organizing them into themes, I Found a number of redundancies (eek!). Not only will this help me put the collection together, it's a good resource for the blog going forward.

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    1. Scrivener just sounds better and better. Congrats on getting all organized, Jeannine, and good luck as you move forward-- it sounds like you have a lot of fun things ahead!

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  8. I've found some of my poems fit in multiple themes. I have a series of prose poems based on my mushing days and a few of them also fit nicely in work and religious themes. It could be that my themes are too broad but we'll see.
    I also found several poems I placed in a folder marked "Orphans: poems without a home" that as yet have no or only one or two thematic dancing partners. Another folder reads, "Buns in the oven" those conceived but not yet popped.

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    1. I love the idea of a "buns in the oven" file! That's so clever. As for the poems that fit into multiple themes ... I can't wait to see how you play with that.

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