Friday, 14 January 2011

Organising a story collection

Ok, so you've had a few stories published, maybe even won a prize or two. Perhaps it's time you thought about a publishing a book. Though we're not in a golden age of story collections, the situation's not quite as bad as some people claim: Jhumpa Lahiri's debut short story collection, "Interpreter of Maladies", won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and The Short Review lists 96 short story collections published in February in the UK alone, so there's hope yet! Moreover, UK publisher Salt has started The Scott Prize (deadline 31st Oct - 45k words, 18 pounds entry fee) which will lead to publication of up to four more collections. Why not have a go!

But how should you organise your collection? Should you just chuck your best stories together? Probably not. The ordering of the stories needs consideration for a start, but you might want to (or need to) do more than that.

People mention several reasons for the popularity of linked story collections.

  • Writers like them - some authors want to produce unified harmonious work
  • Critics like them - Ra Page noted that "when you get a collection or - even worse - an anthology - all the [critics are] left with is either the anthology's theme, if they're interested, or just to list what's available in this collection, and pick out a couple of highlights."
  • Readers like them - if they're used to anthologies (readers of ghost and Sci-Fi stories in particular are) then they'll be used to the pacing of disconnected stories, but for mainstream readers used to multi-volume series and doorstep best-sellers, by the time they've got to know the characters and location of a story, it's ended, and they have to start all over again. Or at least, that's what the marketing droids lead us to believe.
These pressures can lead to several reactions -
  • A book might be planned from the start as a unified collection - almost an episodic novel. "Pavane" by Keith Roberts, "London" by Edward Rutherfurd or "Accordion Crimes" by E.Annie Proulx might be viewed that way. David Mitchell's interwoven "Ghostwritten" began as 3 separate stories but we worked them into a collection.
  • Pieces may be adapted to fit together better, or keynote stories written to integrate existing pieces. When Hemingway was putting together "In our Time", he read Joyce's "Dubliners" and noted how "The Dead" helped integrate the other works, so he wrote his story "Big Two-hearted river" to do the same for his own collection.
  • Better pieces might not be selected in favour of pieces that fit the collection better. Additionally, the collection can be given a misleading title, with "short stories" not mentioned on the cover.

One would expect a bunch of stories written by the same author over a year or 2 to have things in common. However, if an author doesn't write much the collection might contain decades of experiences and artistic phases. Venessa Gebbie (another author published by Salt) wrote her 1st collection's stories in 3 years - she wrote 200-250 stories in that time though, which may explain the variety of her book.

I think that were Dubliners written today, it would be sold by a major publisher as a novel - we're more tolerant of baggy novels nowadays.

But maybe this trend towards linked stories is on the wane.

Salt author Tania Hershman knows as much about collections as anyone. Not only does her book "The White Road and Other Stories" ("... an author dripping with talent, this is as good as modern reading gets" - New Scientist Christmas Books Special: Best of 2008) bring together a wide range of stories (from 100 words to thousands) but she also runs The Short Review, an excellent (maybe unique?) review site for short story books. Here are her views

Did you feel the need to have a theme for your book?
When I was studying for an MA in Creative Writing in the UK in 2003, I was under great pressure to not write short stories ("they don't sell" blah blah) and if I was going to insist on a short story collection "at least they should have a theme"! I had always wanted to do some kind of science-linked fiction, which isn't science fiction but what I would rather call "science-inspired fiction", so this is what I did: all the stories I wrote for my MA final manuscript were inspired by articles from New Scientist magazine. However, I didn't have quite enough for a book, and I also wanted to include a number of flash stories, very very short stories I have been writing a great deal of since the MA. When Salt accepted my collection, they didn't care at all about a theme or anything, which was very refreshing. Thank goodness for small presses who just love short stories!

What affected the choice of pieces and their order?
I decided to alternate between longer stories and flash stories, I thought it might work like a sort of sorbet, something intense and small, in between courses. There are mixed opinions about this depending on the reader and whether they like flash stories or not. The collection contained all but one of the science-inspired stories I had written, because of space, and pretty much all the flash stories; I am not a writer who produces vast quantities, so didn't have any choice but to include almost everything.
When it came to order, I just couldn't do it myself, I could "see" the stories anymore, couldn't see how a reader might read them all, so I printed them all out and my partner James laid them on the dining table and shuffled them around. There are various themes that emerge when you see them all together, and he ordered them so stories that might be considered similar weren't next to each other, for variety. I wanted the title story to be the first story, and the last story was picked because it echoes some of the themes from the first story, as the ending of a short story should have some resonances of the beginning, I think.

Did you reject some stories merely because they didn't fit?

In the collections you read, do you see a trend towards linked stories?
Nope! I read a short story collection a month, at least, to review in The Short Review, and I don't believe I have read any linked collections since we started, a year and a half ago, and it's not that I deliberately avoid them. There are a few on the site under the category "novel in stories", but very few. Most short story collection these days are published by the wonderful small presses, and they don't buy into the myth that if you pretend a short story collection is a novel, people will buy it. They are happy to proudly shout about short story collections, thank goodness!
To give you an idea, here are how some of the authors we've interviewed on The Short Review answered the question "How did you choose which stories to include and in what order?"
  • Warren Adler (New York Echoes) "I tried to put the stories in some rhythmic order that was purely subjective, trying to place them by judging dark to light, serious to lighter, less irony to heavy irony."
  • Allison Amend (Things that Pass for Love) "There were some practical considerations: start strong and middle strong and end strong. Don't put all the really short ones next to each other. Separate the 'golf stories.' And then [my editor] Gina organized them to her own particular logic. I didn't even ask her for an explanation."
  • Elizabeth Baines (Balancing on the Edge of the World) "I think people rarely read collections from cover to cover like novels - I don't anyway - but I still think order is important: an overall impression is created, and the opening and closing stories, which I think people are most likely to read first, will be taken as pointers to the whole book. Since irony is on the whole my stock-in-trade, I decided to begin with two of the more comic stories, while beginning and ending with two stories which best summed up a main preoccupation of the collection: that of the unacknowledged or surprising viewpoint. It was interesting to see the different ways in which my stories 'talked' to each other according to the order in which I placed the rest of them - creating different rhythms of mood or style or situation. In the end I found a journey through situations and subject matter - stories about adults to stories about childhood and back again via stories about parenting - which also to some extent followed developments of mood and style."
  • Richard Bardsley (Body Parts) "The order was dictated to a certain degree by the structure of body parts I'd chosen, which ran from head to toe, the opposite of the old song, Dem Bones, though I obviously didn't include every single minute part of the body. As for deciding which stories to include, the collection was written at random rather than consecutively, and since I wanted the styles, voices and tone of each one to vary, I went back a few times, had a cull and started again from scratch if successive stories became too repetitive. It all sounds rather calculated but it actually happened quite harmoniously."
  • Nona Caspers (Heavier than Air) "The final book order came from a brilliant friend of mine, Maria Healey. She's also a writer. I didn't know how to order the final stories once the book had been accepted for publication, and she read the manuscript and said - here, try this. I think order is partly intuitive and partly world building and juxtaposition of texture and tone."
  • David Gaffney (Aromabingo) "Me and my editor Jen of Salt press went through everything I had, and selected from there. Jen at Salt is very good at working out the running order - I sometimes wonder whether with very short fiction people dip in and out randomly. It is possible to organise my short fiction much more - I have several stories set in offices, and several in shops, several about relationships, and these could have been put together, but ... .I'm not sure this structuring would add anything."
  • Peter Hobbs (I could Ride All Day in My Cool Blue Train) "Due to the variety of styles I'd been writing in, it did look like it would be a problematic process. More of a mess than a collection. But there were underlying themes that recurred in many of the stories - some of which I was completely unaware of as I wrote - and after we (my editor Lee Brackstone and I) looked at what I had, it became clear we were pretty much agreed on which pieces worked, and the collection itself came together. Once they were collected it began to look almost organic, as though they'd always been designed that way. Ordering them was entertaining - it's an odd art, and was mostly done by instinct."
  • Roy Kesey (All Over) "Somewhere along the line - two or three years ago, I guess - I realized that I was closing in on having enough material for not one collection but two. I went through all of the stories, trying to sort out a way to split them up more or less evenly. None of the usual suspects (time, place, character, theme) stepped forward, so I went back to the matter of form, and ended up splitting the mass down the middle, with the more structurally playful work to one side and the less-so to the other side. The stories in All Over are all from the more-so half. Once that was done, I wanted the book itself to share the same conceit, so after discarding a few stories that no longer seemed quite strong enough to pull their weight, I did what I could to arrange the rest such that no two stories in a row have too much in common in terms of length, form, character, or point of view. That turned out to be a not-quite-possible puzzle, but it was fun work all the same."
  • Paddy O'Reilly (The End of the World) "I decided early to put only first person narrative stories into the book, told by wildly different narrators in wildly different styles. Not just as an indication of my split personality (!) but because one of the joys of writing stories is the freedom to be anyone. I hoped readers would feel that freedom too. As for order, that was a case of looking carefully at how the stories held each other up. Kind of like a string of different objects all tied together and trying to float."

Even experts can have second thoughts. When her book "The Beggar Maid" was at first page-proof stage, Alice Munro withdrew the book at her own expense and substantially rewrote it.

See Also

Discussion points

  • Have you ever been impressed by a collection's organisation?
  • Have you read a "novel" that was really a collection of short stories? Janice D.Soderling replied mentioning "The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan which, though it is called a novel, is actually an intricate weave of short stories from the perspectives of eight women. Each story can be enjoyed completely separate from its mates, but together they give more. Tan even has a kind of index to help the reader keep track of who is who - until we learn to know them.". She also mentioned Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried".
  • Do collections require organising? Don't readers just dip in nowadays, making their own play-lists?
  • I've not seen an author produce a book of stories and poems, though several (Updike, Lasdun, etc) could have. Why is that? And would the reasons apply also to mixing Flash Fiction with longer stories?

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