October 23rd, 2012 / 11:00 am
Craft Notes

How NOT to Put Together a Short Story Collection

I have this short story collection called May We Shed These Human Bodies that just came out from Curbside Splendor, and I think probably the thing people ask most often about it is “how do you put together a short story collection?” And honestly, I have no fucking clue. But I can tell you that this version of the collection, the version that Curbside Splendor picked up, is probably the tenth version of this collection. It has had other names, other stories, other orders and versions, has been longer or shorter, and at one point in its long history of rejection sat in my laptop’s trash for four months. It has been rejected or ignored by nine publishers in its various forms. So what I can tell you, judging by my own experience only, is how NOT to put together a short story collection – at least, if you want it to be published.

DO NOT say to yourself, Well, I’ve got a lot of stories now, so I guess it’s time to shove them all into a manuscript and send it around. This is not a good reason to compile a short story collection. Are your stories good? Do they complement each other in some way? Do they reflect the very best of your writing? Then by all means, go to it. But be aware: selling a short story collection is very difficult. Editors like novels. Some presses only publish novels. This doesn’t meant that you won’t be able to sell your collection but do not think that this will be an easy task. As a short story writer, you already have an uphill battle to fight. If you’re working on a novel, or have a fantastic idea for a novel, it might be better to just do that instead. If, like me, you are deep-in-your-soul a short story writer, then I am sorry for you and glad for you. Just be prepared for a long slog.

DO NOT treat your story collection like a mix tape. Please dear god no stop do not do this. I followed this advice, or tried to follow it, because I heard it over and over again. I think writers repeat it because they want their book to be as cool as an album. Look. Stories are not songs. Trying to figure out how to make your book like a mix tape will drive you crazy (long short long? Two depressing stories and an upbeat one?) and will be, in the end, completely useless to you. If you really, really like the idea of a mix tape, go and make one for your friend or lover or sibling and get it off your chest. Then go back to compiling your book.

DO NOT include every single piece of shit you’ve ever written in your collection. If your story collection is too short without it, then guess what? You don’t have enough material for a collection yet. No filler. Be selective. I even had to cut some of my favorite stories out of my book because they just didn’t fit anywhere, so they eventually had to come out. I’m sure my stubbornness about that cost me a few publishers at least.

DO NOT send a book full of only short shorts to a publisher. Unless that is all you write, of course, and then I cannot help you. I’ve written a lot more flash fiction than I have longer stories, but have you noticed? People who aren’t writers hate flash. Which is most of the people who you want to buy your book. So if you want to fill your collection up with a lot of flash fiction (and mine has a lot) you have to a) balance that shit out with some longer pieces and b) be prepared for readers to ignore all your flash and only love your longer pieces. Sorry, but that’s just the way it is.  Don’t believe me? Talk to your non-writer friends and family and ask them what they think of page-long, two-page-long stories. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

DO NOT misspell the first word of your first sentence of your first story in your collection, and force the poor publisher rejecting you to inform you of this problem. Did this happen to me? Yes, yes it did. And by “happen to me,” I mean, “I was a fucking dumbass who thought I could catch all my own mistakes while writing.” Don’t let this be you. Use Spellcheck for the love of all things holy and good.

DO NOT save the best for last. Save the best for first. Put every single “best” story in the beginning. Frontload that motherfucker and then frontload it some more. Great story, great story, great story, great story – keep them hooked and don’t let them read anything less than your best until at least halfway through. In fact, let all of the stories be your best. Keep pushing the reader in, not letting up, and end on a high note, too. This is another good reason to include only the best stories in your collection. People are distracted and fidgety. Haven’t you heard? We are all A.D.D. now. We are all caught up in the speed of the tubes. Don’t give people a reason to stop reading. Don’t sell that collection until everything in it is the best goddamn thing you’ve even written. And even then, cut the weakest best. Cut more. Write better. Cut more. Write best. Then send it out. Then cross your fingers and toes. Then hope for the best and prepare for the long, slow wreck of the worst.

What about you guys? What have you all learned not to do when compiling a collection of short fiction? How about the poets out there? Non-fiction writers? What rules of the road do you guys try to follow?


  1. A D Jameson

      “DO NOT save the best for last. Save the best for first. Put every
      single “best” story in the beginning. Frontload that motherfucker and
      then frontload it some more.”

      That is especially good advice.

  2. Grant Maierhofer

      I wouldn’t have a lot to say about compiling my own collection of short fiction, but all the same this was an extremely informative/enjoyable read. I’m just now reading Lethem’s ‘The Ecstasy of Influence’ and I think with established names like that there’s much more leniency as far as filler’s concerned. I feel like a few things just didn’t need to be in there. I felt the same reading Auster’s ‘Hand to Mouth’ when the bulk of the book is simply a play, a layout for some card game he came up with, and a detective novel that isn’t nearly as good as the actual detective novels he shortly thereafter felt comfortable throwing his namesake on. This, however, is probably the publisher’s effect on the work more than anything. A fresh slant you’ve made on the old ‘kill your darlings’ routine as it relates to collections. It’s tempting to believe everything written has substance or weight or will find its place in a book someday but the facts say otherwise and being able to criticize your own work early on seems a good idea not just for compiling collections but writing in general, writing anything.

  3. Amber Sparks

      Thanks, Grant! I think that’s true about the filler with the establishment types – same thing in music, right? Way too much crap stuffed into an album because they know it will sell no matter what. Yeah, I found myself having trouble while I was trying to order the stories, because I kept trying to sort of bury the stories I didn’t like that much anymore. And then I went, oh, RIIIIIGHT…why would I bury a story (as if no one will notice it off in the corner of the book) rather than just axe it because who wants to read it if I don’t?

  4. Amber Sparks

      Hey, thanks, AD. I think the other good thing about that, besides making your story collection better, is that it makes you write more. Because you realize, oh, wait – I need more “best” stories. I need to be better. And then you write better. At least that’s how I seem to work best.

  5. Richard Thomas

      “DO NOT say to yourself, Well, I’ve got a lot of stories now, so I guess
      it’s time to shove them all into a manuscript and send it around.” oops. also, love the idea of frontloading. that makes total sense. way more than saving the best for last.

  6. deadgod

      No filler.

      Compiling one’s story anthology and editing paragraphs and sentences are members of a pretty tightly defined species, right?

      “No filler. Be selective.” is circular: –What is “filler”? I mean, on what principles should I ‘select’ out? –Anything not necessary. –Well, if I were sure of that

      –but that’s editing: what’s needed? what works? what do you want the thing to do??

      “DO NOT save the best for last.” means ‘Short answer: there are no short cuts.’ – especially in the case of sufficing oneself.

      ‘Be ruthless with yourself.’ is the entelechy of all advice.

  7. David James Keaton

      i mix-taped the shit out of mine. also saved the “best” for last. mostly because it’s twice as long, and because it concludes threads from other stories. to be fair, i also totally mix-taped this comment, right down to a hidden track. (true story)

  8. Grant Maierhofer

      Definitely. With short fiction already in a place where people just love speculating as to its fate or longevity it’s a great relief to read a piece like this and understand that there’s still a serious weight to this style of writing both for the writer and the reader. Makes me want to sift through all the shit I’ve written over the years, maybe not. Either way, well done and I look forward to reading the book.

  9. Amber Sparks

      ooh, now I’d be all for hidden tracks. That’s a different animal altogether.

  10. Mike Zapata

      intentions, and helpful, but too much of what we talk about when we talk about
      writing is ‘how to sell’ ‘how to package’ etc. The abyss of ‘heaven’ and
      the abyss of ‘hell’ still and always remain most important. An amazing
      72 year old writer once told me this about how to write short story
      collections: Read Chekhov. Read Borges. Get the hell to work. (I have not yet gotten the hell to work though)

  11. A D Jameson

      I wholeheartedly agree.

  12. Grant Maierhofer

      I’m fairly certain the desired effect was reached, because I’m now obsessing about short stories and compiling some sort of a collection. Thanks for that, thank you very much.

  13. Josephine Rowe

      Strumming my pain, Amber: ‘People who aren’t writers hate flash. Which is most of the people who you want to buy your book.’ But even so, I’d encourage building a little fort out of Alex Epstein, Richard Brautigan, Sam Shepard, Lydia Davis and Yasunari Kawabata collections, and then playing for the players. Sales are nice, sure, but writing in the form you love is better (did anybody come here for the money?). It might just take a little longer to find a publishing house who are bats enough to sign you.

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  15. James DiGiovanna

      Can you explain the mix-tape analogy a little more? I’m slightly unclear on what you mean by that.

  16. Alex Pruteanu

      It took me literally laying out each story in hardcopy form on the floor of my house, starting by covering the entire living room/dining room floorspace, then moving into one bedroom (there are 50 pieces in my upcoming collection). I spent a good week looking at the placement of each in relation to the others, and to the overall theme of the book itself (the book is called “Gears”), constantly re-arranging and then thinking about placement and vibe and thread again. I have both flash pieces and true short stories in the collection. I think they are balanced nicely, so a reader will catch the vibe and ride it…sort of like a surfer catching that one good wave, but then continuing on and on….sometimes transferring to smaller waves, other times hitting the big ones, but the transitions all work to give him/her a smooth ride all the way to the shore/beach, where they’ll find a big pow for a closer. I chose the longest story to close the collection not for the “wow factor” but for the subject matter: morality, religion, and the reconciliation of both by a character involved in a strange, some may say, immoral field of business or career (a body removal company of losing Russian Roulette players). I felt that this particular subject matter was a good way to close the collection because it would leave a reader with a decision to make; a tough-ish decision that takes into consideration difficult circumstances and complex moral issues.

      Will this work? I don’t know, I hope so. The book comes out in January ’13 from Independent Talent Group Publishing. We’ll see if people dig it. Thanks for this article, Amber. I enjoyed it and the comments below.

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  18. Richard Grayson

      I had my first three hardcover short story collections published — all over 30 years ago — by sending publishers about 100 uncollected stories that had appeared in literary magazines and anthologies and letting them pick the ones they thought would make a good collection together. Admittedly, each of the three publishers contacted me first, asking if I had a collection. I had never tried to put one together on my own. Actually, my fourth and last hardcover collection in 1996 was published the same way, except I queried the publisher first. I don’t recommend this and am not even sure it is possible to do today.

      I didn’t even send anyone a typescript, only photocopies of the stories as they looked in print in the magazines. I guess they were all “accidentally” published. This is the lazy writer’s way of doing it. The books may not have been great — the first got reviewed in the L.A. Times (daily review) and Rolling Stone (two sentences) and lots of other places; the second got reviewed in about 10 newspapers and magazines; the third and fourth got reviewed in the N.Y. Times Book Review, and the third got “highly recommended” from Library Journal. All of them got reviewed by LJ, PW, and Kirkus, which pretty much reviewed everything back then. Each editor selected at least one or two stories I thought were terrible even at the time, and I shudder when I think about them being in a book.

      I don’t envy younger short story writers today. As in just about everything else, we baby boomers had it much easier. You could get published and reviewed so easily even if you were mediocre like I was. A few writers who were even worse than I was got story collections published. Nowadays I imagine only the best of the best short story writers can get their collections published in hardcover with the prestige that that once implied. (Does it still?)

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  21. Tantra Bensko

      I actually had no idea most people didn’t like to read Flash, other than writers! I’d be curious to hear why that’s the case. Why do writers like it? I wonder if on Fictionaut, maybe people favor Flash because they don’t take much time to breeze through and comment on. And maybe authors get more publications to their name if they have lots of short pieces. But I’d assume mostly, authors’ appreciation of Flash is real. Why are writers different from readers in that regard? Do readers feel cheated? Like “I could write that”? or compare it with traditional stories and feel uneasy?

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