March 11th, 2011 / 2:34 pm
Craft Notes

The Chemistry of Things: Shaping a Short Story Collection

I am trying to find the right shape for a short story collection. The more I try to put together a cohesive body of work, the more I realize that organizing a short story collection is a matter of chemistry, of finding the perfect combination of elements that will create new matter. Even though my collection is largely out of my hands at this point, the shape of it has been in flux. I’m also trying to figure out what work to collect for a second and third collection so I’m looking both forward and backward. I wish there was some kind of instruction manual for this. When I first began assembling my full length collection, I had no idea what I was doing. I still feel that way. Part of the problem is that I have a lot to choose from. I’ve been writing and publishing since 1999, using four different names. Most of my earlier work wouldn’t be appropriate for a collection of the sort I am trying to assemble but it’s still there and some of it still worth considering.

I keep coming back to the same questions. What stories should I include? In what order should I place the stories? Why am I making these choices? How do I want readers to feel while they’re reading the collection? And after? How do I make readers fall in love with the book? How do I make them see what I’m trying to say? On the one hand, I could arrange a collection by theme because there are a few dominant themes in my writing but would that make the collection too uneven, not diverse enough in tone? I could arrange a collection with stories that all have female narrators or male narrators or that are written in the first person or second person. I could take a kitchen sink approach (my first attempt) to try and demonstrate the range of my writing. I just don’t know.

I’ve always known which story would be the last story in the book. It’s the title story, one of the longest stories, one of the most intense stories. My philosophy has been that if I know where the collection ends, I simply have to find a way to lead the reader to that place. I’m hoping the current version accomplishes this. My first attempt at collecting my work included 37 stories which, in retrospect, was maybe not the best choice because that’s overwhelming. That’s a lot of stories but many of these stories are quite short so it did make sense that there would be a good number of stories included. I was also thinking about how much I loved each story, not in an arrogant way but rather in that I enjoyed writing each story, and I was pleased with how each story turned out, and I wanted to share those stories. Still, looking at that Table of Contents now, I can see that the mix of stories is a chaotic mess. There are too many similar stories. There are dark stories mixed with funny stories which could be fine but I don’t think they’re arranged in such a way that the combination can work. There are only a couple stories from the male point of view and so those really stand out inconsistently. Finally, most of my stories are really sort of subtle and not very plot-focused so it’s a lot of expository writing and I think it can work but not in the way I have those stories arranged. I had to go back to the drawing board. The current, revised version about to go out into the world has fifteen stories, mostly longer  in the Internet sense of length and two stories 7,500 words or longer. There is a little more focus and I took a more thematic approach even though it does make for a collection darker in tone. All the stories are written from the women’s POV because the male POV stories in the original draft just don’t feel like they belong with this group of stories. I tried to mix expository stories with a few plot-based stories (well, within the context of my writing). I tried to include a nice variety of ideas and circumstances. I’m feeling pretty excited about the shape of this collection. There, for me, seems to be a better chemistry. What’s killing me is that I feel like so much of my best work is still being left out. I can save work for other collections so I need to stop stressing about this but I have this nagging, irrational sense that this is my only shot, that I need to get it as right as possible, that I need to share everything. That, clearly, is what lead me astray with the first attempt.  And of course, I could be completely off base about how I’ve arranged the work here. I thought the first draft was good, too.

Last month, on her blog, Dylan Landis talked through how she assembled her collection of linked stories, Normal People Don’t Live Like This, after serving on a panel on that topic at AWP.  She wrote of how Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine was a good source of inspiration and guidance, saying, “Sometimes, when you are in dire need of a craft lesson, one book opens itself up like a flower for your inspection, and for me, that book wasLove Medicine.” I couldn’t agree more. For the past year or so, I’ve been reading short story collections over and over, trying to find  my way to being able to put together a strong short story collection, trying to find that ideal combination of stories, the right chemistry, so I can look at my collection and know, in my gut, I have a book people will want to read. I thought I would share the books that helped me shape my collection (or what I hope ends up being my collection or something like it):

Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, Danielle Evans
The Bigness of the World, Lori Ostlund
American Salvage, Bonnie Jo Campbell
The Brutal Language of Love, Alicia Erian
Normal People Don’t Live Like This, Dylan LAndis
Airships, Barry Hannah
The Physics of Imaginary Objects, Tina May Hall
On the Nature of Human Interaction, Karl Iagnemma
If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, Robin Black
Break Any Woman Down, Dana Johnson
Daddy’s, Lindsay Hunter
Big World, Mary Miller
If You Lived Here, You’d Already Be Home, John Jodzio

How do you think about organizing your collected works? What books do you look to as guides toward that end? What do you look for or want to see in the collections you read?

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  1. Mike Parish

      Seems like organizing it around an author’s collection which you enjoyed is a good way to go. Or maybe even a favorite music album. Break those things down and figure out why you like them and why whoever put them together put them together the way they did.

      Short story collections don’t seem to lend themselves to being too long, unless this is going to be the Ultimate Roxane Gay Compilation Reader. Might be a good idea to make two or three separate collections (or five or six) and make the covers similar and put them out as a box set. Or maybe one collection out of the 37 would be the strongest idea.

      Once you start thinking about it too much the whole idea of putting it together is daunting and loses spontaneity; you’ve got to try and do it without thinking about it too much. Sometimes the more you try to shape this kind of thing the more it loses shape.

      Having an ending in mind seems like a pretty solid start though. Find one other story that works well with that last one. And then another that works well with those two. Think about it part by part instead of imagining the final product. Since you don’t really know what you’re making you’ll have to discover it along the way.

      In the end, if it turns out only 7 of your stories work well together, wouldn’t that be more compelling than 20 or 28 that don’t?

  2. Lincoln Michel

      This is right up my current alley, as I’m struggling with most of the same issues in my collection (I also have about 37 stories). Writing my own essay on it as well.

      I find it interesting that you say the male stories stand out in a bad way. I actually felt I really needed to include female POV stories to balance things. But maybe you just mean there are too few male ones.

      My personal issue is that I really enjoy story collections that move through a lot of different territory and try different things in regards to length, structure, surrealism/realism, plot, etc. Most of my favorite collections fit this mold. However, it seems that most readers (or at least publishers) seem to prefer repetitive, narrow collections that hammer out a distinct niche for the writer.

      I think about the order of the stories a lot. My thinking is similar to how I used to do mix-tapes. Although, at the same time, I do wonder how relevant order is in a story collection. Do most readers actually read a story collection straight through in a short span of time? Or do they hop around or pick up the collection now and then to read a story or two at a time?

  3. darby

      I’ve yet to put much effort into building a collection, despite having more than enough material. I have a hard time with finding an intention other then just to have a collection exist. What are people’s motivations for building collections? I only now am thinking about it with a series of stories I’ve written recently that are exploring a particular process, but it always feels wrong to me to try to force singular works that I never intended to be collected into a collection.

  4. Roxane

      Hi Lincoln. The male POV stories just didn’t seem to fit. When I looked back, it was really jarring and I thought those stories would work better in a different collection. I too enjoy collections with range. Matt Bell’s How They Were Found did this really well, I think. I also enjoy collections from one POV. Adam Gallari’s We Will Never Be as Beautiful As We Are Now, for example, has all male protagonists (if I remember correctly) and it just made sense and was a really elegant set of stories. Order is really my current obsession. How do you pace a collection? How do you tell a story with stories?

  5. Mike Meginnis

      I have enough material for a collection but when I try to build one it goes badly. I have this Word file where I combine stories in various orders and remove them and stuff and I never feel like it makes sense as a book.

      I do have a collection I am intentionally writing toward, however, about which I am extremely excited.

  6. Steve

      That’s been the big question for me, too, Darby. I’ve never any earnest effort into assembling or publishing a collection because whenever I start thinking on it I feel like I have too many stories exploring similar terrain which would make for a one-note collection. Or else stories that are so disparate that there’s no through line except — as you put it — “an intention other then just to have a collection exist.” I have a cycle of stories that were conceived as a set, and I’d like to see those published in a collection, but I don’t have much desire to collect my stories not written to be read together.

  7. Roxane

      Good question, darby. I personally feel like a lot of my writing is in conversation and so it makes sense for me to bring my work together. I’ve also recently started writing toward collections with a couple different projects and it’s interesting to see how deliberately writing toward something with each story is shaping the stories themselves.

  8. Jac Jemc

      “How do you tell a story with stories?”

      Something about just that question is really wonderful and helpful to me.

  9. Tim Jones-Yelvington

      The sequence in HOW THEY WERE FOUND is just scary brilliant, I think. Like, you’re thinking, this level of stylistic variation should not be able to exist in the same collection, and yet it’s per.fucking.fect. Just like, segue segue segue BAM. …I think Matt said he agonized over the order, and reread the entire collection almost every single day for a while.

  10. Tim Jones-Yelvington

      This, the conversation thing. Some stories acquire whole new readings in juxtaposition with one another — like when somebody who read my chapbook and gave me feedback said this to me: “For what it’s worth, all of the sections prior led to my thinking about [X story] (which I remember from [X magazine]) in a somewhat different light — less as a phenomena of our times, more as a marker of [chapbook character’s] life. I’m usually jaded about Oh Yeah I’ve Read That Before, so to my mind that means there’s momentum in the configuration.”

      And also — I know how I am as a reader, how I only read a fraction of what I would like to be reading in literary journals, whether online or off, and so when a collection by a writer I ahve really enjoyed comes out — like Lindsay Hunter’s last year — I am thrilled by the opportunity to have a more immersive experience with their shit.

  11. KKB

      Think of Steve Almond’s first collection, My Life in Heavy Metal. On his site he’d listed all of his published stories and I lost my mind. In that year alone not only had he easily published more stories than appeared in his collection, but he’d published at more or less the same rate each year for the last five years. It was nuts! But his book is much much much much better for having been ruthlessly pared down.

      Love Medicine is practically a novel, and each story acts so much as a chapter that the category of novel or collection becomes irrelevant. If this is your model, then the arc of the book’s plot should dictate which story goes where. You’re dealing with something bigger than each individual piece.

      But if you go Almond’s route, then ruthlessly pick your best (or in his case, sexiest) individual pieces regardless of POV or topic or length, and then match them end-to-end along whatever emotional through-line the stories announce. Because even if some readers won’t read the collection straight through, some will.

      I like to do an actor’s exercise where you simplify and write down the subtext of the scene in order to guide yourself. You could do this with each story’s ending, and then match them up.

      Either way, the stories will end up in conversation with one another, so act like a party host and get that party started! And when I go to a party or hang out with friends, somehow the mood seems like the main point. Much more so than whether or not everything’s in place. And more so, often, even than the content of the night.

  12. karltaro

      i am letting my editor decide. but I hold a veto which she can over-ride once in the making of the collection. this method may come as a surprise to her.

  13. darby

      thats a good way of saying it, that your writing is in conversation, that it can all lend to a bigger conversation, that’s fair. Probably because I don’t think of my writing as lending to any conversation I’m aware of that I have trouble culling a collection from it.

  14. deadgod

      Dubliners is a superb example of a sequence of stories marked by stand-alone effectiveness which detonate in unexpected ways through this organization.

  15. Rion Amilcar Scott

      I’m putting together a collection right now and my only guides are Dubliners and my obsessions. Joyce’s progression in Dubliners goes from youth through maturity. As far as my obsessions, for whatever reason, I’m obsessed with maturation and the tension between natural age and emotional age (as Joyce must have been). So for me, ordering this book is very easy. I either observe the emotional age or chronological age of the protagonists and order it that way. That means there are some gaps and I have to write stories to fill those gaps. That also means, stories not dealing with that sort of motion just won’t make the collection.

      And the shitty stories don’t make it either.

  16. Craig Davis

      I can not recall a single short story collection I have read in order, and I read probably 2 short story collections for every novel I read. To me, the story is the primary form on showcase. The book is a not a form so much as a vessel.

  17. Kevin Sampsell

      When publishing someone else’s collection, I try to pick the strongest stories but also want to show a range sometimes. In Chelsea Martin’s first book, I wanted a bunch of her styles represented, so it’s kind of a crazy collection. With Claudia Smith’s chapbook though, I tried to keep the stories in a more contained mood because she’s so good at writing sad and understated.
      My last collection, Creamy Bullets, was published by Chiasmus and the stories are grouped in three sections mostly determined by size: Small, Medium, and Large. So you got to read all the short flash stuff first. I’m not really sure if that was a successful way to do it though. That book is, in the editor’s words, “kind of a big messy sandwich.”

  18. MFBomb

      And I wonder how many of those stories were published individually prior to the book’s publication? “Dubliners” feels like a “book” to me–not a “collection.” You can tell Joyce wrote most of those stories as part of a larger sequence from the start, like a novel.

      There’s so much pressure now for writers, esp. young writers, to amass publishing credits that they can lose sight of the book.

      How liberating would it be to approach 10 stories like 10 novel chapters, without worrying about making sure that each story is “self-contained” enough to be published in a lit journal that two people will read–to just write the damn collection as a whole sequence first without worrying about publishing the stories individually at the same time? Because to do the latter, you often have to stop thinking about the book to make changes to individual stories to fit journals. Maddening.

      This is why, I think, more writers (such as myself) are writing “novels-in-stories”–it frees one to focus on finishing the book rather than worrying about finishing stories to fit lit journals and the book at the same time. While the writer might publish a few of the stories as they will appear in the book, he can still tell himself that he’s writing a novel.

  19. Whatisinevidence

      When I make mixtapes, I put the songs in order by length. Since I often put short sounds and stuff in, the beginning of the mix might be six or seven ~10 second long sound things.

      A story collection ordered by length of story would be cool.

  20. mimi

      I consider all of Joyce to be the most awesome of progressions, a coming into being and a becoming, a Big Bang Theory. And like “the natural world”, there is awesomeness at every order of magnitude.

  21. mimi

      Also, I like the organization/progression of Christine Schutt’s “A Day, A Night, Another Day, Summer”

  22. Rion Amilcar Scott

      From what I understand, Joyce wrote all of Dubliners as a unit, except for The Dead which he wrote while sending the book around and amassing rejections.

      I love, love the novel-in-stories form. It’s much better when it’s written that way as an aesthetic choice and not, “hey I’m gonna change the name of a character in each story so that I can sell this piece of crap collection as a story.” But I think that’s a different post.

      Funny, I always think of Dead God and MFBomb as the same person. I get their comments mixed up in my head. Weird, because theu have such different styles. Funny to see one reply to the other,

  23. Laura van den Berg

      I agonized over this a lot. Still don’t know if I got it right.

  24. MFBomb

      “It’s much better when it’s written that way as an aesthetic choice and not, “hey I’m gonna change the name of a character in each story so that I can sell this piece of crap collection as a story.”


      Agreed. The form, in many ways, can be more natural and fitting for today’s world: more collage-like, more fragmented, more non-linear.

      An example in my current project: I recently wrote the first story, then I wrote a prose poem about an image in the first story. The form seems to allow for other forms not named by itself: vignettes, lists, prose poems, and other textual gestalts.

  25. Lincoln Michel

      I think there can definitely be freedom to not worrying about individual story publication and, especially in collections of shorter work, some pieces can simply work in a collection in a way they can’t in a journal. Of course, the opposite is true as well. And when we are talking about conventional-length fiction, I think many if not most readers read about one story at a time, so they are still reading the stories as individual self-contained units.

  26. Lincoln Michel

      Order is key, but there are so many concerns. How do you tell a story with the overall collection? How do you tell a story between stories paired together? Do two stories with similar themes need to be separated to be individually more impactful? Or will the two stories play off each other in interesting ways by being put side by side? How many stories do you need to move from dark to light? etc. etc.

      I think order is very important on one hand, although I do again start wondering if it matters that much when readers likely don’t sit down and read collections from start to finish in a few consecutive sittings. For that reason, I do wonder if order gets increasingly important the shorter the stories are (which is to say, the more likely someone is to read them in batches)

  27. mimi

      . . . and sometimes there’s a glitch in the matrix . . .

  28. Lincoln Michel

      That’s really not a bad idea actually.

  29. deadgod

      I’m pretty sure that, as Rion says, the stories in Dubliners were written with supervisory calculation as to their relations to each other and cumulative effect.

      Two things: firstly, this attention to things outside of each story doesn’t diminish the quality of writing in each story; it’s not like one senses compromises made in the effectiveness of some particular story so that a later piece is more surprising (say). And secondly, each story can stand alone; many of them do, in anthologies, course reading lists, and so on. The unity and coherence of the set – its group identity – isn’t achieved at the expense of some part that was needed in spite of its weakness. (- like when a record has a couple of lousy songs – power ballads, say – because someone convinced the band that the collection needed to be ‘paced’ in this way.)

      So, while Dubliners is consistent in place and tone and mood – “paralysis” – where Ulysses is a riot of styles and moods, I’d reserve “novel” for the latter, on account of the unity of plot that it maintains. I guess that’s a pretty conventional privileging of one aspect of prose storytelling to hang a grab-bag category like “novel” on . . .

      “Novel-in-stories” is a better fit, in my view, for Winesburg, Ohio or The House on Mango Street.

      Writers like Munro seem comfortably to tell stories that are complete after 15-25 pages, and after a few years, there’s ten or so of the stories, and there’s your ‘collection’ – a genuine collecting of inwardly separate things (except that they’re all written by Munro, or whomever).

      Whether one is concentrating on the whole when writing its parts, or writing each part independently: definitely, one is best off not trying to please two masters – and if you get a book that is only published in parts after the whole is present, and people disagree about whether it’s a “novel” of some kind or a collection of stories, then you’ll be pleased that you’ve written for yourself first, and not any dubious publication model.

  30. Roxane

      You got it right.

  31. DeWitt Brinson

      I like the idea of structuring the book around your pseudonyms, giving each name a life story, and using the stories that name wrote as a way to express who they are.

  32. DeWitt Brinson

      Also, if you have enough, why not make two books or start on the second with the stories you can’t in include in the first book? Maybe some of your fear would subside because they are already being given a book home?

      Anyway, I like you and I think you’ll do real well.

  33. MFBomb

      Good post, DG. I can see how my points about the novel-in-stories fit books like Winseburg, Ohio and House on Mango Street more than Dubliners.

  34. MFBomb

      Yeah, I think I was using my comment to defend my own aesthetic and its relationship to my current project.

      House on Mango Street
      The Pink Institution
      Maude Martha
      The Things They Carried
      Other Electricities


  35. Alexander Lumans

      Even if the reader only tackles one story per sitting, you can look at the first word of one story and the last word of another story and see if you like their connection/contrast. Because there’s still resonance from the last story, especially the last line/word. And it gets reinforced if the reader goes back and rereads the story, whenever. Unfortunately, I think this works more for poetry collections because you can stream several poems together in one go.

      But I like the idea of telling the stories in the order of introducing people at a party. Do you want to start out with creepy Uncle Carl who’s pretty quiet and likes to draw miniature dinosaurs on the undersides of tables, or with the most talkative person in the room who happens to be already handing you a drink and holding a roman candle in her teeth?

  36. Ross McMeekin

      Thanks for writing about this!
      I recently read a helpful essay on the subject. It’s called “Stacking Stones: Building a Unified Short Story Collection” by David Jauss, and it’s in his craft book Alone With All That Could Happen. I think it also appeared in Writer’s Chronicle at some point. Thought I’d toss that into the mix.

  37. Dylan

      I love Stones for Ibarra, by Harriet Doerr; it adds up to a novel, so it may not help with the problem of assemblage–but it might inspire one to look for an arc of some other, thematic kind.
      This post also makes me want to reread (again) Pia Ehrhardt’s beautiful, disturbing collection Famous Fathers and think about how she ordered those stories.
      And I really second you, Roxane, on Robin Black’s If I Loved You I Would Tell You This. Exciting to be assembling a collection!

  38. GUEST