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 have been thinking lately about traditional storytelling, experimental writing, narrative and anti-narratives. In a few threads here and on other sites, I’ve seen discussions alluding to narrative fatigue—a weariness for stories containing traditional elements like plot, exposition, linearity, etc. Experimentation is a vital thing so this is not a condemnation of experimentation but rather, a bit of appreciation for the traditional story.
My favorite story (though I enjoy all kinds of writing) is told simply and without artifice, one where I turn the page and can’t wait to see what happens next, where the characters are interesting and well-developed and where I am invested emotionally. I love reading something so great that I want to find everything that person has ever written immediately.
I was reminded of my love for a good story when I read Scott McClanahan’s Stories II, a collection of short stories completely stripped of any bullshit. From front to back, the author’s voice was clear, charming and genuine and it was one of the most refreshing, satisfying books I’ve read in recent memory. As I put the book down I thought, “That’s how it’s done.”
Paper Cuts has a Living With Music playlist by graphic journalist Joe Sacco, on the occasion of his new book Footnotes in Gaza.
And I’ve got a short double-review of two books about New York: Normal People Don’t Live Like This by Dylan Landis, and Ten Walks/Two Talks by Jon Cotner and Andy Fitch, over at Time Out New York.