Organising a story collection (with Tania Hershman)

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.

These pressures can lead to several reactions -

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?"

See Also

Discussion points

Tim Love
Mar 2009