Storyville: Tips on Putting Together a Short Story Collection
So you’ve gotten some work published, and you’re trying to figure out if you not only have enough writing for a collection, but how to put the damn thing together. Here are some suggestions on how to make it a compelling, balanced, and powerful read.
Well, it turns out it does matter—to a degree. I’ve seen really thin collections of dense prose that were only 100 pages long, and I’ve seen epic tomes that were 300, 400 pages and longer. Really, it depends on what you have, but I’d suggest that you have at least 40,000 words. Where does this number come from, you ask? I’ve seen a lot of presses that have this as the minimum. Plus, I was just looking at the guidelines for submitting my collection, Staring Into the Abyss, for the Bram Stoker Awards, and guess what the minimum is? Yep—it’s 40,000 words. Any idea how long my collection is? Not 40,000 words, unfortunately. So, learn from my mistake there. Or, make it as long as you want and don’t worry about it. Your audience just wants enough material to dig into, time to get to know your voice, and something with a little meat on the bone. I’ll go pick up several collections at random off my shelves right now—Staring Into the Abyss, 135 pages; Lindsay Hunter’s Don’t Kiss Me, 174 pages; Roy Kesey’s All Over, 144 pages; Craig Davidson’s Rust and Bone, 234; Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners, 297; Benjamin Percy’s Refresh, Refresh, 249; Paul Tremblay’s In the Mean Time, 214; Stephen King’s Just After Sunset, 366.
I know this seems obvious, but don’t just stick every story you’ve ever written into the collection. Read through and only choose the work that really resonates with you. If you read a story and aren’t impressed, leave it out. Maybe you’ve grown since then, or maybe you just don’t like it any more. Whatever the case is, put your best work in—because people are going to tear it apart. They won’t love every story, but at least try to make the collection as strong as possible.
PUBLISHED VS. UNPUBLISHED
Most short story collections are going to consist of writing that has already been published. If you pick up any collection off your bookshelf, you’ll find this to be true. Your collection is a body of work, a way for your fans to read more than one story in one place, one sitting, all together. They don’t want to have to scour the internet, or track down and pay for every obscure journal and magazine you’re in. It can get expensive. Imagine if you have twenty stories in a collection, and each journal or magazine costs $3, that’s $60 to get all of those stories. So don’t feel bad that these are essentially reprints. Only your most loyal fans will have read every story you’ve written in the original publications. I’m a huge Stephen King fan, but that doesn’t mean I rush out to buy every copy of The Atlantic or Esquire or Playboy that he’s in. BUT, if you do want to do something nice for your readers, include one or two original stories, totally new and never seen before. They’ll appreciate the fact that there is new work to be read, and it’ll help to generate a little bit of excitement about your collection.
TONE AND THEME
If you write a wide variety of genres, try to focus on one theme, tone or genre with your collection. If you only write horror stories, then make sure that the horror stories you include work together. Maybe you have several new horror stories that are more literary and subtle and don't fit with your older work. When I was putting together Herniated Roots, my first collection, I chose stories that leaned towards noir. When I put together Staring Into the Abyss, I chose stories that leaned towards horror. I left out my MFA stories, the literary stories I wrote, because they weren’t published yet, and they didn’t fit the theme and voice. I also left out more recent work that was closer to magical realism because it also didn’t fit. Just keep that in mind.
The title of your collection is going to be a great way to wrap it all up and clue your audience in to the theme, POV, focus, genre, and voice. The easy thing to do is give it the same title as one of the stories in the collection, usually the “best” story in the book. That’s what Benjamin Percy did with Refresh, Refresh. The first story in the collection is “Refresh, Refresh.” But a title like Magic for Beginners gives you a hint at what’s coming, so when you dig into Link’s work and get surreal, magical realism, you aren’t surprised. Also, check Amazon to make sure that the title isn’t already taken. It doesn't mean you can’t use it, but why not tweak it and make it original? There was no Transubstantiate when I wrote my first book, and there is no book called Exigencies either, an upcoming anthology I’m editing at Dark House Press.
This may be one of the most important aspects of the collection, but don't sweat it too much, because in the end, your audience may not even notice these subtle choices. And when I say “best” what do I mean? I mean your favorites, I mean the stories that were placed in the best publications, the ones that got nominated (or won) awards, contest winners, the ones your readers kept talking about, all of that.
Here are some things to keep in mind:
1. First and last. I always try to start with one of the best, and end with one of the best. Why? You want to grab your reader and get their attention. If they read a great story first, they will most likely continue. Also, you want to leave them thinking their hard earned dollars were well spent. If the last story is just average, or ends on a weak note, they’ll leave thinking bad thoughts. Why take the chance? Start strong and end strong.
2. Tent poles. This is a theory that I like as well. If you have 21 stories in a collection, and you’re already starting strong and ending strong, why not break up the rest of the collection with your better stories? So, 1 is strong, and 21 is strong, probably your best, then put your next two at 7 and 14. The idea is that whatever is going on, hopefully the reader will put up with a few weaker stories, or more experimental stories, if they keep getting a fix every so often. I know, I know—all of your stories are brilliant. Then just pick your favorites for 1, 7,14, and 21.
3. Length. Mix up the long stories and the short stories. Try to fill in the blanks around the 1, 7, 14 and 21 with a variety of lengths. I try not to put two really long stories back to back. Bookend the 7,000-word story with two flash fictions, perhaps. Just play around with it. I’ve also heard that you should put you longest story LAST, so keep that in mind as well. It’s the story your readers will spend the most time with, so that’s an option, a way to end with some power, a longer connection, some depth.
4. Tone. If you have some really dark stories, maybe follow them up with lighter fare. If you have some really technical science fiction, follow it up with some softer science. If you have some experimental voices and formats, follow them up with more traditional work. Make sense?
5. Frontload. Another approach is to put your better stories in the front. So if you’ve got first and last as your best, and a couple of tent poles, why not put a couple more of your best stories up front? Don’t let the reader slip away. Hit them hard and hit them often, pummeling them into submission—with your words.
Try to keep all of these ideas in mind, but in the end, just have fun with it. Try to imagine the journey your reader is taking. Mix it up—short and then long, up and then down, dark and then light, opening strong and ending strong. Your voice is your voice, and if people love your work, they’ll probably enjoy whatever you put together. Here’s one quick example for you. When I put together Staring Into the Abyss, I did worry that some of the shorter, older stories wouldn’t hold up. But I re-read them and still liked them a lot, so I put them in. And strangely enough, whenever I’ve read the reviews of Staring Into the Abyss, I’m always surprised at what they highlight as the best. Whether it’s the guys at Booked, Horror News or Parable Press, there was at least one story they loved that I worried wasn't good enough. So, who knows what your audience will like, just do the best job you can, and let the chips fall where they may. Good luck!
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