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.

LENGTH

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.

QUALITY

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 UNPUBLISHED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

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.

THE ORDER

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.

IN CONCLUSION

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!

Image of Refresh, Refresh: Stories
Author: Benjamin Percy
Price: $12.97
Publisher: Graywolf Press (2007)
Binding: Paperback, 249 pages
Image of Rust and Bone
Author: Craig Davidson
Price: $5.00
Publisher: Pan Macmillan (2007)
Binding: Paperback, 256 pages
Image of Magic for Beginners
Author: Kelly Link
Price: $24.00
Publisher: Small Beer Press (2005)
Binding: Hardcover, 272 pages
Image of In the Mean Time
Author: Paul Tremblay
Price: $13.06
Publisher: ChiZine Publications (2010)
Binding: Paperback, 280 pages
Image of Staring into the Abyss
Author: Richard Thomas
Price: $14.99
Publisher: Kraken Press (2013)
Binding: Paperback, 136 pages
Richard Thomas

Column by Richard Thomas

Richard Thomas is the award-winning author of seven books: three novels—Disintegration and Breaker (Random House Alibi), and Transubstantiate (Otherworld Publications); three short story collections—Staring Into the Abyss (Kraken Press), Herniated Roots (Snubnose Press), and Tribulations (Cemetery Dance); as well as one novella in The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). With over 100 stories published, his credits include Cemetery Dance, PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Arcadia, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad 2 & 3, and Shivers VI (with Stephen King and Peter Straub). He has won contests at ChiZine and One Buck Horror, and has received five Pushcart Prize nominations to date. He is also the editor of four anthologies: The New Black and Exigencies (Dark House Press), The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. He has been nominated for the Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, and Thriller awards. In his spare time he is a columnist at LitReactor and Editor-in-Chief at Gamut Magazine. His agent is Paula Munier at Talcott Notch. For more information visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com.

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Comments

MattF's picture
MattF from Tokyo is reading Borges' Collected Fictions June 7, 2013 - 1:55am

When I look through any big name/large publisher story collections (the Saunders, Wells Tower, Rash, Heathcock, Miranda July, Claire Watkins of the world), seems 99% (100%?) of their stories have only been previously published in print magazines (in my experience very hard to find any free online prior to the collections release, at least).

Wondering if you have any information on how important this is to some publishers. It's something that's been on my mind a lot in submitting stories that I hope to someday pitch as a collection. I've started to submit to print magazines only, but there's certainly a tradeoff in getting your name out there, being widely read.

Would be curious to hear your opinion on it...

 

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies June 8, 2013 - 9:35am

well, you can definitely target print only magazines. here are a few columns i wrote that i think will help a lot to cover a wide variety of your questions. let me know if there is anything else you are curious about. it's tough to get in print, but there are a lot of great markets out there:

Evaluating Markets: http://litreactor.com/columns/storyville-ten-ways-to-evaluate-fiction-ma...
Why Write Stories: http://litreactor.com/columns/storyville-why-write-short-stories-at-all
Where to Send Your Stories: http://litreactor.com/columns/storyville-where-to-send-your-stories
Research/Duotrope: http://litreactor.com/columns/storyville-research-and-duotrope
Cover letters: http://litreactor.com/columns/storyville-cover-letters-and-bridging-the-gap

MattF's picture
MattF from Tokyo is reading Borges' Collected Fictions June 8, 2013 - 9:43pm

Richard, thanks for the reply. I've followed your column from the beginning--it's probably my favorite on LR.

To be more specific, I was wondering if you had some inside knowledge as to what publishers are looking for in print vs online publications. What makes a collection viable?

For example: 

If I had ten stories, 40,000 words, all in top print publications (or unpublished) it would seem to be an easy pitch.

If I had ten stories, 40,000 words, all in top online (free) publications, it's unlikely a publisher would bother with it.

But is there a line? If I had ten stories, 40,000 words, seven in print and 3 online, would that be a deal breaker? (Or 5 and 5, or 9 and 1?)

There are some amazing online publications (Juked is an example that's recently been mentioned in the forums--they've published SGJ, Aimee Bender, Ron Carlson, Matt Bell, huge names, a top rank credit, and they appear in print and online)--but if your three best stories appeared in Juked, would that hurt your chances of pitching them as the foundation of a collection, despite the quality of the market? (Clarkesworld also comes to mind.)

There's probably no answer to this question, likely case by case, publishing house to publishing house, but it's something that's been on my mind, and I think an important question for anyone aspiring to publish a collection of short stories. I suppose it's less important for more prolific writers, but if you spend months on a single story, it might be an issue.

 

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies June 8, 2013 - 9:50pm

Okay, I see what you're asking.

I tend to think that publishers prefer to reprint stories that were published, but no longer in print. Or, at least, not online for FREE. SO, yes, having all of that work online, while it might NOT be a deal breaker, could hurt you. I know that I've passed on adding authors to anthologies because the stories they offered were online. I've also published stories in anthologies that were online, but I didn't care because they were so awesome. I think some publishers like to have 1-2 stories that are ORIGINAL and never published. Some look at a collection, and think that if HALF are unpublished, why? Weren't the good enough? By having a collection that has the MAJORITY published in the top magazines in the USA, it's almost a testimonial, it's a quality check.

20 stories in the collection: 5 in The New Yorker, 2 in The Paris Review, 2 in Cemetery Dance, 2 in Plougshares, 3 online at Juked, 2 in F&SF, 1 online at ChiZine, 1 in Shock Totem, 1 in Best Horror of the Year (from CD), and 2 unpublished (original to the collection). That looks like a perfect collection to me.

Overall, it comes down to quality. Quality of the writing, quality of the place they are published. George Saunders just had Tenth of December come out and I know a LOT of those were in The New Yorker, which is usually available online for FREE (at least, for a time). But, we're not George Saunders.

Make sense?

MattF's picture
MattF from Tokyo is reading Borges' Collected Fictions June 8, 2013 - 10:41pm

Makes sense, and thanks for the reply.

melmurphy's picture
melmurphy from Spokane is reading "Julian" by Gore Vidal March 10, 2014 - 7:01pm

Very informative. Thanks. :)

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies March 20, 2014 - 9:24pm

thanks, guys!

frence's picture
frence December 14, 2014 - 5:54pm

I think we will get this option in website and it will easy to us to add this function in our program.

attract instagram followers

crimsondawn8794's picture
crimsondawn8794 from Orlando is reading Warriors: Rising Storm August 11, 2015 - 7:53am

I get what this guy is saying and most all of it seems very sound and makes a lot of sense, but why would you put a bunch of already published stories in a collection? I mean I can understand if it was a definitive collection of all your work. But unless that were the case, it just seems lazy to rehash your old work and if I were to pick up a book by one of my favorite authors and see it was just stories I've already read, I wouldn't buy it, because I would feel as if I'd be wasting my money. Just my two cents from a christian-fantasy writer.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies August 12, 2015 - 8:37pm

Crimson, EVERY short story collection is primarily reprints. Pick up any collection on any shelf. Originally, most appear in magazines or anthologies (that's how authors FIRST get paid for the work), and it's tough for fans to keep up with that—and it gets expensive, too. So this gets all of the recent stories by an author and puts them in one book, for a reasonable price. King does it this way, as does every other author. You might get one or two originals in a short story collection. 

Lets look at my upcoming collection, TRIBULATIONS. You'd have to pick up a copy of Cemetery Dance #72, Polluto #9, Arcadia #6, the Booked anthology, the Into the Darkness anthology, Weird Fiction Review #3, Curbside Splendor #3, the Fear the Reaper anthology, One Buck Horror #5, the Nova Parade anthology, the Cipher Sisters anthology, the Truth or Dare? anthology, the Chiral Mad 2 anthology, Litro Magazine (only available in London), Penumbra Magazine V3I11, and the Shadows Over Main Street anthology. Not to mention track down several that were originally online. If you missed those announcements, you missed out, right?

I'm sure you've never heard of some of these publications, and if you had to pay for them all, that's probably about $150. So really, it's a convenience for your readers. I'm a big King fan, and even in my most hardcore days, I missed some stories when they came out. The collections are nice to have, really.