What’s good, what’s bad and how brutal is it out there? Warning – not for the faint-hearted.
At some point most writers of short fiction will amass a sufficient body of material to consider making a collection of their own work, but what makes a good collection? How do you pull your work together in a way that will appeal to publishers and readers alike? How do you select the best stories to create a coherent collection? Is it enough just to put all the best ones together or is it more than that? What order should they go in? There are many questions to ask yourself when you think you’re ready and not many places to get good advice on this aspect of writing short fiction.
I ask advice on these and other related questions from frequent competition judge and founder of the Times EFG Short Story Award and Word Factory Director Cathy Galvin, and Salt Publishing editor Jen Hamilton-Emery – I hope you find their answers enlightening. They are surprisingly different. Some of these questions were recently put to the great short fiction writer Tobias Wolff in an interview for Paris Review (the link to the full article is at the end of this article) so here are some relevant quotes from a master on the importance of getting the order right and what you might be considering:
How do you go about ordering short stories in your collections?
Can you imagine putting “The Dead” at the beginning of Dubliners? No, you wouldn’t do that. You’re conducting movements and moods with the arrangement of a collection. Having said this, if I go back and look at a book two, three years after I’ve published it, I can’t remember exactly why I ordered it that way. And of course, after all the work writers do to organize their collections of stories or their collections of poems, that work is completely undone by the readers—
—who open it in the middle.
Right, open it in the middle because that story has a grabby title, or because they’re tired and about to go to bed and want to read the shortest piece. Readers skip around in collections, in a way they don’t in novels, obviously—except for those creeps who read the endings first. Let’s say I get a new William Trevor collection. I love his stories about schoolboys, and if the collection has one I’ll read that first. I skip around for the usual reasons: my mood, interesting title, length, all kinds of things. And then, eventually, if it’s a collection I really take seriously, I will read it front to back as the writer intended, trying to understand its form. If it seems thrown together, I won’t devote that kind of care to it. But with a writer like Trevor or Grace Paley I would absolutely pay attention to the order of the stories.
I’m glad you skip around sometimes. Glad to hear you don’t always respect the writer’s designs.
Well, writers need to remember that once the book leaves their hands, it’s not theirs anymore. It belongs to its readers, and its readers will make of it what they will.
When I was putting the stories together for my debut collection Shore to Shore, I originally had twelve stories of varying lengths to include. The collection is loosely linked by theme – the mythology of rivers, but the rivers are there to provide both the emotional and physical settings. The final version has eight stories, the others were rejected for departing from the mood of the others and, as it turns out now I look back – not enough death. When I planned the order of the final selection, I had two long pieces – ‘Cenotes’ (Mexican cave diving) at eighteen thousand words and ‘Sand Tranny’ (the Thames – transvestite river) at fifteen thousand. I knew I couldn’t open with these, so I put ‘Cenotes’ in the middle to form a sort of pivot or peak in the rhythm and ‘Sand Tranny’ at the end to end the book on a high as the ending is upbeat in that one. The opener was a hard choice but in the end ‘Hani’s Baby’ went first – a story set in modern day Karnak on the Nile, which I hoped would be an attention grabber. So far the plan seems to have worked. I do wish I’d included a couple of shorter pieces to use at readings though. I can only read extracts as it is – I’ll know better next time.
The wonderful Cathy Galvin would have saved me from such a lack of foresight ̶ as the director of Word Factory and many time judge she has read more stories and collections than most. She is currently judging this year’s Edge Hill Prize and has previously judged the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered prize and the inaugural short story prizes for The London Magazine and Spread the Word. Her answers are very much from the point of view of pleasing the reader, an important aspect that can be easily lost in the rush to shove our best pieces under one cover.
What do you look for in a good collection of short fiction?
Quality of writing, authenticity and originality, taking emotional or linguistic risks – not what is “on trend” or currently celebrated. Good writing doesn’t need to be perfect and precise but it must be convincing. I confess to a weakness for the poetic in short fiction but not exclusively so.
I find continuing delight in the work of Adam Marek and Will Cohu, spotted when I started the Sunday Times EFG award and feel honoured to have been immersed in the work of David Constantine and Carys Davies as a judge.
As a reader, I want to share some of the time I have left on this planet inside the imaginations of writers who remind me about the fragility, despair, humour and beauty of our humanity – including Chekhov, Joyce, Beckett, some of the authors mentioned already – and I’m determined now to find more in translation.
What makes a great collection is it more than just a string of good stories, or is that enough?
There’s nothing wrong with a string of unrelated, individual stories appearing in a collection so long as that string is taut and what is suspended between the beginning and end of the book confidently holds the reader. Immersion in a variety of different worlds is one of the joys of short fiction.
There has been a recent vogue for collections of linked stories: we are told they are easier to bring to market. Some collections of this kind, I’m thinking of David Vann’s Legend Of A Suicide, which reads very like a novel. A great book.
Yet stories that seem to have no connecting thread throughout a collection but which plunge readers into a multiplicity of lives, landscapes and time-frames are a delight. Carys Davies recently won the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize – a general fiction prize that includes novels and short stories – with an outstanding and eclectic collection, The Redemption of Galen Pike, with not a link between them. This outstanding book also won the Frank O’Connor. And who would dare to question the splendidly varied output of the current American master of the short story, Tobias Wolff?
Readers will respond to great writing: it’s as simple as that. I know when a short story writer has me hooked: they leave me wanting more and the stories feel effortless, authentic and emotionally true whether the style is as spare as Raymond Carver or as ornate as Angela Carter.
Many readers may already have had work published in an anthology and may be considering putting a collection together of their own work. How would you describe the differences, or different requirements for an anthology versus a single author collection?
I’ve just been reading Reader I Married Him, an anthology of short stories inspired by Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, edited by Tracy Chevalier. It’s a wonderful example of how one idea can produce a diverse book of stories that circle a theme and inspire radically different pieces. The benefit of such an anthology is that it can offer great writing by authors you have read and others you are new to – in my case, reading the book was my first introduction to Elizabeth McCracken – who took my breath away. The disadvantage is that the logic of such a big project can fray: some stories will seem to have little to do with the theme.
“Best Of” collections offer different rewards and challenges and are as inspiring as the editor who puts them together. In this respect, Salt has been lucky to have Nicholas Royle these past few years and Penguin lucky to have Philip Hensher.
Overall, I favour the single author collection as a way of sharing precious time with a writer whose mind and skill I want to take pleasure from.
Which are your favourite collections of short stories?
This list could change every day but for now.
Helen Simpson: Cockfosters.
Subtle witness to contemporary female life.
Deborah Levy: Black Vodka
Now labelled a modernist. Whatever the label, she’s one of the best writers of her time.
David Constantine. In Another Country.
Master of the authentic, of the considered line, of the movement of time.
A.L. Kennedy: All The Rage
The best collection of love stories I have read
Anything by Tobias Wolff – and a lifelong love of Edna O’Brien.
Jennifer Hamilton-Emery is a director and fiction editor at Salt Publishing. She was generous enough to share her experience on what an editor will look for and how to approach potential publishers although the list at Salt is currently full.
What do you look for in a good collection of short fiction? What makes a great collection is it more than just a string of good stories?
For me, the important thing is the standard of the stories. Sometimes collections are themed, which is fine, but not essential. It all hinges on the quality of the writing.
Are there differences between flash and longer short story collections?
No, I don’t think so, the same rules apply, but flash more unforgiving. Every word has to work or the story can fail.
How can a writer with a body of work know when their stories work as a collection?
They have to use their own judgement, there are no set criteria.
How would you advise writers to place stories within a collection – best one first or last?
When I’m reading a submission I read the first, second and last stories. If one of more of these don’t work, then the submission is rejected. If these stories are good, I’ll go on to read more. So my advice is, put your best stories in these positions. People want to start and end their reading on a high.
Many readers may already have had work published in an anthology and may be considering putting a collection together of their own work. How would you describe the differences or different requirements for an anthology versus a single author collection?
Anthologies are often themed, so the editor has specific criteria in mind when selecting stories, but single-author collections needn’t be; they can be as eclectic as the author wishes them to be. It is always good to include stories that have been included in previous anthologies or magazines, or won prizes. This shows potential publishers that you have a track record of publishing and that someone else regards your work highly enough to include it in their book.
What are the reader expectations a writer should take into account when selecting and collating work of their own?
People want to read stories that are interesting – strong interesting characters and a compelling story line. Some people like twists in the endings, others don’t. Some like enigmatic endings, others don’t. I’d say the key is to have variety, but underpinned by a high standard of writing.
What are the mistakes you have seen in collections submitted to you?
The most common is having a small number of good stories propping up too many bad ones.
How can a writer know when he/she is ready to make a collection of their own work?
They have amassed a body of work that they believe is good.
How should writers go about approaching editors with their collections? Should they send in a selection or the whole thing? Do you like to have the collection pitched first?
Editors work if different ways. Some want to see the whole thing, but others want a sample.
What other advice can you give to writers trying to bring their work to publication?
Be aware many publishers struggle to sell short story collections and many don’t accept submissions except through an agent or personal recommendation, so always read publishers’ websites to find out if and how they receive submissions. Having your manuscript instantly rejected without being looked at can be disheartening
A word from the author on expectations and submitting a collection:
It was very difficult to get a publisher to contribute to this article and the author is very grateful to Jen Hamilton Emery for sharing her insights with us although Salt take very few collections and are not looking for unsolicited work.
My own collection Shore to Shore was accepted by Cinnamon Press for an available slot three years into the future. Also, I have recently interviewed Louis de Bernières for an article to be published later in the summer, and he says he has material for two short story collections for which he can’t find publishers. The old ‘story’ – they only want his novels. I feel the seed germinating of another article entitled Why the hell are we doing this?
Maybe that’s one for the autumn.
(This is the link to the fabulous Tobias Wolff interview):
This article was first published on The Short Story website