Putting together a book of short stories is like creating an issue of a literary magazine: The writer has to consider each story and the composition of the book as a whole. The difference between writing a single story and compiling them into a collection is significant.
This guest post is by Ronna Wineberg. Wineberg is the author of the new story collection, NINE FACTS THAT CAN CHANGE YOUR LIFE, as well as ON BITTERSWEET PLACE, her first novel, and a debut collection, SECOND LANGUAGE, which won the New Rivers Press Many Voices Project Literary Competition and was the runner-up for the 2006 Reform Judaism Prize for Jewish Fiction. Her stories have appeared in American Way, Colorado Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, South Dakota Review, and elsewhere, and been broadcast on National Public Radio. She is the founding fiction editor of the Bellevue Literary Review.
I’ve been fortunate to have two collections published. For each book, I pulled together disparate pieces of my work and put them in a logical order that made it seem as if the stories were inextricably connected.
My first collection came together more quickly than the second book. Compiling the second collection involved finding the right word, the right combination of stories and arrangement. I learned as I went along.
Gather Your Work
I piled my inventory of stories, published and unpublished, on my desk and read them. I experimented with different selections. By the time I was working on Nine Facts That Can Change Your Life, I had written many stories and had lots of choices. I added pieces to the book and removed stories. I realized some pieces, even published ones, needed more work. Some were stronger than others.
I chose stories that seemed to fit together, give variety, and reflected the book’s themes. The themes emerged as I worked on the book. I saw how my fiction had changed over time, saw the obsessions that haunted me as a writer. I had written again and again about relationships, bonds to partners, spouses, parents, children, and friends, as if I were trying to find a solution to a puzzle, to understand those things that strengthen or weaken relationships.
I didn’t include a few of my favorite stories in the collection. They didn’t touch on the book’s themes or dealt with ideas explored in other pieces. Still, it was hard to part with them.
Really Consider Each Piece
When I started to write fiction, my goal was to create a story that worked. This can take years. It did for me. Each story idea was a journey into the unknown. I labor over a story, examining descriptions, words, images, and character development, trying to make a piece work, even sing if I’m lucky.
A writer is never really done with a project, even though he or she moves on to the next one. I had considered many of my stories finished, especially the published ones. I ended up revising the stories that were part of the collection.
Then I set the story collection manuscript aside. Each time I wrote a new story I considered strong, I removed a weaker one and inserted the stronger piece.
The collection was elastic, in flux.
Consider the Arrangement
Next, I turned to the order of stories. In a sense, a reader participates in the order; he or she can choose to read the stories in any order. Still, I felt the arrangement was important and created a flow for the book.
When I was working on my first collection, I read David Leavitt’s introduction to his Collected Stories. He quoted Gordon Lish’s advice: “…start with a pisser, end with a pisser.” This could apply to a story, too.
Leavitt wrote that record albums helped him decide how to order stories for his collections “particularly Joni Mitchell’s that I turned to find a model for how to arrange nine or ten seemingly unrelated pieces of prose into a coherent and meaningful whole.” The arrangement of musical pieces created a momentum, a rhythm, the building of something, I realized, and so I turned to CDs and albums as a guide, too.
I experimented and settled on an order for the stories. I thought of it as a “provisional order.”
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Prepare for the Long Haul
My first collection was published in 2005. It had been rejected by publishers and contests, but it finally won a contest, which was thrilling. The editor asked me to change the order of stories, which I’d meticulously labored over. But he was right—I found a better arrangement. I also decided to remove one story from the collection.
I was so happy to be the author of a collection—a dream—that I started to compile a second collection.
In 2007, I sent the new collection, with the working title of “Foreign Lands” to contests and a few agents. I knew mainstream publishers weren’t interested in collections, and most agents weren’t either. I was realistic, I was used to rejections—I had file folders filled with them.
However, I unexpectedly received two encouraging rejections. In October, the director of a contest noted that my work was in the top 20 percent of submissions.
In December, I received a letter from the editor of a second contest: “…Your manuscript kept getting short listed and was on the table long into our deliberations. We’re sorry not to be taking it for we admired the voice, the attention to detail, and both the precision and variety of these stories. (A few of our favorites are: ‘Foreign Lands,’ ‘Terminal,’ ‘The Shiva,’ & ‘Fluid Liaisons.’) It is a wonderful collection and we expect that it will soon find a home elsewhere if it hasn’t done so.”
I was both disappointed and excited. A writing teacher told me once: If you’re a writer, you are in it for the long haul. I told myself I had to be prepared for the long haul with this book. On the other hand, the manuscript had been short listed. Though it was a rejection, it felt like a gift. I knew from my work as the fiction editor of the Bellevue Literary Review that editors only write to an author if they’ve been touched by the work or see potential.
I had to make the manuscript stronger, I decided. In the meantime, I worked on a novel. I continued to write, revise, and publish new stories, too. The novel was published in 2014.
The story collection still pulled at me, and I went back to it after my novel was published. I added some of the new stories, changed the order and title, and submitted the collection to contests and small presses.
In July 2016, Serving House Books accepted the collection of sixteen short stories. I was thrilled. The publisher felt there was some repetition. He was willing to read other stories I had considered for the collection. I sent him five. He’s a writer himself and has a great eye and ear.
I ended up including two of the additional stories and removed three others from the manuscript.
There were two linked stories in the collection. I combined them into one. The fusion worked.
I had never been satisfied with the order of the stories. Something seemed off. The editor suggested I divide the book into three parts, chronologically.
I knew which stories I wanted to place at the beginning and end of the book. They both explored intermarriage, secrets, and love. They would frame the collection.
The three-part division worked. The stories are now arranged in a kind of chronological order of relationships: early stages, middle, later stages. The first part of the book focuses on youth. The later stories look at long term partnerships, affairs, divorce, death of a parent, death of illusions.
Revise, Revise, Revise
Then I sat down to read the manuscript as if it were a finished book to see how the stories fit together now. I was surprised to see I’d unconsciously repeated images, names, words, and even descriptions in different stories. I hadn’t noticed that before. Too many buildings were described as “red brick.” Characters with the name “Thomas” appeared in unrelated stories. I’d used “terrible” too many times. A few characters had the names of people I knew—a relative, a friend of my daughter’s. I’d chosen the names without making the connection. The unconscious has a will of its own, I realized. I had to find replacements.
Labor, and Repeat
The submitted manuscript for Nine Facts That Can Change Your Life was not the final manuscript. I appreciated the input of the publisher and editor. I’d worked on the book for so long and knew everything by heart; I needed a reader, a fresh perspective.
Holding the published book in my hands, I forgot the labor of it, the choices, decisions, the revisions, and rejection. The selection of stories and order seemed just as they were meant to be. I felt a rush of joy; I had accomplished what I set out to do, moved forward and mastered the technique for creating a second story collection.
I was reminded once again that writing, like any art, is fueled by labor and repetition, and not just inspiration alone.
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