I stuffed too many stories into the first draft of Watering Heaven. There were originally thirty of them and I picked the stories in sets. For my short stories, I find myself frequently latching onto themes and exploring them through three stories. For example, the stories “Searching for Normalcy,” “The Interview,” and “Urban Dreamers” were written as triplets exploring the abnormalities of corporate life. “Chronology of an Egg,” “Gradients,” and “Staccato” were another set that examined hybridized love and the metamorphosis of the American dream. Tenuously speaking, these sets of threes coalesced into the first draft of the book. It was a messy web that ran unevenly throughout. Determining the title, Watering Heaven, based on the William Blake poem, “Tyger,” helped me focus on the theme of a journey and disillusionment, weeding out a few of the stories including the one of a guy with insecurity issues because he has a green dick and two lovers who fall in love over a dying bird. After deleting three others, I had seven sets of three and one solitary story, “An Empty Page,” that was always a bit of a loner. To supplement those, I had three experimental stories that hadn’t been published yet, but that I personally loved. That brought the grand total to twenty-five.
I’ve worked in both games and films, and one of the most amazing things to see is a storyboard of the entire film through rough images on the walls. There’s often a colorkey pass and you see the hues transitioning between different arts and moments in the film. Without hearing the music, without even seeing the specific images, you can tell the mood of specific parts just by the color tone.
I made post-it notes with the titles of each story and their theme (in one or two words) underneath, then placed them in a long row. For example, the story “Beijing Romance” was ‘love,’ while “Unreflected” was ‘identity.’ Once I had them arrayed in that fashion, if any stories were too similar, I tried to separate them. Likewise, I didn’t want the story shifts to be too dramatic, so while splitting up my sets of 3s, I still tried to find interlinking themes to transition the stories. I also tried to position my more ‘experimental’ stories in locations where they wouldn’t be a distraction in case any editor found them to be the weakest links. These stories were ones where I delved into issues that were deeply personal to me as in “The Political Misconception of Getting Fired” about a guy meeting up with his high school crushed who turns out to be obsessed with UFOs; “Rodenticide,” about a failed filmmaker who decides he will die for the rights of rats; and “Resistance,” which is about a man who develops HIV resistance and wants to help a group of prostitutes escape their past.
Many of the stories were written in the long months I spent overseas in Asia, particularly Beijing and Bangkok. So I also listed location beneath these notes in order to give some variety to the locations. Once the order was set, I sent out to several publishers and was thrilled when Signal 8 Press accepted.
My editor, Marshall, was great to work with and in some ways, understood the collection as a cohesive unit better than me. While making extensive editorial suggestions throughout the collection, he also felt we should cut five stories. We had several detailed emails talking about which ones should go. Three of them were relatively easy. The last two he selected were really tough for me. With his permission, I’m including his original email:
“The Whimsy of Creation”: At first I wanted to move it to the end of the book, like the 3rd-to-last position, because I think it’s a powerful story. Thing is, it shouldn’t be paired with “Resistance” for thematic reasons. This is why I think it should go. On the one hand, as good as it is, it seems like a waste, but I also think it’s sort of grimmer and darker than the rest of the book, and inconsistent in tone.
“A Collection from Existence”: Mainly for thematic reasons, as well. I started in on it and then stopped, reread it, and decided it wasn’t adding to the collection as a whole.
It was tough to hear this. Sad to say it, but I would have much easily parted with almost any other story aside from these two. “The Whimsy of Creation” was a story I’d labored on for over a year, a narrative about a man bonding with his uncle while visiting some Asian brothels. “A Collection From Existence” was probably the most unstory-like story I’d ever written, and was intended as such as I wanted it to be a ‘collection’ rather than a story per se (when I originally published this story, I thought to myself, if I never get another story published again, I’m OK with that). It was very painful letting those two go because they were both longer pieces that I felt provided anchorage to the collection. They’d also both received extensive editing at the magazines they’d originally been published in, the Evergreen Review and Quiddity Literary International Journal.
I consulted my board and whined to my wife and tossed and turn before sending the email agreeing to the changes because I knew deep down that Marshall was right; thematically, they both stuck out. But it was still hard for me to admit as much without feeling like a part of myself was being ripped off and thrown away.
Probably one of the most important changes was also Marshall’s suggestion. Originally, I’d placed the story, “Forbidden City Hoops,” as my first story because its original publication in ZYZZYVA sparked off a long run of publications of the stories I wrote in China. It was both a thematic and symbol placement. Marshall suggested I place “Chronology of an Egg” (about a woman who gives birth to eggs when she has sex) as the first story. He was absolutely right. Many of the reviews and friends who’ve read it have told me “Egg” was the story that sucked them in.
There’s an asymmetrical self-similarity in fractals that miraculously maintains itself with scale whether you zoom in or out. The integrity and flow has to work on the individual page as well as within the range of stories, and I found in my attempt to put it together, visualizing the story using physical post-it notes, as well as getting a second perspective from an editor, helped in making the collection what it is. If I were to get another stab at it, the only thing I might change is that there’s a concentration of short short towards the back that I’d spread out a little more. At the time, having focused on the themes and locations, I didn’t include lengths of the stories as well. The breakout, like the stories, needed a third category.
Peter Tieryas Liu likes to travel the world with his wife, particularly through China. He’s recently been obsessed with documenting his favorite video game levels on YouTube. His collection of short stories, Watering Heaven, just released from Signal 8 Press. You can find out more about his musings, ramblings, and whimsies at http://www.tieryasxu.com/ and on twitter @TieryasXu
Read the previous Sequence on Sequence posts here.