[A guest post from Matt Dube, fiction editor for the online journal H_NGM_N. He teaches creative writing and American lit at a small mid-MO university. His short story manuscript _Pay What You Owe Me_ is unpublished but unpublishable.]
Add it up: I’m not Lydia Davis (thirty-four stories in Break It Down) or Etgar Keret (I counted thirty-five stories in his latest, Suddenly a Knock on the Door), but my manuscript is twenty-four self-consciously separate stories. There are themes that connect them, of course, but those same themes will probably connect everything I ever write. Twenty-four is just about double the usual recommended number for a book of stories coming out of an MFA program, isn’t it? And more importantly, who can think about twenty-four things at once? Didn’t someone say you’re a genius if you can mange two? I got a handle on how to order them by cheating: I broke the book down into four sections of about thirty-five pages. Then, I put the four sections in order: the first stories introduce the book’s themes (being in debt to other people) and the methods (lightly surreal, often about family); the stories in this last section sound to me, at least, like the last word on the subject. Think Beckett, and that good kind of exhaustion. The sections between those poles? That’s where the stories go that try out different versions of the initial set-up, stories that make sense in relation to other stories, stories that show I’m a schematic thinker and an improviser, a tinkerer and a clown. Within the sections, I tried mostly to not do too much of the same thing: not too many first person stories in a row, not too many that and on an image, not too many in a row with plots that hinge on surprise. In a chapbook, I think I’d call that kind of limited range a strength, but in the collection, it became a liability.
Collections: I’m not saying there aren’t collections that work as a unit, that you need to read all in the same breath. The Peter Markus books, for example, seem to me of a piece; they share so much DNA that you need to read them together, in order, to follow the way the language skips from one track to another. Haruki Murakami’s After the Quake draws a line under everything he’d written before that point, even if he ends up going backwards later. But I think most collections lack that intentional coherence, and that grasping for it is silly, aspiring to something stories themselves are not– large, monolithic, totemic, complete.
Conjure Tales: As a reader, I’m struck by those stories that seem to invoke more stories: think of Michael Martone’s story “The Mayor of the Sister City Talks to the Chamber of Commerce in Klamath Falls, Oregon” and all those balloons carrying messages. What a beautiful image to introduce a collection of stories, and it is the first story in Seeing Eye, a collection whose primary ambition, I think, is to pull together stories that were otherwise strays or orphaned (like the Dan Quayle stories from Pensees). It’s almost an afterthought, that story, which is a strange way to begin.
Etgar Keret, again: At least one of Keret’s books, The Girl on the Fridge, is made from the contents of two of his original Israeli collections. When was it decided that short story collections should be one hundred fifty pages, anyhow? Is this an attempt to go toe-to-toe with novels in terms of length? Imagine another tradition, where the length of a book of stories is more like a book of poems, let’s say sixty-four to a hundred pages? How would that affect the order of the stories in your book? How would it change the way you think about what you’re trying to do with a collection that you can’t do with a really kick-ass story?
Martone to Market: So Seeing Eye was, explicitly, conceived of as a way to republish some work that had slipped out of print, something that Martone has done a couple times. His “first” collection, Fort Wayne is Seventh on Hitler’s List, is actually a republishing of his master’s thesis, published in a smaller-press edition as Alive and Dead in Indiana. His most recent collection, Four for a Quarter, mixes new work with old, including one from that first collection (“Three Postcards from Indiana,” only in this new context, Martone adds a fourth postcard). What interests me is not that the way writers might reconfigure the same story for different effects in different collections based on shifting artistic, esoteric ordering schemes, but that collections are the way story writers come to the market, the dress they wear. But that doesn’t mean our primary gambit should be to interest the market– rather, why not confuse and bemuse them, give them what they want– enough pages to tip the scale– in any order at all: alphabetical, chronological, alphabetical by first word, chronological by the age of the protagonist.
Remind me why I bother?: Every now and then I write a story that demonstrates how all my other stories suck. How I’m hopeless naive, usually, and can’t face the way people really are. How what I’m doing doesn’t really matter. When I write one of those stories, I make a mental note to put it at the end of the book, just in case the story convinces the reader.
Start strong: The first story in my collection is my best one, “Rental.” Years ago, my friend Pablo praised another story of mine as being good because only I could have written it. Certainly that’s what you want. But I’ve got a drawer (okay, a folder on my computer’s desktop) of stories only I could have written. But this story is one other people like, too, for some of the same reasons I do. Why not start my collection with a story that does what I’m stuck with doing anyhow, only this time people enjoyed that?
Wallet: A teacher in my PhD program tells a story, about looking over another poet’s manuscript. Though he always found this writer dull in the past, here, on the first page of the manuscript, was a poem that was so surprising and inventive that he questioned his previous opinion on the poet. It took a second read through of the manuscript before he realized he’d read the table of contents as if it was a poem. So he wrote that poem he wished the less interesting poet wrote. Why not arrange your stories so that read consecutively on your table of contents, the story they tell is one you find worthwhile. After all, after your title, it’s probably the first thing a reader will consider.
[Part 1 of this series is here. Do you have something to offer on the subject of order? A description? A plan? Even just another set of questions? If you’d like to contribute your thoughts on ordering short fiction, please get in touch: Gabriel [@] gabrielblackwell dot com.]