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A Sequence on Sequence, Part 3: Amber Sparks


[Wisdom from Amber Sparks.]

Warning: my thoughts on ordering stories will almost certainly be incredibly unhelpful to you in your efforts to do the same. I really feel, after going through the process of writing and ordering a collection, (PLUG: My debut short story collection, May We Shed These Human Bodies, comes out in September from Curbside Splendor Press and is available for pre-order RIGHT NOW)  that there is almost nothing about this that makes any sense and what remains is a whole lot of magical thinking, personal preference, and random guessing. Nonetheless, take what dubious wisdom from this you can; glean whatever kernel of anything useful that you might be able to. I hope at any rate it might be more helpful than the dreaded ‘just make a mix-tape!’ advice that Gabe referred to in his previous post and that I’ve also come across, again and again.

The one thing that I decided right away was that there should be a sense of something building, of momentous climbing, just like in the best novella and novels. Think programs on the elliptical machine: more plateau than cross training. More tantric sex than drunken quickie. I wanted my readers to start off reading slower, languge-y but intense pieces, and be swept along to the next, a little longer and more intense, and then the next, a bit more dramatic, vivid, plot-driven, then the next, a fast hot white burn until the long shrieking plateau of a story and after that the glass of water and the cooling sweat and the lie-down-cool-down story. And so on.

Well. I sent out that collection and got collective snores back. Apparently (who knew?) people’s attention spans are rather limited. Apparently (who knew?) people were uninterested in a language experiment with no plot and no characters as the first story in a collection. Apparently the plateau was a poor choice for a collection.

Well, crap, I thought. Back to the drawing board. Cutting board. Whatever. Back to the index cards spread across the floor and the cats picking up random stories and hiding them in closets and under beds and maybe eating them. Were the cats on to something, I briefly wondered? Should I take their editorial advice and scrap that story, or bury it in the middle after a better one? Then I realized they were in fact beasts, and not experienced editors, and were both energetically licking their own butts right now with the same conviction they’d reserved for carrying off my stories. And so I went back to listening to and then rejecting my own instincts instead.

I tried the empirical approach. I rolled dice and reordered stories and sent the manuscript out, two by two, and two rejections meant a new order, a new role of the dice. I assigned numbers to each story based on placement in the manuscript and personal rejection of the manuscript or form or none when that story was number one, two, or three. I closed my eyes and pointed at a title page. I saved the best for last.

And then, after a year of rejections, of adding stories and subtracting stories and moving stories around and editing them down, up and inside out, I decided to try something new. I took out everything that wasn’t a story that grabs you. I took out anything that wasn’t the absolute best. I started the manuscript with the funniest story and then I went with another funny one, then a sad one, then a funny one, and each story was more grabby than the last. I built not in tone or intensity but only in grabbiness. Well, that and emotional instability because it would hopefully lead to dependence. I trimmed the thing further, and it became a greatest hits collection. I made it impossible (I hoped?) to stop reading it.

And then? I sent it out to a new batch of folks. And it was accepted within a month. With enthusiasm. With love.

Can I say that it was my ordering of the stories? Probably not. Though certainly I’ve learned that though I love language-driven stories, not that many people feel the same way. Probably it was just finally finding a press that I loved, that loved what i was doing, that was an incredibly good fit. Probably it was that kind of luck, and not the numerology kind.

But maybe it was the ordering. You never know, right? And what else are you going to do while you wait for publishers to get back to you about your book? Something productive? Please. Obsessive tinkering. It’s the only way for a good neurotic to pass the time before the initial and happy first foray into publishing.

[Part 1 of this series is here. Part 2 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.]

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