Matthew Salesses (whose month-long stint as Writer-in-Residence at Necessary Fiction has already been mentioned here) contributes a few thoughts to the ongoing sequencing discussion in his introduction to “Macro, Micro, and the Order of Information.”
Salesses says, of ordering his forthcoming novel-in-stories I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying (CCM, February 2013):
I have written a book of 115 interlocking prose poems/flash fictions that add up to a novel of sorts. I set out with this structure in mind, small pieces adding up to a whole. Or this is not entirely true—I wrote the first tiny piece because I was asked to for a flash fiction issue of JMWW. About a year later, I read that story over again, and there was a lot more I wanted to say. So I wrote 20 more pieces. Then I started submitting those pieces, and The Lifted Brow asked whether I had about 20 or so that they might sprinkle throughout an issue. I said I could, and I wrote 20 or so more pieces. That left me with a chapbook-length book, which I sent to one publisher, but was told was probably too short. Soon after that, someone at Civil Coping Mechanisms asked me if I had a book-length manuscript. For CCM, that meant 120 pages. I said I could. I wrote about 100 more pieces, looking at the parts of the plot—which covers one year after a boy shows up claiming to be the narrator’s bastard child—that could be filled in further, mostly in the second half of the year. I knew, all along as I was writing these various stages, what kind of book I wanted it to be, what structure I wanted the book to have, but I didn’t know how many pieces I would have to write to get there. Later, I had all of these pieces but the order wasn’t right. I set them all out on the floor—my wife agreed to keep the baby out, and she wasn’t walking then—and stepped in and around and through the middle of them, looking at their shape, both literally and figuratively.
I threw about twenty pieces out. I put the pieces that set the stakes and set up the conflict at the beginning, but tried to keep from bogging the arc down with too much information. Two of the pieces I ended up keeping were set in the past, and I placed these pieces directly following surges in the present story, surges that I thought would be deepened by the backstory, as well as to provide a breath for the reader before diving back in. There is a long couple-fight in the book, and I fiddled with the order of these pieces, trying to get them to rise and fall, building and loosening tension, but also trying to keep some pieces that fell outside of the fight within, not to let this one thing take over. I wrote a few new pieces toward the end to give the narrator longer to change. He wasn’t the type to make a quick shift. I focused, maybe most of all, on pacing, trying to keep the reader’s attention through escalating stakes and desires and conflict, etc. And the order of the pieces was essential to this. It is essential to make sure the reader knows certain things before other things. For example, what the fight might cost the relationship before the fight.
[Emphasis (the bolded text) is mine.]
The post is about the macro and the micro, about organizing and list-making, about the effect that order has on revision or that revision has on order; distance, both psychic and physical, is the thing. Salesses’s ability to literally stand above his text, mapped out on the ground below him, and to then walk through it is transformed (as most of our ways of talking about thinking about things are alchemized by visual metaphor) into a figurative perspective on what he has written.
Reading about all of this, I think of my own method. For Critique of Pure Reason, I didn’t arrange things two-dimensionally but one-dimensionally, not a map but a line. I wonder if perhaps that is the difference between a novel’s structure and a collection’s—that one has one more dimension to it. Is this plot? Or is plot simply a convention we have created as a received form, a set of directions that help us (readers, writers) to navigate this extra dimension? It seems to me that perhaps there is yet another dimension to be explored in collections, something that the previous essays here have also touched on, approached, begun a study of. They might be worth another look: