[A guest post from Elizabeth Frankie Rollins: Elizabeth Frankie Rollins has published work in Conjunctions, Drunken Boat, Bellevue Review, Trickhouse, and The New England Review, among others. She has received a NJ Prose Fellowship and a Pushcart Special Mention. Rollins lives in Tucson, AZ, where she teaches writing. Her debut short story collection, The Sin Eater and Other Stories, is available for pre-order here: http://www.queensferrypress.com/books/sineater.html.]
“Stick a fork in it and call it done,” wrote my friend Dawn Paul in 2001. She was talking about my collection of stories, The Sin Eater and Other Stories (forthcoming in Feb 2013 from Queen’s Ferry Press).
I want to open this discussion by saying that I have been sequencing this book for twelve years since, give or take a month or two.
When Dawn wrote this to me, my sense of organization about the book looked like this:
Most of the stories were new, wispy and ephemeral, just birthed. I’d spent months organizing, spreading stories out on the floor, taping them to the wall, thinking about them, moving them around on the computer. I believed that there could be a profoundly correct sequence, which would add, somehow, to the book’s overall success. I just couldn’t find the key to this profundity.
When Dawn wrote, I took her advice because I needed to stop. It was reasonable. The book opened with a voice and ended with a voice. At the time “voice” was in the title. This seemed defensible and logical, but logic wasn’t the kind of profundity I sought. I wanted a deep, internal: THIS IS IT. Sticking a fork in it seemed a sane kind of thing to do, though, so I did it.
Then there were submissions and rejections. Years of submissions and rejections. Also, new pieces were added. Stories removed. I rearranged. For twelve years. I believed that if I could just get the sequence right, the book would get published.
I talked to readers about it. I studied. I read what other writers said about sequencing.
People said: It should open with the powerhouse of the collection.
I understood this idea, and my sense of organization developed some, because I thought I could see, almost, what they meant, and it looked like this:
Other People said: It should end with the powerhouse of the collection.
Other People said: The powerhouse of the collection should be in the middle.
Other People said: You can’t have a three-page story in with longer stories.
Other People said: You should never end with ______.
Other People said: You should never begin with ______.
I became confused. I still believed that there was a perfect sequence. I utterly believed this. And it felt like a failing, that I did not know the proper measurement, method, or plan to achieve this. Or, if I had achieved it, how I would know that I had achieved it? This not knowing seemed disastrous.
The people had fine advice. I’ve certainly tried each suggestion. But what I realized is that my readers all had their favorite story. Each told me that his/her favorite story, in particular, was the strongest. But these readers didn’t agree with each other, and who was I to argue with them? How do you put the strongest story first if you don’t know which one that really is, for all of your readers?
As recently as last year, I took out the longest story. I asked a friend which story should be first in the collection. She named one, and I put that one first. Sort of casually, I put a newer story last. I don’t know why. I couldn’t say if I ended up with the pieces that went well together, or pieces that I was, by this time, simply familiar with being together. I never thought: THIS IS IT. I’ve thought, instead, hundreds of times: “Stick a fork in it and call it done.”
What Queen’s Ferry accepted was this sequence under a new title. The editor, a careful, incisive reader who questioned commas and word choices, who took things out and put them back again over seven or so drafts, never once questioned the sequence. This, then, became the THIS IS IT. The end of my endless rearrangements. A question that nagged at me for years was answered in the absence of a conversation.
This is what I felt about sequencing after the book was accepted for publication:
It was as though I had arrived at a gate. A beautiful gate! The book is golden! There is a gate, and I’m stepping through the gate! The sequencing is final! Here I go! After all this time!
Honestly, though, I don’t know more than I ever did about how the collection was sequenced. I look at the table of contents and I feel a little blind. I couldn’t actually tell you, if you asked me, other than the first and the last, which story ended up where. I’m okay with this. I have accepted that whatever me-ness exists in the book is the binding force of sequence. Simply my guesses. My druthers at some particular moment at some point over the years.
If I ask myself, how do I read short story collections? My answer varies. Sometimes I start at the beginning and keep on. Sometimes I start anywhere and skip around. Sometimes I start at the end.
I don’t think that the profound key that I sought exists. Or, more accurately, I think that I am the key. I wrote the stories; I know them. They are threaded together by my particularities, sewn into my distinct string of thought. Perhaps I do know where the stories belong, and I’ve known all along.
Nevertheless, THIS IS IT, and I’m walking through the gate now. I’m not coming back. This book is ready.