I used to have a picture of me standing among the chapters of I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying, which is out this month from Civil Coping Mechanisms, as I reordered the book before submitting it to my editor there. But then I went swimming with my phone in my pocket, and now I have only the memory.
I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying is made up of 115 one-page chapters, which were published in various lit mags as flash fiction pieces. When I was asked to put a book together, I had to figure out how those individual pieces could build into a larger, compelling and hopefully satisfying, arc.
What I did was print out everything I had–then about 140 stories–and ask my wife to clear the room. She kept our baby from crawling over (helpfully, this was before walking), and I tried my best to shoo away the cats. I left aisles between the columns of pages, and I walked between the stories, looking at them from this zoomed-out, very physical perspective. Obviously, I wasn’t going to read them like this, to get down into the details of the stories. What I was looking for was rising and falling action, was pacing, was repetition, was thematic connections. I wanted the reader to get caught up in the larger story, to wonder if my narrator was going to get his act together or not. I didn’t want the reader to be bogged down in places where too many alike stories sided together, or to forget about certain storylines or characters when they disappeared for pages at a time.
For example, the narrator has several affairs in the book–he has a little problem with commitment–and I didn’t want the book to be affair after affair. Neither did I want the book to be no affairs for a while and then one affair, then no affairs for a while and then one affair. I needed to space the affairs so that the reader gets the feeling that the affairs are ongoing, and that they take up a backstage part of the narrator’s life–to his mind–but that the stages are always threatening to flip. I needed to space the affairs for pacing and to keep the narrator from becoming too unsympathetic, especially before the reader gets a chance to know him. I needed to space the affairs so that they seem to be coming to a head and to demonstrate cause and effect, to show that they affect the rest of the narrator’s life, even if he denies this.
I did similar reorganization with regard to the narrator’s career, an extended fight between the narrator and the wifely woman, race, identity, getting used to being a father, etc.
It helped to be able to view these movements visually, before I went on to read the pieces aloud again and again, to let the ear sort them out as well.
Matthew Salesses was adopted from Korea at age two. He is the author of I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying and The Last Repatriate. He writes a column for The Good Men Project and has published essays and fiction in The New York Times Motherlode blog, The Rumpus, Hyphen, Glimmer Train, American Short Fiction, Witness, and elsewhere.
Read the rest of the sequence on sequence here.