A Sequence on Sequence, Pt. 5a: Matthew Salesses

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[Matthew Salesses was kind enough to expand just a bit on his earlier thoughts about ordering his new book, I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying, out now from Civil Coping Mechanisms. Thanks, Matthew!]

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. Continue reading

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A Sequence on Sequence, Pt. 7: Elizabeth Frankie Rollins

[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:

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Continue reading

A Sequence on Sequence, Part 6: Peter Tieryas Liu

I stuffed too many stories into the first draft of Watering Heaven. There were originally thirty of them and I picked the stories in sets. For my short stories, I find myself frequently latching onto themes and exploring them through three stories. For example, the stories “Searching for Normalcy,” “The Interview,” and “Urban Dreamers” were written as triplets exploring the abnormalities of corporate life. “Chronology of an Egg,” “Gradients,” and “Staccato” were another set that examined hybridized love and the metamorphosis of the American dream. Tenuously speaking, these sets of threes coalesced into the first draft of the book. It was a messy web that ran unevenly throughout. Determining the title, Watering Heaven, based on the William Blake poem, “Tyger,” helped me focus on the theme of a journey and disillusionment, weeding out a few of the stories including the one of a guy with insecurity issues because he has a green dick and two lovers who fall in love over a dying bird. After deleting three others, I had seven sets of three and one solitary story, “An Empty Page,” that was always a bit of a loner. To supplement those, I had three experimental stories that hadn’t been published yet, but that I personally loved. That brought the grand total to twenty-five.

I’ve worked in both games and films, and one of the most amazing things to see is a storyboard of the entire film through rough images on the walls. There’s often a colorkey pass and you see the hues transitioning between different arts and moments in the film. Without hearing the music, without even seeing the specific images, you can tell the mood of specific parts just by the color tone. Continue reading

A Sequence on Sequence, Part 4: Nathan Huffstutter

[A guest post from Nathan Huffstutter. Nathan Huffstutter’s work can be found at The Nervous Breakdown, The Collagist, and Emprise Review.]

Most of what I know I picked up on my feet. Restaurant work: dish pits and service patterns and then back behind the bar, where pretty much everything goes.

“You need to put something of yourself in the post,” Gabriel tells me. “I’m not interested in abstract thoughts or balloons of hot air floating above the surface.”

Though I’m somewhere in every word I don’t typically like talking about myself – unless I’m talking about myself, in which case I love talking about myself. But I had no intention of talking about myself here, here I wanted a subject with a little more get-up-and-go, here I wanted to cut loose and wax on about the magical waggle connecting the inner-ear to the central-nervous to the bass-end of the alimentary. Here, I wanted to talk about rhythm. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

A Sequence on Sequence, Pt. 2: Matt Dube

[A guest post from Matt Dube. Matt Dube is the 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 Kertet (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. Continue reading