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Dan Brotzel: Short Order Cooking

Working out the right sequence for your story collection is an exquisite agony.

Following on from the short story advent calendar that kept us going through a truly strange December, we're delighted to have Dan Brotzel back on the Sandstone blog with a piece on how to get the order of your short story collection just right. From advice on structure and frontloading, to thoughts on theme and mood, here are Dan's top tips!

Gwen Goodkin’s A Place Remote (West Virginia University Press) is a collection of stories that examines the lives of characters from a small fictional town in rural Ohio. ‘When I began writing this collection in 2005, I had no plans for it to be a book,’ she says. ‘I just wrote the stories as they came to me. Eventually I realised they belonged together.’ She had a publisher and she had her material; there just remained the small detail of working out how best to put the stories together.

‘I could show you screenshot after screenshot of me working out the order of the stories in notebooks, the back of envelopes, scraps of paper,’ says Gwen Goodkin. ‘I thought about the order over a long period of time because there are so many directions a writer can take.’

Tell me about it. Earlier this year, my debut short story collection Hotel du Jack was published by Sandstone Press. Like Goodkin, I spent hours pushing titles around, moving post-its and flicking between Word docs, Trello screens and Powerpoint slide sorters. But these tools only represent linear arrangements, whereas part of what you are trying to think about is the cumulative effect over time of the order in which the stories are read. (Of course, people can read your collection in any order, but thinking about this too much will send you mad.)

At a certain point, lucky dip started to seem the best way to go, and I envisioned giving all my stories numbers and drawing them from a velvet sack, like an FA Cup draw.

Eventually I hit on an eccentric coding system. I decided the prevailing mood of the collection was ‘funny-sad’. Some of the stories were hopefully funny (F) while others were sad (S). Then again, some were more funny than sad (FS) and some more sad than funny (SF). At one point I began to tag stories with codes like SSF and — insert your own joke, please — FFS.

But there were recurring themes and motifs to consider too: office life (O), parenting (P), relationships (R), dodgy gurus (G), death (D). Soon each story had its code: SFDR, for example, or FSGD. I looked for excessive saminess in form or mood, patches that were too death-centric or office-based. I wanted the stories to build, to flow, to create echoes and thematic rhymes. I wanted links but not overlaps, contrasts but not clashes. Perhaps the most ridiculous thing about this ridiculous system — thanks to which I started to see patterns that added up to a path — is that it sort of worked. And the whole exquisitely agonising process got me wondering how others do it.

Let’s start at the very beginning

Your first and last stories obviously merit a lot of attention. The first needs to entice the reader in, of course, but it also sets the tone for the kind of collection that’s coming. Take, for example, ‘The Sisters’, the first story of Joyce’s Dubliners, which is narrated from the viewpoint of a young lad who looks up at a window every night to see if an old priest who is ‘not long for this world’ has died yet. First line: ‘There was no hope for him this time.’

This story establishes a mood and a thematic fabric that the rest of the collection goes on to explore through a series of ‘studies of incapacity and self-replicating unhappiness’ (Seamus Perry). ‘The Sisters’ establishes the collection’s narrative world ‘as an ominous and oppressive place, and puts [us] in a state of overwhelmed inaction,’ writes Nathan Scott Mcnamara. ‘[It] introduces the stakes that will largely reign over the entire collection: the tension between the dullness of this existence and fear of any other.’ The collection ends, of course, with ‘The Dead’, about as sure-fire a closer as you could wish for.

You might too see your first and last stories as bookends to frame the collection, blending first and last impressions in a satisfying symmetry. There is something musical about this model, perhaps, with stories sounding chords and motifs which move through variation and counterpoint towards resolution. That last note will resonate more deeply for all the other related sounds that have gone before.

Now, if your story is titled after that familiar template, [Story X] and other stories, where do you put the X? Do you build up to it, as is traditional? Or do you lead with it as, for example, in Refresh, Refresh by Benjamin Percy or The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson? In my case, it was obvious: the ‘title track’ of the collection is at least three times as long as any of the other pieces (some of which are very short indeed), and anything coming after it would have been lost. (I am rarely compared to George Saunders, but I note that in his collection CivilWarLand in Bad Decline he too ends on a novella-length piece.) This approach is reminiscent of the end-weight principle in syntax: in writing and speaking, we tend to put the most complex elements of our sentences at the end, for ease of processing.

Somewhere in the middle can work too, however. The last story of Kristen Roupenian’s darkly visceral debut, You Know You Want This, is called ‘Biter’ and not, as you might expect, ‘Cat Person’, which was reportedly the first short story ever to go viral. So well-known is the piece, in fact, that the collection is now marketed as ‘Cat Person’ and other stories. But Roupenian elects to place it neither first nor or last, perhaps to help us see more easily how she is anything but a one-hit wonder.

Stringing out a structure

With a beginning and end in mind, you might next start to place what novelist and short-story writer Richard Thomas calls ‘tent-poles’ to plot a path in between. No doubt you have stories that are crowd-pleasers — ones that wear their effects on their sleeve and can always be relied on to raise a laugh or prick a tear. Then again, perhaps you have other stories whose effects, subtle and slow-burning, are more of an acquired taste. (Often, these will be your favourites, and you will secretly grieve to see them overshadowed in reviews and comments by their flashier siblings.)

The idea is to space out your big hitters like strategic tent-poles (or lanterns or stepping stones) throughout the collection, just as a stand-up organises their routine around a series of sure-fire ‘bankers’. BF Jones, author of The Fabric of Tombstones (The Writing Collective) adopted a similar approach: ‘I was given the great advice to build an arch for my collection using the first, central and final stories as the stones keeping the whole thing together.’

As with a gig or an album, some stories are great warm-ups; others are solid performers that offer a space for reflection or calm after something a bit wilder; and of course there’s your big finish. The wrong stories together can cancel each other out: big numbers need quieter, more subtler pieces around them to make them pop. And here perhaps is where the common comparison with making a mix-tape breaks down: there can be no sentimental inclusions or indulgent repetitions in a story collection.

As Amber Sparks, author of The Unfinished World and Other Stories puts it: ‘DO NOT save the best for last. Save the best for first. Put every single “best” story in the beginning. Frontload that motherfucker and then frontload it some more. Great story, great story, great story, great story…’ There will always be a few darlings to be murdered. As BF Jones recalls: ‘I left one story out, even though I love it. I included it, then removed it, then added it again in a different place, then removed it again! I tried to change it a bit so that it would have fitted in the narrative but eventually it didn’t have a place or a purpose in this specific collection.’

Another approach is to apply a secondary level of structure. Home Remedies by Xuan Juliana Wang is a collection of smart, wry stories about the Chinese-American experience in which the relative ease and ennui of second-generation immigrants is guiltily undercut by thoughts of the self-sacrifice of the previous generation. Wang divides her collection into three resonant sections: Family, Love, and Time and Space. Each section is perfectly balanced with four stories; each section builds to its own mini-climax. But my favourite story is the very last, ‘The Art of Straying Off Course’, which condenses a whole lifetime into a series of evocative, poignant vignettes.

Or, perhaps best of all, you might find your organising principle… in surfing. Here’s Alex Pruteneau describing his process for sequencing the 50 pieces in his collection Gears. ‘It took me literally laying out each story in hardcopy form on the floor of my house, covering the entire living room/dining room floorspace, then moving into one bedroom […] I spent a good week looking at the placement of each in relation to the others, and to the overall theme of the book itself, constantly re-arranging and then thinking about placement and vibe and thread again.’ The final result is balanced ‘so a reader will catch the vibe and ride it…sort of like a surfer catching that one good wave, but then continuing on and on….sometimes transferring to smaller waves, other times hitting the big ones […] all the way to the shore/beach, where they’ll find a big pow for a closer.’ I mean, as an approach it’s not exactly DFFSCG, but it’s pretty good.

Organic connections

Beyond the overarching structure, there are all sorts of smaller ways we can stitch our sequence together to best effect. ‘A successful short story collection is an elaborate system of parallels, contrasts, repetitions and variations that creates unity out of diversity,’ writes David Jauss, whose wonderful essay ‘Stacking Stones: Building a Unified Short Story Collection’ examines each of these elements in detail. Jauss introduced me to the concept of ‘liaisons’ — typically a striking image or phrase that recurs in different stories and helps draw them together, even where their subject matter is ostensibly quite different.

Key here, of course, is discerning the difference between an effective contrast, a useful liaison, and a jarring clash. Varying moods or registers might seem an obvious way to go, for example, but if your order becomes too systematically light-dark, light-dark, that regularity could itself start to jar. ‘Two of my stories involve parties,’ says Goodkin of the challenge. ‘I wanted to keep them separate because a reader could get bored or annoyed with similar scenarios. Three are told from the point of view of different characters from the same family, so they needed to stay together. Of the ten stories in the collection, only three are told from a female point of view. I wanted to spread them out.’

Gestation situations

The way your stories are conceived has a massive impact on their ordering too. In my case, most of the stories were written over several years, during most of which I did not even dare to dream that they would ever be collected in book form. So when I came to pull them together, I went from throwing in everything that I thought might have a chance, to looking for stories that somehow felt of a piece with the collection’s emerging fabric. A rare foray into scifi or horror might seem successful as a stand-alone piece, but could stand out for all the wrong reasons in a collection of stories otherwise dedicated to domestic or comic themes.

If your collection is a linked cycle of stories, ordering them is likely to be that little bit easier. For instance, the recurrence — sometimes in the foreground, sometimes in passing — of the title character in every story in Olive Kittredge offers a ready narrative glue. Even here, however, there are a variety of approaches, from the straightforwardly chronological to the ‘instant replay’ pattern, where stories return obsessively to explore and even rewrite a powerful, often traumatic situation, as with David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide or Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.

Uncover the order that’s already there

‘Because our choices of words, characters and plots arise from our own obsessive concerns and themes,’ writes David Jauss, ‘it is inevitable that there be unifying relationships between the stories.’ As story sequencers, our job is to excavate those tacit connections, and deploy every trick at our disposal to heighten their effect.

For Goodkin, that pre-existing order finally emerged with the logline. ‘That was one of the hardest parts of the process, coming up with a single sentence to tie the collection together,’ she recalls. ‘But when I finally got the logline right, it showed me I had been (subconsciously) writing toward a full collection. As such, I believe the order of the stories made its own story: from a difficult reality to a fairytale-like moment of redemption.’

A version of this article first appeared in The Author, the magazine of the Society of Authors.

Dan Brotzel

Dan Brotzel