chapbooks


by Andreé Robinson-Neal

Rolli is a writer, illustrator and cartoonist hailing from Canada. He’s the author of  two short story collections (I Am Currently Working On a Novel and God’s Autobio), a book of poems (Plum Stuff), and the middle grade catstravaganza Dr. Franklin’s Staticy Cat. His cartoons appear regularly in Reader’s Digest, Harvard Business Review, Adbusters, The Chronicle of Higher Education and other popular outlets. Visit Rolli’s website (www.rollistuff.com) and follow him on Twitter @rolliwrites.

Photo by Tea Gerbeza.

If you happen to run into Rolli on the street, you might want to stop him and ask the question: “What do you mean ‘working on’?” His recently published flash collection, I Am Currently Working on a Novel, is six novels in one volume. Each piece of flash is categorized within different themes and each theme is a literary work that stands on its own merit.

In Hollywood, Rolli offers multiple glimpses of the City of Angels. Where else could a serial stalker, a Mulhulland Drive murderess, and a mermaid all live in relative anonymity? The stories run the gamut from horror to comedy. Is Dracula real or a superhero? What happens when beauty dies? How can a utensil bender practice his craft when his wife won’t let him in the kitchen? And what can we do with a broken soldier searching for Hollywood?

It doesn’t stop raining in Hollywood. But this isn’t even Hollywood. I can’t find Hollywood.

When I thought it was Hollywood, I walked everywhere, but I couldn’t find the stars. I couldn’t ask anyone. I felt like getting sick. I hadn’t had water in a long time. (Dear Hollywood II)

Rolli’s descriptions are crisp and strike with a thud of reality that is as disconcerting as it is eloquent. The Golden Weekend is a Polaroid that provides moments frozen in time. The characters live in the moment and scrape the reader’s emotions raw. The narrator of I Am a Robot will keep us out of the ocean, while the voice on the other end of The Seaphone will make you want to lift the receiver of every pay phone you see. Chances are strong that you would be very thirsty like the narrator in I Have a Crusty Tongue if you too lived in a well.

It was during the war—which war, I don’t recollect—that the children came to Beige House. Twenty-four dingy, bug-eyed children, half of whom, evidently, had never made the acquaintance of a hairbrush, the other half of soap and water. (The Golden Weekend: Horrible Summer)

The Drowned Woman takes a more somber tone. Each piece is a glimpse into a bruised soul that exudes crushed spirits and broken psyches beneath facades of strength. The faces on the kitchen wall in Tears and Cake and the exclamation point-filled pronouncements in Hee Hee I’m the Toof Fairy! leave chills that are worse than nails on a chalkboard.

To prove the point, there is the following section: The Impossible Man (An Evaporated Novel), which proves the opening comment that is not ‘working on’ a novel but has, like the narrator in Vivian Jackson Bean, already written many. This evaporated tome is bursting with women and animals, sometimes alone but more often entangled in a complex dance of words.

More pages reveal more emotion. If child-like wonder could be placed in a blender with grotesqueness, curiosity, pleasure, and wonder, the result might be found in Candy Island. The story of the same name is pleasantly unpleasant. Nothing short of such a recipe could create a story like There’s a Swan in My Scrotum. Stories like Thumbs cause feigned looks of concern that hide laughter behind closed lips. And whatever you do, don’t wheel under the Bee Trees.

It seems fitting that Rolli would close out with a section titled The Graveyard. After all, that’s typically the end of things. However, sometimes death is not what it seems.

It seems funny to say, but I live in a piece of paper. It seems funny to say—but not so funny to live. It’s a great square of paper, twelve feet square, that I dragged into an alley between one art gallery and another art gallery. Every night, or in the daytime, even, when it’s cold, I roll up in it, like tobacco in an enormous cigarette. (The Great Swanzini)

At best, death means finding paradise, like the quiet room of The Poe’s Private Library. At worst, death probably means not having the money for burial and meeting The Cemetery Bird.

No spoilers here but when you reach the last page, you may desire a second chance to run into Rolli in the street. If you do, be sure to nod, tip your hat, and wish him well. Writing a novel is hard work. In the meantime, check his progress at www.rollistuff.com.

____________

Andree-New

Andreé Robinson-Neal got bit by the writing bug back in the late 1970s while watching Rod Serling and reading Ray Bradbury–both of whom are everyday inspirations; although she has worked in education for more than a quarter-century, she has never been cured of her penchant for speculative fiction. Find some of her flash fiction at starvingartist.com. She writes under the name AR Neal, who will hopefully one day be identified as a famous NaNoWriMo participant.

by RK Biswas

Ekphrasis is not a common literary art form as far as fiction is concerned, unlike its use in the case of music or painting. How can one category of prose try to relate to another by delving into its essence and spirit and still manage to come up with a story that narrates the original story without becoming a copy or a caricature? A question like this begs another: How can a cat disappear into thin air, leaving behind its smile intact?

Seabrook Cover

Going by William Todd Seabrook’s chapbook, The Imagination of Lewis Carroll, it is all perfectly possible, and as easy as finding a wonderland beneath the ground, as long as one is willing to lose one’s conventional senses, conventional essences, and conventional ideas of what a writer is supposed to do. Carroll’s Cheshire cat did just that; un-cat itself I mean. And we, the readers, can too, so long as we are willing to enter Lewis Carroll’s mind through the tunnel, or rabbit-hole if you will, that Seabrook has dug in his chapbook, published by Rose Metal Press.

As Michael Martone says in his introduction, “It is into one of these mad elastic petrified steam-punked tropic jungles of a book of wordy words that William Todd Seabrook prospects here, using the fracking apparatus of flash fiction to crack open the quarried quarry and mine the refined riches he finds elaborated within Lewis Carroll’s work.” He explains further, more succinctly (lest we wear the Mad Hatter’s hat the wrong way or pour the potion down the drain, perhaps!), “this is a gutsy book as it confronts the exhilaratingly convoluted quagmire of high Victorian nonsense with a minute poacher’s spade shaped from a sterling coffee spoon.”

A “gutsy book that confronts…with a minute poacher’s spade….” This is what the reader encounters right from the start, during that golden afternoon when Seabrook’s Lewis Carroll begins to disappear, not the way the Cheshire cat does, but almost as if he is being consumed by his own story, each physical sense at a time. Carroll has no power to stop it, for every time he tries to end the story, the imaginings, by saying “the rest, next time,” the three Liddell sisters cry out, “it is the next time.”

In Seabrook’s chapbook, we trace Lewis Carroll’s life and imagination through this portal of “next time,” which lets us grasp the kernel of his sensibilities, and creativity, without being tied down to physical reality. Needless to say, the situations that spring up from the pages are indeed about being in the ‘next time.’ No present time can be more bizarre. So it has to be a time that cannot be clocked at all. Readers on a quest will certainly be given answers. Just as all ‘ravens and the writing desks had answers, and none of them actually right.’ Not one from the total of 500, asking the same question; so it is here as well.

Seabrook is after all imagining what Lewis Carroll did—digging a hole and closing it up again, ‘leaving his discovery to be discovered by other (children), again and again.’ We are taken by the hand down Seabrook’s rabbit-hole, and not only led through events in Carroll’s life that wound up in the book but also the other way round; book life and real life events being interchangeable. The experience is akin to Alice falling, very slowly, with plenty of time to look about her in the tunnel.

In The Imagination of Lewis Carroll, we witness an execution, watching young Lewis in the crowd screaming “Off with his head” along with everybody else. We have tea with a Bishop and the grown up Carroll, notorious for his books already, in which his Excellency is shown the door for taking life too seriously. We participate in Carroll’s relentless micro-management of his characters and their appearances, watching helplessly with John Tenniel, the illustrator of his book, but in the end finding them exquisite, because we are on Carroll’s side. We suffer his three-day-long sermon along with his congregation, but in the end we want more, whether it makes any sense or not. We read his essays, and agree (with him) that “a mathematical student must keep his head level at all times–that way it will be much harder for it to roll away.” We practise turning our names into Latin and then anglicizing the Latin names, because we have been convinced that readers of nonsense must be twice removed from reality always. It is of course no surprise that we side with Carroll during his duel with Lord Viscount Newry, even when he steps over his opponent’s broken body, because the duel too is part of “fits of nonsense, completely absurd, but still, it is all that matters.” Like Carroll, we imagine time to be accurate always, and stand in wonder at the intellect pouring forth from his ambidexterity.

Literary largesse, and certainly when it is of genius proportions as in the case of Lewis Carroll, does not come without its shadows. In Seabrook’s retelling of the writer’s life, opium dims memories and knowledge, instead of slowing them down and fading away; life is laid out like a chessboard, and the Red Knight sleeps soundly, knowing that he has already won.

According to Seabrook, Carroll created 5000 card games, as well as word games. After his death they uncovered a chessboard where all the kings, queens, knights, rooks and castles had been replaced with pawns, and behind the board was a picture of Carroll, sitting alone, toying with the world in his head. It gets progressively darker, in spite of the innocence that was Carroll’s hallmark. The controversy in his real life (about photographing children in the buff) has been captured with irony, tenderness and sorrow, paying homage to his friendship with the real Alice. His terror of the Jabberwocky is as real as Alice’s in the book. The looking-glass reflects in reverse. Constantly looking at the world through the mirror, therefore, will take a toll. And Carroll’s interaction with the physical world becomes increasingly fragmented.

The pseudonym—Lewis Carroll—increasingly takes charge of the man christened Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, until the latter is certain that it is not his real name. And we may assume that it was as Lewis Carroll that he won the deadly duel with Lord Newry in 1862, even though it was Dodgson who fired the shot, eschewing a mental duel for a physical one. Dodgson remains a child at heart though, refusing to let the “harsh penetrating eyes” of adults to influence him. In the end, his obsession with childhood and the characters he created, especially Alice, hacks away at him. The world outside Alice’s creator can neither be controlled nor contained.

Seabrook vividly captures Carroll’s terror of being alive in the casual chattering of people long after he is dead, “a terrible fate.” He’d rather be extinct. But in Seabrook’s imagining, Carroll suffers a similar fate at his burial, after dying of pneumonia. Nevertheless, he doesn’t become a prized exhibit in a museum like the dodo. His afterlife, according to Seabrook, is a happy world, where Carroll makes peace with his tormentor, his muse, his alter ego. In Seabrook’s own words:

It is time to wake up,” Carroll said. “One can’t sleep forever.”

But who is dreaming whom?” The Red King asked, adjusting his spiked crown.

I should think we are all dreams,” Carroll said. “I can’t imagine anything more.”

What a beautiful imagining of a great writer’s life, lived after his physical life is passed. This is how every lover of Carroll would wish him to be, and for that we must give thanks to William Todd Seabrook for letting the imagination of Lewis Carroll in our lives, making us “fat with words,” “swollen with jam.”

___________

Rumjhum Biswas

RK Biswas’s novel Culling Mynahs and Crows was published by Lifi Publications, India in January 2014. A short story collection—Breasts and Other Afflictions of Women—is forthcoming in mid 2014 from Authorspress, India. Another story collection from Lifi Publications, New Delhi in mid 2015. Biswas’s short fiction and poetry have been published in journals and anthologies, both in print and online, all over the world. Her poem Cleavage was long listed in the Bridport Poetry Prize in 2006 and also was a finalist in the Aesthetica Contest in 2010. In 2007, her story Ahalya’s Valhalla was among Story South’s notable stories of the net. Her poem Bones was a Pushcart Nominee from Cha: An Asian Literary Journal in 2010. In 2012 she won first prize in the Anam Cara Writer’s Retreat Short Story Contest. She blogs at http://www.rumjhumkbiswas.wordpress.com

by Christopher Bowen

 “The publisher has sole discretion as to the design and appearance of the book after receiving input from the author.”

 This was the fifth item in the contract I shared with authors as publisher of Burning River’s line of chapbooks. It came from a document given to me by a pro-bono arts lawyer from Toledo. Look closely, in fact, look in the mirror or at your own contract.

My experiences in publishing and working with people making chapbooks was more than just an experiment to me, it was a lesson in how to treat people, and how, definitely, to create something beautiful.

Want, Wound

Every cover and manuscript of a Burning River title (the press is now defunct and functioning only as my personal blog) carried with it more than literary stories and poems, it carried a tapestry of conversations, cooperation, and a story unto itself. There was, of course, the designer. There was the printer, the author, the reader. And then there was the me.

I want to give some advice, with little expectation, that yes, as an author you should try to invest as much control into the design of your book as you did the writing. But also, that this is very much a capable endeavor. You are a capable person.

The pulp…

naturalhabitatcover

All the covers for the titles from the press came on the heels of images the authors not only recommended, but sought. A photograph from an old, major periodical for a cover? No problem. You will find a refreshed image from a 1970′s Economist as the cover to Burning River’s second chapbook, Michelle Reale’s Natural Habitat.

As a librarian and my friend, Michelle sought the original U.K. photographer out, as I was unfamiliar with international copyright and, yes, he granted rights to the original photo.

There were more than a couple books I sent small token payments, as well as copies, to the photographer or the artist. But more importantly than this, you have to understand that if you can or do decide to take a hand in helping design your book, that humans are social creatures. They want to be involved, but also, they want to communicate.

There were times where I digressed. The author digressed. The designer digressed. But in the end, I truly feel (speaking as an author) there is nothing more enjoyable or fulfilling than taking some reins in the production of your working book.

The search…

If you are at a loss of finding an image based on a google search and contacting the creator, there are many services out there that will grant you rights. They literally sell stock photos. Shutter Stock is an example. Another example may be found in an image I used for a small book trailer for Nancy Flynn’s A Coal’s Throw, as I wanted to test the form. It was a government poster of a Pennsylvania miner. Because government work is already in the public domain, Wikimedia Commons had it listed on their site. Pair that with a right to fair use of a soundtrack from the musician Moby, and I was able to put together a small, thirty second trailer for about five bucks through Animoto.

Lastly, and many authors do this, turn to the people you know, the artists and photographers already in your life or already inside you. Just be willing to give ground, if and when the time comes, for the sake of the project.

There were many times I had to take heed of the designer or the author. Even in the dimensions of the books themselves. Even, sometimes, in their price points.

This is some of what I’ve learned as a small press publisher. I’m sure there could’ve been more, and there certainly is, but then I wouldn’t be as satisfied in my new skin as simply an author.

_____________

Bowen

Christopher Bowen is an Ohio author and culinary chef. His recently released personal fiction chapbook, We Were Giants, is available from the publisher, Sunnyoutside Press. He blogs at burningriver.info.

by Bonnie ZoBell

This is the second installment of a round-up in which I’ve asked fiction writers how they go about constructing collections of their stories. Part One appeared on February 13 and contained personal descriptions of the process from: xTx, Robert Vaughan, Amber Sparks, Ethel Rohan, Kristine Ong Muslim, Sean Lovelace, and Cynthia Litz.

Read on!

***

Kim Henderson, author of The Kind of Girl, Winner of the Seventh Annual Rose Metal
Press Short Short Chapbook Contest

kim henderson

As I created my chapbook, The Kind of Girl, I learned that making a chapbook is not so different from writing, revising, and polishing a single story. It takes time and patience, micro-thinking and macro-thinking, and knowing when to shut down your brain and simply listen to the rhythm of the work. Unfortunately, the saying “Kill all your darlings” holds true for creating a chapbook, too (although at least those pieces left out can be published individually).

Creating a chapbook requires careful attention to structure and arc. For The Kind of Girl, the structure and arc finally worked when I let the material lead the way, when I stopped trying to control the chapbook and started listening to it. It eventually became clear that I had a set of stories pondering the ways girls and women find themselves defined —by circumstance and environment, by others, by their own hand. Once I figured that out, I built the chapbook in three sections loosely following the thematic arc (from girls who have very little choice in how they are defined to women who define themselves), which also coincided for the most part with age, development, and environment.

The most important lesson I learned when creating a chapbook is the lesson I always seem to learn—to trust the material and my unconscious to find the way, and to do my best to be patient.

 

Kyle Hemmings, author of Zin! and Séance

I’m no expert in this subject as this question kept running through my mind both during and after my completed chapbooks. And I can’t speak for everyone. Many of my chapbooks are full of hybrid work, not just flash fiction. I like to think of order as a building up of tension and intensity, maybe starting with some medium tension to get the reader’s interest, building steady, with a drop here and there to let the reader catch his or her breath. For me, personally I like to add a piece here and there to give different perspectives of a character or situation or a thematic variation. Then, I try to put my most intense piece(s) towards the end, kind of similar to the climax in a novel. It’s not an art I have mastered, but that’s how I like to think of it.

 

Casey Hannan, author of Mother Ghost

My story collection, Mother Ghost, is short. Every story in there is short. The book itself is physically short. Squat. What a hateful little word. Well, I’ll tell you something I tried to do with the book, and who knows if it meant squat to anyone but me, but I tried to turn the book into one long story. Not a novel, no. But even down to the title. Those two words connect all the stories. Some string of misery ties them. So I pulled on that chain. A gay boy comes out of the closet. He moves. He loves. He loses. He loves more. He dies. That’s the order, which is not to say you should order a collection of stories like a human life, but more to say I did, and at least one reader recognized that’s what I did. He said I was a devil for it.


Beverlyn Elliott, author of How Blue Can You Get?

When I first began to look at the flash fiction and shorts I’d written over the years, I thought it was a hodgepodge of stories that were too dissimilar in theme to group into a cohesive collection. I decided at one point to just continue to send the stories out for publication in e-zines and literary magazines. However, my job became much more demanding and I didn’t have the time I’d once had to devote to submissions. I just barely had time to write. This made me sad to the point that I was really blue about the whole thing. That’s when it struck me that while these stories were diverse, the thread that made them work together was the fact that they all had the blues, or their situations could be characterized as the blues.

Then I remembered the old B.B. King song “How Blue Can You Get?” which was mentioned in one of the stories, and I decided my collection would embody the blues. My decision to arrange the stories the way they are in the book had more to do with the size and subject matter than anything. I wanted to vary the placement of the stories by length, and the stories with more intense subject matter for later in the book. So, that is how the stories in my collection were arranged, the manner in which they were published.

 

Peter Cherches, author of Lift Your Right Arm

The question of organization is paramount to my writing as much of my work consists of sequences of related short prose pieces (some call them flash fiction, some call them prose poems). Each sequence tends to have 25-30 individual pieces, kind of chapbook length themselves. In fact, the first of these I did, “Bagatelles,” was published originally as a chapbook in 1981 and is now in my collection Lift Your Right Arm, which consists of five sequences written over a 32-year period. For this book I faced the problem not only of organization within each section, but of the organization of those five sequences into a coherent collection.

How to order one’s pieces for a chapbook is both a challenge and an opportunity. The opportunity is to conceive of the chapbook as something greater than the sum of the parts, and that’s where sequencing is of utmost importance. It’s all about the ebb and flow, and it’s worth considerable attention.

Every writer will find her own solution, a sequence that presents the individual pieces in the best light as well as makes the reader feel that the whole collection adds up to something beyond a vessel for a bunch of unrelated pieces. The best analogies for what I do come from music. Think of your chapbook as a suite. The individual pieces can stand alone, but how do they best resonate with each other?

Of course you want to start with something really strong that will draw the reader in, make him want more, and you want to end with something that will keep your work in the reader’s mind. Think of your first piece as a kind of overture; choose something that perhaps represents a number of themes, concerns, or stylistic devices that appear throughout the book. Then think of how you can sequence the other pieces so that one can almost feel the inevitability of the implicit transitions. I mentioned ebb and flow above. Think of varying the tone of adjacent pieces in a way that will provide variety but won’t feel like jarring juxtapositions. Perhaps some pieces that are thematically related but stylistically different, or vice versa, will work well together. Think of the kind of “narrative arc” you want the whole collection to have, then try out various combinations. Don’t minimize the importance of shuffling pieces with purpose, then re-reading your work in each potential sequence until you hit your eureka moment. It’s great to have readers choose favorite pieces, but ultimately you want the reader to have been gripped by the whole collection, to have a respect for the whole range of the work. I think a good closing piece would be one of the strongest, but also the most open-ended, i.e. something that will spark questions that will keep the reader thinking about your chapbook…and looking forward to your next one.

 

 

Daniel Chacón, author of Hotel Juarez: Stories, Rooms and Loops, Unending Rooms, and the shadows took him: A Novel

When I put together a collection of short fiction, I like to think of it as a structure, a building or a complex with many units in which people can enter. One of the most rewarding things about reading a novel is the act of entering into it. In fact, you could even say that the aesthetic phenomenon when it comes to a novel is that point wherein you forget you’re reading, and you are completely inside the world that you are co-creating, as a reader, with the author. You feel like you’re there.

When I put together my latest book of flash fiction (Hotel Juarez, Stories, Rooms and Loops) I ordered the stories in such a way that the experience would be like entering into a hotel. You walk into the entrance and there should be lots of light, a place people would want to linger for a while, stay for a few days. But the hotel that I envision is a little bit dark, somewhat scary, and as you go down the hallways, you can hear noises coming from the rooms, and you know beyond each door (each title), in every room there’s a story going on, some of them quite dark.

In my previous book of short stories, most of them flash fiction (Unending Rooms), I imagined the book was a house, one of those old white houses you used to walk by on your way to school. It has at least two stories, and probably an attic, with a round window with a cross hair frame. You don’t know who lives there, except sometimes you see an old lady sitting near a window, and you think the house is haunted. It scares you, but it also captures your imagination and you want to enter into it. Again, the first story should have lots of light, invite you into the house, but it gets darker and more creepy the further you enter into it.

A collection of stories is, like a novel, an entire experience. The “rooms” are not arbitrarily ordered. They create the entire experience of the book. Although you can enter any structure or complex from the side or the back or through a window, they are built, i.e. ordered in such a way that the experience gets deeper and deeper, and you get to know the place more and more the further you go inside, the further you enter into it. Flash fiction stories as a collection should be the same experience as a novel, in that sense. The deeper you go into it, the more understanding you have about the structure, i.e. the book itself.

 

Rusty Barnes, author of I Am Not Ariel, Mostly Redneck, and Breaking it Down

Ordering my book of flashes, Breaking it Down, was actually easy. I expected it to be a bit of a hard sell, so I included some of the longest stories at the beginning and at the end to give the lull of familiarity, and tried in the middle to keep a variety of styles, in as much as I write varieties of stories, which I really don’t. My idea was to start strong and end strong and, uh, to keep a strong middle. The book may be confused by all of my back-thinking about order, but too late for that now.

If I were to do it again, I would start strong and then let the pencil shavings fly where they were needed. At the same time I think it’s always a good idea to vary length of stories throughout a manuscript. I did also try to keep the stories with graphic sex separated, since there were more than a few. The book is still selling [a few copies here and there], so something clicked. I just wish I know what it was.

***

I don’t know about you, but this makes me feel hopeful about the prospect of collecting more of my work. It might even be fun to try out these different methods.

We’d love to hear from you, too, about any ingenious ways you know of to show collected works of fiction in their best possible light.

___________

Bonnie ZoBell’s new connected collection with Press 53 is on pre-order here—What Happened Here, where it will then go on regular sale. Her fiction chapbook, The Whack-Job Girls, was published by Monkey Puzzle Press in March 2013. She’s received an NEA fellowship, the Capricorn Novel Award, and others and is currently working on a novel. Visit her at www.bonniezobell.com.

by Bonnie ZoBell

One of the main things I hear writers talk about, whether they already have collections out or are thinking of putting one together, is how in the world do you decide which story goes where? What kind of stories should be close together or far apart? Is there some magical way to do this that everybody knows but you?

As you will see below in the intriguing responses writers reported organizing their work, there definitely isn’t one way. In fact the variety of answers is fascinating. There are metaphysical ways, metaphorical ways, musical ways, architectural ways, from-the-gut ways, instinctive ways, and physical ways.

All of the following authors write flash fiction. Many are talking about organizing flash fiction chapbooks, and some are talking about books that merely have some flash fiction in them.

Pay attention!

***

 xTx, author of Billie the Bull

To me, chapbooks are like little gifts. They are a mix tape. They are a bouquet. They are a basket of treats. Considered, prepared and arranged with certain emotions and presented for highest impact. Or not. Maybe instead of a punch to the gut they deliver a caress to the cheek. A fistful of daises rather than a crystal vase overflowing with roses. In putting together a chapbook, you first need to decide what you want your receiver to experience and move forward from there.

When I build a chapbook, I need it to be a gift that keeps on giving. I need to give the reader the most bang for their buck. Chapbooks are usually tiny things, so I feel they need to be more than they are, like one of those fake cans of nuts that explode into giant snakes when you open them. In putting my chapbooks together, I don’t necessarily require an overall cohesion, although I try to keep that in mind. What I’m usually looking for is a concentrated variety. A nice mixture of length, of feel, of style of strength. There cannot be any “throw away” pieces, no “clutter,” only pieces with 10-inch dicks. Each one can be different, but each one has to MATTER. It’s important to me that each piece gives the reader something to chew on and something that chews back. Something that will make them keep that tiny gift close by because they need to keep picking it up and picking it up and picking it up. I want the reader to love it so much they leave it sitting on their desk in full bloom, Mylar balloons antennaed from it so everyone who comes into their office has to ask where it came from and they excitedly smile and say, “xTx!”

Robert Vaughan

 

Robert Vaughan, author of Addicts & Basements, Diptychs + Triptychs + Lipsticks + DipshitsMicrotones

A suggestion that worked for me was to print each piece and lay them out on the floor of a large room, like a giant puzzle. Your opener, the first piece, ought to be an attention grabber, one that either has an attention-grabbing opening line or entire paragraph. (To get an idea, select three short fiction collections right now and try opening them up to their first lines). Or pretend you are in the corner of a packed room. Which piece would be the most exciting guy or gal to approach and say “HEY!” As for the last piece, I try not to over-think it. This, for me, usually comes, well, last. I might switch this one several times, and in the case of my second chap, Diptychs + Triptychs, I added it long after the manuscript was accepted. The last piece could be your personal favorite, or perhaps one you’ve been told by other readers resonates or simmers long after they read it. Another approach is to try to look for the arc or overall themes and see how they are presented in the last perspective piece.

As far as the consecutive order, I would say this is part trust and part gut instinct. Pay close attention to order with every story or poetry collection you read. Some recommendations are to follow the shade or overarching tone of one piece, with a different tone, rather like movements of a symphony. Consider tempo, pacing, dynamics. Perhaps place a sadder or intensely dramatic piece, following a whimsical, more absurd or quieter, internal piece. Also check whether your piece is told in first, second or third person, or varying points-of-view. Try to mix the overall lengths of your pieces. Keep your reader interested in whatever ways you can. Of course, your editors and publishers might have suggestions about the layout, design and overall content. Bear them all in mind, too. Don’t be afraid to take risks! Each book is collaboration (unless you are self-publishing, and even still it might be!), so take whatever you learn from each project, and apply it toward your next publishing adventure.

 

Amber Sparks, author of May We Shed These Human Bodies and Desert Places (with Robert Kloss)

I’ve sold one and a half short fiction collections, so I’m no expert – this is just what works, I think, for me. I find putting together the collection a strange, mystical sort of process – and I think you may find the same thing. A lot of it is just experimental, messing around with order, reading and rereading – and it just feels, or doesn’t feel right. You’ll know it when you see it, right? That sounds incredibly vague, and if you need something more concrete, let me instead suggest this: frontload the sucker.

Put your best story right up front. (Unless it’s super long or dense – start a little bit easy, and work them into your tougher stuff. Get them hooked first.) Once you’ve got a winner up front? Then stick another winner behind. And then another. And then another. It should be hard to decide because they’re all so good. Close with a killer story.

I’m not one that believes your stories all need to be connected, but I do think there should be at least a very vague, overarching theme. If there isn’t, see if you can construct one. What do all the stories have in common? Once you’ve got that theme (and don’t share it with anyone else – it’s just for you), cut stories that don’t fit. Since the editors reading your collection will be likely reading it all in a sitting, or a few sittings, it’s good for it to have a sense of unity, a certain tone that pervades. And readers appreciate that, too, I think.

 

EthelRohan Ethel Rohan, author of Goodnight NobodyCut Through the BoneHard to Say, and the short e-book memoir, His Heartbeat in My Hand, forthcoming from Shebooks later this year.

My ultimate criteria for compiling work is centered on the rhythm of the prose—phonetically, poetically, and emotionally—from the book’s first word to its last. Initially, I ordered the pieces in each book according to a subjective and instinctual checklist, trying to vary the work in terms of tone, theme, length, pacing, momentum, and the protagonists’ age, gender, and central conflict. Once I’d compiled the collection into an order I felt worked—and again this sense of the order “working” hinged largely on variety, pacing, and instinct—I read the book aloud from beginning to end. I find it instructive, indeed critical, to read every “finished” work aloud.

As I read out loud, the work needs to build on the levels of timing, flow, and emotion. Nothing should sound jarring, dragging, flat, convoluted, repetitious, or out of kilter. There also needs to be a sense of post-climax satisfaction at the close of the book. If all the latter criteria aren’t met, then I reorder the collection until each part of the whole beats to the right rhythms and delivers a meaningful emotional thrust. When all of the aforementioned criteria are met, the work feels complete. It moves and sates me. In a nutshell, if the collection read aloud sounds as seamless, climbs as climatically, and impacts as much as the great songs, then I know I’ve done my best by the book’s compilation.

 

Kristine Ong Muslim, author of We Bury the Landscape

When I organized the 100 flash fictions and prose poems for my book, We Bury the Landscape, I experimented with different arrangements—there’s the organic look, a.k.a. the random mess, and then there’s the sequential approach where I grouped the thematically congruent pieces together. Mostly, I settled on the general mood of the piece as the main ordering scheme. The angry-sounding pieces together, the meditative ones together, and so on. The resulting arrangement I framed at both ends—the first and the final stories—with my two most favorite pieces.

 

Sean Lovelace, author of They Could No Longer Contain Themselves and Fog Gorgeous Stag

Before MP3, iTunes, shuffle, on and on, we had a novel idea—the album. The Wall, Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. These albums were more than an aggregation of individual songs. Each song often told its own story, yes, but together they conveyed a larger story, in scope and breadth. (Rumours, by Fleetwood Mac, is a devastating [in a good way] example.) These albums were more than a sum of their parts. They were artifacts. They were a concept.

This is what I attempt when ordering a flash collection. Like the songs of heartbreak in Rumours, each text needs to talk to its neighbor(s). The members of Fleetwood Mac were undergoing great interpersonal turmoil within the band, and each talked to the other through song. Every text within a collection should likewise have some relationship (though not necessarily strife!) with their fellow texts. If they do not, then why are they even in the same book? How might texts relate to one another? In many, many potential ways. Might be subject. Might be tone. Might be structural interests. Might be repetition of these ideas, like a recurring chorus in a hit song. Maybe the author is weaving certain motifs, and their reoccurrence becomes a sort of unifying thread. On and on. My point is that ordering a collection involves a great deal of intent. It is actually an art in itself, much like ordering words, ideas, and concepts within an individual work of art. Form is function. Or to use Yeats’s dictum: “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” In a fully realized collection, we cannot. The art is micro, and macro, and therefore rewarding.

 

Cynthia Litz, author of Imprints

Imprints is a collection of  twenty-eight flashes written over several years, many of them informed by the human body in image, youth, illness, and aging. The order of the pieces creates a life arc by age and world view of the narrator or characters–the youthful getting to go first.

I also worked to place the pieces so that their musicality, when read aloud, flowed well from one to the next. This, along with the arc of aging, hopefully makes the collection have movement for the reader.

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This is Part 1 of a Two-Part Article – Come back on February 20  to read about the captivating ways Kim Henderson, Kyle Hemmings, Casey Hannan, Beverlyn Elliott,  Peter Cherches, Daniel Chacon, and Rusty Barnes have experimented with putting their collections together.

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BZoBell

Bonnie ZoBell’s new connected collection with Press 53 is on pre-order here—What Happened Here, where it will then go on regular sale. Her fiction chapbook, The Whack-Job Girls, was published by Monkey Puzzle Press in March 2013. She’s received an NEA fellowship, the Capricorn Novel Award, and others and is currently working on a novel. Visit her at www.bonniezobell.com.

 

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