Thu 11 Dec 2014
We published a similar round-up, only it was of writers’ advice about how to organize a fiction collection in February, and it became a two-parter, Part 1 and Part 2. I said then as I will now, this is one of the main things I hear writers of stories talk about. How can you best enhance your collection by the order you put them in? The answers are all different with some Editors/Publishers getting more involved in the process and others feeling this is definitely the writers’ prerogative. See what the following presses and peeps have to say about the organization question.
Mike Young at Magic Helicopter Press
A chapbook is a strange form, but it doesn’t have to be, or—rather, better, more excitingly—a chapbook can remind us that every form is strange. What I like out of a novel struture is an awareness of what expectations I’m bringing to it but a desire to upend or reinvigorate those expectations. After all, why read yet another anything if not to have a new shake? Same with collections, and particularly with small collections, which because they are small make you think, naturally, “Why just these few stories? Why these really short stories? Why not a whole book? Why this handmade cover? Why this sneaky art?” When I think of how to organize a fiction chapbook, I think of the form itself: small, sneaky, held close, pocketed, stashed away, tucked away. As far as organization goes, there are some straightforward principles: 1) put your hookiest story first, maybe go for a story that is in some way the scarf you’d wear to the party, which is the first thing people are going to see but also the first thing you’re going to take off. 2) Longest story in the middle, the sustained story, the heavy memory in the kitchen. 3) Last story seems like it should be gestural, maybe the most mysterious, leave the reader remembering an inscrutable toss of the hip. But that’s a pretty prescriptive trio of rules, so really what I’d like to return to when it comes to advice about organizing a chapbook is to remember what it will feel like in the reader’s hand: pretty secret, definitely more secret than a paperback, quicker to melt, and maybe something you want to keep digging at with your teeth, something you’ll want to treat a little preciously but you know you’ll end up smudging.
The best chapbook organization, I believe, should go unnoticed by the reader. As with any individual piece of writing, a well-structured collection will simply work and seem to do so effortlessly and without calling attention to its assemblage. Organizing multiple pieces of short fiction can seem a daunting task because achieving both cohesion and variety is the goal—a linking within the collection should be evident, but each piece should also stand alone in its representation of the greater work. The fight for space in a collection unfortunately often manifests in top- or bottom-heaviness, or hasty inclusions intended to create balance. And what happens if pieces, similar in some way, lie consecutively? Will opposing pieces clash?
Another complication arises when working with a title story: Should it come at the beginning of the chapbook? The end? Should it be used to support a middle section that may otherwise sag? Add numerous additional considerations like length and point of view and narrator characteristics and geographical concerns and stylistic worries and … you get the point. After writing that may have in some cases taken years to perfect, putting together the chapbook can feel a torturous practice hurdled with numerous possibilities and prohibitives. Rely on theme, however, and you can’t go wrong; in fact, think thematically about organizing the chapbook and lace your unifying idea as the connective tissue between story muscles and you will allow readers to make your body of work move for themselves.
Sometimes, I tend to think of chapbook composition in terms of my culinary background. More specifically, menu design. In culinary school we were taught terms such as the workhorse, dog and star. A workhorse will consistently net profit over food cost, the dog will bring people in but will not net a profit and a star will actually cost you to keep it on a menu. But all three define a successful restaurant.
In terms of chapbooks, I think it’s best to understand the stories need to work as a whole and that yes, the reader will see it as this, as a journey. It should have its own climax, dialogue, even plot, between the writer and the reader—very much outside of the tangible stories themselves. That being said, I believe a fiction writer needs to decide where they will fit these literary elements into the story between themselves and a reader, not necessarily where the strongest, shortest, longest or even published story goes, but that simple dialogue of emotions. Does that make sense?
Poets & Writers had a wonderful article by Katrina Vandenberg about organizing a collection using a mix-tape strategy here. I still create mixes for people (now using a CD burner)! Creating the mix focuses me on the experience of the listener, and I like playing with the juxtaposition of songs to create surprise and recognition. My 2013 mix, for example, bumps The National’s “Pink Rabbits” against “The One That Got Away” by The Civil Wars. The last line of “Pink Rabbits”—You said it would be painless / It wasn’t that at all—bumps up against The Civil Wars’ first line: I never meant to get us in this deep / I never meant for this to mean a thing. The National and The Civil Wars might be familiar bands to listeners, so what follows is a song from a more unfamiliar artist, Mark Mulcahy.
So that’s my suggestion, completely stolen from Katrina Vandenberg’s article. Create a mix-tape. Think of the listener moving from one track to the next. Think of where you want to take that listener, where the listener has just been, where the listener is going next. Create a lull to create a surprise. Just when the listener has the quirky pattern figured out, break it. Vary lengths. Mix it up. And then send it out the way you would those precious mix tapes, as something personal, not meant for everyone, but just the right person.
A fiction chapbook of stories should already be in order and done when sent to me. If something would be better moved elsewhere in the manuscript, I will suggest it to the writer. I pay attention to the flow of the manuscript and want the first story to grab the reader. From that point on, looking at it as a whole, the order should make sense and make the chapbook strong. I look for unique and well written manuscripts. Surprise me!
Putting a collection together can be a slippery, delightful, infuriating process, because there’s no such thing as the perfect order. Sure, there are ways to capitalize on synergies, ways to make themes crescendo, and ways to highlight the best pieces or hide the lesser ones. But there’s not one ideal order. And I kind of love that. Because it makes me even more determined to keep playing, to keep printing out stories and laying them beside each other, seeking meaning, discovering how two works change slightly in tone and temperament when they rub up against each other. A collection at first glance may have no theme, but look closer and you’ll find a sense of order, and that’s what to shoot for: making the flow from story to story seem intentional. Sometimes you can sneak two stories together because they share a similar image, or voice, and that likeness will resonate, will surprise, will delight–and sometimes you want to separate them to avoid emphasizing those things. Choose the order of pieces based on the bigger picture, the themes you want to pull out–and those you don’t want to emphasize–paying great attention to the first and the last stories, but also how the middle works, because every piece is as important as every other piece in a collection, and curating how they read one after the other helps give the reader a smooth journey from cover to cover.
This is such a case-by-case query that I’m having a hard time coming up with an answer that would be of any interest at all to your readers. I keep forming an opinion (don’t lump similar imagery close together, or establish a clear narrative arc, or whatever) and then remembering a hundred great books with lumpy images, no narrative arc, etc.
I guess in the end the issue of sequencing pieces in a manuscript is not terribly important to me. As you said earlier, a large part of the editorial process is determining the right order of things, and so it’s almost taken for granted that whatever order the MS is in when it’s submitted isn’t very important. Or, maybe more accurately, a manuscript will rarely be accepted because it was ordered in an interesting way. The determining factors, at least for me, are so much more about the quality of prose, the things the author’s mind gravitates toward, etc.
Beyond that I’d say it’s too hard to say. I like the way Infinite Jest is sequenced, but I also like the way cookbooks are sequenced — appetizer, protein, dessert, recipe recipe recipe…
The most important aspect of organizing and preparing a fiction chapbook, or anything that’s being considered for publication, is something most new writers take for granted: Make sure it is your best work. That seems obvious, doesn’t it? Who wouldn’t submit their best work for publication? But I’m not talking about your best work. I’m referring to your best work.
I recently posted a blog on the Monkey Puzzle Press site that addresses this conundrum: 5 Debunked Myths about Getting Published Every New Writer Should Know. To reiterate, keep this in mind: If you’ve written something in a writing workshop, whether inside our outside the auspices of academia, and it received great reviews and applause from everybody sitting around the table, don’t think for a second that it is your best work. Chances are it’s not even yours. Odds are it’s an amalgamation of styles and influences from everyone around the table, as the work has been shopped and edited and changed and restructured, ad infinitum, resulting in a work that is a reflection of its environment, which may have nothing to do with your original voice, style, or intent. What works in a writing workshop doesn’t always work in the real world. Nothing trumps story. If you haven’t told a good story, developed good characters, and/or pulled the reader in emotionally, no amount of playful spacing on the page or fruity fonts will make the difference. That’s the kind of stuff that works in a writing workshop. What works in the real world is a good story, and a good story is original and unique. Make it yours.
Editing Meagan Cass’s chapbook, Range of Motion, which will be out in February from Magic Helicopter Press, was the first chapbook of the fiction kind I’ve ever had the joy to fall into. And wow, what a stellar one! Like I do with the poetry chapbook, I play the little brother role—asking way too many questions, sometimes saying things that are awkward and/or weird, usually being overly energetic, but ultimately, hopefully, making the family reunions totally bearable with the understanding eye contact, the shared loved, and hopefully some damn bubbly charm. With every chap, we go through similar steps: getting all the right pieces there, line-editing a time or two, and then ultimately the copy-edit goodness that really shines it up. With Meagan, despite not ever having met before, we danced in sync right through this thing, culminating in one of my favorite story collection ever, and for that, I couldn’t be more stoked for this thing to plop into this world.
Drawing the reader in: When you’re submitting a chapbook manuscript to a contest or reading period, consider the editors and judges as the most discerning readers you can imagine. Think about the things that draw you in as a reader, then amplify them and apply them to your work. Make the presentation and layout clean and organized, and most of all, make it impossible for the editor to move on to the next manuscript by putting your best story or stories first. Once you’ve got them hooked, they are more likely to give your manuscript more time and consideration.
Shaping your chapbook: All collections of short fiction and poetry, whether thematically linked or not, need to feel cohesive and of a piece. This doesn’t mean your chapbook needs to be linked thematically or narratively; it could mean instead that the manuscript has a consistent voice or tone or form or structure. Every year when we read our contest submissions, we always receive a set of manuscripts that feel like the author took every finished flash piece they had and dumped them into the manuscript pell-mell. You want your manuscript to feel (and be) more thought-out and planned than that. Even if the stories are all standalone, there should be a reason to put them together and an order that feels right. Tune in to the voice or emotional core of your pieces and create a story order that has an arc or crescendo. Editors and judges will notice that extra work and that the manuscript feels complete and purposeful.
If you have any great ideas for organizing collections, we’d love to hear from you, too!
Bonnie ZoBell‘s new linked collection from Press 53, What Happened Here: a novella and stories , is centered on the site PSA Flight 182 crashed into North Park, San Diego, in 1978 and features the imaginary characters who live there now. Her fiction chapbook The Whack-Job Girls was published in March 2013. She received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in fiction, the Capricorn Novel Award, and a PEN Syndicated Fiction Award. She has an MFA from Columbia University, currently teaches at San Diego Mesa College and is working on a novel. Visit her at www.bonniezobell.com.