by Marie Valentine, editor
Say you’ve written 35,000 to 75,000 words worth of short stories. Nicely done. Now it’s time to publish.
Some publishers focus on anthologies by genre or year, mixing many authors together. Other publishers group stories by era of an author’s writing career, for example: early stories, later stories, best of, etc. Those collections often come retrospectively, toward the end of one’s career or even posthumously.
While you can submit individual stories to journals, anthologies, or literary magazines, why not make your own collection?
If you are going to publish your book of shorts, structure is important. Instead of slamming stories together hodgepodge, I recommend you spend a few moments considering the best way to organize the collection. Story order will give you a memorable narrative grouping that delivers more impact as a set than one story would on its own.
Below are a few ways to approach your works as a whole.
Time can be a useful organizing concept. An easy approach is to look at the timeframes of the stories and put them in order. Is there a clear passage of time you can trace from one to the next?
For example, if all the stories take place on one day, you can organize them by hour or time of day (such as morning/midday/evening/night).
If there is one character or a family of characters uniting the collection, you can put stories in order over the course of their lifetimes. Even if the stories don’t have repeating characters, consider time in terms of era. This can be loosely, such as childhood/adolescence/adulthood, or by timing such as by decades of 80s/90s/00s or even past/present/future.
Considering setting, if stories change locations, you can group stories by geographic area. If the stories connect through one location, you can organize them by seasons, or calendar months in that place to show time’s passage.
Progression of Intensity
If the setting doesn’t clearly offer a chronology, look at the general arcs of the stories and consider which ones are more dramatic. Can you figure out a method to organize the intensity from less dramatic to most vivid? This approach will help in creating a buildup of tension.
For example, in one story collection I edited, we looked at the acts of violence in the book to build up to the biggest transgression. For example, we had a story about an argument first, and a story about a murder comes later.
You want to have the buildup be significantly noticeable so that each story becomes more impactful. Maybe leave a gentler story for the ending to buffer the finale and create a denouement that eases the reader out of the book.
Mix it Up
Both of the organizing principles above (chronology and increasing story intensity) can be combined and played around with to achieve the resonance you seek for your readers. You can make it a mystery by breaking one story up into multiple parts and sprinkling it throughout the book.
In a composite novel (also called a short story cycle), stories have interdependent characters, settings or other unifying characteristics. By dividing a story into multiple parts and spreading it throughout the book, you illustrate the change one episode creates in a life as a spectrum for other stories. This episode can become the defining theme of the book. I’ve worked on a book like this, and it took a lot of shuffling and compromise to make all the stories relate—where the author used to have multiple stories with disparate characters, we rewrote them to fit the narrative as a one-family short collection. The final product was worth it.
Alternately, you can create mystery by stacking stories from different times out of order: present, then past, then future, and variants of these. Add some method to the madness by allowing setting to serve as a prism to enhance character and plot. Keep your vision loose at first: decide what level of intensity you’d like to present initially, then next, and later you can tighten up and lock down the narrative focus as stories slide into place.
Story organization requires some intuitive creative work. As author, you know your stories best; use your knowledge to create the powerful reader impression you hope for through story order.
Marie Valentine has more than fifteen years of experience as an editor and proofreader. She offers manuscript critique along with structural evaluation. If you are struggling with organizing your story collection and seek an editor who specializes in short fiction, please contact Marie via this form.