Saturday, 20 October 2012

Up Close and Personal

I have spent the past few weeks wrestling with my short story collection, due out next year. I've yet to decide on story order, although story precedence seems to be falling into place. I've also had feedback from some very generous readers - some of whom have thrown my thinking on its head. As the stories voyage from Africa to Europe and back, vastly different environments are drawn up, sketching characters who deal with their appearance or physical foibles or fixations, in shifting contexts coloured by history and landscape.

I've also been reading up on what other writers have said about trying to stitch up a collection. It's rarely comfortable reading, because there are so many elements, so many different opinions. What to aim for - a vast and diverse collection, or a thematic voyage through interlinked characters? A parade of stand-alone stories (I can think of Nam Le's 'The Boat') or a tessellated piece like Gretchen Shirm's 'Having Cried Wolf'. And, is the story collection a prelude to the more imposing authorial task of the novel, or is it art unto itself?

So many tussles going on. And this poor writer's pieces go from gay druggies in Berlin to a story of incest in Sekondi, Ghana. How to map these out without losing/baffling the reader?

And yet, as one of my readers said and some of the discussions I read confirmed, short stories are meant to be reread, fished through, digested and thought about. They sit on the stomach. They smoulder in the mind. They are not a comfy flow from one snatch of free time to the next, the connected world of the chunky novel that gives the reader relief. Rather they are demanding, feisty, often unresolved and can leave you sorely wanting. Cliff-hangers, in their most effective form, with the crux of the story's reality just beyond reach, the story around the story, leading the reader up a garden path that buzzes with suggestion.

If you are a short story writer or interested in how these collections come about, do read this discussion, one of the most pertinent series of points I've come across lately

Some of the most interesting points include:

..Publishers favour the linked collection, especially if they can disguise it as a novel. If that isn't possible, they may still suggest a unitary title. This is how Mothers and Sons was given its title, homogenising Tòibin's wide-ranging collection, and privileging one theme among many.

..However tenuous the links may be, story cycles and thematic collections are highly visible, and they are popular with both publishers and literary critics.

..How do you go about assembling all those bits and pieces into a book-length manuscript? Do you just put your best stories together and hope for the best? Or is there some inner logic?

And, for me, one of the most resonant point of all:

..A short story doesn't really resolve anything. It sustains tension, which is probably another reason why people don't take it to the beach. It's not a relaxed form. It can mirror a confusion which doesn't have to go away.

..The word story, the word plot, means a crisis, a conflict, an escalation and then a resolution. Resolution can be a positive, reassuring, warm resolution, but it can also be a kind of Shakespearean, apocalyptic resolution. The short story does have a lot more of the latter - confusing resolution, resolution that turns everything on its head - but it's still a type of closure, a truth slamming down on the reader.

This entire piece is worth reading and is called Oceans of Stories: Collections, Sequences and the Short Story. The discussion is chaired by Ailsa Cox, of the Edge Hill Prize, and the speakers included Anthony Delgrado (bluechrome), Ra Page (Comma Press), Duncan Minshull (BBC Radio 4). Very glad I discovered this.

And this is the bit where most short stories writers photograph their post-its on the floor or the bed, showing you how maddeningly off their rockers they are. Check this out. Can betrayed Laila rub shoulders with broken Sebastien in Brussels? Will Nathalie lead on to Veronique and her contemplation of scarred Heinrik? Will Celeste stand back and allow her brother and his lover to take their own lives?

I read a beautiful comment by Scott Prize winner Carys Bray. She said that unconsciously, she had bookended her collection with two similar pieces. I was thrilled to discover a while back that I had done the same thing too - 'Pelt' starts with a feisty pregnant woman determined to win her man back, 'Volta' ends with another, completely flawed pregnant woman about to lose hers.


  1. I am endlessly obsessed with "how to" assemble short story collections. I've entered the Scott Prize this year and although I planned it out like a crazy story heister, or, um, something radical sounding, I still want to know more, and wonder if there was anything I missed.

    I adored The Divorced Lady's Companion to Living in Italy, and I can't wait to read Pelt x

    1. Thanks so much Rachel, glad you enjoyed. Best of luck with the Scott Prize. Yeah story order drives you insane - I thought those articles helped slightly. Can't wait to see a story of yours in The New Yorker, go girl! Xcat

  2. Oh, I've been so remiss in getting back to you, Catherine, I will try to in the next little while. I've been thinking of you pretty much everyday but they just fly by.

    I enjoyed this post. There does seem to be a trend to the connected short story style in recent times. I've read more in the last few years than I'd read in a few decades. However, as a reader who likes short stories, that's not what makes me buy and read short stories. I do though like collections by one writer (though I have read and enjoyed anthologies from many). When they are disparate stories, I'm not sure that I worry too much about what story follows what because the joy of short stories is that you can fit one in short spaces of time so you often don't read them one after another the way you might read a few chapters of a book. In other words, I'm saying don't get too anal about the order!

    Some variety in tone is good - particularly if the collection contains some grim or melancholy stories. And change of voice (ie person) can keep the reader interested. Unresolved endings are fine as long as they are not too obscure. I agree that this can be one of the defining characteristics of short stories.

    Anyhow, I really must go to bed ...

    1. No worries WG. My timeframe seems to be perpetually expanding. There is still so much refining to do. I've also swung around to the view that it is okay to be uneven - or varied - I was worried for a while there that I should separate the two geographical areas, but now I'm no longer convinced. I'm still shuffling post-it's around the floor!

    2. For what it's worth Cat I agree entirely with WG.
      I enjoy the short story form and don't fret about lack of a unifying 'theme', which, in any case, I often find disingenuous and which probably detracts from the other 'themes'.
      Sometimes ensuring that there is a difference in tone or texture - ensuring that you juxtapose perhaps contrasting 'voices' in story order can be useful.
      I'm as useful as a chocolate teapot! But I am looking forward to Pelt.

    3. A chocolate teapot! I love that.

      Useful points - thanks. I'm coming around to the 'difference in tone or texture'. Before I desperately wanted to unify, now I'm relaxing, feeling my way, but they are still jostling like eager babes! One reader suggested I stick to the African stories only but I really feel that variety and as you say juxtaposition might be more enticing for the reader.

      I'm so excited about this project! Xcat