Short Story Collections: Gathering Places for Infinite Worlds

Author Lisa L. Hannett joins the Shimmer blog this week and helps us navigate the perilous waters of short story collections. How does one make such a collection, anyhow? Read on.

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Imagine yourself at a party.

Not just any old party. There are no paper hats with snug elastics digging into your throat here; no streamers twisted and taped to the ceiling; no gaudy candles melting into your Dairy Queen cake.

Instead, picture a castle with many rooms, each decked out with sparkling chandeliers, priceless artworks, furniture that once belonged to kings. The bar is stocked with imported wines and a champagne fountain graces the main hall. Long trestle tables line the walls in each chamber, laden with delicious hors d’oeuvres that won’t spill down your front when you bite into them, and don’t leave any green bits lodged in your teeth. There are as many guests as you’d like—you’re the host, after all—but to really get the shindig going, let’s say you’ve got at least a dozen. Each person is eloquent or funny or mysterious or brooding in a Byronic fashion (if you’re into that kind of thing). Men, women, immortals, fées—they’ve come from worlds both near and distant. Depending on their customs, they give perfect gifts wrapped in silk, or sheets of beaten gold, or dew-beaded cobweb ribbons. Your guests have got their own quirks, costumes, histories, but you’ve an eye for matchmaking. Everyone gets along. And, really, how could they not? They’re all excellent conversationalists. So much so, in fact, you wish you could clone yourself just so you could talk to them all simultaneously. All night, you move from group to group, chatting, dancing, drinking without getting drunk.

For hours, you’re enchanted.

You wish the party would never end.

This is what it should feel like to read an excellent collection of short stories. Whether the book is a compilation of works previously published or a collection of mostly new pieces, it should leave us with the impression that we’ve been invited to a magical word-party. A place where characters, story sequences, themes coalesce to make a strong impact on our imaginations. A gathering of infinite worlds which, ideally, is one we’ll continue to think about long after we’ve read the last page.

Obviously, authors can’t control the reactions their readers will have, any more than hosts can force their guests to have a good time. But there are a few things we can focus on when collecting our stories that will ease readers’ journeys through our written worlds.

Make each new story your favorite.

This almost goes without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway. Write the best story you can, every time. Make each new piece your current favorite, so that it can be lavished with all the love and attention you poured into earlier works. Because when it comes to collections, a good story might be left loitering outside with the valets. An excellent story will be in the grand ballroom, hanging with the cool kids on the Table of Contents.

If the glass slipper doesn’t fit, Stepsister, don’t force your foot.

‘But all of my stories are excellent!’ I hear you say.

That may be true. As I’ve already mentioned, many collections are ‘compilations’ of short works published elsewhere. And ‘elsewhere’ may indeed be the top fantasy magazine, the award-winning science fiction anthology, the most popular ’zine on the internet. There are so many examples of ‘collected works’ of this variety (by brilliant writers like Theodora Goss, Robert Shearman, Neil Gaiman, Kaaron Warren… oh, the list could go on and on) but ‘collected’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘all-inclusive’. Some stories, no matter how great, will not suit the tone, style, length of the collection. ‘Best of’ collections usually can’t showcase the author’s entire oeuvre, unless the term ‘best’ is actually a euphemism for ‘all’ (but few publishers are willing to sacrifice their readers’ wrists by forcing them to hoist a 5000 page tome). A writer’s favorite fantasy stories won’t suit a collection of their most popular space opera tales. There should be a clear dialogue between stories on a given collection’s ToC—which means that not all stories will be able to join in the conversation.

This is especially true for collections of mostly original stories. Books like Amal El-Mohtar’s The Honey Month, Angela Slatter’s Sourdough and Other Stories, and even my own collection, Bluegrass Symphony, are constructed around central themes or conceits—each piece was either custom-written or carefully selected to enhance these ideas, and to create a coherent body of work. Throwing in extra tales just to pad the book out wouldn’t have done us any favours. When writing Bluegrass Symphony, a collection of stories all set in a pseudo-Midwest American setting (but with shapeshifters, clairvoyant cowboys, tentacle-boys and talking squirrels), I had several ideas that almost fit but weren’t quite what the collection needed. So although I’d thought of including fifteen stories, it turns out the work was stronger with only twelve. It’s much better to have a small and perfect suite of stories (as in The Honey Month, for instance) than a clunky, incoherent rabble.

Seating plans were invented for a reason…

After you’ve whittled the collection down to its essential stories (a dozen or thirty? see the previous point) you need to decide in which order they should appear. What kind of mood are you trying to set? Which narratives will hook readers most deeply? Do you have two stories that feature magic lamps? If so, should they go next to each other, or will they be most effective separated by a handful of other adventures? Do some stories jar when read in succession? Is that the desired effect? Do you want to leave your readers crying, laughing, wishing the collection will never end?

As the author of these works, you know them best; their rhythms, themes and tones. Most editors will place the strongest stories at the beginnings and endings of collections, so that readers are immediately drawn into the books and reluctant to put them down. This is something you may want to consider when assembling your own published works. Of course, there are no hard and fast rules. A collection of original stories may work best chronologically, building towards a climax in an overarching narrative—in which case, you may not want to present the conclusion as the first piece in the book. (Then again, you might want to do just that.)

The beauty of short stories is that they are precise. Elegant. Concise. They enchant without wasting any words. A collection of such finely-crafted works should aim to do no less.

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In just over two years, Lisa L. Hannett has sold more than 20 stories to venues including Clarkesworld Magazine, Fantasy, Weird Tales, ChiZine, Electric Velocipede, Shimmer and Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded. Her work has appeared on Locus‘s ‘Recommended Reading List 2009’ and Tangent Online’s ‘Recommended Reading List 2010’. ‘The February Dragon’, co-written with Angela Slatter, won the Aurealis Award for ‘Best Fantasy Short Story 2010’. She is a graduate of the Clarion South Writers Workshop. Bluegrass Symphony, her first collection, is published by Ticonderoga Publications. A second collection, Midnight and Moonshine (co-authored with Angela Slatter) will be published in November 2012. You can visit her online at http://lisahannett.com.

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