Category Archives: short story process

Ordering Short Story Collections

My short story collection is finished! Well, almost. A little more tweaking to do. About 3/4 of the way through my manuscript, I made a table of contents to see my stories as a whole and to think about ordering. Although my stories span five years of writing, there are reoccurring themes that run throughout. I want the order to reinforce these.

“The placement of a story in a collection can alter both its meaning and its affect.” -David Jauss

This isn’t to say an editor won’t change what you, the writer comes up with, or ask you to cut a beloved story, or ask you to write new stories. Authors’ and editors’ opinions on ordering a short story collection differ, but there are commonalities.

First and Last Story

Place your best story first to grab the reader’s attention (a previously published story or one that has garnered much praise). Some editor’s say not to use a story that is too dark, that you want it to appeal to the largest demographic. The last story should also be strong and unifying. 

Title Story
If your title story (if you have one) is your best, it should go first or last. If it’s merely the best title, it can be placed anywhere in the collection as long as what precedes and follows are cohesive.
Story Length
A novella should be the last story in a collection. Short shorts or flash fiction pieces can be sprinkled throughout to alter the rhythm and and flow.
Cluster stories with similar themes together.
Think what kind of ride you want to take your readers on. Is it a roller coaster, or do you want a slow build to a big finish? 
Arrange stories with overlapping characters side by side and in chronological order. You may want to group stories by the protagonists’ age group.
Place can influence order. Keep stories that share a geographical location together or spread them out.
Consider how a reader might feel at the end of one story, and decide whether you want to maintain that mood or shake things up. A transition might be an image, key word, or title that relates to a previous story.
These stories stand out from the collection because of style, structure, or pov. Place these somewhere in the middle as you want to bookend with work that is most representational of your style. A story might not belong, instinctively you know this, but you’re hoping to sneak it in. I say go for it – the editor will tell you if it’s a no go.

Write each title on a separate index cards or strips of paper. Underneath, write the word count, theme, mood and a couple of key words. Spread the cards out on the floor and begin arranging . . . and rearranging. This will help you move from one possibility to the next with ease until you feel what’s right. Some ordering is subconscious, similar to the writing process.

Short Story Titles

What’s in a title? A lot. It’s the first thing a reader, editor, or judge responds to. A good title piques interest and raises questions before the reader knows what your story is about. A bad title may turn someone off from reading further.

Of course, you can’t please everyone. Perhaps you’ve titled a story Brenda’s Biscuits. Not bad. Now imagine a reader who as a child was bullied by a girl named Brenda, whose grandfather died from choking on a biscuit, and who was scorned by a teacher for using excessive alliteration. An extreme example, but you get the picture.

A strong title may suggest an emotion or create a mood. It should not only sound good but also look good. If a reader likes your story and wants to recommend it, would they remember the title, or is it too long and obscure sounding? Originality is a bonus. Titles can’t be copyrighted, but if someone searches for your short story online, it would be a shame if there were four others titled the same.

Titles come to writers at different times. In my experience, the best titles appear early on when writing a short. I once changed a story’s title after each revision – twelve times! Some writers are okay to wait until a work is completely finished before naming a piece, but I prefer to have a working title, even if it is the wrong one.

If a suitable title eludes you, don’t wait for it to magically appear – ask other writers and mentors for suggestions. Objectivity can muddle up titling the same way it can revisions. You don’t want to sit on a fantastic piece of fiction just because you’re not convinced you have the best title. Submit your work, an editor may suggest something better.

On the flip side, don’t get too attached. I once thought up a great title early on in drafts. By the time the story was done, the title didn’t quite fit, but I kept it anyway because I thought it sounded cool. Just like characters, you sometimes need to kill titles or at least save them for different stories.

Good titles seem to come without much thought, but if you are struggling, consider these suggestions.

  • name of character
  • possessive and object/subject
  • name of setting
  • theme or symbol
  • conflicting moment or event
  • expression
  • line from story

Brenda’s Biscuits was an extreme example of how a title can turn a reader off. A more likely scenario: a reader picks up an anthology of short stories, yours included. They only have time to read one. The reader will skim over the table of contents and choose a story whose title intrigues them the most. Will it be yours?

Any tips or anecdotes about short story titles?

Dreams for Writing Inspiration

Dreams can be a wonderful tool for fiction writing because the creative mind continues to spin its magic beyond our waking hours. If friends roll their eyes when you begin a sentence with, “I had this dream…”, stop talking and start writing. What develops in our unconscious minds is unique and personal – characteristics of a good story.

Dreams can inspire at different stages of writing. You may write an entire piece of flash fiction or only use one aspect of a dream – a character, imagery, setting, or mood as a seed for a new story. Night visions can also help solve problems you’re having during revisions. Try reading your piece right before bed. The story may work itself into a dream and provide you with a solution.

Of course, you have to remember your dreams. Keep a notebook and pencil beside your bed. When you wake, write everything down right away. Once in this habit, you’ll find your dreams become clearer and that you remember more often. In the middle of the night, I reach for my cell phone (no need to turn on the light) and tweet basic themes.

Dreams are often fantastical and wouldn’t make sense translated directly to the page unless you write magical realism or science fiction. But similar to using real life experiences for inspiration, anything can be altered for the sake of story. A giant hairy monster chasing you can be written as a 6 feet tall stalker with hairy knuckles. That said, don’t forget the nightmares.

What is your connection between dreaming and writing?

Stephen King, an excerpt from Writers Dreaming
5 Famous Books Inspired by Dreams

Ditching Drafts

When I began writing, I’d come up with an idea, write a first draft, and revise until it was done. Repeat process. I’d heard of authors keeping folders full of abandoned drafts. The idea of unfinished stories reminded me of plants yearning for a drink.

In an early effort to avoid online draft hoarding, I sat down and wrote a list of story ideas with a few points around plot, character, etc. This would keep all my ideas in one tidy place. I was green, thinking I could control the writerly brain from doing what it wanted.

Alas, I have a bulging drafts folder, where first drafts, half-drafts, ideas, and story tidbits are kept. Nothing moves from here until it is submission worthy, then it graduates to the almighty folder: Julie’s Stories. Let’s just say the drafts folder is getting a lot bigger than that of the finished works.

I try to clean up my files every so often because redundant crap irritates me. Before computers, I hated keeping papers of most everything. If I got a bill, I paid it and then promptly threw it away. I’ve also been known to recycle newspapers before people have a chance to read them.

So what to do about this ever blossoming drafts folder? A part of me wants to take the whole thing and throw it in the trash. Why not, another one will grow in its place. A voice inside says NO, you can’t get rid of anything, you never know when you might go back to an idea. I agree to a point, but clutter, whether it’s on the computer or in my immediate environment gnaws away and infects my creative process.

I will be discerning and only let crazy nonsensical ramblings make their way to the bin.

Files labeled Fucking Idiot, Perverse Dialogue, Sneezing Attack, and Housewife have been deleted, and it feels great.

Personal Obsessions

“It came as something of a shock . . . to discover that for over thirty years of writing my attention has turned again and again to the same unvarying gamut of sounds and images. I wish I hadn’t noticed this. In fact, it became an embarrassment and I began to wonder if I should file A CATALOGUE OF PERSONAL OBSESSIONS. And my agent was once heard to moan aloud . . . “Oh God, Findley – not more rabbits!
-introduction, Dinner Along The Amazon, Timothy Findley.

I could relate to the discovery of recurring themes, images, character traits, and worse – repeated phrasing I was finding in my stories (had I written this previous, or perhaps it was in a draft somewhere that never came to fruition.) I don’t have thirty something years experience which makes it all the more worrisome. It got me thinking of other things that creep into my fiction over and over again.

Felines have a habit of wandering onto my pages, and yes, many of my human characters are named after cats that have passed.

Recently, I wrote the dialogue tag ‘whispered loudly’ and a bell sounded. I scoured previous stories to find it  and exclaimed,  “My characters shall whisper loudly no more!”

I thought ‘the rolling waves of nausea’ was rather clever when I first wrote it, but it resurfacing for a third time made me feel sick to my stomach.

Other recurring bits include bars and their regulars, basements and their stairs, meatloaf, and hockey.

“. . . writers are never through with the world they see and hear . . . because it is a world inside their heads, which is the ‘real’ world they write about.”

I suppose the familiar becomes a handle of sorts. There lies the honesty in fiction that is required to make it believable. Too many layers covering up truth kills a story.

Life Before Writing

“I am distracted; I am weary to the bottom of my soul; sorrow lies heavy on my heart; and yet I am expected to sit down and write! And this is called ‘living!’” – Anton Chekhov, “Hush”

Writing is a disease—a never ending dissatisfaction. Of course, there is joy when you discover the perfect phrase, piece of dialogue, or when to kill a character for story’s sake. And news of accepted work is great, but all these woohoos! are fleeting—one quickly turns back to ideas and unfinished work. Whatever I’m doing, wherever I am, I think about writing, that I should be writing—more.

Writers share that moment when they knew their destiny. They mention the first zine they stapled together in grade two or the poem they carved into a desk in junior high.

I didn’t write fiction much of my adult life. I was free, and I didn’t even know it. After my first creative writing class, I was hooked. I became obsessed, but I thought (as with many safe addictions)that it would peter out in six months. Had I known this wasn’t the case, I would have enjoyed my guilt-free existence a little more.

“Being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life.” – Lawrence Kasdan

What if I quit right now? Writing keeps me out of trouble (for the most part). The disease is spreading. I study editing now so I can link my day job to my writing.

Writing Workshop Success

F&G Writers began as an idea over beers at Betty’s two years ago. Fellow students and I had just finished Short Stories II, a creative writing class taught by Emily Schultz, and thought it would be cool to start a writing group. After a few pints, I volunteered to organize. The next morning, I woke not only with a hangover but also with fear and dread. What did I know about starting a workshop? 

Weeks later, two of the kids from school sent me emails. Was I still on board? Crap, they were serious. My comfort zone would need serious renovations. I had taken three classes with Emily who ran super fluid productive workshops; I used her as a model. I also talked to writer friends, and yes, there were discouraging tales of woe, but after sixteen workshops, F&G is still going strong.

Tips and Strategies for Organizing and Moderating a Workshop:

1. Personalities. This can be tricky because writers are a strange lot. Invite writers you’ve met in classes and friends whose work you’ve read. Diversity of life experience, style, voice, and the ability to give constructive feedback are all important factors. No hotheads or crybabies.

2. Commitment. Crucial for longevity. You want members who are focused on their writing despite other interests and day jobs. The group can’t be a drop-in.

3. Size. It matters. I thought eight was the magic number, but it took careful time management and lots of reading and critiquing. Two writers left in the first year and then six seemed perfect. We lost one more and five works fine although new blood is about to be injected.

4. Consistency. We meet on a Friday night, every six weeks for three hours. Do not deviate from your plan as juggling dates around individual schedules is a nightmare. We meet at my home. You want a place that is comfortable, quiet, and accessible.

5. The Work. Anything goes fiction. We write short stories, flash fiction, excerpts, beginnings, and the occasional genre piece. Encourage submissions that are under twelve pages. Give occasional prompts to challenge one another (e.g., write 2nd person POV, use the word murder on the first page, write an urban legend).

6. Format. Ask members to email their fiction one week prior to meeting. At the workshop each writer reads a passage before the group gives feedback. Encourage everyone to comment before the member explains and/or asks questions. Written feedback is optional. Give equal time to each story (varies with story length).

7. Chill. Writing is serious work but workshopping doesn’t have to be. As time passes and trust is built the group will become more laid back and open. We take each other’s work seriously, but there’s a lot of laughing and joking too.

8. Extra Curricular. Plan dinners out between workshops. This gives you a chance to talk shop (processsubmissions, books, rejections and successes), and of course, to have fun. Add literary field trips to book launches and readings.

Running F&G is about process, much like writing. I didn’t know how it would work or if it would work before it began, but it has definitely been worth the effort.

“Girl in Dryer” in Broken Pencil

My short fiction “Girl in Dryer” appears in Broken Pencil 54. The story revolves around Alice, a twelve-year-old who lives with unrelieved suspense. She gains temporary relief when she befriends a man and his pig.

This story, inspired by a dream, has four firsts:

Wilbur and Alice

First story to be accompanied by illustrations. Beautiful work by Lisa Vanin.

First story I workshopped with F&G Writers, my amazing writing group that will celebrate its two-year anniversary this May.

First time I was invited to participate in the editorial process, a back-and-forth dialogue with BP founder and fiction editor Hal Niedzviecki.

First time I have been paid for any piece of writing. Have to think of something special to do with it.

Girl in Dryer

Publication Anxiety: 3 Stages

Your story has been accepted. Cool. If it was published next week that would be great, but it’s slower than beans out there which leaves plenty of time to ruminate. Someone is actually going to read what I write, weird. Who is going to read it, anybody? The worst part about this stage is rereading your story. I did this once, made revisions, sent it to the editor, and asked if he could print this much improved version. But of course I couldn’t stop. I sent two more rewrites, promising the last was the last. My roommate told me to leave the poor guy alone, and I finally did. Once your story is out in the universe, let it go.

You’ve received your contributor copies. As you skim through your story you see typos. Gasp! Or the table of contents reads your story is on page 21, but it’s really on page 22. Oh no! Or the editorial states your story was submitted as creative non-fiction, but it wasn’t. Ugh! Or, my favourite: your last sent version (The National Corvette Museum is in Bowling Green, Kentucky NOT Bowling Green, Ohio) didn’t make it to the printers. I did cry about that one. Do not dwell. Take heart that someone wants to publish your work and get back to the task at hand – writing.

You’re writing a new story. You wonder if you will ever be published again? I don’t know if this ever stops. Occasionally, you pick one of your publications off the shelf to remind yourself that someone gets your writing. But this has trappings of the first stage because your writing has improved, right? You will see lines and think, god that was crap; or realize, wow all of my characters are named after dead pets. Stay focused on the craft and the writing you are doing now. This 3-stage cycle will repeat, I promise.

Writing Paralysis

This slump has affected my fiction, blogging, editing, and even tweeting. I knew I was in trouble when I stopped reading a few months back. My top ten excuses:

1.  Grammar Boy – kissing on fire escapes and park benches is more fun than writing, right?
2.  Work hours increase – who has time to write?
3.  The Cats – they need mummy and will not be ignored.
4.  NFL – need to study to achieve success in my pool.
5.  Tired – nothing new, always been an insomniac.
6.  L-I-V-I-N – I’ll write about it later.
7.  School – focusing on my editing career.
8.  Writing in my head – pen to paper is the challenge.
9.  Wrong mood – not that I know what the right one is.
10. Low-Grade Anticipatory Stress Disorder – made this up but sounds about right.

Now that I’ve shared this crap with the blogosphere I’m hoping it will get me back on track. What excuses do you dispense when you’re not writing or doing what you’re passionate about?