Category: goals

Organizing a Short Story Collection

These are short story collections.

Last year I made a plan. In 2020 I was going to build a website (check!), consistently update that website (mostly check!), and I was going to self-publish a novella and a short story collection (… not check…).

So obviously, 2020 being what it is, things have changed. When I made this plan there was no Covid on the horizon, I wasn’t thinking about buying a house, and I didn’t expect to become a father. Yet, somehow, all of those things happened. And you know what? I kinda like the unplanned stuff more (except Covid–that can suck a big fat donkey dick).

Anyway, all of those things are a delay, not a cancellation. The novella is written (but needs some editing, and a rewrite of at least one section), and I have enough stories to put together a collection. The plan was always to pull down the vignettes and collect them with unpublished stories. I’m going to do that, but as I sat to think about what that could look like I realized that short story collections are more complicated than just taking a bunch of stories and throwing them together.

First, if I’m going to self-publish something, even if it’s only priced for $0.99, I want the reader to get value out of it. A book made up of 12 vignettes would top out at 15,000 words, if that. I don’t think I’d buy that book, especially when the vignettes were already free online at some point. This wouldn’t be as simple as just collecting and self-publishing what is already on this site.

The idea was never to only do that, but I did want to ensure that I had enough stories of varying lengths to make a purchase worthwhile. I went through everything I’ve written, including what I knew I wanted to include, some works I wasn’t sure about, and ideas that aren’t written but I’m excited about. I put them all into a spreadsheet (youse know how much I love spreadsheets) and wrote down the exact page count for each, as well as whether the writing was a vignette, short story, or poem.

Seeing all the stories laid out quelled my fear that I wouldn’t have enough writing that I was proud enough to publish. I saw there was a decent mixture of lengths that, together, added up to something worth $0.99. The next step, then, was figuring out how to organize them.

I didn’t quickly find many articles online for organizing short story collections. That said, much of my thinking from here on out is influenced by this blog post from BOOKFOX, so instead of cribbing from it I’ll just point you there.

Specifically, I found guideline #3 to be helpful: “Build your own structure, and then order stories according to that logic.” The post describes five different types of structures for a collection–hourglass, möbius strip, mosaic, musical improvisation, and instant replay. The hourglass structure most appeals to me for this particular collection.

Having decided on a tentative structure (it may change as I work toward publication), I had to figure out how to fit the stories I chose into this concept. My stories tend to wander between genres, but touch on common themes or play with similar styles. I went back to my spreadsheet and added “Genre” and “Subgenre” columns. Sticking to only a few genres so as not to overcomplicate the exercise, I put the writings into loose groupings.

Then, on the advice to start with your strongest story to draw the reader in, I arranged the order from that story down. From there, I tweaked the order in which stories appeared to have a better flow from genre to genre, and from idea to idea. Now, the collections starts with a series of horror stories, eases into existential dread, turns into experimentalism, dovetails into romance and sci-fi (I tend to use sci-fi to explore romantic notions–who knew?), and ends on a dramatic note.

This collection has required far more thought than I expected, but it’s also challenged me to think deeply about what I’m including and why, and illuminated common themes in my work.

I hope to have the collection on Amazon by December or January.

No Excuses (Or Never Give Up, Never Surrender!)

The moment I decided to start writing query letters I also decided something else: The only chance I’ll ever have at a career as a screenwriter, and the only way to be sure that I’m a hopeless cause (if there is a way to be sure), it to give it everything. I was scared of querying managers, agents, and producers because I didn’t want them to ruin my confidence.

With contests, or BL3.0 there is a wall between you and the reviewer(s). It’s easy to take a script down if it gets a bad review on BL3.0, or say that the reader did a poor job and ignore it. It’s even easier to write off contests. The competition was just too good this year. Contests are a scam anyway. My script isn’t marketable enough to win contests or my script is too mainstream to win this contest. I’m sure there are an infinite amount of excuses lean on, but I can’t personally rationalize such a rejection from a manager, agent, or producer. Especially since, in my interactions with a manager, if they do read your stuff and it is even vaguely interesting you will receive a thoughtful response. Maybe I got lucky my first time out. But I would like to think that’s how most “insiders” or “gatekeepers” operate.

Even though I was scared of querying because of the seeming finality to it the process has actually given me some confidence moving forward. I wouldn’t call it a homerun, not by a long shot, but it was a good start. I made a connection, proved that there is some semblance of talent beneath this insecurity, and learned a few valuable lessons that should help me in the future.

As I constructed my contact list I also realized that, much like dating, there are plenty of fish in the sea. If I don’t get any bites this go around the flaw is with the idea and/or execution and I need to do better next time. The door isn’t closed. Managers, agents, and producers surely talk to one another, but unless they read something horrifically bad (as in – offensively bad) I doubt they would gossip and blacklist some unknown writer that lives in Alexandria, Virginia by way of Buffalo, New York.

I’ve written a bit about knowing when to quit and worrying that I’ll be chasing this dream past the horizon, through the sunset, and into the vacuum of space where it’ll kill me, but there is solace in knowing I’m on my way to doing everything I can to make it a reality. It began with contests. Then it was professional reviews. Now it’s query letters. Next is the move to LA. Once there, if things don’t break, then maybe I’ll know for sure that this life isn’t built for me even if I feel like I was built for it.

Burn Out

I tried to write today. I really did. Yesterday, too. But something’s off. Yesterday I only got in 210 words before distractions and business interfered. Today there have been no distractions (unless you count the U.S. Men’s Hockey Team getting beaten by Canada – which, like, fuck man? I had high hopes this year) yet I’ve still only been able to write just over 300 words. My goal each day I sit down to write is 1,000. Never less. Often more.

I think there are a few things working against me. For one, until yesterday it had been nine whole days since I’ve written. That may not seem like a lot, but trust me it is. So now I’ve got to shake off some of that ring rust. Discipline myself, again. I think another problem is my backlog of projects. While on a good day it only takes me an hour to write 1,000 words or more I can’t help but think about revising The Inhabitors in time for the Nicholl early entry. Or working on a second draft of Peripheral so I can send it out for feedback. Or really attacking Manifest Destiny to try and break the story.

Mostly, I think I’m just stuck. I’ve resumed work on a story I initially started in 2012 and set aside because I wasn’t sure where to go with it. I know the endgame, but how to get there is a mystery to me. I picked it up again yesterday in an attempt at getting back into the swing of things with something that was already started. I was surprised at how much I liked it. But I’m not much further on in the journey than I was back then. Still know the ending. Still don’t know how to get there.

Which makes me think that perhaps more preparation is necessary for me. Which takes time. Which is something I’ve struggled with managing because it flies directly in the face of the goals I’ve set this year. Please don’t misinterpret that – the goals aren’t the problem. The man behind the goals is. I just need to get better at setting aside time to plan and write and edit. If I spend an hour per day on each – that leaves 21 hours for me to sleep, eat, watch TV, do work that actually makes me money, read, spend time with friends and family, so on and so forth. Time isn’t really the issue. How I have managed my time is.

Part of that time mismanagement is simple endurance. I’ve already written a lot so far this year (almost 37,000 words in 51 days plus an average of over 2.75 blog entries per week among other things). I’m not exactly short on ideas, but ideas have never been a problem for me. Solid execution is the problem, as I’m sure it is for most writers. It’s all part of the experiment. Maybe tomorrow, or next month, or when reviewing my year I’ll realize that, boy, getting words on paper isn’t a problem for me but getting good words down without thorough preparation really is. I should focus more on development and allow the execution to come from that. No way to really know without trying a few different methods to see what works.

And when I do figure it out… You guys better watch out. There’ll be a new King of the Written Word in town. /sarcasm

Writing vs. Storytelling

I had an epiphany last night. I spent the day reading The Inhabitors aloud in preparation for entry into the 2014 Page International Screenwriting Competition. Then, before bed, I decided to check out the top entry in the 2013 Blacklist. That screenplay is called Holland, Michigan and was written by Andrew Sodroski. The logline is as follows: When a traditional Midwestern woman suspects her husband of infidelity, an amateur investigation unravels. I did not get very far into the script due to the late hour, but I really enjoyed what I read.

This led to my epiphany: I am a good storyteller but an average (possibly below average, depending on what you’re comparing to) writer. I can’t say much on the story yet, but I can tell you Mr. Sodroski is an excellent writer. I mentally compared his writing to the style I used in The Inhabitors and immediately felt inadequate. However, my confidence with The Inhabitors lies in its story. I love the story and the characters, which for a screenplay is more important than the writing. If it gets produced, that is.

There are plenty of examples of great writing paired with subpar stories, and great stories paired with subpar writing. Great writing can save a crap story and a great story can save crap writing. But both of those scenarios only work to a point. The ideal situation is a great story paired with great writing. That is the bar every writer should shoot for. It’s unfortunate I hadn’t thought much about it until recently.

Part of this is finding your voice. I was reading writing advice recently (if I could remember where I’d link to it, but I don’t so instead I’ll apologize – I’m sorry) that talked about writers adopting what I’ll call a “narrator voice.” The narrator voice is what we write in while writing a story in the third-person. It is basic, cliched, and sounds like what we expect a narrator to sound like instead of what we, as individual writers, sound like. I realized that I have a tendency to do exactly this. My stories all sound the same because I adopt a specific narrator voice that isn’t unique to me while writing. It’s most egregious in my prose writing, but I tend to do it in screenplays as well. It’s just less noticeable there because screenplays, by their nature, rely more on description than metaphor and the like.

The solution? Read and write more, I suppose. I’ve taken it on myself to write 1,000 words per day for the year. Hopefully within those 365,000 words I’ll find 70,000 or so that make a good story. I also hope that within those words I can overcome my narrator voice and create something more interesting, more involving, and all around better than what I’ve been doing so far.

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