Page 2 of 27

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 The plan was always to pull down the vignettes and collect them with unpublished stories.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.

Building on our Political Foundations

“Capitol Hill fox, National Mall” by Lorie Shaull is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

I’m no political junkie or pundit, but I have had a more-than-passing interest in politics for a long time. My earliest political memory is going to vote for Bill Clinton with my mother when I was 9 years old. My awareness of politics grew with each new crisis: the 2000 election recount, where even 13 year old me understood that Al Gore got fucked in Florida; 9/11 shortly thereafter and all its fallout; the start of the 2003 Iraq War, Haliburton, and nonexistent weapons of mass destruction; Howard Dean’s “yee-haw!” that unfairly (and, perhaps, quaintly in today’s climate) tanked his campaign; the excitement and anxiety of watching the rise of the nation’s first Black president and the racist backlash (when President Obama won I was convinced that we were going to see him assassinated not long afterward and it made watching everything he did in public nerve-wracking); watching the Democrats lose the House and Senate in the 2010 mid-terms and the unprecedented blockages of President Obama’s agenda; every government shutdown thereafter; the slog that was the 2012 election cycle and Mitt Romney; and consoling my wife in 2016 after Trump won.

Obviously, that’s barely scratching the surface of the dysfunction that’s personified our political processes over the past 20 years or so, and really only covers things happening at the federal level, which generally has the slowest and least wide-affecting change, but those are the high-level events that jump to mind.

There are times when I think I might want to go into politics. It was that thinking that led to my political science minor in college, where I began to learn how ignorant we are about our own country. One of the first things I learned in my political science classes was that the main goal of the Founding Fathers was to prevent the populace from having too much of a say in government (and not only because the Founding Fathers were racist, sexist, and classist, either). They didn’t trust that most people in the country are anything but reactionary and ignorant, driven by selfishness with little concept of the greater good. So they created a complicated system to slow change. What they couldn’t know then, and what we’ve only just begun to realize despite its consistent happening over the past century or more, is that the safeguards they put in place to prevent reactive change would be weaponized to prevent any change. As of right now, those “safeguards” may actually cause our country to regress in values and freedoms.

But I digress, as that’s not the topic I want to discuss. As a professional facilitator in my day-job, I’m a firm believer that debate is pointless without agreeing to a the context in which that debate is being held. In short, what agreed-upon truths are we building our conversation on? I want to lay out what I find to be the unalienable truths about the purpose of government and what I think that means for how the government should treat its people.

The Purpose of Government

Government serves one main purpose: To protect the people between its borders. The core argument of the Federalist Papers is that a single, unified government can do more to protect the people than some combination of independent states or loose collections of confederacies.

This is accepted fact and informs the entirety of our approach to government.

Where disagreements begin is in what “protection” means. Is it a standing military? Does protection include freedom from persecution, whether for religious beliefs, or sexuality, or speaking out against the State? Is universal health care a form of protection? What about housing?

In short, as far as I can tell, disagreements center on the question, “How much responsibility do we as Americans have to protect ourselves?” Republicans, being the party of small government and personal responsibility, believe the answer to that question is that we have all of the responsibility to protect ourselves. It’s why they are against universal healthcare, but for guns. Against providing housing to the homeless, but for tax cuts for the upper classes.

Except, the government is already large. And a lot about our society has changed in the last 250 years. So these beliefs aren’t aligned with the context of our current situation.

Protection is our Inalienable Rights

Before I dive into what I think “protection” should entail, let’s outline the context I’m talking about. Just so we’re all on the same page:

  • More people live in cities than in rural areas
  • We are the richest country in the history of the world
  • Our country is geographically disparate, and very large
  • We live in the most interconnected time in history
  • Because of this interconnectedness, the world has gotten smaller and we are increasingly reliant on foreign nations for trade and labor

With this context, all of which are truths that can be ignored but not denied, I believe all Americans have the right to the following protections from our government:

  1. Health: A healthy society is a strong society. We can spend hours going over the facts and figures around health care in America, how much money we would save in health care costs if we had universal health care, how unfair it is to laborers that they are tied to a job because of how health care is managed in our country, and how other nations have succeeded in providing their people health care. Regardless of all of that, if a government’s sole purpose is to protect its people, that should include from disease.
  2. Education: An intelligent society is a strong society. Set aside the fact that America prides itself on innovation and without education (or immigration, for that matter), innovation becomes more difficult. Instead, let’s focus on the inequities of education. How minorities and poor families (often one in the same) are not provided the same level of education as white and middle-class or above children due to how schools are funded. Let’s focus on the disparities in what is taught and how topics are taught between States. Every child deserves an honest, high-quality education regardless of where they’re born or what family they happen to be born into.
  3. Housing: A secure society is a strong society. Without access to the safety and security of a home, people can find themselves in a downward spiral that is nearly impossible to free yourself from. For example, to apply for certain benefits of our social safety net, you often need an address. To apply for a job, you need an address. Without those, homeless becomes impossible to escape from. And that’s not even taking into account the economic cost of homelessness on our country.
  4. Religion: Yes, freedom of religion is in the Constitution, but in our current society freedom from religion is also necessary. If church and state were really properly separated, there would be no challenges to Roe v Wade or Obergefell v. Hodges. Woman would have the right to do as they feel is necessary with their bodies. Everyone should be able to practice what they believe, but they should not be permitted to use those beliefs as a weapon against others’ rights.

If we accept these as forms of protection that the government is designed to provide us, then prioritizing how we spend taxpayer money and how we legislate becomes much easier. I firmly believe that most people agree on these foundational values, stemming from the government’s single purpose. The problem, then, is taking the necessary step back to reframe our arguments as arguments for these inalienable rights. The talking points have gotten too complex, the media too filled with noise, and if we can just take it back to our core, foundational values as a country, we can make everyone’s lives better.

GHOST STORY: Structure and Style

This is the movie logo, but it’s not that far off from the book’s aesthetic.

Unless experimental or post-modern, most novels progress along an easily followed, predictable structure. The author chooses a point of view (first or third person, usually, but sometimes second) and structures their novel either by character perspective, like what GAME OF THRONES does, or by events, usually breaking out specific events in chapters. These are the most natural ways to tell a story and ensure that the reader won’t get lost too easily.

Peter Straub’s 1979 novel GHOST STORY does all of these things at once and even throws in a prologue and epilogue for good measure. In short, the novel goes out of its way to break assumed writing rules and does it effectively. So what is its structure and why is it the best way to tell this particular story?

In screenwriting parlance, the story is broken into three acts (or parts, according to the book) with a teaser up front (prologue) and a tag in the back (epilogue). Nothing crazy so far. Each of these acts is broken into three parts, except the first act which only has two. Again, in terms of ebb and flow in the story, this is an unexceptional way to tell a story.

The chapters themselves, though, do some interesting things with perspective and time. Each act is broken up into short chapters, and those are sometimes broken into shorter scenes. The chapters are told from specific points of view, with the person whose perspective we’re seeing identified in a bold header at the start of each section. However, within each act that perspective shifts multiple times, and then begins with new chapters.

There are other times, too, when the point of view shifts further out. For example, after spending nearly 200 pages bouncing around the four main characters’ points of view–the Chowder Society, as they call themselves–we’re suddenly thrust into a third person omniscient narration with “The Chowder Society Accused.” Not long after that, at the start of the second act, the story shifts into a first person viewpoint, as we read the journals of a relatively new character that had only been mentioned before. The story is a constantly shifting, full of differing perspectives.

The same goes for time. The story starts around the one year anniversary of a Chowder Society member’s death, and then the second chapter of the first act jumps back in time to the night he died. The second act, being a series of journal entries, takes us to yet another time period, although at first it is unclear when in relation to the other events of the novel. What we do know is that it’s sometime before the prologue.

All that said, the unusual style suits the story. It keeps the reader off-kilter, for one, just as the characters feel. But it’s also the most logical way to tell the story, in a sense. The story would need to leap ahead and juggle multiple, unrelated character arcs if it was told linearly, which would be confusing to follow and lead to several slow sections that would likely bore the reader.

The lesson here (to me, anyway) is that what perspective and what structure you use to tell your story is just as important as the characters and events that populate the story. The way in which a story is told can confuse or illuminate a reader, depending on the author’s intentions. As GHOST STORY proves, mixing and matching perspective, time, and structural elements in new ways can accomplish both, drawing the reader deeper into the mystery you’re presenting.

Behind the Vignette: Her Tea

Check out the story before continuing.

We all have a tendency to imagine the worst, especially if the anxiety in our lives is heightened. I do this often, usually around how I’d feel if my wife exited my life for whatever reason.

What strikes me about these worries are the things around our house that would most remind me of her. We leave such strong impacts on the world just by interacting with it, and our relationships are no different. Aside from the obvious–the pictures from our wedding that hang out our walls, the clothes in her closet, the pages I’ve written about her–there are more subtle ways we leave breadcrumbs of ourselves in each others lives.

That’s the genesis of this piece. I wanted to capture the routines that break when something changes or ends within a relationship. A favorite book that might lay out on a coffee table. A forgotten dirty glass. The small things that remind us that, holy shit, we’re inextricably tied to someone else.

If my wife were to suddenly disappear from my life, I think those are the things I’d have the hardest time with. The things she does every day that impact me in almost imperceptible ways. And it’s because those nuances of her personality are the reason I love her to begin with. Their absence would be a devastating reminder of what I lost.

« Older posts Newer posts »

© 2020 Craig Gusmann

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑