Friday, October 28, 2016

Katie Chase's Ten Simple Steps to a Short Story Collection

In the 28th in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Katie Chase, author of Man & Wife (A Strange Object), offers guidance on producing a collection of stories.

  1. Fall in love with the short story: the earthquake of literature. But more specifically, fall in love with short story collections, the rumbling of one voice along the Richter scale. Extend the metaphor to Moore’s Birds of America, Diaz’s Drown, Munro’s Anything: aftershocks, destruction of your infrastructure.
  2. Write a bunch of stories. Then write a bunch more. Write from life, write from imagination, write from prompts and in a spirit of experimentation. Write a suite of flash fiction, attempt a novella, write a bunch in the sweet spot between 10 and 20 pages.
  3. Write one—just one, everyone starts with one—that is actually pretty good. This, as you’ve well discovered, cannot be willed. In fact, the process will bear similarities to that of stories that were actually pretty bad. It will happen as though by accident, as though in spite of yourself, maybe when you least expect it, maybe when you need it most.
  4. Submit your work, but especially that story, ruthlessly. Start at the top (as you deem it) and pretend to miss the bit about simultaneous submissions. There are so many strong, beautiful, and loving publications these days—just not many that are rich. Good work will find a home, eventually.
  5. Repeat previous steps as needed, until you’ve waved down the attention of a person who wields a moderate amount of power in the literary world (an agent, an editor) and convinced them to give you a lift. Luck will play its role alongside that of hard work, so it is best to focus on the latter and ascribe the success of sworn enemies and those picked up by prize anthologies to the former. 
  6. With this new momentum, shape up a thematically or otherwise linked collection of your stories and shop it around to publishers. Preferably not in the same year that a financial crisis has hit and shaken the economy to its core, and not at the same time that a celebrity is conducting a bidding war for his or her story collection. But when it doesn’t sell, don’t despair.
  7. Because of “two-book deals,” start working on a novel. Invest no less than two years in this relationship—you have to give it a fighting chance—but no more than ten. (If you were directed to this and previous steps via the list of Ten Simple Steps to a Novel, congrats; you have a workable draft! If not, proceed to our Step 8.)
  8. When your novel seems not to be working, despair. Put it in a drawer and write more stories: better stories. Write the stories that have been simmering, that bubbled up but that you tamped back down. Write all the stories—right now!—that you have been “saving,” because death, I’m sorry to say, is all too real.
  9. In a simple yet elegant ceremony, renew your vows to the short story. Under a full moon in a clearing, before a candle at an altar, level with the sunrise across the sea: promise to never stray again. (Of course, Step 11, omitted from this list as per its title, is to revive your flirtation, laced with scorn though it may be, with the novel.)
  10. Gather the best of the best of your stories, the ones that stand out on their own and seem to be speaking to one another, even if all you can hear of the conversation is a murmur, and get them, however you may, to a publisher (whether Big Five or small, strong, and beautiful—it’s 2016, after all) who will fall in love and can summon the sound into more of a song. In comparison to the steps that came before—particularly if in Step 9 you became reconciled on the point of money—this last one will be easy. (Easier.)