Wednesday, 26 August 2015

How Do You Order Your Short Stories In A Collection?

"Extra-Curricular" is my fifth collection of flash fiction. Trying to figure out the order of the stories is as hard now as it was for my first collection. There's no reason why it would be any easier, since the stories are, of course, different, so each collection has to find its own feel and tone through the journey from story to story.

You don't want to group a bunch of stories that are all heavy in tone, but nor do you want to group some that are comedic, only to discover you haven't enough left to space out the heavier stories elsewhere in the book. Then there is always the one story that doesn't seem to fit anywhere, no other stories seem to run naturally into it or from it. Stick it at the end, but then it feels like the reader is ending on a note that isn;t the one you were looking to strike (the last story impression is as significant as the opener).

You think you've ordered them finally, only to discover on a read through that two successive stories echo one another in an image, or a word or a theme and that can diminish the power of each. So you look to move one of them and then the whole Jenga structure comes tumbling down because you can't rearrange it satisfactorily!

You always want a particularly strong story to open with. I normally go for one with comedy just to ease the reader into the work. "Extra-Curricular" perhaps breaks with that tradition although originally I did have a comedic story pencilled in there. But I was struggling throughout to order the 40+ stories when I suddenly hit on a solution.

When I try and figure out the running order, I always try and tag each story with its theme or style. With this collection I finally realised that the stories loosely could be tagged with school timetable subjects. Some of those subjects are a bit old-fashioned, such as Geometry or Logic/Philosophy, others are a bit modish and trendy such as Environmental Studies but hey that's poetic license right? Then there are some subjects that aren't represented at all, such as Maths and Chemistry. But then this isn't a hard and fast school timetable.

This broke the back of the ordering, in that now I could group together 3s and 4s of stories linked by subject theme. It would only be a question then of ordering the subject groups. Only... Some of the stories could easily be categorised as more than one subject. "Bas-Relief", ostensibly about the human brain, could be Biology or where it ended up as, Psychology. "Night Vision", the opener, was pegged as Physics because it involved thermal imaging, but it could easily have been Biology as bacteria and petri dishes are referenced within the story. "Confirmament" could have been Physics, History or where it actually ended up Divinity/Religious Studies.  For some reason, both the stories under the label of Art are science fiction...

And then there are the nine stories labelled as Extra-Curricular; stories of smoking, gambling, sex and love, all activities engaged in the playground or behind the bike sheds!

Oh there goes the bell for class. Reading books out on your desks please.

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