Saturday, December 26, 2009

from Matt Bell

For the last six months, I’ve been working on writing and polishing a new novella-in-shorts. The manuscript is made of twenty-six shorts ranging from 200 words to an upper limit of about 1200, all of which are connected by stylistic choices and an overarching similarity of situation rather than by plot or by character (they’re all cataclysmic, apocalyptic, or post-apocalyptic parenting stories), and therefore do not have a linear order they necessarily have to go in. The shorts are beginning to appear in magazines as individual, unconnected pieces, and I’m very happy that they’re able to stand alone as well as (hopefully) make something greater when collected as a whole.

Curiously, I wrote the first four sections not as fictions at all, but as prose poems for a summer workshop I was taking. I only workshopped two of them, but I started to see that there was some potential in this project, and I also got a chance to talk to other practicing poets about the pieces and how they worked together. What I realized—in that class and in conversations that followed—is that poets have a lot more experience than fiction writers in organizing book-length manuscripts of very shorts texts.

I know most of the posts on this blog have focused on the generation and revision of individual shorts, and that's obviously a great thing. But if you write in a form long enough, you're eventually going to want to start assembling a book-length manuscript of their works. The problem is that fiction writers mostly have experience with short story collections, and so those are the models they go to for how a collection should be organized. Except that's maybe not a very good way to do things, at least for the writer of very short fictions.

My thought now is that organizing a collection of 20-30 very short fictions in the same way you would a collection of 10-12 much longer fictions is probably a mistake.

Luckily, as I realized in that workshop this summer, there's a much better model for this already available to us in the form of poetry collections.

Talk to any poet a book or two into their career and my guess is you'll find out that they know a lot about how collections can and should be organized. Listen to them, and then go read some poetry collections yourself, looking at how they're constructed. There are so many different ways to organize a collection of short pieces, and poets have already discovered most of the successful ones. Why should fiction writers do all that work all over again?

Bio: Matt Bell is the author of How They Were Found, forthcoming in Fall 2010 from Keyhole Press, as well as a novella, The Collectors, and a chapbook of short fiction, How the Broken Lead the Blind. His fiction appears or is upcoming in magazines such as Conjunctions, American Short Fiction, Hayden's Ferry Review, Gulf Coast, and Unsaid. He is also the editor of the online journal The Collagist and can be found online at

Read "Cain, Caleb, Cameron"" in Wigleaf
Read "Hali, Halle, Hamako" in Artvoice
Read "Domina, Doreen, Dorma" in Everyday Genius


  1. This is very helpful, Matt. How to organize the work inside collections is challenging and critical. What I have found most interesting, and surprising, about a number of short short collections I've read over these past several months is that I didn't feel the writer put their strongest work at the beginning or at the end of their collections? Rather the would-be hook and sinker were in the mix. It's all subjective, of course, but still ...

  2. Thanks for reading, Ethel! I'm writing this fast, so I apologize if any of it is contradictory or jumbled:

    I've always heard that "strongest work first and last" bit too, and I think that's a bad way of thinking too. The order of the stories is what--to me, at least--makes a collection a compelling, must-read book, rather than just a random gathering of some stories that could be dipped into and out of. It should be deliberately leading the reader from story to story, not hiding a weak middle with strong bookends. There should be no stories you think are weak when you're done-- Every story should be strong, strong, strong, or else they should be left out.

    Basically, I think if you're just going "This is good story A, so it should go first, and this is good story B, so it should go last" and then filling in the middle, then that's a disservice to your reader and to your own writing. So much more can be done with the collection, and should be. (It also means that if I knew a writer did that with their book, I would just read the first and last story and be done with it. If I already know what the good stories are, why should I read all the weaker ones in between?)

    This isn't VSF, but for a story collection that is brilliantly ordered, check out Brian Evenson's FUGUE STATE. The book as a whole has an effect that is separate from that of any individual story, and it is accomplished by what is perhaps the most skillful ordering I've seen in a recent collection. (This is again something poets often seem to do much better than fiction writers).

    My own chapbook of shorts was not ordered on any basis of strength, but rather by what I felt completed a movement of emotion, which was (hopefully) created by the way elements in the stories played off each other in that particular order. I can't promise that it worked, or that it worked the way I wanted it to, but I certainly tried.

  3. I was a band director at one time and was taught to open and end my concerts with the strongest pieces -- the first to grab the audience's attention so they want to hear more, the last to leave them with a lasting impression. Matt's point about ordering stories makes sense, but I still want an opening story that makes me want to read the rest.

  4. Hi Jim! I'm not saying NOT to have a strong story to open the collection. I'm saying they should ALL be strong stories, and so the opener should also be able to begin some greater book-length movement or arc (while hopefully still hooking the reader, etc.).

  5. The poetry model seems just right to me, especially since I am not a fan of conventional fiction collections. I might read three or four stories, but rarely do I read the whole book before I want to move on to something else. Whereas a poetry collection I read cover to cover, in order. So that's another question--with vsf, can the author assume that the reader will read in the order of the presentation as opposed to flipping around?

  6. Matt, thanks for that very helpful and insightful response. You are absolutely right. The idea of bookending a collection is so flawed, isn't it. A collection with ALL strong works and with momentum and resonance, a vibration that climbs and climaxes seems an admirable goal and effect.

  7. Laura, I can only answer that from my perspective: I think I always WANT to read a collection cover to cover. Sometimes writers make that easy, and so I do so. But if I start getting bored, or start to feel that the order is random, then I'll skip around. And if, as I mentioned above, I feel like it's bookended, then as soon as I get bored I skip to the last story and see if it's got enough juice to make me want to read the rest of the book. (That said: I'm something of a completionist, and almost always read the whole book anyway. I might just take longer to do it, or do it a little grudgingly.)