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