The Short Happy Lives of Short Story Collections

Short story collections are the weird sister of the publishing world. Though you can see anthologies of shorts in bookstores (i.e., 2012’s Greatest Stories About the Kardashian Sisters), you rarely see collections by individual authors. Sometimes the poor things are teetering on the tippy-top shelf of a general fiction section, because it’s a rare store that sets aside shelf space for collections, unless your name is Alice Munro or Annie Proulx.

GIVEAWAY: Tom is excited to give away a free copy of his collection to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: DocAnnieD won.)

      

Guest column by Tom Bentley, who lives in the hinterlands of
Watsonville, California, surrounded by strawberry fields and the
occasional Airstream. He has run a writing and editing business
out of his home for more than 10 years, giving him ample time to
vacuum. He’s published over 250 freelance pieces—ranging from
first-person essays to travel pieces to more journalistic subjects.
He is a published fiction writer, and was the 1999 winner of the
National Steinbeck Center’s short story contest.
See his writing-related blog here. His new collection of short
stories, FLOWERING, AND OTHER STORIES is now available.

 

 

And you never hear of the “blockbuster” short story collection either—the Grishams, Kings and Rowlings lean toward meaty novels that no ninja reader warriors could quickly cleave through, like they could a short story. Yet there’s something in a good short story that offers much more than a literary appetizer—sometimes a short story is the perfect (and heady) distillation of a complex world. I remember with zest my first youthful encounters with the Gothic fevers of Poe’s short stories—”The Murders at the Rue Morgue,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Black Cat”—with the creaking floorboards, chilling miasmas, and visceral terrors. Moving later to a different, more nuanced Gothic cloaking from Flannery O’Connor—”A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” “The Life You Save May Be Your Own”—was a new education in fictional fulfillment: the sacred, the profane and the utterly odd, all gathered in human nature.

(Can you query an agent for a short story collection?)

Scott Fitzgerald’s novels, Gatsby among them, were painterly processions, but some of his best short works were spun gold. “Babylon Revisited” seems a perfect story to me, a quietly haunting piece of balanced melancholy, a closing door behind which lies eternal regret. And Salinger’s 9 Stories, with “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” and “For Esme, With Love and Squalor”—both contain a comic face, but can’t conceal a broken heart. Even if short stories aren’t the biggest of the swimmers in a publisher’s aquarium, many are the most colorful.

Conventional wisdom holds that you need to have published a novel or two first before your publisher might consider a collection of stories. There are only a few publishers, such as Dzanc Books and Press 53, that concentrate on shorts; many of the Big Six might put out a collection or two, but unknown short story authors might only be enabling their agents to lunch on their behalf, without a contract following dessert.

My own collection came to be published in a roundabout way: I saw a notice in one of the writer’s newsletters to which I subscribe soliciting short stories for anthology consideration. The publisher, Mike Aloisi of Author Mike Ink, responded favorably to the story I sent and inquired if I had any more. I’d had a number of stories in small publications, as well as some unpubbed pieces. We sorted through the entries, went through a couple of editing rounds and now I have a 314-page book I can throw at the cat. But of course, with a small press (and these days, with any press), most of the marketing efforts are shouldered by the writer. I don’t have particularly broad shoulders, but I’ll take on that yoke. I’m happy to have the book out there and I’ll try to throw it as far as I can through “The Open Window.”

(Do writers need an outside edit before querying agents?)

(To make cruel metaphorical use of the title of another classic short story, don’t rapidly use up all of your matches in your quest “To Build a Fire” under your readership and marketing; remember, these are the days of the long tail, where you can build and build your reach over time.)

Here’s to the short story—may it live, on the page or on e-ink, forever.

GIVEAWAY: Tom is excited to give away a free copy of his collection to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: DocAnnieD won.)

 

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21 thoughts on “The Short Happy Lives of Short Story Collections

  1. madnessandme

    Hi Tom,

    Congrats to you on Flowering! I wish you much success with your new “baby”.

    Your post actually gave me an idea about my book (which became so overwhelming I began a blog — SHORT STORIES! Maybe that make telling my zany family’s story a bit easier for me — chunk by chunk.

    Any thoughts would be greatly appreciated 🙂
    xo
    The “ME” in the Madness
    ~ MadnessMomandme ~

  2. writer5512

    Most of the time when I think short stories and length, I think it should be shorter than it really is, but at the same time the longer ones could be turned into books if given the right amount of time and ideas. To me, a short stoy is something you right when it’s not quite long enough for a book, or (in my case) the story you want to tell goes by too quickly. Of course, I’m still starting out so I have a lot of experience to gain.

  3. andreadorn

    When I was very young I would read and reread an Alfred Hitchcock book that my grandfather had on his shelf. I then “graduated” to SciFi magazines. I rarely read short stories now though I greatly admire the craft. As macjam47 wrote it is probably because they are no longer assigned. I think compacting your story is the hardest thing to do. Congratulations!

  4. macjam47

    I love short stories! It seems once people are out of school (high school, college) they forget about them. They are something the instructor assigns. How sad. Thank you for keeping them alive!

  5. bentguy

    Thanks, CMcGowan. I know what you mean: I have a great premise for a story, with good characters, but I haven’t been able to figure out which point of view would make it work. I’ve started writing it a couple of times, but it hasn’t moved. Have to keep plugging…

  6. revegrande

    This is great and I congratulate you in everything that you have done to get here! You are an inspiration to young writers like myself. Good luck in everything you do!

    Shannon

  7. bentguy

    Marcos, you remind me that I like a lot of Bradbury’s stories too—”The Foghorn” and “A Sound of Thunder” are cracking good. As for throwing Kindle stories, you can always toss the electrons at Schrodinger’s Cat and see what happens…

  8. mgaser

    I do love short stories collections from one authors, probably because Ray Bradbury is still one of my favorites, and most of his work is in that format. Tom, I bought the collection in Kindle format. Not so efective for throwing at the cat as I would wish, but quite comfortable to read..

    1. bentguy

      Annie, “Good Country People”—an amazing, scary, boggling tale! O’Connor is such a unique, gifted writer, with a point of view unlike anyone’s. She can’t be easily compared to any writer I can consider. Even though her output (just a couple of novels—I love Wise Blood—plus her stories) was limited, the material will be well-regarded and cited for generations to come.

      Thanks for the congrats!

    1. bentguy

      Kaw, pretty much the only way to fill a book (unless your plagiarism skills are top-flight) is to keep writing, so, keep writing! But it does seem a true truth (truly) that you need to get a few shorts published first to demonstrate that editors like your stuff in general before you’ll get an offer on a collection. There are a range of good literary journals around—keep submitting and keep writing, and good things can happen.

  9. philtoyhouse

    As a marketer, I am a big fan of the short story. My brain can only handle one point at a time, so the short stories have a far greater appeal and interest. Short stories are tasty and easier to digest. And they are no less the literary accomplishment than the long novels. Some of the best shorts I have read required far more skill to get the point across in such a short order than the lengthy tomes considered classics.

    1. bentguy

      Phil, sometimes the short is the thing, and the only thing, that will satisfy a certain hunger for tale-telling. And yes, it’s the old adage, penned by Twain and many others that declares, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote aa long one instead.” In a short story, you don’t have the open economy supplied in novel, so the words sometimes require more concentration of plot, characterization and metaphor.

      If done well, a short can seem to have depth and development—though stuff from people like Donald Barthlelme or Jorge Borges don’t need to rely on plot and character development to spin a wonderful (and crazy) tale.

    2. bentguy

      Phil, sometimes the short is the thing, and the only thing, that will satisfy a certain hunger for tale-telling. And yes, it’s the old adage, penned by Twain and many others that declares, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” In a short story, you don’t have the open economy supplied in novel, so the words sometimes require more concentration of plot, characterization and metaphor.

      If done well, a short can seem to have depth and development—though stuff from people like Donald Barthlelme or Jorge Borges don’t need to rely on plot and character development to spin a wonderful (and crazy) tale, just the author’s fertile imagination.

      1. bentguy

        Phil, that first guy that replied has trouble with a few of the keyboard commands, so I fired him. We’ll see how this second guy works out.

  10. Annie56789

    Congratulations! A friend of mine has had dozens of short stories published in literary journals, and last year a publisher printed a collection of his stories (Bob Strother, “Scattered, Smothered and Covered”), so it does happen–occasionally. One of my humorous short stories is coming out in an anthology in a couple of weeks, “Sweeter Than Tea,” published by BelleBooks. Short stories are wonderful, and I’ve won a few awards with my more intense ones. I tend toward longer works but so far no one has offered to publish any of those. Someday…

    1. bentguy

      Annie, congratulations back at you (and to Mr. Strother as well)! There are a number of venues for shorts in small journals and anthologies (some of which are indeed gleaned by agents and publishers for writers of promise), but it does take real effort to get recognized, though my own chance was a bit of a fluke. And the compensation for short story publication isn’t going to put a Ferrari in the driveway.

      However, it sounds like you are steadily working in the genre, and continuing to persist in putting yourself out there, which are the strongest building blocks to finding a home for your work.

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