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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.)

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.)

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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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