On Descending Into Madness, or Editing a Short Story Collection

I’ve spent the month of March editing, tweaking, rearranging, and rewriting a story collection of mine that has been in the works for a few years now, Siblings and Other Stories. Editing a story collection is an entirely different beast from my experiences editing a novel. In order for it to be successful, you have to make sure each story stands on its own and at the same time contributes to the overall message of the book. What conversation are my stories having with each other? How does the order I place the stories affect meaning?

I’ve never felt quite as scattered-brained as I have working on a story collection. It feels like my brain has broken into a dozen tiny personalities all demanding attention and all begging for their own stories. When I work on my young adult novels, I am protagonist Jamie. I am one character, and I filter everything through her teenage, angsty lens. The stories that make up my collection have been written over the last few years. Each time I wrote one, I inhabited that character–a truck driver, a bitter ex, a child unable to connect with her addict parent. This month was the first time I was all of them at once. A lot of times when I run or ride the subway, a character’s voice pops into my head and expresses something to me. To spend a month listening to all these voices at once was a tad overwhelming. Thankfully, each voice was acutely focused–I knew exactly which character was talking to me each time.

Listening to your characters’ individual voices is a big part of working on a collection. Another important aspect is determining the order of the stories. The collection is twelve stories, each one about a family relationship. In order to develop an overall theme and organize stories in the best way, I put my mild OCD tendencies to good use and got a bit crafty. I used one Post-It note for each story and included notes on the family relationship at the center of the story (brother and sister, mother and son, husband and wife, etc.), from whose point of view was the story written, and the outcome of the story:

All work and no play makes Kait a dull girl.
All work and no play make Kait a dull girl.

Here’s what I learned about myself: I’m a mostly pessimistic writer. My story outcomes range from slightly hopeful to bleak, bleak with a bit of hope to (my personal favorite) darkly hopeful. Noticing that trend helped me tremendously in organizing the collection. Three bleak stories in a row might utterly depress my readers, so I had to break them up with the stories that aren’t entirely dire. I’ve spent a lot of time rearranging the stories in this collection in order to emphasize what I want to say through it. The opening and closing stories are bookends to the central theme: ultimately your family will let you down and/or you will let them down, but somehow you’ll dig your way out of that disappointment and carve a new, realistic, and more intimate relationship.

Perhaps I’m an optimist after all.

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