One question I often get asked as a publisher of short stories is 'How do I begin to put a short story collection together?' It's a good question because writing short stories is an altogether different process to bringing a body of work together and making it presentable to a publisher.
At Dahlia Books we continue to champion the short story form through our annual campaign Short Story September, our competition Leicester Writes Short Story Prize as well as through publication. This year, we published two single author collections, Let Us Look Elsewhere by Mona Dash and Mrs Pinto Drives to Happiness by Reshma Ruia respectively.
The entire process - from submission to publication - took about 18 months and involved an intense process of revision. Here, I've asked novelist and short story writer Reshma Ruia to share her thoughts and advice on putting a short story collection together. I hope it's useful to anyone looking to sub their collection.
Tips on how to put your short story collection together by Reshma Ruia
Writing a novel, a poetry collection or a short story collection has its own unique challenges. As someone who has worked across all three genres, I have had the opportunity to reflect on what makes a short story collection such an interesting endeavour.
1. Find a common thread
The stories included in Mrs Pinto Drives to Happiness were written over a number of years and feature different settings, plots and protagonists. ‘The Lodger’, for instance is set in an American suburb and portrays the relationship between an old, parochial American woman and her Middle-Eastern lodger. In ‘First Love and other betrayals,’ the main protagonist travels to Rwanda to attend the funeral of his secret gay lover whilst ‘Soul Sisters’ is a study of obsession and loneliness. What unites them are my own abiding concerns and preoccupations as a writer. Each story’s narrative arc and resolution thus reflects a certain leitmotif of displacement, loss and a longing to belong to either a map or a feeling. Many of the stories explore how people grapple with the past, whether it is grief, political upheaval or the loss of a loved one. Stories such as ‘A Simple Man’ and ‘Cooking Chicken in Kentucky’, examine the historical legacies of war and colonialism that forces people to migrate into the great unknown where their language and ways of being suddenly become peripheral to the central discourse. A certain hierarchy comes into play that diminishes or ‘others’ their choices and tastes and this can have a devastating impact on identity and self-belief. The central premise binding these stories is the individual’s quest to remain true to himself or herself whilst fulfilling their obligations to the new world around them and the roles they play. In the title story, ‘Mrs Pinto Drives to Happiness’, Mrs Pinto has to choose between the idea of individual freedom versus her obligations to her family.
Colm Toibin in his review of these stories describes them as ‘explorations of areas of conflict in contemporary life - the modern versus the traditional or the individual versus the group or the ethical versus the practical. They dramatize the choices made and the effect of these choices on individual lives’.
2. Focus on the quiet details
In terms of the craft and structure of the collection, certain factors are critical. The title and the cover need to be striking and interesting. Readers have a short attention span and rely on the cover and the blurb as well as endorsements to make up their mind. The order of the stories needs consideration too. Stories are not necessarily read sequentially and each story should display the writer’s ability to conjure a variety of different worlds, using language that is not monotonous, predictable or repetitive. There is also a temptation to include every story one has ever written. Don’t. One should only include stories that resonate with you, the writer playing the reader.
The order of stories is critical too. The first and last stories should be the strongest. They are flag bearers for the writer’s creative credentials. It is also a good idea to mix up the long stories and the short stories, to keep the reader surprised and engaged.
3. Finding a suitable home
Publishing a short story collection in today’s precarious economic climate is an achievement that needs to be celebrated. Large, commercial publishers are wary of taking on short story writers, particularly if there are emerging or from a minority background. I find it is independent presses, usually out of London that take a gamble on new talent and the short story as a genre. I was fortunate to work with Dahlia Books, a Leicester based publisher who has consistently championed regional and diverse voices.
Mrs Pinto Drives to Happiness by Reshma Ruia is out now.