Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Compiling a Short Story Collection

Since my college years my focus has been on writing novels. My first effort was an essay, my second a short story, and thereafter I wrote longer works. Still, between longer projects I write the occasional short story. I discovered the character Anita Ray through a short story, and by now I have about twenty published and unpublished Anita Ray stories. It seems about time to put together a collection of some of these, and that has become my end-of-year project.

Building a collection of short fiction is a separate skill. Work is enhanced or diminished by the order in which it appears, and figuring out that order can be a challenge. During the life of The Larcom Review, I was surprised but pleased that most of the work submitted fell into certain thematic categories without our requesting them. This made it relatively easy to find a sufficient number of works that went well together. The Review published poetry, short fiction (all genres), essays, book reviews, and interviews, along with black-and-white art. Selecting and arranging individual pieces has remained one of the great pleasures of my writing life. The work is both tactile and intellectual, and as I stood over the eight-foot table with stacks of paper at my fingertips I could imagine many different versions of the issue I was working on until my choices narrowed the possibilities, and I was left with the one we published.

The same question of an effective arrangement appeared in the Level Best Books anthologies, which I along with two colleagues, Kate Flora and Skye Alexander, later replaced by Ruth McCarty, published for about seven years. Kate did the honors in those volumes, and I noticed as I read how astutely she had matched one story with another.

Now as I set out to arrange a dozen Anita Ray stories into a collection that won't run beyond seventy thousand words I think about variations in tone and setting, types of crime and recurring characters, foreign and native suspects and victims, and any other qualities that will reduce the level of sameness in stories focused on a main character. I'm looking for an arrangement that will enhance the contrasts.

During a recent discussion in the Short Mystery Fiction Society list, several contributors shared their experiences with publishing collections or compilations, noting that a grouping of stories widely diverse in genre can undermine the book's appeal, and a little over sixty thousand words seems to be the sweet spot for length. I keep these points in mind as I continue to select and arrange.

Another aspect is the cover. I now use my own photographs of India for the reprints of the Anita Ray novels as well as the individual short stories I've posted on Amazon. I intend to do the same with the collection. The photograph must fulfill certain requirements, such as indicating at once the setting readers have come to know through the Anita Ray mystery novels as well as drawing the eye of new readers.

This is my final project for 2015, and it will carry a 2016 pub date.

To read two of the Anita Ray stories to be included, go to the links below.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Taking Things Slowly

The Northeast has been in the gentle grip of unseasonably warm weather, which has made the holiday season seem like an afterthought. No one I know feels a sense of impending holiday cheer and celebration. Most of what we’re doing is trying to remember to do whatever it is that we ordinarily do when things are different and the holiday rolls around, or something like that. But one aspect of this time of year has reappeared, almost insistently, for me.

December is when I stop to wonder if I did all that I meant to do. This isn’t about testing my activities in the past months against New Year’s resolutions. Instead, it’s about staying true to whatever life goals I’ve set for myself. Did I wander off course? Am I frittering away time? This is always a danger now that I’m retired. I think I have all the time in the world, and I don’t.

And that last sentence by itself tells me I've missed the mark sometimes.

I came across a word of advice years ago—I don’t remember where—but I repeat it to myself almost every week. “Don’t hurry your life.” I took this simple statement then, and do now, to mean, don’t be in a rush for whatever it is you think you want or are working toward. Perhaps others would call this being mindful, but I don’t think it’s quite the same.

“Don’t hurry your life.” Let things happen in their own good time. During what is usually a frantic holiday season, and may yet become one, I think this is good advice and I try to follow it. In this very slow holiday season, the advice seems the perfect commentary on what is (or isn’t) happening. This holiday season is slow, quiet, laid-back, a relief compared to previous years and what we consider normal. It feels as if the Universe is showing us what it's like when the advice becomes real. 

Don’t hurry your life. Take it slow and let it be richer for you.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

When No Means . . .

Every writer dreads the letter or email that begins with the usual “We enjoyed reading . . . but . . .” At that moment we die, or at least I do. I can feel myself sinking into the mud of disappointment, where I shall remain until I can find something cheerful to pull me out of my misery.

Rejection is part of the writing life. John Creasey received 743 rejection slips before he sold his first mystery. He set the standard of perseverance for the rest of us. One editor considered A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle  “neither long enough for a serial nor short enough for a single story.”

The writer who has never received a rejection of her ms has never sent one out. Everyone gets rejected at some point, usually in the beginning, but sometimes repeatedly over the years. It’s part of trying new things, taking risks as a writer, and reaching out to unknown editors. We never know as writers who will like our work and who will not see anything good in it. Over the years, however, I have learned that the rejection letter sometimes isn’t a rejection letter. It’s a delicate prod for the writer to make certain changes either in the ms or the publishers being approached.

I remember one letter (and it was a letter, arriving in a stamped envelope, before everything was done by email) in which the editor complained the submitted novel had no “pizzazz.” I’ve never forgotten that word. I didn’t write the novel to have pizzazz. Scribner eventually published it as Murder in Mellingham.

A colleague received a rejection, she thought, from a publisher who, I felt confident, would take the book. She was so disappointed until I read the email and saw the error in her thinking. They liked the ms, but it was too long. She set about trimming, resubmitted, and the novel was accepted and published.

A publisher rejected one of my titles in the Anita Ray series, and the rejection left me surprised as well as sad. I reread the email several times, particularly the paragraph complimenting me on my wonderful writing. I reread the ms, found the passages where I’d fallen asleep at my desk, resubmitted, and the ms was accepted.

Over the years I’ve learned to read rejection letters with my own personal dictionary at hand—the one that offers several definitions of the word no and its relatives. I also turn to the gem of a book Rotten Rejections, and comfort myself with the observation that other writers better than I have had it worse.

Most editors are polite today, even if they dislike something. Right now I’m glancing at one editor’s comment on John le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. “You’re welcome to le Carre—he hasn’t got any future.” This is to remind us all that editors may be the gatekeepers, but they can be—and often are—wrong.