Ye Olde Short Story Collection

Last week I got notification that my short story collection wasn’t a winner in the 2010 Prairie Schooner Book Prize Series. A real disappointment, but I knew the contest was a long shot. The winner was “Destroy All Monsters” by Greg Hrbek, who has such an impressive literary resume that he makes me look like a penny dreadful pulp writer in comparison.  (The title was also that of a 1968 Godzilla movie, so figure out what that prize-winning shot story collection is all about.) Why did I enter this contest that I have no hope in winning?

If you’re a short story writer, you will eventually put together a short story collection. Entering a contest like the Prairie Schooner Book Prize Series is a good motivator for putting a collection together if you have enough short stories to exceed the minimum manuscript requirements.

After I got a postcard four months before the contest opened for submissions in January 2010, I pulled together a 186-page manuscript with 27 short stories written from 2006 to 2008, with the shortest being 350 words and the longest being 6,000 words. I learned how to be a better editor after extensively revising each short story before adding to the collection. Some of the revised short stories that got rejected a dozen times before got accepted for publication after being submitted elsewhere. That made the $25 entry fee a worthwhile investment.

Besides, what writer doesn’t want to win $3,000 USD in cash and a book contract?

The biggest challenge to putting together a short story collection was the lack of information on how to put one together, probably because short story collections are the bastard children of the publishing industry. The days of writers making a living on writing only short stories are long gone. Most publishers will not consider a short story collection unless you have several novels that appeared on the bestseller lists, and even then will reluctantly publish one if only as a teaser for the next novel. When looking at various short story collections, the organization of each one is about as idiosyncratic as the author who put it together.

When I put my short story collection together, I kept each short story stapled together in a three-ringed binder. I used a 3×5 card with the title, word count and short description for each short story. The sorting process was the hardest to figure out. Alphabetical (too many titles started with “The”) and chronological (suck more to suck less) sorting orders weren’t considered. I ended up splitting the cards into four broad categories—family, people, spirituality, weird—and shuffling them all together. I further re-arranged the order to ensure a proper balance with alternating categories and length sizes. Satisfied with the order of the short stories inside the binders, I put the final manuscript together on the computer.

That arrangement worked well for me. But keep in mind that some editors and/or readers will reject reading unrelated short stories that don’t have an overriding theme to tie the whole collection together. I selected these stories from the first two-and-a-half years that I started writing, representing my “literary” period. After I put this collection together, I went on a non-stop “speculative” writing bender that will form my next collection for the 2011 Prairie Schooner Book Prizes Series. That collection will fly or sink on the whims of the evaluating editor.

What will I do with my “rejected” short story collection manuscript? Nothing.

I’m still circulating the unpublished short stories to find a home for them. I could find a publisher to publish the collection, but I’m going to hold off until I have an agent for my first novel that I’m working on. Since I started selling my short stories to the anthologies, the contracts I’d signed often contain a year-long exclusivity clause that prevents the short stories from being reprinted elsewhere. Timing becomes a huge factor when pulling a collection together. Having an agent to double-check all those contracts and perhaps negotiate waivers will be useful.

Of course, winning a contest to catch the attention of an agent wouldn’t hurt either.

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