So You Want to Write a Short Story Collection
Don't We All
SO: you want to write a short story collection. Let’s set some ground rules first. In this case, we’re talking fiction, because the non-fiction version of this is an essay collection, and we’re also talking about books for grown ups. Short story collections for kids are not impossible, but they are rare when done by a single author. Anthologies, fiction or otherwise, are more common, but include many authors, not just one. We talked about anthologies here.
I have a short story collection in a drawer. I mean, it’s my master’s thesis, and it is technically a collection made up of short stories, but that doesn’t mean it’s a publishable short story collection. (And god I wrote it when I was like 23 so who knows what atrocities lie therein.) But this is the first thing you want to avoid.
Story collections are very hard to sell.
You probably started writing short stories before you wrote a novel. Not all of you, but I bet most of you, especially if you went through the MFA system. It makes sense—it’s like a warm up. (It is and it isn’t, tbh.) But it is much harder to sell a short story collection before a novel. Why? Because more people buy novels than story collections. I mean, what was the last story collection you bought? And how did you know about it in the first place?
Story collections can be hard to sell because they are hard to pitch.
What’s your story collection about? You might say well, it’s about man’s inhumanity to man, but that doesn’t really tell me what happens in your stories/collection. Do you walk into a bookstore and ask the bookseller hey do you have any books about man’s inhumanity to man? Probably not. If you’re looking for recommendations, you probably say do you have any books about space colonization? or WWII or modern Korean fiction in translation? The more you can say what your collection is about using nouns and not abstractions, the better off you are, which is why you don’t want to shove all your short form writing into a Word doc and call it a book. A short story collection is not just all your not-novels.
My master’s thesis is not a short story collection, because it is just all the stuff I wrote in grad school mushed together. (I was graduating early. I might have been a little rushed.) Whether you are in grad school or not, your short story collection is NOT just all the things you wrote that are the right length. While you don’t have to have a theme per se, your collection should feel intentional.
You have to have some of those stories published somewhere first.
I know. It’s a very how can I get job experience if I need job experience to get the job? thing. You don’t need these publications to “prove” you’re worthy of a book deal; you need them for exposure. You need them so that when people see your collection, they might think hey, I read one of these in The New Yorker, and pick it up and buy it. So the publisher can put As seen in The New Yorker on the cover. Obviously, the bigger the venue, the more likely you’ll get that instant recognition. And it doesn’t necessarily follow that they will put As seen in [prestigious but small magazine] on the cover of your book. It’s not a perfect system. BUT that’s why you need publications before a story collection. This applies in all genres with a robust short story ecosystem, like science fiction and fantasy, too.
And a good number of stories in your collection should be unpublished.
Yes, you need to publish short stories but not too much. Or, you have to write more that will be exclusive to your book. Otherwise, you’re going to get a bunch of “ugh I already read all these stories online” reviews on Goodreads. What’s the magic number of published to unpublished stories? There isn’t one. You want at least half and half, imho, but a publisher might say they want even more unpublished than that. It depends on your platform and how hungry readers are for your book. Did you just win a bunch of awards for your story? Then you might be able to get away with having more published to unpublished stories in your collection because publishers want your collection ASAP.
Ok, Kate. I get it. But what do I need to do a story collection????
You need a manuscript of at the very least 50k words, full of stories that fit together thematically or otherwise, some published, some not. You should be able to answer what’s your book about? in a compelling way using as many nouns as possible. And you should be ready to answer the question do you have a novel? too, because if you’re lucky, an editor or agent will ask that, and them asking that is a very good sign.
I am sorry if this is not fair to short stories or how you want to write or what you have in a drawer right now and your desire to get published. Believe me I feel that myself very much. But this is what happens at the intersection of art and commerce. If you want to sell a book to a publisher, your book needs to be able to sell your book to a reader.
Before I forget!! Writer Karina Krupp just came up with this thing called ChillSubs to help writers find venues for their work! I haven’t dug too deep into it yet, but it looks great!
Take care, my friends. Be gentle with yourself.