[process] The art of the single-author collection

An author friend of mine recently wrote to tell me they had been solicited for a single-author collection, asking if I had “any thoughts you’re willing to share about story placement, theme, story choice, mixing fantasy and SF, or any other topic I haven’t even begun to think of.”

That’s actually a pretty good question, albeit likely of interest to a fairly narrow set of people at any time. So I thought I’d give it a bit of a run.

About a year ago, I made a fairly detailed post on anthology editing. Much of what I said there applies here, concerning varying story lengths, making sure that closing and opening lines don’t create unintentional hilarity, that sort of thing. If you think about it, a single-author collection is after all essentially no different from a very tightly themed anthology.

My friend’s question presumes the collection is largely self-edited. This is not an unusual circumstance for collections, though sometimes a publisher will provide their own editor to go through a larger body of work. Generally one has to be rather famous, rather dead, or both, to receive this treatment. So we’ll assume self-editing for this discussion.

To their specifics:

Story placement

Much as with regular anthologies, place the heartbreaker right up front. Place the next strongest piece right at the end. Balance the rest as you fit, ensuring that length, (sub)genre, theme and topic don’t crowd too close together so the collection doesn’t read all the same of a sameness. If the body of your work is wide enough to provide a sort of thematic acrostic which can be adduced from the sequence of the stories, terrific. Otherwise, just go for variety.

Theme

Much like placement, theme should vary. This might not be true if you are an author noted for a specific, strong voice which the publisher would like to showcase. Likewise if all the stories are from a common continuity. However, for a true mixed anthology, spread ’em out. You can have a metatheme to the book — my collections American Sorrows, Dogs in the Moonlight and The River Knows Its Own all have definite metathemes, but the stories in each book are varied in length, tone and individual theme.

Story choice

This is how you act on the two above points. There’s a couple of distinct arguments to be made here. If you have some pieces which were very widely read — published in major markets, reprinted in YB volumes — you can include them to attract readers with familiar, beloved work. Or you can exclude them on the grounds that readers have likely seen the stories before. My personal philosophy is to go with whatever I’ve got that I like, that hasn’t already been widely exposed. Maybe one or two “anchor” stories if you have an award (or award nomination) up your sleeve, but I’d go with new stuff. Another consideration is work which isn’t readily accessible. Maybe some pieces appeared in limited run small press editions which aren’t buyable anymore. The flip side of that is e-published pieces, which may be generally available in long term archives but don’t have the sense of object-permanence that a book brings. I’m also not afraid of sticking unpublished stuff in a collection, but a lot of publishers would prefer to see majority to entirely reprint work when they’re considering a single-author collection.

Mixing fantasy and SF

This one’s easy. Bust a nut, baby! Go crazy. Mix it up. A single-author collection is about an author, not a genre. This is almost opposite the advice I would give for most anthologies, but where else are you going to lay your zombie lesbian pirate kitten story alongside your singularity in a Klein bottle story?

I hope that helps, or at least is interesting. If you’re a reader of collections, what do you like to see? If you edit (or author collections), what are your experiences?

3 thoughts on “[process] The art of the single-author collection

  1. Ooo! Thanks for this. One important question you left out. How do you title the darn thing?

  2. Thanks, Jay! Very helpful. And I’m with MRK — titles!

  3. A random comment on the title issue: I found talking to poets very useful in thinking about short story collections, since all their books, more or less, are collections. They’ve told me that while there’s a burden on the first and last pieces in a collection (as Jay said, they should knock the reader’s socks off), it is as nothing compared to the burden on a story whose title is chosen for the book. It’s a traditional way to title collections, but that one piece had better eat Chuck Norris for breakfast or the reader will feel let down.

    Those are my two cents from my own thesis/story collection ponderings, and from consorting with poets.

Comments are closed.