Today, we have a special treat for you, please welcome Tony Noland as FFDO’s very first guest blogger.
Wonderful writer and long time #FridayFlasher, Tony will be sharing all of his deepest, darkest secrets with us. Okay, maybe not all of them, but I was thrilled to find out the ones regarding the assembling of his anthology, “Blood Picnic and Other Stories.”
Thank you Tony, for your enthusiasm in sharing your thoughts and this valuable information with us!
~ Estrella Azul
Arranging Stories in an Anthology
By guest blogger Tony Noland
When you self-publish a book, it means that anything you do not get someone else to do is your responsibility. Content editing, line editing, and cover art are obvious elements. Another aspect of anthologies is pretty basic but nonetheless worth some care and consideration: what order should the stories be in? There are a variety of ways to arrange stories when they’re a collection of pieces written by contributors:
- alphabetically by the author’s name
- alphabetically by the story titles
- in order of the relative prestige of the various authors
- balanced by length/word count
- grouped by theme or style
When the anthology is entirely your own work, things are easier in some ways, harder in others.
In my anthology, “Blood Picnic and other stories,” I drew on the mass of stories I have written for Friday Flash and for other online outlets. By the time I cut out the clinkers and narrowed the list to only the really good stories, I started re-editing each of them. When I was done, I had a collection of ~40 stories ranging in length from 522 words to 4100 words. The tricky part here is that I write in multiple genres and styles. Some were light and happy, others funny, others gruesome and profane. Going into the final stages of putting the book together, I had to decide how best to arrange them. Granted, I could have just plunked them down in any order, roughly grouped by genre, but that is not really how I operate. If there is a best practice, I try to find it.
I began with my mission statement: “I will always leave the reader wanting more.” From the first page, through each section of the book, I wanted the reader to be drawn onward, to be pulled from story to story. I never wanted there to be any point at which the reader’s mind would wander. Secondly, I wanted that flow to be maintained even if a reader picked the book up in the middle. Finally, I wanted the reader to get to the last page and wish there were more to read. Call me selfish, but I wanted to have this book sell my next one.
First, I settled on some broad categories: fantasy, horror, magical realism, literary fiction, science fiction. Then, I made a list of all the stories and printed that list out. Then I literally cut that list apart with scissors into slips with the titles. (I tried to do this on the computer with various pieces of software, but I am a terribly tactile person, and I needed to get seriously old school for this part.) With my fistful of slips in hand, I started sorting the stories into their respective bins. Some bins had a lot of stories; others had fewer. To balance them out, I moved around stories which could plausibly go in one of several bins. Finally, I had a good mix and a good balance among the stories.
But what order should they come in? It occurred to me that a reader with an interest in, say, horror, would start with the horror stories, regardless of where they appear in the book. So, within each section, I arranged the stories to put the best story first, the second-best story last and the balance stories in-between. Note: it took a special kind of ruthlessness to look at my stories and pick out the best. This is not because I lack the discernment to decide which ones are better than others, but because one could spend endless weeks second-guessing this kind of decision. Once I had them in order within each genre, I taped those little slips of paper onto pages torn from a spiral note pad, leaving myself room for scribbled notes in between. Each sheet was a section of the book. Having sorted them within their genre bins, I arranged the sections themselves in an order that I thought would be most likely to grab and hold a reader’s attention. By doing all of this, there would be a rhythm and a flow to the narratives as the reader goes through the book.
I use yWriter5 for all my writing, so moving the stories around within sections was easy, as was moving the sections themselves around. I was able to edit each story individually in yWriter5, then export the whole book as a Word file for final Smashwords formatting.
The last step in arrangement was to assign names to the sections. It seemed abrupt and graceless to simply have the sections labeled by their genres. I considered different schemes for naming, but ultimately settled on the Tales of the Heavens, Stars, Earth, Moon and Sun for (respectively) fantasy, science fiction, literary fiction, horror and magical realism.
Finally, after the editing and re-editing, the arranging and re-arranging, I went looking for some help. The talented writer Icy Sedgwick graciously agreed to beta-read my anthology. I asked her to read the stories, but to look at the arrangement as well. Did it grab and flow the way I wanted it to? Short answer: no. One of the key insights Icy gave me in her comments was that the science fiction stories were of a notably different style than the others, a difference which became jarring due to the fact that the science fiction section was by far the largest.
This led to a crucial decision about the arrangement of this anthology: I took a big ax (and a deep breath) and split it up. I took out all the science fiction (the entire Tales of the Stars section) and set them aside for a future anthology devoted entirely to that single genre. Having done that, I then added in a couple of more fantasy and horror stories which I had overlooked in the first assembly. This was to reinforce the feel of the book and to give more heft to the collection. I then shifted all the stories around in all the other bins to re-balance things out. All of this was to fine-tune the rhythm I’d wanted in the original sequence. I could have done all this in yWriter5, but since the Word file was already formatted, I did it there. Next time, I will get the beta-reads and final edits in before doing the end formatting.
In the end, the 28 stories (27 flash, one conventional short) comprise about 29,000 words. I guess it would be nice to have readers take a look at the sequence in which they come and think, “Gosh, that Tony Noland can sure arrange his stories in an effective and finely balanced sequence!” However, the story sequence is one of those editorial aspects which are supposed to be invisible. Like the cover art or the typography or the page breaks, you do not notice it unless it is done poorly. A smooth flow from story to story means you did the arranging properly.
While it takes extra time, this kind of detailing it is essential to get the most out of your collection.
Of course, everyone is welcome to buy the book and judge for themselves how well I did. It is $2.99 at Smashwords, Amazon and many other e-book outlets.
Tony Noland is a writer, blogger and poet in the suburbs of Philadelphia.
He takes his writing seriously, but has somehow gotten a reputation as a funny guy. His work ranges from science fiction and horror to fantasy and literary fiction.
You can find Tony’s writing advice in his monthly column at Write Anything. Tony is active on Twitter as @TonyNoland and at his blog Landless.