Books

  • Cross Stitch by Diana Gabaldon

    Cross Stitch by Diana Gabaldon
    Cross Stitch by Diana Gabaldon

    Cross Stitch by Diana Gabaldon is such a long novel – around 860 pages – that I wrote this review in stages. When I started writing, I was 250-350 pages into the book. Now I’m closer to 675 pages and my opinions haven’t changed at all. But this is less a book review than a developmental editor’s first impressions of the book.

    The Outlander series is massively successful and has been adapted for streaming TV. The screen version has doubtless brought the characters and story to an even bigger audience. And that, in turn, will have led to more book sales.

    I’ve only seen the first two series and a bit of the third one – if I remember correctly. I’d once tried to read the book some years ago but bailed out around page 72. I don’t think I was really in the mood to read it then.

    I am more in the mood now. And I couldn’t help but read it at least a bit through the filter of developmental editing.

    The setup

    Gabaldon fairly sets up Claire’s normal life with Frank during their second honeymoon in Inverness. She doesn’t enter the stones for quite a while. This makes sense since Frank and their marriage need to be set up first.

    We need to see what Claire leaves behind when she passes through the stones.

    And from that, we also get the contrast between post-war austerity and the eighteenth century.

    Another thing the first 60 pages accomplish is to fill the reader in on Black Jack Randall, Frank’s redcoat ancestor.

    When Claire meets him, she’s at least armed with a little information – and so is the reader.

    We also learn about Claire’s nursing background and her newer interest in botany, the latter encouraged by Frank. Both will become vital in giving her a role and some status when she travels to the past. Healers are a big deal in the days before antibiotics and other modern medicines.

    There are other little things set up too – including Roger, who is more important later in the series.

    And both the reading of the tea leaves and the palm reading create some foreshadowing of Claire’s future. Add to that Frank seeing the ghost of the highlander that watched Claire through the hotel window.

    The reader will know the ghost to be Jamie. But neither Claire nor Frank know that yet.

    Moving at a leisurely pace

    Because this book was published in 1991, it is a great deal meatier than most modern novels.

    This was the time before social media. A time when the modern attention span was in a better state.

    But there were times in the 1946 Inverness chapters when I wondered if things shouldn’t have been speeded up just a tad. But in 1991, I might have had a different opinion on this. And, of course, it doesn’t help when you’ve seen the television series first.

    Nevertheless, it seemed important to build up the ‘modern’ world first, to show the contrast with the old world. And to understand Claire well, it helps to see her in her own time.

    Where the plot stretches credulity

    Funnily enough, passing through the stones into the past was not the part I found hard to believe. No, it was much of her thoughts and behaviour after she arrived there.

    While it’s clear that she and Frank were trying to reconnect after their years apart in the war, their marriage didn’t seem so bad that she’d forget about him so easily.

    Days and weeks go by with barely a reminder that he ever existed. There are times when she ought to be reminded – any reference to her as a widow, for example.

    Your characters are impacted by their pasts

    As a developmental editor, I’ve often seen manuscripts where a character forgets important bits of their past and no longer reacts to past trauma. Even when there are obvious trigger points, the character doesn’t remember or isn’t impacted.

    If you want to create realistic and three-dimensional characters, then it’s worth thinking about how someone in the real world would react in the same situation.

    In the real world, a woman separated from her husband would long to get back to him and would worry about him being frantic about her whereabouts. She would frequently think about him, and anything in her new vicinity that might remind her of him or her marriage would trigger a thought, an emotion, a memory.

    Claire tells us that she thinks about Frank a lot. But she doesn’t show us the evidence. Not in her thoughts, memories, longings, or moods.

    A missed opportunity for internal conflict

    In reality, she’d be suffering from a massive internal conflict – stuck at the castle, in this strange world, and wondering if she’d ever see Frank again.

    But in the book, she settles into life there a little too easily.

    We’re told that she’s busy with healing and so on, but this would not stop her thinking about Frank or the world she’s left behind.

    But this leads to other issues too. Claire ought to wonder more about how she comes to be here. She should miss modern amenities more. She ought to question her reality – even wondering if it’s all a dream.

    A real person, transported to the past, would be thinking: this can’t be true. They’d likely be dazed for days or weeks. They might acclimatize over time, but every so often they’d be thrown back into a clash of past and present and the impossibility of their new reality.

    I’m not sure how other readers feel about Claire largely not thinking of Frank. Since she means to try and escape the castle, thinking of him more, and showing how much he means to her, would heighten the emotional incentive. As it is, she seems oddly detached from him.

    It’s as if Frank is no longer real.

    Of course, he doesn’t exist in this period and she might ponder how he feels very distant and unreal now. But that doesn’t really happen in an obvious way.

    Few memories, little conflict, reduced motivations

    There’s a chain of events, goals, and desires that ought to propel her forward into risking escape. Frank should be one of the prime motivators. Not to mention her worrying that she might never escape this world.

    She might also think of Black Jack Randall just a teensy bit more – he almost assaulted her. If the events of the book really happened, she’d also picture the day she gets to tell Frank how charming his ancestor really was. Though she’d also consider the likelihood of Frank believing her.

    At the end of what would be described as act one, Claire has failed to escape back to the stone circle, but she has left the castle. She’s now on the road with Jamie, Dougal, and Callum’s lawyer. Claire hopes to make a getaway during the journey.

    To the circle of standing stones. And with luck, back home.

    Cross Stitch

    Even here, Claire is not thinking about Frank, which I found rather jarring. Is it meant to reveal something about the true nature of their marriage? It doesn’t really come across that way.

    When Claire’s forgetfulness creates an odd detachment

    It seems more that the plot and the details of this old world have submerged Frank and her memories of him.

    Yet, in reality, since she is not in a relationship with Jamie yet, she should feel that pull towards Frank. He should be in her thoughts more. There could have been a few little memories scattered about. Just to flesh out their relationship a bit more beyond the move to the past. And also to show that she does actually care about him.

    Sometimes it seems she doesn’t. Her narrative voice is often oddly detached. There’s also a lack of reflection at times.

    As I read further and further into the story, I started to wonder when she was going to give Frank any thought again. When would be the next occasion? And I started tearing strips off the paper I was using as a bookmark, and inserting these strips into any place where Claire gave thought to the past. There weren’t many strips of paper inserted.

    On page 433, Claire asks herself what she’s doing here ‘for the thousandth time’. But I saw no evidence of her asking this over and over in earlier scenes. On the next page, she talks about ‘which husband?’ as she has a jolt of panic and remembers her halfway-successful attempt to escape. There’s some reflection on her situation, and then she’s immersed back into the eighteenth-century present again.

    Sidelining the modern world helps immersion

    Keeping her past at bay does allow for greater immersion in the Jamie storyline. It means that there are fewer points of friction and interruption in the historical world, but it’s precisely that clash between modern and historical, between the two lives, that could have created greater internal conflict.

    In truth, she doesn’t really try hard enough to escape. When she finally has the opportunity to go through the stones, Frank has been largely absent for around 500 pages, so he’s distant to the reader and also to Claire. Which makes it conveniently easy for her to make her choice.

    Another thing that doesn’t get dealt with much is the absence of modern conveniences. Claire’s time with Uncle Lamb comes in handy here because it means she grew up used to being without modern amenities. But that might also be a missed opportunity in terms of showing the clash between twentieth century and eighteenth century.

    Weighing up narrative choices and outcomes

    I think I understand why the author made her choice. Had Claire been constantly thinking of home, her attention would have been less on those around her and the immersion in the eighteenth century could have been less powerful.

    Nevertheless, as I got to the halfway mark and beyond, I wondered what Frank’s absence was meant to signify. A weak marriage, a narrative choice to keep the plot rooted in the eighteenth century? Or maybe just addressing the basic problem of introducing Frank first, leading to the reader’s loyalty first going with him, and then running into a clash of loyalties later with Jamie. Sidelining Frank avoids this problem.

    I do think it comes at a price. There are character and psychological credibility issues, not to mention missed opportunities for internal conflict and interesting contrasts.

    Try putting yourself in her position. Ask yourself, how much will you miss your old life and the conveniences… not to mention your husband?

    And the dangers of this old eighteenth-century world must be all too obvious to Claire. Should she really want to stay there long while there’s a chance of getting away?

    Gabaldon went to the bother of setting up Frank and Claire at the beginning. He comes back in a later book, and maybe that was her real intention. To set him up because he won’t be around again for quite a while.

    Conclusion

    I’ve not yet finished the book. It feels like it’s taking forever to read and I have to tackle it in chunks. There are also quite a few controversial scenes that reviewers have pointed out elsewhere. Relating to sexual and domestic violence. However, I was more interested in developmental issues. And it was this issue of Claire’s detachment from her modern past and past events in the eighteenth century that particularly stood out.

    I think the TV series makes a bit more effort with Claire’s past. Including a memorable scene of her picking plants to the tune of Run Rabbit Run. A great clash between two centuries that’s perhaps easier to achieve on screen.

    Another advantage of a screen adaptation is all the little visual clues and details – like a wobbly line of sewing machine stitches in series three. Claire, discovering Jamie didn’t die at Culloden, decides to go back to the past and transforms some of her modern clothing into something that would pass in the seventeen hundreds. She’s perhaps a better surgeon than she is a seamstress. Though she still does a great job.

    Character-related costume detail

    I might write more on Outlander, including some of the interesting visual aspects of the adaptation. If you haven’t seen the series, the costumes, locations, and cinematography are fabulous. But whether I read any more books in the series remains to be seen.

    In the meantime, another chunky historical novel worth reading is Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety, also set in the eighteenth century. My review of the French Revolution epic is below.

  • A Place of Greater Safety

    Camille Desmoulins on the original cover

    A Place of Greater Safety: The Pre-Revolutionary Background:

    Louis XV is named the Well-Beloved. Ten years pass. The same people believe the Well-Beloved takes baths of human blood… Avoiding Paris, ever shut up at Versailles, he finds even there too many people, too much daylight. He wants a shadowy retreat….

    In a year of scarcity (they were not uncommon then) he was hunting as usual in the Forest of Senart. He met a peasant carrying a bier and inquired, ‘Whither he was conveying it?’ ‘To such a place.’ ‘For a man or a woman?’ ‘A man.’ ‘What did he die of?’ ‘Hunger.’ 
    (Jules Michelet)



    Sir Francis Burdett, British Ambassador, on Paris: ‘It is the most ill-contrived, ill-built, dirty stinking town that can possibly be imagined; as for the inhabitants, they are ten times more nasty than the inhabitants of Edinburgh.’



    Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety

    Winner of the 1992 Sunday Express Book of the Year Award, this French Revolution novel is a hugely ambitious work.

    It’s a complex narrative tapestry following three of the main characters of the revolution – Danton, Robespierre, and Camille Desmoulins. We also hear from the women in their lives and other characters.

    Camille Desmoulins

    Camille (who appears on older covers of the novel as above) is in fact the lynchpin. Not just in terms of acting as a link between his more famous friends. But also in inciting the original riots that led to the storming of the Bastille.

    Mantel portrays him as a mercurial character: youthful, egotistical, neurotic, moody, arrogant, bisexual. And forever tossing his long dark hair in between writing furious articles against the old guard. He is courted by all sorts, politically and otherwise.

    Because of his beauty and diminutive size, most of the other characters try to protect him. Not always realising how sly and manipulative he really is. The rest want to murder him, or go to bed with him, or possibly both.

    He has his eye on an older woman, before making a cunning sideways shift to her daughter, Lucile.

    Danton, never a model of probity himself, suggests he might have both. Though Camille doesn’t mean to fall in love with his would-be mistress’s daughter, he does. But it’s also clear that he’s in love with Danton.

    Danton

    Danton is, appropriately, a larger than life character – with a huge appetite for sex, women, food, conflict and dodgy dealings.

    While Camille stammers, Danton bellows, since he possesses the strongest pair of lungs in the Cordeliers district.

    He has a knack for always being somewhere else when the trouble starts. And his physical unattractiveness in no way impedes his appeal to women. Far from it, Camille’s young wife is thoroughly wound up about him. Much to Camille’s vicarious enjoyment.

    There’s a curious threesome thing going on throughout this novel. First with Camille chasing both the mother and daughter, then with his interest in Danton and young Lucile, and then Lucile’s attraction to both Camille and Danton. But it’s an underlying tension rather than something played out for real.

    Robespierre

    Robespierre is a very different personality, and possibly the least well-drawn.

    Even by the end of the book, he’s something of an enigma.

    The novel begins when the three men are still young. Camille is four. Later, Camille attends Louis Le Grand school. There, Robespierre, who is a little older, takes charge of him.

    Camille, soon something of a celebrity at the school, is Robespierre’s first and only friend.

    Some of the other friends and opponents in the future revolutionary struggle are also students. Mantel includes a true event when the new king and queen pay a visit to the school. The pupils have waited in the rain for the royal couple to arrive. The scholarship boy has memorised his speech ready to greet them.

    But Marie Antoinette is bored. And the king orders the coach to leave even as the scholarship boy still recites his speech.

    ‘Never mind, de Robespierre,’ a priest commiserates, ‘it could have happened to anyone.’

    ~ A Place of Greater Safety

    No hint is given later that Robespierre ever dwelled on the incident. He’s portrayed as very much against the death penalty, a young lawyer of high principles.

    But it’s the extent to which he is willing to pursue his principles that’s the problem.

    He wonders if he could sacrifice a friend to his beliefs before he realises he has no friends.

    Then he remembers, he has Camille.

    The narrative threads come together

    While Robespierre begins his law career out in the provinces, Camille meets Danton in Paris. There they represent opposing sides in a court case.

    Camille tells Danton about his distant cousins – Antoine Fouquier-Tinville, and Antoine Saint-Just. The former, according to gossip, murdered his wife. The latter is currently in prison for stealing the family silver.

    Years later, Fouquier-Tinville will head the tribunal which tries Danton and his friends.

    And when Saint-Just finally appears, he’s worse than Robespierre in his po-faced political extremism. It’s hard to imagine him capable of any youthful indiscretions.

    However, he did once nurture ambitions to be a poet.

    Camille, who abandons law for writing and publishing, makes the fatal mistake of ridiculing some poetry Saint-Just sends him. A slight which Saint-Just never forgets.

    Narrative viewpoints

    Mantel takes an often wry omniscient view of her characters, but also allows them to speak for themselves.

    So Danton takes over the narrative in places, as does his wife Gabrielle. Camille’s would-be-mistress and eventual mother-in-law Annette is another viewpoint character, as is her daughter, Lucile.

    Sometimes the narrative is third person, sometimes first. Mantel also weaves in contemporary quotes and accounts from her real-life characters.

    She can also turn on a pin from a revolutionary cutting off someone’s head, to a London playbill on the very next page:


    18 August 1789

    At Astley’s Amphitheatre, Westminster Bridge
    (after rope-dancing by Signior Spinacuta)
    An Entire New and Splendid Spectacle

    THE FRENCH REVOLUTION

    From Sunday 12 July to Wednesday 15 July (inclusive)
    called

    PARIS IN AN UPROAR
    displaying one of the grandest and most extraordinary
    entertainments that ever appeared
    grounded on
    Authentic Fact

    Because of the complexity of the characters and events, there’s not much time spent on description. Some of the dialogue is written in script form.

    Marat looms on the edges of the book, huge and loathsome in appearance.

    The king is clueless about politics. He’s also subject to the stronger influence of his wife, Marie Antoinette. His cousin, the Duke of Orleans, is ambitious for the throne, and also manipulated and advised by his mistress.

    Choderlos de Laclos, the author of Dangerous Liaisons, is in the duke’s pay. He’s a spy and recruiter of useful people – like Camille.

    When the reader becomes complicit

    A Place of Greater Safety is not just an account of events leading up to the Terror. It also draws the reader into a compact with the characters.

    By making Danton and Camille attractive personalities, she seduces the reader into their dubious machinations. So that the reader themself ultimately colludes with them.

    Perhaps the most chilling scene in the book takes place once Danton, Camille and their friends are in power. They draw up a list of people who will be executed. Camille is left to bargain for the life of an ex-lover.

    Swept up in events, they have all moved beyond the point of no return.

    What these amusing, entertaining and seductive characters do in that room is nothing less than evil.

    And as Camille’s agitated father-in-law points out, Camille is now part of the new establishment.

    ‘You don’t understand, anyone who wants to make a revolution, has to make it against him.’

    ~ A Place of Greater Safety

    But Camille, ever one to risk political suicide, wakes up to reality. He turns on the Terror itself when he writes a tract comparing current events to Rome during the reign of the emperor Tiberius.

    Conditional Absolution

    The title of the novel’s penultimate chapter is Conditional Absolution. Camille partially redeems himself. But in doing so he pits himself against Saint-Just. And Robespierre, the man who once wondered whether he could ever sacrifice a friend for his principles.

    Danton’s fate is well known. As is Robespierre’s.

    Most people will not have heard of Camille and some of the other characters – don’t look them up on Wikipedia. Read the novel instead.

    It’s a fabulous account of good ideas gone bad.

    Mantel also spares plenty of humanity for all her characters. From Marie Antoinette needing to urinate before her execution, to the ridiculous but still likeable Duke Philippe of Orleans.

    However, there is a word of warning. The cast of characters is large and the book runs to almost 900 pages.

    A Place of Greater Safety will either defeat you or take over your life. For me, it’s quite possibly the best historical novel I’ve ever read.

  • Why your book cover design matters

    Why your book cover design matters

    If you’re an indie author and you want to attract readers, your book cover design really matters. It’s one of your most important marketing tactics.

    Why?

    Have you ever gone into a bookstore and felt overwhelmed by all the books to choose from?

    What motivates you to pick up an unknown book?

    Snappy or intriguing title? Or were you attracted by the cover image? Did it call to you to investigate further and check out the back cover blurb?

    Cover design is the magnet that draws the eye and piques curiosity. It can draw attention even from the other side of a bookstore. Even from a distance, when you can’t yet read the author’s name or the book’s title.

    And that’s why your book cover design matters.

    Of course, book covers accomplish other things too. They indicate genre, age group, connect to existing trends, even hint at the story’s atmosphere (creepy, suspenseful, erotic).

    Cover art speaks to emotions – and this is important in marketing.

    There are genres where speaking to emotions is particularly important – romance being the primary example. But you might be in the mood for something suspenseful or creepy. Horror and thriller covers also speak to a potential reader’s emotions.

    The style of the cover might connect to a particular subgenre or resemble the cover art on a more famous book. This is a way for publishers to indicate fast that if you like those other books in this category, you’ll probably like this one too.

    With so many books to choose from, a design department has to come up with ways to make it easy for the right readers to find their book. The cover art offers visual clues. The book’s title might also offer clues.

    Your book needs to stand out from the crowd. In a saturated market – and this is particularly true on Amazon – you need people to see that your book exists. And that it looks professional, intriguing, exciting.

    If the cover is plain and offers no hints about the genre, someone browsing on Amazon is likely to ignore it.

    Book buyers are accustomed to helpful cover design – covers that act as filters for what they do and don’t like.

    The cover design should attract the right readers. It should never trick people into thinking the book is something it isn’t.

    For example, you wouldn’t put a historical couple embracing on the cover of a modern horror novel. If a reader buys the book on the basis of the cover alone, they are going to feel cheated.

    Also, if the cover art and design are subpar, it will be difficult to stand out from the crowd.

    Furthermore, if the design is poor, potential readers will likely draw conclusions about the overall quality of the book, including the story, characterisation, formatting, etc.

    A good cover shows the writer has taken a professional approach to their work. But it also allows the writer to better compete with traditionally published authors.

    If your book looks like a traditionally published book, it’s more likely to draw readers.

    As well as using high-quality cover art, you should ensure your covers look good as thumbnails because this is how they will appear on sites like Amazon.

    Equally, you need to make sure your fonts match your genre and cover design, and that the text is clear and readable both at full size and in thumbnail.

    Most people cannot produce great cover art or choose the right fonts for their own books.

    Even people with design skills can do a bad job because cover art and what works for the market are not their specialties.

    Also, cover art should be chosen on the basis of what appeals to readers rather than what a writer might want. This might seem annoying, but if you want to attract sales, you have to put yourself in the place of readers.

    It’s worth doing quite a lot of research on your genre, particularly in relation to the newest styles and what the traditional publishing industry is producing.

    Design departments in publishing houses have experts who know what they’re doing. If they’re following a particular trend, you can jump on board.

    Indie authors who want high-quality book covers have a number of options. You can hire designers for bespoke covers, or you can visit a site that is selling premade cover art. In the case of the latter, the fonts are already in place. You just need to change the title, author name, etc.

    Some premade cover art sells for hundreds of dollars, but there are decent covers for well under $100. If you only want an ebook cover, the price is lower. If you want a back cover for a print edition, you’ll have to pay more.

    Likewise, if you want to add in banner advertising, and ads for specific social media sites, that pushes the price up further.

    However, a streamlined set of marketing images to use on multiple platforms is a great professional look that will help you stand out from the crowd.

    Sites providing premade covers

    Please note – I have not tried any of these services, so I cannot recommend them. They are just examples of the kinds of sites out there.

    Premade Ebook Covers

    Book Cover Zone

    Probook Premade Covers

    The Book Cover Designer

    The Artful Cover

    Self Pub Book Covers

    Kingwood Creations

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    When dialogue ruins your scenes

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  • How to order the stories in a collection

    How to order the stories in a collection.
    How to order the stories in a collection

    How do you order the stories in a short story collection? What kind of strategy should you be using? Time to get out a pen and paper!

    The reason this subject is dear to me right now is based on two things:

    • I am currently trying to put together my own collection of stories that have been previously published in various journals and online sites
    • I am currently engaged in a daily short story read – which will run either for a month or, if I keep it up, for an entire year

    So, I’m going to break this down into different parts.

    Let’s start with my own collection. I have a choice between literary, magical realism, and genre fiction. The first two go together. The second two might go together depending on which particular stories I choose.

    But all three don’t go together.

    There’s too big a jump in atmosphere, style, etc. And one thing I don’t want is to introduce disruption or speed bumps for the reader.

    I decided to read through the rough manuscript from start to finish. I wasn’t trying to figure out the order at this point so much as what didn’t belong.

    Sure enough, there was one story that didn’t seem to fit with the others. I had already removed some others, so it was a matter of refining it further. This did not decide the order, but it did give me an idea of what will fit and what won’t.

    I will probably go through this process a few times just to keep checking. Especially since there are one or two stories still to be added.

    In terms of fitting in, it’s not about whether it’s good enough. It’s whether it just seems out of place. Stories that aren’t good enough shouldn’t be included in the first place.

    Of course, one temptation is to mix the best stories with some fillers – that way you can save some of the other best stories for another collection, along with more fillers. This might work if you’re prioritising publication over quality.

    If you’re playing a slightly longer game, you can add and remove stories over time, until you feel you’ve reached the ideal mix. This means not committing to publication too soon. You might still have some new stories that will fit in better.

    One important thing to remember about a short story collection is that it’s like a calling card for the rest of your writing.

    Of course, the rest of your writing might also be shorter fiction. Alice Munroe is famous for her short fiction. And writers who excel at the short story don’t necessarily do as well with novels.

    So, while a short story collection could act as a calling card for your novel, it might just be an introduction to more of your shorter fiction.

    Short story collections are hard to publish via the traditional route. This is where indie publishing is a great option. But as an indie writer, you also have to decide on what to include, and the order in which the stories will appear.

    And you might find yourself perplexed by the options – what to include, plus the order.

    Do you start off with the best story? The title story?

    And now that we’re talking about titles, do you name the collection after the best story in the book?

    Or do you take a title from the collection that best illustrates any themes in the book?

    Or maybe you have a title that isn’t referencing a story at all.

    Even there, the title should in some way reflect what the book is about. Are the stories in a particular genre? Are they love stories? Science fiction stories? Are they stories all set on Mars? Are they steampunk tales? Do they all centre on the same theme?

    Unless you have a definite title in mind early on, you might want to put the title problem aside while you deal with the final list of works and the order in which they appear.

    So, what’s the best order?

    One thing you can do is look at the choices made in other books. During my daily short story challenge, I looked at order choices, and sometimes it’s interesting and other times it’s not helpful at all.

    For writers whose work has been released as an entire collection, the stories might be arranged in chronological order. The Elizabeth Bowen collection I recently purchased, which runs to 880 pages, is arranged from First Stories, to The Twenties, The Thirties, The War Years, and Post-War Stories.

    I’ve seen other collected works with chronological ordering. But for a first-time collection, this is not your best option. Though, if like Bowen your writing covers a long period of time, there might be a reason to do it.

    Then again, she’s famous and her reputation was well-established before the collected stories were published.

    So, what about other authors and collections?

    In an edition of Bernice Bobs Her Hair by F Scott Fitzgerald, the title story is the first in the collection. The second story in the collection is a pre-Gatsby story and one of his best, so it can be said that this book gets off to a strong start. Which is exactly what you want in a collection.

    If a reader starts at the beginning, you want to wow them from the start. Especially if they’re sampling your book on Kindle (the opening pages) or in a bookstore.

    In Alice Munroe’s Runaway, the first story is the title story of the book. But in Barbara Gowdy’s classic collection, We So Seldom Look on Love, the title story is the second last in the book. It’s also the most memorable and was made into a film.

    In Daphne du Maurier’s Don’t Look Now and Other Stories, the title story is the first in the book. It also benefits from having been adapted to the screen. It’s a famous story further boosted by a famous and classic film.

    In Maeve Brennan’s The Springs of Affection, the title story is the very last one in the book.

    While Tanith Lee’s classic feminist fairy tale collection, Red as Blood, has the title story as number two in the list.

    Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber collection, which includes The Company of Wolves, starts with the title story. Meanwhile, The Company of Wolves is second last, showing again that collections benefit from strong endings.

    Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others has the title story (later filmed as Arrival) as number three in the contents list.

    Back to Tanith Lee and the title story in The Gorgon is the first story in the book. And in Yasunari Kawabata’s House of the Sleeping Beauties, the title story comes first again.

    And so it goes on.

    I found other Tanith Lee collections where the title story came first.

    And others where the title of the book did not match any story. And this is not unusual either. Sometimes a title comes from a quote or is meant to represent in some way the theme of the collection.

    In Women as Demons, there is no story of that name in the book, but the first story is The Demoness. Which is the nearest to the collection’s title.

    In Anna Gavalda’s I Wish Someone Were Waiting for Me Somewhere – no story comes close to the book’s title.

    So, using a pre-existing story title is a popular choice. It’s also common for that story to kick off the collection or be close to the beginning. It can also be close to the end.

    This then brings us to the overall structure of a collection.

    In a novel, you want a powerful opening, a strong middle, and a memorable end. A collection should work the same way. The final stories should leave the reader wanting more. The middle shouldn’t flag. But you can include quieter stories in the places in between – just don’t have a bunch of them together, dragging down the pace.

    Besides, you should be choosing the best stories anyway. This can include much shorter fiction.

    This then brings us to the problem of readers ignoring the chosen order of a collection.

    I admit that I’m one of those readers. I study the contents list and choose on the basis of intriguing title, or length.

    I’m particularly likely to pick a shorter story if I have less time, am feeling tired, or I’m just getting to know a writer.

    If I know I really like a writer’s work, then I’ll tackle the longer stories. Of course, this is something of a generalisation. However, it does introduce a wild card into the ordering of the stories.

    You just don’t know what the reader will start with. But you do know if they’re sampling on Kindle, they will be looking at the opening pages. So, you absolutely want those to perform well. Likewise, with any book, you want a powerful ending.

    What about grouping together stories that are very similar? This could work really well – you could even divide your collection into sections, like the parts of a book. However, if they’re too similar, putting them together will lead to monotony.

    And putting stories that are very different back to back could work very well, or be too disruptive.

    When you’re experimenting with the order, try reading stories together to see how they bounce off one another. Play around with the order. And get some beta readers or friends to give you feedback.

    Ultimately, there is no right way to go about it, but there are some basics to keep in mind.

    It’s common to name the collection after a story in the book, but not absolutely necessary. You can come up with an alternative and even better title that fits in with the overall themes.

    You want your collection to get off to a great start. At the very least the first two to three stories should be very strong. Likewise the final stories. You also need a strong middle. Include your best stories, but they also have to be the stories that best fit the collection.

    If you find quite a few of your stories follow a theme, this will give you some ideas for the overall title or even the order of the stories.

    Also, if you have strong stories with a shorter word count, they can be a great introduction to new readers who are dipping into your collection for the first time.

    Another thing worth remembering is to focus more on previously published stories. This is because new stories should usually be sent out to magazines or online sites first.

    If you can get your stories published at a journal or magazine, you can use this as PR for your later collection. You can also use newer stories you’re just getting published in magazines to promote an existing collection – via the author bio that comes with your story.

    If you want a second opinion on what to include or the order of stories in the collection, feel free to contact me to discuss your project.

    Other blog posts that might be of interest:

    When dialogue ruins your scenes.

    When is the best time for a developmental edit?

    Are you wasting your money on a copyedit or proofread?