Have you ever struggled to write a story based on personal experience because you fear revealing yourself in some particularly vulnerable way? While there are writers who prefer to deal with fictional stories, others weave in the events of their lives, including painful experiences, traumas, and things they’ve never spoken about before.
They give these experiences to fictional characters, in possibly fictional settings, distancing the narrative from the real-life details. And yet, in spite of these distancing techniques, for the author it might feel just a bit too uncomfortable.
Self-censorship is often a problem for writers. Even when it comes to fiction, a writer may fear readers will assume a biographical element. One reason is the way literature is often taught in school. We’re encouraged to explore where a writer’s themes and subject matter may intersect with their own life.
You can see it with writers like Fitzgerald. His history with Ginevra King and her influence on characters like Daisy Buchanan and Judy Jones can lead to readers assuming writers, in general, use real people or events as inspiration. However, it would be a mistake to assume too much about what is and isn’t true. But knowing some readers have those assumptions might give a writer pause.
Another issue is how much more personal a narrative becomes when it’s written in first person. Even when the character is completely fictional and not a fictionalised version of the writer, there is still the fear of exposure or discovery. An author might worry about what family and friends will think – this is especially true when it comes to erotic writing.
But when it comes to actual traumatic events and experiences, writing in first person might get closer to the experience. Yet sometimes it can be too painful, or too risky. It can seem like crossing from a fictionalised account into something closer to memoir.
And when it comes to painful subjects, writers might prefer to maintain some distance. You can achieve this by using third person. This might help achieve some objectivity, and possibly allows the author the space to explore things without self-censorship. When you’re worried readers and family will assume something is true, you might find yourself hiding the truth and hiding too much. And then you can run into a serious writing block.
This is why it’s worth considering a third-person point of view to get around these issues. Writers might be put off using third person because it seems more distant. This is because a lot of third-person narratives can be an over-the-shoulder perspective that doesn’t really dwell much in the character’s head.
But it’s totally possible to dig deeper using deep third. Here the character’s thoughts and the narrative merge together to become the narrative. It also avoids the problem of writing thoughts in italics or using thought tags and other filter words.
You can also tackle painful personal topics by changing the gender or age of your main character. You can set your story in a different time and/or place. This can help you establish a safe distance if you feel that’s necessary.
You can also use a mixture of strategies – third person/different age/different location or time period.
Fear of exposure in first-person narrative is a real issue. But if you really want to write about an experience without self-revelation you have a range of options. You don’t have to self-censor if you don’t want to. You don’t have to allow fear of exposure and the judgement of others to silence your voice.
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, it 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 steam punk 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’ve been looking 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 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.
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.
So, you’ve been working on your novel or memoir and now you’re wondering when is the best time for a developmental edit. Maybe you’re even wondering if you need a developmental edit. In fact, that is the best starting point for this topic.
Let’s check your writing background and circumstances.
Let’s take a look at your background and current circumstances. Have a look at these questions:
Are you a beginner writer working on your first piece of writing?
Do you have any experience of writing groups, workshops, or courses?
Have you already had feedback on your writing from anyone likely to give you an honest assessment?
Are you in a hurry to boost your writing skills as opposed to taking your time to learn your craft?
Are you intending to publish your work yourself?
Do you hope to make a career or at least a side gig out of writing?
I could have listed other questions, but I think this is a good starting point.
Beginner writers don’t necessarily need to get a developmental edit on a rougher draft unless they are determined to shorten their learning time, they have the money, are aiming to publish themselves, and don’t have access to writing groups and other feedback.
However, I’m not someone who believes people should be wasting their money on unnecessary services or services they are not yet ready for. So, let’s dig deeper.
Let’s assume you are working on your first book – either a novel or memoir.
Perhaps you don’t have access to a local writing group and you’re not comfortable engaging with online writing communities.
Maybe you’ve tried to join some but you’ve just never found the right one.
Or maybe you’re just shy and hate participating and you prefer to share your work in a more controlled situation.
Developmental editing and manuscript critiques are still not your first option. There are times when they could be, but a beta read or working with a trustworthy critique partner might be a better cost-effective start.
However, if you’ve not had much luck with beta readers, you might be reluctant to go down that path again.
Nevertheless, it could still be worth your while looking for like-minded people online who are interested in your genre, are knowledgeable about it, and reliable enough to give you constructive feedback.
But, for whatever reason, maybe this has not worked out for you or you just don’t want to go down that route. I get it – writers can be introverts. And like creative people in general, they can be wary of sharing their work.
When you need feedback
However, sooner or later, you need feedback. For one thing, bad habits can become engrained and it can become difficult to shake them off. But you also want to know:
Is my work good enough?
Would anyone want to read it?
Might an agent be interested?
What can I do better? Where can I improve?
I have worked with quite a few beginner writers. In those instances, a developmental edit was useful for them because my prices at the time were lower. Some of them said I was cheaper than a writing course.
But I did look at it to some degree as coaching mixed with developmental editing. The aim was to boost their skillset (and their manuscripts) to a whole new level.
But you don’t have to go for a full developmental edit to do this. You don’t even need to opt for a manuscript critique, which is cheaper but usually deals with an entire book.
There are some editors, like myself, who offer opening chapters packages. I offer 15,000 words currently for £150. It’s a flat rate, so you always know what you’re paying.
There are no extra costs.
From a price perspective, it’s more affordable, but it also means a newer writer doesn’t feel as overwhelmed by information and track comments right through the entire manuscript. It allows you to learn with less material.
Some of the things an opening chapters edit will deal with
Your opening hook – do you grab the reader (and why it’s important to do so).
Do your writing style and tone fit the book’s genre (you’d be surprised what can impact this).
Your main character – are they well fleshed out and someone the reader will want to champion for an entire book?
What are your main character’s goals, aspirations at the beginning of the story? What do they want?
Narrative viewpoint(s) – does your point of view choice work in your narrative’s best interests?
Do you have an antagonist or antagonistic force? Who/what is blocking your main character’s goals?
If you have an antagonist, are they a fleshed-out credible character or a two-dimensional baddie with no redeeming features?
How soon does your plot begin? (Hint: it should start pretty soon.)
If you’re writing science fiction, fantasy, or historical fiction, do you have a lot of worldbuilding at the outset? (Watch out – this is a pace killer and could leave your reader bailing out before the story is underway.)
Character hierarchy – how many characters do you have, and how many are main characters, secondary, minor, etc? (Remember, the more time you give to minor and secondary characters, the less time you have for the main characters.)
The emotional and psychological dominoes – if something good or bad happens to your character, they should not forget about it by the next chapter. This is a generalisation, but if someone has had a bad experience in real life, it reverberates for days, weeks, even years. (This will be the subject of another post.)
Location: does your novel have a strong sense of place? (Location is more important to some stories than others.)
Do you have either too much or too little dialogue? Do you use dialogue to tell the reader things in a way that’s maybe too obvious and clunky? Is your dialogue the right tone for the scenes?
Do all your characters sound alike? (Do any of them have their own particular speech patterns?)
Is your dialogue correctly formattted? (I’ve seen some odd stuff in my time!)
Pacing – how well does your story move? Too fast? Too slow? The same speed all the way through?
How does your paragraph formatting affect your pacing? (This is a topic I’ll address in a future blog post.)
Are you using unnecessary transition scenes when you could just opt for a jump cut instead?
Your plot structure – even though I only assess the first 15,000 words, I can also give you an idea of what you should be aiming for later on. Especially if you include a synopsis that helps outline the middle and end of your book.
Themes and subjects the opening chapters address – for example, it might be a coming of age story about a young LGBT teen and the challenges they face.
These are only a few of the things that might get looked at in an opening chapters edit. It partly depends on the individual manuscript and the author’s strengths and weaknesses.
Don’t worry, all writers have their weaknesses!
What you get with an opening chapters edit
So, how does all this look in terms of what you get for your £150?
An editorial letter that usually runs to at least a few thousand words.
Track comments in the margins of your manuscript.
A reading list that addresses editorial suggestions and helps you develop your skillset further.
Where relevant, I might include a book map or visual material but not all manuscripts need this.
Email support – I respond to your queries about the edit and will review a small number of short sample rewrites at no extra cost.
A discount on a later manuscript critique or full developmental edit.
The beauty of an opening chapters edit is that it’s not overwhelming, either from the point of view of time, amount of information to consume, or price.
This is also a fast service – you can get your feedback a few days after your booking time.
You also don’t pay the full amount upfront. If I’m booked up, you can pay in three installments, though the payment period is very short owing to the express delivery time. If I’m not booked up, you can pay half in advance and half on completion.
When is the best time for a developmental edit? Whenever you’re ready!
But don’t forget you have writing group and beta reader options first.
You can also try my FREE sample edit if you want to see what a developmental edit looks like.
A while back, I watched a great webinar on website design by Gill Andrews. I ended up buying her book, which has bite-sized chapters which get straight to the point.
One thing she made me do was to remove the social media icons at the top of my website. And I’m here to tell you: don’t make this same mistake with your author website.
I was reminded of this yesterday in the middle of a business mentorship thingy from Ash Ambirge. I was one of the lucky beta folks who signed up, so I’m currently wallowing in all sorts of useful information.
Anyway, she also recommended removing these icons from the top of your business website page.
But, ha, thanks to Gill, I’d already ticked that one off my list. The icons were gone.
Gone, gone, gone.
Which is just as well because two of the three accounts were neglected and the other one is my nemesis. (My nemesis, if you’re interested, is Twitter.)
So, what’s the problem with your site visitors seeing your Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram icons?
Well, apart from the fact you might be neglecting some of the accounts, so do you really want potential readers going over there? Guess what? That’s not actually the worst of it, though it’s not great.
No, here’s the bigger reason.
Social media icons are outbound links
If your social media icons are the first things they encounter when they land, they might just be tempted to click one of those icons.
And, folks, that would be terrible.
Those icons are outbound links. They are teleporters. Your visitor has now been teleported to another site.
Slap yourself with a wet kipper.
Cause you and I both know those social media sites are designed to be addictive.
How many website visitors are already longing to go back and check their Twitter or Facebook account anyway, to see what’s happening?
Far. Too. Many.
Don’t give them any more excuses than they have already.
Teleporting new visitors to Twitter is bad!
If you’re an author with a website, you don’t want your new website visitor to be offered a range of teleportation destinations that takes them AWAY.
It’s like installing a revolving door with the word ‘exit’ in Twitter and Facebook icons.
Because that’s what you’ve installed – a revolving door. Or, an exit right next to the entrance.
Or, just a plain old teleporter (and believe me, they’re old to those of us who watched the original Star Trek, or who’ve spent time in Second Life).
Don’t do it!
Think you can compete with Twitter? Ha!
I know having people follow you on social media would seem to make sense, but that’s not what’s likely to happen.
Seriously, it won’t.
Because… you can’t compete with cat videos and the latest news.
Your website visitor will forget about you right after they go ‘check out’ your social media account. Those top trends will catch their attention, or maybe you’re tweeting a hashtag that interests them.
Then, click, they’re gone!
Yes, your website may still be open in one of their browser tabs, but so are a million other things.
A million other things they will never return to.
Here’s the solution – remove the teleporters!
So, what do you do on your website?
First up, you remove those teleporters at the top of your home page.
The ones that present an invisible doorman who says, “Hey, nice to see you, now here’s the way out!”
Don’t wait until whenever.
Get rid of them.
And here’s the bigger reason why. It’s not just that most website visitors will spend mere seconds on a site before they leave (and you don’t want to push them out the door any faster). No, there’s another very good reason.
New visitors need time to get to know you
If they’re new to your site, they don’t know you yet. So, why would they follow you? There are so many people to follow. So many shiny accounts.
You need to ensure that you hook their interest in you first.
That means your website has to hold them for longer than a few seconds. You want to entice them to pull up a chair and browse your site.
You want them to get to know you and your work.
And you want to remove anything that will push them out the exit fast.
This also means you need to watch where you place outbound links.
You want your website visitor to have time to look around before they get tempted with anything clickable.
So, where do you put social media icons?
I have personally removed them completely for the time being, but you can put them at the very bottom of your page, in your footer. That way, your visitors have the chance to read your content first.