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Literary Orders of Operations

Recently, I was having a conversation with a fellow writer about order – not the kind of order you place when you want to purchase a book from or the order that’s the opposite of disorder.

Rather, we were discussing the order of stories (in my case) and poems (in my acquaintance’s case) as they appear in collections.

As someone who writes short stories, I’m kind of obsessed with the relationships that one writer’s stories have with one another, whether that relationship is deliberate, accidental, or even nonexistent.

For poets, order is an even greater concern because poems almost always need to be sold as collections (exceptions being book-length poems). How do the poems relate to one another? Many literary journals that publish poetry will look for multiple poems by one poet, and how are those poems supposedly connected?

I was telling my writer friend how I struggle with the order of my own stories. Currently, I am working on a collection of 15 stories, all told in first person by the same narrator. The stories follow the narrator from ages 14 to 22, but the spaces between them leave major gaps in the narrator’s life, which is probably a turn-off for people used to reading novels.

I need to construct an order that’s thematically interesting enough to make up for the fact that I’m leaving out a lot of story that becomes implied.

Ever since I read Drown by Junot Diaz, I have held this collection of stories up as an example of something I want to accomplish: the linked collection told out of chronological order. In Diaz’s collection, the stories are told by different narrators, in different settings and different time periods. But the book has such great coherence.

Not only does the book itself have such wonderful continuity, but each story is successful on its own.

Currently, the order of my stories has the reader jumping from high school to college then back to adolescence. I’m not sure if the order makes any sense, and I expressed this concern to my writer friend. His response?

“That’s what editors are for,” he said.

I was really taken aback by this statement.

It’s true – an editor will help shape a collection of stories or poems, but I don’t have an editor. I probably won’t be able to get one until my collection is impressive enough to attract an editor’s attention, which means I need to figure out the order myself. As a beginning writer, I don’t have the luxury of handing in very rough drafts and expecting an editor to see its potential. I have to prove myself first.

In continuing to think about this, I’ve realized that arranging a collection requires a short story writer to borrow a poet’s skills: the ability to see an overarching image or theme and to get the reader to feel something beyond the immediate language.

These days, with so many people writing and publishing on their own, writers may need to cross genres or expand their skills in order to make up for the fact that they can’t rely on an editor until they reach the point that they don’t even really need an editor anymore. It’s quite the paradox.

Take an interest in a type of writing that you don’t normally read, and you might find something that informs your own craft.

(Photo by compujeramey)

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