When do a bunch of stories become a collection?
When I finished my MFA program at Oregon State, I figured my next step was to publish a book. Lucky for me, I’d written a lot those two years—conservatively, twenty short stories and probably twice as much flash. I’d been through the thesis process of polishing the heck out of five of them ad nauseum and had done my due diligence in revising everything that had survived the workshop process and even a few stories more. What was left but to send out the best combined two hundred pages or so and collect my contest prize money or advance from one of those top tier small presses whose reading periods had so nicely aligned with the months following graduation. I could already see myself progressing to my tenure-track faculty gig and fielding calls from agents and bigger publishing houses between classes.
My collection, as I’d originally conceived of it, didn’t find a home with any of the first ten or so venues I submitted to. It didn’t even garner so much as a personalized or discernibly higher-tier rejection. I was rattled, but sent it off to ten-to-fifteen more potential homes.
No one bit.
And as the later form rejections trickled in, I looked more critically at the collection I was sending out, and particularly whether it still felt like a collection to me. A year into submitting I started removing stories I felt were borderline in terms of fitting stylistically or thematically; the ones I no longer felt as confident in the quality of. A story from the point of view of a pedophile—which I’d first crafted in response to a prompt about capturing a loathsome first-person perspective—was an early cut. The first in a series of four linked stories went, too, not because it was weaker than its sibling stories but because it broke the least new ground and felt less than essential. Perhaps the most difficult cut of all was one of my favorite stories, on the short list for the best stories I’ve written, the first I’d ever placed with a prestigious national journal. The thing was that it was a piece heavily tinged in magical realism in a collection otherwise void of flights of fancy. I don’t love this story any less now than I did when I first drafted it, but I did come to recognize it wasn’t a fit for the manuscript, and that tacking it on as the last story did less to mitigate those differences than spotlight them.
Though I traded in some newer stories I’d written in the interim, and some revised ones I hadn’t thought to include earlier, the end result was a collection that was leaner and better focused. What had been an amalgamation of my best work became, instead, a body of work with a clearer identity, writing about small town life and awkward family intimacies; experimenting with the short story form while maintaining an undercurrent of social consciousness.
Shepherding this book to publication was, perhaps above all else, an exercise in patience. In retrospect, waiting two and a half years and weathering thirty-some-odd rejections is not so severe, and a far stretch from the eternity it felt like. But that time was crucial in transforming a bunch of stories into a book—my first and one that I’m proud of.
Order by clicking the link for You Might Forget the Sky was Ever Blue: