This is no. 38 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
I always read short story collections in order. Maybe this is because my earliest infatuations happened via mix tape (and by mix tape, I mean a CD that I burned or that someone burned for me, with songs meant to convey something deep and unspeakable). Unlike with a cassette, one could, in theory, set the CD player to random, but this would break an unspoken rule. The point was to put on your headphones, lie on your bed, and think about the person who made the mix for you. You’d hold the handwritten track list and listen to the songs in their intended order, so you could figure out what this person was trying to say. You paid close attention to the lyrics, the tone, the transitions. A successful mix tape meant never forgetting about the “author.” How exactly did they feel about you? Did you feel the same way? Maybe you hadn’t before, but now, alone in your room with all those perfectly chosen songs, maybe you were charmed.
Assembling a short story collection is a daunting process: Often the individual pieces have been written as unique, standalone works, edited by staff with varying aesthetics at different literary journals, and published over a span of years. The earliest version of my collection, Black Light, wasn’t really a collection—it was just a bunch of stories I wrote and published between 2005 and 2017. It took my terrific agent to help me see that one of the stories was actually the beginning of a novel, that two others needed to be combined into a longer piece, and that one story had a voice too abstract and confrontational to fit in with the rest. Once these decisions were made, the stories that we kept had a kind of reverberation with each other. A musicality.
In an informal poll, my friends who read collections tell me they don’t read in order. They start with the shortest story, or the title story, or they read in reverse order or at random. This is all fine—unless the stories are linked, order shouldn’t make or break a collection—but when I was putting Black Light together, sequence became very important to me. I love the way my favorite collections bend time, pull me in and out of different worlds, immerse me in a situation for thirty pages and then toss me out.
I had three very long stories and three very short ones and half a dozen in between. I liked the idea of giving moments of reprieve, little spaces to breathe, so flash pieces often came after the longest ones. Everybody knows how important the first track of a mix tape is, and I wanted to start my collection with my most affable narrator. In the story “Guts,” Sheila is bewildered by new circumstance: She’s recently fallen for a medical student, and suddenly she sees sickness and beauty everywhere she looks. This newfound empathy overwhelms her, and in that way she’s a great proxy for a reader entering the strange world of the collection. All my stories deal with similar themes—game playing, escapism, desire—but I had strong ideas about how to move through the different voices of the remaining narrators (urban and rural, child and adult, male and female, queer and straight) in a way that felt balanced and varied to me.
On the first call with my editor, before we’d even made a deal, she talked about her vision for the collection. She liked the order, the way the stories “sang” to one another. She compared her favorite collections to music: She wanted this book to feel cohesive and unified, but never repetitive. Like a perfect mix tape, she said, a book of short stories should make the reader fall in love. I knew then that I’d found the right person for my project.
Kimberly King Parsons is the author of Black Light, a short story collection forthcoming from Vintage on August 13, 2019. She is a recipient of fellowships from Columbia University and the Sustainable Arts Foundation, and her fiction has appeared in the Paris Review, Best Small Fictions, No Tokens, the Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. Her website is www.kimberlykingparsons.com.