One of the most surprising things about writing is that you can set out to do a particular thing, and completely succeed at doing that thing, and, as a result, produce something that is not good.
I learned this lesson in the process of developing my new short story collection, which originated in an idea. Probably this was not a great way to begin, but it’s how I began. I noticed that I had written a few short stories that were in the first person and starred a narrator who was trying to convince the listener/reader of something. A ha! I thought. A pattern! And so I decided that I was going to write an entire book of stories like that.
Side note: before my first collection of short stories, Between Camelots, was published, I would work on one individual story at a time and would only think about that particular story. I didn’t think about how that story might fit in with other stories, how it could be part of some emerging theme or focus, how it might fit into something bigger. I didn’t think in terms of books. Ever since Between Camelots came out, though, it’s been hard to avoid thinking about books, because books are fun and rewarding. Whenever I write a story now, I have this awful tendency to look right past it, wondering if it could be part of a collection. It’s a bad habit that I don’t know how to break.
Anyway, that habit was already in place when I decided (based on those several relevant stories I’d already written) that I was going to write a collection of first-person stories with narrators attempting to persuade. In a sense they would all be dramatic monologues. Well, I set out to write those stories, and over a couple of years I did write them. I got the job done. When I put them all together and slapped a title on the collection—Missionaries—I shared the manuscript with some very smart writer-friends, and they agreed: yes, I had indeed put together a book of first-person narrators pleading their cases.
The problem was that, as these very smart writer-friends told me, it was not a good book.
These very smart writer-friends told me that my attempt to pursue a focus had produced uneven stories; some were good, but others were clearly there just because I needed more of that type. I had lowered my standards in order to make sure my goals were met. Even worse, even if all the stories had been good, apparently it was pretty tedious, reading one narrator after the next all engaged with the reader in the same kind of way. In other words, I had succeeded in putting together a certain kind of book, but that kind of book was not going to work for a reader. Doing what you mean to do is not inherently a good thing; it’s only a good thing if what you mean to do is worth doing.
A somewhat euphemized version of a piece of advice I regularly give my students: You can smear mud all over a plate—on purpose, intentionally—but your intentions don’t make it dinner.
And so I retreated to my Writing Cave and pondered. Instead of pursuing the Missionaries idea further, I decided to let myself be guided by the power of the stories. I dumped the ones that were so-so and hung onto the ones that were solid. I also grabbed some other solid stories I’d written along the way, ones that I’d written even though they didn’t fit into the collection idea (sometimes I’m still a little irrepressible, even with my bad Could this be a book? habit), and I just put them all together, side-by-side, to see whether they might play nicely with one another. (That’s how I assembled my first book, after all.)
And it turned out that they did play nicely with one another. And in fact there was even a theme there—people trying to figure out how to fit into the social world—but the theme was not relentless, and it emerged organically instead of being an artificial force producing stories like an assembly line, and there were many different kinds of voices, and third-person stories (and even second-person stories!) to go with the first-person stories. There was variety. This was a collection rather than an idea stuck on repeat. When my very smart writer-friends read the new version, now called The Guy We Didn’t Invite to the Orgy and other stories (and now published, I’m proud to say), they said it was good. They said that this was a plate of something that could reasonably be called dinner.
When it comes to assembling short story collections, intentions are not sacred. Intentions probably aren’t even necessary. Certainly they matter a lot less than the stories themselves.
David Ebenbach is the author of eight books of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, including, most recently, the novel How to Mars (Tachyon Publications, 2021) and the poetry collection Some Unimaginable Animal (Orison Books, 2019). He teaches at Georgetown University. Visit him at www.davidebenbach.com. (updated 6/2021)
Ebenbach founded the AGNI blog in 2015 and edited it until 2019.