A Rose by Any Other Name
How I finally got Thrill Seekers published.
Even a beginner writer knows the publishing climate of the noughties isn’t into short stories, let alone short story collections. Yet, I ended up with just that – a product of a Masters degree in Creative Writing from the University of QLD. I knew the odds were stacked against me but I didn’t stop reaching for the dream, a book, with my name on the front taking pride of place on my shelves. The question was how?
From the start I knew I’d have a better chance at publication if the stories were linked so I tried imposing an external structure. I toyed with imposing a ghost-like over-narrator flitting between different people’s minds in a queue at Centrelink but when this didn’t work I gave up trying to impose links, and simply wrote. From the writing the form emerged organically.
As I was writing heavily-autobiographical stories from snatches of memory, clustering was only natural, particularly because the stories were all within the same timeframe and setting. Besides this external connection, I found that characters were recurring, though at first with different names, until I realised I was really dealing with a few core personas. Without my conscious intention the stories were beginning to group themselves around a few central characters and the major events that impacted on them all.
Once I’d noticed this pattern, I wrote stories specifically to fill the gaps, answering questions raised in the plot, and providing deeper insight into the characters. I became engrossed in this process and wondered if other writers had experienced the same intriguing jigsaw puzzle.
As part of my research I discovered a rich and varied tradition of this style of narrative, never fully understood or embraced by critics. Early twentieth-century magazines liked to publish series of stories by the same author using the same characters and settings. Writers of genius, such as Faulkner and Steinbeck, began conceiving their narratives to fit this market. Writers of genius indeed! I liked that. Maybe writing linked short stories wasn’t such a bad deal after all.
Since the form’s earliest beginnings in the 19th Century many writers have experimented with combining and linking short stories to make a larger whole, just as I had been doing. A freer and more open-ended form than the traditional novel, it’s been called many things – short story cycles, discontinuous narratives, linked short stories and composite novels. But it still remains misunderstood and, in this day and age, virtually unpublishable. Unless you happen to be Tim Winton, as the success of the “overlapping stories” in his 2004 work, The Turning, proves.
The Turning is usually referred to as “a collection” with reviewers giving little weight to the overall work. However, even though it’s based on story units, The Turning is meant to be read as a novel, from start to finish, not in the dip and pick fashion of unrelated story collections. There is a narrative greater than the individual stories that amplifies and resonates with each individual part. The parts can be read separately but meaning and emotional impact is reduced when any one story is withdrawn from the collection.
This makes sequencing of great importance when structuring a composite. The main storyline has to be given priority. As well as considering tone and pace, matters of chronology and what to hide, and when to reveal, are vital in order to lead the reader forward. Suspense has to be built, not only into each story, but into the whole. For me, that was the real puzzle – trying to find exactly the right place for each part.
Once I submitted my thesis, I proceeded to send query letters to agents and publishers. I called my work Thrill Seekers, and described it as a collection of linked short stories about growing up on the dark side of Brisbane during the late Joh era. From my forty or so queries I received four requests to read the first few chapters.
From those four submissions, I was fortunate enough to acquire a respected agent to represent Thrill Seekers. I was ecstatic. The vision of my book with a cover and my photo on the back flap was finally being realised. My agent was enthusiastic and sent the manuscript to one of Australia’s leading publishers. They were keen but wanted me to do more work on it. Following their advice, over the next year I added to the collection, writing lighter stories to vary the tone, expanding the cast of characters. I made it longer, and juggled the stories out of chronological order. I sent it off again and crossed my fingers and toes.
I waited and waited. The worst part of the writing life is waiting.
No go, they said. I’d come very close. But it was, after all, short stories. I wasn’t famous. The writing was good, but not strong enough to sell the collection alone, and the form prohibited it being sold in the popular fiction market.
My agent advised me to shove Thrill Seekers under my bed and work on something else, a novel. She didn’t want me to have a string of rejections associated with my name. I knew she was probably right, after all she knew the business much better than I did, but it still hurt. It hurt so badly I spent the next few months typing with the screen of my laptop turned down so I couldn’t see the lousy writing coming out.
Then, I saw an advertisement in Writing Queensland’s opportunity pages calling for submissions for a gritty realist young adult series dealing with subjects like the death of a parent, drug abuse, mental illness, youth suicide and teenage sexuality. It seemed as if they knew exactly what I’d written. I ticked all the boxes, except one.
They were looking for novellas; not short stories.
I wasn’t going to let a little thing like that stop me. When they asked for the first three chapters I sent the strongest three stories from the central narrative in chronological order. I neglected to mention they weren’t exactly chapters.
I had an enthusiastic response asking for the rest of the manuscript as soon as possible. A 35 000 word novella. Sure, I typed back, no worries.
EEEEK! I had over 70 000 words of linked short stories to turn into a novella in a matter of weeks if I wanted to get this contract. And boy did I want it.
So I went to work. With the help of my tireless readers I cut several points of view down to only three, focusing on two brothers, and the girl that comes into their lives. It was easier than I thought to collapse other characters into these three and make all the stories about them. As I rearranged, the stories/chapters fell naturally into place and the central narrative came to the fore, strong and suspenseful. It worked better than I could have hoped. For the first time in what seemed like a thousand drafts I felt proud of my manuscript.
The heart of the story revealed itself when I cut away all that was unnecessary. I focused the plot on the relationship between the brothers, their battle with schizophrenia, the girl, and the tyranny of an older boy. Some stories needed very little changing, others needed introductory paragraphs or bridging passages. I needed to bring it from the eighties to the present day, from John Travolta to Justin Timberlake. But really there wasn’t much to do.
I sent off my “novella” and got the contract. When I the email flicked open telling me I had been successful, despite my earlier visions of jumping for joy, I sat staring at the screen crying with relief. It had been many years of work getting these stories into the world. I wished someone had suggested turning it into a novella earlier, but then realised it all had to be just the way it was. What I learnt from the process was more valuable than getting a contract three years earlier would have been.
So, to all of you out there working on stories that seem to be linking, don’t give up. Keep writing, make those links and polish those pieces till they shine, then send them out into the world. But DON’T call them short stories, call them chapters, with a nod and a wink to those who know different.
A rose by any other name still smells as sweet. But short stories called chapters sell much more easily.