I’m delighted to introduce Carys Bray on the Hub today. Carys was awarded this year’s Salt Publishing’s Scott Prize, for her collection of short stories, Sweet Home, which will be published next month. Here, Carys discusses her methods for compiling a short story collection.
When I decided to enter Salt Publishing’s Scott Prize, I knew it was going to be difficult to organise my stories into a collection. I needed to select and order approximately 45,000 words of short fiction and I didn’t really know where to begin. I didn’t have an editor and although I have lots of generous writing friends, I couldn’t really ask any them to help me plough through that much work.
I spent several days just reading in order to get a good idea of the stories I had. Then I needed to decide whether to simply pick my best stories or select a variety of stories and look for something to bind them together. As I read, I realised some stories weren’t good enough, others needed more work and a few just didn’t seem to fit, even though I liked them. The realisation that some stories didn’t fit was helpful because it made me consider the collection as a whole; what it was ‘about’ and what I wanted to say.
Once I had selected the stories, I wanted to think about the beginning and end of the collection. I think an opening story needs to say, ‘This is what I’m going to do.’ It took me a while to decide which of my stories could do that. In the end, I picked a story called ‘Everything a Parent Needs to Know.’ It’s a story about swimming lessons, divorce and T.S Eliot’s poem ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.’ The story is interrupted by “helpful” quotes from fictional parenting books, but in the end it’s Eliot’s poem, with its musings about awkwardness, revisions and time, that provides comfort.
I think closing stories should say, ‘This is what I’ve done,’ or as my Sat Nav likes to announce, ‘You have arrived at your destination.’ I chose a story called ‘On the Way Home’ to conclude the collection. It’s a story that takes place on a busy street at the end of a school day. The narrative shifts between five characters as they pass a corner shop. Each character is hurting and their bruises are assuaged by a series of brief and seemingly insignificant interactions. In the final scene, a child is kissed better. I liked the idea of ending the collection there, with a kiss. Kisses can’t really make things better, but they are full of promise and hope.
I wrote the titles of the other stories I had selected on post-it notes. Then I added details such as the word count, the kind of narrative voice employed and whether the story was mostly funny or sad. I lined the post-it notes along my kitchen worktop and they lived there for days. As I passed the stories on my way to the fridge I swapped them around. Eventually, I stopped feeling compelled to change things.
I was at a reading with a friend who is a poet and he asked me how I had gone about ordering the collection. After I explained it to him, he asked if I had considered how the closing image of each story interacted with the opening image of the subsequent story, and so on. I hadn’t considered this at all. When I got home from the reading I looked at my manuscript and noticed something. The collection opens with a mother kneeling down in front of her daughter, and it closes with a mother kneeling down in front of her daughter. I’d love to say I did it on purpose, but I didn’t. It just happened that way.
I think this was the hardest part. I didn’t know whether to give the collection its own name or name it after one of the stories. I think the problem with using the title of a story is that it inevitably draws extra attention to that story and I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to do that. When I first considered calling the collection Sweet Home, I was a bit concerned because the story ‘Sweet Home’ is not necessarily typical of the stories in the collection; it’s a fairy tale and only four of the eighteen stories in the collection are fairy tales. I thought about calling the collection Everything a Parent Needs to Know, but decided against it when a couple of friends said it was an awful title. In the end I went ahead and chose Sweet Home because the majority of the stories are about the comforts and discomforts of being part of a family.
I was warned by various writing friends that I may not get any say in the cover. However, the people at Salt Publishing kindly asked me if I had any thoughts about images. I emailed a list of images and within twenty-four hours I had my cover. I really like the cover because there is a tension between the cosy title and the sinister image.
The collection will be launched at 5:30pm on Friday 9th November at Broadhursts, a gorgeous, old-fashioned book shop with an open fire and buckets of character. I can’t quite believe that this time a year ago I was rearranging post-it notes and trying not to get my hopes up. It’s been a really exciting few months.
You can enter the 2013 Scott Prize here: http://thescottprize.co.uk/
For anyone who is in the process of putting together a collection, there’s an interesting round table discussion here http://www.twentyone.org.uk/issue1/cox.html
Carys Bray’s prize-winning short stories have been published in a variety of magazines and literary journals including Mslexia, Dialogue, P