The Nuts & Bolts

by Kate Finegan

Q: How long should a collection be?

A: For a short story or essay collection, LitReactor suggests 40,000 words as a minimum, and this is consistent with guidelines at many small presses. In her Ask Me Anything session, agent Amy Bishop suggests that a novel should be in the 60,000 to 100,000 range, but if you take a look at your bookshelves, you’ll probably notice that many collections are on the shorter side, clocking in at 150 to 175 pages. I’d say once you’re at 40,000, the question of “doneness” switches from a numerical value to a sense that all the themes and images within the collection have echoed to the point that you can walk out of the canyon without hearing it whisper behind you.

For poetry, MasterClass notes that a chapbook tends to run 20 to 30 pages, while a full-length collection is 50+. They also note,

How do you choose which book size is right for you? The main consideration driving your decision should be the quality and coherence of your poems. Remember, every poetry book has to stand on its own. You don’t want to pad out a manuscript with poems that don’t go together.

If you’re focused on chapbooks, this brand-new conversation from Four Way Review may help to illuminate the process. Of course, a collection might also be a series which is published across various journals. In that case, the sky’s the limit!

Q: Where should I submit my collection?

A: In short, you should submit your collection to a press that publishes work you love! This is one reason why it’s important to consider which writers your work is in conversation with. One resource for those seeking small presses is the upcoming SMOL Fair, an alternative to AWP. Explore their list of participating presses and see which ones are publishing work that appeals to you. Then, follow them on social media and watch for submission calls. For more on publishing with a small press, check out this informational roundtable discussion, featuring Tyrese Coleman and Longleaf Review contributor Chaya Bhuvaneswar.

If you want to go the agent route (and this applies more to fiction and nonfiction than debut poetry), check the acknowledgements of your favorite collections. The writer will generally thank their agent. Manuscript Wish List is another great resource; you can filter agents based on the genres they represent.

No matter which route you choose to go, be prepared with a synopsis, or pitch, of your work. Writer’s Digest has a series of Successful Queries, with agent commentary on what drew their attention. These tend toward novels, but learning what makes a pitch interesting is universal. Then, you can look read the synopses of your very favorite collections to see what they’re doing to highlight the unifying themes, as well as the individual pieces within the manuscript. Here are the synopses for the collections that were included in your reading list for this weekend:

Wild Milk is like Borscht Belt meets Leonora Carrington; it’s like Donald Barthelme meets Pony Head; it’s like the Brothers Grimm meet Beckett in his swim trunks at the beach. In other words, this remarkable collection of stories is unlike anything else you’ve read.

Wild Milk by Sabrina Orah Mark

How do you pick your mom up from jail? How do you mourn the death of your grandmother, who was both a powerfully seductive and vital force in your life, but at the same time, awful and tragic? How do you wait three months for your premature twin babies to get out of the NICU without going mad from fear and guilt? With a strong voice that is at times sparse and direct, at other times poetic and knowing, Tyrese Coleman confronts these and other questions in this beautiful debut collection, How to Sit. In these stories and essays, she uncovers a paradoxical truth: that sometimes it’s the more difficult things that you can face with surprising bravery and it’s the things that are supposed to come “easy” that are the hardest to learn. How to Sit is, at root, a reflection on how to live. How to both accept and transcend your past. Coleman excavates her personal history, sometimes in stories handed down from past generations, sometimes in DNA results, and she discovers that it’s the act of writing itself that can free her from her family, her guilt, maybe even herself. For Coleman, there is ‘no way to escape except to live her own fiction.’

How to Sit by Tyrese Coleman (a blurb-as-synopsis by David Olimpio, Author of This Is Not a Confession)

Hailed by Lauren Groff as “fully committed to the truth no matter how dark or difficult or complicated it may be,” and written with “incantatory crispness,” Sleepovers, the debut short story collection by Ashleigh Bryant Phillips, takes us to a forgotten corner of the rural South, full of cemeteries, soybean fields, fishing holes, and Duck Thru gas stations. We meet a runaway teen, a mattress salesman, feral kittens, an elderly bachelorette wearing a horsehair locket, and a little girl named after Shania Twain. Here, time and memory circle above Phillips’ characters like vultures and angels, as they navigate the only landscape they’ve ever known. Corn reaches for rain, deer run blindly, and no matter how hungry or hurt, some forgotten hymn is always remembered. “The literary love child of Carson McCullers and John the Baptist, Ashleigh Bryant Phillips’ imagination is profoundly original and private,” writes Rebecca Lee. Sleepovers marks the debut of a fearless new voice in fiction.

Sleepovers by Ashleigh Bryant Phillips

WAYS WE VANISH, Todd Dillard’s debut poetry collection, navigates the grief following the loss of a parent while also starting a new life and becoming a parent yourself. It peels back the layers of everyday living to reveal the impossible landscape flourishing underneath—one fraught with sorrow, want, and pain, but also filled with hope, joy, and flight.

Ways We Vanish by Todd Dillard

For submissions, a strong query will also generally include comparative titles, or the works that your manuscript is in conversation with. Go for recent titles, and steer clear of hyberbolic, runaway best sellers. This isn’t such a huge concern with collections, but you might not want to say your title story is destined to be the next “Cat Person,” for instance.

Also, while you’re submitting, KEEP WRITING. Or reading. Or throwing pots. Or baking bread. Submitting is the business side of writing, and it can be crushing. I pitched something like 40 agents across two different projects before landing the right one. Now, the book is on submission and the process is moving really slowly because everyone has too much to read and not enough time! There’s a lot of downtime and a lot of rejection. It happens, and you can’t control it. So do something else, something you can control. Write the next thing. Or pet your dog. Just don’t refresh your inbox ad nauseum; the email will still be there when you get around to it.

Q: How much of the work should be previously published?

A: Honestly, if a press cares about this question, it’ll probably directly say so in the guidelines. I read short fiction and flash fiction for Split/Lip Press, and we have no idea how much of a collection is previously published; we just know if we love the words on the page! (p.s. Our reading period closes at the end of February!)

If you’re looking for an agent, when they call you to say they’re interested, they’ll likely ask how many pieces are previously published. This is so that they can strategize placing the remaining pieces in order to build platform and buzz in preparation for your book’s release. So, I would say it’s good to leave a chunk of pieces unpublished so they can come out closer to your book’s release date. But unless the press guidelines specify a percentage, previous publication or non-publication of individual pieces probably won’t be a deal-breaker. Again, you should query or submit the collection when it is a complete work of art, a full dinner, a wrapped-up conversation.

Q: How important is thematic unity?

A: Speaking from my own experience, I had one story in my collection that was told through a daughter’s eyes but focused on her father. It was the only story that centered a man. My agent had me rewrite it to truly make it the daughter’s story, to make it not so much about the father as how the daughter untangles his story. So, I’d say thematic unity is pretty important! Now, you can have quite a few themes and perspectives that ripple across various pieces. Again, think of echoes in a canyon: you might have a few voices calling, but they’ll overlap in some way, even if that overlap is small. You can think of a collection as a series of overlapping circles, like a Venn diagram, with different pieces within different circles. I come back to this essay by Heather Christle a lot. She outlines a patchwork process for unifying The Crying Book, which can be a useful way to track themes and imagery within a collection.

Poetry collections are frequently divided into sections, with those sections speaking to one another while also containing their own thematic unity. I think of those section dividers as thin walls; you can still hear what’s happening in the other sections, but the conversations are loudest within this room.

The memoir-in-essays is a popular form, and one that can work really well. Split/Lip publishes them pretty regularly, including Jeannine Ouellette’s The Part That Burns and Melissa Matthewson’s Tracing the Desire Line. In this case, the essays work together to form a cohesive narrative, but the narrative might not be linear. Jane Alison’s Meander Spiral Explode is my go-to guide on forms that buck the narrative arc.

Ultimately, we’ve all read collections that are not thematically unified, but for a debut collection, having an easily-digestible pitch is key in helping the agent or editor envision it on a bookshelf.

This doesn’t mean that every piece has to be the same. Collections that include both flash and short fiction pieces are my absolute favorites. Same with collections that include speculative and realistic pieces! But the key is to be able to pitch it, to explain what ties it all together.

Other questions? Head over to the Day 3 – Final Thoughts forum to discuss them with fellow writers or email us at [email protected]