Short Story Collections with Vanessa Gebbie

Thursday 9 March 2017 @ Goring Methodist Church Hall, Worthing

Vanessa Gebbie

Following her successful visit to the WSW Writers' Weekend, we have Vanessa Gebbie talking to us about Short Story Collections.

Vanessa is an award-winning short fiction writer and poet, and a novelist.
Her short story collections are: Words from a Glass Bubble (Salt Modern Fiction 2008), Storm Warning, Echoes of Conflict (Salt Modern Fiction 2010) and A Short History of Synchronised Breathing (Cultured Llama 2017). Her illustrated flash fiction collection Ed's Wife and Other Creatures was published by Liquorice Fish Books in 2015, and a second flash collection Nothing to Worry About is forthcoming in a limited edition from Flash International at Chester University in 2017.

She is commissioning and contributing editor of Short Circuit, Guide to the Art of the Short Story editions i and ii (Salt), and she teaches widely. In 2017 she is leading short fiction courses in Venice, in Ireland, and at Gladstone's Library.


Review of the meeting

Vanessa told us how to put a short story collection together, by reference to her own work.

Vanessa explained that stories in a collection should be connected in some way. A bit like flower arrangement or a work of art, pleasing to the pallet. Spikes of surprise are okay, but not clashes of colours. There should be a TONAL EFFECT in aggregate of the work.
She started off by pulling together pieces validated by ‘the market’ – e.g. Competitions.

UNTHEMED collections can work well. For example, the stories in Vanessa’s collection: Words from a Glass Bubble (2008, Salt) have a TONAL CONNECTION.

Although her book, The Cowards Tale is marketed as a novel, it is in fact a short story collection. The THEME is ‘Life Issues’.

Vanessa’s father was unfortunate enough to have advancing senile dementia and she wanted to show him a book that she has created for him. Salt agreed to publish it and she put together a collection. The theme was: ‘how conflict impinges on those caught up in traumatic events/wars then have to return to the normal life.’ Her father was an old soldier. She was impacted by the effect his war experiences had on him afterwards. She wanted to try and make sense of his early life, although it didn't make sense when considering the war. The collection, Storm Warning, echoes of conflict- the book. All the stories are about conflict. The THEME is clear: different wars and different ways of dealing with the subject.

A Short History of Synchronised Breathing is a good example of a standard short story collection. All the stories are strange, but written for effect – quirky, meta fiction etc. Vanesssa advises writers to ‘Do your own thing’.

Ed’s Wife and Other Creatures is an example of putting a collection together by genre. It’s a series of stories about a marriage. Ed’s wife shape shifts.

The way the collection is organised matters! Ask yourself what you want to give to the reader. Respect them, as they give their time to read your work. Still, be true to yourself.
Showcase collections aren't so good, because publishers will say it's too disparate and throws people off. Even if it's a good story, then not necessarily right for this collection.

Do read other short story collections, so you can see what is being published and what collections/stories titles are called. For example, Diving Bells is a very interesting short story collection by Lucy Wood. Tania Hershman is the author of a short story collection titled The White Road. She printed out all the stories - short, flash and so on - and put them on the floor. Her partner helped her arrange and shuffle the way the book was arranged.

It is important to negotiate with the publishers and be prepared to give more than you had planned. For example, when dealing with Cultured Llama Press re a book of poetry for centenary of Battle of Somme, they wanted stories too.

For short story collections it is better to go direct to the publisher rather than via an agent, if you don't have a novel out there yet. It’s commercially more viable if you are known. It makes sense to go to independent publishers. You need to do your research and pick a publisher who will like your work, because they have done that sort of thing recently. It’s a selling exercise, so be sure to write a covering letter.

Discussion included:
Distribution? Salt very good at marketing. All publishers require you to work with them on publicity etc. If you are savvy social media then the publisher will be more keen on your work.
Tracy Fells says Olive Kitteridge is not a novel, but she hasn't finished it yet. She says it's a collection of short stories!
Sales of collections have increased on line, as per Sarah Higbee due to modern technology. People enjoy a short story on the bus etc. Technology works for short pieces.
The break was most enjoyable with two delicious cakes baked by Alison Hawes.

After the break we played Word Cricket for 7.5 minutes. Alison gave us an opening phrase for a piece of free writing: I told him not to buy that bungalow because - every minute she gave us one word that had to be included in the writing. It was very much enjoyed by all, as we found when six of us read out our pieces to everyone. It was a rather hysterical and mad sort of ‘recital’ of rather surprising, coherent ‘flash fiction’.

We had a great evening with a truly talented writer and found out a lot about to put our short story collection together.

If you would like your word cricket ‘story’ included in the West Sussex Writers 80th Anniversary Anthology then please email it here. If you don’t want to type it up, give it to me (Liz Eastwood) and I will do it for you. Don’t forget to submit at least one short story, poem or flash fiction to the 80th Anniversary Anthology by the end of April. We would like every member to have one piece in the book.

Liz Eastwood