27 April 2013

Creating Deception

by John M. Floyd

Let me start by saying this is an interesting time, around our house. As of this writing, our third child (and only daughter) is expecting her first baby, and since he (it's a boy) is due shortly, it means my wife Carolyn and I are expecting as well. Every time the phone rings, Carolyn jumps like she just sat on a cactus plant.

Less important but still stressful is the fact that my fourth book is due to be released next week. (I've already done one signing, in my hometown some seventy miles north of us; the "official" launch of the book here in the Jackson area will be a signing and reading at Lemuria Bookstore this coming Wednesday.) Why should that be stressful, at this point? Well, because my publisher has arranged a boatload of signings and interviews over the coming days and weeks, and with a new grandchild about to make his appearance we could have some last-minute scheduling conflicts.

Taking up the collection

Writingwise, this book--it's called Deception--didn't require a lot of work, because it's a collection of thirty of my short stories, and twenty-eight of those stories were previously published. The actual writing was of course done some time ago, before the individual stories were originally sold to magazines and anthologies. But--believe it or not--the task of arranging stories into a collection can be harder than most folks realize. The very fact that they were written at different times and for different markets can make it difficult for them to exist together in the same volume.

Before I get into that, though, I should probably say a little about the books themselves. All four of my short-story collections were produced by Dogwood Press, a small traditional publishing house owned and managed by Joe Lee, who turned to publishing almost ten years ago after a career in broadcasting. All four contain stories that are primarily mystery/suspense, and that originally appeared in places like The Strand MagazineWoman's WorldMurderous IntentAlfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, etc. And each title, so far at least, has been taken from the title of one of the included stories.

My first book, Rainbow's End (2006), included thirty of my previously published stories; Midnight (2008) had thirty more; Clockwork (2010) had forty. The latest book, Deception (2013), again contains thirty stories, only two of which are new and have not been previously published. Those two original stories were included not because I'm running out of inventory for reprints but because the publisher felt it would be a good idea to (for the first time) throw a couple of new ones into the mix. I've already picked out thirty more stories for a fifth collection in case the publisher eventually decides to go through the mental and financial anguish of producing another one.

The good thing about including only pre-pubbed stories in a collection is that those usually don't require much editing. If they were good enough to sell (depending of course on where they sold), they're probably good enough to be reprinted. The bad thing is that, as I said earlier, there are a few more things to think about than whether the individual stories are properly written.

Writers' guidelines

Here are some of the points (rules?) that my publisher and I had to consider, for each collection of stories. (By the way, he allowed me far more input into the process than an author usually gets, and I'm grateful for that.)

1. Intersperse shorter stories and longer stories. Assuming that the reader will go through the book from front to back and not skip around, you don't want several very long stories grouped together, and the same things goes for very short ones. Like sentences in a paragraph, a variety of lengths seems to work best.

2. Vary the moods and intensity levels of the stories. We tried to arrange the sequence such that there's a mix of lighthearted vs. gritty subject matter.

3. Choose a theme. All the included stories should have something, however small, in common. Setting, characters, genre, etc. In my case, that was easy: all of them involve mystery/suspense.

4. Don't repeat character names (unless the stories are part of a series). Since most of these stories were originally written to "stand alone," we had to make sure we didn't accidentally place a story featuring, let's say, a protagonist named Jerry alongside another story featuring a protagonist named Jerry. In fact we tried to limit the occurrence of any characters having the same first or last names, especially if the names were unusual. When we did find repeated names--unless they were series characters--most of them got changed. I discovered that for some reason I seem to have an odd fondness for first names like Charlie, Jack, Lucy, Eddie, and a few others, and I use them too often.

5. Don't group other genres or subgenres within the book. Even though almost all these stories can be classified as mystery/crime/suspense, they're sometimes cross-pollinated with other categories, like fantasy, humor, Western, romance, horror, or even sci-fi. And we didn't want the reader encountering several space operas (or horse operas) back-to-back.

6. Don't allow pet phrases to sneak in. I came to realize that I often use expressions like "heaved a sigh" and "as pale as chalk" and "stomped into the room" in more than one story. When that kind of thing happens, and you put those stories together in a collection, the repetition of those phrases sounds almost as bad as it might be if you repeated them in the same story. Bottom line is, we went through and tried to catch those "favorite" and overused phrases and change them up a bit. I became extremely familiar with, and grateful for, the search utility in MS Word.

7. Pick appropriate stories to open and close the collection. For each book we've tried to start out with a story that was both engaging and typical, to set the stage for what follows. We also tried to close with a story that was in some way especially memorable. I think it was Mickey Spillane who said the first chapter sells the book and the last chapter sells the next book. The same thing applies to the stories in a collection of shorts.

8. Vary the crimes. Since these are mysteries, we made sure not to create clusters of stories that featured the same crime: murder, robbery, kidnapping, and so forth. With the first book, we almost didn't catch the fact that two jewelry heists were featured back-to-back. If we'd left them that way, readers would certainly have found that distracting.

9. Be consistent in matters of layout and appearance. Case in point: throughout the book, we used the same kind of designator (three asterisks, which is my publisher's preference) to signal a scene break. Some of these had to be changed when the stories were incorporated into book format. For example, those shorts that had previously sold to AHMM  had used a single pound-sign (my preference) to comply with that magazine's scene-break guidelines. Also, all the stories in this latest book begin on a right-hand-side (odd-numbered) page.

10. Finally, we decided not to group stories that had been previously published in the same magazine. In other words, we put some space between stories sold in The StrandAHMM, or wherever. The only exception to this occurred with some of the "series" mysteries I'd written for Woman's World. Each book so far has featured between six and eight of those mini-mysteries (which use recurring characters), and we've always placed those together, one right after the other, in the exact center of the book. I can't tell you why we did that, except that it just felt right.

One for all or all for one

Some of the points mentioned above also come into play if one is editing an anthology rather than a collection, but the placement of the stories and the avoidance of repetition isn't quite as difficult for anthologies because those stories are--by definition--written by different authors. Pet phrases and duplicate character-names obviously don't happen as often when different authors are involved. In the case of a mystery anthology that I edited several years ago--it included our own Liz Zelvin, Herschel Cozine, and Deborah Elliott-Upton--my main concern was making sure that stories with certain crimes and certain "moods" didn't get grouped too closely together. And I also tried to maintain a good mix of short vs. long, and to choose appropriate stories to begin and close the book.

Have any of you had to wrestle with these kinds of choices? (If you've put together an anthology you probably have, or if you've been allowed some "say" in the process of creating a collection of your own work.) If so, what are your thoughts on the subject? Did you find the selection and placement of the stories difficult? Challenging? Frustrating? How big a task was it to update and retrofit and otherwise edit the stories themselves? Did you run into any issues I haven't mentioned?

Regardless of the difficulties, we probably agree on one thing: it's worth the trouble.


  1. John, this could not have come at a better time. I'm on a panel that is coordinating an anthology of ghost/paranormal stories about South Carolina, written by South Carolinians. You've put some of what I've been saying in this as well as advice I hadn't considered. I'll take it to the next committee meeting. Good luck on the tour and congratulations on the new grandson!

  2. ivery impressive. I keep pondering putting out sn ecollection of my Shanks stories, bjtnot finding the time. Thanks for the tips.

  3. As always, you give excellent writing advice.
    Best of luck with the new book and enjoy that grandchild!

  4. Fran, good luck with the anthology--I hope it's a huge success.

    Rob, I've been thinking for some time that a Shanks collection would be a good idea. Please keep me informed.

    Thanks, Janice. We're still on baby watch around here, but we're thinking the new arrival might be sometime this weekend.

  5. Great post, John, and I loved the first illustration of the classic wooden blocks. I had a set of those as a kid, bought some for my son, somehow lost those, and went out and got 'em again for my grandkids. Congratulations on the impending baby and the collection of shorts.

    I've compiled two collections of poetry and experienced it as a creative process that encouraged me to perceive the gestalt of my work. The mixing and matching was a little different from yours, as I grouped poems on different themes in separate subsections. And I got to compile them in the order I wanted before submitting the collection as a whole to a publisher. I'd love to have my short stories in print together as a collection, though it's not likely to happen any time soon.

  6. I'm keeping this in my writing advice archive--excellent info, John!

    Congrats on the coming grandson and best wishes to the whole family.

  7. John, three of my e-collections involved series stories, so I merely placed them in chronological order. However, the fourth e-collection is "stand alone" stories, so maybe I need to go back and look at that e-book in light of your suggested guidelines. The nice part is both Amazon Kindle and Smashwords sent EFT's this month for sales.

  8. Thanks, David. I remember thinking, back when my first story collection was being considered, that the process would be easy as pie. It was only when it was underway that I found so many pitfalls. I'd be pleased if the knowledge of some of the problems I ran into could help friends with similar projects.

    Liz and R.T., I'll certainly be calling you two for advice if ever I do a poetry collection or an e-story-collection.

  9. Extremely useful, thank you, although not for me at this time. However, one of my critique partners is in the middle of this process and I shall pass the link on to him.

  10. Hi, John,

    This appears to have been published in 2013, but the guidelines are still useful today.

  11. This is terrific advice, John. Thanks for mentioning it on SMFS list. I still have time to apply your advice to the collection I'm working on.

  12. Maddy, Susan, and Jacqueline--thanks for the kind comments! Putting together these collections sure involves more than I thought, at first. Glad to hear these pointers might help.


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