Arranging and sequencing a collection of short fiction is like planning a successful walk in the Peak District. Start off somewhere high with a great view. A place you’ve been recommended to visit, where you can park easily and sit in the car whilst lacing your boots. From here you see the rest of the landscape. There are other peaks, well-known ones with great names; there are quieter places of shade which you stumble upon and find unexpected stillness and loveliness; there are complicated stiles and steep slopes leading onto familiar ground; there are boggy parts and scrambly parts, and importantly there are parts you enjoy so much you look forward to next weekend, when you can return and show a friend.
Until now, I have been the friend, guided to read a collection by someone enthusing about it. My work has been included in many printed anthologies, more online, yet I never appreciated the difficulties of sequencing different authors’ work in a single volume. As part of the Nottingham Trent University Masters in Creative Writing, each cohort is invited to create an anthology of fiction, not only writing the words but inviting submissions from other authors, editing, proofreading, designing, sending to print, launching and most importantly selling copies to cover costs. After our uncertain post-covid beginning, the 2021-22 cohort themed our anthology ‘Uncertain Truths’ https://uncertaintruths.co.uk/.
My role in the anthology (apart from writing and submitting my own poems and short stories) was to gather the thirty-five separate submissions of prose, poetry and flash and undertake the tricky task of arranging them in a suitable sequence.
We were extremely lucky that several award-winning Nottingham writers had responded to our request for a submission. I had short stories from novelist Lynda Clark, winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and shortlisted for the BBC Short Story prize; Alison Moore, whose novels have been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Awards, won the McKitterick Prize and have been Observer Books of the Year; esteemed crime writer John Harvey, whose Resnick novels have won numerous awards, received many CWA Dagger awards, who also writes poetry and was recently awarded an honorary fellowship at Goldsmiths College, London; novelist Megan Taylor, award-winning author of five novels and short stories whose work has won or been shortlisted for the Yeovil Prize, the Brighton Prize and the Walter Swan Prize; and poems from Jo Dixon whose work has been published in many anthologies, her first collection published last year.
Alongside these submissions we also had work submitted by our own tutors at NTU, all of whom are published writers. Rory Waterman, our course leader, is an award winning poet, literary critic and editor with three collections published by Carcanet and whose work has been shortlisted for many awards including the Seamus Heaney Prize and is published in places including the Guardian, New Statesman, Financial Times, TLS, Poetry, Poetry Review and PN Review; Andrew Taylor, poet, reviewer and editor at erbacce poetry journal and associated publishing house, as well as the author of many pieces published in anthologies and a recent collection published by Shearsman, whilst David Belbin is the author of over fifty novels for adults and young adults, has even more short fiction in anthologies and collections and is the chair of Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature.
In addition, there were pieces from the current MA cohort and the previous cohort. Each piece of writing had a different tone and approached the theme differently, and it was my responsibility to show each in its best light whilst making these separate parts a readable whole.
I became more clinical. The difference between this and other anthologies was that of the thirty-five submissions I received, all were to be included. My role was not to select those which I believed fitted the theme more closely, or reflected our talents most generously; it was to include every piece I had, in a sequence which encouraged a reader to continue reading, to enjoy the selection and ultimately to sell a copy or two of the book.
Initially I classified the pieces into three groups – poetry, flash fiction and prose. There was some overlap in these categories, but predominantly I used three differently coloured sticky-notes and sorted by wordcount. The next part was more difficult. Faced with thirty-five small pieces of paper I was stumped at first where to begin. I thought about how I liked to read anthologies (like a pick-n-mix, choose at random), I asked my writerly friends (in strict order, page 1 to the end), I asked MA colleagues (memorably one reads the final story first). I realised that to create a successful sequence for all types of reader, a Peak District walk would help. I needed a high point to begin and end, several further high points on the way, and enough light and shade to provide familiarity and respite for those tricky middle bits. I re-read the external submissions. These were particularly strong, and in no time at all Lynda Clark, Alison Moore, David Belbin and Megan Taylor became the bookends of the collection. Jo Dixon and John Harvey, along with Rory Waterman and Andrew Taylor offered peaks along the way and the anthology was beginning to take shape.
The work by the MA students was more difficult to place and I spent many hours over the week moving sticky-notes about. My rationale was that if a reader were to open the book at random and begin reading, they would be more likely to continue reading if the following piece had a similar tone or colour than if we adopted a scattergun approach. However, this resulted in a deeply muddied patch of fantasy/magical realism, into which a reader may sink if they were not comfortable with invented worlds. I slid in some lighter animal-themed short stories as stepping stones back to cosier pieces and safer ground. The subject of love also posed a particular challenge. Writers either approached it with loving affection or passionate hate; these sticky-notes were moved about the most. For the ending I aimed for lightness. We are lucky to have some talented writers on the course who write fiction that is wryly funny, and this slotted in well here, bringing the reader out into the light, smiling. After several versions I shared the order with others, who suggested further small movements, but overall, the rationale for the sequencing was agreed. The collection was finally arranged.
I had reached the end of the walk. Weary, satisfied, and looking forward to seeing the collection printed in a book I can hold when it is launched at our event on 3rd November 2021. Copies are available to pre-order here, £7 for collection at the Nottingham evening launch or £9.50 delivered.
It will be an adventure to visit it again as a whole, to return to it with a friend and share the words I liked the most. If they prefer the steep slope with the vertiginous drop to the safety of the stepping stones at the bottom of the valley, that’s okay too. That’s being a reader, that’s the delight of a short fiction collection, and that’s the excitement of discovering something unexpected. Just remember to stop frequently and take a look at the view, large or small; you might notice something you haven’t noticed before.