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Kirsty Logan. Writing short stories.
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How to Write a Short Story Collection with Kirsty Logan 

November 12, 2023
Kirsty Logan
November 12, 2023

As authors, short stories can often be our first forays into writing fiction. They can feel more manageable, helping us to master the dark arts of pace, characterisation and storytelling, all with a visible end in sight.

And after years of scribbling away, exploring the themes that matter most to us, and characters we couldn’t get out of our heads, we might find ourselves with a folder full of great stories, wondering what to do with them next.

Or perhaps we haven’t put pen to paper yet, but there’s a particular time, place or theme we’re desperate to explore, and think a collection of short stories might be the perfect way to do just that!

Whatever it is, at The Novelry we find short stories fascinating and wanted to ask an expert how we can take all these characters and ideas, and form them into a collection that will excite and transport readers. Ahead of her writing class with members of The Novelry, Kirsty Logan – author of three short story collections including her latest, the critically acclaimed Things We Say in the Dark – talks us through her method.

Kirsty lets us in on how she formed a collection out of stories she’d already written, deciding which short stories to include and how best to order them, as well as choosing that all-important title. Then she talks us through how she wrote two collections from scratch, deciding on a ‘frame’ for those stories and considering how they would link before she got started.

So if you’ve got some stories you want to refine or have ideas for a whole new collection, read on and get ready to be inspired!

Part 1: How I did it when I didn’t know I was writing a collection

Free short stories and short fiction can be read online by writers like Celeste Ng and Toni Morrison.

When I wrote my first short story collection, The Rental Heart & Other Fairytales, I didn’t know it was a short story collection.

I wrote the short stories individually over several years, and for each one my only concern was: does this work as a story? Is the language interesting, are the characters convincing, is the pace and structure working, am I actually saying something?

I didn’t consider how they’d work in a collection or how they’d speak to other stories, because I didn’t intend to make a collection. I was just making stories.

Later, when I had around a hundred short stories and decided I did want a collection after all, the first thing I did was just sit down and look at everything I had.

It was clear immediately which pieces weren’t strong enough to be in a collection: some were just a stylistic experiment, something I had to learn along the way to improving my craft. Others were fine as they were, but they covered the same ground as in a different short story that did it better.

Others were fine, even good, I thought, but they didn’t fit into the overall mood of the collection – because by then it had become clear that, unintentionally, a lot of the stories did fit a certain mood. A fairytale-like mood, a queer female mood, a mood of lust and darkness and disappointment, of love gone wrong and desperate attempts to make it go right.

Some of the stories were overt reworkings of fairytale or myth; others just had a mythic feel. Not only did I consider ‘The Rental Heart’ to be my strongest short story at the time, it also seemed to fit this tone well – so it was the clear choice for my title.

Finally, when I’d narrowed it down to the thirty or so stories I wanted to include (in the end, the collection contained twenty), I decided on an order.

How do I decide on an order?

The short answer is: put your best short story first, your second-best story last, and your third-best story second. But of course, it’s more complicated (and more fun) than that.

It works well to have a contrast between the first and second stories: if they’re very similar in style and theme, the reader will assume that the rest of the collection will follow along these lines. Use the opportunity to show your depth and range.

It works well to have a contrast between the first and second stories: if they’re very similar in style and theme, the reader will assume that the rest of the collection will follow along these lines. Use the opportunity to show your depth and range.

Try putting your short stories together in different combinations, and see what happens – think of it as a conversation. What do these two stories say to one another? How about these two? Are they in agreement, or argument? How does the last line or image or sound of one lead into the next? How does the first line of the first short story connect with the last line of the last story?

I also like to have a ‘pivot’ or ‘hinge’ story in the middle: something that slightly alters the tone, theme or question being explored in the collection. This is a good place to put your most experimental or difficult story. It’s saying to the reader: you’re halfway through and you might think you’ve figured it out; but wait, I can still surprise you.

What should the title be?

When it comes to a title, it doesn’t necessarily have to be the title of any of the short stories (as is the case for my other two collections, discussed below).

The best title is one that immediately makes sense and is understandable to the reader, but that gains a new resonance or meaning after you’ve read the book.

The best title is one that immediately makes sense and is understandable to the reader, but that gains a new resonance or meaning after you’ve read the book.

My favourites include Kissing the Witch by Emma Donoghue, Apple + Knife by Intan Paramaditha, Chattering by Louise Stern, The Doll’s Alphabet by Camilla Grudova, The Hair Wreath by Hall Villegas, and Murderers I Have Known by Marina Warner.

Avoid a title that seems meaningless or impenetrable to a new reader; it should at least mean something on a first read, even if that’s just setting a mood – but it’s okay if its full meaning isn’t revealed until after the ending.

Part 2: How I did it when I knew I wanted to write a collection

Classic short stories can be found for free online and can be used for inspiration to learn your craft.

My second and third short story collections (A Portable Shelter and Things We Say in the Dark) were both conceived and written, from the start, as collections. Both the books have a ‘frame’ narrative that sets up the book and is returned to between each story, and what I wanted to do with the stories is right there in the titles.

The setup of A Portable Shelter is that a couple, Ruth and Liska, are telling stories to their unborn child – Ruth speaking to her belly while Liska is at work, and Liska while Ruth is sleeping. This sounds sweet, but it also meant that I could dive into some dark places with the short stories (they cover much in the way of betrayal, sadness, loss and death, including child death) because I kept returning to a happy, healthy family after each story. I hoped it functioned as a comfort to the reader – don’t worry, they’re only stories, look here’s the nice lady telling the story – just as the book as a whole would provide a comfort, a portable shelter, by venturing into dark places but bringing the reader back safely.

For Things We Say in the Dark, a collection of horror short stories, I started out doing a similar thing: the frame story is narrated by a character who is an author called Kirsty Logan who is at a remote residency in Iceland, writing a new book. She wants to write about what scares her – the things she only dares to say in the dark – and after each short story she reflects on why she chose to write about this thing, and tries to figure out what it is, really, that she fears.

But. It’s a collection of horror stories, right? So I didn’t want to give the reader that comfort or shelter. So while it does seem, at first, that the narrator is me, and everything she says is true, soon the cracks start to appear. I won’t say exactly what happens, in case you want to read it for yourself, but what appears to be a source of reassurance and comfort actually turns out to be its own horror story.

The New Yorker is a great place to read short stories by Toni Morrison, Samantha Hunt or Ray Bradbury.

How do I write a coherent collection?

With both of these collections, I had a plan for about half the short stories I wanted to write before I started. That was enough for me to cover the ground I knew I wanted to cover. But I also didn’t plan every single story, as I wanted to leave room for myself to discover ideas along the way.

Stories can twist and change as you write them; you may sit down to write about a particular theme, subject or character but find you actually end up veering off in a different direction. Always follow the white rabbit down to Wonderland and see where it will take you – don’t block yourself off from exploring an idea before you’ve seen what it can be.

Always follow the white rabbit down to Wonderland and see where it will take you – don’t block yourself off from exploring an idea before you’ve seen what it can be.

When you have that new-direction story finished, maybe you still want to write about that original idea you had, in which case you can; just sit down again and write a new story.

What should link my stories?

It’s good to have a strong sense of what links the collection together before you start, as otherwise it can feel muddled. And there are lots of ways to link stories in a collection.

Perhaps one character appears in all the stories, or a minor character in one story is a major character in another. Perhaps all the stories take place in the same location or time period. Perhaps there’s a single element, such as a visual or phrase that repeats across several short stories, shifting meaning each time.

Perhaps the stories are all very different in terms of the elements they contain, but are linked by style or genre: they’re all optimistic science fiction stories, or love stories between women, or crime stories that upend expectations. Perhaps they’re linked because they all explore one subject – such as the things someone fears, or the life lessons two women want to pass on to an unborn child – by approaching it from many different angles.

The thing that links your short stories together can also help you to come up with a title: either by the literal use of the image or phrase that repeats through the stories, or by coming up with a word or phrase that speaks to your main subject or theme.

Play around with this: I titled Things We Say in the Dark by making a list of all the words or concepts associated with the main spine of the collection (dark, night, fear, secret, talk, say), and then played around with combining the words to see what worked (Talking at Night, Things I Don’t Want to Tell You, What We Can’t Say in the Light).

Again: an effective title is one that makes a kind of sense to the reader when they first see it (and, preferably, is easy to remember and doesn’t share a title with another published book), but that gains a new meaning or resonance after reading the book.

short stories and writing a short story collection is different to writing a novel

How should my stories differ?

When it comes to stories in a collection, unity works well – but variety is also good. This can be achieved with a mixture of different story lengths, structures, styles, time periods covered (perhaps one story happens over a few minutes, another over several years), or tones (a happy ending, a bittersweet ending, a horrifying ending).

It’s a good idea to write a few more stories than you think you’ll need. You might find, by the end, that your first attempt at writing a particular theme or idea wasn’t as strong as your second attempt (or vice versa); in which case, just remove the weaker story. It might work fine as a standalone story, suitable for a magazine or anthology (because, as before, even a very strong story might not play well with others), but don’t include it in the collection if it doesn’t earn its place.

Also pay attention to the last line of your last story. This will be the very end of the book: the final thought left with the reader. Make sure it resonates.

For more insights into literary techniques, coaching and a supportive writing community, join us on a creative writing course at The Novelry – the world’s top-rated writing school.

Someone writing in a notebook
Kirsty Logan

Kirsty Logan’s latest books include Now She is Witch (Harvill Secker, 2023), a queer medieval witch revenge quest, and The Unfamiliar (Virago, 2023), a memoir of queer pregnancy and parenthood. She is also the author of two previous novels, three story collections, two chapbooks, a 10-hour audio play for Audible, and several collaborative projects with musicians and visual artists. Her books have won the Lambda, Polari, Saboteur, Scott and Gavin Wallace awards. Her work has been optioned for TV, adapted for stage, recorded for radio and podcasts, exhibited in galleries and distributed from a vintage Wurlitzer cigarette machine.

Members of The Novelry team