Linked Stories Workshop
[Check out the blog I maintain for my Linked Stories class.]
What is a novel-in-stories? A linked collection? A story cycle? I find it hard to make distinctions between these terms. Instead, I think of it this way: On one end of the prose spectrum is the traditional linear novel. On the other end is the collection of disparate stories. Linked stories exist on the narrative spectrum between “novel” and “story collection,” and they are unique and valid formal artifacts.
Forrest Ingram’s 1971 definition of linked story collection or “story cycle” is this: “a short story cycle [is] a book of short stories so linked to each other by their author that the reader’s successive experience on various levels of the pattern of the whole significantly modifies his experience of each of its component parts.”
Robert M. Luscher defines the sequence: “A volume of stories, collected and organized -by their author, in which the reader successively realizes underlying patterns of coherence by continual modifications of his perceptions of pattern and theme.” He continues, “Within the context of the sequence, each short story is thus not a completely closed formal experience… The volume as a whole becomes an open book, -inviting the reader to construct a network of associations that binds the stories together and lends them cumulative thematic impact” (148).
Here are ten ways to lead a linked stories class or workshop. My advice is aimed at creative writing teachers, but writers can easily translate for their own purposes.
1. Assign books that represent the spectrum between story collection and linear novel.
- a collection of unrelated stories, such as Susan Perabo’s Who I Was Supposed to Be or Miranda July’s No One Belongs Here More Than You, George Saunders’ Pastoralia, Ben Percy’s Refresh, Refresh.
- a collection of linked stories, somewhat related: by setting, like Annie Proulx’s Close Range, or by subject matter, like Brad Watson’s Last Days of the Dog-Men.
- a novel in stories, a collection of stories more linked, more unified: like Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, Stuart Dybek’s Coast of Chicago, Susan Minot’s Monkeys
- a novel that might be highly linked stories: Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge, Dean Bakopolous’ Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon, Jennifer Egan’s Goon Squad, or Susan Vreeland’s Girl in Hyacinth Blue
2. Or, if assigning whole books is cost or time prohibitive, select 2-3 stories from one of these books so they can get the gist: 3 stories from Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, George Willard is or is not the main character, or three stories Junot Diaz’ Drown or from Donald Ray Pollock’s Knockemstiff, or three stories from Anne Sanow, Triple Time: The Date Farm, Safety, Rub Al-Khali
3. With the books and/or the tri-stories, spend time “reshuffling” the stories to discuss how changing story order changes how the book reads. For example: what makes Mrs. Bridge read like a novel is that it is arranged chronologically. If instead Connell had grouped all the vignettes differently (all the Ruth, all the Douglas, all the Grace Barron, all the Alice Jones, the trip to Europe) that book would read a lot less like a novel and a lot more like a collection of linked stories.
4. Assign David Jauss’ essay “Stacking Stones: Building a Unified Short Story Collection,” first published in AWP Writer’s Chronicle in 2005 and reprinted gorgeously in Alone with All That Could Happen: Rethinking Conventional Wisdom about the Craft of Fiction, published by Writer’s Digest books.
5. In this frame of mind, ask your students to re-read all the work they’ve written over the last few years and look for obvious and possible linkages, or what Jauss calls “liaisons”: images, setting, character, or subject matter. Important: in order for a collection to be linked organically, you need to make the decision to link fairly early. It’s really really hard to do this late in the game.
6. Now: decide how you feel about “story recycling.” Advice: require student to pick one story or 5-10 pages they’ve already composed.
7. Create an assignment whose outcome will be linked stories. Such as: ask students to create the narrative equivalent of a Diptych or Triptych or Mobius Strip or Ring of Stories.
8. Ask for pages, call it “a manuscript,” not stand-alone stories.
9. Require students to submit their work in progress in manuscript form -with a title page (must indicate the form!) and “front matter” that will “teach us” how to read the book: ie. table of contents (show students the TOC of Winesburg, Ohio, and how it prepares the reader to read the book), a map, a family tree, a cast of characters. Require them to submit more than one piece to workshop. Remind them how much story order matters.
10. Discuss these manuscripts in two distinct ways: in terms of each story by itself, and in terms of how the stories fit together. You might try using Blackboard and have the “big picture” discussion there, and using class time to have the “smaller picture” discussion. Or vice versa. Or use groups -some which assess individual stories and some of which assess the whole manuscript.
Thanks to everyone who came to our AWP panel “Linking it Up: Working with Story Cycles, Linked Collections, and Novels-in-Stories.” Thanks to our fearless leader Anne Sanow for putting it together, and to my co-panelists Dylan Landis and Cliff Garstang who had wise and witty things to say.