I’ve not seen much discussion on how writers lay out their table of contents when it comes to ordering a short story collection, yet it is probably as equally important as the title and cover. Really, we’re talking about the alignment of singular pieces so the whole tells an additional story.
When I put together my first collection, Pumpkin Teeth, I followed the old advice of placing your three best stories at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end. That way more experimental or unusual work would be able to stand on its own in between, the uniqueness would breathe, buttressed by the previously published, or what you just knew were stronger stories. Plus you get to “wow” the reader at the beginning and leave ‘em satisfied and wanting more at the end. So after that, I went with what felt organic in terms of each stories’ placement versus voice, content, theme. Since the goal is for the sum to be greater than the whole, what does a misstep look like? A sudden change in quality. That unpublished work has to stand on its own. The editor’s input here is really important. On its own, if the piece works, it can be more daring than what made its way into print, harder to place but somehow more solid. Though it’s essential that there’s not a too sudden shift it tone. It is okay to pivot, but something jarring can give the reader an excuse to put the book down or question the veracity of the collection.
I was fortunate enough to place several of the stories that appear in Night Sweats: Tales of Homosexual Wonder and Woe, prior to the book’s publication. The opening story, Owl Aerie, was previously published in the second issue of Chelsea Station. I was never able to find a home for the second story, MS Found in a Bookstore. A tribute to Poe, and a personal favorite, these stories go together as both have a New England location and youthful first person narrator. (I really gave this one my all, as Poe has been a lifelong obsession, from reading his poem, Alone, in the seventh grade and feeling that bolt of recognition, to further readings, visiting his homes in the Bronx and Philadelphia, his grave in Baltimore, reading biographies, obsessively collecting marginalia -finally paying tribute in a short story seemed overdue). To mix things up, I followed them with a brief tale of a dragon hovering over a park in Queens.
The middle of the book contained two super hero stories (well, in one, Ice King, the villain is the more prominent character, but that’s kind of my thing –I edited a collection of gay super villain tales a few years ago. I’m always rooting for the bad guy). Though not overtly linked, they inhabit the same universe, one I’ve written short stories in before, and hope to return to again. The stories that follow include an epistolary tale between a Roman Emperor and a life-long friend that turns darker and darker. I’d always wanted to write something in an epistolary format; pleased with the results, I knew that I couldn’t open the book with a series of letters, but thought it would work better toward the end, the change in form hopefully refreshing/intriguing to the reader. Doubling down, I considered it a solid enough piece of writing to put between two shorter works, one, a tale of zombies in Japan, nearly flash fiction, the other derived from a dream I had in 1999 when I was living in Hell’s Kitchen where I realized I worked in beheading factory and woke up with a start. This let me end with two fully realized, previously published pieces. The last one, Halloween Parade, was in the running as the title of the collection, but I didn’t feel it flaunted the book’s gayness as much as Night Sweats. I did like that the story was such a New York tale –almost half the stories take place within New York City, the place where I found my voice, identified my fears, and then started using one to press the other to the page.
Thirteen tales. Is that the rule of thumb with short story collections? I think I picked up the requirement from Nabokov’s Dozen (remembering/writing about this book makes me want to revisit the master’s shorter work again). I’m not sure if this is universal, though. But the number thirteen felt right and was aligned with the sinister themes throughout Night Sweats: Tales of Homosexual Wonder and Woe.
And to further support the title, I called the Table of Contents page Drops of Sweat.