On Linked Stories, Part I

Sonya Chung had a nice essay up last week at The Millions, on linked stories/novels-in-stories. In “The Long and the Short of It: Linked Story Collections Bridging the Divide,” Chung describes her recent excitement about writing linked stories as a way to develop her skill as a writer.

As she sees it, short stories are taught in writing workshops because they really are good vehicles for boosting fiction writing skills:

You do need to work on several stories, soup to nuts, to hone craft and process, narrative structure, revision skills; to experiment with voice, point-of-view, subject matter.

You could practice all of the above in a novel, she writes, but “how many novels do you want to write and trash as part of your learning process before your stamina gives way to defeat? Practice works best on a manageable scale.”

And this is where, Chung writes, the linked collection comes in. Quite simply, when the short story is not long enough, but the novel is too much, linked stories offer writers, in Chung’s view, the perfect solution: the freedom of a novel-length storyline written “within the framework of compression, of small moments, of elegant lines and movement; you can write and sustain a standalone piece that is driven solely by the energy of voice; you can work at mastering the power of simplicity without sacrificing prismatic complexity.”

I’d add, too, that linked stories offer writers who are just starting out the opportunity to get publication credits (of short stories) while simultaneously working on a book-length work. Novel excerpts are publishable, of course, but the challenge of keeping the excerpt self-contained is a big one. What to cut? What to include? How to provide the gist of a whole within one small part? Linked story collections offer an alternative path. You can write one story, and work on getting that one published while you are at work on the next. In the end, you might have a whole, published in parts, which is an appealing place to be in when seeking a book contract.

One might argue that linked collections are hard to get published, but from the number of them I’ve seen recently, I don’t know … My guess would be that publishers would prefer a novel-in-stories to a collection of unconnected short stories (which is what many young writers leave MFA programs with). Linked story collections can be marketed as novels, which is, supposedly, what the “reading public” wants. (Well, what they really want are nonfiction books, but that’s another blog post.)

Chung goes on to list some of her favorite linked story collections, including Close Range: Wyoming Stories by Annie Proulx; Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson; and, Jesus’ Son, by Denis Johnson. My own list might also include:

The Beggar Maid, by Alice Munro
Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout
Day For Night, by Frederick Reiken (described in my previous post)
The Love We Share Without Knowing, by Christopher Barzak
-Visit From the Goon Squad
, by Jennifer Egan
-Miles From Nowhere, by Nami Mun

Coming soon, part II: In which I consider why writing linked stories is so much harder than it looks.


3 thoughts on “On Linked Stories, Part I

  1. Wow, great post! I read the Proulx and the Munro collections (you should add Munro’s View from Castle Rock; she loves the genre). From the market point of view, I do wonder as well if publishers like them – well, probably less than a novel anyway. I am looking forward to the Part 2!

    • Ooh, I didn’t realize View from Castle Rock was linked stories. I’m going to have to check that one out. I have a sort of love-hate relationship with Munro. The stories affect me so much while I’m reading them –they can be quite depressing — that I begin to resent her for it! But I think about them — with great respect — for years after I read them.

  2. Pingback: On Linked Stories, Part II: Use with caution. « Fog City Writer

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