How to Find Order

Edith here, loving summer! I’m also loving that I have a new collection of short stories to dive into. Author and editor Judy Penz Sheluk is here to talk about how she decided on the order of the stories in the just-released Moonlight & Misadventure.

Take it away, Judy.

The Natural Order of Things

Before I became a magazine editor and journalist, and eventually, an author, I spent the better part of thirty years working in the corporate world as a Credit Manager and other accounting-related positions. As a result, I have a better-than-average knowledge of Excel, which came in handy when, as Senior Editor, I was managing the freelance budget for New England Antiques Journal, and I’ve used it for my own bookkeeping records. Even so, I never thought I’d use it as a tool to help me determine the order of the short stories in my Superior Shores Anthologies. But that’s exactly what I did. Even better, it works like a charm.

Let’s take my most recent multi-author anthology, Moonlight & Misadventure: 20 Stories of Mystery & Suspense, released on June 18th. Admittedly, much of the heavy lifting lies in culling down the 93 submissions to a manageable number but turning the selected stories into a cohesive collection isn’t quite as simple as it might seem on the surface. That’s where my handy-dandy spreadsheet comes in. Here’s a step-by-step look at how it works:

  1. Set up five columns: Order (1-20), author name, title, word count, and comments.
  2. Select which story will be first and mark that as number 1 under the Order column. I spend a lot of time deciding what story will be first, because that sets the stage for the rest of the collection. In the case of Moonlight & Misadventure, I selected Joseph S. Walker’s ‘Crown Jewel,’ the story of a vinyl collector obsessed with The Beatles White Album. At 5,417 words, it’s one of the longest in the anthology, which isn’t necessarily ideal (there’s a theory that the first story should be relatively short, creating a quick intro), but the unique premise and Walker’s skill as a storyteller convinced me this one had to be the leader of the pack.
  3. Mark ‘Strawberry Moon,’ my story, as number 20, the last entry. Set in Northern Ontario, at 1,419 words, it’s the shortest in the collection.
  4. Select #19: the lead-in to the final story. Preferably long, and completely different in every way. In this case, I selected M.H. Callway’s ‘The Moon God of Broadmoor,’ the story of an eccentric middle-aged man (Thoth, the Moon God) and a civil service worker who has been charged with cleaning up a literal mess at Broadmoor Apartments.
  5. Sort the remainder of the stories by word count. In this way, I can begin to vary the order by story length, i.e., long, medium, short, long, medium, short, and so on.
  6. Of course, just sorting by length isn’t enough. That’s where my Comments column, where I’ve entered a one-sentence reminder about the content, comes in. It wouldn’t do, for example, to have two stories that take place in Hollywood appear one after the other, even though Buzz Dixon’s ‘Not a Cruel Man’ features the murder of a 1960s Hollywood producer, and Robert Weibezahl’s ‘Just Like Peg Entwistle’ takes place in 1932. It’s also important that a light-hearted or humorous story is wedged between something dark.
  7. Tinker with the order until it’s right. Sort, re-sort. Re-read the intro of each story until I’m finally satisfied it’s as good as it’s going to get.

The process took several hours over the course of three days, but it’s all about achieving balance and what should seem, to the reader, to be the natural order of things. And so, when one early reviewer wrote: “These individual stories flow so nicely together. They are notes in a phrase of music. And to tap into your moonlight theme, when I read the stories of these authors, I thought of Claude Debussy’s Clair de Lune,” it truly was music to my ears.

Readers: Have you ever thought about the order of short stories in a collection? What’s your favorite piece short crime fiction (until now)?

About the book

Whether it’s vintage Hollywood, the Florida everglades, the Atlantic City boardwalk, or a farmhouse in Western Canada, the twenty authors represented in this collection of mystery and suspense interpret the overarching theme of “moonlight and misadventure” in their own inimitable style where only one thing is assured: Waxing, waning, gibbous, or full, the moon is always there, illuminating things better left in the dark.

Featuring stories by K.L. Abrahamson, Sharon Hart Addy, C.W. Blackwell, Clark Boyd, M.H. Callway, Michael A. Clark, Susan Daly, Buzz Dixon, Jeanne DuBois, Elizabeth Elwood, Tracy Falenwolfe, Kate Fellowes, John M. Floyd, Billy Houston, Bethany Maines, Judy Penz Sheluk, KM Rockwood, Joseph S. Walker, Robert Weibezahl, and Susan Jane Wright.

About the editor

A former journalist and magazine editor, Judy Penz Sheluk is the author of two mystery series: The Glass Dolphin Mysteries and the Marketville Mysteries. Her short crime fiction appears in several collections, including The Best Laid Plans, Heartbreaks & Half-truths, and Moonlight & Misadventure, which she also edited.

Judy is a member of Sisters in Crime National, Toronto, and Guppy Chapters, International Thriller Writers, the Short Mystery Fiction Society, and Crime Writers of Canada, where she serves as Chair on the Board of Directors.

Find the Book:

39 Thoughts

  1. It’s so fascinating to hear this, Judy – ordering the stories is something I’ve never thought about, even though I have had short stories published in quite a few places! Thanks for joining us.

    1. Thanks Edith and the rest of the Wickeds for having me on. And now that you know there’s an order of things and you can look for that with your own short stories!

  2. Like Edith, I’d never thought of the order of stories either. Thanks for sharing this behind-the-scenes look at the process, Judy!

    1. Thanks Annette. I’m not sure how others do it but I know that it takes sorting.

  3. Very interesting. I like that you always listed authors alphabetically, on the cover and otherwise.

    1. Thank you. I like to showcase all authors equally and thank you for appreciating that.

  4. I remember having a conversation with this with Ramona Long, who edited several Guppy short-story anthologies and who usually suggested an order. She gave me an order after she edited our SinC chapter’s anthology, too. She always said the order of the stories was important to getting the right “feel” for the anthology.

    1. Hi Liz, it definitely makes a difference how the stories are ordered. Ramona always did such a great job of editing. She is missed.

  5. Fascinating read, Judy, and thanks for the kind words. I’m honored to be the kickoff to this great collection!

    1. The honor is mine, Joe. It’s a great story. Derringer quality IMO.

  6. Fascinating. I wonder if the order of songs in an album is worked out in a similar way.

    1. I never thought about it, Barbara, but I am sure there is even more attention paid to the order of songs, especially in the days of album sides. They probably listen to various orders over and over to get it right.

  7. Thanks, Judy and Edith. I think I’m going to adapt Judy’s Excel example to create a file for my works. The anthology has a lot of great authors and stories and paring down 93 entries into 20 was an awesome feat, Judy. Congratulations.

    1. Thanks CJ. And yes it was daunting if only because every submission was truly really, really good. I

  8. Interesting glimpse at the work “behind the curtain” that makes reading so rewarding. I’m reminded of Elizabeth Ellis’s advice for ordering a storytelling concert: HaHa (to relax) AhHa (engage curiosity/puzzles) Aah (deep feeling) Amen (wisdom), making the whole a satisfying, full experience. Then there are readers like me, reading first the stories of authors I know, and then sorting through the rest. Perhaps on this one, I’ll read in the order intended and see what happens. <3

    1. Mary, the order is there for a reason. I sense you are a renegade!! Nothing wrong with that.

  9. Welcome to the Wickeds, Judy.

    As an editor at Level Best Books for six years, there was always a lively debate among the four editors about the order of the stories. We tried to balance short and longer, light and dark, name author and debut. All that (mostly fun) debate, yet I am a person who never, ever reads a short story collection in order.

    I look for the names of favorite authors and read those first. Then I skim for exciting premises and great writing, then I whittle my way through the rest of the collection.

    1. Ah, Barbara, I always read in order. But, okay…you have a system…but…what if you find a NEW fave author!

    1. Yes, Julie, it’s definitely not for the faint of heart (or the lazy!) but it is rewarding

  10. This is such an interesting view into your process, Judy. I’m bookmarking it! Congratulations on the new anthology–I’m looking forward to reading these stories.

    1. Thanks Liz, hope you enjoy them. A couple of BC writers in the mix.

  11. This was a fascinating piece. Thanks so much for sharing your organizational method. It seems a daunting task to go through all the entries, then cull down to 20 on your own. I always read the anthologies in order and the editor’s choice for the first, middle, and ending stories often make for a different read overall. Congratulations and good luck!

    1. Thanks Patti! Maybe you’ll pick it for a Nightstand Review! I’m still grateful that you introduced me to Peter May!

  12. I’ve never really thought about it like this, but it makes sense.

    I’m an accountant, and I’m in Excel every day for my job. But I also find it has lots of other uses, like this, in my personal life. It’s a wonderful program, isn’t it?

    Congrats on the anthology!

  13. Love your attention to the details, Judy! I too learned a bit about order from the late Ramona DeFelice Long, who talked via email with the contributors to the first Guppy anthology, Fish Tales, about her thinking about story order. My first short story collection, Carried to the Grave and Other Stories: A Food Lovers’ Village Mystery, came out a few weeks ago and order mattered to me, too. It was chronological, with the exception of the historical novella at the end — because it was the longest, and a prequel to the series. When I thought I was finished writing, though, I realized I had a six-month gap between the first two stories and that neither of them included a murder, so I wrote an additional story to fill in the time and vary the type of story a bit.

    1. Leslie, We’ve both learned a lot, haven’t we, over the years! Congrats on your first short story collection. Impressive!

  14. I usually trust the editor’s judgement and read the stories in order (except of course for re-reading mine immediately–ah, the never-ending thrill of seeing my work in print!) I like to read one short story a day, just before bed, and Moonlight & Misadventure is my current book.

    1. I like to read a story while eating my lunch! One a day…but of course, I always read mine first and inevitably find something I could have improved upon 🙂

Comments are closed.