Marty Halpern Gives Order to the Alien Other
Alien Contact was published on November 1, just a handful of weeks ago, but its history dates back to August 2008 when I first proposed this anthology to the publisher, Night Shade Books. You can read more about the anthology, including its genesis, on my blog, More Red Ink; just look for the "Alien Contact" tab in the header.
Once I had selected the 26 stories to be included in Alien Contact, my next task was to determine the story order. If you are a writer of short stories, and you've put together a collection of your fiction—or, if you are an anthologist—then you know how involved this task can be.
Some readers will pick up an anthology, skim through the table of contents or the book itself, select a story (often at random), and begin reading. With regards to story order, I can't be concerned with this type of reader; for them, story order is a non-issue. But the readers who begin at the beginning—the introduction—and then read the stories in the order they are presented, these are the readers I must be concerned with. For them, the story order—the overall experience of reading the book in its entirety—is what makes, or breaks, the anthology.
As soon as I selected Paul McAuley's story, "The Thought War," I knew immediately that it would be the story that opens the anthology. The first word—in fact, the only word on the first line of the story—is: Listen:
And the first two paragraphs of "The Thought War" read:
Don't try to speak. Don't try to move. Listen to me. Listen to my story.
It was a no-brainer that, with this beginning, "The Thought War" would be the perfect fit as the first story in the anthology.
And then there was the last story. Once I had selected Stephen Baxter's "Last Contact," I also knew that this story would close the anthology. Not only because of its title, but also because "Last Contact" deals with the total destruction of the galaxy. Once the reader has experienced that, how could any other story follow?
And I just realized (honest, I had never thought of this before) that both Paul McAuley and Stephen Baxter are British. There was no intent on my part to place stories by British authors at the beginning and end of the anthology—it just happened. But it's also not the only coincidence that occurred regarding the contents list.
So that left 24 remaining stories for which I needed to determine the order. When working out a story order, I consider a number of attributes; in order of importance (at least to me):
1. word count
2. tone (e.g. dark vs. light, etc.)
3. male or female protagonist
4. plot (e.g. serious vs. humorous/sardonic; linear vs. nonlinear; science vs. non-science; etc.)
5. content of opening paragraph and closing paragraph
I list all the stories, and then I apply these 5 criteria to each of them. As a group, these criteria affect the flow of the anthology. Place a lot of dark, depressing, overly long stories together and quite possibly I'll lose a lot of my readers. Each story needs to encourage the reader to want to move on to the next story, and the next, and so on, until the reader reaches the end of the book.
I spent quite a number of hours working on the story order. A couple times I came up with what I thought was the perfect order—and then I realized one story just didn't fit right in its slot. So then I would swap a couple stories, which often led to another swap,and another, and before too long I was back at square one, having to start over again.
Once I felt comfortable with the "final" order, I let the contents list sit for a couple days and then went back to it, just to be sure. An anthology (or a short fiction collection) must first contain great stories; but the book's overall content is a pure balancing act. And, done properly, can yield a truly rewarding experience for the reader.
As to another coincidence: When I contacted many of the authors regarding their own alien contact stories, I also asked for suggestions for such stories by other authors. I received many suggestions; one in particular came from author Nancy Kress (whose story "Laws of Survival" is included in Alien Contact). Nancy suggested a story in the recent (at the time of her response) August 2008 issue of Asimov's SF: Jack Skillingstead's "What You Are About to See." She described it as a "very weird alien" story. I was already familiar with some of Jack's fiction, but not this particular story. And Nancy's comment—"very weird alien"—intrigued me. So I contacted his agent for a copy of the story. I went on to acquire this story for the anthology and, in finalizing the story order, I placed Nancy Kress's "Laws of Survival" at the number 19 slot, followed by Jack's "What You Are About to See." Then in March of this year I sent an email to all the contributing authors requesting a mini bio for use in the anthology. In their respective bios, Nancy and Jack each mentioned that they were married to the other, which I hadn't been aware of at the time. I obviously missed the announcement earlier in February. Consequently I felt somewhat self-conscious that I had placed their stories back to back; but that's how the story order criteria played out.
Was I successful with the story order in Alien Contact? I guess that's up to the individual readers to decide.
Marty Halpern is a two-time finalist for the World Fantasy Award–Professional for his work with Golden Gryphon Press. Marty now freelances as an acquiring editor, anthology editor, developmental editor, and proof reader and copy editor, working directly with authors to prepare their manuscripts for publication, and working with independent publishers such as Night Shade Books and Tachyon Publications, as well as Ace Books and others. He currently resides in San Jose, California, and occasionally emerges from his inner sanctum to attend conventions. To learn more about Marty visit his blog "More Red Ink" or check out his SF Editors wiki entry.
Look for a contest involving Alien Contact tomorrow!
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