Friday, February 5, 2016

Issues in Compiling and Editing a Collection by Susan Oleksiw

One of my projects for the early winter is compiling a number of Anita Ray stories, both old and new, into a single collection. The published stories in this group first appeared in Level Best Books anthologies, beginning in 2003, with the publication of “The Silver House.” The stories are consistently around five to six thousand words. That was no surprise. To balance these and vary the reading experience, I’ve written six new ones three of which are fewer than two thousand words.

After I arranged the stories and began reading, I expected to encounter certain editing problems, such as two characters in different stories with the same name, or changes in the details of a certain store or hotel. I expected some inconsistencies in spelling, minor copy-editing issues easily corrected. But I found a few other surprises.

First, my writing has changed over the years, becoming tighter in description and sharper in dialogue. I expected some change in my style, perhaps new quirks and idiosyncrasies to be removed, but I didn’t expect this. The discovery raises the question of what is necessary in terms of consistency and creating a whole. Do I go back to the older stories and revise them to match more closely the more recent ones, or do I leave them all as they are?

Second, the more recent stories are more traditional in terms of the crime and criminal, and offer less in the way of the anthropology of the region in India that I find so interesting. I can’t and don’t want to change the stories in terms of theme and cultural features, but I am taking note of the change and trying to find balance in the arrangement.

Third, I have remained consistently inconsistent and indecisive when it comes to the transcription of certain Malayalam words into English. I can’t seem to decide between Pongala and Pongaala, the name of an annual ritual that is known as the largest gathering of women in the world, verified by Guinness Book of Records. They’re up to five million by now. Nor can I settle on one transliteration of the breakfast food called idli or ittali. I most often use idlies but also sometimes use iddalies or ittalies. The first one reflects current pronunciation in the area where I lived.

Fourth, several recurring characters don’t have given names in these stories; not until a later novel do I finally name them. Do I add those names here, to make things easier for readers who know the characters from later stories, or do I leave things as they are?

Fifth, the role of some characters has changed over the years. For a brief period Ravi served in the dining room, but that soon came to an end. Should I simply remove him from that task and replace him with the established waiter, Moonu. (And I should definitely settle on one spelling for his name.)

Sixth, Anita is addressed in different ways depending on the speaker’s perceived relationship with her. Those who know her well but consider her a superior and want to show respect address her as Chechi, Older Sister. Those who have known her most of her life, perhaps as a family servant, and still consider her the child of the family, might call her Anita Missi. I’m relieved to find that I’m consistent in the use of madam and memsahib.

All in all, compiling this collection has been rewarding as well as a reminder that writing is an ongoing job, and what has been written can always be improved.

If you’re interested in reading one of the Anita Ray stories, go to

or to


Jacqueline Seewald said...


You bring up many important problems in dealing with a collection of short stories that are centered around the same character and written over a period of years. In many way, this is similar to writing a novel series that centers around certain characters over a period of years as well. As writers, we change and so must our characters if they are to be realistic and not mere stick figures. I've only put together one collection so far and the focus is on romance; the main characters in each story do not reoccur. BEYOND THE BO TREE is quite varied. But I did rewrite each story, most of which had been previously published.

Bobbi A. Chukran, Author said...

Susan, you do bring up many issues that I would have never thought about. In my first collection, HALLOWEEN THIRTEEN, I didn't have that many stories that had been previously published, so it wasn't much of an issue. And they weren't in a common series, either.

I think some of your concerns could be handled in your introduction, where you explain some of these "discrepancies"--give a little history of the stories, and how they changed. My feeling would be to leave the older ones as is. Of course, make the names consistent, but otherwise, I'm not sure I'd change much.

Good luck with the collection!

Susan Oleksiw said...

Jacquie, thanks for letting me know some of the choices you made. I'm unsure about rewriting the stories but I'm glad to hear about your experience and I think I'll do some tightening here and there.

Bobbi, I hadn't thought about an introduction but that is definitely a good idea. It will give me an opportunity to talk about the kinds of changes I've noticed in the stories and perhaps talk about what I want to do next, with another collection.

Thank you for both commenting--very useful suggestions.

Kathleen Valentine said...

Interesting points. As far as style is concerned, I would say leave them but alternate the stories so it is not as noticeable. I would add the names of the unnamed people and make the spelling of unique words consistent. But either way an introduction is a good idea,

Jan Christensen said...

Very interesting post, Susan. I never thought about the issues you mention when doing a collection of stories with recurring characters. My one collection, Warning Signs, has only three, long, stories with a related theme--strong women investigating murders. However, I plan to write some shorts with my novel characters, and I will keep in mind what you found when compiling your collection.

Pamela S Thibodeaux said...

I'm trying to do the same and the stories are not related at all! Having to add a connecting aspect is not easy.

Good luck and God's blessings.

Susan Oleksiw said...

Kathleen, I like the suggestion of alternating the stories--that could be helpful. And definitely an introduction.

Jan, I'm glad you found the post helpful for your future project. I had never thought about these issues either, and they came as a surprise to me.

Pam, I'm glad I don't have your problem if you have to figure out how to connect your unrelated stories.

Thank you all for commenting and offering suggestions. It's helping me to sort through what does and does not matter.

Morgan Mandel said...

This is a reminder to be consistent when writing a series. So far, I only have two series going with only two books each in them. Even with them, I had to refer back to the first book and make sure things happened in the proper order, and I had to remember the names of the characters and their roles.

Kate Flora said...

I found this fascinating, Susan. I've been considering assembling my Level Best stories into a collection and do wonder what I will discover as I undertake that. I also have two stories featuring a character I would really like to expand into a book, and wonder what it's like to move back and forth between the tight confines of a short story and the expansiveness of a book with the same characters?

I know when we were putting Level Best collections together, it was challenge to figure out the order of the stories, especially which one would go last, to leave a lasting impression.

Very much looking forward to the Anita Ray collection, and I hope you will do a guest post for us at Maine Crime Writers when it comes out, to share this fascinating discussion.

Susan Oleksiw said...

Morgan, I can't remember all my characters so I rely on notecards. When I begin a new book, I pull out the cards of the characters who will appear and keep them close at hand. I make new cards for every new character. I also include cards for stores, etc. I have great sympathy for Conan Doyle and his tendency to change eye color or hair color in the middle of a story.

Kate, yes, it was a surprise to reread the stories and see things I hadn't expected. I worried that it would be tedious to read the same kind of story one after the other, but that didn't happen at all. Settling on an order of the stories was difficult and I'm still not satisfied.

The length of the stories, all about 5,000 words or so, forced me to write a few short ones, and that was fun. And easier than I expected.

I'd love to do a post for you after the collection comes out. And I encourage you to work on your own collection.

Thank you both for your comments.

Bonnie Tharp said...

Good food for thought. We should take advantage of our earlier works. I, too, have been surprised by the changes in my writing over time. I've never been brave enough to compile a collection - BRAVO. Thank you for sharing your insights, they are very valuable.