The Hardest Part: T. Kingfisher on Toad Words and Other Stories

In early August, NC author T. Kingfisher published a new collection Toad Words and Other Stories, a “collection of fairy-tale retellings for adults. By turns funny and dark, sad and lyrical, this anthology draws together in one volume such stories as ‘The Wolf and the Woodsman’, ‘Loathly’, and ‘Bluebeard’s Wife’, along with an all-new novella, ‘Boar & Apples’.” While many of the stories had previously appeared in various forms on the author’s blog, having substantial new content and a trove of stories to pick from made for an interesting set of decisions when putting the collection together. Here, Kingfisher writes about trying to put together a collection that wasn’t too dark, wasn’t too light, but rather: just right.

Toad Words and Other Stories

By T. Kingfisher:

When I was trying to assemble my first anthology, Toad Words & Other Stories, I often felt like I was wandering a strange countryside without a road map.

I’m sure there are people out there who think that this is an ideal way to travel. These people probably throw their Lonely Planet guide in their battered rucksack, toss in an extra pair of socks and a power bar, and go off on a six-week backpacking trip through the Andes.

I sometimes wish that I were that sort of person.

I have nothing resembling a sense of direction. I still have to stop and think about which direction is left and which is right. If I were a bird, I would be one of those flamingos that migrates backwards and fetches up half-frozen in St. Petersburg.  (This really happens.)

The invention of Mapquest and all its later iterations literally changed my life. Suddenly I knew more or less where I was going! I did not have to wander around on the street reading numbers and signs and tripping over curbs! I could go to strange places without help!

And then I set out to assemble an anthology, and I was back in a strange country without a map.

In my day job, I write and illustrate children’s books, and I have written rather a lot of them now—eleven published, three more in various stages of pre-press. The process isn’t easy, but I understand it. When I write a book in an established series, I know more or less how long it should be, how many illustrations to put in per page, at what point I need to start wrapping things up if I’m going to make the normal wordcount. The book begins here and it’s done when I get there.

With Toad Words, I sat at my computer and realized that I had no idea when an anthology was done. I could always add another story, or take one away. I had a novella that I was gonna put in there, but what went in around it? I had confidence in the stories, but I did not know how they went together.

I pulled up file after file of short stories, most of which I hadn’t even realized were short stories when I was writing them (I am slow on the uptake sometimes) and had to figure out what went in the book and what was left mouldering on the hard drive. At one point, I realized that I had assembled a VERY dark collection and had to go in and deliberately find some upbeat stories so that my readers would not crawl away from the book feeling like they’d been beaten with hammers.

Do I alternate happy endings with dark, weird ones? Would that wreck the mood or give people a moment of rest? Do I corral all the dark stories together to get them out of the way, or is that wallowing? Does the novella end the book, or do we need a poem like an after-dinner mint on the way out?

It was hard. With a novel, you write the book, get to the end, hand out rewards and weddings as appropriate (to borrow a phrase.) Even if you spend ten years rewriting, there’s a defined ending. I spent much of Toad Words not sure if I was nearly done or nowhere near the end.

Eventually I…well, finished may be a strong word. I stopped.  I could have kept fiddling with placement for the next six months and not made a significant difference to the final product. Sooner or later, you have to call it good and move on.

The reviews have been positive. Nobody’s written me any angry e-mails about the placing of the retelling of Bluebeard in relation to the weird little riff on Peter Pan. Either I pulled it off, or the individual stories were strong enough to live wherever they finally wound up.

And the next time I start trying to round up retold fairy-tales for an anthology, I may not have turn-by-turn directions, but at least I’ll have the beginnings of a map.

—-

T. Kingfisher lives in North Carolina and has won the Hugo and Mythopoeic Awards, under the name Ursula Vernon.

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6 Responses to The Hardest Part: T. Kingfisher on Toad Words and Other Stories

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  3. Cat says:

    I really enjoyed this collection, without ever thinking about what order the stories came in. I got it because it had “Toad Words” in it, and read through it, encountering various stories with the happy serendipity (it seemed at the time) of friends at an SF convention. Blissful innocence on my part, I suppose…

  4. I wonder how much reading short story collections matters. I have not yet put together a short story collection (you should be writing, Kellan), but I have a rough sense of how the whole should feel—from, I think, having read quite a number over the years.

    Anyhow, I got distracted somewhere in the middle of Toad Words — not a comment on the quality but my terrible magpie tendencies — and I quite enjoyed both revisiting the stories I remember from your blog and making some new friends, and it will be there for me again some day when I need something to keep me company over a late and quiet dinner.

  5. Lee says:

    As far as I’m concerned, it would have been worth the purchase price just to get “The Sea Witch Sets the Record Straight”. That said, I didn’t see anything out of place about the order. It’s a fine collection of stories.

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