08/28/20: Extracting Short Stories from Your Novel Manuscript

If you’re worried that your novel-in-progress is still in-progress, you may actually have something to publish already.

Many novels start out as short pieces. In fact, I’ve noticed that a number of successful authors have debuted with the publication of a story that introduces something—whether it’s a well-sketched out character or set of characters with a compelling dynamic, an inviting world that expands beyond every edge of the piece, or a tense event that begs the question, “What happens next?”—and then followed it up with the expansion of that story as a larger work.

Take Karen Russell, for instance. Her first novel Swamplandia! originally appeared in the Summer 2006 issue of Zoetrope: All-Story as “Ava Wrestles the Alligators.” Later collected in the story collection St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, the story already focuses on one of the novel’s biggest relationships: that of sisters Ossie and Ava, as well as the former’s trysts with ghostly lovers who threaten to steal her away from their home in the swamp. A more recent example of a story-turned-book is Sally Rooney’s second novel Normal People, which features characters she originally wrote for “At the Clinic”, a story that first appeared in The White Review.

Just as much as these writers have begun by presenting a captivating scenario and then writing around it, I think it’s just as plausible to approach this in the opposite direction, beginning with a longer piece of work from which you find excerpts that can stand on their own. Submitting these excerpts to the right magazines and publications might even help your work to find potential readers, both when your novel manages to secure publication and in the long run. In my case, my story published earlier this year in Kill Your Darlings, “View from a Talking House” (which I will be using primarily to discuss this topic) was derived largely from a chapter of the manuscript for my novel Residents, which is currently undergoing another round of edits. As I continue to tweak and tighten as much of the manuscript as I can, it seems wise and lucrative to think about which other parts of the manuscript can receive the “Talking House” treatment.

This is not to say that I think a novel is necessarily a sequence of story-sized events (though that is one way to do it), but that many writers may find the exercise helpful as they go through the process of editing their work. Why do I say this? A lot of literary magazines impose certain technical parameters to what they publish, most commonly a word limit, which normally clocks in at about 5,000 words. Rarely do you ever have journals that go above this limit, especially when the publication is newer, smaller, or can only take on so many volunteer readers. The 5,000-word limit becomes a helpful condition for you to test whether your piece feels whole, or if there are things you can trim out in order to drive cohesiveness.

That being said, I think cohesiveness is the most crucial factor in preparing an excerpt of your manuscript for submission. Not only does the piece have to make sense without the context of earlier parts in your manuscript, but it has to give the reader the sense that it is about something. When I wrote “Talking House”, for instance, I knew I wanted to build the story out of a segment in the novel where main character Alma begins to understand the world unlocked by her relationship to her house. Much of the story’s beginning, then, is concerned with establishing a general principle about the world Alma inhabits: everything is alive. At the same time, near the start of the story, a detail appears to hint at what the story is really about: “Mom passed away the year before I learned our house could talk.” As the story progresses, more details are revealed about Alma’s relationship with her mother, as well as the mother’s relationship with the house. By the end of the story, Alma realizes that she may never see her mother again, after the house explains ghosts and what becomes of human spirits. Without having to conclusively settle the tension that exists between Alma, her mother, and the house, the story at least works to give the reader a clear sense of the dynamic between them, ending on a note that, if anything, complicates this dynamic.

In order to make this subject clearer in the story, there were a few things I had to trim out of the original chapter I excerpted from the manuscript. Importantly, the biggest scene cut out for the story involved the house demonstrating its ability to move its own rooms, in order to hide Alma from her father. I felt that this was a crucial decision because the rest of the independent story makes little mention of the father. To be specific, he is only ever mentioned at one other point in the story, and it has little to do with anything else that happens. In the context of the longer novel manuscript, his absence in the chapter accounts for the role he plays in Alma’s life—that of an absent father. But because that aspect of her life isn’t really examined in the story, I decided to cut it out. What filled up the space then was a segment from an earlier chapter, which helps to underline the sense of tragedy and death that not only affects Alma personally, but seeps into the world of her neighborhood. The scene that was inserted—where Alma’s friend Randy tells her about the Bulacan family murders—makes sense out of its original context for this reason precisely. It helps the story to lead naturally into the next scene, which begins with Alma asking the house what ghosts are.

When you have the pieces together, it’s always wise to try your excerpted story out with trusted test readers. With this story, I managed to confirm that the scene swap I committed to was the right call, after I let two of my best friends Jam and Mandy take a look at both versions. Jam, in particular, observed that with the scene replacement, the story felt “more streamlined and linear”, whereas with the original scene and arrangement, the story felt like “separate vignettes whose resonances I had to line up on my own.” I’ve always been a fan of the streamlined type more than I am of the vignettes-style of storytelling, so this was a helpful note for me. Consider how much work you want the reader to be doing in making sense of the story, considering how much space you can give them for something so brief. Of course, in even shorter forms like flash fiction, there is an understanding of the challenge to evoke something definite in what appears to be the briefest of sketches. But when you’re writing something that falls squarely into the short story genre, it’s important to think about what you can do to get your writer on the same page as the story. If details are left out for the purpose of keeping things vague or in the dark, it may be a sign that your story needs more time to grow.

These are my biggest tips for extracting short stories from your novel manuscripts. If you allow cohesion to lead the way, take risks with what you put in or leave out from the story, and test your submission out on readers who can tell you what doesn’t make sense without context, you’ll better anticipate the reaction to your submission, if not increase your chances of getting picked up by your favorite journals.