Hidden Gems: Publishing Novel Excerpts
By Dell Smith
Are you too busy working on a novel (or blog post) to devote time to revising and sending out that stack of unfinished short stories? Fear not: You may already have a few almost-ready-for-publication stories sitting idle on your hard drive and not even know it.
“How can this be?” you say. “I’ve been too focused on my paranormal romance ‘Surf Zombies Must Die’ to bother with mere short stories?” Focus people! I’m talking about harvesting stories from your long-form narratives. Lots of literary magazines publish novel excerpts, as long as they are stand-alone pieces that have a distinct beginning, middle, and ending.
Getting an excerpt published from your forthcoming zombie opus gives you literary credibility where before you had none. It’s great product placement for your novel-to-be and makes killer query fodder when your novel is ready for an agent (“Chapter 3, The Summer of my German Surf Zombie, was published in the fall issue of Surfing Zombie Quarterly.”)
So, how to tell when you have a worthy gem to polish? What chapters or sections of your novel make better stories than others? Use the following guidelines and best practices, my tried and true process for creating an excerpt that any self-respecting lit mag editor will be happy to publish:
· Look for the good parts—scenes that feature a major event in your protagonist’s life. Maybe a moment where she makes a life-altering choice to leave her abusive husband. Or she leaves her child with distant relative knowing she will never be back. Or she eats a rival zombie who is up for the same job.
· Consider flashbacks, character history, or back-story. Sometimes these sections have their own little story arc amid the clatter of your novel. These can often be extricated whole (using a sharp boning knife) without too much blood loss.
· Don’t discount your discards. Sometimes your slaughtered darlings make the best stories. Case in point: Fiction Magazine was interested in a story of mine that originated as a novel outtake. It was a good chapter, and I hated having to cut it, but it didn’t fit comfortably within the structure of my novel. I removed it safely with no ripple effect to the other chapters, lowered my bloated word count, and Fiction Magazine will publish the story in its spring issue.
· Spiff up that ending. Often excerpts lack a cohesive finish. For example, the story mentioned above was a completely stand-alone piece, covering one summer in the life of a young man as he falls in love for the first time. The story had an ending, but it was abrupt, with no satisfactory payoff. So I added texture with a couple of well-placed sentences explaining why the protagonist and his lady love had to part ways at the end.
· Revise excerpts with an eye to cutting overt mentions to other parts of your novel. Leaving in that flashback of your protagonist as a freshman at Zombie High will only confuse readers and is probably unnecessary to the mini-arc you’re trying to finesse in the excerpt.
· Don’t worry about spoiling major plot points or divulging secrets from your novel. Even after you get your excerpt published, chances are your novel still has more (often much more) revision coming its way before it catches a publisher’s attention. And then there will be more rewrites. Before it hits the shelves your band of hungry NC-17 zombies will be a happy-go-lucky pack of PG-13 robot snowboarders.
Good luck and happy mining!
Dell Smith writes stories and novels, and works as a technical writer at a software company northwest of Boston. He has also worked as a videotape editor, cook, music video lackey, TelePrompTer operator, accounts receivable clerk, assistant film editor, caterer, roadie, flea market vendor, videotape duplicator, and wedding videographer. His writing has appeared in Fiction, J. Journal, Lynx Eye Quarterly, and Grub Street’s 10th anniversary anthology Hacks. He is a regular contributor to The Review Review and maintains a blog, Unreliable Narrator at dellsmith.com, featuring essays on movies, writing, and the publishing biz, along with book reviews and author interviews. He is currently writing a novel.