(This article was published in slightly different form in Writers Helping Writers.)
A few years ago I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s “The Signature of All Things” in One Story, and was blown away. When the eponymous book came out a short time later, I bought it. For readers like me, who skipped Eat, Pray, Love, getting a taste of Gilbert’s fiction was important. We can understand why the author (and probably her publishers) went to the trouble of getting an excerpt published.
But a more important reason to excerpt a novel, I believe, is that, with a few publishing credits in the quiver, an (otherwise) unpublished writer might have an easier time finding an agent and eventually a publisher for her first novel. It is a great separator, a free pass to the top of a (towering) pile of queries.
But, you say, your novel is structured with care. It is complete. It adheres to a particular emotional arc. It is the sum of its parts—or, correction, is greater than these parts. A completed puzzle. But a chapter, no mirror or fractal of its larger whole, may not have an arc of any kind.
And I rejoin: If a novel is a love affair, a short story is a one-night stand. Arcs, be damned. It’s quick. Sometimes a little dirty. Strangers remain strangers. In many of my favorite short stories, very little actually happens. Not much time passes (it may stand still). They are all mood and indigo. A thought. A gesture. A crack in a bathroom mirror opens up a violence. The silhouette of a child’s kite against a setting sun brings back a memory. Let’s go into the woods and follow a stream and spot a deer beneath a blood-red sky. There can be great profundity in the small.
I’m currently working on a novel about a man wandering the streets of Łódź, Poland, contemplating the loss of love. In one chapter, about halfway through, the narrator sits in a small square in the city, and remembers an afternoon at his ex-lover’s apartment. A moment in time echoing a moment in time. That’s it. No real narrative arc—maybe this is another word for plot—no arc at all. And yet, there are colors and sounds and smells. There’s that inescapable feeling of loss. The haunting fleetingness of memory. I’d like to believe it will work as a publishable excerpt.
Yes, short stories are often subtle. This, I think, is good news for your excerpt. You don’t need to connect all the dots. I recommend you don’t. Hint. Sprinkle breadcrumbs. Those gaps? Leave them. Have you ever stood close to a painting—let us say, Van Gogh’s Roses (1890)—and studied just one small section—perhaps a single white fallen petal in the canvas’s bottom corner, painted, it seems, with the tip of a finger. It is easy to miss, white against nearly white. It is a beautiful thing. This may be your excerpt.
But not all chapters are ready to reveal themselves, to throw off their novel (in both senses) clothes. An excerpt may require some work.
Let’s say your excerpt requires a little background. Try this: summarize your novel (up to the chapter) in a sentence or two. It’s a surprisingly easy—and startlingly effective—way to start a story. I just came up with this: My wife would be meeting her lover at 4 in the afternoon (Ulysses). I think I’d keep reading.
And endings: Unlike most novels, your excerpt doesn’t need tidy resolution. In fact many short stories leave things vague. But you probably need a hint of resolution. Perhaps there is a catalyst, a spark, and we’re left to imagine the oncoming conflagration. (This might be how you’re ending your chapters already. It’s what we do, we novelists.) But if you need to tie things up ever so slightly, tie away.
The chapter I mentioned above ends with my narrator eventually rising from where he sits in the little Polish square and continuing his journey through the city. No resolution. (It’s a sad chapter.) But I didn’t want to end this excerpt like this. So in the last couple paragraphs I created a new character (yes: deus ex machina), a girl with long legs and violet-blue eyes. Not a word is spoken, but there’s that hint. It’s enough.
What I’m trying to say is that we may change our chapters. They are malleable, these precious things of ours. They are made not of stone, but of clay. We may even tear them, sometimes to shreds. For this novel—this interminable novel of mine—I wrote a chapter about eight Polish poets preparing for Vladimir Mayakovsky’s famous visit to Warsaw in May 1927. I get into their minds, explore their loves. With just a bit of work, I was able to pull short excerpts from this chapter and submit these new “flash” stories to a handful of journals; all but a few were accepted. (Here’s one, if you have half an interest.)
Most chapters, I believe, hold this potential. Consider it an exercise. Free of the pulling weight, the magnificent magnitude, of the rest of your novel, you may enter into your story’s story, use the tip of your finest brush (or finger), and paint anew.
And, of course, when you're ready to start submitting, we're here to help! I hope the above inspires you to submit excerpts from your novel. And I wish you success.
—Erik Harper Klass is the founder of Submitit. He has published stories in a variety of journals, including New England Review, Summerset Review, Maryland Literary Review, and Open: Journal of Arts and Letters, and he has been nominated for multiple Pushcart Prizes.