Thursday, August 20, 2009

Excerpting novels for short story publication

Today I'm beginning a new phase. (Or ramping up a new phase anyway -- there aren't really bright lines between each step in the process, so I'm sure I'll be spending a lot more time on previous phases, too.)

I'm starting to work more actively toward the general goal of getting my work out in front of other people. The ultimate goal is publication with the strongest possible distribution of my novel, but the general goal in the short term might include for example opportunities to read aloud, workshops, sharing with friends, developing my query letter, publication of other material (see this recent essay in The New Haven Review for example), and publication of parts of the book.

That last one is what I'm working on today. I've been stewing on how different chapters and even a discarded chapter might work as stand-alone stories that I can submit for publication in literary journals, and today I started working on one. I'm finding out pretty quickly that it's not easy.

First, there's the obvious problem of a chapter referring to events or background established earlier in the book. OK, so now the chapter needs a lot of new exposition to become intelligible.

Two, the drama of a chapter that the reader is experiencing is in large part dependent on the complications that have been introduced earlier. Reading the chapter as something that stands alone, it suddenly feels very flat. The drama has been drained from it because we're missing a lot of information about what pressures the characters are under. In theory, that could be handled with exposition, but the chapter really depends on the reader to feel it, not to be told about it.

Third, is the problem of resolution. Readers of a chapter and a story have different expectations about endings. Obviously, a cliff-hanger is tolerable and even desirable in a chapter but a violation of the compact with the reader in a story. Even when chapters don't have what are commonly called cliff-hangers -- and mine don't I think -- they do have them in small ways. Important things at stake for the character are left as open questions.

Those are just the problems I've figured out for myself so far, but what this suggests to me is that a novel excerpt in many cases doesn't just have to be patched up to make it work as something that stands alone. They have to be rewritten into very different stories with different points. It feels like I'm taking the same characters but having them develop and work on a different set of problems than the chapter does -- that what is important in the chapter is less relevant in the tight timeline of the story.

All of this raises the question of how feasible the whole endeavor is. Of course chapters and short stories are different literary forms, and trying to pass off one as the other is sort of like trying to help your guest visiting from India feel at home by taking them out for sushi since they grew up with Asian food. There may be something in the weave of a given novel that prevents it from becoming anything else without completely unraveling it first.

That's kind of how I felt recently reading an excerpt from a new novel by one of my favorite short story writers -- Lorrie Moore. (She said herself in an interviewer in Believer magazine that when it comes to short stories or novels, "The nature of the idea determines which form or genre it will be in.") She has a new novel coming out in a couple weeks called A Gate At the Stairs and The New Yorker published an excerpt of it earlier this summer as "Childcare." In that form, it was easy to confuse with a short story, and reading it as such felt a little uneven. At times it felt like a novel on slick magazine paper and at other times it felt like a New Yorker story that was pulling its punches. It set up and abandoned relationships with characters that I was intensely interested in, and then the whole thing ended with a thud. I'm taking this as a lesson about the difficulties of excerpting and a sign that the novel will be terrific.

The other thing I'm taking away from my efforts so far is the possibility that the flatness I'm seeing when I read my chapter as a story is a big hint about the chapter being flat. Even with the context of previous chapters to help sustain the chapter in the reader's mind, it may just read that flat still and it may have taken me reading from this different perspective to see it. I don't want to think so, but I'll be looking closely at that, which may send me sliding back like in Chutes and Ladders to a much earlier phase in this process.

Meanwhile, in addition to reading the Lorrie Moore story, I've been hunting around in literary journals for examples of novel excerpts to see how well they stand alone and how they are adapted. It's kind of a specialized literary skill, and I'd appreciate anyone out there letting me know how they have gone about it and how editors respond to it.

No comments: