Selling the Excerpt – Workshop Starts Feb 5!
I sometimes work with writers who refer to their work as “my novel,” which seems to imply that the creative road ahead is a straightaway that will lead to only one story based on that particular content. Nothing at all wrong with that, but savvy writers can also learn to work the system so to speak, by thinking in terms of more than one. In an era of purposeful recycling, there’s rarely a need to put your writing out on the curb.
We all know that a great story or concept can survive many retellings in different formats. How many times have we seen stories such as The Wizard of Oz reconceived? Dorothy can be any gorgeous color of girl in the world, in any era or newly imagined setting, presented to us via written text, on the ice, on the stage, the big screen and so on. Yet when writing stories, it’s easy to think that’ll we’ll be finished with the story once we, well, finish it.
Here’s something fun to try: Make a quick list of everything you’ve written, finished and unfinished, and look for patterns in your work. Don’t worry about whether something is untitled, just assign a working title that will cue you to what the content is. Ex: Thingy about inappropriate crush on the hot guy half my age who delivers groceries to my house every Tuesday afternoon at 2:45 p.m., and for which I put on lipstick.
Ask yourself if your work tends to fall into categories. When I did this a few years ago, I realized that I had a slew of half-written short stories I’d never bothered to polish because I was always focused on a couple “big projects.” I also figured out that I always write about the same stuff, and it was amazingly easy to categorize it:
A) People who live off the grid and have dreams that others might consider small yet to the dreamers are important;
B) Men, including the ones I’ve had, can’t have, don’t want anymore, or don’t exist because who could really look like Keanu Reeves, know how to fix the plumbing, and have time to still acquire a Ph.D. in Elizabethan literature;
C) Nonfiction narratives inspired by my family and that tend to focus on a problem we failed to solve or that seems unsolvable. In this case, you might need a family who will tolerate your writing about them.
I also confirmed that I move between writing fiction, nonfiction, and memoir pretty easily, but—this based on one ill-penned poem (see Thingy about inappropriate crush) and a limerick I once scrawled on a napkin—that I would be well advised to steer clear of poetry, out of respect for people actually talented in that field.
Once you’ve reduced your writing self to a few handy lists, it gets easier to both prioritize what to focus on next and also to begin thinking about how some things you write can be repurposed effectively and/or collated into a longer piece. For example, I had an idea for a great story called “Nanette’s Notebook,” based on a student who occasionally wrote down what I said verbatim and reminded me of it later. In real life, the student was quite wonderful. But in the story, each time the student wrote down a quote, its meaning also disappeared from the teacher’s mind, until in some hypothetical later scene, there’s a battle of wills between them, with the teacher trying to say as little as possible to make it through a class, weighing which thoughts to give up to the student, who is unwittingly or maybe purposefully evil in trying to suck all intelligible thought out of the teacher’s head. I still think it would be a fun story to write, but I put it way down on my To Do list because it doesn’t roll up into any of the thematically based collections I could conceive of from my habitual categories.
Thinking along these lines doesn’t need to be creatively stifling in the least. It simply means working with your own inclinations and imbuing some practicality. For me, spending time on short stories now feels very productive, because I know I’ll publish a story individually and it’s already earmarked for one of my collections, hence using it at least twice. Another way to say this is that I now think of short stories as both standalone stories as well as excerpts from their collections. It then becomes useful to consider which stories are dependent on being within the collection and which can truly stand alone and how much I can influence that if I choose to. Plus it can be good to hold a few back so a new book contains both previously pubbed stories as well as some surprises.
But wait, there’s more, because then I can write an essay arising from one of the topics of a story, or turn a story into an essay or vice versa, again upping its re-use value. You can do this because the venue and audience for a repurposed bit of text is sometimes different enough to allow for resale. It’s in part a similar concept as blog to book, which is successful for many people, and gives the writer both freedom to experiment en route and also a separate goal that is the sum of the parts. And that sum doesn’t detract in the least from the joy, value, and worthiness of the individual parts. For example, let’s take said grocery kid, who is sadly an imaginary character, because no one would really deliver groceries as far out of town as I now live, but I can have my fantasies about not having to drive thirty minutes for fresh produce. I can conceive of a hot young grocery-totin’ thing who knows how to pick out watermelons and doesn’t break eggs. That might turn into a humorous or dark story in my All the Men I Never category, or it might become an essay about the health effects of a diet high in month-old produce.
All this, and I haven’t really gotten to the excerpt part. I’m long winded, so Nanette had a lot to put in her notebook. Over the summer, I worked what I would sort of consider backwards, and lifted an excerpt from a book-length manuscript I’d already drafted. Doing it in this order was quite interesting, because it became very clear pretty fast that for an excerpt to be of publishable quality it can’t really be just an excerpt. That is, stringing together some passages from a longer work or expecting to easily sell a chapter out of a novel generally isn’t going to cut it. The magazine or journal you’re targeting doesn’t exist solely to promote clever passages of your work; they are only going to be interested in truly standalone material. In order to produce that, it’s critical to fully re-conceive the excerpt as a unique project, based upon another project but with the freedom to become its own entity. And yet, that excerpt shouldn’t be so in conflict with the larger work that the two can’t coexist for readers.
In this case, I had to think a lot about the angle of the piece and which characters, real people in this case, would get more page time. In the longer work, I realized that the story could be about the ripple effect an event had on my family and choices and actions that while seeming to arise from a single event actually had a very long history and were both the cause and outcome of the event. But for the excerpt, the scope had to be narrowed to suit both the length of the piece and the angle the magazine wanted to take. The result was interesting in that what I considered key characters in the longer piece were cut out entirely or trimmed to a line or two in the excerpt, and also the reverse happened. Characters who seemed to factor less in the longer story became central figures in the excerpt. It didn’t change who they were or what they did, but how much of them each version of the story shows is significantly different. I didn’t do this without help. I had an ensemble of skilled editors and writers and family members who helped to bring both objectivity and sensitivity to revision decisions, and who understood that this story needed to ultimately exist in both long and short form, with some curves and hills along the way.
That’s in part what this class is about, an effort to bring writers together so we can help each other see how to create and market publishable excerpts and variations from our existing material or works in progress. A fresh strategy and a collective perspective is extremely helpful, I’m convinced, in letting us see and execute possibilities for our work that may be less obvious because we’re locked into one way of thinking about the work or we’re creatively weary of it. This class will be about looking at the repertoire of your work as a whole and developing your strategies for focusing your creativity as well as selecting one piece of writing to work on with the idea of pitching it as an excerpt. It should be fun and some intensive work. Participants will be invited to read their work from the class at a Village Books–hosted event following the last class. Here’s the logistical details:
- Selling the Excerpt
- Thursdays, February 5 thru March 12
- 6 – 9 p.m., Cascade Hall Rm. 165, Whatcom Community College campus
- Fee $195
- Register here.
XO Laurel Leigh