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For Better or Worse: On the Failure of the Stand-Alone Excerpt

 

By Maria Cichosz •

The first time I tried to turn part of my novel into a publishable excerpt, I immediately knew it was hopeless. I had just finished working on one novel and was deep into another, having absolutely no inclination toward or talent for short fiction. If I wanted to publish in the meantime, I’d have to find parts of my novel that could “stand alone.” The glaring discrepancy between the ten-year gap in my publishing history and the ceaseless proliferation of narratives born in that time was a powerful motivator. Writing a novel is a profoundly solitary endeavor, and my hunger to share the work was keen. So then why did a little bit of innocent excerpting make me feel sick?

I understood the concept: choose a short section that encapsulates the feel of the whole, cut down on lingering backstory, polish loose ends into a sense of resolution, however imperfect. Yet all I could think was violence—amputation, a cauterized wound. I’d spent so much time with this story, this world I’d inhabited for years and built of words torn from my sentimental bleeding heart. How could I just carve a piece of it into a clean and precise five thousand words or less? Would this segment, this mere taste, do it justice?

When you turn part of a novel into an excerpt, what you’re really doing is asking it to function like a short story, a form that could not be more different. Deborah Treisman, fiction editor of The New Yorker, describes the raw surgical process of transforming one into the other: “Sometimes a chapter stands alone as a story; more often, some cutting and splicing and piecing together of different elements from a novel is required.” These are not cosmetic changes, but deep structural shifts. “Sometimes this requires the author to write additional lines or passages; sometimes plot points are adjusted slightly; sometimes a fifty-page section of a novel is pared down to twenty-five, or passages that are a hundred pages apart in the book are combined. Our goal is to publish something that is a satisfying story in its own right—not to present a writing sample from a forthcoming novel.”

What I wanted was not this Frankensteinian editorial collage, but a novel in miniature. These demands felt irreconcilable. You’re too precious about it, I told myself. You love it too much. You should be able to step back and make precise cuts that show off its narrative angles, hide the scarred areas with smooth edits that turn this handsome—if bleeding—stump into a hard, gleaming gem containing the glowing kernel of what this novel is about. You should be able to make it stand alone.

I couldn’t bring myself to do it. My suspicions that the stump was indeed handsome but also bloody were confirmed by an influx of kind, if radically irremediable, editorial comments: Our readers spent a long time discussing this piece. There’s so much more we want to know about this character. There’s a huge story here. What happens next?

My aversion to excerpting is not, as I’ve learned through trying, a problem of love—or rather, not only love. It’s a question of form and process, how one informs the other, and the way these ultimately amount to a kind of love. An appreciation of the affordances of long-form fiction and the structural impossibility of ever fully translating these into short-form writing, because the two modes demand very different relationships with the writer. All creative writing requires love—of language, of form, of subject—but the novel alone requires hard-core commitment.

You meet many ideas, but how many of them do you fall in love with? How many worlds would you consent to inhabit day in and day out for months, possibly years, over the course of false starts and failed drafts, thousands of hours of work and exponentially as many words, for better or worse? The novel is an act of devotion. To write a novel, you must love a story enough to want to spend a significant chunk of your life with it. The novel is not just a finished piece of work—like any extended relationship, it is a process of living that unfolds through time.

Another way of putting this: Writing a novel is like falling in love. It begins with an encounter. A character comes into your head fully formed and demands space, demands your time, demands a story. A scene compels you and won’t take no for an answer. It’s like that first glimpse across the bar, the touch of a hand sparking more than you could have expected, opening something inside you that you didn’t know was there. In this space, the short story writer thrives. They will run with that glance, crystallize it, transform it, reflect upon it, then sagely put it away. After all, the world is wide, and there are many encounters to be had. The novelist, on the other hand, is hooked. The glance is not enough—they start a conversation, stay up late into the night, arrange another meeting. The more time they spend in this world, the more compelling it becomes. They keep sleeping over until it becomes obvious that the only reasonable course of action is to pack their bags and move in, committing to a long and unpredictable process of mutual growth.

This is my insatiable desire for narrative depth. It’s not enough for me to know what was said during the bitter fight my characters had. I want to know how either of them managed to sleep that night, how they reproached themselves as they drifted off. I’m curious about the books they read and how they like their coffee, what their faces look like in the throes of pain or pleasure or sheer boredom, the way they allow their postures to fall away when they think no one is watching. The novelist is always living with their characters, inhabiting their world, feeling the richness of that imagined space superimposed like a film over their own reality, one foot planted in each. Amelia Gray calls this process “real life rouletting around the edges” of the novel: “I was also interested to find how the work changed as I did—how my life and mind were pulled into my characters. I mean, picture all the things that happened in your own life in the past two or three years and think about how those events would twist and manifest if you had to sit down and describe someone else’s life.” Love, like novel writing, is a process of discovery. You watch characters grow over time. As she explains in the P.S. interview feature at end of Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel did it for ten years while “living with Cromwell,” inhabiting his world “as an utter sensory wraparound” to “reproduce a life from the inside.” John Updike did it for well over forty. That’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. To carry and nurture a secret world within yourself is a magical thing.

For those who love brevity, who prefer the concise minimalism of the flash piece, this may be a little much—a surplus of detail, not all of which makes its way into the finished product. Yet it is this invisible labor of dwelling in a fictional space that gives it the reality of texture, an accumulation of details and images the reader may never see but will nonetheless feel in the spaces between the printed words. It affects everything from a narrative’s mood to the structure of its sentences. Comparing novels with short-form writing, Sherrie Flick explains that “instead of holding back—working with a fragile amount of space and condensing language to make effective and subtle suggestions—I open up the word spigot and, in doing so, the fictional world of the story. My sentence structure lengthens in the novel manuscript, and I enter into the challenge of evoking complex atmosphere with a bigger, more expansive sense of character on the page.”

This is why novels take so much time. In craft, we are used to anatomizing narratives into discrete considerations of character, dialogue, setting, and plot, but it is much harder to articulate how these all grow from and depend upon a hidden understructure formed by the writer’s consent to live with a fictional world through time. In Flick’s words, novels necessitate “a different kind of big-world thinking that connects characters to plot to dialogue to setting.” This imaginative labor begins long before the actual writing starts and fills days that are, in terms of word count, empty, but in terms of experiencing a story, incredibly full: the ordinary bus ride that becomes a dream space, the shift in late afternoon light that opens a window onto summer light in a fictional room. These moments are as much a part of the writing process as drafting or editing, yet are often given short shrift because they are difficult to quantify and proscribe. There is no way to reliably produce them beyond giving yourself to a story, making the labor of imagining the most intimate and demanding of writerly tasks.

I struggle with creating excerpts that “stand alone” because for me, the novel is inseparable from this sprawling process. It’s telling that my favorite novel excerpts create the sense of a beginning, compelling the reader to dive in and leaving them hungry for more. The excerpt works best when it is an invitation, a signpost, a hook, giving the reader the same sensation that bewitched the writer at the start of the journey and persuading them to come along to see it through.

I admire the short-form writer who can cut to the quick of the thing, finding its core with certainty and grace. I, the incorrigible long-form writer, can’t do it—I don’t have the heart. It feels too much like a violence, a betrayal of the form itself. The novel, after all, is nothing but the accumulation of its time of creation. Cutting off a piece of it to somehow stand in for the whole feels wrong, because the novel is not a flash encounter, however electric, but a narrative unfolding in time. The closest I’ve come to the frustrating inadequacy of the excerpt outside of writing was having a friend of a friend push me to describe my relationship with my husband in casual conversation, unable to believe that we had been happy for such a long time. We’ve lived through a lot together, I said, we love each other very much, all the while feeling the cheapness and woeful lack of this response, the indignity of having to perform the profundity of a decade of human connection in a sound bite. What could be said for this depth of feeling, for what we’ve lived together?

Nothing but the full experience of it, I realized. Nothing but this would do.

These are the tendrils of a life, the tightly coiled threads an excerpt can present but only a novel can unravel. This is the form’s value and strength, and my frustration with excerpts stems from the fundamental incompatibility between the end goal of short- and long-form writing. I don’t want to give a taste of my novel, however polished, but to offer it whole, as a gift to the reader in all its trailing complexity. The novel does not exist despite its digressions, it is its digressions. To stifle or cut these tendrils would be to suppress that crucial editorial question I’ve come to see not as a failure of conciseness, but as the best success long-form fiction can have in a short-form arena, for better or worse: what happens next?

 


MARIA CICHOSZ is a novelist and interdisciplinary scholar of literature, art, theory, drug cultures, and the history of ideas. She holds a PhD in Modern Thought & Literature from Stanford University, where she is currently a Humanities & Sciences Dean’s Fellow. Maria’s fiction and scholarship have appeared in CritiqueThe PuritanEmotion, Space and Society, and on the CBC Literary Awards shortlist, among other places. Her first novel, Cam & Beau, was recently named one of 25 fall book picks by The Toronto Star. Check it out at camandbeau.ca.