It hurts to be told that no one wants your novel, whether it's your first or your fifth, whether you've been previously published or not. All those months, even years, of labor seem wasted. All those painfully chosen words now seem destined to reside forever in a forgotten desk drawer.
But it doesn't have to be that way. Part of establishing a writing career is learning to be patient, creative and, most of all, resilient. No one wants your novel? Then salvage its best parts and turn them into short stories. With your care and commitment, those stories will find a life of their own—and possibly keep your career afloat at the same time.
Ups and downs
I learned the hard way that publication isn't necessarily a magic bullet. My first two novels were published, but my third manuscript didn't sell, so I kept myself in the business by writing nonfiction books about computers. Still, I stuck with my fiction writing and eventually got back in the game, publishing three more novels and submitting a fourth to publishers. But while I was outlining my fifth novel, my agent called and broke the news: No one was interested in the fourth manuscript.
As I considered my next move, it occurred to me that I'd never written any short fiction. Short stories, it seemed, might provide me with a quicker route back into novel publishing than nonfiction books had. So I reworked the still-incomplete outline of my fifth novel, removing everything but the principal plot, and wound up with 28,000 words. I sold the resulting story, "Almost Forever," for serialization in a small-press magazine, Tomorrow Science Fiction.
On the strength of that sale, I was able to write and sell more short stories to higher-profile markets and eventually another book. That got me back on track again and, in time, I had six more novels in print. Then one day, my editor called. "Your sales are poor. We won't be buying any more books." It was time to start over.
From flotsam to fiction
I'd kept my newfound short-fiction career in operation while I wrote those six novels, but now I had 107,000 words about to go to waste. So when a local college literary magazine called, offering me $50 for a short story, I offered them a novel excerpt instead. They agreed to consider an 8,000-word submission. I selected what I knew was my novel's most dramatic chapter and cut 16,000 words. There were lavish sex scenes that would seem out of place in a literary magazine, foreshadowing of later events the readers would never see, back-references to earlier events—all of these got the ax. I hit the 8,000-word mark, and North Carolina Literary Review accepted my story.
I was inspecting the original manuscript for more encapsulated stories to sell when I remembered the condensation I'd done of "Almost Forever." But this novel, Moments of Inertia, was a first-person narrative. There were no subplots to remove, and everything took place in front of the viewpoint character. This time I'd identify the core of the story and work outward, finding material that couldn't be left out.
I went through the book and collected the dramatic peaks—the cores of each chapter, like the cliffhanger endings of old movie serials. I found myself with a short-ish story too fractured to make any sense. I combed the manuscript again, looking for scenes that related to those peaks, finding elements whose content was essential to understanding the whole. What I wound up with was a long, uneven novella, with a prosaic beginning that shifted to violent action somewhere in the middle. I kept working.
There's no law that says a story has to be told in any particular order, of course. So I cut the story in half, starting with one of the dramatic peaks I'd chosen for the excerpt, continuing forward to what had been the end of the book. Then I took the first half of the story and distributed its scenes between the others, placing each one after a later scene that referred to it. I wound up with a story that delivered reward after reward, keeping the reader going to the final climax. By the time I finished wielding the editorial blowtorch, I'd reduced my 107,000-word novel to a 12,500-word short story, which subsequently appeared in the April/May 2004 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction.
With 20,000 words sold, I went through my novel again, looking for anything else that could work as a stand-alone story. What I found were two chapters that, side by side, made up a harrowing tale with an ending of their own. I sold these 14,000 words, now called "Dark of the Sun," to Asimov's, as well. I also found a single, 1,000-word dramatic scene that told its own story. It was published as "On the Beach" in The Urban Hiker.
What happens to a novel once you've extracted short fiction from it? The stories you sold may attract enough attention to interest book publishers, and you may be able to sell the novel itself in its original form. Or you may be able to publish a book that's a collection of your short fiction, in which the stories from your novel appear.
And even if your novel gets published only as short stories, remember the most important thing: Readers saw your writing. You were paid for the work you did, and the exposure those stories earned may help sell the next novel you write. In the end, publication never hurts, no matter what form it takes. And there are stories in your unsold novel, just waiting to be found.