Small Miracles: Sweet-Talking Short Pieces from Your Full-Length Manuscript

April 20, 2021 § 22 Comments

By Alle C. Hall

It is a marvel, to create an entire world and a complete life in 500-5000 words—especially if you hope to do so by pulling a few paragraphs or pages from a full-length manuscript. Be warned, however: creating short, standalone pieces is just as consuming—if not more so—than starting from the God-space of The Blank Page.

There is dejection is leaving out the 70-or-so thousand words that took years to write. We ask ourselves, Is my work is superfluous, the time wasted? That fear makes us want to cling to each syllable, to stuff the entire story into the excerpt.

Forcing too much was the mistake I saw most often, as Associate Editor for Vestal Review (flash fiction under 500 words) and Senior Nonfiction Editor for jmww journal (500-4000). Even if the submission came in under word count, an overriding heaviness persisted.

When adapting, it is essential to let the new piece grow free of the existing prose—even if this creates dissonance between the full narrative and the emerging short piece. Focus on a moment of change that drives to a realization and then dissolves, movie-scene-change-like, into resolution.

You’re more likely to find a workable excerpt in your opening chapters, where exposition is built in. I’ve excerpted as far into a manuscript as chapter ten out of twenty-two, but those shorts came from a travel adventure. “Place” was constantly refreshing itself and new characters entering offered new perspectives.

My own work-in-progress, “American Mary,” involves a marriage of two chapters into a short story. I started with a 3800-word chapter, “North.” In taking a fresh crack at it as a short story, well! Why did I think the reader needed to know how the protagonist found a hotel? How she checked in—zzzzzzzzzz … sorry, dozed off there for a moment.

Once you have found a likely few paragraphs or pages:

  •  Drop the reader, boom, into the most active section. No exposition.
  • The first sentence should be clear to the point of simple: subject-verb-object establishing who and where, who and what, or what and where. From Alice Munro’s mesmerizng “Red Dress—1946”: My mother was making me a dress.
  • To create simple sentences, even long simple sentences, delete every adjective and adverb. Munro’s second sentence: All through [WHEN] the month of November I would come from school and [WHERE] find her in the kitchen, surrounded by [WHAT] cut-up red velvet and scraps of tissue-paper pattern.
  • Replace conjunctions (I’m looking at you, “but”) with a noun or verb. See where that takes you. An existing sentence from “American Mary”: I’d escaped my father. But with Jean; if I could feel anything, it would be terror. New sentence: I’d escaped my father. Jean, however—if I could feel anything, it would be terror.
  • Kill backstory. Clarify only that which needs to be explained, and only as you encounter it. My writing mentor, Carlie L. Glickfeld, says “Move relentlessly forward.”
  • Rid the piece of the tangents that a longer work allows. Existing sentence from “American Mary”:  … my Lonely Planet guidebook, yellow and green cover proclaiming ‘Southeast Asia on a Shoestring’. New sentence:  … my Lonely Planet guidebook.
  • Banish transitions. Paragraph-return! New section!
  • Some prepositions can be disposed of. Existing sentence: She swung sinewy legs to the bar by crossing them, so that two guys approached. New sentence: She swung sinewy legs by crossing them, throwing around a great deal of hair in the process. Two guys approached.
  • Don’t be shy about pulling from various parts of the manuscript to make the short piece work.

I’d converted the original chapter to 2500 words. But now I had a piece that would be markedly more difficult to place—between the 1000-1500 many literary magazines expected for a flash and the 5,000 expected for a short.

To nurture my 2500, I went back 50 pages in the manuscript and annexed half of another chapter, one that I’d previously considered adapting. Even so, as many times as I read it, it never struck me as having the “there” there. Coupling it with “North,” however, enriched both: “Mary” sets up “North”; “North” brings “Mary” to fruition; and the piece moves toward wholeness, which is critical in excerpting. The adaptation should benefit from brevity. You might begin by asking yourself: Why does the new piece I imagine need to be told as a short?

The converse is also true. After you’ve played with a section, miraculously, you will find that your original draft could use a good weeding. Your new story will act as a napkin-sketch for excavation. Ultimately, I pruned the chapter I added and, behold! Sentences had deep subtext, huge chunks of exposition tidied up, sentences with multiple clauses blended into clean-lined rows.

Trust yourself: as challenging as it may seem, you may have the miracle of the short draft in your full-length work.


Alle C. Hall’s work placed as finalist for the 2021 Lascaux Prize and as a semi-finalist for the New Guard Machigonne Fiction Contest. Other work appears in Evergreen Review, Litro, Tupelo Quarterly, Creative Nonfiction Magazine, Another Chicago, Literary Orphans, and The Citron Review. She placed First in The Richard Hugo House New Works Competition, and is a Best Small Fictions and Best of the Net nominee. Alle blogs at About Childhood: Answers for Writers, Parents, and Former Children. Find her on Twitter @allechall1

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