3 Steps to Recycling Your Half-Finished Novels

In 2009, I was sitting in my friend’s yard in Kenya, watching the chickens chase each other and drinking Kenyan chai—a strange, delicious tea that contains nicotine instead of caffeine—when I made a decision:

It was time to write the novel I’d long been avoiding.

I only had a tiny netbook computer, whose screen was about the size of my hand, but fueled by about ten cups of tea a day, I started writing my novel. One-thousand words turned into five, five-thousand words turned into ten.

Then, 15,000 words into the novel I got stuck, and everything fell apart. The novel had major structural flaws, the tea was giving me… digestive problems, and soon, I had to leave Kenya for Uganda, effectively ending my writing. Dozens of hours of work were wasted.

Or were they?


Photo by Robert S Donovan

How to Recycle Novels Into Short Stories

Like me, you might have two or three half-finished novels abandoned on a computer hardrive somewhere, collecting digital dust. The good news is that all your hard work wasn’t wasted.

Not only are your failed attempts at novel writing good practice, they can also be recycled into short stories.

A few months ago, I was going through my archives when I saw that novel I started in Kenya. Most of it was worthless, but I realized one of the chapters would make a perfect short story.

How did I know? Here are three criteria to test whether you can recycle your novel into a short story:

1. Self-Contained

The chapter I chose was self-contained. In other words, it worked as a story even if separated from the rest of the novel.

While short stories don’t always contain all the elements of plot, they should have a beginning and an end. You also want to find a segment that doesn’t need too much backstory. If it’s not perfect though, just remember you can always edit it.

2. Only One or Two Important Characters

Because short stories are so… well, short… you only have time to develop one or too major characters. That doesn’t mean there won’t be other characters in the story, but they should have supporting roles, not the center stage.

3.  A Transformative Moment

In every story, whether it’s a short story, a novel, or a film, the character must have a transformative experience where he comes to the end of  herself. The character must die, as PJ Reece puts it. Not physically, but rather she must transform in such a way that the person she used to be disappears, only to be replace by a new, hopefully better, version of herself.

Look for those transformative moments in your half-finished novels. They just might make good short stories.

Short stories don’t have to be written from scratch, and by recycling them, you might be able to edit them into a finished product and publish them in a literary magazine or even online.

Have you ever recycled your novels by turning them into short stories? 


Today, go through your archives looking for stories to recycle.

Let us know if you found one in the comments by telling us 1) what is it about, in one or two sentences, and 2) does it meet the three criteria above?

About Joe Bunting

Joe Bunting is a writer and entrepreneur. He is the author of the #1 Amazon Bestseller Let's Write a Short Story! and the co-founder of Story Cartel. You can follow him on Twitter (@joebunting).

  • CorpuscleSchism
  • A few years back, I needed a short story for class and I needed one fast. I dove into my novel (read: series of short, unrelated scenes with the same characters… at the time) and plucked something. I changed some names, details, and events to make it fit. In a way, my work was easier because the plot was already written. Yet also my work was harder because the story had to make sense to people who hadn’t read hundreds of other pages of “character development.” I practically revised it to death and the final product had a slight resemblance to the scene that inspired it. I’m most proud of that story because I finished it. I accomplished something. I shipped it. The rest of the “novel” is still in the droves of my computer somewhere.

    • It’s the finishing isn’t it Katie. The rest, the what happens to the piece after that is all secondary to the relief/ pride/ thankfulness that it is complete AND you finished it!!!

      • Finishing is a huge step in a long process but unfortunately it’s not the end. 😉


        • I very much agree. Most of the time, editing’s way longer than the writing itself.

          • Oddznns

            But there’s a piece to edit!!!! A great way to start.

  • SphenicAtaraxy51
  • working title: the only temperance bar in ireland
    three threads:1.temperance (history/ recipes/ shop)2.Denise (H user winds up dead with 3 other users – amateur investigation into deaths)
    3. the blossoming of the INTP female protagonist from wishy washy wallflower doormat to investigator

    Various characters whom a short story could be built around – 
    main story too involved to make into a short story but fragments of it like Blind Pete the day he sold his sax for a fix.

    • Have you considered writing a short story involving one of your characters before or after this story is set? Or even during in a scene that’s unrelated? I like to do that because it helps with character development and having a round character already helps you focus on other things for the sake of practice.

    • Oddznns

      How did that bar start? That’s a story. Why is the amateur investigator there? How does she find out about the deaths and why does an INTP decide to get involved. That decision point when she decides to dive in is already the ending.  Looking forward to seeing bits of it soon;)

      • Is that INTP as in the Meyer’s Briggs, INTP? That’s awesome. I’m an INXP, if anyone was wondering. 

    • This looks really fun, Suzie. Any progress on it the last four days?

      • ok so at first when I saw this comment I went haha, as if. But then I paused and thought of all the work I had done this week. My main protag is fully ready to go but the other players I hadn’t given then much thought so I have written and continue to write wee vignettes of their life stories, the fragments I spoke about above. Also the research that was going so badly due to being stuck in Ireland and needing to be in the Livesey Collection, somewhere in the States is being addressed to. So things are actually happening.

        Myers Briggs INTP – what is INXP or dare I ask

        • That’s so exciting, Suzie. Good for you. When and where are you gong to be in the States? 

          The X stands for a tie between T and F. 🙂

          • Stanford University next March hopefully if everything falls into place. However I have found lots more material available online in the last month than for the last four years. So am making an effort instead of procrastinating

  • I tried to go for Nanowrimo last year. Sadly though, wasn’t able to reach 50k words. The story’s still siting in my HD though. You made me unearth it Joe. Haha.
    It’s supposed to be a fantasy story wherein the realm of gods are divided into 3–the Sunbearers, Earthshakers, and Tidebringers (gods of the heavens, earth, and seas, respectively). Each one wanted to own everything.

    I’m not sure though if I can turn that into a short story.

    • Confession: I haven’t touched my NaNoWriMo since December 1 either.


      • I’ll be trying again this year. Haven’t got a plot yet though. 

    • It sounds awesome, JB. I bet there’s a story lurking in there somewhere, even if it’s just a scene that needs to be contextualized.

      • Thanks! Haven’t had the time to flesh it out though.

  • “The character has to die…”  I’m honoured that you’ve quoted me, Joe.  It sounds like such a dramatic moment–“to die”–and yet it needn’t be melodramatic.  I see more and more stories in which the protagonist shows only the slightest evidence that their rock solid belief system is crumbling.  Although we live by many principles, often they’ve been put in place to cover up the truth.  We know this, instinctively, which is why we weep for joy when the defenses start to collapse.  It takes only a small crack in a person’s character armour to satisfy us the writer — and the reader — that the story has been worth the while. 

    • Agreed PJ. I’m drawn to stories about breakdown, that emotional extreme where you come to the end of yourself. But of course, every good story is about breakdown, isn’t it?

  • I’m currently doing just this! I wasn’t happy with my novel so i took out one of the subplots and have just finished the first draft of a short story based on that subplot. I’m hoping that i can rewrite the rest of my novel as, well, a novel but if not I’ll make that into another short story. 

  • Oddznns

    It works both ways. I’ve taken out stuff from the WIP to change into short stories (some posted here) AND … some of my short stories have become scenes in the WIP too.  There’s also random journalling pieces, like mu notes from Alaaska, which morphed into a short story. What’s important is to keep at it. At least 15 minutes every day. Even when I’m on a road trip.

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