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?
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.
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:
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?