Archive for the ‘craft’ Category

What Makes a Great Novel Excerpt? by B.B. Garin

With two novel excerpt contests under our belt and a third open through mid-November, we thought it would be a good idea to share this essay from one of our contest readers on what makes a novel excerpt really pop, and some common traps to avoid when preparing your excerpt for submission. This essay was first published in the Lit Mag News Substack!

So, you’ve written a novel. And like a proud parent, you want to send it out into the world. If not the whole thing, maybe just a piece will do. Publishing a novel excerpt can be a great launching point, and numerous lit mags are willing to give novel writers this opportunity. Besides providing exposure to emerging writers, having an excerpt published is often a wonderfully validating experience.

My very first publication was a novel excerpt. I was thrilled, a stranger thought this thing that I’d been pouring my life’s blood into for years was worth reading! It gave me the confidence I needed to take the plunge into querying agents.

Now, we’re reading for our Novel Excerpt Contest here at The Masters Review, and I hope to see some fantastic writers receive the same boost I did. Yet when it comes to preparing an excerpt, it seems many writers struggle with this elusive process.

Most lit mags publishing excerpts will specify “standalone” or “self-contained” in their guidelines. The two are basically interchangeable and appear self-explanatory. A reader must be able to understand the piece without any outside information. On the surface, straightforward. But what they’re not spelling out is that the piece must be its own story. That’s where things get dicey.

Nothing breaks my heart more than reading a piece with lively characters, vivid descriptions, and stellar pacing only to reject it because it’s not a standalone excerpt. This often happens because of a misconception that the first chapter or chapters will make the best excerpt. Now, there are a few magazines which specifically seek first chapters, which is why it’s always important to READ THE GUIDELINES. Otherwise though, first chapters generally make for poor excerpt material.

I understand why writers fall into this trap. We want a piece that doesn’t need outside context. The first chapter is the context. Writers fear anything from later in the novel won’t be understood. All perfectly logical. Except, the purpose of a first chapter in a novel is at odds with the purpose of a standalone excerpt.

The first chapter is designed to draw the reader into the story and make them want to keep reading. That feeling you get at the end of a really good first chapter, when you’re going to ignore that sleep you really need because you’ve just got to read the first page of chapter two, is not the feeling you want at the end of reading a novel excerpt in a literary magazine. For a very simple reason. There is no chapter two. It’s incredibly frustrating to be left wanting to know what happens next, when there is no next. This doesn’t mean your excerpt has to tie everything up in a neat bow. Plenty of stories have unresolved endings, but the questions left unanswered must feel like a purposeful part of the ending.

Of course, not all first chapters are created equal. Yours may very well be the exception to the rule. What is important to consider, not just with the first chapter but with an excerpt from any point in the novel, is does it end on a cliffhanger? If the answer is yes, this is probably not your best option. An excerpt that ends at the moment the body is found, the employee is fired, or the overworked paralegal has coffee spilled on her by an incredibly attractive stranger generally doesn’t leave the reader with a sense of conclusion. Such excerpts may come from novels I’d love to read, but again, selling your manuscript isn’t the object here.

So, what are we looking for? What’s the magic formula that will lead to publishing glory? I wish I knew. If you ever find it, pass it on.

In the meantime, there are a few things worth considering. The first is change. Like any effective story, a novel excerpt needs an element of change in order for it to feel like it possesses a complete arc. Preferably, this will be a change with more emotional significance than say, getting a haircut. Unless the haircut is symbolic of your character breaking free from her stifling upbringing. In which case, send your haircut excerpt. That’s a scene that contains its own story.

This theoretical novel may be predominantly about the life of a beauty pageant hairstylist. The haircut scene may be just the jumping off point for the novel’s main action. But for the purposes of an excerpt, we don’t need to know where this change takes her, we just need to see it taking place. Note that this may be a scene with little action. A woman walks into a salon, sits in the chair, talks to a stylist, looks in the mirror, and leaves. There doesn’t have to be a lot of movement for there to be momentum. The journey here is an internal one. And that’s fine, so long as the reader can clearly see her moving from one phase of her life into the next over the course of the piece.

In searching your novel for this standalone structure, look for places where a character is faced with a decision. This almost always provides some type of change. Even if the character ultimately decides not to change their actions, if they’re moving forward after becoming aware of new consequences, then the stakes have changed. This sort of doubling down on a position can also provide a feeling of conflict which, when followed by the resolution to continue forward, becomes a self-contained narrative.

A lot of the successful excerpts I see seem to take place somewhere after the inciting incident but before the climax. This makes sense. This is what’s often referred to as the rising action, and it’s the place where our protagonists encounter more and more obstacles. Naturally, these complications lead to change. Complications also lead to bursts of conflict, which is another crucial element for any self-contained story. Clear conflict is what will drive your excerpt forward.

Often, I see excerpts that are full of dazzlingly dialogue or clever antics. These scenes may be amusing to read, but nine times out of ten nothing is really happening. By which I mean nothing is challenging the characters. There’s a lack of meaningful conflict. It’s a balancing act to be sure. Remember our haircut scene? Nothing physically is really happening, but a lot is going on internally. Contrast that with a car race scene. A lot may happen physically, but if nothing is changing internally, I might as well be watching NASCAR. The outcome of the race may be monumental in the context of the novel, but unless these stakes are effectively conveyed in the opening of the excerpt, it won’t feel like a significant conflict is present.

This is why climaxes generally don’t make for good excerpts. Yes, there’s a lot happening. And yes, this is a moment of big change. But there’s also been 300 pages spent establishing who these people are and why we should care about this change. It’s hard to find a few paragraphs this late in the novel that will do the same. It’s not impossible, but you’ve set yourself a much harder task than if you’d selected a smaller moment of change from earlier in the manuscript.

A final factor to consider when excerpting is consistency. I find this mainly applies to novels that use multiple points of view. This can be a great way of telling a large story, I use it myself quite often. However, in an excerpt I strongly recommend against switching POVs. It almost always leaves the reader with a sense of unfinished business at the end. Finding sections in both voices that combine to tell a standalone story is difficult. The result is often a sense of reading two separate stories, neither of which has time to fully develop.

Instead, if your novel alternates between Jane and John’s perspective it is often better to excerpt two of Jane’s sections without the intervening John one. This saves the reader from being jolted out of the story when the voice changes, and keeps them from wondering what happens to John if the narrative never returns to his voice. Herein lies what I think might be the biggest secret of novel excerpting: an excerpt doesn’t need to come verbatim from your novel manuscript. No one is going to call you up and ask to see the original for a word-by-word comparison, I promise. Editors understand that the piece is coming from a larger story. That there are inevitably things which won’t make sense out of context. This may mean cutting a single line. It may mean cutting an entire scene. The important thing is for the piece to feel continuous.

When you first sat down to write, you had to decide what story you wanted to tell. When you excerpt, you’re faced with the same decision. All the tips and tricks in the world won’t matter until you make that choice. And it’s a choice only you can make because, in the end, no one knows your novel better than you.

by B.B. Garin

Craft Essay: The First-Person Plural

When it is done right, a story told in the first-person plural can hold incredible power. In this craft essay, we take a look at successful uses of this point of view and some of its common pitfalls.


“If the first-person plural tries to be too sweeping, if it does not acknowledge its own subtleties, it can miss the mark.”

Here at The Masters Review, we often see trends among submissions. During any given reading period, patterns emerge: sometimes, there are a remarkable number of stories with surreal elements; lately, we’ve been seeing a lot of pieces about drones; for one anthology, we received an uncanny number of stories that involved fish hooks. One of the most interesting trends to identify, however, is the popularity of specific points of view. For a while, we received an enormous amount of stories told in the second person (and we still get a bunch of these). But what we have been noticing a lot of lately (and loving) is fiction told in the first-person plural. Authors are embracing the collective voice—“us” and “we”—to tell tales about group experience.

While reading for our Short Story Award for New Writers this summer, we encountered multiple stories told in the voice of an entire town. In more than one case, the author used the first-person plural to explore a community’s reaction to a strange, shared event. A town overtaken by pests. A swath of mysterious drownings. The first-person plural is certainly hot right now. So, it’s worth getting down to the nitty-gritty and looking at it on the level of craft. What makes the collective voice particularly effective? How can authors best harness its strengths? And, what are some common pitfalls that authors encounter when writing from this point of view? To me, the most crucial question that the first-person plural raises is this: how do you speak from the perspective of the group without speaking for the group?

Over ten years back, a New York Times article discussed the rarity of the first-person plural in contemporary literature, and the extreme difficulty of pulling it off successfully: “Modern readers find collective first-person narrators unsettling; the contemporary mind keeps searching for the familiarity of an individual point of view, since it seems impossible that a group could think and feel, let alone act, as one.” However, about two years ago, an article in The Guardian discussed the growing popularity of recent novels that “provide varying degrees of differentiation within the collective experience.” It named Chang-Rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea and Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to an End as two notable examples. It also aptly noted that: “Many contemporary first-person plural novels give voice to the previously overlooked.” Of course, both articles mention the Greek chorus as an early and powerful example of the first-person plural voice.


Notes From The Slush

Masters Review editors Kim Winternheimer and Sadye Teiser discuss craft elements in submissions they’ve recently accepted and declined.

notes from the slush

K: After our editorial meetings when we discuss the stories we want to accept, there are always a few craft issues that come up as a result of submissions that seem worth discussing. But before we get started, the stories that make it to final consideration are well written, nicely composed, and overall extremely strong. Outside of these strengths, what three things, in your mind, make a story stand out? Essentially: what does a good story do well in the pieces we consider?

S: Three things that I think make a story stand out as a strong submission are: readability, a clear sense of the author’s intention, and a distinct voice. Now, by readability, I don’t mean simplicity. I think that it is apparent when an author is in clear command of his or her prose. Even if a piece has intentionally complex and detailed sentences, I am willing to go along with it if it is thoughtfully and deliberately constructed. When it comes to understanding the author’s intention, what I mean is that I want to know what the story hopes to achieve — so that I can judge it on that basis. The strongest stories, to me, have the clearest sense of self. By a distinct voice, I mean just that: I want the story to have a unique sensibility, for it to stand out from what I have read before. This could mean a story about a widow who feels misunderstood by her children that is infused with the observations of a particular consciousness, or it could mean a story about a woman who literally splits in two that speaks in a whole new way to our ever-shifting notions of self. The story’s events don’t necessarily have to be entirely new to me, as long as its sensibility is unique.

While a variety of strengths can make a story stand out from the pile: what are some things that can lead us to decline an otherwise strong submission?

K: You and I always lament declining a story that shows promise, but it happens. A piece stands out because of strong prose, intriguing characters, or an exciting premise, but ultimately falls short. And for me, these stories are forgettable. If a story isn’t memorable — if it doesn’t stick with me or I have to say, which one was that? — I’ll pass on it. Of course it’s difficult to qualify what makes a story memorable because it can happen for so many reasons, but if it isn’t special, if it loses occupancy in my mind, that’s a real indicator the piece has flaws. It’s a visceral reaction, but a reliable compass.

Specifically, in the most recent batch of stories I saw issues with endings. An ending should be surprising yet inevitable, and recently I’ve been reading pieces with great potential that lose steam at critical junctures. By the end I’m left asking: what happened here? It is disappointing to be really into a piece, and to be left unsatisfied. Often a poor ending is the result of bad structuring early in the story, but an ending can be flawed for many reasons. We often see ineffective endings because the writer doesn’t understand the characters, which results in a trajectory that feels emotionally dishonest and unsatisfying. Also, the endings I like the least are those that rely on tropes or clichés to guide conclusions. I suppose this speaks to your comment about reading work that is too familiar. An ending we’ve seen before will feel flat because the reader hasn’t learned anything new. And it’s sad for an otherwise good story.

You and I have seen a lot of magical realism lately, but not always to a strong result. In what ways does magical realism, when executed ineffectively, hold a story back? (more…)

Craft Lessons and Prompts – Experimental Literature and A Clockwork Orange

In our Craft Lessons and Writing Prompts series we take a quick look at a craft element and pair it with a writing exercise. It’s a great way to learn and inspire yourself. Writing exercises are wonderful for generating new material and working outside your comfort zone. Today we’re examining the use of language through Anthony Burgess’ famous work, A Clockwork Orange.

“I didn’t think; I experimented.” – Anthony Burgess

ClockworkCovers_0006 A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess is a major experimental literary work. For the time it was considered rebellious and new, and in this novel Burgess did things with language that were entirely unexpected. Of course we’re referring to the Nadsat language, invented by Burgess, and which the protagonist Alex and his friends use throughout the book. Perhaps the best way to describe why what Burgess did in the 60s is so significant to contemporary literature and experimental writing can be summed up in this quote from Guardian writer Andrew Kaufman:

Inventing new words is one of the most rebellious things you can do. We all live under a set of prescribed social assumptions, which are embedded into our words. If you want to think outside your social conditioning, you will need a new word to do it. Every word is a suitcase, into which we pack an idea, and then hand it to someone else. No suitcase: no handoff. Our society is changing, fast, and we need new words to describe it.

Burgess’ contributions in A Clockwork Orange are perhaps more social than entirely literary, but his use of language sparked a debate about the evolution of words and how we can use them in our stories.

Burgess was an educated linguist and he studied many languages including Russian, English, Cockney rhyming slang, and the King James Bible to develop Nadsat. This is significant context because a) it is super interesting and b) it shows how an experiment was born from studying a form. He understood language so he knew how to change it. Here are a few interesting examples of Nadsat’s etymology: Cutter = money (cutter rhymes with bread and butter, which is often used as an expression of income or… money.) Charlie = Chaplain (Chaplain and Chaplin, as in Charlie Chaplin, are homophones, so he uses Charlie Chaplin as a synonym for Chaplain but shortens it to Charlie.)

Experimental Language Exercise:

With new words being adopted by the Oxford Dictionary each year, it is interesting to look at words for phrases or situations that we don’t yet have. Each of the words below is from a foreign language, and describes a situation, scene, or person that English does not have a word for. Pick a word from this list, develop a definition for it, and write a scene where it is used either directly or described by the context of the story. When you’re finished, click the link below for the real definitions of the words provided. For example the word Sankocha (which is not our list) is meant to reflect “The feeling of embarrassment due to receiving an inordinately and perhaps inappropriately large or extravagant gift or favor, that makes you feel obliged to return the favor when you can’t.”

TartleProzvonit Cafune Tingo Duende Fernweh Komorebi Pochemuchka Bakku-shan GattaraUtepils  Culaccino Kyoikumama Age-otori

Click here for the word definitions list and feel free to share your writing in the comments below!