A couple of weekends ago, I headed off on an overnight writing retreat and started work on a new fiction project.
This is the first time in more years than I care to count (nine, yikes) that I’ve been working on a long piece of fiction other than my Lycopolis trilogy.
It’s going to be a short, stand-alone novel: a novella.
Novellas have, since e-publishing took off, become far more popular than they used to be. You may well have read some without thinking of them as novellas (most readers, and most writers marketing their work, just call them “short novels”).
What’s a Novella?
A novella is a novel of roughly 20,000 – 40,000 words. (Much less, and it’s a short story; much more, and it’s a novel.)
There’s no clear structural difference between a “short story” and a “novella” and a “novel”. In general, novellas will have fewer characters and subplots than novels, but just like novels, they have a plot, rising tension, a climax, and so on.
When I first got into writing, almost twenty years ago, the conventional advice was to write novels of 70,000 words minimum: agents and publisher would be very reluctant to take on a shorter novel because the cost of printing versus the amount they could charge for it meant it wasn’t worthwhile.
Even as recently as 2012, an article in The Times (“Ian McEwan is lucky to be allowed to publish novellas”) claimed that:
Many novelists would love to write novellas like Ian McEwan … but publishers are only interested in the shorter form if it has the name of a bestselling author attached to it.
In the self-publishing world, though (as I’ll come onto in a bit!) there’s no question of being “allowed” to do anything: lots of self-publishers do write novellas, and publish them.
Many writers and readers feel that novellas are just as good as – if not potentially better than – novels: Aliventures reader Nick Jones kindly sent me his thoughts on the novel form, writing:
For my money, the short novel (I don’t like ‘novella’ as it is sounds too much like Nutella!) reduces the risk of sub-plots and even non-essential, page-filling characters who don’t contribute much to the story. A tightly-written narrative often makes the story taut and tense.
Novellas have, of course, been around for a very long time. In fact, many very popular classic works of literature are novellas, including:
- Animal Farm (George Orwell)
- A Christmas Carol (Charles Dickens)
- Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (Robert Louis Stevenson)
- The Turn of the Screw (Henry James)
- The Time Machine (H.G. Wells)
Non-fiction books have often been novella-length, without anyone raising objections: this is because non-fiction can generally be priced a bit higher than the equivalent length of fiction. For instance, Mark Foster’s book Get Everything Done (And Still Have Time to Play) is around 25,000 words (and, incidentally, a great read).
Certain genres, too, have always published novella-length work. Here in the UK, People’s Friend magazine runs “series” which are essentially novellas printed across the course of several issues of the magazine, and “pocket novels” (which are just a touch longer than standard novella length, at 42,000 words). Mills and Boone’s romance novels are often not much more than novella length, at 50,000 words.
There are lots of new novellas out there, though, particularly from self-publishers, and now you can find novellas in any genre. Here are some written by / recommended by members of the Alliance of Independent Authors, spanning a very wide range of genres:
Harvest Festival, Karl Drinkwater (horror / dark thriller / sci-fi)
Christmas at Castle Elrick, Fenella J. Miller (Regency romance)
Nebula Nine, Pauline Baird Jones (sci-fi / time travel / romance)
Specters in the Storm, Pauline Baird Jones (sci-fi / paranormal romance)
The Blue Door, E. A. Stewart (historical fiction)
The Consorts, Melissa Addey (historical romance)
FAB: What if John Lennon Had Lived?, Mark Gillespie (alternative history, humour)
Social Engineer, Ian Sutherland (mystery / thriller)
The Lisbon Labyrinth, David Ebsworth (political thriller / historical fiction)
Some online publishers specialise in novella submission, or have an imprint dedicated to novellas:
Tor, the SF/F publisher, occasionally opens up for submissions of “short fiction”
Carina Press (a digital offshoot of Harlequin / Mills and Boon) publish romance and erotic novellas of 20,000 words or more
SBooks publishers novellas of all genres (currently only take authors who’ve worked with their self-publishing wing, although they plan to widen their remit this year)
Why Do Readers Like Novellas?
For a moment, take off your writing hat and think like a reader. Why might you pick up a novella?
#1: Novellas Don’t (Generally) Require Too Much Concentration
Because they’re condensed novels, novellas don’t normally have sprawling subplots or casts of thousands. If you’re squeezing reading into a busy or stressful day (maybe you read on your commute, or when your baby is napping), then you might well be glad to read something that’s easy to follow.
#2: You Can Finish a Novella in One or Two Sittings
If you only have time to read at, say, the weekends, then novellas also have an advantage. You might not want to have a blockbuster novel on the go for weeks … but you could race through a novella on a lazy Sunday afternoon.
#3: Novellas are a Low-Commitment Way of Trying a New Author
If you’re wondering what to read next, the thought of starting a box set of novels by an author you’ve never read before may be a little daunting. A stand-alone novella, on the other hand, can be a good way to try out a new author without feeling like you’re letting yourself in for months of reading.
#4: Most Novellas are Cheap (or Even Free)
While novels tend to run to $2.99 – $4.99 on Kindle (often even more, if they’re traditionally published), novellas tend to be priced more cheaply. You might be looking at $1.99, $0.99, or even a free read – some authors give away novellas to reach more readers, and we’ll come onto that in a moment…
How Writers are Using Novellas
There are several reasons why, as a writer, you might chose to tackle a novella. Maybe:
- You have an idea that’s novella-sized. I’d say this is a pretty important pre-requisit, and for some writers, this is all the reason they need! The main reason I’m writing a novella right now is because the story I wanted to tell is a focused one, with a small cast of characters and fast-paced action.
- You want to write a series of novellas, publishing new instalments frequently. Sean Platt and David Wright did this with their Yesterday’s Gone series – they wanted to replicate the feel of a TV show, with each “episode” being around a hundred pages long. While this format wouldn’t suit me personally as an author, I can certainly see how it could work very well for some authors and audiences.
- You want to use a novella as a “freebie” to attract readers. Plenty of authors are doing this (some, of course, use a full-length novel). J.F. Penn, for instance, has Day of the Vikings – a novella that’s part of her Arkane series but also introduces readers to Blake Daniel from her London Psychic You can currently download it free when you join her author newsletter.
- You might want to explore part of your novel’s backstory (or its future!) – particularly if you’ve got a strong fanbase you can market this too. Traditionally published author Celia Friedman did this a few years ago with Dominion, a prequel-of-sorts to her (massive) Coldfire trilogy.
Five Great Blog Posts for Novella-Writers to Read
There’s not a huge amount of advice out there about novella-writing and, in many ways, all the usual advice about writing novels still applies – you’re just working with a faster-paced story and a smaller cast of characters.
If you’re after some tips, though, these posts are all great ones to turn to:
Writing a Novella – Could writing a novella be your path to publication?, Jenny Thomas, Words with JAM
As well as talking about the rise of the novella and what novellas are in general, this article offers some key tips, as well as pointing out some of the benefits of the novella-form from the writer’s perspective:
The best thing about writing a novella is that you can have fun with it and take more risks than you would with full-length fiction. Unlike a novel, a novella is less daunting to write because it won’t take a year or more of work and if you find it’s not working, you can go away and do something else and go back to it. It’s easier to pick up your narrative thread.
5 Reasons Why You Should Write a Novella, Kaitlin Hillerich, Ink and Quills
In this post, Kaitlin offers some excellent reasons to write novellas, from exploring new ideas to giving busy readers something fairly quick to dig into. The comments are well worth a read too, particularly this one from Katlin on the differences between novels and novellas. In the post, one of her suggestions is:
One great use for novellas is to expand on your novel or series. Maybe there’s a character whose story you want to explore further, or maybe you want to write a prequel about what takes place before the novel. Or, maybe you want to write a story set in the fantasy world you created but follow a different set of characters than your novel.
Keeping it Simple – Guidelines for Writing Novellas by Barbara Monajem, Romance University
In this post, Barbara gives lots of very sensible tips for writing novellas: they’re geared towards the romance genre, but a lot of them are widely applicable. On the issue of back story, she writes:
Because you don’t have many words to play with, make the back story simple and put in only what’s absolutely necessary. And of course, weave it in in short bits where it’s needed so as to keep the action moving forward. Better yet, make it do double duty (see below).
10 Steps to Writing a Novella, Delilah S. Dawson, Fiction University
This post offers plenty of practical tips on writing a novella, emphasising how the novella form can be energizing and playful – and allow you to take risks. Delilah’s very practical tips include:
A novella is not the time to tell a story that stretches out over a year. Confine your storyline to a few days to keep the pace up and make sure you can wrap up the ending.
How to write a novella: 6 essential tips, Bridget, Now Novel
This post takes a look at issues like using characters economically, keeping up the pace and pruning away subplots. Bridget writes:
Like a novel, a novella should have conflict and tension (not necessarily physical – it can be a character’s internal struggle). Unlike a novel, in a novella there is usually one single conflict rather than multiple subplots that complicate the story.
Have you tried writing a novella – or is this something you’re thinking of doing in the future? Share your thoughts, and your tips, in the comments!