Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Week Twenty: Ten Ways To Tackle The Novella

Writing a briskly paced novella can easily be fitted between longer projects.

Apologies for taking so long to resume my weekly posts on How To Write A Novel. I was beset by health issues while trying to finish my novel, and time got away from me.

But you behold me back in the saddle, and ready to apply the crop. If you'll forgive the slightly BDSM metaphor.

There have been times this year when I have not felt able to grapple with the larger canvas of my novel, but wished to produce shorter fiction for self-publishing. (One must eat, after all.) On those occasions, I have turned to the tricky form known as the novella. The novella is not long enough for the label of 'novel' yet too long for a short story. It's generally considered to begin at about the 15,000 word mark, or sometimes 20. And it ends in the region of 40,000 words whereafter it can safely be considered a novel.

I have one short festive novella for sale at the moment, recently published, as an illustration of the lower word band: The Oddest Little Christmas Shop. And its sister novella, published during the summer under the pen-name Beth Good, which is rather longer: The Oddest Little Chocolate Shop. But even that is still too short to be a novel. Both these novellas have sold very well.

So how do you approach the writing of a novella as opposed to the novel form? Are there any inherent differences, apart from the merely technical one of length?

Here are TEN WAYS to tackle the writing of a novella.

1. One Plot To Rule Them All
The novella does not have room for multiple subplots. Decide in advance on your main plot, and perhaps one closely matched subplot, then execute the narration as simply as possible.  

2. Clear Premise or Theme
All stories have a basic premise or theme - crime never pays, or love conquers all - but in a novel, these 'messages' can be complex or layered. In a novella, the premise should be so simple or clear-cut, it can be gleaned from a one sentence description of your story.

3. A Few Good Characters
The novella is not the best place to unfold a sprawling family saga. Think of it as a cross between a fairy tale and a Beckett play. You can have more characters than a short story could comfortably hold, if you wish, but you will achieve greater intensity by focusing on a narrow range - say, two to five characters at most.

4. There Can Be Only One
Closely allied to No. 1, this is a requirement for simple narration. I don't mean simplistic - you could chose a strong and complex character as your narrator. Even an unreliable narrator. But choose either first person or only one third person POV narrator. If you stray from this, your style of narration should remain consistent, at least.

A short festive novella: one narrator, one POV, one storyline.

5. Short Scenes, Kept In Proportion
Avoid overly drawn-out ten page scenes. Plan your novella as a series of beats, like musical notation. Important scenes are a long beat, transitional scenes a short one. But even your 'big' scenes will be shorter than in a traditional novel. Think minimalism.

6. Keep The Line Taut
All stories require tension and conflict, but in a novel, you have time to build slowly to a climax if you wish. In a novella, as in a short story, you need to hit the ground running. Establish your basic conflict in the first pages, then add to it in each new scene until you reach maximum tension, like the Buckaroo game where the donkey eventually kicks off his load.

7. Experiment With Structure
I normally divide my novellas into chapters, because I feel that provides a novel-like structure to shorter fiction. But you could experiment with alternative methods of division: a line break between sections could work well in a short novella with only one narrator, and maintain tone very nicely. Or you could break up sections with a repeated gimmick: a quatrain of poetry, for instance, or a riddle, quotation or aphorism in italics. Have fun with it!

8. Rounding Out And Tying Up
Some writers approach the novella as a novel in microcosm. But a novel may have very different reasons to a novella for existing, and one thing that divides them is the idea of overarching structure. A novel's overarching purpose or structure may be very complex indeed, even diffuse, which fits our way of reading novels over an extended period. With a story that can be read in one sitting, plot structure needs to be strongly rounded, with a distinct sense of closure or completion, as any loose ends or vague petering out will be glaringly obvious.  

Sometimes a novella is so successful, it can spawn a series or brand: Oddest Little Chocolate Shop

9. Pitching To Publishers - Or Not
Within popular genres such as science fiction, fantasy or romance, there is a traditional market for the novella. Many publishers, especially those who run a strong digital list, will take on a good novella that fits their guidelines on length and content. If you have written a niche/genre novella, look at publishers' guidelines for submissions within that field. Many digital start-ups, for instance, welcome novella writers. Though be warned, you are unlikely to be paid much. My advice, therefore, is to self-publish where possible, and market on social media as a 'quick read' to fans of that genre. For non-genre novellas, especially shorter ones, the market remains vague and unpromising. Good luck!

10. The Novella Series
The short form of the novella lends itself well to a series. This can be linked by title alone - see my Oddest Little novella brand above - or by characters, setting, or even theme. It is always useful to plan the series before starting, but you may come to it after one or two publications have been successful. Probably best to keep word count and structural divisions similar between titles, as readers expect this. Maintaining a particular narrative style will also please readers who liked your first book for it. A five book series is a good length for a series, especially for shorter novellas, and when self-publishing, you can produce a higher priced omnibus edition at the end.

QUESTION: What makes you choose to read a novella rather than a novel?


  1. I didn't find it easy to write my Libby long/short for Christmas, and it was 16,500, so technically a novella. And I know now how I should have thought about it - thank you.

  2. Glad you're back-was telling someone about this wonderful idea the other day! Hope you're feeling better and best of luck with your Christmas Novella x

  3. Thank you for the advice. I need to begin a new novella and like your game plan!

  4. I haven't written a novella before now but am planning to, so these points will be very helpful. Thank you.

  5. Thank you so much for this post - I just finished the rough outline for my first novella; glad to see I'm (mostly) on the right track. :)


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