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The Novella Dilemma

Novella: a work of fiction intermediate in length and complexity between a short story and a novel.

(Source: http://www.merriam-webster.com)

So here’s the situation. You sat down to write a story. You didn’t think about form or length. You just wanted to tell this particular tale. When you finished, you found that it was 20,000 words long. “Gee,” you thought. “That seems kind of long for a short story.” And then you did a little research, and you found that most literary journals want stories of less than around 5,000 words (some less than 3,000).

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So you said to yourself, “Okay, fine. I guess it’s a novel.” Except then, you checked out novels, and it turned out that most of them were around 70,000 words long.

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You looked at your story again. You couldn’t cut it down to 5,000 words without taking away practically everything that made it work. You couldn’t expand it to 70,000 words without adding a lot of unnecessary fluff.

So you went online, and you typed in a search: “How do I publish a story that’s 20,000 words?” The responses were discouraging, to say the least. You definitely hadn’t written a novel. And you hadn’t written a short story, because it wasn’t short.

But what was it?

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What you wrote, my friend, is a novella.

Also known as “literature’s middle child.” (Speaking as a middle child: this is not generally a compliment.)

jan brady

Before you panic, know that the news—while not all good—is also not all bad.

In researching this post, I came upon a 2008 Q&A in which an author asked Writers Digest how to pitch a novella to a literary agent. The answer was not encouraging: it characterized the novella as “no man’s land” and advised the author to expand it into a novel. Failing that, the author was advised “to finish this novella and stick it in a drawer. Then write a few novels, get them published, and gather a moderately loyal readership. When you do, a publisher will release your novella in a small print run and your loyal readers will gobble it up.”

please let me die

This disheartening response is far from the only discouraging word I found about novellas. In an article I can no longer find online, someone commented that although Stephen King could publish his grocery list, even he had difficulty publishing novellas. His website shows that he’s published eighteen novellas since 1980, including one scheduled for release in October, but I’d bet the only ones you can name are the ones that have been turned into movies. (More on that in a minute.)

I understand the problems with selling novellas, especially by unknown authors. It’s a business issue. The cost to produce the shorter work might be lower, but so is the sales price. Seriously, would you pay $27.99 for a hardcover book that was only 150 pages? Doubtful. People who plunk down that kind of money want a thick book that will draw them in for hours and hours, a point I understand completely.

Fortunately, however, we live in the digital age, when producing and selling a less-than-full-length piece is a snap. We’ve all heard of Kindle singles, which are usually stories and essays too long to be published elsewhere and too short to be called full-blown novels and books. Ploughshares, a highly respected literary journal, launched Ploughshare Solos in 2012, described as “a digital-first series for longer stories and essays”. And, of course, there’s indie publishing, formerly known as self-publishing, where you can publish exactly what you want. Which means that some of the objections to novellas, such as cost, are open to reexamination.

Several years ago, I happened upon an e-book by Ann Patchett entitled “The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life.” It wasn’t a novella. Rather, it was a lengthy essay about how she became a writer. But it reminded me that mid-length work can have a life outside the elevated reaches of The Atlantic.

This is not to say that no one writes novellas. As noted, Stephen King has written a number of them; his newest, Elevation, is coming out in October. You may have read some of his earlier novellas, such as The Body or Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption (published in a four-novella anthology because, as noted, even he couldn’t publish a standalone novella in 1982), but even if you haven’t, odds are good that you know these works from the movie adaptations, “Stand By Me” and “The Shawshank Redemption.”

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If you’re interested in novellas, check out presses like Melville House, which has a well-established fondness for them. Their bundle, “The Art of the Novella,” includes forty novellas by well-known writers, including Jane Austen, Mark Twain, James Joyce, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, to name a few. (Speaking of Mr. Fitzgerald: in my personal opinion, The Great Gatsby, at about 50,000 words, barely slips over the line from novella to novel. But that’s just me, and you may feel differently, especially since it appears that nobody agrees on what the parameters for a novella are.)

So an argument can be made that if your ultimate goal is to write a piece well-suited to a film adaptation, you should consider the novella. Novellas that have been adapted as films include Gigi, The Old Man and the Sea, Billy Budd, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Of Mice and Men, Brokeback Mountain, and A Christmas Carol. Respectable written works all, and adaptable to a feature-length film without substantial cuts.

Frankly, I like novellas on the page. Unlike novels, they can be read in one or two sittings. There’s more time for character development than in short stories. There’s room for exploration, multiple scenes, significant passage of time, but without the commitment a novel requires. They’re even short enough for frequent rereading, such as a yuletide tradition of reading A Christmas Carol if that’s your inclination.

I’m starting to think that writing novellas is rather like playing the viola: they’re similar to their cousins (the novel and the violin), but they’re distinctive. Each occupies a special—though curiously less-respected—place in its respective community.

On the other hand, in both cases, there’s far less competition. Just as I’d finished college, I landed a spot in the chorus of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Patience.” As is often the case with community productions, the orchestra joined our rehearsals a week before opening. I was surprised to see that the violist was someone with whom I’d played the violin in middle school orchestra. Remembering his skill on the violin, I asked him why he’d switched instruments. His response was simple: “Everybody plays the violin.” Viola sections are smaller than violin sections, but there are far fewer musicians auditioning for those seats. The violinist willing to shift from coloratura to mezzo (another under-appreciated group) will likely find more opportunities to play—which is, for many, the point.

It was this kind of thinking that led me to recently led me to revisit the idea of a novella. Recently, I sent my novel manuscript off to a prestigious competition. The competition accepts manuscripts in several categories, including novel, short story, and novella. When I looked at the results of last year’s competition, I saw that there were 502 novels submitted and 263 short stories; however, there were only 89 novellas. In other words, the field for novels was more than five and one-half times as crowded as the field for novellas. Granted, the cash prize for novels is much larger, but the prize for novellas and short stories is the same, and there were nearly three times as many short stories as novellas.

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My mind began to hum. I remembered a novella I’d written a number of years ago, before I even began to think of forms and markets and whether a piece might be publishable. At the time, I was writing to amuse myself and some friends. I wrote for as long as it took to tell the story, and the piece turned out to be just shy of 20,000 words. An inadvertent novella, as it were.

So I dusted it off, reworked the characters and setting, moved it to a different era, and discovered that I like it better this way. It still needs a bit of tweaking here and there, but I’m pleasantly surprised by how well it works in its new iteration. It could never be a novel–there’s just not enough meat. Condensing it into a short story would be equally futile, because that would leave too little room for development of characters and conflict. This particular piece, with these particular characters and this particular situation, needs to be a novella. I didn’t plan it this way, but I firmly believe it landed in the right spot.

Don’t kid yourself: if you want to write novellas and you want them to be traditionally published, it’s going to be a tough road. Which is not to say that traditional options don’t exist, because they do. But since you’re already taking the road less traveled in terms of form, why not experiment in the manner of publication?

And in case you need a bit of encouragement, here are a handful of traditionally-published novellas that I pulled off my own bookshelf (hence the dog-eared covers). You may have heard of one or two of them.

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