My Favorite Form of Fiction-Writing: The Novella

Since I have been working on the second draft of a novella off-and-on over the last couple of week1 it occurred to me, at some point, that the novella was my favorite form of fiction-writing.

What is a novella? Officially (for the purposes of award categories), according to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, a novella is a work of fiction from 17,500 words to 40,000 words. In reality, a novella is a long story that can approach the length of a short novel. If you think of stories in terms of pages, a novella can be anywhere from 60 – 160 manuscript pages in length. You’ve probably read novellas, although they might not be called such. Stephen King’s “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” is a novella. So is his story “The Body” on which the movie Stand By Me was based.

I have written only 2 novellas in my writing career. The first was a 20,000 word story written years ago, but never sold. The second is the one I am working on now. The first draft came in at about 20,000 words. I don’t yet know how long the second draft will be.

There is something remarkably free about writing a novella. It is not nearly as hard (at least for me) as writing a novel. Yet it is not nearly as constricting as writing a short story. A novella gives the freedom to tell a story at its own length and pace. Perhaps it is best described as a novel wrung free of all of the chaff, compressed as tightly as possible without sacrificing the story.

If an half-hour sit-com is a short story, and an hour-long drama is a novelette, then perhaps a mini-series is the equivalent of a novella.

Don’t get me wrong, I love writing short stories. But there is a feeling I get when writing a novella that I don’t get with short stories. I once read that a short story should describe a moment from which you can derive everything that came before, and everything that will come after. When I write short stories, I try to start the story as late in the action as I can manage, and finish the story as soon as I can after the action is over. The same is not true with a novella. With a novella, I feel like I have the freedom to roam. Many things can be happening at once, and the threads are ultimately tied together, but it is not rushed.

As it turns out, my favorite form of fiction to read–from a purely artistic standpoint–is the novella. I’ve mentioned Stephen King’s “Rita Hayworth” and “The Body” but there are many others that have astounded me. Nancy Kress’s “Beggars in Spain,” Robert Reed’s “Marrow,” Ken Liu’s “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary,” Isaac Asimov’s “The Bicentennial Man,” Kij Johnson’s “The Man Who Bridged the Mist,” and many, many others.

The main problem with novellas is that they are the hardest pieces to sell. First of all, there are not a lot of markets that accept them, although in the science fiction world, several of the major magazines do publish them. Outside the magazines, the choices are even more limited: small presses, or self-published. Consider that for a magazine to print a 20,000 word story, that that story has to be better than four 5,000-word stories. For this reason, for a long time, I didn’t write novellas. I knew my odds were much better at selling a 5,000 word story.

But I’ve since cast aside the desire to sell the story as the first reason for writing it. These days I write novellas first and foremost to entertain myself. If I can sell them, all the better, but I no longer avoid writing them because they are hard to sell.

I’m hoping to wrap up the novella that I am working on now (“Strays”) in the near future. I still have the novel draft to work on, but I need a break from that sometimes. So when I do finish “Strays” I have another novella which I’ve been wanting to write, and I’ll probably start that one so that I have something to fall back on when I get tired of the novel draft. And who knows, maybe, with practice, I’ll write that is good enough to sell and then you’ll be able to read it, if you so choose.

  1. To give myself a break on the second draft of the novel, which requires some additional thought.