What’s a novella? I hear you cry. While most authors are familiar with them, a lot of readers don’t know that what they are, even though they have probably read at least a few. The easiest explanation, simplistic though it is, is that a novella is longer than a short story, but shorter than a novel. The commonly accepted word count of novellas ranges from 20 000 to 40 000 words (although some say 50 000 and I’ll go along with that, as my novella An Affair With Danger is 46 000 words).
Many famous books are novellas – Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad), The Old Man and the Sea (Ernest Hemingway), Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Truman Capote), Animal Farm (George Orwell), The Shawshank Redemption (Stephen King), A Clockwork Orange (Anthony Burgess) The Prime of Miss Jean Bodie (Muriel Spark). The list is endless. Here are more of the World’s Greatest Novellas according to Goodreads.
I recently attended a seminar at Queensland Writers Centre in which author Nick Earls told us everything we wanted to know about novellas, but were afraid to ask. Nick is doing a PhD on novellas and has written a few himself, so he’s an expert.
Nick is of the opinion that although novellas have been around for years, they’re coming into their own now. I predicted (perhaps hoped would be more accurate) in this post four years ago that novellas would grow in popularity, and in this post written two years ago, I had just started writing my novella An Affair With Danger and was enjoying the invigorating change from the marathon of novel writing.
Here are the three main reasons that authors and readers love novellas.
1. They’re short
You can read one in a couple of hours. Modern lifestyles are busy, crammed with activities and commitments, and for many people, finding the time and commitment to read a full length novel is difficult. You can read a novella over a couple of lunch hours, in a day’s commute on the train or while your kids are at soccer training.
Nowadays books also have to compete with the online world for attention – games, social media, forums, movie and TV streaming. So a short book is more likely to catch the attention of people who live in the online world, knowing they can read one in the same time it takes to watch a movie.
If we’re talking print copies, short means small in size, perfect for slipping into your handbag – for us women, in any case. No self-respecting reader is without a book no matter where she goes, and you’ve always got something to read when you’re in the waiting room at the accountant/dentist/doctor instead of archaeological copies of Readers Digest.
No sagging middle
For authors, the brevity of the novella means, as Nick said, that you can hold the whole story in your mind, never losing sight of the beginning or the end. You avoid the ‘sagging middle,’ often experienced when writing a novel, a sort of no-man’s land of quick sand, where you often feel you’re sinking because both the beginning and the end are miles away and you feel as if you’re never going to reach the finish line. When writing a novella, I like the psychological boost of being able to see the end when I start.
2. They’re satisfying
Which makes them sounds like a cigarette commercial from back in the day. Novellas essentially contain one main story and perhaps a sub-plot, a small cast of characters and usually, but not always, take place over a condensed period of time.
But just because they’re short doesn’t mean they lack complexity, suspense or depth, or any other characteristic we associate with good novels.
A well-written novella will have enough tension and pace to keep your interest and enough depth to immerse you in its world and characters, leaving you with the satisfaction of having read a complete, well-rounded story, but paradoxically still wanting more.
Acclaimed author Ian McEwan, whose own novellas include The Cement Garden, Amsterdam and On Chesil Beach, asserts that the novella is a superior literary form to the novel. He said, ‘If I could write the perfect novella I would die happy.’
In an article for the New York Times, he described the novella as the ‘perfect form of prose fiction. It is the beautiful daughter of a rambling, bloated, ill-shaven giant.’
Succinct but deep
For authors, the challenge in making a novella satisfying reading is to write economically, with depth. It means knowing what to leave out, what to infer rather than describe, how to convey character and situations with the fewest possible words, but still pack emotional punch. As Ian puts it, ‘the demands of economy push writers to polish their sentences to precision and clarity.’
It’s a painstaking art with attention to tiny detail, like sculpting an elaborate figurine, which is what makes it so challenging to write and so satisfying to have completed.
3. There is no barrier to their publication
In the days when traditional publishing ruled the literary roost, it was almost impossible to have a novella accepted for publication, unless you were already a famous author. It cost the same to produce as a full length novel, but it had to be priced less, so publishers didn’t consider it to be economically viable.
Now with the advent of digital books and self-publishing, the cost of production is immaterial – it costs nothing to upload a book to Amazon and other e-book sites, and indie authors, as their own publishers, bear the associated costs such as editing, formatting, cover design etc.
And there is no-one dictating that your book must be a certain length, so if your book happens to be over 40 000 words and you want to call it a novella, you can. If it’s good enough for F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby is often classified as a novella, although it’s about 50 000 words) it’s good enough for me.
My novella recommendations
For an example of beautifully crafted novellas, read any or all of the five novellas in Nick Earls’ Wisdom Tree series. Each novella is a stand-alone story, but they are all linked by a common theme of the nature of family and relationships in all their variety, breadth and depth.
Have you read any novellas you can recommend? Do you prefer them to novels? I’d love you to join in the conversation in the comments box below.
Robin Storey is an Australian author from the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia. She is a certified book nerd and has no weird hobbies or unusual pets.