By Jenny Thomson
Who could have failed to notice the rise of the novella? Where once most publishers wouldn’t touch anything with less than 90,000 words with a bargepole unless you were famous, now there are so many calling out for novellas, it’s hard to keep track.
As writers we need to grab that opportunity and get writing to join the ranks of Stephen King (Hard Case Crime), Linwood Barclay (Quick Reads) and Tess Gerritsen (Rizzoli and Isles Series) who have all published novellas. In Tess Gerritsen’s case, her novella, John Doe featured the regular characters from her novels, so she could introduce them to new readers. And that’s another role of novellas; to get people buying your other books.
Novellas are not a new phenomenon (Agatha Christie’s Three Blind Mice, which was eventually expanded and turned into her play The Mousetrap, is often described as a short story, but it’s a novella), but they are becoming more popular with publishers and readers for a number of reasons. They’re perfect as eBooks and they also suit reluctant readers who find a full–length novel daunting or who just want something to read on the beach or on the daily commute. Of all genres, romance and erotic fiction are the ones to benefit the most from the rise of eBooks as books people wouldn’t like to be seen reading can now be surreptitiously read on an e-reading device on a packed train. Novella-length fiction is perfect for e-books and that’s why there are so many opportunities out there.
But, what is a novella? Chances are that you’ll ask ten writers that question and get a different answer every time and none of them will be wrong. There’s a lot of confusion about what a novella is which isn’t helped by the guidelines offered by publishers in their submission guidelines varying so greatly. For instance, I recently received a submissions call from a romance publisher who wanted “novella-length romance stories” and they asked for 10,000 to 15,000 words. To many people that may sound like the length for a short story or a novelette (usually considered to be a piece of prose of 10,000 to 20,000 words in length). To other publishers a novella may be 20,000-50,000 words. No wonder as writers we get confused.
My first novella in the Die Hard for Girls series, Hell to Pay, comes in at 37,000 words. To me, that was its natural length and that’s what you’ll probably find when you write yours – your novella will also have a natural length. Don’t forcibly add chapters or scenes when it’s not called for. In novellas, readers will notice the padding even more than they would in a novel.
The structure of a novella differs from a novel in many ways. First off, you need to get stuck into the action or the turning point ASAP, especially when a sample is probably going to be visible on Amazon as most publishers use the "search inside” function. No word can be wasted and don’t overdo the flowery prose. You must have your reader gripped right from the start. In Hell To Pay, my heroine wakes up in a psychiatric hospital with no memory of how she got there. Immediately there are questions that pique the reader’s interest.
Try to end each chapter with a cliff-hanger or with a question to keep people reading. Chapters should preferably be short and punchy. That’s what readers expect in a novella – not meandering prose that takes twenty pages to describe the texture of a leaf or someone’s dress. Often novellas are read in one sitting.
The popularity of the Kindle platform to self-publish means there is lots of competition out there, especially in the romance, erotic fiction and fantasy genres. Not all of that competition is good, but there are lots of good writers out there, many who’ve been dropped by their publishers because they didn’t shift as many books as James Patterson (who does?). Do not under-estimate the competition because you have a track record with a traditional publisher.
There’s no time for elaborate, lengthy back story in novellas, something you shouldn’t be doing anyway. Characters' actions and reactions should bring out those kinds of details. Remember the first rule of all good fiction – show and don’t tell. Limit flashbacks as they will confuse readers. The same goes for point of view. You can have more than one point of view, but only if strictly necessary and it has got to move the story along, not drag it down so readers think “this character’s so dull, when are they getting back to the one I like?”
Novellas, like short stories, are also an ideal medium for first person POV, but that doesn’t mean they are confessionals.
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.
Writing a novella can also help to flex your writing muscles, especially if it’s in a genre you’re not used to writing, and who knows you may even find that you’ve created characters that warrant a novel or a series of novellas.
When setting out to write a novella, one of the most important things is being able to describe your novella in just one sentence. Publishers and agents like to be able to describe books to others with as few words as possible. If you can’t do that then the idea you have is probably not suited for a novella as there might not be enough space to tell the story you want to. For example, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde would be: A man with a split personality; one good, one evil.
Novellas generally should have one plot, although there can be subplots. There isn’t enough room to have more than one plot. Keep that for a novel. If you’re writing crime you can have as many twists as you want. I use the Stephen King rule – think what should logically happen next and then do the opposite. If you’re surprised by what happens next, your readers will be too and that’s what makes a good novella: one that compels people to read right to the end.
Cinnamon Press have a competition that allows writers to submit a novel or a novella. See http://www.cinnamonpress.com/competitions for details. It costs £12 to enter, but with a prize of £400 and publication for new authors only, you may find it’s worth the entry fee. They also say that they’ve commissioned other novels from shortlisted entries. So, what are you waiting for?
For inspiration, why not check out this list of 20 great novellas you must read http://listverse.com/2011/12/29/20-brilliant-novellas-you-should-read/
Jenny Thomson is an award-winning crime writer who has been scribbling away all her life. A freelance journalist, her work has appeared in The Guardian, the Daily Mail and Scotland On Sunday. She’s also has 8 books published in a variety of genres, including self-help and humour.
Hell to Pay (the first in a series of Die Hard for Girls crime thriller novellas) will be published by Sassy Books on July 26th, 2013. She's currently working on the follow up, Throwaways, the second in the series that follows crime-fighting duo Nancy Kerry and Tommy McIntyre.
You can find her at http://ramblingsofafrustratedcrimewriter.blogspot.com/
Or, on Twitter at @jenthom72