Writer's Workbook: In Defense of the Novella

March 29, 2016

Tools of the trade: pad, pen, coffee.

I write novellas for one reason. I love reading them.

But many people don't. Here are a few random quotes from the Interwebs on the topic of novellas.
"In general, I hate novellas, because they feel like 1/4 baked ideas written on the fly, with not enough story or character. In general. Just about every time I have purchased one, I’ve felt ripped off after reading."

"I hate novellas too! They feel like they're just a money-making scheme."
"...my hatred of novellas on principle just gives me an unfavorable bias towards them, and I silently seethe while I'm reading."

"I have no time for novellas. hehe. Unless they're free on Amazon."

"Novellas? No no no no no. I don't read them, just because I feel like I'm not going to gain anything." 

"Novellas, I think, are nice, but really they’re just fluff that, conveniently, also bring in money to the publisher. This is my opinion, at least."

"I hate novellas. This is why I only buy books that list an approximate page count. This is also why I primarily buy books published by traditional publishers."

Reading is such a personal experience that I can't hate on anyone for not liking a genre that I love. It's your money to spend. It's your time at the library, your eyeballs reading the damn thing.

The quotes I found above are mostly from YA forums and sites, which makes sense. With a limited allowance for books, young people have every right to be discerning about the books they invest in, to save up for the big fish. Totally understandable.

That said, I love novellas.

No, scratch that. I *fucking* love novellas. (This is not a YA blog. Kids, turn away.)

Here's why.

Why I Love Novellas

1. There is no room in a good novella for bullshit.

This 2012 post in RT Books Reviews states,
Of course, character and story development will always be better in full-length novels, where authors have the page count to truly explore their themes.
"Always"? Yikes. Anyone who believes that hasn't read the right novellas.

In this review of New Valley, a 2009 collection of novellas, author Jim Weil says,
I think a novella compresses the world with the focus of a short story, but it explores that smaller space with a novel’s generosity and care.  I find it to be a beautiful and rich combination that allows the intensity of a [short] story with room to breathe.
The review lists examples of classic novellas: Heart of Darkness, The Old Man and the Sea, The Stranger, The Metamorphosis, Animal Farm, Of Mice and Men. Three others I can think of are Lord of the Flies, The Pearl, and The Awakening. Let's estimate the length of these books at about 30,000 words, longer than a short story but shorter than the average novel.

Have you read Of Mice and Men? The Awakening? They're short as shit. Would you say these stories are underdeveloped? Or that the authors did not "truly explore their themes"? In the hands of an author who understands depth and pacing, the novella is a powerful format which lends itself well to precise and potent allegory.

For most fiction writers, thirty thousand words is an unforgiving length. Despite what the readers above might believe, it is not easy to write a novella. At this length, authors can't waste real estate on lengthy descriptions or cutesy gimmicks. We can't be repetitious for the sake of making sure the reader understands something--we have to be clear and memorable the first time around. Most of all, we can't give in to narcissism. A gift for pretty phrasing or a penchant for extended exposition simply will not fly. To write a successful novella, a writer must strip her story down to its bones. If that structure is marred, then so is the novella as a whole.

2. Some of my favorite authors write novellas.

I've already mentioned John Steinbeck; two more novellas of his I love are Cannery Row and Travels with Charley. Jim Harrison, author of Legends of the Fall and one of my favorite authors, passed away a couple of days ago. His obituary in the New York Times made me cry. (You can read it here.) He is a master of novellas.

One of the first books I remember affecting me on a gut level is The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. I don't know if it counts as a novella as much as a collection of vignettes, microfiction pieces that prove length is not proportional to depth of feeling.

In my own arena, erotic romance, I feel like novellas are more commonly accepted than they are in other subgenres of romance. My take is that erotic romance authors understand the value of a satisfying quickie. I've recently enjoyed novellas by Delilah Devlin, Alexa Riley, and Em Petrova. I also enjoy the 1001 Dark Nights series.

3. My days are full, but I still long for the experience of reading a book from cover to cover.

When I was an undergrad, I sat outside on a warm spring day and read Tess of the D'Urbervilles from cover to cover. When I got up, the sun was about to set. I'll never forget how it felt to be sucked into Tess's life. Thomas Hardy wrote that novel in 1891, but here I was, in 2000, deep under his spell as if he were sitting next to me reading the story aloud.

Between writing new material and running this fledgling business, I can't give whole, unbroken days to reading books any more, as much as I wish I could. But I can, some evenings, sit down with a novella and let it transport me.  If the author appreciates the form as much as I do, I know our shared experience will be deeply satisfying.

For more information about my latest novella Cowboy Resurrection, which USA Today's Happy Ever After blog named a recommended read, please click here.

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