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Art by Premee Mohamed.
From the author: Thoughts on what makes a good concept or premise for a novella, and other of its internal mechanisms, as compared to a short story or novel.
A brilliant writer friend of mine (whom I am not sure would wish to be identified by name here?) asked me an interesting, as well as timely, question this morning: "Do you have any tactics for identifying a novella-sized concept?"
I wrote back, "For all of my novellas, I didn't write them intentionally at novella size? I started with a short story (outlined, even!) and for each one they just.......... swelled up to novella size by the time I was done the events in the outline, but not novel size."
Wow, I thought later, re-reading that answer. Really? And look, I know that writing is part alchemy and part engineering, but more and more these days I find myself yearning for more of the engineering side of things. More forethought, more intentionality. Especially as deadlines become more numerous and closer together.
It's one thing to say 'I sneezed and a book came out,' and quite another to say 'I intended to write a novel in X genre, of about Y words, about Z, and that's what I got, and I gave it to the editor who needed it.' I feel like I need to work on the second thing if I want to have an actual publishing career, instead of what I'm currently doing as a hobbyist (writing whatever I want and then trebucheting it at my poor agent with a note saying CAN WE SELL THIS Y/N).
So my current process is:
What I would like the current process to be is:
As a result, I find myself thinking not so much about what separates a short story from a novel, but what separates a short story from a novella, and what then separates a novella from a novel. I love the novella length and I find myself naturally gravitating towards novellas these days; why is that? Why does the length feel natural, why did I use that word? What subprocesses are running in my back-brain that declare a story to be complete at that in-between length?
(I don't know any of these answers, by the way, I am just thinking out loud on the page here while I eat lunch and also watch a webinar about mycotoxins and their impact on global agriculture.)
I really feel that a novella is not (or shouldn't be) simply a short story that's gotten unkempt or burst its banks because the writer simply 'couldn't' say their piece in fewer words. Over the past couple of years, I've read numerous novellas and for all of my favourites I came away with a strong impression that 'Yes, that was exactly the correct length, this was destined to be a novella, it would not have worked as a short story, it would not have worked as a novel.'
So based on those (as well as some but not all of my own work) I am going to tentatively essay that a great, intentional novella has some of the following characteristics:
(The moment I started talking about scale I also thought YES, WHERE ARE MY CRAYONS, WHERE IS MY SINGLE RAGGEDY DESK SHARPIE, so that's the image here.)
Short story: A couch, which we assume to be in one of the places couches often go, though where it actually exists is left up to us
Novella: A couch, situated clearly in a living room, with other small pieces of furniture around it (though the couch dominates the room), on a rug, next to a window showing us a limited view of a larger and more complex outside world
Novel: A house, situated in the outside world, in which we can safely assume there is a couch but also furniture that is larger or smaller than a couch
I guess I'm back in hand-wavey woo-woo territory, but I've always felt that stories have needs that are unrelated to what we, their creators, need from them; so for instance I talk a lot about the way voice needs to vary from story to story (for example, in 'At the Hand of Every Beast,' the writing had to be stiff, formal, and even a little distant; zippy modern prose would have been all wrong for the story being told).
In the same way, I feel like a story will somehow indicate whether its events need the actions of more or fewer characters to occur, whether it needs more or less room for description and exposition, whether it needs more or fewer settings. (Naturally, it isn't a story's fault if I can't interpret all its requests, or if I hear them only distantly. Or if I ignore them.) The best novellas want to be novellas, and they have needs that cannot be satisfied by a short story or a novel.
The difficulty there is that due to (ironically) economies of scale and distribution, printing standards, and publisher profit margins (sigh), a novella, even one on the longer end, is still not always 'marketable,' in the sense that the majority of publishers would still rather put out, and charge for, novels. With that said though, in just the five-ish years I've been learning about traditional publishing, the novella market has expanded hugely, and it's been very gratifying to see publishers begin to accept, even solicit, novellas, and in some cases open up sub-imprints just for novellas. I think it's a fantastic length for all of us who love stories (that is, the reader, the writer, and the story itself) and I hope the trend continues!