The Controversy of the Novella and What to Do about It

A friend of mine expressed interest in writing a book.

“A novella, I think,” she said.

I cringed inwardly a little and suggested, “You might try to see if you can’t flesh it out into a more conventional size.”

“I was told by a professor to never force a book into being something it isn’t.”

“True,” I said. “But it isn’t anything yet, is it? It can be whatever you want.”

At the stage of “mulling around” it had endless potential to be either broadened or cut back. A story is going to be what it is going to be, yet you have some control in the beginning. I can tell if I don’t have enough ideas to write so many words about, and can begin to tie in other points, subplots, character arcs, events, etc. and making a plan to include them. Many times a story’s original incarnation was nothing more than a line of dialogue, and I had to make other goals and inorganic decisions before it could start forming in the ethereal of my mind. But even then, it had taken me years of writing to begin to accurately predict how long it would take me to tell a specific story, and I’m still off a lot of the time. I didn’t believe she wanted to write a novella because it was best for the book. I believe she wanted to write a novella because it seemed like a manageable choice.

The conversation had me thinking though about reasonable arguments against her, but then an even bigger question: Why the hell does this bother me so much?

The rise of the novella is one of those things that I don’t care about caring about. There is an infinite number of books out there, many more to the size that I want to read. You’re not going to convince writers to not write 90k or even 200k sprawling plots, especially when publishers aren’t involved. Why does it matter if so many people are writing short novellas these days? Why does it bother me that, when five years ago 60,000 words was considered a short novel (and only for certain genres), many consider 40k a perfectly normal size?

This doesn’t affect me.

I don’t believe in authors making brash statements against the way others write. I’ve seen Facebook status upon Facebook status complaining about the decision to write series, the decision to write standalones, the decision to produce quickly, to produce slowly, to outline, to schedule, to writing in first person or third. Anything you can do as an author will be criticized by the people who should know better.

But it makes sense for us to feel so passionately about these things. Not only can a diversity of decisions make people question their own, but being critical, recognizing your feelings, and finding arguments to prove yourself right is how we understand reality. It’s not a bad thing in itself; we just need to not be assholes about it. Mostly, we need to pick our battles.

To examine my disdain for the popularity of the novella, I had to be honest with myself.

First, I found a pretty valid reason: I don’t like reading them. This means nothing to anyone else, but at least I knew it wasn’t just a hatred of change (which was entirely plausible). I would rather read a wonderful 90,000 word book than a wonderful 30,000 word book. Once I like the story, I want to live in it, spend time with the characters, understand the world. I have read good novellas and believe that they would be for worse if they tried to be made into a regular full length. But if I had to pick between two books that I psychically knew I would enjoy, I’d choose the longer.

Was that just me? I had heard for years from publishers—prior to the ebook revolution—that short novels had a harder time of selling. Anthologies too. They were harder to get published because they were harder to get the readers interested. Plus, based on the costs of publication, there became a line of profit-cost margin. People didn’t want to be spending the same amount on a novella that they would be on a novel, but to compensate for certain price of productions, there was a minimum bar you could charge to make it worth your while.

Now that self-publishers don’t have to concern themselves with distribution costs for ebooks and the current market has plummeted the value of literature, maybe that has changed. People will spend the same amount on a single short story that they will a full-blown novel, but that’s because they expect everything to be a dollar anyway. Longer stories aren’t worth more than shorter ones.

You have two factors to consider when looking at the rise of the novella; the way we read is shifting, but also what is being produced isn’t necessarily a reflection of what is selling.

It could be that the availability of novellas has removed the stigma and they aren’t so hard to sell anymore, or it could be that people are putting up their books whether they sell or not.

There is tremendous motivation for an author to write a novella.

I could write a 40k manuscript in about two weeks, where as it would take me a full month to write an 80,000. A month and a half for a 100,000. And that’s if I remained diligent the entire time. It is easier to be dedicated for a shorter period of time, and personally I find that the first 30,000 words are always the easiest. I actually call 30k my first hurdle, because it’s where the shiny new packaging starts to get worn off. The honeymoon stage is over. In the past, it’s usually around three months for me to finish a manuscript, but I have written plays (15 to 20k) in less than a week because it’s easy to stay focused and inspired.

Editing takes much less time. I can read a 90k book in one day, but it is difficult and I usually give myself three. A 40k would be easy to get done in eight hours. By cutting the word count in half, you can cut most of the time it takes for everything in half, or less.

It is easier to get a beta-reader to get through it quickly, not feeling so guilty as when you hand them 120k beast and expect them to trudge on.

Publishing quickly is a great way to gain fans. If you take your time between books, they’re more likely to forget about you or lose interest. Having five novellas up versus one standalone, readers are more likely to subconsciously trust you (clearly you’re an experienced author who will continue the series), but you can also charge a buck for each whereas you’re lucky if you can get away with two dollars for the one.

You can write faster, produce faster, and make more money. It’s easier to keep track of plot arcs and big picture issues. The book hasn’t gotten so disgustingly ugly to you that you rather throw your $1,000 laptop out the window than look at it again.

And no, I do not believe that writing quickly makes for terrible writing. Necessarily. Some of the best and worst things I’ve written were made in haste. Some of the best and worst things I’ve written took forever. The speed in which you write can influence what comes out, but it isn’t directly connected to quality.

But I will say that you can read these motivations in some books. There are those that sound rushed, that sound impatient, that sound like the author isn’t willing to take her time and smell the roses.

I do read novellas. I do it to support authors who I like. It makes it easy if you just want to help your peers by buying, reviewing, and reading. As I said, I can read a novella in a couple of hours. If it’s painful, it’ll be over soon.

What I’ve found, however, is that not only could many of them easily become novels, but would actually be improved by it. A part of my frustration towards these shorter books is when it doesn’t read like it’s for the integrity of the piece at all, when it’s not about telling the story in the way it wants to be, but telling it in the quickest manner possible.

Of the novellas I’ve read in the last few months, only one didn’t have an issue with pacing, and it still should have been fleshed out. The scenes placed you right in the action, made you feel the ambiance of the moment, the visuals of the world without boring you, but the overall plot was too quick. I not only wanted to hear more about these characters, but the satisfaction at the end was unsatisfying because of a lack of clarity. Was the main character just using his lover? Was he actually in love with him? We only see their sexual encounters and the ramifications of those, but the reader didn’t bear witness to any of their conversations, the protagonist’s feelings. There were moments and answers that I wanted to see or hear. There were some contradictions that weren’t established well enough that they may have just been me misreading or it may have been the writer forgetting what she originally said. This seemed like a weird mistake to have for a book that I read in less than an hour. How had she not caught these things if she hadn’t read it through herself? And why wouldn’t she have read through it several times, when it took less time than watching an episode of Supernatural?

When it came to the others, I found the writing to be perfunctory. It tended to be summation and editorializing. It didn’t build on the tension, didn’t live in the moment, did nothing but succinctly informed the reader of event and description.

Many of them were pure out porn—and that’s their point. A lot of successful novella writers are involved in erotica, and it actually suits the medium, allowing the authors and readers to get straight to the good stuff without wasting time with any actual character development. And I don’t mean that as an insult. When you want to just get off, an erotic novella is actually your best bet.

Most of the novellas I read are serials. This is less enjoyable. I don’t mind cliffhangers as long as there is a full plot line behind it, something satisfying and complete before the big surprise. But when I feel like someone’s sliced up a bigger story into little pieces, I take into consideration what I, the reader, get out of that, and then what they, the writers, get out of that. Why would someone do that except to either a) publish faster, or b) make more money? Even long, traditionally published series have a reputation for never answering questions (Lost anyone?) or satisfying the readers, and so if you can’t prove to me by book one you are capable of a great ending, I’m not going to keep buying. This is extra true if the series isn’t finished because I have no guarantee the author will ever complete their storyline. At least in traditional publication, there are contracts involved.

On the other hand, I think there is definitely a market for periodically published works, Dickens’ style. If I do get through a novella and I enjoyed it, I am actually happy with following those characters through several short books. If each has title own fully developed plot arc, if I love the characters and feel the scenes around me, if I trust the author won’t abandon the project, a serial novella can be fun and endearing.

I had to wonder how much my disdain for novellas was typical and how much was just me. It can be hard to tell how well other people’s books are doing.

One man constantly complained about how no one wanted his novella. I could have told him why I didn’t want to buy it. Size was a big component. I’m not going to buy a forty-page book when I could get a quick short or something more time consuming. I would have to be really interested in the plot, which he didn’t really describe in the summary. His cover was an aesthetically fine looking photograph, but uninformative about plot or character or voice. In one little part of the Amazon page it read that it was for 12-18 year olds, which was not suggested by cover or summary or subject matter. His Facebook posts were all very negative, talking about how poorly his story was doing or belittling other genres.

For many authors, if a book isn’t selling, I would suggest looking at cover, summary, and size. Those were the first three factors that could put me off from buying.

Was that just me? How many other people actually cared about size, and was I just some anti-change author who was preventing literature from evolving into what it wanted to be?

Today I got my answer. On Facebook, a popular author asked, “Which do you prefer, short books, long books, or depends on the moment?”

There was an outpour of agreement. Out of 200 comments, not one said they prefer shorter works. Many suggested that they would test out and enjoy a shorter work from an author they already love, or if they wanted to support the author they knew. Some said medium. Many reported “C,” that they could enjoy shorter novels at certain times. A lot bemoaned the novella. One man stated that he didn’t look at size at all, only reading books his friends and family suggested.

I suppose what irritates me is what I presume the reasoning behind the choice is. It’s not that a novella can’t be the best form for a story, it’s that I don’t believe it often is.

As self-publishing becomes less and less stigmatized, writers become freer from the market. We see great things coming from indie authors who are not restricted by some investor whose focus is making his money back: more diverse female characters, more diversity in race of both characters and successful authors, more risk taking, more genre bending, more unique styles and subject matter, more niche markets… but at the same time it can feel people are using that freedom to take the easy path.

Write the book you want to exist. Don’t take my or anyone else’s naysaying too seriously. If you wrote a beautiful novella, be confident in it. If that’s what your story wants to be, then let it be that way. And, in many cases, no one is criticizing a novella that is well-written. But it’s not uncommon to be asked, “Should I make my novella longer? The prose is fine and I don’t want to fill it with unnecessary scenes,” and I think, “If the best thing you can say about your book is ‘the prose is fine,’ then you need to keep working on it, size be damned.”

I find some legitimacy in my frustration. What the right path for each writer is can only be defined by the writer himself, yet you can feel responsible for the disheartened. Sometimes I see someone making a choice because he thinks he can get away with it, only to have him come back and wonder why the results are as expected. I see writers’ dismay on a daily basis, their frustration at not understanding why no one reads their books, not really wanting to hear, “I’d be more likely to trust it if it was longer.”

“But it shouldn’t be that way!”

No. You’re right. It shouldn’t.

When you write a novella, don’t expect people to naturally know it is a fully fleshed out, beautifully written piece of fiction. Expect them to assume you were impatient. Expect them to not be as interested in it. It is a harder sell. You write it that way for the integrity of the book, despite that it will be harder to convince people to like it. Don’t expect to be the exception. Don’t set out to write a novella just because you can.

And letting the book be what it should be goes two ways: trying to cram a big story into a shorter time frame is just as big of a mistake as the reverse.

When writing a novella, ask yourself why that size? Is it because of the story or because it’s easy? Look for pacing, look for ambiance, look for setting up the scene. Look to see if you’ve satisfied your reader on all fronts. Look to see if you sound impatient. Take your time in editing. Make it the best book it can be. And if that is as a smaller story, then great. You did your best job, be confident in that. If you realize it should be longer, take the time to make it so.

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