Novellas on the Rise
A few days ago I read an article in the Age that boldly declared the novella was back, due to the advent of the ebook. Not the most insightful declaration because most writers would already be thinking about putting any novella they couldn’t find a publishing home for out as a self-published ebook (sorry I refuse to say independent published - see next week’s post for why).
Anyway, the AGE article talked about a collection of novellas a publisher was about to release. The stories had to be around 25,000 words. One writer they interviewed for the article said they found it difficult to write something of that length. This amused me because I think it is ridiculous to try to write a story to a particular word count. To me a story goes as long as it needs to go. That’s why the novel I am writing is currently 156,000 words.
Many magazines and anthologies put miniscule maximum word counts on stories, like 5,000 words. In the genre of speculative fiction I find 5,000 words is not enough space to build a world in. Usually after reading a 5,000 word science fiction story I am left thinking whoopee, because nothing of any great insight happened. When I am critiquing short stories under 5,000 words I usually end up scribbling “more detail please” at least half a dozen times.
My favourite anthology of “short stories” is The Locus Awards – Thirty Years of the Best in Fantasy and Science Fiction edited by Jonathon Strahan and Charles N. Brown. Its 674 pages contain only 18 stories – most of them novella length. Similarly the last really good collection of short stories I read was George Turner’s A Pursuit of Miracles which had only eight stories in its 200 pages.
How Long is a Novella?
After reading the AGE article, I wondered how many words are in a novella. The Nebula awards reckon a novella is between 17,500 and 40,000 words. So a long short story I recently wrote would just sneak in. According to Wikipedia a novella can be anything from a small 10,000 to a whopping 70,000 words. After having a look around the web, Wikipedia seems to be correct with their wide word count range for a novella. So basically a novella is anything too big to be considered a short story and too small to be considered a novel.
As pointed out in the AGE article, there have been lots of great novellas published. Two I can think of are Camp Concentration by Thomas M.Disch and The Road by Cormac McCarthy (which by my calculations is about 60,000 words).
What about a novelette? According to Wikipedia a novelette is 7,500 to 17,500 words long. Something I would have just called a long short story. But I think all those publishers of short story collections should change to novelette and novella collections. Then, as a reader, I might get more into a story that actually explores a theme and where the concepts of good and evil drown in the shadows of a fully realised story.
As for writing to a particular word count, forget it. I’ll probably end up either leaving out a great deal of necessary detail and writing about nothing much, or padding the story out and swamping its great themes and ideas in trivia. Write until the story comes to its natural conclusion I say. So if a story is too long to be accepted by some magazine full of underdone short-stories, then two bad. And if it is too short to be accepted as a novel by some mindless word-counter at a publishing house, I’ll consider self-publishing it as a novella.