The novella: Stepping stone to success or waste of time?

Writers and editors weigh in.
By Jack Smith | Published: October 4, 2017


Novella: Stepping stone or waste of time?

 

 

The novella goes way back to The Decameron by Boccaccio, to Candide by Voltaire, and, within the last hundred years or so, to Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, and Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, among many others.

So what exactly is a novella?

Definition of a novella

As a form, the novella combines the compression of the short story with the sprawl of the short novel, and many writers as well as readers find this attractive. The novella typically runs about a hundred pages, though it can run a bit longer. But usually the novella is designated by word count, not page count.

 

Word counts for novellas

A novella typically starts at about 20,000 words and tops out at 50,000, which is the minimum length for a short novel. There’s no mathematical exactness about this word range, but generally speaking, when a work falls a few thousand below 20,000 words, it’s a novelette, and when it falls under 7,000 words, it’s a short story. When it’s 50,000 and climbing, it’s a short novel, until it hits about 80,000 words, and then it’s a standard novel.

But here’s the catch: A work of fiction falling below 80,000 words is a long shot to be published by a commercial press.

 

Publishing a novella in today’s market

Excepting digitized romance and sci-fi/fantasy novellas, novellas are a hard commercial sell even if you bundle two to three of them or include your novella in a short story collection (story collections typically don’t sell either).

Unless you’re a well-known author, you’d probably do better going for a small or independent press. You won’t stand to make big money, but if your novella is good and you persist, you can eventually find a good home for it. There are plenty of small presses that are highly respected for the good work they publish. Your 30,000-word novella may even be published as a stand-alone, either in regular print or digital, at a small press.

However, small presses often don’t publish many novellas, perhaps one to two a year at the most. Why? The reasons vary. Price point can be an issue because, like their commercial counterparts, small presses do have to stay afloat. Like other forms, novellas must earn their keep, and this may come down to having a viable marketing strategy.

But it’s not just financial considerations: Some smaller presses may publish only a few books per year, and novellas aren’t the only form they publish. Some presses, though welcoming novellas, simply haven’t received any they like. Some, like Brooklyn Arts Press, haven’t received any novellas at all – but the press is really open to them. Publisher/editor-in-chief Joe Pan says, “I’d love to publish a novella at some point, but people don’t submit novellas to me. They submit short fiction, flash fiction collections, collections of prose poems, or novels. For me, a small press publisher, a novella would be a perfect sale, because fiction sells better than poetry, generally, and shorter novels cost less to produce. Win-win.”

 

Which presses do publish novellas?

Green Writers Press has published just two novellas, with one in the works, but publisher Dede Cummings says that “it is a great form for us that we want to publish more of.”

Jon Roemer, publisher/senior editor of Outpost19, also hasn’t published very many novellas, but he particularly appreciates the form. “We publish novellas because they pack a good punch. They also take remarkable concision and all-round artful storytelling.”

Furthermore, several magazines, including the Alaska Quarterly Review, Seattle Review, McSweeney’s, and Novella-T, publish novellas, either serialized or in full.

Some magazines have created a platform to publish novellas outside their pages. Under its Working Titles outprint, The Massachusetts Review publishes novella e-books (7,000 to 25,000 words), and Ploughshares now offers its digital-only Solos (7,500 to 20,000 words). There are novella contests as well, hosted by the likes of Glimmer Train and Quarterly West, and novella options in the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, which offers $15,000 plus publication by the University of Pittsburgh Press.

So there are homes, then, for your novella. But let’s go back. How does the novella happen? Do writers plan it in advance, aiming for a certain number of pages or words? What special features does the novella form have for writers, and what story elements determine its length? How do editors view this form, not only from a marketing angle but also for its special capacities? What tips do both writers and editors have when it comes to the novella as a form? Four novella writers speak out, followed by four small press publishers who have found a place for novellas in their lists.

Part one: Writers speak out about novellas

Our panel of novella writers:

  • Tara Deal, author of That Night Alive, winner of the 2016 novella prize from Miami University Press. Her previous novella, Palms Are Not Trees After All, won the 2007 Clay Reynolds Novella Prize from Texas Review Press. She lives in New York City.
  • Robert Garner McBrearty, author of three short story collections, one of which won the Sherwood Anderson Foundation Fiction Award. His short stories have been widely published, including in the Pushcart Prize, Missouri Review, North American Review, and NarrativeThe Western Lonesome Society, published by Conundrum Press, is his first novella.
  • Jane Smiley, author of 14 novels, three novellas, two short story collections, five works of nonfiction, and five YA novels. Her novel A Thousand Acres won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award. She’s a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and won the PEN USA Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006.
  • Josh Weil, author of the novel The Great Glass Sea and the novella collection The New Valley: Novellas, published by Grove Press. He has received the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Sue Kaufman Prize, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and a Pushcart Prize. He’s also a Fulbright Fellow and National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree.

When you begin a work of fiction, do you know if it’s going to be a short story, novella, or novel, or does the story just take you and seem to determine its own length?

 

Tara Deal: I don’t write short stories, so my choice is usually between extremely short flash fiction or the longer novella form. I really love the novella form, and I turn to that when I feel I have an idea that depends on a character’s development or philosophical investigations rather than a single point to be made about something emotional or aesthetic. For example, a recent flash piece I wrote uses a Delmore Schwartz quote as a starting point, about how the mind is a city like London, and the piece tries to embody that idea in a short space, in a flash of thought. But for my novella That Night Alive, I was thinking about “art and failure, persistence and success,” as the back cover copy says, and I needed the expanse of a longer form to work it out. And as a reader, I need the time that 100 pages provide to think about those ideas.

 

Robert Garner McBrearty: I’m a short story writer, and I normally have in mind a pretty clear trajectory – but not so with my novella. I started writing The Western Lonesome Society in very much an exploratory sort of mood. I really didn’t know what I had on my hands, but I conceived of a writer writing to his imaginary literary agent with various ideas he has for novels. As I did that, I realized each of those ideas the narrator was mentioning to the agent actually had to become stories in their own right, so I used the “story within story” concept. In this case, there are several stories within the main story. I didn’t really see it turning into a long novel, though. It seemed to me that the concept would only be interesting for so long. Early on, I knew I was writing a book of about 100-150 pages.

 

Jane Smiley: I wrote all three of my novellas in the 1980s. All three of them were explorations of particular emotional experiences. I have not written any novellas since. I think they were triggered by the emotional complexity of having children, and juggling them with marriage and a career involving students and writing books. All three presented themselves as novellas, and I wasn’t tempted to make any of them longer or shorter. The ideas seemed to need focus and concentration but also a degree of length. I think that a short story works sort of like a lightning strike, and I felt that I needed more time to develop the situations. But at the same time, I wanted to explore the feelings of the characters with greater focus than I thought I could in a novel.

 

Josh Weil: It depends what we mean by ‘begin.’ I map out my stories over a long time in a process that feels to me almost as creative as a first draft. In the initial stages of note-making and scene-imagining, the story tells me what it needs to be, but by the time I’m putting words on the page, I have a pretty good sense of the story’s general shape. I have been surprised, though: I began my novel, The Great Glass Sea, as a novella, but as I got deeper into it, elements (for instance, the main character’s relationship with his mother) took on import that I hadn’t foreseen and that I hadn’t supported sufficiently and that led to the need to rethink the scaffolding – which pushed it into something larger.

 

For you, what is possible in the novella that isn’t in either the short story or the novel?

 

Deal: In a novella, nothing is a distraction. There is no filler. Not that a novella has to be spare – it can be a burst of luxuriance – but nothing can be superfluous. And if you read it in one sitting, which you can, you can become immersed in the world of the book from beginning to end. And I think this allows the writer to build up some resonances and reflections that might get lost in a longer format. It also allows for some experimentation that might get tedious in a longer book. For example, in That Night Alive, the sentence that ends one chapter is the same sentence that begins the next chapter. I liked using that device as a link between seemingly disconnected material, but as a reader I wouldn’t want to deal with that for 500 pages or so.

 

McBrearty: The novella opens up a lot of possibilities, including more scenes and a larger cast of characters. The short story may take some asides, flashbacks, flash forwards, but most of the time the use of these is much more limited than in the novella. The Western Lonesome Society also allowed me to take several different points of view. Though of course there are exceptions; the short story usually takes one point of view. In The Western Lonesome Society, I went into the heads of various characters, and I saw the novella form as providing an opportunity to experiment with narrative structure. There’s kind of a manic intermingling of stories, starts, stops, sudden cutting away from one storyline, veering to the next, which I think would have lost its appeal in a full-length novel. So the novella was the right form.

 

Smiley: A novella is more like a play or a movie – you can follow one character or small set of characters for a hundred or 120 pages without shifting focus to the larger world around them. You can follow their changing situation and emotions from the beginning to the end of a fairly complex event or set of events (unlike a short story), but you don’t really have to give much of a larger context for the set of events. So you can focus on feelings and give the novella a lot of complex emotional impact. Novels always explore the world that the characters live in, and so the emotional impact can be large, but it also might be mitigated by context – there is a constant balance that a novel must strike between the personal and the impersonal. I like that, and I love writing novels, but for intense feeling, I think novellas are the best.

 

Weil: The novella can combine the intensity of a short story with the generosity of a novel. It can be read in one sitting and focus fiercely on one corner of the world or of a character’s life, and yet submerge the reader in that focus more completely and deeply – which can be a particularly powerful experience. But because it’s short enough, it can allow for some of the experimentation of a short story without losing the reader. My novella Sarverville Remains (from The New Valley) is narrated in a fairly difficult and particular dialect, something that was vital to the tone of the story but that I don’t know I could have maintained over 300-plus pages. More recently, I wrote a novella that was particularly dark and painful and, while there are certainly novels that plunge their readers into that for many hundreds of pages, I felt the level of emotional difficulty and intensity would have to be leavened over a work longer than a novella – so the form felt necessary to stay honest to the tone.

 

What tips do you have for beginning novella writers?

 

Deal: My advice is to read some novellas and see if the form suits you. Because you wouldn’t want to write what you don’t enjoy reading. Some of my favorite classic ones are [Fyodor] Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, [Herman] Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener, and Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. Melville House has a wonderful series of reissued novellas.

 

McBrearty: If the storyline feels tight, it’s probably a short story. If there are various places to expand, it sounds more like a novella. Consider your characters. In short stories, writers usually create characters in a sparse way. In a novella, you need to develop them, to go into more depth. Also visualize particular scenes in your mind. Plan several important scenes as well as thinking of the book as a whole. Expand the scenes. In short stories, we may cut the scenes short, but the novella allows you to more fully develop them. Fully describe the action. Let the dialogue build. Add some twists and turns to the plot. Surprise the reader! At the same time, though, one allure of the novella is that it’s a faster read than a novel. Keep the pace lively and brisk, the story moving swiftly along.

 

Smiley: Because a novella is only about a hundred pages long, the reader will give the writer a little more leeway for different types of complexity – but you can only choose one type of complexity. I chose clarity of style and plot in my three novellas so that I could explore complexity of feeling (characters don’t know or can’t decide how to deal with the feelings that their relatives are giving them). But once you choose which type of complexity you want to focus on, you can really make that complexity intense and almost overwhelming, because you have to put it on the page, explore it, and wind it up in a fairly short time. A good model is Kafka – much of his work gains intensity because it is focused and not very long. He immerses us in strange situations, explores the situations, and leaves the background out. He explores with such particularity that each story seems to pop off the page and take over the reader’s mind.

 

Weil: Focus relentlessly on whatever the core of your novella is. For me, that’s often a character’s particular emotional wound that leads to a specific narrative question. I don’t stray far from that. But it could be any other aspect of fiction; the key is, whatever it is, you can’t scatter your focus away from it. But, in focusing on it for such a sustained period, you have to look a little harder, almost as if you’re peering through layers, so that you are hitting the same thing in more complex (and simply more) ways than you would in a short story.

 

 

Part two: Editors on novellas

Our panel of small presses:

  • Alaska Quarterly Review (AQR)one of America’s premier literary magazines and a source of powerful new voices. Founded in 1980 and published twice a year, AQR’s global perspective is influenced by the people, cultural traditions, and environment of Alaska. Michael Dirda wrote in The New York Review of Books that AQR “remains one of our best, and most imaginative, literary magazines.
  • The Chicago Center for Literature and Photography,  a full-service arts organization that publishes original books and produces a weekly online magazine and monthly podcast. It also sponsors semi-regular live events and local classes and workshops.
  • Nouvella, an independent publisher dedicated to novellas by emerging and established authors and founded in 2011 by Deena Drewis. Nouvella titles have been selected as a National Jewish Book Award winner, a Lambda Literary Award finalist, and an Amazon Best Book of the Month. Nouvella has helped launch the careers of New York Times best-selling authors such as Edan Lepucki and Emma Straub.
  • Outpost19, an award-winning book publisher committed to delivering provocative reading. Its published works include critically acclaimed novels, memoirs, biographies, short fiction and essay collections, novellas, and anthologies. Titles are distributed by Ingram Publisher Services.

 

How many novellas have you published in the past few years, and what are your publishing goals for the novella in the future?

 

Ronald Spatz, editor, Alaska Quarterly Review: Alaska Quarterly Review (AQR) has published three novellas between 2013 and 2016, and has another forthcoming in an AQR’s winter and spring 2017 edition. AQR publishes the full range of fiction – from short-shorts/flash fictions to novellas. We take our role as a non-commercial publisher seriously, and therefore we are open to all of those forms. In that sense AQR is among the scarce platforms that publish works that are generally too short or too long to be published in mainstream magazines. Other than the practical consideration that we do not have unlimited space in our print editions, the length of a work is certainly not what primarily drives our decision-making.

 

Jason Pettus, owner, Chicago Center for Literature and Photography: Since starting up our trade paperbacks in 2014, we’ve been publishing one or two novellas a year, and then another couple of short-story collections the size of novellas. We will likely continue in this vein for the time being, although that number mostly depends simply on how many great manuscripts we get of that size, not any predetermined quota.

 

Deena Drewis, editor, Nouvella: We’ve published nine novellas since we started in 2011. For 2017, we’ve got a four-title list planned, which I think is really fitting for Nouvella. With our emphasis on helping launch the career of new writers specifically utilizing the novella format, we like to keep our focus really concentrated. In the future, the annual list could expand to six or eight titles maybe, but I think it’s this idea of focus and intimacy between new writers and their new readers that makes Nouvella special.

 

Jon Roemer, publisher/senior editor, Outpost19: Six. Ideally, we’ll publish four more next year and maintain that pace going forward. It’s an opportunity to diversify the formats on our list. We market them in our Short-ish series, which includes extended essays, as a way to highlight them. But they’re also part of our general list, sitting alongside novels, memoirs, and biographies, and are otherwise given the same marketing and promotion as any other title.

 

The novella is a kind of middle-child between the short story and the novel. Do you see any strengths or special qualities in this form when well-handled?

 

Spatz: At their best, these longer stories provide opportunities for narrative complexity and extended development in service of character in ways not possible in the shorter forms. James Joyce’s The Dead and Jane Smiley’s Good Will can serve as diverse examples why the traditional short story length would not have been adequate to develop the necessary scope and depth for these pieces. By the same measure, pushing those works to novel length would gravely dilute their power and focus. It really comes down to the fact that the novella is neither a lesser form of the novel nor a padded version of the short story. When the novella succeeds, it is because the additional length of the work is required to tell that particular story and bring it to its fullness of feeling and effect.

 

Pettus: I don’t particularly see the novella format as especially different from full-length novels when it comes to specific strengths. I’m one of those people who just feels that every story out there has its natural length, with some of those being shorter and some being longer.

 

Drewis: The best thing about novellas is that they’re exactly the length they’re supposed to be. Because they’ve been more or less declared “unpublishable” by larger outlets and the big publishing houses, no writer really sits down with the intention of writing a novella. It ends up that length because there is no more to cut and no more to expand upon, which I think indicates a very thought-through, intentful manuscript. As for the strengths of the form itself, I always love looking at what Alice Munro is able to do with that medium-form length; her ability to move through vast swaths of time and space is proof over and over again why it’s not only a valid form, but a necessary one.

 

Roemer: Novellas are the ideal vehicle for literary authors who like to drive their own way. They can do things in a novella that readers wouldn’t tolerate in a work of 200 or 300 pages. The limited length lends itself to more intensity, sometimes with breathtaking concision, sometimes by sustaining a style or technique over a spectacular duration. It’s a virtuoso’s game, and readers win big. That’s probably why they’ve lingered in classrooms, from The Metamorphosis to The Awakening to Daisy Miller to Chronicle of a Death Foretold. They’ve been career landmarks, too, like Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day, Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus, or Cynthia Ozick’s The Shawl. I’ve seen novellas eyed almost enviously, like the way John Irving used The Pension Grillparzer inside The World According to Garp, or Roberto Bolano’s 2666, which he originally mapped as five connected novellas. We’ve been reading them all along and maybe didn’t always know it.

 

What tips do you have for writers submitting novellas?

 

Spatz: The novella as a form is problematic for print publishing primarily because of space considerations. So there are implications when AQR invests in a novella-length work – a number of traditional-length stories have to wait for a later slot in our publication schedule. But AQR does not have a higher standard for novellas than stories. We expect the same compelling level of freshness, honesty, and development commensurate with the form. For writers submitting novellas to Alaska Quarterly Review, I would emphasize that it is generally not plot that ultimately hooks us but rather the voice of the piece. The voice must be strong and idiosyncratic enough to create a unique persona and drive the piece forward.

Pettus: As far as what we in particular look for in novellas, I encourage writers to see them more as shortened novels instead of elongated short-stories. My advice for novella writers is the same I would give to writers of full-length novels: Pay close attention to how your piece balances plot, character development, and dialogue; and don’t bother submitting it at all if you haven’t come up with a truly unique idea, because no editors in their right minds want to read their million-and-first tender coming-of-age story or generic technothriller.

 

 

Drewis: Stand by (and be proud of!) the fact that this is the length your work must be; novellas are becoming an increasingly viable format, and there will be more and more opportunities to publish your work.

 

Roemer: Novellas should be exceptional acts of craftsmanship, be it showy or subtle. Readers see them as something different, approaching them with heightened expectations, so we should do what it takes to meet them where they’re at.

 

 

Wrapping up

If you’ve written a novella and are seeking a publisher, you can be confident that a small press is a good option. Don’t be put off by the fact that not a lot of novellas are published by small presses. Publishing is always a tough act, but if you’ve got a great novella, you’ll see it published if you keep at it. There are strong believers in this form, advocates, enthusiasts, and often, like anything you submit, it’s just a matter of finding the right publisher at the right time.

 

Jack Smith is author of numerous articles, reviews, and interviews, three novels, and a book on writing, entitled Write and Revise for Publication.

 

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  • Rick Carufel

    I see three possible routes to success as a writer, or a combination.
    One Traditional Publishing. The downside is a writer can send manuscripts to publishers for years and never even get a thing read.
    Two Self-publishing. The upside is you have a real book on sale on Amazon. The downside is no marketing.
    Three, and the route I have decided to pursue, is by entering legitimate writing contests. The down side here is a lot of these contests are popularity contests won by the person who can beg the most votes and not based on literary skill at all. Most of my tales end up novella sized around 25-30k words of which I have self-published a few on Amazon.