Novellas, novelettes, and serial fiction are no longer “old fashioned.”
by Mara Purl
Do you know what George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, and H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds have in common?
They’re not novels.
Novellas went out of style in the mid-20th century, but now they’re back.
“Everything old is new again,” says the Peter Allen song. Novels, novellas, novelettes (and short stories and flash) have been around for decades. Make that centuries. In today’s publishing and authoring landscape there is less opportunity but more freedom.
Less Opportunity but More Freedom for Shorter Fiction
What I mean is there’s less opportunity to get your short fiction published in magazines—because so many great magazines have disappeared.
At the same time, there is more freedom—because, with e-books, an enterprising author can create fiction of any length that works for his or her style, genre, and audience.
In the highly genre-specific world of today, it takes some fine-tuning to create and/or select the form or forms that will best entice your readers and satisfy them. Think of it as a six-course meal you’re preparing for your faithful followers—those you already have, and those who will come as they get whiffs of the delectable dishes you’re offering.
If you already write novels, consider creating some appetizers.
If you already write short stories, consider adding a main dish, or a fantastic dessert. Creating new forms of fiction could transform your offerings from a pot luck to a holiday banquet, with you as the gracious host.
Newness is Essential to All Forms of Fiction
Though this may seem hard to believe in this world of derivatives, a work of fiction is supposed to present something new: a fresh take on the way certain people live, an unheard-of series of circumstances, characters we’ve never met before, their choices and ensuing results, moments of pathos or humor, turning points and revelations, all of which combine to give the reader something of value, that value owing in part to its newness.
Indeed, the words “novel,” “novelette,” and “novella” come from the Italian word “novella,” feminine of “novello,” which means “new.”
And that brings us to a discussion about these different, yet similar terms. Do they actually mean something different? Or are they interchangeable? And even before we get to them, there are two other categories: flash fiction and short story.
The first distinction among them is length, as measured by word count. There isn’t absolute, universal agreement about these measurements, which have evolved over time. But there is a general concensus gathered from educators, authors, publishers, and book awards organizers.
FLASH FICTION – 50 – 100 (or – 1,000) Words
Starting with the lowest numbers, the first is Flash Fiction. As its moniker suggests, it tends to be uber-short: 53 – 100 words. Some even say flash fiction—also sometimes called Micro Fiction— can be as long as 1,000 words.
Writing in this style can be seen as a contest, or a game, with a goal of encapsulating one complete moment in about a third of a page.
Flash fiction is longer than haiku, but shorter than almost everything else.
The Pikes Peak branch of the National League of American Pen Women runs a contest with a word limit that varies. The year I entered, it was 100 words’ this year it’s 500. Whatever the exact length, it’s an intriguing exercise to tell a whole story in that small a box!
Example of Flash Fiction
Required theme: “Life Interrupted”
Word Limit: 100
“The Expedition” by Mara Purl
Twelve years, two months, eighteen days later, I received the letter. I held my breath as the paper rattled. “. . . you have been accepted for the 2018 Expedition which embarks six months from today.”
My breath came in shards, jagged as the Antarctic ice I’d be examining.
“Limited time, space, resources and communication will require that you make alternative arrangements for. . . .”
Job: to someone else.
Things: to storage.
Boyfriend: on hold.
This, this, was everything.
The phone rang.
Before I could speak, I heard my mother’s voice. “They’ve given me six months.”
SHORT STORIES 1000 – 7500 Words
Next in line are Short Stories. The word count seems to vary depending upon who you ask, but generally they run from 3,500 to 7,500 words. (Though stories running 1,000 – 3,500 words should also slide into this category.) What a short story must have is a plot twist, one that turns on a dime.
A short story takes off in one direction, and winds up instead going somewhere unexpected. It contains an inherent tension, and if it’s true to form, you can trust that the tension will be resolved by the end of the story. (This is not necessarily the case with other forms.) Another feature of short stories is they contain no sub-plots, and as few characters as possible—perhaps only one, or two.
The Classic Short Story
One of the best examples in the English language is O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi. That link will take you to the complete free story at Project Gutenberg. (Spoiler alert: in case you haven’t read it, I dare not reveal the plot twist.)
This riveting piece reveals generosity, fear, love, shame, all presented as a rich Christmas stew, so piquant that it leaves a distinct flavor on our tongues. Henry wrote his story in Pete’s Tavern at the corner of Irving Place and East 18th Street in New York City. A few years ago, two fellow authors joined me in creating a holiday author and book tea in Irving Place, all the more magical for the resonances of the story that still seem to hang in the air.
The other stellar example is Trap of Gold by Louis L’Amour, a true master of the form. Louis was a friend and one of my most important mentors. I’ve read most of his work, and remember distinctly the experience of reading this story. Tension danced along my nerves and I held my body so rigid while reading it that I was sore afterwards. It was from Louis that I learned short stories requires both muscularity and velocity.
Given the length constraint, the story has to start fast out of the gate. But then, with a plot twist quickly in view, all the energy of the piece has to make it through that turn. (Here’s a short article about Trap of Gold.) This makes the form ideal for revealing complex layers of intent and purpose, motivation and expectation. Both L’Amour’s and Henry’s stories deliver fully.
NOVELETTES: 7500 – 17,000 Words
A novelette doesn’t sound like a particularly serious offering. Indeed novelettes are sometimes described as having trivial themes. But I find a good novelette can deliver a message—such as introducing a reader to a series. The word itself reminds us of the word “novel” and implies a reference to a larger fictional world.
If that world can be thought of as a banquet, then the novelette is a special dish with enough spice to get our attention, and an aftertaste that has us wanting more from the chef. To use another metaphor, in the context of a novel series, a novelette can also deliver us away from and back to the main highway, enriching us with fresh scenery along the way, often telling a focused story that doesn’t quite fit into a longer novel.
I use this technique with my series-related short fiction, where each story shows my painter-protagonist going off to complete a particular art assignment. The first of these is the novelette When Hummers Dream.
In the case of this novelette, the “spice” is a venture into the paranormal—too strange for my main series, but a perfect way to offer something with an exotic flavor.
Though by no means are novelettes restricted to the Science Fiction category, one of the organizations that has offered awards in the novelette category for many years is the Hugo Award. The impressive list includes such luminaries as Isaac Asimov, Piers Anthony, Larry Niven, Ursula LeGuin, Orson Scott Card, and Poul Anderson, all of which proves the Novelette has great value.
NOVELLAS: 17,000 – 40,000 Words
Much is written about this form, which is generally described as living somewhere between a very long short story and a very short novel. That’s rather vague, and the word count is more helpful. Still, a novella actually has an identity beyond these numeric parameters.
Novellas went out of style with the rise of paperbacks. And you need to be aware that if you or your publisher intend to offer your novella in print, bear in mind that minimum width for a printable spine is 40 pages. And I do mean minimum. That offers a tiny spine somewhere between one-quarter and one-eight inch—not much real estate for placing author, title, publisher’s logo. A word count of 25,000 will give you about 100 pages—which varies wildly according to trim size, font size, and layout design.
A novella—like a short-story—must maneuver through some tight curves. However, it has enough room to do so with at least one subplot running through it: a parallel rivulet unseen from the main river until it’s revealed; or perhaps even a subterranean flow that surfaces dramatically. One might say the novella is the best of two worlds: the focus and intensity of a short-story, with the breadth of a novel.
The Similarity between Novella and Screenplay
Because I spend about as much time in the world of drama as I do in the world of literature, what springs to mind for me is the similarity between novella and screenplay. Each has a very tight structure, with markers at certain points in the text. In screenwriting, these are called “plot points.” Screenplay by Syd Field is still the classic textbook on the subject, pithy and to the point.
If you take seriously this connection between novella and screenplay and want to delve deeper, I highly recommend my friend and colleague Linda Seger. (We’ve worked together on behalf of several writer-clients.) She is the foremost script consultant in the business and author of nine books on the subject of screenwriting.
With a novella, the experience for the reader, like that of a movie viewer, is to feel he or she has plunged into a specific world and been told a whole story about its inhabitants. (Side note: since French movies are famous for not telling complete stories, do French novellas offer the same incomplete telling?) That world is complex enough that the visitor feels she has actually been there, but still short enough that she can return home in two or three hours.
My late friend and colleague Paul Alan Fahey wrote a fabulous article about novellas on this very blog, and, as it turns out, he and I agree about the screenplay-novella connection. We did on so many things.
Superstar Authors Now Writing Novellas
Diana Gabaldon, author of the Outlander series with extra-long novels, shares smaller stories with her novellas. They function beautifully either as enhancements to her stunning novels, each of which is a true Opus Grande; or as introductions to those who can’t imagine committing to read a 1,000 page book. (This is the New Diana Gabaldon Novellas page her team is developing.)
One of the great practitioners of the art of the novella is Anne Perry. Her prodigious output of novels alone would have placed her in the pantheon of accomplished authors. But in addition, she offers annual holiday novellas that are as richly dense as a Christmas pudding, and equally addictive.
By design, they’re to be enjoyed at one sitting, preferably by a cozy fire and with an appropriate beverage. Here’s a page listing these sweet and savory Christmas confections from Anne Perry.
NOVELS: 40,000+ Words
Once a work of fiction reaches a word count of 40,000, it can’t really be considered anything other than a novel, though there are other requirements.
A novel should tell a complete story. It structure must include a beginning, middle, and end, various plot points, a climax, and a resolution. Some novels—including some of the best—truly stand alone. Even if we want to follow its characters into further chapters, we can’t, and the author was smart enough to know when to stop. Examples are To Kill a Mockingbird and The Great Gatsby. Goodreads has a list of the top-one-hundred popular American novels.
The Resurgence of Series Fiction
Having stated these book-lengthy rules, of course it’s time to discuss the many books that break these rules and succeed both literarily and in popularity while doing so. Probably the biggest exception occurs in the contest of book series. For many years, fiction series were not popular, but not because readers didn’t enjoy them, nor because authors didn’t want to write them.
Instead the “unpopularity” was manufactured. Bookstore owners didn’t want to commit any particular amount of shelf space to one author, nor did they want the bother of making sure to have on hand copies of each volume in the series.
They wanted to avoid having customers complain when Book Seven of a favorite series was out of stock. So booksellers passed along this information to publishers; publishers in turn passed this along to agents; agents told clients and prospective clients that “no one wants a series”, which, for a long while, did a good job of keeping series books out of print.
The exception has been series where each book is a stand-alone. These are book series where each story concludes, with probably the most obvious being in the Mystery genre, because after all, the mystery has to be solved at the end of each book. From Agatha Christie and her Poirot series, through Sue Grafton and her “Alphabet” series, these books welcome us back to the world of their protagonists, who then plunge into his or her next case and solve it before we reach the end. (And we’re all disappointed Sue didn’t get to write her final “Z” book.)
Enter the E-Book
Things changed dramatically with the advent of a different method of book delivery: namely, the e-book.
Now there was no shelf space to consider, no delivery hassles. It was no surprise to me that series-fiction exploded. I’ve always felt one of the authors who set the stage for the resurgence of book series was Louis L’Amour.
Louis L’Amour—A Pioneer of Series Fiction
Back in the day, when an author came along who insisted on writing a series—and who had the clout to make his publishers listen—the “problem” was avoided by not writing the books in serial form, but making each novel a complete read unto itself.
Louis L’Amour began to write a series about a fictional family named Sackett. As were so many of his novels, the first that he wrote of the Sacketts was set in the old West. As his interest in their tale grew, he decided to go back to the Elizabethan era, when his first Sackett character left England for the New World.
Louis had actually intended to write a saga that would have swept through history from the 1600s through the mid-1800s, but died before he could complete it. He did, however, write 17 books in the Sackett series, and he also wrote The Sackett Companion, which fills in some of the gaps.
Reading the whole series is a compelling experience, and the right order in which to read them, along with more information about the books, can be found on the Louis L’Amour website designed and maintained by Louis’ son Beau.
Breaking the Rules
The magnificent Outlander series broke several rules when it first began to be published thirty years ago. First, it couldn’t be fit into one genre, so it occupies three in fiction: historical, romance, and science fiction. Second, none of the novels actually conclude.
By dint of sheer exhaustion, one needs a break after reading a 700-page book before embarking on its 900-page sequel. But the story continues, picking up exactly where it left off. In that regard, Gabaldon’s books are not true “Novels” in the strictest sense.
I’m not sure she ever got in trouble for this, but I did when I began to publish my Milford-Haven Novels, which are based on my radio drama. When Milford-Haven USA became a hit on BBC radio, it was partly because listeners got addicted to the characters, their dilemmas, and the soap-opera-like braided plotlines.
To remain true to the original story when I began adapting it for books, I had to create a hybrid called “Serial Fiction” rather than “Series Fiction.” Some of readers love it. Some are maddened when they’re faced with a cliffhanger at the end.
Yet stories like Outlander and Milford-Haven are perfect for the current climate of binge-reading and binge-watching that’s being adroitly offered in the form of series whether as books, television shows, or podcasts.
To date, there is no actual name for this form, other than to call it a Serial Novel—but that terms doesn’t quite make sense. Perhaps we should think of name to describe a book that has the breadth, scope and complexity of a novel, has some concluding elements at its end, but also leaves some issues unresolved.
Maybe a book like this should be called a Noveline. Some people are confused about the distinction between a wolf and a wolverine. Though they have certain things in common, they are distinct species. And each of them has an unmistakable call, and a distinctive bite.
by Mara Purl (@MaraPurl) June 10, 2018
Further Reading – Here are two further offerings on the subject of Novels, Novellas, Novelettes, Short Stories, and word count. For more detail about word count, page count, and standard definitions, there’s a good article on The Daring Novelist blog, her April 15, 2011 post
And a good, comprehensive discussion of the novel, novella, and novelette forms by Syed Hunbbel Meer can be found here
And again, here is the late Paul Alan’ Fahey’s great post: Why Novellas are Hot and How to Write One.
What about you, scriveners? Have you written a novella or novelette? How did the process compare to writing a novel? Do you like to read shorter fiction? Are you jumping on the novella bandwagon as a reader or a writer?
About Mara Purl
Mara Purl is the author of the best-selling Milford-Haven Novels, Novellas & Novelettes, which are set on the Central Coast and brought international attention to the region when her original radio drama became a hit on BBC radio with 4.5 million U.K. listeners.
A dynamic voice in Women’s Fiction with over 30 book awards, Mara speaks and teaches nationally.
She’s an accomplished audiobook performer, played “Darla Cook” on NBC’s Days Of Our Lives, and has won critical acclaim for her theatrical performances in Becoming Julia Morgan, Sea Marks, and Mary Shelley: In Her Own Words. Mara is also a former journalist for the A.P, Rolling Stone and the Financial Times of London.
And if you want to know what Anne’s up to this week, check out Debra Eve’s blog The Later Bloomer. Debra talks about Anne’s wild and crazy experiences working in a porn factory near Sherwood Forest, and the background of the Camilla Randall Mystery, Sherwood, Ltd.
BOOK OF THE WEEK
Are sea otters as cute and clever as they seem? Miranda Jones is as captivated by their sweet faces as she is spellbound by their antics. She can hardly wait to interact with them on her kayaking expedition off California’s Central Coast. Yet nothing could be more surprising than the controversy they’ve caused in the sun-drenched Santa Barbara waters, nor more disturbing than the vehement hatred they seem to inspire among local fishermen. Are the otters really as adorable as they seem? Or is there more at stake . . . When Otters Play?
“A fun and accurate depiction of the diverse marine communities set in the beautiful Santa Barbara Channel Islands. Mara makes the story come alive!”
– Don Barthelmess, Professor Marine Technology Department, Santa Barbara City College
Owl Canyon Press Short Story Hackathon. FREE! Writers are invited to submit a short story consisting of 50 paragraphs. The contest provides the first and last paragraph. Prizes: $1000, 500, and $250. Twenty-four Finalists will be included in an anthology. Deadline: June 30, 2018.
Nowhere Magazine’s Spring Contest. The literary travel magazine is looking for stories with a powerful sense of place. $20 fee. Fiction or nonfiction. 800-5000 words. Previously published work is okay. $1000 prize plus publication. Deadline July 1st.
ORISON BOOKS ANTHOLOGY$15 ENTRY FEE. They’re looking for spiritual/literary poetry, fiction and essays for their next anthology. $500 cash prize as well as publication in The Orison Anthology. Submit up to three poems, one work of fiction or nonfiction up to 8,000 words. Deadline August 1, 2018
Have you been harassed online? PEN America has launched the Online Harassment Field Manual, a first-of-its-kind resource to equip and empower writers, journalists, and all those active online with practical tools and tactics to defend against hateful speech and trolling.
13 Imprints of Big 5 publishers who take unagented submissions. From the good people at Authors Publish Magazine.
48 Small Presses looking for children’s books. Collated and vetted by Authors Publish magazine. (Great resource!)
UNO PRESS PUBLISHING LAB PRIZE For book-length fiction. Any genre. $18 ENTRY FEE. The University of New Orleans Press is looking for full-length fiction manuscripts, either novels or short story collections, for the fourth annual Publishing Lab Prize. The selected author will receive a $1,000 advance on royalties and a contract to publish their winning manuscript with UNO Press. Deadline August 15, 2018.