Indirectly, Jennifer Crusie introduced me to Barbara Monajem. When I first started writing fiction, my go-to site (besides RU, of course) was the Cherry Forum. (Avid Crusie fans go by the collective name, “Cherries.”) It’s always a thrill to see my Cherry friends get published, and I’m excited with each new release. Today, Barbara – who is now multi-published – details the difference between writing a full length novel and a novella.
I love writing novellas. Full length novels are fun too, but novellas are wonderful short projects. For the writer, they’re great because they don’t take long to complete, which means you get that blissful feeling of closure—a finished story—in much less time. For the reader, they can be a great intro to a series or a welcome taste of the writer’s work while waiting for the next full length book.
My first novella, Notorious Eliza, practically wrote itself. I was writing full-length contemporary paranormal romance at the time, but when I saw the call for novellas for the Harlequin Historical Undone line, I couldn’t resist submitting a Regency. The editors liked it and published it, so I tried writing more of the same.
Not easy. The target word count was about 15,000 words—a very short novella. I was used to writing much longer stories―up to 100,000 words―with complex plots. My editor was wonderful, and her feedback on subsequent stories helped me evolve some guidelines for myself.
These aren’t rules―I don’t go for rules—but the guidelines were extremely helpful. I have progressed to longer novellas and have relaxed my guidelines somewhat, but I still go back to them when I’m starting a story to make sure I’m tackling something that has a reasonable chance of success.
The overarching guideline: KEEP IT SIMPLE.
The way I do this is to start with Aristotle’s rules for Greek drama, also known as the Three Unities: Time, Place and Action. These rules apply beautifully to novellas. (Don’t worry, no Greek chorus required.)
Unity of Time: The story should take place within a short period of time. In other words, no months-long voyages to India or coach-and-four journeys from London to the Highlands of Scotland. Jump into the central conflict and resolve it within a day or two of intense, cathartic action.
Unity of Place: The story should take place in one location. In other words, your setting should be a limited environment, the more constricting the better. (No, that doesn’t mean a locked room with no way to escape, although that might be fun). This forces the characters to deal with their issues quickly. Hopefully, the result is a tighter, tenser story that the reader just can’t put down.
Unity of Action (aka Conflict): The conflict should be simple and easily resolved. This is a little more complicated and needs to be broken down into several aspects.
First, although the conflict should be easily resolvable, it also has to be significant and apparently unsurmountable. In other words, it seems like a big deal, but once the characters start working on it, they can overcome it quickly. One way is to have a single issue keeping the hero and heroine apart, such as a misunderstanding. You can’t get away with a misunderstanding in a longer story, but in a novella it often works quite well. Another approach is to have two issues, one for each protagonist, which can be solved at the same time (for example, both are avoiding love or marriage but for different reasons, and meeting the right person forces them to overcome their issues).
Second, although the resolution has to happen quickly, it must also be believable. This is one reason reunion stories work well in novellas. The hero and heroine already know and often love each other and just have to work through whatever separated them in the first place.
Third, in the interest of brevity, it’s best to avoid subplots. If you do have a subplot, it must be instrumental to resolving the main plot. Also, it’s best to stick to a maximum of two points of view, hero and heroine.
Now that we’ve covered Aristotle’s Unities, there are a few other aspects to consider.
Secondary characters. Remember that you are developing the hero and heroine, not their sidekicks. Secondary characters must serve the main purpose of the story. Like sub-plots, they must be instrumental but not get in the way. If a really juicy secondary character walks in and tries to take over the story (which happens to me often), silence him ruthlessly (my charming, obnoxious, pushy secondary characters are almost always male) and save him for another story. (Chances are he won’t give you a choice. He will demand his own story and refuse to leave you in peace until you comply.)
Which brings us to an exception: if you’re building a series, you can put a little more into developing secondary characters―as long as you don’t let them take over.
Back story. Because you don’t have many words to play with, make the back story simple and put in only what’s absolutely necessary. And of course, weave it in in short bits where it’s needed so as to keep the action moving forward. Better yet, make it do double duty (see below).
Double duty. Since you have a limited number of words to work with, every scene must propel the story forward significantly (no frustrating baby steps). Love scenes should move the arcs of both characters forward as well as providing titillation. Re description, only put in what is necessary, and if possible, make it do double duty. For example, a description of the hero by the heroine should not only tell the reader about the hero’s physical appearance but should also reveal something about his character. Not only that, we should learn something about the heroine’s character too, because the way she perceives him shows us something about her. Triple duty – yay! You can even move the story forward with description―quadruple duty!
This particular guideline applies to long stories as well. The more double duty, the richer the story. For some excellent examples, I recommend a blog by Joanna Bourne which can be found here.
Last of all, if you’re still above your target word count, cut the excess words. You’re a writer. You LIKE playing with words. You can think of five different ways to say the same thing. There’s always a shorter way to say exactly what you want. Rework sentences and paragraphs to make them as efficient as possible. Minimize repetition. Even deleting one word makes a difference if you do it often. The result of all this cutting is crisp, clean writing where every single word counts.
Here are some examples of how to cut excess words.
Eliminate unnecessary dialogue tags:
“Go ahead,” Miles said, hoping he sounded calm. (8 words)
“Go ahead.” Miles hoped he sounded calm. (7 words)
Omit what is implied:
He had a peevish expression on his face. (8 words)
He had a peevish expression. (5 words)
(Where else would the expression be?)
(“He looked peeved” is even shorter, but “looked” is one of those over-used words.)
An astonished giggle burst from Peony before she could stop herself. (11 words)
An astonished giggle burst from Peony. (6 words)
(Obviously it was before she could stop herself.)
Rephrase it more concisely:
“I wrote to you over two months ago and have received no response.” He still gave no sign that he knew what she was talking about. “About my daughter.” (29 words)
“I wrote to you over two months ago.” Still no sign that he knew what she was talking about. “About my daughter.” (22 words)
“I wrote to you over two months ago.” All that got her was a blank stare. “About my daughter.” (19 words)
To sum up: Keep it simple. One time, one place, one meaningful conflict that can be easily resolved. Stint on sub-plots, back story, and secondary characters, and make your words do double duty whenever possible. Cut the excess, and voilà!
What is the most difficult aspect about writing novellas, in your experience?
Author Stacy McKitrick joins us on Friday, August 15
Barbara Monajem wrote her first story at eight years old about apple tree gnomes. After dabbling in neighborhood musicals and teen melodrama, she published a middle-grade fantasy when her children were young. Now her kids are adults, and she’s writing romance for grownups.
She is the award-winning author of several Regency novellas and the Bayou Gavotte paranormal romances. She lives near Atlanta, Georgia with an ever-shifting population of relatives, friends, and feline strays.
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