The novella has been enjoying somewhat of a resurgence of late, perhaps in part due to the rise of the e-reader. Usually defined as being somewhere between a short story and novel in length, the novella allows an author to experiment with an idea that’s too long to be shoehorned into 5000 words or less, but not quite enough to sustain 80,000 words of multiple plotlines, varying character viewpoints and so on. Some of literature’s classics are considered to be novellas, such as H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, and Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives. It’s beyond the scope of this post to try and pin down the exact word count, but to qualify for the Hugo, Nebula, British Fantasy or Black Orchid Award in the novella category, you’re looking at between 20,000 and 40,000 as a maximum word count.
The novella had been quietly plodding along for a while, and you can see why publishers mightn’t be so keen to take them on. There’s no real set ‘price’ for a novella, and how much of a marketing budget can you put behind a book that’s not quite a book? Publishers like weighty word counts to make novels worth publishing. Of course, with an e-book, length is of little consequence. You don’t need to worry about word counts, or physical dimensions. They’re often cheaper, and readers can enjoy two or three novellas in the time it would take them to read a novel.
Some writers see novellas as a place in which they can explore other characters, or side plots, from their existing novels – much like if JK Rowling had written novellas about what Neville and Ginny were doing while Harry and Ron were off being Harry and Ron. It’s a perfectly good reason to write one, and the fact they’re shorter mean they take less time to write, and you can still put stories in front of readers between novels. You can explore ideas and stories that might not hold a novel together, but they’re too ‘big’ for a short story. However, I don’t believe that’s the sole purpose of the novella. I think they have a place of their own.
Think about cinema for a moment. In 1935, Alfred Hitchcock made The 39 Steps with Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll. It was only 86 minutes long. Fast forward to 2012, and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is 169 minutes long. The 39 Steps is almost half the length of The Hobbit, and yet it’s still a thoroughly enjoyable and fun film (and it has far less walking). Some stories just don’t need that many words to make their point – and some authors are well aware of the value of editing out the fluff. A novella can be much more satisfying because the author isn’t padding out the word count.
I’ve written a novella before – my first release, The Guns of Retribution, was just shy of 30,000 words. Sure, I could have padded it out, and by adding other viewpoints, subplots, and other such content, I might have doubled the word count, but it still wouldn’t necessarily have been a novel, and it could have diluted the actual story. My current release, The Necromancer’s Apprentice, is a similar length, and again, I could have padded it out, but I don’t think it would have served the story, and I’d like to examine some of the things that could have become subplots in other novellas.
That’s what it boils down to – the story. How long does it actually need to be? What does it actually need in order to be told? Has it been watered down by increasing the word count?
What do you think?
Icy Sedgwick was born in the North East of England, and lives and works in Newcastle. She has been writing with a view to doing so professionally for over ten years, and has had several stories included in anthologies, including Short Stack and Bloody Parchment: The Root Cellar & Other Stories.
She spends her non-writing time working on a PhD in Film Studies, considering the use of set design in contemporary horror. Icy had her first book, a pulp Western named The Guns of Retribution, published in 2011, and her horror fantasy, The Necromancer’s Apprentice, was released in March 2014.