Size isn’t everything

Over at the Telegraph Short Story Club, Louise Doughty has been talking about short novels and novellas. Various works have been mentioned and measured, but what makes something a novella rather than a short novel? And what is a novelette (I long for it to involve eggs and a frying pan. And paper napkins)? It can’t all be down to length – I have read short stories by Stephen King longer than some people’s novels. I have seen novellas as short as a (long) short story. Someone suggested it’s down to marketing – if a publisher’s happy to promote it on its own, it’s a novel. Which leads to two questions.

The first is: What happens with self-published e-books? It can be as short as you like, and as long as the story feels satisfying and the reader doesn’t feel like they’ve been overcharged, does it matter how it’s classified? Will there be more ‘short novels’ where once they may have been padded to reach some acceptable wordcount, or cast aside as too short to bother with? And might we find the time to read more, from a wider pool of authors, that way?

The second is: Is there something about a story, its structure or content that makes it a novella rather than a novel? If you read two books of 125 pages, could you confidently say one was a novel that was a touch on the short side, and the other was a full-blown novella? I ventured (knowing next to nothing about it) that subplots or the lack thereof may come into it. I wondered if the novella may be intermediate in complexity and cast-list, between the short story and the novel (again, what about that novelette?).

I wonder further if any of this matters, to the writer? Unless you’re an author with an agent, who has to think in terms of pitching your new work to an audience, do you (should you?) think about the length of a story before you sit down to begin? Do you sit at your desk thinking ‘I fancy a novella this time’ or do you conjure a world, a character, a scene and find within that the kernel of the story that will let you know how long it needs to be? Perhaps that’s only an insight into my chaotic creativity.

Thoughts on the topic would be most welcome. Or if anyone has a recipe for a nourishing novelette.

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3 comments

  1. Hi, tm, great blog entry. I missed this one on the SSC but what an interesting topic. We are reading novellas on the MA and one thing that strikes me is the character cast. On the novellas we have read, there are two main viewpoint/voice characters, as opposed to the full length novels where there are multiple – four, five, six distinct viewpoints and voices (the two things are different – viewpoint is whose story is it; voice is how that story is told (shown)). Today, according to our lecturers, publishers want full omnipotence in their novels (multiple viewpoints with unique voices) which as a first time author is difficult to do. Allegedly. This subject of size thwarts me every time I go to write a short story. Should it be 500 words (flash fiction) or 1000 words, 2000words, 2500w, 3000w, 4000w, 5000w, 6000w or, is 8000w a short? For me it depends where the pieces going. I never write will-nilly, I always make sure I have researched my market and write the piece accordingly, with lots of pruning to get the shape and feel right, to make sure it is rounded and balanced and the beginning, middle and end are not out of kilter.

    1. Hi Kelvin. I sometimes end up writing multiple versions of a story – I write it the length it seems to want to be, then prune and tighten for flash, perhaps, or explore a theme a bit further and change the focus to beef it up. I find I get frozen if I worry too much about wordcount as I’m working – oh no it’s nearly 2000 and I haven’t said X yet, whereas in fact if I say X and get to 2500 I’ll probably find there’s at least 500 words need trimming elsewhere.

      1. This multiple approach to stories theme resonates within the MA as well, especially with viewpoints and voices. What has struck me is if a voice is not sounding exciting, has gone off the boil, you can go back and change it. Viewpoints too. If X’s story is not exciting, try Y’s or Z’s viewpoint. Recently, a story I wrote loosely titled “Old Socks and Gloves” started with one viewpoint but at 1200 words it restarted with Y’s – and the same stuff was said in 497 words. Bargain!

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