Why and how to write novellas

In the past, I blogged about how the rise of e-publishing has also given the longer forms of short fiction, namely the novelette and the novella, a new lease on life after traditional print publishing had largely eliminated them.

But though novellas have become newly viable, a lot of people seem confused with regard to what a novella is and how to write one, which is only to be expected, considering that the novella has been marginalized for so long.

So here are two primers on the novella form and how to write it:

At The Kill Zone, James Scott Bell offers his advice for writing a novella focussed on the crime and suspense genres. It’s a nice concise primer, though I don’t agree with everything he says. For while my one genuine novella Mercy Mission only has a single POV character, the even shorter Silencer novelettes usually have several POVs and the Zane Smith/Shoushan Kariyan novelettes have duelling first person narrators.

At One Thousand and One Parsecs, Joe Vasicek tackles the novella form from the perspective of an SF writer. Now science fiction is the one genre (along with fantasy) where the novella never really died out. The most commonly used distinction between the various lengths and forms of fiction was laid down by the SFWA and the big genre awards like the Hugos and Nebulas award both novellas and novelettes.

I agree with Joe’s point that the novella and novelette forms offer more room for complexity than a short story, but don’t get as sprawling and over complex as many novels. However, I’d add another advantage and that is that novellas and novelettes are ideal for ongoing series featuring the same characters.

All of my three series, the Silencer series of 1930s set pulp thrillers, the Zane Smith/Shoushan Kariyan series of 1960s set spy adventures (I really need to find a snappier title for those) and the Shattered Empire series of space opera adventures are all comprised of novellas or novelettes. My upcoming romantic suspense series New York City’s Finest (the first installment is currently going through copyediting and proofing) will be of a similar format.

All three, soon to be four, series are made up of self-contained stories featuring the same setting and cast of characters. The Shattered Empire series as well as the upcoming New York City’s Finest series have an overarching plot, namely the Galactic Rebellion in the case of Shattered Empire and the hunt for a gangster boss known only as The Kraken in New York City’s Finest. The Silencer and Zane Smith/Shoushan Kariyan series don’t have an overarching plot – the individual novelettes are self-contained, though there may be references to previous adventures.

As for why I write this way, rather than the currently popular serial format, I guess it’s due to having read so much SF in my formative years. Because a lot of the great epic SF works are basically assembled more or less self-contained novellas and novelettes due to the fact that they were published in magazine form first. Sometimes, this is acknowledged, e.g. with Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, which is really a series of seven novellas and novelettes, or parts of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series or – for an indie example – Hugh Howey’s Wool. Sometimes it’s not acknowledged, e.g. I strongly suspect that Simon R. Green’s Deathstalker saga was at least partly assembled from novellas or novelettes, because the whole saga has a choppy and episodic feel, jumping from planet to planet, character to character and adventure to adventure (the planet of the homocidal killer toys segment near killed me, because it fits in with very little around it).

Indeed, I’d argue that the format of a series of more or less closely interlinked novellas is ideal both for the crime and suspense genres (to which three of my series belong) as well as the space opera genre, to which the remaining series belongs. Because the standard format for the crime genre – the format that was established by Edgar Allan Poe himself and continues to this day both in literature and TV – is that of “same investigator(s), different cases”. The cases themselves are usually fairly self-contained and not overly complex with a defined beginning and ending.

In science fiction, particularly the space opera subgenre, the situation is exactly the opposite. Because space opera is a truly epic subgenre. It spans planets and galaxies, has a cast of dozens, if not thousands and can span many decades or even centuries. Cramming all the different plot threads, adventures, characters and planets into a single big book or trilogy is a daunting task. However, focussing just on a few characters in a single setting (or two) with a single problem is a lot easier, both for the reader and the writer. And so space opera is the ideal genre for novellas.

Shattered Empire is very much built up this way and indeed the premise specifically states that the series tells the story of the great galactic rebellion against the Fifth Human Empire from the POV of its protagonists. Hence, Mercy Mission focusses on Ethan and Holly (more Holly, since Ethan doesn’t like being the POV character) and a specific rebel mission. Debts to Pay, the next installment, will focus on Holly’s friend Carlotta Valdez and a different mission. And there’ll be more stories featuring Ethan, Holly, Carlotta, rebel leader Arthur Madden and other characters who haven’t even shown up yet. So far, I’m trying to keep myself from jumping around in time as well, which is difficult, because I have an almost complete Holly and Ethan adventure set some time after Mercy Mission, which simply isn’t due yet, because the relationship has developed considerably in the meantime.

If I tried to tell the whole Shattered Empire saga in a single go, it would likely be a massive mess. Now I have some of those massive messes buried on my harddrive and trust me, you don’t want to see them. Neither do I, until I can actually find a way to organize them into something at least vaguely readable. But a series of interlinked novellas is doable. Even better, if a reader doesn’t care about a specific character, they can skip any installments featuring that character.

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