what the novella is and how to write a novella

Eight Questions About the Novella, Answered

In this interview, Writers.com instructor Jack Smith answers our top eight questions about the novella form—everything from “How many words in a novella?” to his best advice on learning the novella form, writing, and maybe even publishing your own novella.

1. What is a novella, and how many words are there in a novella?

Jack SmithWhat distinguishes a novella from a novel or any other form is, fundamentally, word count. Word count for a novella is generally 20,000 to 50,000 words, although you can’t be exact about that. Here are some rough word length guidelines:

  • 7,500 words or fewer is a short story.
  • 7,500 words to 20,000 words is a novelette.
  • 20,000 to 50,000 words is a novella.
  • 50,000 to 80,000 words is a short novel.
  • 80,000 to 100,000 words or more is a full-length novel.

I think it’s important to get a sense—not to be too caught up in the numbers, but a sense for those numbers, and then to think in terms of compression and sprawl. I wrote a novella, published as Miss Manners for War Criminals, which is still over 100 pages. It was maybe 125 pages in Word. RUN, my novel that will be published this spring, runs 220 pages. It’s 47,000 words. Do I think that’s a novella or a short novel? RUN has the feel more of a short novel than a novella, even though it doesn’t have 50,000 words. It has a range, it feels like a novel, although a short one. Miss Manners for War Criminals felt more like a novella, almost more like a two-act play. It doesn’t have the range, the breadth, of a short novel, nor does it have the words.

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2. What are the advantages of the novella form?

As an author, one nice thing is that you feel that you’re going to be able to create a longer work than a short story, and you can do it in 10 weeks, like in our novella course. NaNoWriMo does 50,000 words in one month.

A lot of times people want to complete a work and not take five years to do it.

A lot of times people want to complete a work and not take five years to do it. You like that satisfaction of completing a project longer than a short story, and smacking of a novel, in a short space of time. It’s the training that’s important to a writer. You first learn short stories and you work toward a novel—well, this is a nice halfway point.

As a reader, I love to pick up a book that’s maybe 120 pages. I can read that in one sitting.

As a reader, I love to pick up a book that’s maybe 120 pages. I can read that in one sitting.

A novella creates a larger world, although it’s not a world as large as you find in a novel. It’s got some impact to it. It lends itself a lot to the compressed nature of a short story, for instance with metaphor or allegory. Think of Kafka’s Metamorphosis: you can’t read that literally. Billy Budd is a good example of a positive allegorical treatment.

3. What are the disadvantages of the novella form?

You have to rule out the commercial press almost entirely. Even Stephen King a couple of years ago had trouble publishing a novella.

Getting published. You have to rule out the commercial press almost entirely. Even Stephen King a couple of years ago had trouble publishing a novella. For the little guy, the chance of doing that would be minimal, unless you hit on something that was the pulse of the times.

The problem with the commercial press is, How are you going to package that? What are you going to charge? So for a short novel and a novella, you’ve got to go with small presses.

I don’t think people should put publishing first to begin with. Write something good, then market it.

4. What options are there for publishing a novella?

There’s a place called Nouvella that specializes in the form.

Some magazines take novellas, short ones. Alaska Quarterly Review does. Seattle Review does. These things change from year to year. McSweeney’s does. Novella-T did. These are some magazines that do it.

Some magazines have created a platform outside the magazine pages to publish individual novellas. The Massachusetts Review, a top-notch publication, with its Working Titles outprints; they have novella ebooks there. The length is stipulated between 7,000 to 25,000 words. I think of 7,000 words as a short story.

Ploughshares has a digital-only Solos, 7,500 to 20,000 words.

Miami University Press has the Novella Prize. The Drew Heinz Literature Prize from the University of Pittsburgh Press lets you send a collection of short stories and a novella.

I won this one: the George Garrett Fiction Prize. Now they’ve changed the submission guidelines to between 40,000 and 120,000 words, going from a novella to a full-length novel.

5. What kinds of stories make good novellas?

Really, anything goes. You can have a mainstream story, one that’s more literary in nature, or any form of genre fiction.

I think the one thing that’s true for all those things is you have to have a strong character, one that the reader either sympathizes with, or at least empathizes with. Let’s say you have a bad guy for your protagonist, at least we’ve got to find that character human and compelling.

It doesn’t have to be any particular thing for a novella, any more than any other form. You have to have a strong character and a strong storyline. Some novellas that are more literary may be more character-oriented than plot-oriented. But usually a reader wants a story.

So I don’t think there’s anything special in that regard.

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6. What should novella authors know to write successfully in the form?

They’ve got to learn compression. They’ve got to learn that the characterization fuels the plot, and if we’re going to develop certain things about the character, say in a scene, it should relate both to character development and to the plot.  Everything should be working for an overall theme or idea, or something about the character. One thing echos another, one thing foreshadows another.

This is especially true in something that short. It’s true to some degree even in the novel—although you might have a little more room to roam in a 500-page novel—and even more so in short stories. There’s more room to play in the novel, less so in the novella.

You don’t want bloat, you don’t want insufficiency. You want in the middle. Everything has to earn its keep.

What they need to understand is economy. It’s somewhere between the compression of a short story and the sprawl possible in a novel. You don’t want bloat, you don’t want insufficiency. You want in the middle. Everything has to earn its keep.

In Miss Manners for War Criminals, I had really extended scenes, which I could not put in a short story. Could I put them in a novel? Yes, but I’d have to have a lot more going on. The novella focused on one family reunion. There’s probably not enough there for a novel, unless I could find more to deal with. It was focused enough to be a novella, and not so focused that it could be a short story.

7. What else should novella authors know or do?

Read some novellas. Know what you’re dealing with. Here’s a laundry list of some well-known ones:

Death in Venice, Thomas Mann
The Awakening, Kate Chopin
Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka
The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway
Being There, Jerzy Kosiński
A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
The Death of Ivan Ilych, Leo Tolstoy
Daisy Miller, Henry James
Billy Budd, Sailor, Herman Melville
Notes from Underground, Fyodor Dostoevsky
Goodbye, Columbus, Philip Roth
The Dead, James Joyce
Franny and Zooey, J.D. Salinger
The Comfort of Strangers, Ian McEwan
The Pearl, John Steinbeck
Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck

I’d really urge people to read some novellas to see how things are handled.

8. What can people expect in your class on the novella?

Regardless of background, I think a lot of people join a class like Writing the Novella because they want to share with other people. They want a reading group, and not just me to give them comments, and they get different things from different people. They all bring something different. I think that’s one good thing about a class like that. And you’re not there for a grade, so it’s a really open, nonthreatening environment.

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