Saturday, September 20, 2014

Bastard Stepchild

Yo. Thriller Guy has a question: Why is the novella the bastard stepchild of the writing world? What is it about this not-so-short, not-too long, form that makes it so unattractive that even TG, or rather his alter ego Allen Appel, hardly ever buys or reads them? TG realizes that this is a question that approximately two or at the most three of his readers will find the slightest bit interesting, but that’s the thing about a blog, since you’re doing it for free you get to choose the subject.

Every once in a while you’ll see an article or blog post that announces that the novella isn’t dead, or that it’s making a comeback, and then in another couple of years there will be another article saying the same thing, which means that the form is pretty much dead if they have to keep announcing its resuscitation every couple of years.

TG used to think, and it was probably true, that the uncomfortable length made it difficult to market for traditional publishers. You know, the guys who printed stuff out in “books” and sold them in emporiums cleverly named “bookstores.” Let’s get technical, then TG will get back to ranting about something or other in a minute.

All professional writers who are working on a fiction project always know how many words they are “up to” at the end of every working day. Those that tell you they never pay attention to word count are lying sacks of shit posers who will also tell you how much fun they had cranking out their 2,000 words every day, whether they feel like it or not. TG has written many times -- probably far too many times -- about how difficult it is to be a professional novelist. (Note that no one ever describes themselves as a “professional novella-ist.”) So he will skip that whine, and point out that since there’s no everyday payoff for a written work that can take, usually, around a year to produce, novelists have to find things that are positive enough to keep them coming back to the desk every day. Counting words is one of the major benchmarks. So if you got in 500 words for the day, that’s ok, at least you’re hacking away at it; 1,000 is damn good; 2,000 is a remarkable day, one that leads you straight to a largish glass of whatever alcoholic beverage you use to congratulate yourself. As Constant Readers of this blog know, that’s gin for TG, but everyone has their own comfort drink.

So, while there are a number of differing opinions on what constitutes a short story, novella or novel, we’ll just use the Science Fiction and Fantasy writers of America’s word length for each category:

Short Story --- under 7,500 words; Novella --- 17,500 to 40,000 words; novel --- over 40,000 words. In general, a mystery novel is usually 60,000 to 80,000 words, a thriller is 100,000 words. The SF&F folks also have a category, Novelette, that takes up the 7,500 to 17,500 category, but that’s a no-man’s category in TG’s estimation. Besides, what we’re talking about in particular is the novella, which usually comes in at 60 to 120 pages when in printed form. And how does a novella differ from a novel? Besides the obvious answer, being shorter, a novella is usually about one character and there are no subplots and fewer conflicts. Thriller Guy is sure he’ll get some arguments, but here’s a list of some excellent books that are considered novellas by most, though TG thinks some of them are really short novels.

 A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess; Coraline, Neil Gaiman; Heart of Darkness,  Joseph Conrad; I Am Legend, Richard Matheson; Legends of the Fall, Jim Harrison; The Mist, Stephen King; The Snow Goose, Paul Gallico; The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson; The Tenth Man, Graham Greene; The War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells; The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway; Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Philip K. Dick; The Postman Always Rings Twice, James M. Cain; Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck

If you haven’t read all of these, shame on you; hop over to Amazon or somewhere and download them or order them used or whatever. Wait a minute, why did TG even start in on this topic? Oh, yeah, he was going to expound on his own experience with the novella form.

The Christmas Chicken was written first and came from an idea hatched with writer pal
Larryabout a little Victorian blind boy who asks Santa for a dog and ends up with a chicken, though, being blind, he doesn’t know the difference. Hilarity ensues. (Really) It started out as a short story, but I am at a total loss when writing in that form; it kind of got away from me and, like Topsy, just growed. (Are we allowed to say that these days?) It got longer and longer and eventually ended up at 20,336 words, around 43 pages and in solid novella territory. Sometime later, while sitting on the porch with a glass of gin, I decided that as a challenge to myself, I would write another story featuring a chicken. I have no idea why I decided to do this, it was probably the gin talking.

At the time I was reading a very cool book by another pal, Peter Cannon, who is a Lovecraft scholar who had written a pastiche called Forever Azathoth, which is very funny. If you’re into Lovecraft on any level I recommend it highly. So I had Lovecraft on my mind, and thus was born The Flock. It’s about a man known simply as The Hunter who sets off into the dark
woods to undertake a life-threatening mission. What he finds in the strange community he arrives at is, well, fairly disturbing. It’s not written to be funny. It came in at 12,500 words, around 26 pages. Not quite in official novella territory but certainly not a short story.

By this time I felt like I needed one more
chicken story, so I decided to write one that was in no one else’s style, just my own. This is a modern tale, a thriller that centers around a chicken: The Maltese Chicken, titled to honor the falcon but not as a joke. The chicken actually comes from the Isle of Malta. It ended up being 36 pages, 17,232 words. A solid novella. By then I was pretty much through with writing about chickens. But I was happy with the three stories and happy to see I could write something besides novels and blog entries. So I put the three stories up on Amazon and charged $.99 for them. I would have simply put them up for free, but Amazon doesn’t like that. They’ve been up for several years and I haven’t sold a single copy of any of them. Well, maybe a couple of copies of The Christmas Chicken. My novels continue to sell, slowly, true, at least compared to Hugh Howey and J. Konrath, but it’s clear if a person buys the first in the Alex Balfour time travel series that person goes on to buy the next four as well. So I know people like my stuff. Occasionally I sell a copy of my novel, Abraham Lincoln: Detective, which I figure has probably been bought by one of my time travel readers who has finished the series. But never the novellas.

So what’s the deal? Why don’t people buy novellas? Or maybe the better question is why don’t people buy my novellas? Huh?

Yeah, you. I’m talkin’ to you. Check them out.



  1. Novellas (of all genres) have a small yet solid niche audience. It'd be nice if more readers would learn to explore the variety of size of stories out there. Unlike They HAVE the tools (Tablets, iPads, kindles etc) they just have to find the time to enjoy the wealth of material out there.

  2. I'd be happy to try a novella as a way to get a taste of a much bigger book or a series of books. I like to get comfortable with a character for a really long stretch, stay in their world for a nice long while, and savor it for as long as possible. If you read a stand-alone Novella you are like, just getting going and's over? Not too keen on getting into that situation. :) To this day I'm annoyed at being left wondering by the Stephen King novella The Mist. Even more annoyed at the crappy stupid ending movie adaptation...