Thursday, July 10, 2014

How long is a Novella?

I'm starting to consider that I might be a novella writer.  Short stories don't seem to fit.  My ideas for novels seem to just peter out, even when I know how I want the story to conclude, because there doesn't seem to be enough going on.

But novellas Do Not Sell.

I learned this impermeable Truth about the same time I cut my milk-teeth learning about writing and publishing in the early 1990s.  Novellas do not sell.  It's a Short Story or the Game of Thrones.  Choose wisely, young one.

Novels, you see, are no longer 50,000 words (no matter what NaNoWriMo tells you), a novel begins at a nice meaty 80,000 words or It Will Not Sell.   It doesn't matter how many Golden Age space operas or Louis L'Amour novels you've loved nearly to the point of disintegration.  Novels start at 80,000 words.  I knew this with all my heart.

And then, as Grue from "Despicable Me" would say, "Light bulb!"

My expectations are stuck in the old paradigm, the traditional publisher, agent, brick-and-mortar trifecta of gate keepers who decided that the economic realities of book binding and distribution made novellas a waste of time.  What I learned so very well belongs to that version of publishing.

Ebooks are a whole new world.

As a consumer of ebooks, however, I've been burned.  Yes, they say you can check the file size and get a good idea about how long the story is that you're buying for $2.99.  To me this misses the "customer is always right" principle.  And if I'm selling novellas I want to be entirely up-front about what I am offering.

So I did a little web surfing and research to find out how different story lengths are categorized these days. There is some variation.  Different contests and awards have their own, very specific, rules.  Some add additional categories such as short-short and long-short stories. Generally, though, this is a pretty good approximation of what lengths are called what names.

Flash fiction:     less than 1000 words.
Short fiction:    1,000 to 7,500 words.
Novelette:        7,500 to 17,500 words.  
Novella:           17,500 to 40 or 50 or 60,000 words.
Novel:             Whatever is left.

Okay, so we've still got a problem. SFWA and the RWA define the "novel" category as anything upward of 40,000 words for their award categories. To give a good approximation, this is a 150 page novel.  It is approximately 1/2 inch thick, and has been unsalable as a "novel" for decades.

I found definitions online that put "novella" at 30,000 to 60,000 words.  The goal here isn't to be pedantic, it's to set and meet the expectations of readers. Readers expect a novel to be more than 300 pages, probably closer to 400 pages and at least 1" thick. That's 75,000 words and up.   It may feel like a story has been demoted to second class, but someone who is reading a 40,000 word, 150 page "novel" is going to wonder what happened to the rest of it.

The answer I found on the Writer's Digest website used the NaNoWriMo standard of 50,000 words as the cut between novella and novel... and then went on to say, as "writing advice" to someone, to expand their novella to novel length so it would be salable... "at least 80,000 words."  That is what readers expect because for decades that is what publishers would buy.

So I'm inclined to ignore the contest regulations for the Rita and Nebula awards and cut the difference between the technical and "real" novel length presented by WD, and go with the high number for "novella" that I found on my web searches, 60,000 words.

Novella < 60,000 < Novel

Other than that... Novelette and Novella can duke it out over where they split the take.




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