A Perfectly-Sized Story: The Resurgence Of The Novella

With the growth of e-books, something interesting has been happening with story and book length. With the ease of putting out ‘books’, many people have tested the waters with short stories, but others have gone for something longer‌—‌not quite a novel, but more than a short. And it’s not only independently published authors who are getting in on this. James Patterson is now releasing his ‘bookshots’, billed as ‘stories at the speed of life’, and I’m sure other big names will follow soon.

This is nothing new, but maybe now it’s time is right.

Why now? Let’s take a step back.

Books for saleA few decades ago, when dinosaurs roamed the plain, there were places known as bookstores, where these strange physical objects called ‘books’ could be bought. Often, these bookstores stocked nothing but books, and many didn’t even sell coffee. If you wanted to read, you’d enter one of these establishments, browse the shelves, select what you wanted, then pay at the till, handing over these strange notes and scraps of metal that were called ‘money.’

It took time to choose the right book. Those in charge of these establishments would place titles they wanted to shift face-out, or even on separate displays. The reader would look for authors they knew and trusted, or maybe they’d be drawn in by an interesting-looking cover. They might pick up a book and read the back, or may even open the book (very carefully, making sure they didn’t damage the spine, because these were delicate, precious artifacts) and read a section.

And usually there were multiple books that looked promising. So how was one to choose, especially when they might all be available for the same price?

There was one fall-back position‌—‌look at the size of the book, either physically, or (if you were slightly more canny) at the page numbers and print size. And then you’d go for the largest book, because you got more for your money that way.

Maybe that’s being a little blunt, but the size of a book was one way publishers tempted readers, and it was rare to find a short book for sale. Yes, there were exceptions, but they tended to be classics like Of Mice And Men or Animal Farm, or one-offs by big-name authors that publishers were confident would sell.

Apart from these oddities, you were limited to novels or collections of short stories.

Fast-forward to today, when so much reading material is digital. How long is a book now? However long it needs to be. And I think this is great.

I like novels. I like having a story I can get my teeth into. But there are times when I want something else.

Short stories are great for reading while having a coffee. They are wonderful ways to fill ten minutes while waiting at the dentist (because, if your dentist is anything like mine, the time of your appointment and the time you are seen are never the same, and you don’t want to sit there doing nothing).

Then there are continuing stories. Look at any e-book retailer, and you will find series after series. This is, of course, nothing new, but it’s far more prevalent now. You can read a novel, then continue with another about the same characters, in the same world. You can be immersed in that world for far longer. If the series is good, your commitment will be rewarded with twists and turns you never saw coming. And independent authors, who can bring out new volumes at a fast rate (because they don’t have to deal with printing presses, or ensuring a good position in book stores), can keep readers of these ongoing sagas happy with multiple releases over the year.

But there’s one book length that, I feel, has benefited most from the e-book revolution, and that’s the novella. Technically, both ‘short books’ mentioned before fit into this category, as do things like The Old Man And The Sea. Publishers generally haven’t been too keen on novellas, mainly because they take almost as many resources as novels, but readers aren’t generally prepared to pay the same price for such a short book (why spend the best part of £10 or $10 or whatever on something barely over 100 pages when you can get a 500-page epic for the same price?). But with e-books, this problem goes away.

I’ve noticed myself reading more and more novellas over recent years, as I’ve switched from print to e-ink.

BookI’m one of those strange people who would rather read than watch TV. I do enjoy the occasional film, but I’d still prefer to relax with a book at the end of the day. And a novella is the perfect length for an evening of escapism. 25000 words, or just over 100 pages, normally takes a couple of hours to read, the same time as the average film. It’s a great length of time for an escape, and when I put the book down (okay, turn off the e-reader), I feel satisfied‌—‌I’ve had a complete story. I feel like I’ve been watching a film in my head, and now I’m emerging into daylight, my eyes adjusting after the dark of the cinema, sad to have to return to reality, but happy for the couple of hours I’ve been entranced by the story.

The comparison between novellas and films goes deeper. Many successful films have been based not on novels but on novellas (and short stories). In most cases, a novel contains too much to condense into a couple of hours on screen, and huge chunks have to be abandoned, or characters and events merged. But a novella is just right. Think of films like The Shawshank Redemption and Stand By Me, both of which came from Stephen King novellas. In fact, King’s written quite a few novellas, although they tend to turn up in collections like Four Past Midnight and Full Dark, No Stars, rather than being available on their own.

Also, some stories simply work better as novellas. I’ve read quite a few novels that have contained obvious padding, simply to make them fit a certain length. I’ve read short stories that felt rushed, and needed more time and space than they had been given.

Of course, there are other lengths of stories, from flash fiction to ongoing epics that never seem to end (and I realise that statement could be negative or positive, depending on preferences and the content itself). And with digital reading, they are all equally available.

So, if I want to escape for a couple of minutes while I wait for an appointment, I can grab a bit of flash fiction. I can have a coffee and take twenty minutes over a short story. I can spend an evening with a novella, or a few evenings with a novel. Or I could dedicate a few weeks to a series, delving deep into a new world.

Story length is no longer defined by physical parameters, or limited by cost and return-on-investment. Stories can truly be as long as they need to be.

And that has to be a good thing.

What I learnt from doing NaNo in a week

home-office-336378_1280At the start of November, I posted about how I wasn’t taking part in NaNoWriMo because I wasn’t ready to start writing a new draft (and you can read that post here). Instead, I set myself the challenge of completing the first round of editing Dominions 4 by the end of the month.

That went better than I expected. By the 20th of the month, I had the first edit finished. There’s still work to do, but I’ve sorted out the structure of the story, and I’m far happier with it. I need to let it sit for a while, then do another pass.

So I needed something else to do. As a breather, I re-read something I’d written before I started work on the Dominions series, just to see what I now thought of it. And I was pleasantly surprised. The story needed tweaking, but it was a good start, and I liked the characters. But the writing itself was pretty poor. Although I only wrote it a couple of years ago, I’ve learnt a great deal in that time.

I decided this story needed a re-write, and so I made notes of things I wanted to change, and off I went. It flowed well, at least initially, and I found myself getting words down at a fair pace.

I looked at the calendar, and I wondered‌—‌it was Wednesday 23rd of November when I started, a little over a week before the end of the month. Before the end of NaNoWriMo. 50,000 words.

Could I manage it?

I know some people write more than this in a week. Some people have managed to complete the NaNo challenge in 24 hours (I don’t think I can even type that fast!). So doing NaNo in a week should be feasible. Even with a full-time job, and a family. Maybe.

I honestly didn’t think I’d manage it when I started, but I found more writing time. I didn’t read as much in the evenings. I got up early both days over the weekend, instead of just one. I put headphones on to escape, and I wrote. And, as the week progressed, it looked more and more possible.

By the end of Tuesday 29th, I had 51,000 words. I’d (unofficially) managed NaNo in a week.

I started to do the maths. 50k in a week meant 100k in a fortnight. This would need editing, so maybe add a couple more weeks on top of this. These people who manage to write a book a month‌—‌I could see how that might be possible.

Only, for me, I know it isn’t. The maths doesn’t work like that. I might have managed 50,000 words in a week, but that was an anomaly.

I learnt a lot from that week.

There’s always time.clock-1634185_640

When I first wrote this story I was managing a couple of hours writing a week. I’ve pushed myself since then, settling into a routine that works for me, and am probably now averaging ten to fifteen hours. And now, within this final week in November, I found about thirty hours for writing.

The time is there. I just had to prioritise the writing over other things, like browsing the internet, or listening to music, or all the other things that seem to suck time.

And this is useful to know for the future. I can push myself to find more hours, if I’m determined. When I dream of getting something done my a certain time, I know that I can work at it. I can find the time.

But there’s another side to this…

push-150175_640Constant pushing is not good.

I like doing exercise. I do a couple of sessions on a bike each week, and I try to push myself hard. It feels good, but it feels even better to stop at the end.

Writing’s a bit like that. I’ve proved that I can push myself. But, once that week was over, I needed a rest. Once December arrived, I found myself lagging. I needed time to do other stuff‌—‌not only as a physical break, but also to let my mind go elsewhere. I needed to read, or to lounge about and listen to a bit of music. I needed to switch off.

At first, this did surprise me. I enjoy writing, so surely doing more of what I enjoy would be good?

But, as with the exercise, rest is just as important.

And there was another reason I wanted to slow down…

sloth-1531577_640Speed does not necessarily mean good writing.

This is an argument that is often levelled at NaNo, and all those authors who write books fast. But there is a counter-argument, that writing fast helps get the ideas down. If the story is planned, and you are ‘in the zone’, then it is good to let the words come. Besides, this is only the first draft. There will be time to edit later.

I subscribe to this idea. I have so far found writing the first draft to be the quickest, and most enjoyable, part of the writing process.

Yet I started questioning that for this story. As I neared 40,000 words I felt myself questioning what I was writing. I’d strayed from the original story a few times, and I’d struggled to get it back on track. Characters were doing things that made the continuing story awkward‌—‌not bad things, and some of the scenes worked well. But not in context of the story.

I was conscious of needing to pull things together as I wrote, but I was also racing that 50,000 word target, and I didn’t want to stop.

At about 60,000, a few days into December, I did stop. And I realised the story had derailed. I wasn’t as sure of it any more. I needed a rethink.

I see now that it would have made more sense to stop over the weekend and reassess. I needed to go back to my planning and re-work it. But if I’d done that I wouldn’t have completed the challenge.

And this is stupid. Who cares how many words I manage in a week? Anyone reading my books is only interested in how good the story and the writing is. They don’t want‌—‌and don’t deserve‌—‌second-rate work that was done in a race.

mark-516277_640Focusing on one thing means ignoring others.

Normally, I try to do a few things related to writing over the week. I’ll be writing or editing in the mornings, but I’ll be doing stuff connected with marketing in the evenings‌—‌or, at least, this is the plan. I’m a beginner at the whole marketing / business thing, and I know there’s a great deal I need to learn.

Yet for that week at the end of November, I ignored all of this. I only wrote.

And this isn’t healthy. The books are more than the writing. If I want to do them justice, I have to look after them as best I can. I have to look at how I can find readers who might be interested in them. I have to find ways to make readers aware of the world of Dominions. I have to plan other books. I have to learn more about writing, and the craft of storytelling, as well as all this marketing stuff.

Going back to the exercise analogy, if I did nothing but use an exercise bike, I’d be doing myself a disservice. Yes, aerobic exercise is good, and cycling will build up my legs, but what about the rest of me? To get the best out of what I do, I need to have variety. I need to focus on different parts of my body at different times.

It’s the same with writing. If I only focus on getting words onto the page, there’s so much I’m missing. I should be thinking about story, and covers, and product description. I need to look for ways to communicate with (potential) readers. This is as much about marketing as it is about creativity.

Getting words down is only one part of producing books.


So I’ve managed NaNo in a week. I have half a story, and I’m not too happy with how it’s turned out. Can I call this a success?

It depends on how you look at things.

The story’s a mess, but I’ve learnt from this. One of the ways of discovering what works in storytelling is to look at what doesn’t work and change it. Everything can be a positive learning experience. Overall, despite not being sure what I want to do with this story now, I’m pleased I managed this challenge. Sometimes, knowing you can meet a challenge is success in itself.

Besides, I managed my first challenge too. I’ve got an edit of Dominions 4 that I’m pretty pleased with. That alone is good enough for a month.

Now all I need to do it the next edit. And the next.

And work on some other books.

And learn more.

And remember to relax.

After all, I’m doing this because I enjoy it. After a few down days, I’ve got my enthusiasm back for writing.

Time for another challenge.