Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Misunderstood Novella

London - Auction - World's Smallest Books ~ March 9, 2006. The entire collection was expected to fetch around £60,000.

Novella. It's not a small book, a short novel, or easy to write.

I recently read a post on Chronicles of a Novice Writer titled Novellas - Real or Myth? This got me thinking about novellas and how many writers misunderstand them completely. They are not a myth, and they are not just based on word count. (Hint, they can be longer than 40 or 50k, or shorter). Here's a generalized rundown of word count for you so we know how things stand. This, of course, discounts general word counts for more specific genres like Young Adult and Children's Literature.

Micro Fiction
up to 100

Flash Fiction
100 - 1,000

Short Story
1,000 - 7,500


7,500 - 20,000

20,000 - 50,000

50,000 - 110,000

Epics & Sequels
over 110,000

Novellas are a genre in their own right. I tried to find some good information about them on the Internet, but didn't find a whole lot. From his essay, Briefly, the Case for the Novella, George Fetherling (author of the novella, Tales of Two Cities) says it best:

If size were the only consideration, however, there might be reason to revive what American magazine and pocketbook publishers of the 1940s and ’50s called a novelette. We can’t do this, however, because the term doesn’t take complexity into account. The novella isn’t simply longer than even a long short story and shorter than a novel, it’s also more complex than the first but not so complex as the second—in structure, in characterization: the works. Cariou is dead right in pointing out that the novella “is most often concerned with personal and psychological development rather than with the larger social sphere [and] generally retains something of the unity of the short story [but also] the more highly developed characterization and more luxuriant description” of the novel.

I found it interesting that novellas are generally categorized as being serious in nature. Perhaps this is because they deal with personal and psychological development. They often lack subplots, large casts of characters, and usually take place in one location. They are unified, as one source from indicates:

The essence of a novella is that it has a concentrated unity of purpose and design. That is, character, incident, theme, and language are all focussed on contributing to a single issue which will be of a serious nature and universal significance.

Many of the classic novellas are concerned with people learning important lessons or making significant journeys. They might even do both at the same time, as do Gustave von Eschenbach in Thomas Mann's Death in Venice and Gregor Samsa in Kafka's Metamorphosis - both of whom make journeys towards death.

I set out to find some good examples of novellas. I found a fun site that keeps a growing list of most "classic" novellas.

My friend Marisol gave me some good examples that she's read.

The Night Watch books by Sergei Lukyanenko
Apt Pupil by Steven King

Two of my favorite novellas are:

The Awakening by Kate Chopin (read it online here)
Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Copote

And can I just say that I hate how Amazon describes Breakfast at Tiffany's as a short novel. Come on, people.

You know, I like short. A novella is something I can curl up on the couch with and read in an afternoon. It quickly satisfies my craving for good fiction, complex characters, and rich settings. As for writing a novella, I'm thinking I might tackle one for my next work! The idea of writing something tight and unified, filled with symbolism and focused on a serious subject - that's not 80,000 words - is appealing.

Pimp My Novel did a post awhile ago about how things specific things sell. I'm not so sure a novella would be easy to sell as a first book, but it wouldn't hurt to write one! I can't imagine that it would be any easier to write than a novel. In fact, it would probably be more challenging to make all that focus work. Focus is good.

Question For The Day:
Have you misunderstood novellas in the past? Do you have any favorite novellas? Have you written one?

~MDA (aka Glam)


  1. *blush*

    I'm humbled to see you using my post as a starting point for discussion.

    Great post!

    And, yes, I think I've misunderstood novellas before.

  2. I was just talking about the difference between a novel and a novella with one of my friends this morning!

    "The Awakening" was an amazing novella, but I'm not sure if I've read any others. It would be an interesting piece to tackle!

  3. I like Stephen King's "The Mist." I also liked the movie adaptation, and I thought the ending rocked. I know many people hated both, but you should know by now that I thrive on bucking popular trends.

    One of my works in progress may end up being a novella. I think I can get it up past 60,000 words, but it may end up between 40k-50k. Time will tell. I'm still in first draft, and new elements are creeping into the story and expanding my rough outline as I create.

  4. Lady Glam, you always write such intriguing post... I guess that I never understood that this format was a favorite mine but it is… read: “The Call of the Wild” aloud to your children and watch them get caught up in the thrill of a Novella.

  5. Just kidding! I guess I've read more novellas than I thought. "The Outsiders" is one of my favorites!

  6. Fun and interesting post, Michelle! To me, the novella is like the manatee of the literary world. Just sort of strange, but very enjoyable all the same. My favorite novella is called Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto. Metamorphosis is also very good, as you mentioned here. I'm writing a dark story about a convicted cannibal, and I often thing that will turn into a novella rather than a novel. It sort of makes sense because the dark nature of that subject may be overwhelming as an entire work. But, I'm just writing the first draft, so I won't exactly know what to make of it until I'm done.

  7. The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett is a charming novella I read last year (or maybe early this year; it's all a blur). I also like:

    The Stranger (Camus)
    Animal Farm (Orwell)
    Heart of Darkness (Conrad)
    Turn of the Screw (James)
    Bartelby the Scrivener (Melville)
    The Old Man and the Sea (Hemingway)
    Pale Fire (Nabokov)
    Transparent Things (Nabokov)

    And "Metamorphosis" is of course teh roxor. Proust wrote a novella called "The Lemoine Affair" that I haven't read, but Mighty Reader recommends it.

  8. Novice: Thank you for the idea!!! I was concerned that you were thinking your novel of 60k was a novella just because of the word length. Glad things have been cleared up from several sources!

    Mariah: Cool that we're on the same wavelength! Glad you like The Outsiders. That's one of my favorites, as well.

    Rick: I've heard The Mist is really good, so I'll have to check that one out. You thrive on bucking popular trends? Really? *snickers*

    Just don't base your WIP as a novella on word count alone. I would think that a writer should have a basic idea that what they're writing is a novella so that they can focus the work in that direction - since it involves more than the word count. But maybe these things just happen, who knows. I'm such a planner.

    Marty: Thanks! I would love to read Darcy that book when she's older. How fun!

    Davin: I was thinking that Rooster might be a novella, but the more I thought of it the more I realized it didn't fit the category. I can see your cannibal book turning into a novella. Maybe that would make it more manageable for you?

    I love Metamorphosis. *sigh* Bugs.

    Scott: I need to read Transparent Things. And I'm sure that Davin will recommend anything by Proust. Of course, hehe.

    Thanks for the list!

  9. Like Rick, I liked King's "The Mist" a lot. I thought the movie was great except for the ending! I mean, it was a good ending, but I loved the ending in the book, and the movie's ending made me so depressed.

    From Scott's list I can see that I've read more novellas than I thought. "Bartelby the Scrivener" is one of my favorites.

    Michelle, do you think most novellas might fall into the "literary" category because of the complexity of the stories?

  10. Annie: That's a good question I was thinking of this morning as I wrote the post.

    From everything I've read about novellas, it seems the idea of a "shorter novel" originated from Russia, but was popularly read in France. Novellas haven't favored as much with American novelists and readers as much as other countries, I guess - from what I've gathered. I'm not sure if that has any bearing on the "serious" nature of the genre.

    I think that because the genre calls for a tighter focus and unity within the storyline and characters and ideas (focused more on psychological development rather than "larger" universal ideas), then that points more towards character-driven plots. And, of course, we've all seen how people love to pinpoint "Literary Fiction" as character driven.

    I don't personally think literary fiction can be defined so easily, but character-driven plots are certainly a large focus of many literary pieces, and that may place many novellas into the literary category.

    In my research on novellas I also read that novellas tend to use a lot of symbolism to drive their points home, as well. That, of course, is very literary. Symbolism usually means things are written between the lines - which is a good description of literary fiction for me.

    Whew. There's some of my thoughts for you!

  11. My publisher, Lyrical Press, publishes all lengths of fiction, including short stories, novelettes and novellas! Prices vary according to length...very very cool!! And they have them in a wide range of genres!!

    I have two novelettes I plan on sending to my editor!

  12. Novellas were this enigma floating out there that I only partially understood. This post is a great clairification...thanks!

  13. Stephanie: Oh, that's awesome! I'm glad to hear there's publishers out there interested in shorter pieces. I think they are wonderful for a literature collection. They take up less room, too!

    Tess: Yeah, I used to be really confused by the term, as well. Then I read The Awakening in college and started looking into what a novella really is. I hope I can write one some day!

  14. I had no idea they could be so long. I thought 5000 to 10,000 words tops. Thanks for a great post. Hmm, I might try this. I wonder how the word count for MG would differ? Thanks Michelle. Oh and love the new pic. :)

  15. When I was a kid and reading a lot of SF, Ace published a series of "Ace Doubles," which were two novellas back-to-back. After you read one, you flipped the book upside-down to read the other one. Both covers were "front" covers. I thought it was a really cool idea, and a nice way to market novellas.

  16. It was just that article in Poets and Writers that got me thinking about it. And my hand was still unhappy with me so I had a stock post to put up and spare myself the pain.

    This was a very good and informative post!

  17. Great post, Lady Glam. I haven't really considered writing a novella, and I honestly had no clue exactly what they were. Your post is helpful.

    Also, I'm glad you mentioned Kafka's Metamorphosis because it's been on my reading list for sometime and I found it online just now.

  18. Robyn: Yep, they're longer than 10k! I think maybe you had a novelette in mind? That's a good question for MG related word counts. I'm sure there's a breakdown somewhere, maybe? I should ask Tess.

    Scott: That IS an cool idea. the market needs to do that again!

    Novice: I'd like to read that article, but I don't get that magazine, sadly.

    Crimey: Thanks! Oh, enjoy Kafka. That's a great read, albeit quite strange. :)

  19. I knew the term was out there, but I didn't know what it encompassed. Books are books! (Don't shoot me for saying that, I meant it in an I love to read them all kind of way!) ;)

    I checked out that, and it turns out I've read quite a few without realizing. Go figure! Learn something new every day, eh?

  20. Janna: Thanks for reading!

    Becca: The term means a lot more when you're looking at it from the other end of a novel you've written.

    When I just read stuff I didn't care much either. ;)

  21. A text from college was entitled The Art of the Novella - Eight Short Novels. Edited by Arnold Bl Sklare included The Death of Ivan Ilych, Heart of Darkness, Pale horse, Pale Rider and The Turn of the Screw. I fell in love with the novella - much more than short stories. Breakfast at Tiffany if one of my favorites. I think a novella is difficult to put out there, though, unless you have a good collection to go with it.

  22. Midlife: Yeah, I can see that a collection to go with it would be almost necessary. The copy of Breakfast at Tiffany's that I have contains several short stories as well.

  23. I haven't written one, but maybe one day I will. Hmm.

  24. Justus: It might be a nice change. :)

  25. I'm so glad I found this post. I am working on a novella at the moment and am trying to find a good way to get an agent for it. I've read some ideas... like making it part of a series or having 2 follow-up novellas. I have always loved novellas and this was a great post! Thanks!


  26. Christi: Thank you for stopping by! Glad this could be of help to you. Good for you, writing a novella! I hope to attempt it one day.


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