To Novella or not to Novella

In the world of fiction, there are novels and there are short stories.  The money of course is in novel-length fiction, but short stories have made a comeback with the advent of ezines, and hey, you can read one on your phone.  But the middle ground, the valley of death for writers, is the novella. Writers can sell 100,000-word novels or 1000-word short stories, but finding a market for a 15,000 to 40,000-word novella is a challenge.

Which is too bad, because both as a writer and as a reader, I like novella length.  It’s chewy enough to get lost in yet you can read it in one sitting. Perfect for airplane flights for example.  As a writer, I like being able to tell a full story without having to worry about so many plot holes, not to mention eliminating the bane of many writers and all readers – a saggy second act.

Fortunately, there is a glimmer of hope for this middle ground. The ebook revolution has eliminated the book printing and binding overhead, and attention spans for everything these days seem to be shortened.  A few major publishers like Tor (a Macmillan imprint) have started publishing novellas; the Kindle Singles program is very successful; and there is even an award category for novellas in some cases (e.g. the Hugos).

Which puts me in a dilemma.  I’ve had good success writing and selling spec fiction short stories (30 so far). Interestingly, one of my short stories, “Gho,” which was really novella length (25,000 words), got picked up in an anthology, Bardic Tales and Sage Advice VI. Originally novel length, I pruned it way (way) back. Somewhat surprisingly, it read so much better. And it even recently got republished in a best-of anthology, Bardic Tales and Sage Advice X. So I’m trying that same trick with another shoebox novel, culling it to 35,000 words. Too soon to judge that, but again I think the shorter cut actually reads far better.

Back to the dilemma, should I purpose-write a few novella-length works and see how that goes?  The effort of writing a book tends to go exponential as the word-count climbs, keeping all the plot threads tied off and not getting all knotted up (think how much more work it is to untangle a 100-foot strand of Christmas lights than a 50-foot strand…). So I could probably write 5 novellas in the time it takes to perfect 1 novel. But, given the limited publication options, is it worth the risk?

That is the question.

C.R. Hodges

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