15 June 2017

When Is A Novella Not a Novella?

by Brian Thornton

"[A]n ill-defined and disreputable literary banana republic."

                                                                                                                              – Stephen King

"[O]ne of the richest and most rewarding of literary forms...it allows for more extended development of theme and character than does the short story, without making the elaborate structural demands of the full-length book. Thus it provides an intense, detailed exploration of its subject, providing to some degree both the concentrated focus of the short story and the broad scope of the novel."

                                                                                                                             – Robert Silverberg

Both King and Silverberg were talking about that most difficult to quantify of literary vehicles: the novella. In keeping with the nature of the animal we're discussing here, I have to say that, fresh from writing my first novella, I think both of these contradictory statements by a couple of top-notch writers are spot-on.

I feel qualified to weigh in on this issue because, as I've chronicled in this space: I recently finished my first novella. It was both maddening and liberating.

"So what?" I hear you say. "Sounds like writing nonfiction/novels/short stories/poetry/haikus/limmericks/name your poison to me."

Yes, but as King avers above, the novella is a particular (peculiar?) animal. This is in large part because no one these days seems all that sure what exactly a "novella" is.

"That's easy," you say. "It's a work of fiction that is longer than a short story, but shorter than a novel," you say.


So what is a "novelette"? It too is longer than a short story, and shorter than a novel.

While working on my novella, I figured I'd better decide just what the hell I had on my hands, and what I intended to do with it.

You see, I didn't set out to write a novella from scratch. I set out to expand an already successfully sold and well-liked short story into something longer form.

Gee, guess which turns out to be harder!

Anyway, after much research, I have NOT been able to rectify this question. According to one "reliable" source, anything above 50,000 words is a novel, anything between 30,000 and 50,000 words is a novella, and anything below 30,000 is a short story!?!

Um. No.

30,000 words is NOT a short story.

I like the following rough formula, which is supported by, among others, SFWA (The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America):

Flash fiction: 1,000 words or below.
Short story: 1,001 to 7,500 words.
Novelette: 7,500 to 17,500 words.
Novella: 17,500 to 40.000 words.
Novel: 40,000 words and above.

Some people find these distinctions pointless. I think they're very important now, more than ever.

Why? Because the ebook (and sites like Amazon and Smashwords) has helped resurrect the novella as a viable literature form. King rightly complained (back in the day, before the internet, et. al.) that novellas were tough to sell (which was why he bundled up four of his in the collection "Four Seasons" and sold them under a single cover).

But, like the short story, the novella has begun to experience a renaissance in electronic format. Having it featured available for a single click and at costs anywhere from free to $1.99 is making a whole of writers a whole lot of money.

And good for them!

What do you think? Hit me up on the comments section, and share your thoughts on the utility and relevance of the novella!

(Tune back in two weeks from now, I'll juxtapose the experience of expanding a short story into a novella into that of writing a novella from scratch.)


  1. Yes, I believe the SFWA (The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) description is the most accurate and I follow it. I've written a number of novellas. Not much success selling any to viable markets. I'm in the process of expanding one into a novel and discovered so much more of the story. We'll see how it turns out. I'm deep into the year 1900 again and it is a difficult, rewarding trip.

  2. I love novellas--really to my mind a perfect size for storytelling, more room than a short story, more of a world to immerse yourself in, and yet not the time commitment (on the reader's part, I mean) of a novel. I do think that the novella is having a resurgence these days, both because of ebook possibilities, but also in the print publishing world, with small presses both genre (One Eye Press, for example) and literary (Nouvella) producing some fine work. And it was good to see that Bouchercon added a novella category to the Anthonys this year--first time for that? In any case, a welcome addition. Looking forward to yours!

  3. Brian,
    I agree that the novella is neither fish nor fowl. I've written two of them (one deliberately) and won the Black Orchid Novella Award (Rob Lopresti has also won), and their definition for the contest is between 15K and 20K words.

    I'm not sure it matters, though. You've made the crucial point that the extra length enables (forces?) you to do more than you can in a short story and less than a novel. That can be both good and bad. If you can figure out how to use that extra room to your advantage (more characters, maybe a sub-plot, a few more scenes?) it's a wonderful form. If you can't figure out what to do with it, you can still sell it as a stand-alone eBook.

    A friend of mine has published several eBooks over the last couple of years, all novellas. And, by the way, all darn good. I'm trying to move away from novels for awhile and get into a short story mode for awhile. That might lead to more novellas, but who knows? It's exciting to think of the new possibilities, isn't it?

  4. I enjoyed your post, Brian. There doesn't seem to be much agreement about novella length. The Short Mystery Fiction Society has four categories for the Derringers, including Long Story (4,001-8,000 words) and Novelette (8,001-20,000 words); and this year the Anthony committee defines the novella as 8,000-40,000 words. At any rate, I like the longer story/novelette/novella--for me, for most of the stories I want to tell, that seems to be the most natural length. I often start out writing what I think will be a short story and end up with something many people would consider a novella.

  5. Great piece, Brian. This is a great guide for me. Still teaching me.

  6. Great post, Brian. Have had similar discussions recently. Great to see you digging in.

  7. Brian, I think the distinctions are useful (although a bit on the meagre side), because when I first practiced writing in pre-google days, I had no idea what expectations for a novel’s word count might be. Eventually I discovered 75-80,000k seemed to be the going rate, which took away some of the how-dumb-am-I stress.

    Working with romance authors, I’ve learned they have many more gradations, usually 7 or 8. On the high side, the have the novel plus, the supernovel, and the saga. On the low end, they have the mini, the long short, the short shorts (also called coffee breaks), and– I don’t ask too many questions– the erotiquik. Come to think of it, that could give ‘flash’ fiction a new meaning.

  8. I've got a novella cookin' right now, Bro. I think it will come in at about 18,000 words. So far, I'm liking the experience.


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