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!?!
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.)