08 March 2023

The Novella

As a form, the novella attracted me early.  It didn’t have the capaciousness of a novel, or the tight rising action of a short story, but it promised both a wider canvas and the close reading of character.  In time, I came to realize how near it was to a screenplay, the economy of depth.

My parents had some John O’Hara titles on the shelf.  I don’t think they were fans of the later novels, which were heavy-duty door-stoppers, but they had all of the story collections – his stories from the 1960’s are terrific, and invite reappraisal – and a trilogy of novellas called Sermons and Soda-Water.  That book became my model for what a novella ought to be, rigorous and intense.

I didn’t see anything to match it for twenty years, and then Jim Harrison published Legends of the Fall, and that book had me seriously re-thinking what you could maybe accomplish in a hundred-odd pages.  (I have to say that the movie adaption is execrable, a subject for another time.)

Much influenced by Legends of the Fall, I wrote a bounty hunter novella called Doubtful Canyon.  I discovered, to my chagrin, that it’s an awkward length, too long for most general-interest magazines, too short for book publication.

Then I did a spy story, called Viper, and put it up as an Amazon e-book.  I did the same with another, The Kingdom of Wolves.  I love the form, but the issue is marketability.

We come now to the Nero Wolfe Society’s Black Orchid Award, which is specifically for novellas, written after the manner of Rex Stout.  This doesn’t mean a pastiche, like a Sherlock Holmes and Watson; in fact, you’re not supposed to use Nero and Archie at all, or their ecosystem.  It means, in the spirit of.  I read a couple of Wolfe novellas, to get the flavor, but I found them dated and contrived, and I read one of the recent winners, “The Black Drop of Venus,” which appeared in Hitchcock, and a mystery I found original and ingenious.  The obvious question: could I write one?

I don’t know the answer, but I’m taking a crack at it.  The trick, of course, is how to do Nero-esque without the tiresome Nero himself, the misogyny, the hothouse flowers, the bloviating condescension.  Archie, let’s face it, is by far the more attractive (and authentic) personality. 

A bigger question is how to address the basic gimmick of the Nero stories.  He never leaves the house.  Archie does the legwork and reports back.  Nero reads the runes and fingers the villain.  How do you repurpose this, without falling into inert convention?  “The Black Drop of Venus,” manages to solve the problem convincingly, with a good deal of wit.  I hope to follow suit.


  1. Go for it, David! SleuthSayers comes close to dominating the Black Orchid over the past dozen years. It will be great to see you there, man.

  2. Best of luck! It is a tricky format.

  3. David, I think the only reason we don't see more novellas is because their length makes them a hard sale. They have some of the strengths (and weaknesses) of both the short story and the novel, and trying one helps you explore all those facets. They need the tight economy of a screenplay (I like your comparison), but give you more room to explore character and atmosphere than a short story.

    I've won the Black Orchid twice, and neither story started out as a novella. One was a short story that was "too long," but when I expanded it even more, it worked. The other was a novel that didn't have enough texture because I couldn't find enough logical subplots. I cut it, and that worked, too.

    Now I think of a novella as having one substantial subplot and five or six important characters. That's also the formula for a good stage play. And I like to use dialogue to flesh things out. Does it always work? No, but I'm still learning.

    Good luck with your own exploration.

  4. Novellas are tricky, but I like both to read and occasionally write them. Best of luck!

  5. David, I wrote and submitted a novella for last year's Black Orchid. It's a great contest. Though I didn't win, I did receive an Honorable Mention, which for me as an unpublished wannabe, was encouraging.

    As a result, I'm working on a second novella with the plan to do at least three with this character and look to publishing them as a group, much like Rex Stout did with several of his Nero Wolfe novellas.

    Good luck on the effort. Hope to see it in the AHMM next summer!

  6. "Black Drop of Venus" was written by SleuthSayers' own Mark Thielman and I agree that it is delightful. Unlike you I am a devotee of Nero Wolfe (although I think the novels are much better than the novellas). I won the Black Orchid Novella Award with a story that follows the Wolfe/Goodwin format, which is to say a younger narrator writing about an older detective. My second novella about Delgardo appeared in AHMM last year (I did not submit it for BONA consideration) and AHMM recently accepted the third which I think has shrunk to long story size, rather than novella. I am working on Delgardo #4, which is threatening to be too long to call a novella. We shall see how that goes. Meanwhile, best of luck!


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