Any time we think of the novella in terms of being between things – between the short story and the novel, typically – we miss what can be great about it and we miss a chance to become better at writing it. Take a good close look at it specifically, and at the tools that work best for it, and we maximise our chances of turning out compelling work.
For the reader, the novella is an evening away from Netflix and devices. It’s a plane flight from Brisbane to Cairns. It’s a movie-length read. It gets you in deeper than a short story typically can, it goes to work on you like a novel, but it lets you out the other end the same night. Two-thirds of Australians say they want to read more and here, in a hectic life with novels piling up on the bedside table waiting for holidays, is a way to do make it happen.
For the writer, if you’re like me, the novella is the biggest story you can keep in your brain in its entirety while you’re working on it. Wherever I am in a novella, I can look back and see the beginning and look ahead and see the end. With a novel, there’s that middle bit. Twenty thousand words in, the beginning’s no longer in sight, the end is a long, long way over the horizon and doubt can start to creep in. I have my notes, and some kind of roadmap, but I’ve left where I started and I can’t quite see where I’m planning to end up. With its surety of topography, the mid-novella writer can think through which levers to adjust, which strings to tweak, invisibly, to bring details to the surface at just the right moment and make the journey take the shape it needs to. The novella embraces detail. It’s great for subtle revelations about the inner workings of people, and for casting light on its themes from unexpected angles. It’s ideal for a single plotline needing more depth and elaboration than a short story allows, or for two plotlines in interesting collision. That is, it’s between the short story and the novel in scope and form as much as it is in mere length. And it occupies this space with sufficient clarity that it’s reasonable to see it, and plan for it, as a form in its own right.
The novella has always been contested ground. In 1992, Richard Ford edited The Granta Book of the American Short Story. It met with acclaim and Granta signed him up again, for a book that I’m betting was originally slated to be The Granta Book of the American Novella. Not in Ford’s hands though. Under his close scrutiny, the very concept unravelled and slipped through his fingers, admittedly in an erudite and quite scholarly way. The more he thought about it, it seemed, the less amenable the novella was to being pinned down. And the more he cornered academics in offices and hallways and demanded novella definitions, the more they shrugged their sloping tweed shoulders and mumbled into their beards.
‘I’m not mad at the word—I just don’t know what I might mean if I used it,’ Ford ended up saying, in his highly readable introduction to what became, wait for it, The Granta Book of the American Long Story.
I wanted to know what I meant when I used the word, so I made novellas my PhD topic. If Richard Ford turns up at my office door, I’m ready to talk. If he wants to turn up to my workshop, he’ll get two hours of it – an inventory of contemporary novella tools that get the best out of the form, useful info on willing novella markets around the world.
Yes, it’s possible to look at the novella throughout history, and to slice and dice 19th-century German Novellentheorie into smaller and smaller sub-particles and walk away shaking your head, but it’s also possible to take a clear-headed look at what works now. Don’t go nuts trying to make your definition bullet-proof – or, even sturdier, Richard Ford-proof – instead take a look at the tools that can make fiction great when it has a novella’s length and breadth and scope. There’s value in that, and compelling novellas can come from it.
Learn more about the compelling world of novellas directly from Nick Earls, in our upcoming seminar Writing Novella on the 1st of May 2019.