Making a Case for Novellas: Short is the New Black

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

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How many books do you write a year? – To keep your work in front of readers, it’s advantageous to have a new offering every 90 days. Gone are the days when 1 to 2 books a year keeps an author in the public eye, not with all the competition issuing teasers, serials, advance chapters, etc. That’s a lot of writing between bouts of promotion.

But don’t let the competition overwhelm you. New offerings could be boxed sets of your previously released material, or a remake of a previously released novel where you have received your rights back, or it could be a shorter length work like a novella that you can write between projects. Allow me to make a case for writing novellas and see if some of these ideas fit your annual goals.

The Versatile Novella:

1.) GEN BUZZ – You can create buzz about an upcoming novel by utilizing a short back story for the main character featured in your new series. A discounted or free teaser is a great way to entice new readers to try your books. (Word of Caution – If you plan on submitting your new series for traditional publication, a shorter serialization of your idea may be objectionable to a publisher. They could feel the material has already been exposed to readers.)

2.) ENHANCE CASH FLOW – Novellas can generate cash flow between longer projects.

3.) CHARACTER FOCUS – Novellas can be used to feature the main character in unique clever scenarios or if your readership finds your secondary characters interesting, you could feature them in shorter offerings. For example, I have always wanted to know how Elvis Cole and Joe Pike met in Robert Crais’s PI series. Crais has fielded this question many times from readers. A short story could be a huge revenue generator and a gift to his legions of fans.

4.) ADVANCE TEASERS – Have you noticed how many big named authors release the first 10 chapters or so for a new novel coming out shortly? This lure can also serve as promotion of the series or novel and be a part of the new material offering every 90 days.

5.) WRITING TIME FILLER – A novella can be a writing time filler (between contracts) if you are traditionally published. I dislike sitting around while my agent pitches my proposals. I can keep working while I wait and it’s a good distraction. Any novella I write could be new material for something to explore as a new series. (Word of caution – If you plan on using characters from a series under a published contract where you don’t have the copyrights back yet, be sure to read your terms to determine if you’re allowed to write a shorter length story with your original characters. Your sub-rights clause and other provisions may not allow you to do that.)

6.) DISCOUNTED PRICES – Some readers today have less time for reading (so shorter is better) and/or they may have budget concerns with all the books they read in a year.  A shorter story line, priced at a discount, might be what they are looking for. Amazon Kindle Worlds were created to be along the lines of fan fiction, but with more polish and better covers. Amazon sets the pricing, depending on length, but most of their novellas are 25,000 words priced at $1.99. An avid reader can buy a whole series easily.

Challenges of Writing a Shorter Story:

I have always been a novel writer. I never started out on shorter material, thinking it would be easier to write, as some people might believe. In my mind, a shorter story is more challenging. It’s only been this year that I’ve written shorter stories for Amazon Kindle Worlds. (See my OMEGA TEAM series at this LINK priced at $1.99 ebook) My novellas have been 25,000-30,000 words, at my option. That length forced me to change how I write, but I didn’t want my readers to feel that I’ve short-changed their reading experience because my voice or style has been stripped down.

Personal Challenges:

1.) Plots must be simpler – This has taken some new thinking and conceiving of plots in advance while I’m planning my story. More intense story lines with complex layers have to be shed in order to peel back to the essence of a story.

2.) Minimize subplots – Subplots can still be done, but they are more of a challenge, so I try to limit the way I think out a story.The subplot must be integral to the overall story and enhance the pace or suspense.

3.) Setting descriptions and prose must be simplified – Getting straight to the bare emotional elements of a scene or a story will stick with readers and provide them with a solid reading experience, without making them feel that the writing is too sparse. I must be truly selective on what images I choose and the wording I use to create the most impact.

4.) Novellas are like screenplays – My shorter stories are more like screenplays with a focus on dialogue and major plots movements, less on back story and lengthy internal monologue.

5.) Novellas are like the visuals of film – I like this aspect. Give the reader a visual experience as if they are watching a movie. The scenes must have memorable images to tap into their minds quicker, using fewer words to do it.

FOR DISCUSSION:

1.) What do you see as personal challenges to writing a shorter story? Is it easier for you to write a novel?

2.) How many books or projects do you write a year? How do you manage your between projects time?

 

Kim Haynes Photography

Kim Haynes Photography

Bestselling, critically-acclaimed author Jordan Dane’s gritty thrillers are ripped from the headlines with vivid settings, intrigue, and dark humor. Publishers Weekly compared her intense novels to Lisa Jackson, Lisa Gardner, and Tami Hoag, naming her debut novel NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM as Best Books of 2008. She also pens young-adult novels for Harlequin Teen. Formerly an energy sales manager, she now writes full time. Jordan shares her Texas residence with two lucky rescue dogs.

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36 thoughts on “Making a Case for Novellas: Short is the New Black

  1. I definitely think writing shorter is harder. I’ve always written novel-length work and one of my assignments to myself is to try my hand at a novella length work this year. Re-training my brain to simplify plots, reduce subplots and strip down to the essence of the story will be harder then re-writing a novel 10 times. But as you mention, maintaining presence is key and I don’t know how you can avoid writing short fiction if you want to keep yourself out there.

    • I’ve been experimenting with my process while writing these Kindle Worlds books. This post summarizes what I’ve noticed most I like your “retraining my brain” phrase. Exactly.

      Thanks, BK.

  2. Love the novella form, Jordan. Many of the great pulp writers wrote them (e.g., Cornell Woolrich). These were put in pulp mags which were cheap to begin with and served a voracious readership.

    Trad publishing doesn’t do novellas well (with certain exceptions) because the cost v. price differential is too great, and because browsing readers look at the smaller trim size and resist it. So when a great novella writer like Stephen King comes along, they put four or five of them together in a collection. Ditto some romance writers. But these writers all have an A-list following.

    Now, with digital, a novella is a viable form, though I don’t think it’s as popular or profitable as full-length, unless an author can create a serial that catches on (not easy).

    Still, I like the idea of writing a story that ends when it ends. I had good early experience in self-p with a couple of novellas, and do plan to do more.

    Have you noticed how many big named authors release the first 10 chapters or so for a new novel coming out shortly? This lure can also serve as promotion of the series or novel and be a part of the new material offering every 90 days.

    I hope you don’t mind a word of caution here. Many (and I’ll wager most) readers HATE it when they think they’re getting something complete, and it’s just a teaser. An A-lister can get away with it, but an author trying to build a fan base can’t. Make sure your novella is complete and satisfying. I’ve also read some stinky novellas from A-listers trying to hype a new release. They can survive the stinkiness. New writers cannot.

    • I knew you would chime in on the pro side of novellas, Jim. You’re a master at writing them in a classic style. Love your comments.

      I should have been clearer on my 10 chapter release. I meant that big named authors & their houses have developed this to entice awareness and are competing with any author trying for offerings every 90 days. You’re right that the avg author shouldn’t try this.

      I personally avoid buying a novel this way. I like the whole book experience without interruption. And I want to know what it’s going to cost me when I click.

      Thanks, Jim.

      • In the same vein, Jim…
        When we released our novella, “Claw Back” it was priced to sell (lower than a novel of course) but we still got some feedback from readers who were disappointed over the short length. I don’t know what they expected…maybe readers today are less accepting of shorter forms?

        • People click too quickly without reading the book description and details. I’ve seen authors be very explicit, including adding NOVELLA or SHORT STORY in the title, but readers still complain. If it’s priced right, readers shouldn’t ding a writer too much, esp if they mistakenly bought before reading the details.

          • It is a marketing problem. I’ve heard that emphasizing NOVELLA in the title or description impedes sales. Readers seem to think it implies something “less,” even though the emotional impact of a novella can be just as strong as a novel (e.g., Shawshank or The Body by King).

            It’s a conundrum that may not have a single right answer … except, of course, making the novella itself so dang good readers won’t feel they’ve been taken (as has been the case with some rush-job A-lister novellas).

    • Off topic Mr. Bell, but I thought of you yesterday while watching Jeopardy, as one of the categories was pulp fiction/detective novels. I was thinking to myself if you had been on the show you would’ve been cleaning house. 😎

      • Yes, I would have killed that one. Probably the only category, though. Not “Shovels and Mayonnaise” or “15th Century Clockmaker Toiletries.”

        BTW, as a young actor I was offered a chance to try out as a game show host. I harrumphed, as I wanted to be the next Brando. Now, looking at the dough Trebek rakes in for a few months’ work, I slap my younger self.

  3. I love reading and writing novellas. My books tend to become novellas just because I have a small cast, with only one or two subplots. My brain just works better in that form. I enjoy reading it, too, because I can read a whole book in just a few hours. A series of novellas is like binge-watching a TV show. 🙂

    • And maybe that analogy of “binge-watching a TV show” is good for those of us who need to retrain the brain on writing shorter work. I like it.

  4. I love writing flash fiction (under 1000 words is what I consider flash). In fact, I’m putting together a book of flash as we speak to keep my readers happy while they await the release of my new thriller (that’s taking FOREVER). I haven’t written a novella, but it’s next on my to-do list. For years I thought there was no way I could write short. But once I got the hang of it, I really enjoyed it. I write a couple stories a week in between other things. It’s a great way to test out a new character’s voice or a simple idea that’s not worthy of longer works.

  5. I have written a 20,000 word novella for a Fall release. It’s only the second time I have written a story in this length. It depends on my having the right idea at the right time. One to two full-length books a year works well for me with other projects in between. There’s a lot of pressure to produce these days, but I’d rather take my time than get stressed over it.

  6. Good advice, Jordan. When James Patterson announces that he’s going to be turning out novellas (with co-writers) you know it’s a wise business decision. I’ve written several novellas. They sell nicely.

  7. I published a novella as part of my Mapleton Mystery series. I agree there’s no ‘right’ way to do any of this, but I did include ‘novella’ in the title because even though most of the sales channels give some indication of length, it’s not always easy to find or interpret and readers might miss it. In my case, I was waiting to hear from a publisher, and I needed something to do to keep my name out there. I chose to feature a secondary character from the series, and let him solve a case that had been a side thread in the previous 2 books. I had fun, but I don’t like writing short. Most of my drafts come in around 105K, and I do cut them, but my novels still end up around that 95-100K point.

    As for sales? Not spectacular. It’s cheaper than my novels, but I haven’t been willing to drop it to that 99 cent price point, so I know it’s up against full-length novels (my own included) that sell for a dollar more. But — there were editing and cover art costs to produce the product, and there’s that sticky Amazon royalty rate for low-priced books.

    • I’m concerned about training my brain to writing shorter. I prefer a fuller layering to my voice that a novel allows me to create. I have a novel between my Amazon KWs and hope to make that a thing, of keeping both types of lengths going. Thanks for your input, Terry. Always appreciated.

  8. I’ve done a few, most for my trad pubs, that came out in a package with other authors. They did well. But recently I did something that was too short to be a novella so I labeled it a short story. Since it’s a freebie, haven’t gotten any complaints. To my face, anyway! It takes place about halfway through a 20 year story time gap between my first two futuristic romances and the third. (and a 20 year gap in writing them, too)

    Interestingly, I only started writing it for me, so I would have in my head what these people had been doing during all that time. And one day I realized I actually had a story, that could be tied into both the previous books and the new one.

    And writing shorter is definitely harder. Who was it who said “Forgive the length of this letter, I didn’t have time to make it shorter”? Very true.

  9. I am trying to get more novellas done, as I finish my next novel, and narrate audiobooks full time, while holding a day job. I wonder if the South Koreans are going to make their illegal human cloning experiments available to the public. My cousin Leonard got in his time machine and went to the future to see if I actually made it all work and was still alive in 2030. Turns out my biggest novel is yet to be written.

    And not only am I still alive in 2030, but Leonard was a bit freaked out by the fact that I looked five years younger than I do today. And there were two of me.

  10. Readers’ attention spans aren’t what they used to be. I think that’s the main reason for the new popularity of shorter fiction.

    Of course, some of the greatest works in fiction are novellas. A Christmas Carol. Heart of Darkness. The Old Man and The Sea.

    As for flash, I think it’s not only enjoyable to read, but also to write. It’s tough to pull it off; more akin to writing poetry than a rambling novel.

    • I love The Turn of The Screw. And, I believe it is a novella.
      With shorter works, the writing has to be more precise than with longer.
      Someone who was nominated for an award (for his novella) said that since there were fewer novellas written than there were novels, he had less competition for the award. (I can’t remember if he won.)

      • “Someone who was nominated for an award (for his novella) said that since there were fewer novellas written than there were novels, he had less competition for the award. (I can’t remember if he won.)”

        I don’t think that would be true today. It seems everyone writes shorter these days, but I like his attitude. Ha! Thanks, Augustina!

  11. Hi
    The hardest thing I ever wrote was a short story under 250 words for a flash fiction competition. It taught me a lot about how to move a story forward as efficiently as possible, while still making it all clear for the reader. I really had to consider every word. It also sharpened my editing skills!
    I have been writing short stories (under 5,000 words) while working on a novel and I really think it has made me a more disciplined writer.
    Linda

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