I’ve blogged about this before, but novellas are a strange breed. Big paper book publishers don’t really sell them because readers don’t really buy them. They’re only good for an hour or two of entertainment–how much can you really charge for that? Many big fiction magazines will print them, but obviously not more than 1-2 per issue, because they’ve only got so much space. They’re not very widely-published in online mags, either, because they only have so much money to spend per issue and I don’t think they’re seen as very popular.

But I just finished revising my second-ever novella two days ago. After cuts, it came in right under 17,000 words. It feels great–but it’s a fantasy novella, and a quick look at Duotrope shows three pro markets for the length: Fantasy & Science Fiction, Tor.com, and the Writers of the Future contest. Expanding that to semipro pay (around 1 cent/word) turns up three more markets.

Not many options.

Let’s get specific about terms here, because the precise definition of “novella” varies. For determining awards eligibility and such, SFWA defines short stories as 0-7499 words, novelettes as 7500-14,999, novellas as 15,000-39,999, and novels as 40,000 words and up. Nobody outside the industry really pays attention to or even knows the definition of the word “novelette,” though. And the line between novella and novel is definitely wide and blurry–40,000 words is only about 133 pages, which is extremely short for a modern-day novel. Even Harlequin category romances are usually more like 50,000, and except in genres with page counts that are frequently shorter (Young Adult) or longer (epic fantasy), publishers generally won’t touch anything from a first-timer below 80,000 or above 120,000. Plenty of exceptions, but that’s conventional wisdom these days.

If you asked me to define length by some combination of industry standard and gut feel for reader expectations, I’d break it down like this:

Flash fiction: 1-1000 words; roughly 1-3 pages

Short story: 2000-9000 words; 6-30 pages

Novella: 15,000-36,000 words; 50-120 pages

Novel: 60,000-300,000+ words; 200-1000+ pages

There are some missing word counts here, clearly. I’d shade anything in between toward whatever category it’s closest to, but the in-betweeners are kind of bastard lengths. A 1200-word piece is really more flash fiction than short story; 12,000 words should probably be called a novella, I guess, but if you ordered something labeled as a “novella” online and three days later you got a story that’s only 40 pages long, you might feel a little cheated. Same deal if you ordered a “novel” that arrived as 150 pages. Technically accurate, just lacking.

It’s not a big deal, though. I’m just looking at this stuff for two reasons. One, I like numbers. I spent far too many minutes tweaking that breakdown above, because that is the type of thing my brain considers fun. Second, I think it helps conceptualize what each of these lengths means.

Looking at that, you can see a novella is somewhere between a quarter and a half the length of a shortish novel (and knee-high on a grasshopper compared to the tomes of George R.R. Martin). And it turns out that length is awesome to write.

This may be particular to fantasy and science fiction, because in my still limited experience, 50-120 pages is the perfect length to create a world that feels expansive and lived-in. You don’t have the roaming scope of a novel, where you can divert for several pages just to explain the social habits of AI or the breeding cycles of dragons, but compared to a 15-page short story, you can do an immensity of exploration. My recent novella is set in a secondary world where the day cycle is radically different from our own. This changes just about everything about the world. I couldn’t do more than hint at how in a short story. With the 60ish pages I wrote, I was able to spend a significant amount of time in both halves of the world.

Why not just write a novel? Um, good question, actually. I may just do that. I like this world and I’d like to see more of it.

But the story I had in mind didn’t have to be that long. It was big, but it wasn’t novel-big. And that’s pretty much why I wrote it this month despite being in the middle of a full-length novel: I’d had this novella idea on the backburner for months, and I got stuck about 3/4s of the way into this novel. It wasn’t fun to write anymore and meanwhile I couldn’t wait to take a shot at that novella idea I was in love with. I hate to lose momentum in the middle of a book, but eventually I said screw it and just jumped into the novella.

Where I found, yet again, that it’s possible to carry the whole story in your head at once. Maybe other people can do this with novels, but I have a hard time visualizing and tracking an entire damn book at the same time. You’ve got dozens if not a couple hundred different scenes to write. There are subplots and side characters and themes and back stories and worldbuilding flying right and left. With so much to keep track of, it’s easy to veer off course, be it starting in the wrong place, hitting a plot-swamp where you don’t know how to bridge your middle to the end you’ve got in mind, or whatever else. Point is, novels are huge and they’re messy.

Novellas aren’t huge. They’re just big. If you have a beginning and an end, it’s pretty easy to visualize how to bridge the two. It’s a hell of a lot easier for me, anyway, and when I can see where I’m going, I write a whole lot faster. If I had it all planned out and hit a hot streak, I could probably burn through a novella’s first draft in 7-10 days. And I’m kinda slow.

Instead, between pre-plotting, drafting, and revising, it took me the better part of the month. And that was a good thing. I got a lot of writing done while getting enough perspective from that bogged-down novel to start thinking I may have taken the last few chapters in the wrong direction. Now that I’ve had some time away, I don’t really have a problem scrapping them and taking a different route to my ending. I could have taken a break for short stories instead, but I was low on ideas and typically am slow to come up with them, and I would have been tempted to come back to that novel-in-progress much sooner. Maybe too soon.

Instead, I have something big to show for the month. The length is a handicap now that I’m sending it out to markets. But I’m no longer reliant on the 3-6 places that’ll buy a fantasy story of this length to see any money from it. If they pass, I’ll peddle it for a buck or two through the usual online stores and see what happens. I have a feeling novellas look a lot better on ereaders than they do as a thin slice between two covers.

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