Writing Reflections: Why I wrote a novella, not a novel

‘So what exactly is a novella?’

This is the most common question I got when I told friends and family I had a novella coming out. And, honestly, it’s not a question I probably could have answered myself until relatively recently. However there’s a fairly short answer.

Put simply: a novella is longer than a short story and shorter than a novel.

So what does that mean in practice?

Well, if you’re a writer yourself or someone else who thinks in ‘word count’ then you probably already know that a short story is usually between 1,000-7,500 words, whereas most novels are about 80,000-100,000 words, depending of course on what age they are written for, genre etc. On Duotrope, which is a search engine for writers, a novella is defined as between 15,000-40,000 words. I’ve seen slightly different word count parameters listed elsewhere. But that gives you a good sense!

Longtime readers of the blog will be aware of how much I love reading and writing short stories (I’ve written here about some of my favorite historical short stories and here about one of my favorite anthologies of short stories). But when I was working on my novella, All the Orphans in the Galaxy, I knew that it was going to be longer than a short story. It’s got two overlapping stories woven together (one following a lonely teenage girl in contemporary Texas and another following a folk singer in outer space). The scope of that demanded something longer than a short story.

HOWEVER, I also knew that it was going to be shorter than a novel. The reasons for that are harder to articulate, but one of the main reasons was the unusual way of storytelling I used, which I didn’t really want to sustain for a whole novel. Galaxy is told with relatively quick, back and forth cuts between the two stories. Maybe this is because I’m a poet, but I love playing with form and structure and thinking about how form can mirror and enhance content. My novella, at least to me, is about connection and isolated people finding unexpected connections with each other, so I wanted the actual structure of the book to be made of connections (the short fragments of each story weaving together into a larger whole).

I enjoyed this way of writing a lot, but think I might have gotten tired of doing it for an entire novel length. I think novellas (and also short stories) are places where we can really play: with more outlandish concepts, or more innovative ways of telling them, without asking a reader to commit to an entire huge novel told in this way.

Also, I didn’t think this particular story demanded a novel length in order to tell it. I was speaking with an aspiring writer recently who I’m mentoring through my 1:1 mentorship sessions about the idea of letting the story guide you and being open to change. Something could start off in your mind being a short story, but you realize: no, actually there’s enough here to fill 100,000 words! It’s definitely a novel! I think I read once that George R.R. Martin started off thinking Game of Thrones would be a short story. (Obviously, that particular story expanded just a little bit…)

The final reason that I wanted this book to be a novella and not a novel is: I love reading novellas! Several of my favorite books are that length, which is what I’ll explore in an upcoming ‘Friday Finds’, which is about my favorite novellas. Lots of famous ‘classic’ books are novellas – you’ve probably read a novella before without even knowing it!

I hope this post has been an interesting peek ‘behind the curtain’ so to speak about how writers (or least, this particular writer!) consider form and length when writing. It’s a different type of post for me, but one I like writing from time to time!

One of my first writing teachers, the poet Jacob Polley, called my writing ‘deceptively simple’ and that’s absolutely something I aspire to. I want the reading experience to feel effortless and fun as you’re carried away with the story and caring about the characters. Then, if you want to look deeper – at the imagery, the structure, the language – there’s something there for you too!

Reading the book at the launch in Edinburgh, November 2022, at Typewronger Books!

Thanks so much for reading! There’s one more post this month, and then I’ll be taking a break from blogging for the whole month of January 2023.

If you’d like to read All the Orphans in the Galaxy, it’s available to order here from the publisher, Speculative Books. You can find more info here about the book!

Recommended Further Reading:

And if you’ve enjoyed reading the blog this year, you can always ‘buy me a coffee’ on Ko-fi (check out the button below!). All your support of the blog (be that through Ko-fi, likes, comments, emails, reading recommendations etc.) is greatly appreciated. Stay tuned for the last post of the year and hope you’re having a happy holiday season so far!

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