Let’s talk story length. Usually, in writing programs or in workshops, the focus for most writers is either on producing short stories or novels. There are good reasons for this. For one thing, those are the primary salable forms of narrative works. Short stories can get you into the professional magazines, while novels are generally seen as the way to go in order to make a living as a creative writer (long-term contracts, sales to Hollywood, and so on). Another aspect is time: it’s generally easier to focus on either a series of short stories or one long work within the constraints of most workshops. So far, so good.
However, just because those are the forms best suited to most workshops, that doesn’t mean those are the only formats for a story, or even the best ones for a writer to use, in or out of workshop. What if, for example, you’ve got a character or characters with something to say that takes more than the whiplash pace of a short story to express? What if you have an established universe, and you have an event that sheds new light on the history or future of this universe, even if the event itself isn’t of major importance? What if a novel’s too much and a short story just isn’t enough? Hey, it happens.
That’s when you turn to the great center of the literary universe, the novella. Novella is kind of a slippery concept to grasp, as there’s no real formal definition in terms of length. Come to think of it, there isn’t one for short stories or novels, either; publishers go by convention or, in some cases, what they can afford to print. Defining a novella usually uses the Supreme Court pornography standard, i.e. you know it when you see it. However, the guidelines for the Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy Awards all draw the upper limit at 40,000 words, so that’s what I’m going to use. There’s less agreement at the lower limit: the World Science Fiction Society and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America say a novella starts at 17,500 words, while the World Fantasy Convention starts counting at 10,001 words, but two out of three ain’t bad, so I’m going to say a novella falls between 17,500 and 40,000 words. This means, in general, if your story falls in the 60-135 page range, congratulations. It’s a novella.
But, what does that mean for the story? Word count just tells you how long you prattled on. What might the story itself look like? Well, in order to justify the length, the novella by nature has to have more depth than a short story. There better be more narrative, more character depth and interaction, a greater thematic resonance, more subtext: any or all of the above. Short stories are a lot more difficult to master than most beginning writers think—after all, you have to build a compelling scene, plot and character set in relatively few words—but in some ways, novellas are tougher, because you only get a little more rope with which to hang yourself. You can’t go off on long digressions that loop back, like you can with novels, and yet you can’t get by with sting-in-the-tail plotting and hit-and-run exposition, like you can with short stories. Novellas involve more of a tightrope, and demand more of the reader. Many renowned (read: inflicted on students in school) works of literature are novellas; a quick list would include Billy Budd, Heart of Darkness, Animal Farm and The Metamorphosis. There’s clearly appeal there, or so many authors wouldn’t be hitting that length, but it’s not an easy row to hoe.
If that’s not discouraging enough, here’s more bad news: Because of their length and the ongoing squeezing of print markets, novellas are a hard, hard sell. Magazines will print them, but simple logistics illustrates the problem: If you have to choose between running a 40,000-word novella or three 10,000-word stories with space left over for a column or two and more ads, which way are you going to go? Between limited space and limited reader attention spans, novellas are tougher to fit, which means that if you want to sell yours, it better be damn good to make up for the stories it’s likely squeezing out.
Am I saying “Don’t write novellas?” Hell, no; novellas are just as vital as short stories. Sometimes you want something more than a snack and less than a full course, and that’s where novellas come in. If the story wants—strike that, needs—to be a novella, that’s where you should go. Just be prepared for a harder road to glory, and don’t enter into that territory lightly. A good, justifiable novella is worthy of respect, and if you’re in the midst of creating one, I wish you good fortune.