My “Novella” Rant

My fantasy work is quite long, between 135K and 144K words. That’s pretty standard for epic fantasy. Though there are those who will argue, and attempts have been made to do “epic” on a small scale, I’ve yet to see something that satisfies me. “Epic” requires big ideas, world building, intricate characters and plots and, thus, many words. Epic or not, 135K is most certainly a novel. And yet, Seeking Carolina is only 70K words, but it’s still a novel. As far as romantic women’s fiction goes, I’m well within the word-count boundaries. If it had come in at 135K, I doubt it would have sold; the genre tops out at about 90K. Books tend to be categorized by word count, and I get it–it’s one of the easy markers of what’s inside the covers. But the word count is a result that comes about from something more, something less easily defined, but definitely present.  And here is where my rant begins…

By all outward appearances, a novel is a work of fiction of around 70K+ words. A novella tops out at around 40K words, and a novelette at about 17K. Shorts can have as few as 2K words, and up to about 12K. Flash-fiction varies, but generally as few as 100 and as many as 1500 words. These numbers vary, I’m aware, but this is where the general consensus lies. But the stories themselves are not about word count. They are art forms, separate and distinct, and the novella is getting the shaft.

A smaller word count will naturally cut down on how many plots one has going, characters involved, points of view used. The longer the word count, the more intricate one can be, the more inventive. Plots and characters have more room to stretch. Those differences between the forms are simple logic that result in certain word counts.

Novelette used to carry the connotation of being something light, fluffy and trite. Now it labels works of fiction that are more than short stories, but less than novellas. If the aim of a short story is to focus on a single narrative with the greatest economy of words (thus tight focus on plot, pov, theme, etc) then a novelette goes that one step further. It can push beyond the necessary boundaries of a short story to bring a larger scope. I must say that, by the day’s standards, I can’t quite figure out what constitutes a novelette. In method and form, it is so close to short story on one end, novella on the other that I’m finding that the only consistent difference is word count.

But the novella…the poor, misunderstood novella. While outwardly seeing a surge in popularity, the novella has essentially lost its true meaning.

The novella is not the just another step between short fiction and long. Word count is a necessary result of the form itself, not the definition of it. So forget about word counts and how they’ve come to define the form. While novelette is etymologically small novel, the word novella comes from the Italian word for new. It was, at the time of its conception, a new art form, the first inklings of which appeared in serial form around the 10th century (Arabian Nights, Decameron), but not being given established rules of structure until the late 18th century.

It is this structure that defines a novella, not word count. There are no designated chapters in a novella, rather they are presented as a whole divided by white space to designate a significant shift. Plotwise, it ends quite close to where it begins. In fact, little can and usually does change if at all. The form concerns itself more with the character development, the evolution (or devolution) of that character, than it does on plot conflict. The internal vs. the external. Novellas usually end on the moment of climax, on the brink of change.

It’s not just about word count, and that’s what bothers me, because what passes for “novella” these days bears little resemblance to the art form it is. A scene from a longer work is not flash-fiction. A chapter from a novel does not make a short story. And something between short story and novel does not make a novella. It’s no more about word count than Haiku is. If that is all you make it about, you lose the essence of what it is at its core and thus, you lose it entirely.

I know, I know–novella sounds so much more literary than novelette (the “ette” putting it on par with luncheonette, launderette, toilette, cigarette–all being “small” and trite.) It is a losing battle, one I’ve been steadfastly arguing for many years. It’s just a shame to lose this art form for word-count marketing and disdain for “ette.”

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “My “Novella” Rant

  1. A rant on a Monday morning, huh? Still drinking my coffee. I’m curious, when did “novella” replace “novelette” in the world of publishing? I honestly don’t have any strong sentiments about the word choice for the story type, but I suspect as a piece of writing, a novella or novelette must still must tell a good strong story–something with a start, middle and ending point–even a point that is a cliffhanger. So word count is only part of the plan, a way to keep us writers in line 🙂

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    • Terri-Lynne DeFino

      Good morning, Sharon! This rant is an old one (and I scheduled it a week ago, so while you were reading this, I was probably still sleeping! Or having breakfast. Hehee!)
      Novelette fell out of fashion fairly recently. I don’t know exact years, but probably started declining as early as 1950something, though I do recall seeing them when I was a kid. They never garnered the same kind of respect as a novella, because a novella was an art form of its own. Is Haiku only about word count? No. Neither is Sonnet. There are word count parameters that go towards defining structure, but you wouldn’t call every 14 line poem a Sonnet, and we can’t call 30K works of fiction novellas.

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  2. I love your novella rant. I’ve heard it many times, LOL. Then I wrote a novelette and called it a novella, or my publisher did 😉 It has an interesting history and it’s funny how things change with the times, for good or bad. Novella does roll off the tongue nicer than novelette, I will admit 🙂

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    • Terri-Lynne DeFino

      🙂 Yes, you have heard it before. It’s a losing battle, I’m well aware. Novella as it exists now is firmly rooted in the literary landscape. It still makes me sad.

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