Monday, February 2, 2009

The Long and the Short of it

The guidelines for Historical Undone, the new line of e-shorts offered by Harlequin, states, “If you've always wanted to write for Harlequin Historical, but were daunted by the length, now is your chance to submit something shorter!” Now, far be it for me to take issue with this submission call, but when I first saw this my instinctive reaction was, “Yeah, right”!

Truthfully, the differences between novel and novella writing are, in my humble opinion, huge. And it’s not just all about length either. The inference a writer, especially a novice writer, can and probably will draw from the Harlequin guideline is that writing a shorter piece is a much simpler and easier task than writing a novel.

To quote ‘Q’ from Star Trek TNG, “Au contraire, Mon Capitan!”

I've written both and writing a romance novella may be a faster process, if you are lucky, but it is not simpler or easier. In fact it’s damn hard work, especially if you’ve never done it before or if your first attempts at writing were, as is the case with most of us, full length novels. And if you look at the structures of both novels and novella with an eye to comparison, you can see why.

Both romance novels and novellas are expected to have a beginning, middle and end. There must be a couple brought together by circumstances, kept apart by conflict and, in the tradition format with its obligatory happily-ever-after ending, finally united against all odds. Whatever the setting and background, the writer must draw the reader in, get them to suspend disbelief, allow them to feel they are actually there, in the story, with the characters. The readers must at least sympathize with the heroine, but preferably should understand and completely empathize with her. They should also, in a perfect world, fall in love with the hero. Most importantly, the writer must come up with a great plot and tell a damned good story; one that satisfies the readers at the end.

These things do not change between novels and novellas, but there the similarities end. In the novel, which can have a length of between 65,000 and 120,000 (or more) words, the writer is free to introduce a plethora of secondary character, sub-plots and situations that reveal everything the reader needs to know about the hero and heroine and their circumstances. Entire pages can be devoted to descriptions of the clothing, landscapes, minor characters, events and minutia that bring the surroundings to life. The characters can undergo change gradually, and that change can be precipitated in a variety of ways, including fairly long periods of time away from the main setting. Although rather frowned on nowadays, the writer has time, space and leisure to introduce all the backstory necessary to bring the reader up to date.

Anyone who has made any kind of study of the novel as an art form will tell you there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of ways to express the hero/heroine’s journeys. But each of these methods, tricks if you like, take the one commodity in short supply when writing a novella.


The length of a novella is something much debated, but let’s for our purpose here use the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America definition, which is between 17,500 and 40,000 words. In that number of words, a writer must do everything expected of them as set out above, but without the frills and furbelows with which novels are often adorned. Everything must be pared down, sparse, tightly woven—especially the plot. There is no space for elaborate convolutions, tangents or right angles. The plot must be simple, yet enthralling, and each and every word, situation, circumstance and conversation in the piece must be ruthlessly surveyed to ensure it is not only necessary but essential to that plot. Description must be crafted in as few sentences as possible, yet must also fire the reader’s imagination. Secondary characters are a luxury, and can only be allowed to survive if they too are essential and carry the plot forward in a way nothing or no one else can.

In short, a novella is not a short novel, no matter what the name may imply. It is a totally different beast; one that must be attacked in its own discrete way and that can go horribly wrong if approached with the same mindset needed to write a novel.

Now, to go back to my original point, having gone through the differences in writing a book 65,000 words long and one only, say, half the length.

Harlequin Historical Undone is for short stories between 10,000 and 15,000 words.

That is less than a quarter of the length of a 65,000 word novel, yet the same rules as for novels and novellas apply when it comes to characters, plot and expectations.

Does it seem as simple as it first sounded now?

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