Writing Excuses 12.36: Structuring a Mid-Length Piece
Key Points: Novelettes and novellas. In between short stories and novels, how do you structure these? Characters, locations, and plot threads — too many makes it hard to fit into a short story. But a novella also means fewer plot threads and subplots than a novel. Stick to thematic subplots, not side character subplots. Novellas use some of the same skills that novel writing does. Take one thing from a novel, but don’t fill it out with multiple character viewpoints. Focus on one character, with one character arc, overlapped with an external plot. Novellas usually have one viewpoint character. One benefit of the novella compared to the short story is that it’s easier to fix things by adding a scene or words, which is hard to do in a short story. It’s relatively easy to take one plot thread from a novel and turn it into a novella. Novellas may have a complex plot, but pull back on description, and become less immersive. Or they may have a short story type plot, and more immersion. It’s a balancing game — plot threads, POV characters, and immersion — which ones do you cut back to fit the story into the available words. Many novels start as novellas or short stories. One approach is to start with a chunk of the longer story, then add more length. Another approach is to start with the whole story in sparse form, and then expand it. Novel readers read for immersion, and assume if you leave something out, you haven’t thought about it. Short story readers assume that you leave things out because it’s not important. Novella readers enjoy immersion, but they’re willing to let you leave things out. This means that as you grow a story from short story to novella to novel, what the readers expect changes. Novellas are in a renaissance, due to ebooks and the changing market. So it’s a good time to experiment and learn to write them well.
[Mary] Season 12, Episode 36.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Structuring a Mid-Length Piece.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Brandon] We are talking about novelettes and novellas today. I love this format, but it is a really hard one for me to talk about.
[Mary] I was… When you first pitched it, I was thinking, “How do I structure these?”
[Mary] It took me a little while to think about it. I had a novel that I wrote, and it was not successful at novel length. It was… So I cut it down to be a novella. I was thinking about the differences, and the choices that I made. Later, I expanded the novella back up to a novel.
[Brandon] Sounds like a very convenient experience for this particular podcast episode.
[Mary] Isn’t it? Yes. Actually, interestingly, the novel began as a short story, and didn’t work at that length.
[Mary] So it is actually the perfect…
[Dan] Okay. You just talk for 15 minutes…
[Dan] And we’ll listen.
[Mary] So, things that I recognized about… The reason that it didn’t work as a short story is that it was a murder mystery, and murder mysteries kind of inherently have a lot of locations and characters, because you’re trying to do…
[Brandon] Right. Unless you’re doing the one mansion room thing, which is a thing. Unless you want to do that thing. They work way better if you can be like, “Here’s the crime scene. Here’s this house.”
[Mary] I mean, Sherlock Holmes totally worked as short stories doing murder mysteries, but it… The problem with it is a short story was that I had too many characters, too many locations, and too many plot threads. So I expanded it up into a novel. It didn’t work as a novel because I was a new novel writer, and I wrote it without an outline. Which I don’t recommend for a murder mystery.
[Dan] Yeah. That’s hard.
[Brandon] Who did it? Uh…
[Chorus] Her? Yeah?
[Mary] So, then, I decided to cut it down to a novella because by that point, I was established as a historical fantasy writer, and trying to sell a science-fiction murder mystery. So what I did when I cut it…
[Dan] Was this the Mae West?
[Mary] Yeah, this is the Mae West.
[Dan] Oh, okay.
[Mary] Kiss Me Twice.
[Dan] I actually really liked that one. Whatever form I read it in.
[Mary] You read it in novella.
[Brandon] Didn’t it get nominated as a novella for some award?
[Mary] Yes, the Hugo. Yeah, it was nominated as a novella.
[Brandon] It’s a really good novella.
[Mary] Thanks. It was published in Asimov’s. But the differences between the novel and the novella were that I did have to cut some plot threads. I did roll some characters together. But a lot of what I was pulling out was also description. The biggest thing though was that… The biggest difference coming down from the novel to the novella was losing plot threads. A lot of the subplots went away. So that it was… There were still subplots, but they were more thematic subplots than side character subplots.
[Brandon] When I started writing novellas, like in earnest… I’d written a couple, just accidentally…
[Howard] By trying to write short stories?
[Brandon] No, just because I’m like, “Hey, there’s this…” Yeah, kind of. Right? But during the early in your career, before… As a writer, you’re like, “Oh, I should try one of these things.” You just kind of… Things just kind of pop out at a length back then. But when I earnestly sat down and said, “I want to learn the novella,” I found I was really naturally adept at it, because of my practice as a novelist. Where short stories, I am not naturally adept at because of my novelist practice. I would often say, “That one is like trying to go from basketball to golf, or vice versa.” Where at the same time, the novella is more like going from snooker to billiards or whatnot. Like, they’re so similar that a lot of the skills transferred for me. Really, it was a matter of well, I’ll take one of these things that would have been in the novel, and I won’t fill it out with three different characters having a viewpoint on it. I’ll focus on this one character, and I will do a character arc for them, overlapped with a… Some sort of external plot, like I always do, and it worked just fine. In the short story, I can’t do that as easily. I can’t overlap multiple plot threads. You can in a novella. They just have to be tight, focused around one character, usually.
[Mary] That’s one of the other things. I’m glad you mentioned that, because that was one of the first things I did when I was cutting it down, was, in the original, I had three different viewpoint characters, and I cut it down to one for the novella. That was… That immediately, also in addition to just getting rid of the viewpoints, it also gets rid of plot threads, because each of those characters had a character arc.
[Brandon] Let me tell you something else I really like about the novella and the novelette. It’s when I write it, and I give it to my writing group or my alpha readers and things, and they come back and say, “Oh, it needs to be fixed.” Me fixing something almost always is adding. Right? I fix, when a novel is broken, I say, “Oh, I can add a scene, and then smooth out later scenes, that fixes that.” It works like a charm for me. But it means that things always balloon in revisioning. The Emperor… Not The Emperor’s Soul. The Perfect State. My novella. Which did get nominated for a Hugo, I think. Yeah.
[Brandon] Anyway, Perfect State…
[Dan] I have so many nominations. I just can’t keep track of them.
[Brandon] Perfect State. It, to be fixed, needed a new scene. You can’t do that in a short story very easily. Right? I wrote an extra thousand words. I stuck it in the middle of this, and it fixed a whole bunch of the pacing problems and things. The beginning had two slow portions, and we put an exciting portion in between that also showed off world building and character and all this sort of stuff, so that when we got to the next slow portion, we were on a high, and we wanted a moment to relax and have a conversation. I love that about novellas.
[Dan] I want to give an example. Because we keep saying all of the things that would have been in a novel, just take one and that will be the novella. So, as an example of this, I just finished writing the third Mirador book. That’s the series that Blue Screen is in. So that’s cyberpunk. It has one plot thread about a murder mystery about a hand. A left hand is found at a crime scene. It has another plot thread that is about a ghost of the victim. It has another plot thread that is about a gang leader’s brain implant that has gone missing and people need to find it. So there’s all of these different things. They all tie together. For the novel, they’re all necessary for me to do what I’m trying to do. If I were to do a novella, I would just pick one of them. The gang leader’s missing electronic brain. We are going to try to find that. That is a single thing that I can tell, and I can do an arc, and it would be probably 30, 40, 50,000 words all by itself, and just be done.
[Mary] As we’re sitting here talking about it, I think one of the other things that goes through my head is that… It’s very easy for us to talk about you’re pulling all of these things out, and it makes it sound… Novella sound like it simpler than a novel? That’s not necessarily true. You can actually have a novella that’s a fairly complex plot, but what you wind up doing is that it is… You pull back then on the description. It becomes less immersive. Similarly, you can have something that is very… Is much more straight ahead, that’s got a short story type plot, but you can have the immersion of a novel. So that it’s…
[Brandon] That’s really an interesting distinction to make. I like that.
[Howard] We’ve spoken in the past about the critical importance of scenes doing double, triple duty. The shorter the form you’re working in, generally speaking, the more duties each scene has to take. It’s kind of a luxury with novels when you realize, “You know what, I need to point out this emotional arc, I need to move this plot thread forward, and I need to do this little reveal and drop this clue, and take two scenes to do that across three different people.” With the novella, as you start paring back, you realize, “Well, I still need all those pieces, it’s not any less complex. I just gotta find a way to do it with these two characters, one of whom is my POV character, all in the same room during this 750 words scene.” That was one of the things that I discovered when I was writing the Privateer Press novellas is that I had three POV characters because they wanted three POV characters, and that’s novel length. That is novel length, and I had to make these scenes do double, triple, quadruple duty in order to get all the story pieces in.
[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week, which is Hazardous Tales.
[Dan] Yes. Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales. This is a… Actually, a series of middle grade graphic novels about history. I got a 10-year-old daughter who is a history fanatic, and when we found Nathan Hale’s books, she just went berserk over them. So we put it here in the shorter fiction thing because they are shorter. There’s not as much story packed in as a whole novel. But they are delightful. There’s a framing story around them of one of Nathan Hale’s ancestors, Nathan Hale, who’s actually a famous revolutionary spy. It’s basically him telling stories about American history. My daughter’s favorite one is called The Underground Abductor, which is about Harriet Tubman, but there are, at this point, six in the series, and they talk about the Donner party, they talk about World War I, they talk about the ironclads in the Civil War. There’s lots of different things. They are… They’re just really awesome. If you are a history buff or have a little kid who is a history buff, they are incredibly cool books.
[Brandon] Awesome. So, getting back to this, and kind of launching off of that, it was occurring to me as we were talking that a lot of famous novels, in science fiction and fantasy in particular, started as novellas or as novelettes.
[Mary] Or as short stories.
[Brandon] Or as short stories.
[Dan] A lot of them today would be considered novellas.
[Mary] Yeah, yeah. A Wrinkle in Time.
[Brandon] I was thinking specifically of Dragonriders Of Pern and Ender’s Game.
[Mary] The Ship Who Sang.
[Brandon] Yeah. Which seems like it’s interesting, to see this form jumping off. I… Dragonriders, Dragonflight, and Ender’s Game are different in that… Dragonflight, she just put a story that started a novel, and then wrote the rest of the novel. She published the story that was a chunk of it, that stood on its own, while Ender’s Game, it was the complete story, just sparser. Then he wrote a novelization and expanded it. Which are two different ways you see this. Like, when I looked at novellas… I’ve written a couple of novellas that are a chunk of a larger story. The one I released last year, in the Stormlight universe, it’s a chunk of a larger story, here’s this character going off and having a side adventure by themselves. I’ve also done the thing where it’s this is a complete story in itself. Do you guys approach those differently? I know you’ve done some of this, Dan. A separate or a side story.
[Dan] Yeah. I’ve done two shorts connected to John Cleaver. A short short story, that will be in an omnibus edition, and a novella called Next of Kin. It was very interesting for me to take that character and say, “Well, I want to tell a story about him, but different.” With the novella, it was structured very differently from the short because… The thing with a John Cleaver novel for me is I have a chance to explore John and one specific psychological question he has, and I have a chance to explore a monster. We get to know the monster really well. I think that’s one of the hallmarks of the series. You don’t get that in the short, because there’s no time to do both. There wasn’t a lot of time really to do both in the novella, either. So I had to pick one. So for Next of Kin, I picked the monster. We get to see the whole story from the monster’s point of view. We kind of see John in the background, but mostly he is… He’s a legend rather than he is a character. So it’s the same thing, it’s the same story that I’m telling all the other ones, but, like we’ve said so many times, I’m just telling one thread of it instead of several.
[Mary] One of the things that I realized when I was going from the novella of Kiss Me Twice back up to the novel version… So I then took the novella which was… Had a much more solid structure compared to my first version of the novel, and then expanded it back up to the novel. There were scenes in it that I just… It was the novella, so I just left that scene and I wrote some other stuff. I put other POVs back in. My readers would hit the scenes from the novella, and this is… Again, this is the novella that was nominated for a Hugo, so the writing’s not crappy.
[Mary] Theoretically. Actually, no. I take that back. That’s not a guarantee.
[Mary] But, point being, I would like to believe the writing isn’t crappy.
[Brandon] I’ve read the novella. The writing is not crappy.
[Mary] Thank you. They bounced off of these scenes. They started asking all of these questions about why isn’t this and why isn’t that. What I realized during the course of this process is that novel leaders are reading for the immersion, and they assume that if you’ve left something out, it’s because you haven’t thought about it. Short story readers assume that if… Knowing that you’ve got a limited space, they assume that if you’ve left something out, it’s because it’s not important to the story. Novella readers, mid length readers, sit kind of in this really nice sweet spot, because they read both. So, they enjoy the immersion, but if you leave stuff out, they’re okay with it.
[Mary] They don’t get upset.
[Brandon] That’s quite the observation.
[Howard] Now, in looking at the way novellas are structured, two of my favorite series of novellas, one’s by Mike Underwood, the other’s by Matt Wallace. The Sin du Jour series by Matt Wallace is a series of novellas about a catering company that makes food for supernatural creatures, demons and the like. Each of these novellas kind of focuses around a recipe. If you pull back, you can look at the structure of the series and say, “Oh. It’s like each entry is a recipe.” Very cool. Mike Underwood’s series, Genrenauts, each novella is a genre world that these people are visiting. I bring both of these up because when we talk about writing novellas, when we talk about structuring them, it’s worth looking at the way that the market has changed in recent years. Novellas are extremely popular on Amazon. They’re a very, very strong electronic format. That’s where Genrenauts and the Sin du Jour series have both shone. I think if new writers are looking for a way to experiment with self-publishing, structuring themselves a novella and taking this route might not be a bad idea.
[Mary] Genrenauts is a good example of one that actually has multiple POVs. But each one has a very clear event-driven plot that they’re working on. Even though there may be a character arc for one of the characters, all three of the characters don’t get character arcs.
[Brandon] I will highlight what Howard’s saying. We are getting a bit of a novella renaissance, we’re in the middle of it. Specifically, because publishing realities made the novella sit in a hard place for a long time. Most short story magazines couldn’t afford to put many novellas in because they took a large page length, so they would only anchor with one occasionally by a famous author. The mainstream publishers, all the work that it took to put a book together had to be the same almost for a novella as for a novel, but the people who saw it on the shelf were like, “Well, that’s one third the size, I’m not going to buy that.” But online, it’s… Pricing is more flexible with e-books, and you can do these sorts of things were people say, “I want to read a longer story, but I want to read it in one sitting.” It has caused a renaissance as, like Mary noticed, once upon a time, this was a more dominant form in print, because it wasn’t looked at the same way where people look at the page length versus the cost and whatnot. But we are seeing more novellas coming out, and it is a good place to be if you can write them well. Which is the same that we always say.
[Brandon] I am going to give you some homework. It’s going to be a little different this week because I’m going to target a specific group of people who are like me. Those of you who are listening sometimes get frustrated because you have tons of ideas piling up and not enough time to write them. Now some of you listening are like, “Oh. Luxury! Like, I latch onto one good idea and I spend a long time writing it and then I search for the next one.” There are all different types of writers. But I was the type of writer who had so many books he wanted to write that he started to get into trouble, because he would write those books, and then those books implied sequels. The fans wanted sequels and the publisher wanted sequels, and suddenly there are all these novels, and I was leaving so many behind that I couldn’t get to. Well, when I started novellas, part of the purpose and training myself was to take some of these really great ideas I had and say, “Let’s just do that idea.” Rather than expanding that idea into an entire novel, adding a bunch to it, let’s just do that idea and write it as its own thing. I have found it hugely liberating as a novelist to have this outlet, to just try out an idea, but to use my same novel writing skills for. So, all of you out there who have these novels planned that you may not ever get to, I want you to take one of them and instead make a novella out of it. At least do the structure. Do the outline, and see if you can practice this form. See if it is something that helps you express yourself as a writer. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.