My husband is a bottom line kind of guy. Whenever my daughter came home from a date he would ask if she had a good time. That's it. That's all he wanted to know. Not me. I wanted all the juicy details. Everything.
So writing long historical novels was right up my alley. Eighty-five thousand words? No problem. A twenty-thousand word novella? Now that was a horse of a different color.
So how does a long-winded writer learn to write short? I'm embarrassed to admit this, but when I wrote my first novella I actually wrote something like fifty thousand words and then cut like crazy. Now I know better, but novellas still pose a challenge. Skimp on story or characterization and readers will feel cheated.
Why Short is the New Long
There are many advantages to writing short. E-publishing has made novellas popular again and many publishers are getting on the bandwagon. Readers like them because they can finish a story at one sitting. Some recent print collections including A Log Cabin Christmas even made the N.Y. Times bestselling list.
Writing novellas helps to keep your name out there between books. Writing short also makes you concentrate on writing strengths and weaknesses.
Of course if you're the type of writer whose strengths include writing long narratives and intricate descriptions this might not work for you. There simply is no room in a novella to go into great detail. Every word has to count and then some. Lucky you if writing strengths include action scenes and dialogue—the crux of a well-paced novella.
I also found that the sooner the narrative question can be worked into the story the better. This creates tension and keeps the reader interested.
|Margaret's novella |
Four Weddings and a Kiss
now available as
a single novella
Taking her advice I started the story with the second chapter. Not only did this save nine hundred words, it pulled the reader in quicker and we immediately understand the hero's dilemma. The woman on trial for murder has the worst possible reputation. He has no desire to defend her, but how can he say no to her young son's plea for help? And what if fails to win the case? Putting these emotional and narrative questions up front quickly grabs a reader's attention and that's what it's all about.
Wait. There's more:
Keep Character Goals Clear and the Time Period Short
My heroine's goal was simple. She wanted the jury to find her innocent. This is something that can happen (or not) in a few short days. Goals that take years to accomplish don't generally work in a novella. The challenge I had was keeping the time short—and the romance long, if you know what I mean. I didn't want the relationship to feel rushed.
Don't Skimp on Characterization
Readers want to know what makes your characters tick and why they do the things they do. Goals and motivations must be clear.
Keep the Story Moving
Save the introspection and flashbacks for your novels.
Forget the Crowds
The fewer characters in a novella, the better. Everyone has to pull his or her weight and then some.
Limit Subplots and Viewpoints
Stick to the main story as much as possible. Subplots should be short and easily resolved. Some people say you should tell your story from a single viewpoint, but I write romance and like to go back and forth between the hero and heroine. Two viewpoints are probably the most you can get away with.
Remember, big ideas don't need a lot of words—they just need the right words. And that's the long and the short of it.
Now it's your turn: Do you read novellas? If so name your favorite. If you don't read them, tell us why. Leave a comment to get your name in a drawing for a copy of Four Weddings and a Kiss.
NEW YORK TIMES BEST-SELLING AUTHOR MARGARET BROWNLEY has penned more than thirty historical and contemporary novels. Her books have won numerous awards, including Readers' Choice and Award of Excellence. She's a former Romance Writers of American RITA® finalist and has written for a TV soap. She is currently working on a new series. Not bad for someone who flunked eighth grade. Just don't ask her to diagram a sentence.