Novellas by the Numbers

I recently had a novella published by Grinning Skull Press called Effectively Wild, and I’m currently writing a follow-up novella. I’ve also written novellas for Privateer Press in their steampunk fantasy setting of the Iron Kingdoms. Since I’m focused on novellas right now, I thought I’d talk a little about how I go about writing them as opposed to writing novels. Of course, there’s no right way to do this. What follows is how I approach fiction between 20,000 and 40,000 words. You might have a completely different take, and, if so, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Okay, here’s my three-part novella formula or guidelines. Much of this is adapted from my flash fiction formula, and the comparison between writing flash and writing short stories I find to be very similar to the difference between writing novellas and novels.

1) Plot with room to pants. With a novel, I do a very detailed thirty-chapter, three-act outline. It’s easy to lose my way in 90,000 words, so I like to have a reliable road map. With a novella, I play faster and looser. I still write an outline, and it’s still three acts, but I don’t get as granular. I don’t break it down by chapters/beats; instead, I write a general synopsis of what I want to happen in each act. With a novella, I feel more comfortable figuring things out as I write, using my outline as a loose suggestion rather than a detailed map. To me it feels like free climbing up a mountain, which is both terrifying and exhilarating.

2) Limit the scope. This is a lesson I learned from writing flash fiction. I have a lot of room to tell an intricate story with a novella, but it’s not novel-sized room. So, like with flash fiction, I’ll reduce both the number of secondary characters and the number of location changes and transitions. Too many secondary characters cuts into important screen time for primary characters (and vital secondary characters). I tend to adopt a “cast of thousands” approach. I can give the impression of a full, vibrant world with some quick descriptions and even a few names here and there. The characters that interact with the MC on a more direct basis, get the full secondary character treatment of course. Location changes and transitions eat up a lot of precious word count, too. I don’t want a novella to take place in a single room or anything, but I like to keep things to somewhere between three and four key locations. In Effectively Wild, that’s the ballpark (locker room, manager’s office, field, etc.), the MC’s apartment (not much time is spent here), and a one or two important outside locations. I think it was enough so the novella didn’t feel static, but I think it also created a nice, cozy, even intimate atmosphere.

3) Get to the point. Another lesson from flash fiction here. With a novel, you can build to the central conflict at a more measured pace (though getting right to it is certainly good for novels, too). I don’t feel I have that luxury with a novella, and I want to get to the main course fast. If I’m writing a 30,000-word novella, I want to hit the central conflict within the first 5,000 words or so. I want to introduce the main character, get you to like, loathe, or sympathize with them, and then get them in the soup. Like with flash fiction, I want to start closer to the end than I might with a novel.

These are, of course, just loose guidelines that get me from page one to a complete draft. They work for me. They may not for you. I’d love to hear how other folks approach novellas, so, please, tell me about it in the comments.

If you’d like to see how some of these guidelines look in the wild (hah!), check out my novella Effectively Wild available now from Grinning Skull Press.

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