Ever since I published my first novella, my love of the form has only grown. I’ve also learned a thing or two about how to write a novella, how they compare to novels, and why they’re such a manageable, versatile choice for self-publishing writers. If you’ve always dreamt of writing a novel but have never succeeded in finishing one, perhaps you have yet to consider its slimmer, far more attractive older sibling: the novella.
Novellas (despite what their name might suggest) are nothing new. In fact, it might surprise you to find out that novellas predate novels by at least a century. The OED cites the first use of “novelle” in reference to the short tales that make up Boccaccio’s Decameron. While The Decameron isn’t a novella in the modern sense, it’s interesting to note that the practice of bringing together shorter pieces to form a larger, unified work is still common practice.
Although novels have become something of a publishing standard – it seems everyone has one in them – novellas, which are easier to construct, more versatile, and suited to many different styles of storytelling, haven’t received as much recognition. Let’s change that!
Types of Novellas
For our purposes, we can group novellas into 3 broad categories:
1. The Literary Novella
The novella is the goldilocks form for literary experimentation because it allows for more scope than the short story while still retaining its intensity. The length is perfect for dense language that would be harder to sustain in a novel, for emphasising character psychology over narrative concerns, and for exploring difficult questions without overworking.
Some famous literary novellas include: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, Chess by Stefan Zweig, and A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Read More
One of my favourite prompts from Writing Down the Bones is Goldberg’s advice to write about food…
“If you find you are having trouble writing and nothing seems real, just write about food. It is always solid and is the one thing we all can remember about our day… From the table, the cheese, the old blue-eyed friend across from you, from the glasses of water, the striped tablecloth, fork, knife, thick white plate, green salad, butter, and glass of pale pink wine, you can extend yourself out in memory, time, space, thought, to Israel, to Russia, to religion, the trees and the sidewalk. And you have a place to begin from, something concrete, palatable, clear, right in front of your face.”
– from Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
Try some of the prompts in this worksheet, or some of the scene ideas below. I’m sure you’ll be surprised by how much you have to say about food!
It was getting harder to find the ingredients. Now almost all of the time his daughter spent with him they wasted in travelling to far-flung villages, seeking the stones and herbs of his craft. He was reviled as soon as people divined his purpose, and stones were flung at his head as readily as curses. One day a villager would strike true, and then he would be the one on his way to the underworld.
But this time he had a plan. He had arranged to meet a man who could get him what he needed.
As they entered the inn, dusting the snow off their hair and shoulders, Pan surreptitiously eyed the people in the room. Other than the innkeeper and a few children, there were two strange men. One of them was wiry, and sat far from the fire, but with a lamp on his table. He was scratching vigourously with a quill on parchment. The other man was burly, and bearded. He looked them over as they entered, a little contemptuously. Pan thought he must be the one, but it would be rude as well as suspicious to join him without an invitation. He told Yuka to sit by the fire with the other children who were doing their homework, and he found himself a place at a table where he could watch the burly man.Read More
If you haven’t started yet, don’t worry, there’s always tomorrow morning.
And the morning after that.
And the morning after that.
Plenty of opportunities to begin being.
I’m excited to begin Lingua Latina II this month. The new edition (published September 2017), includes illustrations in full colour, to match the ones in LLI, which I completed last year. If you’re considering taking up Latin, Lingua Latina by Hans Ørberg is the best textbook for self-study. Much better (and lighter!) than Wheelock, in my opinion.
However, I must admit that I’m a bit nervous about falling off track when I’m travelling… we shall see!
The Secret Lives of Writers
I really loved this interview with Plath and Hughes – a rare glimpse into the lives of a poet-couple, at what sounds like a reasonably happy time. Of course, it’s difficult to listen to it without analysing, knowing what we know, and not knowing what we don’t know. This problem of separating the artist from their work is a sticky one, and one which I run into often. Some questions that arise for me:
If an author behaves in a way we disagree with, or that we find morally repugnant, should we shun their entire oeuvre because of it? What about works that they have co-created?
What about authors whose lives are (as far as we know) “unobjectionable”, but whose works or opinions we find morally repugnant?
Is there a spectrum of moral dislike, and if so, where do we draw the line between reading an author’s work, and not reading it?
Does it matter how much we like the work, or how important we (or others) consider it?
How can we be sure that we are in possession of all of the facts, and are justified in passing judgement?
Can we ever be in possession of all of the facts? Are we ever justified in passing judgement?
Does reading an author’s work or recommending it to others, necessarily imply support of the author, or worse, complicity?
Does it matter if the author is dead or still alive?
Should historicity and social context affect our judgement?
What about authors of whose lives we are personally ignorant? Or anonymous works?
How does the work/life divide affect us as authors? Should we try to keep our lives private? Would our actions pass muster?
This article about Orson Scott Card suggests an interesting compromise: accept the contradiction. Perhaps I will even consider re-instating Card’s book on character creation in my creative writing reading list, but for now, I just don’t know.
Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Avalon novels were some of my favourites as a teenager, and this article asks some of the same questions I do: can we ever read her work in the same light, and with the same innocent enjoyment as before?
“We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.” – William Butler Yeats
I’m happy not to have to grapple with these heavy moral dilemmas while re-reading Mary Stewart’s Merlin Trilogy though, which I find I love every bit as much as I did when I first discovered it in my school library! Only, it makes me miss Wales very much…
Garry Kasparov’s Masterclass
What a privilege to be living in an age where we can take a class from one of the greatest chess players ever, and without so much as leaving our home, or getting dressed up, or exposing our complete scacchic ineptitude!
I’ve been eagerly awaiting this masterclass for many months, and I’ve learnt so much from it already (including the odd Russian word)! I’m going to need to update my chapter on chess strategy in the Lady Writers League Library with some new tactics. I love the aesthetic of the video lessons, and the course also includes a download of all of the example positions that Kasparov demonstrates, in PGN format so you can open them in a programme like chessx. 10/10!
I am a Masterclass affiliate, but that in no way affects my opinion. These classes are magical.
As we begin a new year, I wanted to thank YOU, and all of my other readers for your support. Thank you for reading, for sharing, and for just being.
I’ve long wanted to design a Tarot spread for writers, and here it is!
What windows do the cards open up for you?
Here are some ideas for your work with this spread…
Structure – What’s the plan & pattern? What are the cornerstones & keystones?
Strength – What are the story’s strengths? What are your strengths? What gives the structure stability & substance?
The Next Level
Challenge – What does the story challenge? What is challenging for you? How can you create more challenges to raise your standards?
Novelty – What’s new & exciting about the story? What new experiences are you seeking?
The Higher Purpose
Inspiration – What’s inspiring about this story? Where can you find greater inspiration?
Influence – How can this story influence more people more? How can you develop your own influence? What influences can you bring to bear?
Although I designed this worksheet as a Tarot spread, you don’t need to use it with cards – you can use the storeys for brainstorming your story, or worldbuilding, or opening other exploratory windows.
P.S. If you enjoy using the Tarot for writing, you may also be interested in learning about The Fool’s Journey.
“If there could be one perfectly happy person in the world, if society could support them so that they had every opportunity to be carefree, and were never forced to do anything they didn’t want to do in order to be accepted as a member of that society… would you support the scheme, even if you knew it wouldn’t be you who was chosen?”
“Of course not! I would want everyone to have the chance to be the happiest.”
“Everyone would have a chance. The one would be chosen by random lot.”
“So it could be me.”
“It could, be, but let’s say you weren’t chosen. Would you still support the scheme?”
“No, it’s the function of society to ensure that all its members are as happy as possible, not just a single one. That’s why we work and pay taxes.”
“Ah, but it’s precisely that work, and those taxes that make so many people miserable. And if you work and you do your duty by the whole community, why not just one individual?”
“Are you trying to gauge my level of altruism, or are you trying to justify the monarchy?”
“I’m trying, Miss Starwick, to judge whether you’re the right fit for this position.”
“In that case I would recommend a more direct approach. Yes, I always put the happiness of my pupils first, and no, I do not support the monarchy.”
Mr. Oliver sighed, crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair, his dark eyes weighing me.
“Your record is impeccable,” he said.
There was a pause.
“I would like to know what drives you, Miss Starwick. What is your motivation? It clearly isn’t money, and it isn’t renown, since you haven’t published your method as far as I’m aware. So what is it?”
“That is a better question. I do what I do because I want everyone to grow up in such a family as I had.”
“Poor, do you mean? And… ostracised?”
“I mean generous and kind, loving, and free. Money is no guarantee of happiness, nor position.”
That seemed to make up his mind. He uncrossed his arms and stood up in one fluid movement, ready to shake my hand.
“Thank you for your time, Miss Starwick. We’ll be in touch.”
I stood up too, trying to look unruffled by this abrupt dismissal. Work was hard to come by these days. It looked like I would have to find some other means of supporting myself. Perhaps I would have to get married after all. I took the hand that Mr. Oliver held out to me.