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Sunday, October 16, 2016

Six Pointers in Writing a Novella

Do you read instruction manuals before you start? After you’ve hit a snag? What are instruction manuals?

I know it’s a stereotype that all guys are loathe to read instruction manuals on the theory that they should know better. But stereotypes are based on observed behavior, and as the saying goes, “If the shoe fits, wear it!” I know what instruction manuals are, but often use them only as reference manuals to figure out where the leftover part belongs and how many steps I need to redo.

I’m in the process of writing my first novella. It’s intended for an anthology with the proposed title Lowcountry Crime: Four Novellas. I wrote the first draft, revised for a second draft, and earlier this week I sent it to an editor for her to work her magic.

As I sat down to write this blog, the thing that came to mind was to write about novellas, since that’s what I had been working on. At which point, I thought perhaps I should read the instruction manual. What, after all, is a novella?


A quick online search turns up a plethora of references for 20,000 to 40,000 words. Others take the top end up to 60,000. The Hugo Award for Best Novella uses 17,500 to 40,000. The stories in this anthology are to be between 15,000 and 25,000 words. Mine currently sits at 20,800; I’m safe under most definitions. Whew, but it illustrates my point about the dangers of looking at the directions after the project is complete.


The word novella implies a shortened form of novel, but containing all of its elements. Rather than an extension of the short story, a novella will likely contain a traditional three-act structure.


A novel allows for a leisurely reveal of characterization for a number of actors. A short story requires a precise cast and pinpoint characterization. A novella splits the difference, but when in doubt, err on the side of the short story. Take a short story’s approach and use the absolute minimum number of characters possible. Since I am a pantser, I don’t worry about this in my first draft, but in the first rewrite I look for ways to eliminate and combine as much as possible. The novella’s length compared to a short story does allow more space to develop the remaining characters to allow readers a more in-depth understanding of motivations.

Point(s) of View:

Novels often provide the reader with perspectives from multiple characters. This becomes much more difficult when dealing with a novella’s word-count limitation. Plan writing from one character’s POV and deviate only if you must to tell your story.


My Seamus McCree novels run around 90,000 words, which allows me to introduce multiple subplots that may involve crimes, family issues, love interests, personal growth along a multiple-book character arc, or some combination. Short stories have space for only one main storyline. While some suggest sticking only with the central conflict in a novella, I’d feel cheated if there weren’t an interesting subplot as well. However, care must be taken to limit the subplot’s scope to leave room for a complete telling of the central conflict.


Each setting requires additional words to bring the reader along. After the first draft, consider both how scenes can be combined to accomplish multiple ends and how settings can be used for multiple scenes.


A novella’s reduced word-count requires the author to maintain a laser focus on the unifiers in the story: key characters, precise storylines, and multiple-use settings.

~ Jim


Kait said...

Interesting, Jim. I'm curious about the highlighting on the page you show. Could you give us a cheat sheet for each color? It looks like an interesting visual system. Are you finding it easier or more difficult to write a novella than a novel or a short story? It seems like a comfortable length to work with. What's your take on it?

Jim Jackson said...

Kait -- The coloring system is something I teach in my self-editing class, but stole from Ramona DeFelice Long. She describes it in this WWK blog:

In two senses, writing this novella has been easier for me. Because I have only one main storyline and one subplot, it is simpler to write because I didn't have to interweave multiple subplots. Also, since it is shorter, I could keep all the little details in mind while I rewrote and now polish.

I find short stories harder to write because I struggle to bring my writing down to a single idea. My thinking (and therefore my writing) tends toward bringing in lots of bits and pieces to develop a coherent idea. I don't have time for that in a short story.

Of course I'd need to write four novellas and a couple of short stories to equal the total words of a full novel, so it should be easier!

Whether I have successfully written the novella will have to wait until I hear reader reactions.

I'll be interested in what others who have written novels, short stories, and novellas have to say about the relative ease they experience.

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

20,000 words sounds about right--the length of four 5,000 word short stories, enough for a satisfying character and plot arc without subplots. Thanks for the summary.

Donnell Ann Bell said...

Oh good grief, all this time, I never knew, I'm a guy! I always treat writing instructions like guidelines, but this one my feminine side took over and I decided to read every detail. Thanks Jim. Sounds like an interesting anthology. Who's participating?

Warren Bull said...

Thanks for the useful information.

Jim Jackson said...

Donnell -- So picture a Venn diagram with three circles One is female, one is male and the third isthose who don't read instructions. There is no overlap of the male and female circles (although now they flatten out and touch a little to account for transgender). There is a large overlap between no instructions and males and a small overlap between no instructions and female -- That's You!!

The three others are Polly Iyer, Tina Whittle, and Jon Bryant.

Gloria Alden said...

Jim, thanks for the instructions. I've saved them to my files for the time I decide I want to write a novella.

I don't read instructions, either, until I get in trouble. Actually, if I think it's too big a problem from the beginning, I call on my son, grandson or one of my daughters to figure it out.

KM Rockwood said...

When all else fails, read the directions.

Very interesting, Jim. And in your usual organized fashion, you've laid it out very clearly, which is of tremendous value.

I tend to write from a single POV, regardless of the length of the work, but the complexity certainly differs depending on the anticipated length.

Suzanne said...

The color analysis with markers is invaluable in polishing a manuscript. Margie Lawson also teaches the technique, although what she designates by colors differs from Ramona's designations. For example, Margie uses blue for dialogue. Regardless, it gets the job done.

I just ran a color analysis on chapter one of my second draft. Zoiks, 25% of first page is backstory! Must do something about that today. The rest of the chapter, where they're finding the victim's body and endangering themselves in the process, is a much more balanced blend of action and description with a bit of dialogue thrown in.

Jim Jackson said...

Suzanne -- Yep HATE that backstory color to show up in large blocks or very often in those first few pages.

And then, when I've polished scene 1, I need to make sure scene 2 doesn't contain a ton of backstory either!!

Vicki Batman, sassy writer said...

Good stuff, Jim! I write a lot of short stories. Lots of people say they can't but they can. Your points hit how to perfectly. Thank you for sharing.

Jim Jackson said...

My pleasure, Vicki.

Grace Topping said...

I'm late coming to your interesting post. I used to write computer user manuals, which with the fast changes in technology, are now in a landfill. With any luck they were recycled instead. We used to write for three categories of users: those users who would never read the manual unless absolutely stumped; users who might occasionally scan the manual, and those users who wouldn't take a step without following the guide step by step. It was challenging work to make the material clear and straight forward.

But since my manuals are now outdated and of use to nobody, I'm motivated to write fiction that I hope will have a longer life span.

Jim Jackson said...

Funny you should mention computer user manuals. I just pitched out (recycled!) a number of old manuals (Frontpage 2002!) and Writers' Market type with similar old dates, freeing up about 18" on a shelf. some fiction is nearly timeless, but most ends up in the scrap-heap of history. [How many Greek plays can you name of the thousands written?] However, while your stuff is out there, it's fun to have people reading it.