It’s just under a month until the end of the year, and those Goodreads Reading Challenge deadlines are looming. Back in January, when you were young, bright-eyed, innocent, filled with the vigour and hope of a child, maybe that hundred book reading challenge looked totally doable.
Perhaps less so now.
Or maybe you simply need a break from books that could double as door stoppers, with plots so complicated you need to keep referring back to the wiki to make sense of it all.
Not that big books are bad (I’m a fan, myself) but sometimes you need to cleanse the palate with something a little shorter, if not necessarily sweeter.
Enter the novella.
Technically, any story between 15,000 and 50,000 words qualifies as a novella, which is a fairly substantial range. That’s anything from an exceedingly long short story to a thin novel. If you’ve ever participated in NaNoWriMo, that 50,000 number will look way too familiar. In fact, you’ll find that many of the classic novels you read at school fall into the novella range.
Novellas used to be incredibly popular book lengths. During the golden age of genre fiction, they were everywhere, often packaged in twos or threes, with similar-themed works by different authors put out as a single book. I grew up reading many of these myself.
And then the novella fell out of favour. The narrow little books gave way to epic tomes. Especially in genres like fantasy, books were praised for their length, and novellas were considered slight, almost worthless. A few writers grimly continued in the face of adversity. Some of my favourite novellas were by the wonderful writer Tanith Lee, and the stories that made up her Books of Paradys collections.
But a good story is not the product of its word count, and these days the novella is making something of a comeback. Partly as a response to overly-padded genre stories, and partly due to the world of the e-book, where people are happy to grab a story that appeals to them without considering length.
Unfortunately novellas are not always listed as such. A long novella at the far end of the wordcount will happily nestle in among the other novels in a publisher’s list. So how to find these little gems?
If you’re looking for something recent, several publishers have caught the novella trend, and are putting out great new stories from modern writers. Look at Tor.com (who publish many of the Hugo-shortlisted novellas of the last few years), and NewCon Press as examples. Keep an eye on the novella categories such as the novella short list for the Nommo awards, which was won by our very own Skolion writer Nerine Dorman with her wonderful African-inspired fantasy The Firebird.
Many classics fall into the novella category, and can be read legally free of charge via Project Gutenberg. Some I’ve read include Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, H.G. Wells The War of the Worlds, and R.L. Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but many libraries carry equally well-known novellas like Orwell’s Animal Farm, Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain, Daniel Keye’s Flowers for Algernon, and Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
Many of these have also been turned into films and television series. The constraints of a novella allow little space to waste on extraneous story—no divergent side-quests and meandering back stories. This can often make them easier to adapt to film without losing much of the core story.
The push toward bringing novellas back as a worthy medium is a good one—not all stories need to be stretched out over two-hundred-and-fifty thousand words (or more). The truncated length makes them excellent vehicles for powerful, lyrical stories that won’t wear out the reader. So make room on your shelves for the neglected novella, and the punch they can pack.
Cat Hellisen also writes under the name CL Corona. Her latest book is a clockpunkish novella filled with magic, AIs, and cranky alchemists. High Tower Gods is available from Amazon on December 3rd.
Cat Hellisen writes weird, lush speculative fiction for adults and children. She’s the author of When the Sea is Rising Red and Beastkeeper, and her short fiction and poetry have appeared in various magazines and anthologies, including Tor.com, Apex Magazine, Shimmer and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.
Her favourite writers are Ursula K Le Guin, Margaret Atwood, Tanith Lee and Clive Barker, though she loves discovering new writers of the fantastical.