Friday, July 28, 2017

How to Write a Novella...and Why Readers Love Them

Books are getting shorter these days. Amy Collins at The Book Designer reports the average NYT Bestseller is now half as long as it was in 2011.  And the brand new Smashwords survey shows bestselling romance novels have decreased by 20,000 words since 2012. 

The fastest growing fiction form right now is the novella. 

Novellas, once the pariahs of the publishing industry, are now in demand with readers. The stodgy Big 5 publishers are still demanding a word count of 60K plus. (And alas, newsletters like Bookbub won't take them.) But I'm sure that will change with their growing popularity. 

  • Traditionally published authors self-publish them to fill in the time between the snail-speed production schedules of their own publishers and increase their revenue stream. 
  • Indies use them to explore characters in their series that readers want to know more about. 
  • Readers who have less time to read than they used to enjoy getting into a meaty story that has a satisfying beginning, middle and end, but doesn't take weeks to get through. 

Perhaps the popularity of the novella also comes from our love of movies. As novella author Paul Alan Fahey wrote for our blog in 2014, the novella has a lot in common with a screenplay. It is also the fiction form most easily adapted to film.

My own publisher keeps encouraging me to write novellas to fill in the gaps in Camilla and Plantagenet's history.

Have I followed the advice?

Nope. The new Camilla book, The Queen of Staves, due in August, is the same 83,000 word length as my others.

I find writing novellas really hard. I think in terms of the "long game". How can I explore a big topic in 20,000 words?

But I know some talented writers who can do if brilliantly

In January 2014, I asked award-winning novella author Paul Alan Fahey for some advice. Paul's book The Other Man was honored by the American Library Association , and received a Rainbow Award in 2013. The View from 16 Podewale Street, the first of his beautifully-crafted novellas set in WWII Britain, won a Rainbow Award in 2012. Since then, his books have won many more awards, including the anthology Equality, which was nominated for a Rainbow this year.

I hope his advice will help us all to keep up with the new trend....Anne

How to Write a Novella

Paul Alan Fahey

Author of The Short and Long of It

Years ago, when I started writing fiction—as opposed to journal articles for career advancement in academe—I fell in love with flash fiction. That love affair lasted throughout the 1990’s, well into the millennium, and beyond. I loved the form and was quite content to stay within those teeny-tiny word limits. At the time, I also took classes in flash, presented writing workshops on the form, and participated in several online critique groups for flash writers.

When I taught at Allan Hancock College, I edited Mindprints, A Literary Journal, devoted to flash fiction and memoir pieces of 250-750 words. Here's a piece I wrote giving tips for writing good flash fiction.

During that time, I managed to write and publish a few short stories other than flash, but nothing beyond the 5,000 to 6,000-word range.

With the advent of the E-Age, I began to think seriously about writing longer work. The novel absolutely terrified me, so I gravitated to the novella: something in between a very long story and a novel.

When I began writing my first WWII novella, The View from 16 Podwale Street, and later with Bomber’s Moon, I told myself I was only writing flash, and that each scene or chapter was a kind of mini-flash piece with its own story arc. Little did I know that this strategy would work, and I’d soon be off and running with a romance series and a much larger story to tell.

Novellas in the E-Age: A Definition

Searching for a precise definition of a novella can be a maddening experience. Some consider novellas very long short stories, while others call them short novels, or say they’re synonymous with novelettes.

Nothing specific there, right? I was just about to give up when I stumbled upon a terrific article in the New Yorker by British novelist and screenwriter, Ian McEwan. Not only did he define the form, but he specified word limits most publishers, including my own, would agree with—give or take a few thousand at the top or bottom of the range.

"Novellas are between twenty and forty thousand words, long enough for a reader to inhabit a world or a consciousness and be kept there, short enough to be read in a sitting or two and for the whole structure to be held in mind at first encounter.”

McEwan went on to discuss the strong similarity between novellas and screenplays in their overall unity and economy.

"To sit with a novella is analogous to watching a play or a longish movie."

I have to admit I was totally stoked when I read that. I’d been using screenplay techniques as a pre-writing strategy for flash fiction and short stories for years. In fact I wrote an article for Byline magazine about the flash-screenplay connection in 2005. It's since been reprinted at Fiction Fix. Is it any wonder I was drawn to the novella form?


Let’s see how this prewriting thing works. We’ll take a look at my novella, Bomber’s Moon, and apply the strategy.

Step 1: Find a Story Idea

The idea for Bomber’s Moon came from an incident in my childhood. Mom and I were sitting at the breakfast table discussing a lovely Englishwoman she worked with in an upscale dress shop, someone who had lived through the London Blitz and still suffered in the late 1950’s from what we’d probably now call PTSD.

I took this idea and went into a “what if” frenzy, asking myself all sorts of questions: How did Londoners manage to survive day to day under such unimaginable conditions? What was it like being gay back then, and in a relationship, having to keep it all a secret except perhaps from your closest friends? These questions and many more would later guide character development as well as plot development in Bomber’s Moon.

Step 2: Turn the Idea into a Logline

Anne has previously written an excellent post on loglines. So there’s really no need to reinvent the wheel here other than to say a screenplay logline is a short, one-sentence statement of the film’s premise. Think TV Guide descriptions of cable movies.

Here’s an example:

Nebraska: An aging, booze-addled father makes the trip from Montana to Nebraska with his estranged son in order to claim a million dollar Mega Sweepstakes Marketing prize.

And another one:

August: Osage County: A look at the lives of the strong-willed women of the Weston family, whose paths have diverged until a family crisis brings them back to the Oklahoma house they grew up in, and to the dysfunctional woman who raised them.

Here’s the logline for Bomber’s Moon:

During the London Blitz, and after losing his life partner in a tragic accident, Leslie Atwater, a young gay man, discovers his lover’s death may not have been an accident and sets out to uncover the truth.

**I know, I know. It ain’t Shakespeare. You’re using it as a guide or throughline for developing your story. No one but you will see it.

Step 3. Write the Story Theme from the Logline

Often I know the book’s theme before I start to write. Sometimes I don't and it surfaces later in the writing. Still, it’s a terrific bonus if you do can articulate theme because it provides a wonderful subtext for scenes and dialogue.

"Journeys end in lovers meeting" is the main theme of Bomber’s Moon.

Step 4: Determine the Three Acts and As Many Plot Points as Possible

First, here’s a quick overview of three-act structure.

  • Act I, Set Up: Introduces setting, characters and the main story conflict or the inciting incident. 
  • Plot Point 1: The first major turning point or event that closes the first act and moves the characters into… 
  • Act II, Confrontation: The main character struggles to achieve his/her goal amid ever increasing obstacles. 
  • Midpoint: A subtle turning point in the plot midway through the story. 
  • Plot Point 2: A devastating setback or reversal in the main character’s fortune that leads to… 
  • Act III, Resolution: The final confrontation and highest point of action (climax) before the character reaches goal. 

Here’s what I knew about Bomber’s Moon before I began writing:

  • Act I: Set Up: During the day, Leslie works as a clerk in a modest bookshop in Central London. By night, he’s an air raid warden in his district responsible for the safety of his “flock.” In an effort to feel closer to Edward, he spends his evenings in their flat reviewing his partner’s sketches and soon discovers irregularities he can’t explain. 
  • Plot Point 1: Leslie, convinced his lover’s death wasn’t an accident. Despite warnings from friends to let well enough alone, he sets out on a journey. How did Edward die? 
  • Act II Confrontation: Leslie learns more about Edward’s work assignment the day he died. He begins to question family members and colleagues at The Globe. This leads him on a journey through London and into the countryside as he follows the clues. (Vague? You bet, but it works for now.) 
  • Act III Resolution: I envisioned a climax in a lighthouse overlooking the English Channel with enemy aircraft overhead. The ending would be a happy one—journeys end in lovers meeting—since Bomber’s Moon is a romance, and I was following conventions of the form. 

This pre-writing three-act paradigm for Bomber’s Moon, adapted from a screenwriting text by Syd Field is far from complete. But having the structure planned out as much as possible beforehand, kept me focused on the storyline, while I filled in the blanks of the paradigm as I went along in the first draft.

For a more thorough discussion and examples of the three-act structure, please see: The Elements of Cinema.

This process may or may not work for you. I can only say it does for me. And in a big way.


Paul Alan Fahey created and edited Mindprints, an international literary journal for writers and artists with disabilities, at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, California. During Paul’s seven-year tenure, Mindprints made Writers Digest’s “Top 30 Short Story Markets” list for two consecutive years. He is the author of the Lovers and Liars Gay Wartime Romance series, published by JMS Books. Paul is the editor of the 2013 Rainbow Award winning anthology, The Other Man: 21 Writers Speak Candidly About Sex, Love, Infidelity, & Moving On. His first WWII novella, The View From 16 Podwale Street, also won a Rainbow Award in 2012.

Paul's Latest Book is a memoir that's novella length. It's a fantastic read
poignant and funny and hair-raising all at once. 

Debuts on August 31st

In the tradition of Patrick Dennis, Truman Capote, and of Tennessee Williams’ memory play, The Glass Menagerie, Paul Alan Fahey’s memoir, The Mom I Knew, The Mother I Imagined, recounts a son’s loving yet often maddening relationship with his mother over four decades. Told in a hybrid mix of memoir, short fiction, and poetry, the author tells of their nomadic existence in the 1950s; his mother’s four month visit in Africa while he completed his teaching contract; and the last decade of her life.

It will debut August 31st. 


And I've also just read the ARC of a fun new novella by veteran screenwriter Barbara Morgenroth. It's a mystery set in 1933 Hollywood and the tone is very "It Happened One Night" and "Bringing up Baby" (two of my favorite movies of all time!)  

Available August 1st!

It’s 1933. When hard news reporter, Caro James, reveals the secret life of a politician in New York, much to her dismay, The New York Sentinel newspaper sets out to teach her a lesson about the rules of journalism. They send her to Los Angeles to write fluff pieces on the film industry.

The contact in Hollywood who is supposed to guide her for the week of punishment, is the handsome and unpredictable movie director, Sugar McLaughlin. Soon a story falls in Caro’s lap. A young, beautiful starlet has been missing for two weeks and is in great danger. Caro and Sugar must find June Fowler before she is lost forever. When the one person who knows what happened to June is murdered, Caro and Sugar can’t help but think they’ve reached a dead end. As Sugar knows, every story has an Act III and Caro is in for the ride of her life as they race to find the starlet.


  1. HI, Anne, and thank you so very much for this lovely column about me and my novellas. I sure do appreciate it. I'm also really excited about the memoir of my mom. Thank you for that nice promo. You are so generous to us writers and I, for one, deeply appreciate it. Hugs, Paul

    1. Paul--I'm so much enjoying the memoir. What a childhood you had!

      Love your novellas. They're so fun to read in a couple of evenings. Also handy while waiting in doctor's offices, etc.

  2. Really do appreciate all the support you give me and other writers. You are the best, Anne. Thank you.

  3. Great, actionable advice from Paul. Pay attention! :-)

    1. Thanks, Ruth. I agree. This is good solid writing advice that works for longer novels, too.