Writing a Novella

by Barb, in Boston with my new granddaughter

Yule Log Murder was released on October 30, 2018. It contains three novellas, one each by Leslie Meier, Lee Hollis and me. All three take place in Maine, and all three feature a Bûche de Noël, a traditional French Yule Log Cake.

Before Kensington asked me to write a novella for Eggnog Murder, the first collection featuring Leslie, Lee and me, I had never written in that length. Novellas are popularly defined as 20,000 to 40,000 words. Kensington wants 25,000 to 35,000.

Of course, I had read novellas. Tons of them. Animal Farm, Billy Budd, Heart of Darkness, The Metamorphosis, Of Mice and Men, The Old Man and the Sea, The Stranger (in French for high school French class).

And we all know novellas often translate brilliantly to other media–plays, radio plays, and movies, such as Breakfast at Tiffany’s, A Christmas Carol, The War of the Worlds, Brokeback Mountain, and Wide Sargasso Sea.

(I’m looking at these lists and realizing how pathetically incomplete they are. But suffice to say, even if you think you don’t like novellas, you do love a story from a novella, in some medium or another.)

I’ve joked that I thought I would love writing novellas because my novels are always too short and my short stories are always too long. This is true. When I was submitting stories to Level Best, they had an absolute, iron-clad max word count of 5000, even for editors. My first drafts were always 6000 to 8000 words, and then the cutting began. It often felt like a game of Jenga. How much could I remove before it all fell apart?  In the final trimming, Anna Maria Bollen Smith would become Anna-Maria Bollen-Smith, or even Anna to squeak in under the word count.

On the other hand, I write the first draft of my novels in a cold sweat hoping there are enough pages to create a spine on the finished book wide enough to display the title. My first drafts are sketchy. I’m telling the story to myself at that point, so I don’t need physical descriptions of people or places, because I see them so clearly in my head. So I know the book will get longer in revisions, but is there enough story? I go through this every single time.

My novellas, however, cruise in to the contracted length without worrying me at all.

An author friend once asked me how to write a novella. I answered, rather glibly,”You need to decide whether you’re using a short story structure or a traditional mystery structure.”

Then she said, “What do you mean?” So I had to actually think about it.

A traditional mystery has a central mystery, usually a murder. There are multiple suspects, who all have secrets, and often, secret connections to one another and to the victim. The sleuth’s job is to figure all that out.

The first two stories in Eggnog Murder, by Leslie Meier and Lee Hollis, are structured like that. They are short, traditional mysteries. Neither of my stories in Eggnog Murder or in Yule Log Murder has this structure. There aren’t multiple suspects. There’s one person who may or may not be up to something terrible.

I’ve just finished a third novella, this time for a Halloween-themed collection. That story does have a traditional mystery structure.

In addition to the length, that’s another reason I love writing novellas. There’s a tremendous amount of freedom in how you approach a story of that length.

About Barbara Ross

Barbara Ross is the author of the Maine Clambake Mysteries. Her books have been nominated for multiple Agatha Awards for Best Contemporary Novel and have won the Maine Literary Award for Crime Fiction. She lives in Portland, Maine. Readers can visit her website at www.maineclambakemysteries.com
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2 Responses to Writing a Novella

  1. Great post, Barb. That was me who asked you! And right now I’m struggling with the most plot problems I’ve ever had – in the shortest book I’ve ever written (yes, my own novella). Can’t wait to get my copy of the new collection and read yours.

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