#amwriting: The strong novella vs. a weak novel

via buzzfeed

Sometimes we find that our work-in-progress is not really a novel after all. We get to the finish point, and that place might be only at the 40,000-word mark (or less).

In some circles, 40,000 words is a novel, but in fantasy, it is less than half a book. A short novel that has been read to shreds is far better than a long, boring book ending its days as a doorstop.

I recommend not trying to stretch the length if you have nothing of value to add to the tale. It’s better to be known for having written a strong novella than a weak novel. So, now at the end of the rough draft, your book must become a novella.

In the second draft, you will weed out many words and cut the unnecessary repetitions. The manuscript is going to both expand and contract, but when the final ms is complete, it may be only 35,000 words. But why do I think this?

I have experienced this very thing. Sometimes, when I was just finishing the rough draft, I discovered that besides the four chapters that had to go since they don’t belong there anymore, 3 more chapters were mostly background, rambling to get my personal mindset into the story. That sort of background doesn’t need to be in the finished product, other than a brief mention in conversation. Often, when I go in and remove large chunks of exposition, I’m able to condense those chapters into one passage or scene that actually moves the story forward.

Another thing to watch for when you are in the second draft, are areas where you may have repeated yourself, with a slightly different phrasing. These are hard for the author to pick out, but they can be found. Decide which phrasing you like the best, and go with that.

Also in the rough draft, we use a lot of words we can cut or find alternatives for, words and phrases that weaken our narrative:

  • There was
  • To be

We change these words to more active phrasing, and sometimes we gain a few words in the process.

In conversations especially, it’s good to use contractions. ‘Was not’ becomes ‘wasn’t,’ ‘has not becomes hasn’t,’ etc.

It’s amazing how many times we can simply cut some words out, and find the prose is stronger without them. Many times they need no replacement.

Sometimes we use what I think of as “crutch” words. You can really lower your word-count when you look at each instance and see if you can get rid of these words. These are overused words that fall out of our heads along with the good stuff as we are sailing along:

  • so,
  • very,
  • that,
  • just,
  • literally
  • very

The fact is, you must be willing to be ruthless. Yes, you may well have spent three days or even weeks writing a chapter you are about to cut. But now that you see it in the context of the overall story arc, you realize it is bogging things down, and NO–Sometimes there is no fixing it. Just because we wrote something does not mean we have to keep it in the story.

But do save it in a separate file, as you may be able to use it later. I always have a file folder labeled “Outtakes.” Many times those cut pieces become the core of a new story.

I strongly feel that no matter how much you like the prose you have just written for a given chapter, if the chapter or passage does not advance the story, it must go.

Pay close attention to the story arc. Large chunks of exposition flatten it, pushing the plot point back, and the reader may give up. Once you have your rough draft complete, measure the tale against the blueprint of the story arc.

  • Where does the inciting incident occur?
  • Where does the first pinch point occur?
  • What is happening at midpoint? Are the events of the middle section moving the protagonist toward their goal?
  • Where does the third plot point occur?

short story arc

It’s not important to have written a novel. Whether you write short stories or 700-page doorstops, you are an author.  It is, however, extremely important to have written well. A powerful, well-written novella can be a reading experience that shakes the literary world:

  1. A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens
  2. Breakfast at Tiffany’s, by Truman Capote
  3. Candide, by Voltaire
  4. Three Blind Mice, by Agatha Christie
  5. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson
  6. The Time Machine, by H.G, Wells
  7. Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck
  8. The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway
  9. Animal Farm, by George Orwell
  10. The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James


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8 responses to “#amwriting: The strong novella vs. a weak novel

  1. David P. Cantrell

    Another good piece. You say to pay close attention to the story during the second draft. Not all of us start with a story arc, or even a premise, they evolve as we write the first draft. I’ve come to realize, I have to decide what the final arc should be as part of the second draft process.

    Liked by 1 person

    • @Dave – That is how my mind works, too. In the first draft I am laying down the framework of the story, and getting what I think is important down. It isn’t until I have stepped back a bit and looked at it with a less jaundiced eye that I begin to see where it can be tightened. And even then, my first reader (you, thank god) will find ways for me to sharpen it!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Good advice. Write short, but write well. Is there a market for novellas? There should be. Heart of Darkness is a novella. Death in Venice is a novella. Turn of the Screw is a novella. Train Dreams (Denis Johnson) is a novella. There are successful novels by well known writers that are so full of bloat in the middle I wish they would have been novellas.

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  3. Most of what you have mentioned, I go through while still on the first draft. I find myself editing as I go, and therefor honing and ‘perfecting’ while the story is still forming. I know a lot of Authors say to just blaze through the first writing, but I find that is not possible for me. I have two works-in-progress, and I know they need more work to make them better. I find that when I do go back to them, I have to re-read what I already have, and catch myself making changes to that, which leads me to change what I’m thing of adding. By the time I have gone over what’s already there, I’m too tired or out of allotted time to write more, and close it. Most every time. I just can’t seem to ‘blaze through’ as others advise. I also can’t (don’t?) do the outline thing. While writing, the story goes however it goes. Like it’s not mine; I’m just the conduit.

    Liked by 1 person