#amwriting: creating a strong novella

A little over three years ago, I discovered that one of my works in progress was not really a novel after all.

The first draft was at 85,000 words, but it occurred to me that it was a novella. In the first half of the book, 4 chapters didn’t advance the protagonist’s story. When I finished weeding it out, the manuscript length was slightly over 50,000 words.  In YA and some romance 50,000 words is a novel-length book, but in fantasy, it is only half a book.

So, I  shelved that manuscript, as I had other, more pressing, work to get finished and had nothing of value to add to the tale. I said at the time that I would much rather be known for having written a strong novella than a weak novel.

Those four cut chapters totaled about 16,000 words. Added to that were the words I weeded out in the second draft. They totaled 8,000 to 10,000 more words.

But why did I do this?

  1. Besides the four chapters that didn’t belong there anymore, 3 more chapters were mostly background that didn’t need to be in the finished product. When I removed large chunks of exposition, I was able to condense those 3 chapters into 1 that actually moved the story forward.
  2. Also, in the rough draft we always find words we can cut or find alternatives for, words and phrases that weaken our narrative such as:
  • There was
  • To be

Also, we look for places where we can make contractions: ‘was not’ becomes ‘wasn’t,’ ‘has not’ becomes ‘hasn’t,’ etc.

Many times we can simply cut some words out, and find the prose is better without them. Most times, those words need no replacement.

I have mentioned the overuse of what I think of as “crutch” words. You can lower your word count when you look at each instance of these words. These words  fall out of our heads along with the good stuff as we are sailing along:

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

But back to the novella: why did I cut an 85,000 word MS down to 50,000 or so words?

A lot of what I had written was good work, but as I said, several long passages didn’t advance my protagonist’s tale. They pertained to a different character’s story set in that world–so they were a rabbit-trail to nowhere in the context of that story.

I didn’t discard those chapters, though. Those passages will come in handy later if I choose to write that character’s story, so I saved them in a separate file, under the character’s name.

The fact is, you must be willing to be ruthless. Yes, you may well have spent three days or even weeks writing that chapter. But sometimes, when you see it in the context of the overall story arc, you realize it bogs things down, and there is no fixing it.

Just because we wrote it does not mean we must keep it in that story.

At some point I will finish that novella, but the lesson I learned was this: no matter how much you like your prose, there are times when it must go.


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12 responses to “#amwriting: creating a strong novella

  1. Stephen Swartz

    In the early days of the Swartz Writing Juggernaut, a “novella” was just a novel (in spirit) which was simply limited in length by the vagaries of the typewriter and correction fluid. Back then 60-100 singled-spaced pages was the best I could do. The invention of the computer, where I could save my work, edit and extend without fear of having to type it all over from the beginning freed my word count.
    But I digress…
    There are stories which are perfect at a shorter length and trying to make them longer ruins them. Also the genre determines the appropriate length.
    Recently I’ve read that readers are bringing the novella back into favor. I suspect it’s because people are less willing to spend more time reading; they want the story to be a one-stop experience.
    Fortunately, there are no epic fantasy novellas!

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  2. Hi Connie! What’s your stance on “has not” vs. “hasn’t”? I’m often told I contract my sentences too often, but I tend to prefer the way it flows. Particularly when it comes to spoken dialogue. Are there any rules of thumb?


    • I like the way contractions smooth the flow of the conversations. We use contractions in our conversations in real life. In some narratives, you want to use a more formal prose, but in others you can use contractions in the narrative and it works. In the end, you are the author. You know what effect you are trying to achieve in your work, and each new work in progress will have slightly different requirements. This is truly a matter of taste. Some people prefer a formal flavor to their reading material.

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      • Stephen Swartz

        For example:
        Whenever the professor wished to consternate his students, he would boisterously elucidate: “Y’all ain’t gettin’ my grits!” At that turn of phrase, the stoic professor would once again collect the attention of his proteges and the lesson could resume forthwith.

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  3. I found this useful and very true, thanks for posting today.😇


  4. Thanks, Connie for this good advice. 🙂 — Suzanne

    Liked by 1 person