When your novel is only a novella #amwriting

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

WritingCraft_short-storyIn some circles, 40,000 words is a novel, but in fantasy, it is less than half a book.

You could try to stretch the length, but why? 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.

I’m a wordy writer but sometimes the finished work is shorter than I’d planned–a lot shorter. Then I have to make a decision. I could choose to leave it at the length it is now and have it edited. Or I could try to expand it.

If my beta readers feel the plot lacks substance at that length, I let it rest for a while then come back to it. Then I can see where to add new scenes, events, and conversations to round out the story arc.

Other times, the story is complete, but only about half the length of a novel. Sometimes this happens in the revision process.

In the second draft of any manuscript, I weed out many words and hunt for unnecessary repetitions of information. At that stage, the manuscript will expand and contract. It hurts the novelist in my soul, but the story may only be 35,000 words long when the second draft is complete.

I do a lot of rambling when trying to visualize the story. While I usually do it in a separate document, it often bleeds over into my manuscript. During the editing process, I sometimes find that besides the four chapters that don’t fit the plot anymore, three more chapters mainly deal with background info, and can be condensed into one.

CAUTION INFO DUMP ZONE AHEADA detailed history of everyone’s background isn’t required. As a reader, all we need is a brief mention of historical information in conversation and delivered only when the protagonist needs to know it.

Unfortunately, I sometimes forget to write it out in a separate document.

Once I condense rambling passages, I end up with a scene that moves the story forward.

Some other things to watch for in the second draft are areas where I have repeated myself but with slightly different phrasing. These are hard for me to pick out, but they can be found. I decide which wording I like the best and go with that.

Also, in the first draft, I use a lot of “telling” words and phrases I will later change or cut. I look for active alternatives for words and phrases that weaken the narrative:

  • There was
  • To be

When I change these words to more active phrasing, I sometimes gain a few words in the process as showing requires more words than telling.

But then I lose words in other areas. Again, I’m speaking as a reader here, but when reading conversations especially, it’s good for an author to use contractions. It makes the conversations feel more natural and less formal. It shortens the word count because two words become one: was not becomes wasn’t, has not becomes hasn’t, etc.

Most times, I can cut some words, even entire paragraphs. Often the prose is stronger without them, and these words need no replacement.

In the first draft, I regularly employ what I think of as crutch words. I can lower my word count when I get rid of them. These are overused words that fall out of my head along with the good stuff as I’m sailing along:

  • So (my personal tic)
  • Very (Be wary if you do a global search – don’t press “replace all” as most short words are components of larger words, and ‘very’ is no exception.)
  • That
  • Just
  • Literally

I have learned to be ruthless. Yes, I might have spent three days or even weeks writing a chapter that now must be cut. But even though I try to plot an outline in advance, the arc might change as I write the first draft. New events emerge, and I find better ways to get to the end than what was first planned.

It hurts when a really good chapter no longer fits the story. But maybe it bogs things down when you see it in the overall context. It must go, but that chapter will be saved. With a name change and perhaps a few place-name changes it could be the genesis of a short story.

I save everything I cut in a separate file, as I guarantee I will find a use for it later. I always have a file folder inside each master file labeled “Outtakes.” Those cut pieces often become the core of a new story, a better use for those characters and events.

I have learned to pay close attention to the story arc. Once your first draft is complete, no matter how short or long, measure the story against the blueprint of the story arc.


  • How soon does my inciting incident occur? It should be near the front, as this will get the story going and keep the reader involved.
  • How soon does the first pinch point occur? This roadblock will set the tone for the rest of the story.
  • What is happening at the midpoint? Are the events of the middle section moving the protagonist toward their goal? Did the point of no return occur near or just after the midpoint?
  • Where does the third pinch point occur? This event is often a catastrophe, a hint that the protagonist might fail.
  • Is the ending finite, solid, and does it resolve the major problems? Even if this story is one part of a series, we who are passionate about the story we’re reading need firm endings.

Some people think they aren’t a real author if they don’t write a 900-page doorstop.

I tell them that it’s not important to have written a novel. Whether you write poems, short stories, novellas, or 700-page epic fantasies, you are an author.

The Emperor's Soul - Brandon SandersonNovellas hold a special place in my heart. A powerful, well-written novella can be a reading experience that shakes the literary world:

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


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16 responses to “When your novel is only a novella #amwriting

  1. My first novel was a novella. When I read, I tend to skim over long details, so when I write, I get straight to the point.

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  2. My plots become ever more complex as I write. Trying to keep a novel down to anything below 95K words defeats me – most of mine are well over the 100K. It just seems to be the way my mind works.
    I HAVE written a handful of short stories, but I have to keep a really tight grip on them to prevent them from expanding!

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  3. I’m usually the opposite of you with my first draft, missing needed passages of explanation and description. It isn’t until the third draft that I’m weeding out the fluff.

    “I save everything I cut in a separate file, as I guarantee I will find a use for it later.”
    Out of curiosity and trying to find a better way to deal with this stuff myself, how do you label the individual files of your folder, “Outtakes”? And do you move that folder to another location once you’re to the point of publishing?

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    • I give all my master files the working name of a project, such as “Huw the Bard.” Inside that folder will be other folders labeled this way:
      Huw_The_Bard_stysheet.xls (excel workbook with outline, and glossary of invented words.)
      “HtB_Final_ms” (Huw the Bard ms final, ready to format for publication. Also contains and the three formatted versions–kindle, epub, and paperback)
      “HtB_ILedits (Huw the Bard Irene Luvaul edits) (contains the individual chapters with my editor’s comments and suggestions).
      “HtB_original_ms” (Original manuscript, unedited. Also contains documents with backstory and character information.)
      “HtB_outtakes” (contains the sections I have removed. Each section is labeled with chapter it was taken from)
      “HtB_maps” (contains all the maps I used when plotting that book, as he does a LOT of traveling).

      Every project has a master file, and in that master file are all the documents that pertain to it. I hope this helps!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. You’re a little more orderly than I am, but I do have my files similarly arranged. Perhaps my problem is I’m looking for shortcuts when I should be embracing the specifics instead.

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  5. Pingback: THE EMPEROR’S SOUL ranks not just among Brandon Sanderson's best works but the very best novellas of all time - Tachyon Publications