Tag Archives: novel or novella?

#amwriting: The strong novella vs. a weak novel

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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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Elements of the story: when the novel is not a novel after all

Book- onstruction-sign copy

In the rough draft, the goal is to get the work out of your head, and the concepts onto the page. To that end, I advise you to just write, and try not to self-edit as you go, because you may lose your train of thought.

If we let ourselves drop into the zone, in the first draft we are in story-teller-mode, which is where our best work happens. Yes, our prose is uneven and may contain things we wish had been written by someone else, but all we were doing was getting the idea down:

Thus it was that On departing Billy’s Revenge on this particular job, Lackland and Mags had kept the conversation cordial and polite, but little of substance passed between them. Oh, They joked and laughed, and said all the things that as they would say to with any Rowdy that they were on a job working with, but it felt all wrong. Still, Even so, Lackland did not press for anything more from Lady Mags, although he was full of questions and desperate for answers. 

It’s okay write crap when you are just getting it on to paper. You have to get the basic ideas down before you can craft them into a proper novel or short-story. (That drivel was from the rough draft of my 2010 nanowrimo manuscript. I can get rid of at least 24 words in that paragraph, and although I did replace several words, losing the fluff made it stronger.)

Remember, the rough draft–the first draft–is the proto-story, the just-born infant that is the child of your creativity. You do the shaping when you come back to it in the second draft. Some will stay, and some will go.

This weekend I discovered that one of my works in progress is not really a novel after all.

It was at 85,000 words, but it has occurred to me that it is a novella, because in the first half of the book, 4 chapters don’t advance the protagonist’s story. When I am done weeding it out, the ms may only top out at about 50,000 words.  In some circles that is a novel, but in fantasy, it is half a book.

Still, I’m not going to try to force it to be any longer than it is, because I have nothing of value to add to the tale. I would much rather be known for having written a strong novella than a weak novel. So, now at the end of the rough draft, this book must become a novella.

Those four cut chapters total about 16,000 words. Add to that the words that will be weeded out in the second draft and I would say its going to lose a lot more weight–perhaps another 8,000 to 10,000 words. But why do I think this? Because I am just finishing the rough draft and I have realized several things:

  1. __Hell's Handbasket__400 1Besides the four chapters that must go since they don’t belong there anymore, 3 more chapters are mostly background that doesn’t need to be in the finished product. When I went in and removed large chunks of exposition I was able to condense those 3 chapters into 1 that actually moved the story forward.
  2. Add to that the fact that in the rough draft we will always have a lot of words we can cut (or find alternatives for), words and phrases that weaken our narrative:
  • There was
  • To be

I will also make some 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,
  • so,
  • literally
  • very

But back to one of my current works-in-progress: why am I cutting an 85,000 word MS down to 50,000 or so words?

800px-Singapore_Road_Signs_-_Temporary_Sign_-_Detour.svgA lot of what I have written is good work, but as I said, several long passages don’t advance my protagonist’s tale. They pertain to a different character’s story set in that world–so they were a rabbit-trail to nowhere in the context of this tale. However, those passages will come in handy later if I choose to write that character’s story, so I am saving them in file labeled “Out Takes.”

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 now that you are seeing 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 it does not mean we have to keep it.

In genre fiction, no matter how much you like the prose you have just written for a given chapter, if the chapter does not advance the story, it must go. The story arc must not be derailed, and sometimes amputation is the only cure.

The Story Arc copy

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