Novella thoughts

I’m noodling around with an idea that I think will be a novella, and part of that noodling involves thinking about novellas in general.

I don’t have the world’s best grasp on how to pace a story of this size. I’ve written five of them, but two weren’t planned that way — both Deeds of Men and Dancing the Warrior were me saying “well, let’s write this idea and see how many words I end up with” — and really, five isn’t all that many in general. Nor do I think I’m alone in being uncertain about how best to structure such things: a lot of the novellas I’ve read feel like they aren’t paced quite right, going too slow in some places, too fast in others. I speculated to a writer-friend on a forum that it’s because novellas were kind of a dead zone in SF/F for a long time (few good ways to publish them, so very few people writing them), and we can’t look to the novellas of the more distant past for much guidance, because our expectations of storytelling have changed. We’re sort of reinventing the wheel, now with suspension and treads and spinning rims.

Whether I’m right about that or not, the fact remains that novellas feel like terra barely cognita to me. Plus I’m not the kind of writer with much in the way of overt understanding of pacing anyway; what I do, I tend to do on instinct. I know plenty of writers who love making use of beat sheets and the like, which map out what kinds of events should happen when in a novel, but those are deadly to my process. So even if you had a beat sheet for a novella, I wouldn’t get much use out of it.

But the other day I realized that I do have one useful framework for thinking about this. I need to ask myself: is what I’m writing more like a short story, or more like a novel?

With a novel, I usually have a couple of set points I vaguely map out ahead of time, pegging them to what feels like the right moment in the story — most often either the 1/3 and 2/3 marks, or 1/4, 1/2, and 3/4. The Night Parade of 100 Demons is a thirds novel; The Mask of Mirrors is a quarters novel. Sometimes I can tell you why; In Ashes Lie is done in quarters because the Great Fire of London burned for four days, and I knew I wanted to interleave two timelines (the fire and what led up to it), so that meant breaking the preceding history into four chunks. Sometimes I have no idea. Any novel I break into an odd number of segments often winds up with a midpoint marker as well; that’s true of both Night Parade and Midnight Never Come (which is in five parts because I wanted to echo the five-act structure of a Shakespearean play). I don’t push too hard for them to wind up exactly on their marks, but since I have a general sense of how long I want the book to be, I use the set points to gauge how much complication and side plot should develop on the way to the next milestone.

That is not at all how I approach a short story. With those, it’s never a matter of me wanting to place narrative turning-points at certain percentages of the way through the total. My short stories are usually built as a sequence of scenes: whether they get scene breaks between them or not, I know we need X to set things up, Y to develop them, and Z to conclude them. For highly variable quantities of X, Y, and Z, of course, and sometimes the structure is non-linear or whatever — but it doesn’t change the essential point that I know what needs to happen, and the quantity of words needed to do that properly determines how long the story is. Which nearly the opposite of the novels, where I’ve got a ballpark target for length and a few key fragments of what’s going to happen, with the bricks being filled in as I feel my way through the story.

(Obligatory disclaimer: writing it out this way makes it all sound much tidier than it is in reality. For example, tons of my short stories start out with me having no idea where I’m going with my shiny new idea. Then they sit around until I’ve figured out enough of the remainder to write the rest. Sometimes this takes years.)

So where do novellas fit into this? As soon as I asked myself “should I approach them like a short story or like a novel,” the answer was obvious. They’re ickle novels, not gigantor short fiction. I’m not going to be able to see the full sequence of scenes ahead of time, no matter how long I let it sit. Which means the thing to do is to find myself a couple of fixed points and then decide where they should go. This feels like a thirds story to me: at roughly the one-third mark, the protagonist will succeed in getting E and G out of the situation they’re in, and then at the two-thirds mark they’ll . . . either get to where she promised to take them (only to find more complications there), if I decide that’s the way the story is headed, or they’ll abandon that goal and do something else. I don’t know which, but I don’t have to. It’s enough for me to say, okay, something like 8-12K of “getting them out of their situation” plot, then another 8-12K of “difficulties and developments along the complete lack of road” plot. Writing the latter will tell me what’s going to happen at the two-thirds mark — or if it doesn’t, then I’ll let it sit for a while. (That happens sometimes with novels, too. A Natural History of Dragons stalled out one-third done for several years.)

I can’t swear this is going to produce good results, because I haven’t tried it yet. But it feels right, y’know? It feels like an approach that will help me thread the Goldilocks needle of too much or too little plot for the space available. I know when the narrative is going to change its trajectory, so now it’s just a matter of feeling my way through the smaller conflicts and alterations before then.

I will report back!

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