The month-long frenzy of novel writing called NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is soon to begin. This has become a phenomenon in recent years, an event complete with not only the requisite website, but also support systems, group writing sessions, merchandise, and so on. The goal is to produce, if not a finished first draft of at least 50,000 words or more, at least 50,000 words towards a first draft.
I am of mixed feelings about such a thing. A novel is a difficult creation to pull off, especially for those who haven’t written shorter fiction or much of anything at all. Good published novels are usually the result of years of work, careful and repeated rewriting, and then the process of editing, which may in turn beget more rewriting. Some novels take shape only after any number of possible preceding actions. These might include multiple false starts, long hours of research, or drafting long, detailed outlines or voluminous notes on characters, setting, and plot (the working methods of authors often range widely).
On the other hand, I can appreciate a fun effort to encourage people to sit down and write each day and really make it happen. The overall driving purpose seems to be to get it out on paper. Then the deeper work of rewriting can begin now that the first draft is done. The NaNoWriMo program also has a sense of humor, something I appreciate. Just take a look at their logo on their website, or some of their merchandise.
Having said that, I still propose an alternative to NaNoWriMo–“NaNovellaWriMo”– that may be less daunting for some writers who are staring down 50,000 words. That word count makes me wonder how much of this process is frustrating for many participants. How many find themselves going down false trails or wandering into dead ends? How many give up trying to create a work of this length? How many thrash about with their work, trying to figure out what to do next, getting mired with subplots, minor characters, questions of point of view, and so on?
I’m wondering if maybe the novella might be a more desirable goal to pursue in a thirty-day month, especially if you’re one of those people who has a full-time job, is raising kids, or is in charge of cooking the Thanksgiving dinner—you might fall into one or all of those categories. But here we run into the tricky business of defining the novella. One common definition is that it’s longer than a short story, but shorter than a full-length novel. But what is a full-length novel? And what do we make of the notion that the novella might also be considered a short novel? Finally, some sources might identify a novelette as essentially the same as a novella. Sigh.
One helpful guide to word lengths of different works is one used by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America for their Nebula Awards. They define a novel as a work of fiction of more than 40,000 words. A novella is between 17,500 and 40,000 words. A novelette would be a short fiction piece breaking out of the short story form in the range of 7,500 to 17,500 words. And a short story is 7,500 words or under. Some may quibble with those numbers, but I applaud the organization for placing some boundaries and form on these categories, even if only for the purpose of awards in these genres.
It is also helpful to consider the origins of the novella, as we can see how it has been transformed through time, and how it differs from the full-length novel in ways beyond word counts. According to The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, the word novella is Italian for “tale” or “piece of news.” It was “a kind of short story, a narrative in prose of the genre of Boccaccio,” his Decameron being a notable example of a collection of old-style novellas. But this form underwent a metamorphosis later on in Germany: “It was not until late in the 18th and early in the 19th century that the novella was fashioned into a particular form according to certain precepts and rules. Then the Germans became the most active practitioners, and the Novelle has since flourished in Germany more than anywhere else.”
Furthermore, the German Novelle could range from “a few pages to two or three hundred, restricted to a single event, situation or conflict, which produces an element of suspense and leads to an unexpected turning point (Wendepunkt), so that the conclusion surprises even while it is a logical outcome.”
What I find interesting about this description is that we see an echo of it in a modern definition of the novella that provides not only word length, but a very helpful explanation of structural elements defining a novella. This may be useful for those who want to make NaNoWriMo into NaNovellaWriMo, and maybe find their efforts more successful, and the writing (possibly) more manageable.
Laurie Henry’s The Fiction Dictionary provides this useful definition. At word length she puts the form at 30,000 to 50,000 words, but more importantly she writes this:
“A novella is longer than a short story, contains more episodes, and unlike a short story, usually builds to several crises before reaching a climax. The final climax of a novella is usually much more conclusive than that of a contemporary short story. A novella generally differs from a novel, however, in the sparseness of its language and in the fact that it contains only a single plot line, into which there is little room for digression.”
Laurie Henry then cites Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea as an example, and then gives a short overview of the plot, noting also that it is a robust example of a novella as it is “very linear, taking place over a short time, and following few characters in a limited number of actions.”
You may very well have read some of these books that generally fit the novella form. They include Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor; Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol; John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and The Pearl; and Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider. Henry James had a special fondness for “the beautiful and blest nouvelle.” Two of his novellas are The Aspern Papers and one of his best known works—the ghost story titled The Turn of the Screw.
Stephen King has also written novellas. Two of his novellas have proven suitable for the screen: Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption and The Body, which was adapted as Stand By Me.
Is this possibly a better use of your time and a more do-able undertaking than the full-on 50,000 word project that is NaNoWriMo?
The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, Third Edition. The Penguin Group, London, 1992. Third edition published in the U.S. and England by Basil Blackwood.
The Fiction Dictionary by Laurie Henry. Story Press, Cincinnati, Ohio. 1995.
NaNoWriMo official website.
Wikipedia article on NaNoWriMo.
Wikipedia article on the novella.
Wikipedia: “List of Novellas.”