Monday, January 30, 2012

novellas

 The generic term for the fiction story usually considered by publishers to be too long for a short story and too short for a novel is the novella.  A dictionary describes the word as derived from Italian/French forms of 'new,' and means: a story with a compact and pointed plot; or, a short novel or long short story.  It is generally thought to be somewhere between 15,000 to 40 or 50,000 words.

Probably most writers think of it as being hard to place for publication: too long for the literary journals and other short story venues, and too short for hardcover book publishers.  Unless, that is, you are a big-name author.  An article in The Writer's Chronicle, "Revaluing the Novella," by Kyle Semmel, provides some interesting reading on the use of the form.  Semmel grounds some of his views and analyses on the legendary author and writing teacher John Gardner, and his book,"The Art of Fiction."  It's a book I revisit often, and I'll paraphrase or quote some material Semmel chose from Gardner to describe the novella:

1.  The novella moves through a series of small epiphanies or secondary climaxes, usually following a single line of thought, and reaches an end where the world is radically changed.

2.  "The novella normally treats one character and one important action in his life, a focus that leads itself to neat cut-offs or framing."

3.  Notwithstanding the above norms, three distinctive types of novella include: (1) single stream ("a single stream of action focused on one character and moving through a series of increasingly intense climaxes"); (2) non-continuous stream, or "baby novel," ("shifting from one point of view [or focal character] to another, and using true episodes, with time breaks between"); and (3) pointillist ("moving at random from one point to another").

There are all sorts of experimentation with the structure and overlap of the types given above, and some powerful novellas have resulted.  Semmel's descriptions of the basic structures, and his discussions of example novellas, will provide a good footing for the aspiring novella writer.

I liked Semmel's discussion of the non-continuous novella, "Where the Rivers Flow North," by Howard Frank Mosher, in which the narrative moves in and out of the two main characters' points-of-view, that of a Vermont farmer, and his housekeeper,  but which is broken up by another third person, authorial point-of-view.  Sounds like a hard one to pull off successfully, but there you go!

I also liked an example given in Gardner's book for the continuous stream novella focused on a single character and moving through a series of increasingly intense climaxes.  Semmel didn't use this example, but check it out: "The Pedersen Kid," by William Gass.

In retrospect, I think one of my favorite 'short' novels (about 44,000 words), "The Member of the Wedding," by Carson McCullers, might also be thought of as a novella.  Challenge yourself this year with a novella.

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