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Seven Signs You Should Write a Novella by Jesse Edward Johnson

Posted Mon, 9/30/2019 - 9:41am by  |  Category: , , ,

Do you write fiction? 

Maybe you’ve got a shoebox full of short stories, or the drafts of various novels. Maybe you haven’t yet found the right form in which to realize the full potential of your story. Maybe you’re wondering if a novella might be that form. 

You’re not alone! If you’re novella-curious, I invite you to read on. Listed below are seven telltale signs that you should write a novella.

1. You ran out of paper while printing the latest draft of your “short story.”

Tell me if this has ever happened to you: you set out to write a short story, and the next thing you know, you’re still writing it, and before long, the pages are scattered all over the floor of your apartment, you’re burning through toner cartridges, and the dog is out of water.

There’s hope for you, my friend. It’s called a novella, and it’s every bit as fun as it sounds. Chances are, you already have a great start on writing one. The rest can be yours in three easy installments of 9,999 words!

2. Your “novel” is running on fumes.

Surely this has happened to you: you’re finally going to do it. You’re going to write. that. damn. novel. You start. Things are going well. This is good. This could work. You’ve got 20,000 words. This is getting exciting. You’ve got 30,000 words. You’ve got—writer’s block. 

Despair not! It may well be the case that your novel really wants to embrace its shorterness and add the suffix -la. (I know I sound flippant, but in all seriousness: turning a novel-length work into a novella-length work can be one of the most useful exercises for any writer at any stage in their career.)

3. You’re not ready for a long-term commitment.

Maybe this sounds more familiar: you like the idea of writing a longer work of fiction, but you’re not ready to commit to a full-length novel. Maybe you don’t have the time right now. Maybe you’re not sure that the premise of your novel warrants so much blood and sweat and tears. Maybe you have no idea how much commitment it deserves. That’s okay! 

Writing a novella allows you to test out the practice of writing in a longer fictional form, without having to constantly answer questions about how your novel is coming along. (Well, I guess I can’t promise that…)

4. You like the idea of exploring a single conflict in depth.

Here, we can think of “conflict” in lots of different ways—an event, an emotional state, a formal problem. A novella gives you just enough space to explore that conflict in depth, while allowing you—nay, requiring you—to eschew an almost infinite number of other possibilities.

In other words, a novella is a great space in which to obsess! Good novellas often plumb the depths of a single experience or event, thereby producing a truly immersive experience, in which everything outside the (deliberately narrow) world of the story comes to seem superfluous.

5. You love whittling.

Ever started a whittling club? Me too—but that’s a story for a different day. For our present purposes, “whittling” means editing—and editing your editing. 

Are the letters on your computer’s delete key starting to rub off? Do you take great satisfaction in turning several pages of prose into one crisp paragraph? You are going to love writing a novella—a form that allows you to flex all of your story-editing muscles while still accumulating a satisfying number of pages.

6. You’re selective about complexity.

Jane Smiley has said that, when writing a novella, “you can only choose one type of complexity.” She breaks this idea down into three basic types of fictional complexity: style, plot, and feeling. 

We could get through a lot of beer debating Ms. Smiley’s statement (and the merits of those particular categories), but it’s an interesting way of thinking about the form. Writing a novella offers you the opportunity to master one aspect of fiction writing—one kind of complexity, however you’d like to define it—while consciously neglecting many others.

7. You’re free on Saturday mornings, starting October 5.

If any of the above statements resonate with you, I have good news! Hugo House has just the class for you: Writing a Novella, an in-depth workshop led by Yours Truly.

Over the course of this 10-week class, you’ll have a unique opportunity to experience novella-writing in its natural habitat (i.e., the classroom, your computer, your head, and the lively conversations produced by various delightfully like-minded individuals sharing their brilliant ideas once a week).

I hope to see you there!


Jesse Edward Johnson is the author of the novels The King of Nothing Much (forthcoming in 2020) and Yearbook (2017), both published by Paul Dry Books. His visual poetry has been exhibited in galleries throughout the Pacific Northwest. Jesse received his Ph.D. in English from UCLA, where he taught literature for five years, and his B.A. in English from UC Berkeley. He has taught writing to inmates at San Quentin State Prison and at Hugo House in Seattle.