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Jay Lake
Date: 2010-12-23 05:47
Subject: [process] The novella, such as she is, through the lens of my own work
Security: Public
Tags:books, process, stories, sunspin, writing
Yesterday while revising "The Weight of History, the Lightness of the Future" (the Sunspin novella I recently drafted), scarlettina got back to me with critique on my revisions to "The Stars Do Not Lie" (the lost colony religious steampunk novella I drafted last spring). We wound up talking on the phone for a while about "Stars".

In the course of that conversation, I made the observation that I'm coming to believe the novella is my natural length. I seem to do what I consider my very best writing in that 18,000-30,000 word range. And given that it's an awkward category to market, that's somewhat unfortunate. Though in truth, I've done okay with getting novellas out into the world.

I made a crack about novella editing on Twitter and Facebook, to which Greg Feeley responded with a link to a terrific article by him in the New Haven Review about the challenges of working in this form.

Two of my favorite pieces of my own work are novellas, "America, Such As She Is" (first published in Alembical, ed. Lawrence M. Schoen and Arthur Dorrance [ Powell's ]) and The Baby Killers (single title work [ PS Publishing ]). I've been trying to articulate why this is, even to myself.

The novella is short enough for the writer to experiment with literary forms, tropes and techniques without overwhelming the reader. I don't believe an entire novel could be written, not by me, in the style I used for either of the abovementioned pieces. At the same time, the novella is long enough to really put some meat on the story, play with the implications of whatever is going on, and follow the plot at a pace both sensible and leisurely.

But that's why I like writing novellas in general, not specifically why I like "America, Such As She Is" and "The Baby Killers". For my own part, my besetting literary sin is cleverness. I really enjoy both reading and writing unusual forms. Challenging vocabulary, elusive point-of-view, unsettling plots, Escherian story structure. These are meat to my literary bone. And frankly, they make stories into a lot of work. Good, fun, work, but work. Work I personally find entertaining, but hardly the stuff of the light distraction or heart's ease that so many people read for.

As someone said on a Con panel years ago (I believe it was pnh, but I'm not sure), "Reading should not be prophylactic."

So what I love most about the novella is likely not what most people who love them love most about the novella. Perhaps even the opposite.

Which brings me back to "The Weight of History, the Lightness of the Future" and "The Stars Do Not Lie". Neither of those stories is tricksy, what matociquala calls "stunt writing". Both use a fairly straightforward narrative voice (as straightforward as I get, at any rate) and eschew cleverness in favor of a more clear-eyed storytelling that drives deeper into character and plot. Readers' stories instead of writers' stories, if you will.

Is this me maturing as a writer? Is this me abandoning my cherished cleverness? Maybe. More likely, it's just me learning from my work. Becoming a better novellaist — I hope — and hopefully a better writer in general.

I often tout the flash fiction form as an excellent vehicle for the professional development of authors. But lately, I think the novella has become my laboratory.

What's your experience with novellas, either as a reader or as a writer? Do you make a distinction?

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User: joycemocha
Date: 2010-12-23 14:09 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I'm getting ready to explore the novella range. I have at least one sitting on the hard drive that I think I can finish off and market to e-publishers.

But is it my length? Truly, I can't say. I'm more inclined to think I'm a natural novelist, but I've never tried to write a novella.

(Flash and I, on the other hand, do notnotnot get along. Period.)
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Sherwood Smith
User: sartorias
Date: 2010-12-23 14:57 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Greg is also a natural novelist. I highly recommend his latest, KENTAUROS, elegantly published by the New Haven Review Books.
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barry_king: Pythia
User: barry_king
Date: 2010-12-23 17:36 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I haven't been writing long, so this probably doesn't count for much, but I wrote a novella earlier this year, and it was one of the hardest things I'd done in my life. It dealt with themes that were personally very hard to put out there, it had research requirements that meant I had to confront some long-term family issues, and that required me to construct the (quite complex) story with a very minimum of words. It was like writing a 16K-word poem with some snippy one-eyed shrew looking over my shoulder the whole time.

And yet, at the same time, it left me with a real feeling of catharsis. Maybe it's as you were saying earlier, that some writing is therapy. It certainly left behind a thermite-cleansing of the spleen. It could not have been longer or shorter, and that certainly seems to be the case with some stories. There is an invisible line out there in terms of length, and this class of fiction fits into it. Perhaps it deserves its own kitchen-god.

But having written one, I'm more and more drawn to reading them. The End of the Alphabet and Thief of Broken Toys have been important ones for me this year. I think I will now have to read yours as well. Thanks.
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User: kimberlywade
Date: 2010-12-23 19:24 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Yes, novella-length is perfect for me. Short stories are not long enough to get juicy. I need a little space for something to develop, but i'm rarely able to sustain a story and a single cast of characters to novel-length. With novella the plot stays clear and taut. I weave around it without developing subplots as with a novel. I'm not into writing epics.

Recently i've been doing some experiments with flash and finding it a good exercise.
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User: oaksylph
Date: 2010-12-24 05:13 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
"Challenging vocabulary, elusive point-of-view, unsettling plots, Escherian story structure. These are meat to my literary bone. And frankly, they make stories into a lot of work."

Besides the obvious Oulipo manifesto I could use to cheer you on (cleverness can handicap, but good god it's a breath of fresh air amid the stifling No-It's-My-Story and I'll-Tell-It-My-Way crap cluttering most of the section's shelves) and also to discuss cleverness:literature::meat:bone where meat:bone::tool:subsequently functional item... have you read Thomas Wharton at all? Particularly "Salamander," which is somewhere between steampunk and bookpunk. I suspect he has wrestled with the same angel.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-12-24 05:22 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Hmm, no, no Thomas Wharton yet. Must pick up...
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User: oaksylph
Date: 2010-12-24 20:18 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
And in the same vein, I eagerly await your thoughts on Riddley Walker, a really amazing book that a lot of people put down because they are lazy and want everything to be just like the orthography they get at every other chain novel. "I respect a man who knows how to spell a word more than one way," Twain said. Practicality does dictate that franchise spelling is needed to reach some audiences, but worldbuilding sometimes dictates otherwise, no?

I appear to have a case of the squirrelies. Retail + holiday + excess caffeine = moderate wonkiness. But I really do think people are awfully stuffy about spelling. Sometimes a different spelling conveys a different set of pseudoetymological associations - as happens frequently in Riddley Walker - it's almost a kind of poetry.
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