Jay Lake (jaylake) wrote,
Jay Lake
jaylake

[process] The novella, such as she is, through the lens of my own work

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?

Tags: books, process, stories, sunspin, writing
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