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Crafting a Novella in 10 Easy Steps


By: Donna Schlachter

I used to think writing shorter would make the process easier. I started out penning greeting cards, devotionals, poetry, and take-home articles. Magazine articles. Children’s books. You name it. If it was less than two thousand words, I’ve probably done it.

Not surprisingly, I learned that writing short wasn’t easier than writing longer. In fact, it wasn’t simple at all. I think it was Mark Twain who wrote, in a letter to a friend, “I’d have written a shorter letter if I had more time.”

To be honest, the first time I was offered the opportunity to write a novella, I felt like I was cheating the reader in some way. At less than half the size of a regular novel, surely the story would be shallow. Unsatisfying. Unfulfilling. And how could I possibly get the main plot, three subplots, and eight primary characters into 30,000 words?

Well, I couldn’t. That’s the beauty of a novella. The main plot, one subplot, hero, heroine, bad person. A reader could pick up the book and read it in three hours or less. The perfect summer beach read or plane trip story. Or train. Or car. Or bedtime reading.

Ten Quick and Easy Steps:

Learning how to write a novella required me to change my mind set about the format. Not only was the number of words an issue, but even the number of chapters, characters, and subplots.

For those interested in learning how to pen a successful novella, here are the steps:

  1. Come up with a story that has two interesting people who find themselves in a sticky situation. Many novellas are romance based for this reason.
  2. Decide on a sub-plot that will be resolved in this book, or soon if this book is in a series. Nothing too complicated. But choose a sub-plot that relates in some way to the main plot.
  3. Limit your cast of characters. Hero, heroine, a bad person if needed. For other characters, consider combining them to keep the number required down. For example, if you need a next-door neighbor and a firefighter, make the neighbor a firefighter.
  4. Figure out your story arc. Just because it’s shorter doesn’t mean you can make it any less satisfying. Show your characters in their usual world, yank them out of it, force them into deciding.
  5. Limit the situations to two Black Moments or Crisis Points. You simply don’t have enough room in a novella to do more than that. The second Black Moment should be more difficult than the first, forcing your character to make a tougher decision.
  6. Offer your character alternatives to choosing the hard road, just as in a full-length novel.
  7. Force your character to making decisions that will be in direct contrast to their worldview. This will increase tension for the characters and the reader.
  8. Every book has a message or a theme, but readers don’t want it hitting them in the face. Instead, weave what you want your reader to take away throughout the dialogue, the internal thoughts, the choices the characters are forced to make, and foreshadowing.
  9. Consider your audience as you create your story. For example, if this is a sweet romance or a cozy mystery, readers won’t expect to see sex, cursing, or extreme violence on the page. If, however, you’re penning a steamy romance, gritty police procedural, or hard-boiled detective story, readers are more accustomed to these elements. Always write to your reader’s expectations.
  10. The best stories show the hero and/or heroine in a different frame of mind by the end of the story. They should have recognized their weaknesses and made choices to overcome them. They should have grown in the right direction, unless, of course, you’re writing a literary book. Relationships don’t have to be perfect, but if that’s the theme of the story, they should be moving ahead.

Publishing Opportunities

Novellas seem to work best in romantic genres, including contemporary and historical fiction. Cozy mysteries are popular venues for novellas, as is romantic suspense. Some publishers have developed a niche market for novellas by bundling them into collections of four to nine (or more) authors, with the stories having a common link. Sometimes the connection lies in the heroine’s name or occupation. Sometimes the characters live in the same town, or maybe they are friends out for an adventure. Whatever the link, readers like these collections, as sales testify, because they are able to sample multiple authors in the same collection. If they don’t prefer one story, they’re bound to find several that they do.

For independent authors who self-publish, novellas are a quick and easy way to keep readers satisfied until their next full-length novel releases.

Indie publishing sites, such as Amazon, encourages these shorter books through their algorithms because indie authors often are able to release more books in a year.

Contests and Awards

Most book awards now include novellas in their contests, and many have specific categories for these shorter novels. The writing world has come a long way in recent years. While novellas were once regarded by many as a second-best to full-length novels, savvy readers and judges now recognize that writing shorter can be more difficult.

Donna Schlachter

Donna writes historical and contemporary mysteries, and has been published more than 50 times in novellas, full-length novels, and non-fiction books. She is a member of several writing communities; facilitates a critique group; teaches writing classes; ghostwrites; edits; blogs regularly; and judges in writing contests. She lives in Denver with her husband and two cats, finding mysteries wherever she travels. You can find her books on Amazon under both her name and that of her former pen name, Leeann Betts.

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