Notes on the novella

This celebration of the novella form features original notes from writers like Nick Earls, Michelle de Kretser, Helen Garner and many more.

Read on to learn more about the novella and gain inspiration for your own entry into The Novella Project VIII.

Our first note on the novella comes from the writer at the forefront of the form’s resurgence in Australia, Nick Earls:

As a writer, the novella is a great chance to take your best novelist stuff and really focus it. As a reader, it goes deep, but it doesn’t go long. It gives you what a novel gives you: it lets you commit to a character and a story, it handles details cleverly, it reveals what it needs to in unexpected ways, it gets as complicated as it needs to and it doesn’t take all night to do it.

For any lapsed or interrupted reader with a pile of books by their bedside table waiting for holidays, or living a life with too many inputs – and that’s most of us, let’s face it – the novella lets reading back in. Clear a space the length of a movie or a domestic plane flight, mute all devices, and it’s some of the most rewarding monotasking you can do. It’s not by chance that the publishing world is taking a fresh look at the novella now.

To see Earls’s notes in motion, check out his winning contribution to The Novella Project III, ‘Cargoes’ (which later became Gotham, published in the Wisdom Tree collection with Inkerman & Blunt), published in Griffith Review 50: Tall Tales Short.

In the second installment, Miles Franklin Literary Award-winning writer Michelle de Kretser asks how the novella might be defined:

Some years ago I was part of a panel discussing novellas. The moderator asked us to define the form. All we could come up with was something like: ‘A work of fiction between 10,000 and 45,000 words long’ (I might be misremembering the upper limit). A few other formulae were hazarded – ‘A work of fiction that lingers in the mind’; ‘A long story that has the depth of a novel’ – but these were rejected as the characteristics on which they rested, namely memorability and resonance, could equally be applied to stories and novels. When it comes to novellas, it would seem that length is all.

The length of a work is of interest to editors, to readers and booksellers, but it’s a long way down the list of writerly concerns. A work is as long as it needs to be. When I wrote Springtime (Allen & Unwin, 2014), I didn’t set out to write a novella (and I’m not sure that I have); I was interested in the generic conventions of the ghost story, and how they might be flipped and warped. The result falls just short of 10,000 words, so it’s simply a long story, fact.

The third note on the novella is contributed by Krissy Kneen, prolific Brisbane-based author and winner of The Novella Project V, who considers the strength and beauty of the novella form:

The novella is arguably 10,000–50,000 words in length, and anything under that is a short story and everything over that is a novel. The beauty of a novella is that it has more space to explore an idea than a short story, but can also be consumed in a single sitting. Because of this a novella can play out a single idea with a limited cast of characters in a way that a theatrical play or a movie might, engaging the reader’s attention in one solid block, which makes the reader an equal participant in the process of storytelling. There is no need to provide breaks in the narrative for a reader to go away and do the other things that consume their life. There is no need to provide clues or repetitions, to recap the narrative all the way through the text. If you set something up at the beginning, you can assume the reader will remember that thing when they reach the end.

There is something wonderful about telling a whole complex story in one session, requiring a reader to keep the whole narrative in their head. You start your novella by saying, ‘Okay, now that I have your attention…’ and from then on it is one continuous, unstoppable dance.

Kneen’s prize-winning novella ‘How to preserve a turnip: And other whispers in my genes’ was published in Griffith Review 58: Storied Lives.

Novella Project VI-winner Miriam Sved reflects here upon the satisfying experience of crafting her prize-winning novella ‘All the things I should’ve given’, from Griffith Review 62: All Being Equal – The Novella Project VI:

I started my novella for Griffith Review 62: All Being Equal while I was waiting to get the second round of structural edits on the novel I’d been writing for four years (Picador Australia). The novel is sprawling with multiple arcs, and my wonderful editor had already ripped the guts out of one part and had me reassemble them, and in early 2018 she was about to do the same for another, and I was waiting in terror when heard about The Novella Project VI.

Two things I’d never done: written specifically for a competition and written a novella. I knew a novella was longer than a short story and shorter than a novel; that’s about it. But the thing I wanted to write was there, autonomous and begging me. I had maybe three months until the deadline, but I didn’t know when my novel juggernaut would land so I wrote quickly.

I’ve written one novella now, I probably don’t count as an expert in the form, but what I loved about it was the combination of compression and scope. I could hold the whole story in my head and weigh its parts, but there was space for more than one point of view, different timelines and a proper chronology. It was one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever worked on.

Brisbane-based writer Nick Earls makes another appearance with a note on why he chooses the novella:

A novella is probably the biggest idea I can keep in my head at one time, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that. Think of those novels you’ve worked on. If you’re like me, however much you plan – in my case, a lot – you reach a point in the first draft where the beginning has drifted from view but the end is still a long way over the horizon. For me, that’s typically around the 20,000-word mark, and it lasts until I’m perhaps 20,000 words from the end. Yes, I have notes to work with, and plenty of them, and I can step back and see there’s a plan and I can write my way through, but half the draft is spent writing with that ‘middle’ feeling and the beginning and end out of sight.

With a novella, I can always see where I’ve come from and how I got there, and see where I’m going and how to get there, and that puts me in the best possible position to work out which levers to pull and precisely when to pull them.

Miles Franklin Literary Award–winning author Anna Funder explores the often-overlooked power of the novella form:

‘Novella’ is an unnecessarily frilly and diminishing word for what can be a high-octane experience: a short, sharp dip into another reality. Think of the obsessional ride of middle-aged lust that is Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. Or of Deborah Levy’s ‘living autobiography’ series – works that are neither fiction nor non-fiction but exist beyond genre to bear witness to the inner life that gave rise to them. Of Jean-Dominique Bauby’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, written by a man with locked-in syndrome – using flickers of his eyelid for every precious word – to celebrate what was precious in the life he was leaving. Or of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, which is perhaps about being locked out of your life – again an experience you can’t forget.

Life doesn’t fit into genre categories, so neither do the works that come closest to it. A novella is something that took a form that suited it and kept its tensile power from having not one word more.

Here, Brisbane-based writer Daniel Young explores the vague middle-space occupied by novellas:

What even is a novella? One person’s long short story is another person’s novella, and one person’s novella is another person’s ‘slim novel’, so let’s forget the semantics and explore what kind of patterns the form tends to throw up. Is there some set of novella-like qualities that flourishes in this vague middle-space between short stories and novels?

There is an intensity of focus which comes from pruning away the minor characters and sub-plots you’d find in a traditional novel – an intensity that can manifest itself by maintaining focus on a single protagonist (or the relationship between two protagonists), a compact timeline, a continuity of mood and style, or some combination of all these. The impact of these qualities is only enhanced when the reader is able to inhale results in a single sitting.

Films often use short stories as their starting point: a spark that sets up a world, a character, a situation, then built upon to create something larger. Novels are often too unwieldy – as devoted readers we’re all familiar with the disappointment caused by the cuts and changes that film adaptations demand, and it seems such adaptations are better suited to serialised TV. Novellas, on the other hand, align with film quite neatly. A feature film is designed to be watched in a single sitting, and many novellas are best experienced in the same way. A successful film sets a consistent mood throughout using the visual language of cinematography, while novellas achieve the same with prose style and other narrative techniques. Some might call Brokeback Mountain a long short story (10,000 words), or The Great Gatsby a slim novel (47,000 words), but I think the ease with which both have been translated to film is a sign that they both occupy this middle-ground of the novella.

Novellas can also be a site of experimentation and play, in ways that don’t work at greater length. Tony Davis’s ‘The flight’, published in Griffith Review 50: Tall Tales Short, is written in the second person and set almost entirely in a plane cabin. This would be too claustrophobic in a novel; it would work only if interleaved with other sections, relieving the reader with shifts in tone and perspective – A Loving, Faithful Animal (UQP, 2016) by Josephine Rowe does exactly this. In ‘The flight’, the claustrophobic second-person narration mirrors the claustrophobic setting, producing a psychological effect that’s perfectly suited to the story of a paranoid, Assange-like digital whistleblower attempting to flee Australia.

None of the patterns I’ve observed while reading novellas are rules, and ultimately it doesn’t matter which category we slot a work into. What really matters is that publications are providing space for these stories, and that readers are engaging with them – and they are!

A winner of The Novella Project VI, Young’s novella ‘Shanghai wedding’ was published in Griffith Review 62: All Being Equal – The Novella Project VI.

Novella Project VI-winning writer Holden Sheppard explains his understanding of the novella in an unexpected way:

I think of the novella in terms of a game of footy. A full-length novel is the whole game. We see the build-up first. Teams running through banners. Commentators taking us through the narrative backstories around the match. Who’s celebrating a milestone? Who’s coming back from injury? Who’s been a bad boy off the field? Then we are hurled through the four quarters – characters sweating, trying, failing, punching the air, bleeding, racing until the siren’s climax. The denouement: a parade of Gatorade-soaked winners and stone-faced losers.

A novella, by contrast, is more like the time taken for one goal to be scored. A novella begins with a single problem – the bounce down – takes us on a thrill ride of mounting tension – the play – and ends with a single resolution – the goal. That’s what I love about this form. There are no subplots; nothing to distract the reader from the emotional thrust of the author’s intent. It is a very pure form of storytelling, allowing authors to make a single point with tremendous impact.

Novellas promise readers a direct flight to their destination – no layovers in Singapore or Dubai. Though similar to the short story, the novella frees the author of the economy of words the shorter form demands, meaning we can dive deeper into our characters and their lives. It is the best of both worlds.

Sheppard’s novella ‘Poster boy’ was published in Griffith Review 62: All Being Equal – The Novella Project VI.

Nick Earls returns with a tip for deciding whether your idea will be best served as a short story, novel or novella:

How do you know if your great story idea should be a novella, rather than a short story or novel? Look at closely at the plot lines. If it has one lean, taut plot line, even with one or two surprises, maybe keep it lean and taut, and make it the best short story it can be. If it has multiple plot lines weaving in and around each other, all requiring some kind of resolution, you’ve got yourself a potential novel. But if you have one needing depth and time to reveal itself through clever use of detail, or two that can cast light on each other in interesting ways to reveal more about each other and whatever themes you’re working with, you’re right in novella territory.

Not sure? Here’s a way of testing it. Ask yourself if you’d lose something if you stripped it back and made it a short story (or split it into two short stories, with no chance to spark off each other). And ask yourself if you’d be faking it if you threw other stuff in to make it novel-sized. A ‘yes’ to those and a novella might be that idea’s best option.

In the tenth instalment, 2018 Griffith Review Fellow Mirandi​ Riwoe discusses crafting The Fish Girl (Brio Books​), which won Seizure​’s Viva la Novella V and was shortlisted for The Stella Prize​:

My novella, The Fish Girl, started out as a short story based on a peripheral character in a Somerset Maugham story. Like other writers, some of my short stories are published and some are discarded. After a couple of years, though, I knew that I hadn’t finished with Mina’s story – I wanted to explore her more, in a historical sense, but also the trajectory and intimacy of her interior life. Before I began writing, I was not certain whether The Fish Girl would be a novella or a novel. Although I always felt that Mina’s story would fall within a novella length, I simply wanted to write to whatever length was best for the narrative. That said, the brevity of the novella form is perfect for this text and perhaps also for readers. If I’d written The Fish Girl as a novel, the story might have lost some of its impact.

An excerpt of Riwoe’s next title, On Gold Mountain (UQP, 2020), appeared in Griffith Review 61: Who We Are as ‘Gold mountain woman’.

Novella Project VI winner Erin Gough reflects on two perfect examples of the novella form:

Of all the books I’ve loved, there are two I consider to be perfect. Both are novellas. The first is Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain. The second is Helen Garner’s The Children’s Bach. Each has what makes the novella such a special form: economy, exactness, care, rigour and precision. Brokeback Mountain has an emotional arc that often hefty novels struggle to achieve. The first time I read it was in a single sitting and I bawled. I have read The Children’s Bach countless times, and each time find something different within it: beauty, ecstasy, recognition. I have absorbed Proulx and Garner’s language so deeply that full sentences of theirs slip into my own writing and I have to proofread against accidental plagiarism.

‘He’d never had such a good time, felt he could paw the white out of the moon.’

And, ‘His heart flipped like a fish.’

It sets the bar, writing like this. It demonstrates how literature can change and deepen our reading of the world. I read these works and become deliriously ambitious. I could paw the white out of the moon.

Gough’s award-winning novella ‘Distance’ was published in Griffith Review 62: All Being Equal – The Novella Project VI.

In the twelfth instalment, Nick Earls explores using detail judiciously to craft a better novella:

Still thinking a novella is a short story that got a bit long? Take a look at its approach to detail. Ever since Edgar Allan Poe, and maybe even before, we’ve been told that stripping back is a key principle of short story writing – no extraneous words, keep it lean on detail. The novella embraces detail. And by embrace I don’t mean it piles it on because it’s there, or because you couldn’t stop yourself roaming the googleverse picking up factoids, or because you can’t self-edit. For the novella, detail is a tool.

Judicious use of detail casts light on character and themes from different perspectives, and it does it subliminally. What details does your narrator (if you have one) see, and what does this act of witnessing tell us about them, as well as about their surroundings? A well-chosen detail can bring a thought to the surface, or subtly direct action, all the while looking as though it was simply something that was there all the time. Work out what you want to reveal, when you want to reveal it and use detail to do it. It’s the ultimate ‘show don’t tell’.

This addition is contributed by multi-award-winning writer Helen Garner, who will contribute to the forthcoming Griffith Review 68: Getting On.

In this original note, Garner discusses writing – and later, rereading – The Children’s Bach:

I had thought of The Children’s Bach as a shortish novel. Then it was published and critics called it a novella. This sounded cool and was fine with me. But I hadn’t planned to write short. I’d noticed a couple of blurry figures drifting about in my mind, seeming to want my attention. I started making notes about them. I christened them out of a baby-name book from the newsagent. Next I bought an A4 Spirex exercise book with coloured dividers. I gave each character a section, and every time I witnessed or imagined or overheard something that sounded right, I filed it away under the appropriate heading. Soon the characters met and started to do things to and with each other. Sometimes I was shocked by their behaviour. These were the parts I most enjoyed writing. At other times a character would seem like a version of myself. That was less pleasing.

I don’t know why, but once I’d hauled it beyond a certain point the story got the bit between its teeth. It started moving so fast I had trouble staying in the saddle. It came round in a curve that I hadn’t planned or expected, and one day it threw me off, and galloped away into the ether. I reread it lately and was astonished by how much of it felt as foreign to me as if someone else had written it. Maybe that’s why I like it best out of all my books.

Holden Sheppard rejoins the celebration with a note on the novella form in the twenty-first century:

The novella is a bit of a literary misfit. Most fiction outlets only accept novels (publishing houses) or short stories (literary journals), and this makes plenty of commercial sense: to sell books to an audience, we must adhere to the conventions of the genre and our readers’ expectations.

However, we are living in what I see as a pretty exciting time for the novella. The rise of e-publishing has rendered the traditional restrictions of form and length less relevant. If you have a look on Amazon, iBooks or Smashwords, you will find both traditionally-published and indie-published works that buck the conventions of how long a book ‘ought’ to be. Readers are increasingly willing to pay a small price to read novellas and even stand-alone short stories, especially time-poor readers looking for something that can be devoured in a single sitting – which is how novellas are intended to be consumed.

I’m heartened that the novella seems to be experiencing a comeback in the twenty-first century. With the accessibility of e-publishing and more traditional outlets like Griffith Review making such a commitment to showcase these works, I believe the novella as a form will continue to flourish in the years ahead.

Characterisation is on the menu with this note contributed by master of the form Nick Earls:

Think about your characters. How many will you need? If you need a cast like a Russian novel, it’s not a novella. If you have a story that will benefit from containment and focus, and a contained cast of characters to whom you can give a lot of attention, you might well have a novella on your hands. The novella is great for psychology and revealing interior worlds, great for exploring a protagonist’s response to the moment of change or crisis or realisation, and great for revealing complex relationships between people in interesting ways.

A novella gives the reader time to get to know characters, and gives the author time to reveal them in layers. How do you want them to look at the end? How do you want them to look at the start? How do you manage each subtle shift in between? Approach characterisation this way, and your characters will have the complexity of people. It’s a novelistic approach to character development, but with a determinedly compact cast and a focus on character as a core purpose of the piece.

In this note, Catherine McKinnon reflects on crafting her Novella Project III-winning novella, ‘Will Martin’:

‘Will Martin’ is a retelling of a first contact story, told from the point of view of one of history’s sidekicks: a young boy, Will, servant to George Bass. Will accompanies Bass and Matthew Flinders on a sailing trip south, where the three meet with a group of Aboriginal men – Wodi Wodi of the Dharawal region – on the banks of a stream. Beyond the narrative drive, the form allowed me the space to write detail into Will’s unreliable telling, and through that detail suggest that there were other hidden or lost stories about the same events. I was able to dwell on the subtle misunderstandings that occurred between the Europeans and the First Australians and contrast those “dwellings” with the miscommunications that eventuated between servant and master and among the three young men. I could also nest smaller stories into the main narrative providing context and nuance.

What’s so special about the novella is this ability to achieve story complexity and depth in a work that can be read in its entirety on a lazy afternoon.

‘Will Martin’, which was published in Griffith Review 50: Tall Tales Short – The Novella Project III, later grew to be published in her 2018 Miles Franklin Literary Award-nominated title Storyland (4th Estate Books).

Daniel Young returns to describe the journey from 55,000-word manuscript to published novella:

I never intended to write a novella. The initial manuscript for ‘Shanghai wedding’ hit 55,000 words with plans to extend further, so the journey to the 14,000-word novella in All Being Equal involved a lot of cutting – but there’s more to it than that. While I already appreciated the novella as its own unique form, cutting words wasn’t enough to get there with my own manuscript. It needed something more

I donned my ruthless editor’s hat for the initial submission and brought it down to 20,000 words. It hurt. I cut out entire characters and their stories; I merged sequences of separate chapters into single running scenes; and I tried to ensure a single coherent story remained in the wake of these cuts. It worked to an extent – my submission was successful – but there were plenty of problems. The big one? It didn’t feel like a novella.

Editorial feedback gave me the perspective I needed, and the tools to help me transform the manuscript from a cut-down novel to a novella. This involved more cutting, in particular a whole chapter of historical backstory which detracted from the most novella-like quality: intense focus on the central story – the relationship between the characters Billy and Qiang. In parts where I’d hacked chapters together and made cuts, transitions were awkward and needed smoothing. Some cut details needed reintroducing in order to maintain coherence and avoid disorienting the reader. Certain themes seemed too heavy-handed at this shorter length, so I toned them down. The story’s interleaved timeline had become too choppy – the overall temporal structure remains now, but with fewer shifts in time and improved transitions.

It’s all so obvious now, and it shouldn’t be surprising that working with a professional editor helped bring the final product closer to what I already knew a novella should be. There’s a difference between knowing these things and finding the clarity to break through your own subjectivity and achieve them in your own manuscript. While I still have plans to expand the novella into something larger, right now the most important thing is that this published version has had the chance to be the best novella it can be.

Novella Project IV-winning author Melanie Cheng explores her experience with the novella form:

I’ve only written one novella and it took me nine years to write it. ‘Muse’ is the longest and oldest of the fourteen stories in my collection, Australia Day (Text Publishing), and I have a special affection for it. It is also the story that seems to have resonated the most with readers.

For me, the novella is a lovely hybrid of the short story and novel forms. It requires the same discipline of language as the short story while allowing for a greater exploration of character and a greater experimentation with plot. A good novella has a purity and clarity that the novel, with its minor characters and subplots, may not. It’s a scary thing to write because there are fewer places for the story – and the author – to hide, but when done well it’s a delight to behold.

First published in Griffith Review 54: Earthly Delights – The Novella Project IV, ‘Muse’ available to read here, as is a short interview exploring ‘Muse’ and more of Cheng’s creative practice just here.

In her second contribution, Krissy Kneen discusses using the novella form for the purpose of exploring ideas:

My books Triptych and An Uncertain Grace (Text Publishing) both flirt with the form of the novella. These are my ‘ideas books’.

In Triptych, I explore the idea of perversity. What kinds of consensual sexual acts do readers find perverse and why? Triptych asks the reader, ‘Where are your lines in relation to sexuality? Why do you find some sexual acts acceptable and other’s perverse?’ I do this by luring them out past their safety zones in a series of seductive novellas designed to arouse the reader by acts that they would otherwise consider perverse. I stepped further still in Unspeakably Blue, a kind of coda to Triptych published on The Review of Australian Fiction. The fact that a single idea could be explored in one novella meant that I could leave enough space for the reader to be an active participant in the thought experiment behind the linked suite of four stories.

Similarly, An Uncertain Grace is a novel, but it can be pulled apart into novella-length sections, each with a new first-person narrator. It is no surprise that this is also a book of ideas. Each novella-length chapter explores a new intersection between humans, technology and ethics. Again, in a single idea played out over the novella-length work, there is space for the reader to be an active participant in the process. I am not telling a story here, I am inviting the reader to join me in the exploration of ideas.

Finally, Nick Earls returns to give his closing note:

Checked all those boxes about plot, characters and detail? If so, you’re ready for your novella masterclass: Judith Leibowitz’s double effect of intensity and expansion. She wrote the book on it in the ’70s, but let me see if I can sum it up here for early this century.

If you focus on one theme and limited plotlines and characters within a contained world and contained time period but embrace detail, you can create intensity and, if you get it right, you’ve created something about the characters that might be highly specific to them, but that also generalises. You’re saying something about other humans. That’s the expansion. And the novella lets you do it purposefully and powerfully.