As a writer I love the novella because it has the pleasing economy of the story and the density of the novel. For these reasons I so admire the work of the great maestros of this form, Katherine Anne Porter, William Trevor and Mavis Gallant. Porter herself rather snorted at the term novella. She wrote—somewhere—words to the effect of, Call it a short novel or a long story, but novella just sounds cheap and demeaning. In truth the novella is an elusive literary form. Can be defined by page length or word count? Can it be picketed by its thematic content, or time frame, or number of characters? I think not. My (admittedly fluid) standard is this: how long does this tale need to be in order to come to fruition?
No one sets out to write a novella. One might start a story, but seeing the story shake off that harness and gallop away, seeing it gain momentum and defy gravity, seeing that the page count is billowing, the writer gulps. Oh, no! Shall I rein this narrative in, and keep it to say, less than twenty pages, a length that might make actually find print? Or do I unleash it and see if it will become a novel? And if it does not become a novel, and has ceased to be a story, what the hell do I do with it?
Please do send us your overlong, bloated pieces
The novella is far more difficult to publish than either the novel or the story. Few literary journals, online or not, ask, Oh, please do send us your overlong, bloated pieces to deprive other writers of space and tax our readers’ patience and their attention spans. No. They say: Short fiction. Few publishing houses, even tiny independents, never mind the Big Five, will put their resources toward a book of say, a fifty or a hundred pages that can only command a small price, no matter who the author is.
The novellas I have written have appeared amid the And Other Stories in books like Fair Augusto, Dark Continent, The Delinquent Virgin (all of them, and Other Stories). The novellas, generally the strongest pieces in the book, are the anchors in these collections. All of them began life believing they were stories. Or at least, I believed they were stories.
How much more was lurking under the surface of the original!
Only one of my stories consciously evolved into a novella. In the late 1980’s there was a PBS program called American Playhouse that brought stories of American writers to the small screen. I had an unpublished story, about two soldiers who come home at the end of World War II and disrupt the routines and camaraderie their women (neighbors) have established in wartime. I sent “Wine, Women and Song” to the American Playhouse producer who liked it, but she thought it was “thin” and needed more. As I went to work, to open it up, I was astonished to see how much more was just lurking under the surface of the original, development I had evaded in my hope to keep the story at a “publishable” word count. A few months later I sent it back to her, only to hear in reply that this producer had left American Playhouse, gone off to become a pastry cook! American Playhouse folded soon after.
“It’s only a story” is a good way to wade into writing a novel.
It’s much easier to face the empty page (or empty screen) and say: I’m going to write a story, than to tell your trembling self, I’m going to write a novel that might eat up years of my life that I could have spent maintaining friendships or knitting sweaters, or becoming a Zen master, or watching the re-runs of Law and Order. I have found that believing “It’s only a story” is good way to tiptoe into the novel. Like telling the reluctant swimmer, Go on, wade into the shallow end, instead of tossing that poor swimmer into the deep.
Buyer Beware is not a good look for the bookstore shelf.
Caveat [Paint Creek Press, 2022] was one such book. Eighteen years passed between the time I began writing and when I first published it in 1998. It is the tale of a rainmaker in Southern California in 1916, and started life as a story called “Caveat Emptor.” At fifty-plus pages, I acknowledged it had become a novella; I planned to use it as the anchor, the last, most ambitious piece in a collection, but I didn’t. I had finished the novella, but had the nagging these characters and their relationships needed more time to develop, in short, to come to fruition. When it grew into a novel, the title change was imperative; Buyer Beware is not a good look for the bookstore shelf. It is the shortest novel I’ve ever written.
Miscreant, noisy characters and their unruly individual stories.
I blush to admit that These Latter Days began as a story, slid into novella, and from there into a long novel with a steadily growing cast of characters, and an increasingly complex structure. TLD (as we call it) evolved into a 400 or 500 page novel (depending on the edition) in which only one paragraph of the original story remains. Revising over some eight years, I came to have ambivalent relationships with these characters, in particular, the central character, Ruth Douglass. Put bluntly, I was sick of her. But I did not feel I could move forward till I had seen this book into print. So, the struggle continued.
All right, I will tell this story the way it needs to be told.
Finally I had a residency at the Montalvo Center for the Arts in Saratoga, California. I knew this was the last otherwise-unencumbered chunk of time I would have for a very long while. My then-agent had interest from a powerful editor who wanted the convoluted story laid out chronologically. I was so eager for print, I agreed to do this. (Though I knew that chronology would never suit the whole book.)
This editor read 100 pages and declared herself longer interested. Once I finished gnashing, I was actually relieved. I thought: All right, I will tell this story the way it needs to be told. But even with that bold vow, I also knew I had to exert some kind of authorial control over these miscreant, noisy characters and their unruly individual stories.
My resolve remained, but my authorial heart broke.
As I worked my way through the book, I found two chapters that impeded the forward thrust of the novel. (If a novel that diffuse can be said to have a forward thrust.) These were focused on one character, Gideon Douglass (born 1892) Ruth’s eldest son. These chapters had to be cut. My resolve remained, but my authorial heart broke. If cut them, they would just rot in some forgotten folder. Even though I was under a pressing deadline (the Montalvo residency would end in May) I stopped work on TLD and gave myself a few days to turn them into stand-alone pieces. “And Departing Leave Behind Us,” and “Sonata in G Minor” taken together chronicle a young man’s hopes, his potential conflicting with his religious beliefs, and societal expectations. The two stories suggest the core weaknesses of Gideon’s character and the life he will have as an adult.
Stories about a Mormon boy in 1909 didn’t exactly scream Relevant! Relevant!
I could not combine the two chapters into one novella because “Sonata in G Minor” is told with a distant third person narrator and covers months. “And Departing Leave Behind Us” is a first person narrative by Gideon’s sassy, know-it-all sister, Afton. It takes place on one day, Gideon’s 1909 high school graduation. The title comes from his valedictorian speech, lines by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: “Lives of great men all remind us/ We can make our lives sublime/And departing leave behind us/ Footprints on the sands of time.”Afton has genial contempt for “Mr. Henry Wordsworth Longfellow.” Her emphatic narrative voice and the tiny crack in her certitude are what give the story its charm.
Though I polished these two stories, I never tried to publish either one in mags or literary quarterlies. A Mormon boy in an obscure California town in 1909 didn’t exactly scream Relevant! Relevant! However, I placed them side by side in Fair Augusto and Other Stories. And that is exactly where they belong.
Ironically, I have recently returned to work on the original novella that became TLD. It has already grown into a novel, so that won’t happen. It’s way too long for a story. When it’s finally finished (if it is finally finished) what will I ever do with it?
Paint Creek Press has reissued Fair Augusto and Other Stories in 2023, Dark Continent and Other Stories in 2021, and These Latter Days in 2021. Delinquent Virgin and Other Stories is forthcoming from Paint Creek Press.