My wife Maribeth was disappointed to reach the halfway point of her favorite novelist’s newest book and discover she had reached the end of the story. She had purchased two stories in one volume—a twofer. She felt as if she had ordered a steak dinner but received two McDonald’s Happy Meals™ instead.
You may have noticed this trend in all fiction genres, even historical fiction, which usually favors the tour de force. We’re not talking about repackaged reprints of existing novels but first-release combos of two or more original stories.
What are these? Novellas or novelettes? It’s more than a question of semantics because the two types of stories are written differently. In the barest technical terms, a novella or novelette is longer than a short story but shorter than a novel—generally between 7,500 and 40,000 words long. Encyclopedia Britannica defines a novella as “a psychologically subtle and highly structured short tale,” in contrast to a novelette, whose “insubstantiality of content matches its brevity.”
The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway, is a classic example of the novella. It powerfully depicts the struggle between humanity and the forces of nature, including the decline of advancing age. Set this alongside James Patterson’s “BookShots,” a series of quick-take mysteries co-authored with aspiring new novelists. These are about the same length as Hemingway’s sea-survival saga, but not the same calibre.
I suspect this is why Maribeth felt her favorite author had let her down. If that storyteller had given her two highly focused stories with well-developed character arcs and a sophisticated plot (i.e., novellas), Maribeth probably would have been satisfied. Instead she got tales that sketched out two fascinating ideas, but didn’t develop them with subtlety and pinache.
Several start-up Internet publishers are soliciting “novellas” of 10, 20, or 40,000 words. They typically pay a small fraction of what a print publisher would—not because of the shorter length, but because they really want novelettes: quick, easy reads that would entertain someone on a transcontinental flight. Nothing wrong with that. There will always be a demand for Happy Meals™. But I doubt this is a good way to acquire the skills we need for commercial publication.
Joe Allison writes both fiction and nonfiction, and has been a member of the Indiana chapter of American Christian Fiction Writers since 2010. He lives in Anderson, IN, with his wife Maribeth and daughter Heather.