Just One Bite: Writing Novellas

kimberlyK~ Kimberly Kincaid

Like many projects in the world of writing, my first published work (my first three, actually) happened quite by accident. Like many aspiring authors, I had manuscripts. Plural. So when my agent sold them in a three-book deal last summer (once I got over the screaming and the ugly-dancing and more screaming), I found myself with a very rare, very puzzling problem on my hands.

All three of my contracted books were done. And I had nothing to write.

Now, writing is definitely a career for me. I’m not a nothing-to-write person. So what could I do? How could I fill my time and build my career? My agent and editor put their heads together, and what they came up with startled me. “You could write a few novellas,” they said.

But…but but but I write single-title! I wanted to say. I have no idea how to write a novella! But the option made sense, so (after I got over the shock) I grabbed it with both hands. The next thing I grabbed were stacks of anthologies and e-novellas online. And what I discovered surprised me.

Despite being much shorter than full-length novels, novellas weren’t “less”. If anything, they were more.

It took six months of research and writing (and reading and question-asking and more writing), but what I discovered was that despite their small stature, successful romance novellas still have all the elements of a full-length novel. There are plot points and characterizations to be made. There are external conflicts and personal journeys to be had. There’s sexual tension to build, and there’s love to be found. And it’s all in this tiny, powerful package. Getting all those things into a story under forty thousand words means every single syllable matters, and measuring them out with precision is both challenging and crucial. It taught (very wordy) me to examine my characterizations, my plotlines, my arcs. You don’t have to sacrifice any of these things to fit them into a novella. In fact, you can’t. Novellas are still great stories. They’re just told with different method and intention.

That said, here are a few things I learned along the way (the hard way):

Getting to know you. It’s helpful (but not necessary) for your hero and heroine to know each other already in a novella. In my first novella, my hero and heroine were well-acquainted from page one, and in fact, had shared their first kiss well before that. In novella #3, my couple had actually once been engaged. This doesn’t mean they didn’t have hurdles (big ones!) But it made my job as the author easier because I could sprinkle their set-up into the action, rather than having to establish it freshly, and by the end, their happily ever after was organic to the story, even though it unfolded over a third of the pages I’d normally use. Likewise, many authors use the novella for secondary characters who are already established within a series because they already have the setup in place. You still need setup. You can just write it in a more compact way when your couple has some sort of established recognition. Big win for small space!

I’m so conflicted! Since you’ve got a lot to do on fewer pages, conflict can lean a little more on either internal (emotions) or external (circumstance). Usually, in a full-length novel, there are both keeping your H/h apart. But the beauty of a novella is that you can usually choose either/or and really dig into it. For all three of my novellas, there was a lot of internal struggle keeping my couple apart. I got the chance to really make those emotions sing. In my Christmas anthology story coming out this fall, it’s all external conflict (a competition only one of them can win) keeping my hero and heroine apart. Whichever you choose, it’s important to make the conflict sing in the space you’ve got. Again, you need it. But in a novella, it can be streamlined to make it sing.

Pace yourself. The same things that happen in a novel also happen in a novella; they just happen in different time. Pacing is crucial (remember that every-word-matters thing? Yes. That!) Starting on a hook is key. Keeping the hook at the end of every chapter, more key. Giving each scene, each sentence, purpose—the biggest key of all. Novellas must move. After all, you’ve only got a little space for a lot of action and a whole lot of love to go down! You want your relationship to happen in a real, believable way, while still moving forward. Organizing your events and both characters’ feelings with strong pacing that will hook your readers is the key to keeping readers from feeling as if they’ve missed something. Pace it right, and they’ll be satisfied with your story, even in a small package.

So tell me, writers! What’s your experience with the novella? And as readers, what do you think? Tell me some of your favorites! What worked in the ones you love best? And how do you put big ideas into a small story?

Kimberly Kincaid writes contemporary romance that splits the difference between sexy and sweet. When she’s not sitting cross-legged in an ancient desk chair known as “The Pleather Bomber”, she can be found practicing obscene amounts of yoga, whipping up anything from enchiladas to éclairs in her kitchen, or curled up with her nose in a book. Kimberly is a 2011 RWA Golden Heart® finalist who lives (and writes!) by the mantra that food is love. She has written two digital novellas, Love On The Line and Drawing The Line, about hot cops and sexy chefs, with a third novella, Outside The Lines, due this summer. She is also thrilled to have collaborated on a Christmas anthology with Donna Kauffman and Kate Angell, titled The Sugar Cookie Sweetheart Swap, to kick off her Pine Mountain foodie series with Kensington this October. Kimberly’s first full-length novel, Turn Up the Heat, will follow in February 2014. She resides in northern Virginia with her wildly patient husband and their three daughters. Visit her any time at www.kimberlykincaid.com or come check her out on Facebook (www.facebook.com/kimberly.kincaid1) and Twitter (@kimberlykincaid). 

12 thoughts on “Just One Bite: Writing Novellas”

  1. Great tips, Kimberly. Some people think that novellas are easier because they’re shorter. Not so!

    From a readers’ perspective I love novellas. They’re the perfect little reading bite when I’m short of time.

  2. I loved your post. I find that novellas are my drug of choice. I read them and write them. They are fast paced and keep me happy without all the dragging in a 100,000 word novel. Thanks for sharing!

  3. I truly could give a class on novella writing– there’s so much to share! I had no idea how hard they were until I had to sit down and write one (and that turned into writing four!) It’s a challenge, because when you get to the 10,000 word mark in a full length story, things are just starting to heat up and fall into place. In a novella, you’re a good third of the way done by then! So it’s hard to get things just so. I’m a big proponent of focusing on the internal or the external (and either one can work!) conflict and really fine-tuning that.

    Novellas are a great bite-sized treat– especially for those characters who maybe your audiences already know and you don’t need a ton of setup for.

    But I confess, I do love them!

  4. Most of the Novellas I have read (all Entangled ones) have been well written because I never felt like the story was rushed. I have encountered a few times where I thought the hero and heroine went from friends to hot and steamy sexual partners with nearly no warning…but it could just be me still getting used to novellas. The are a short story to me….and usually by the end of the novella, I want another one to be written that relates to the one I just finished! Either way, a novella or a longer book is so much blood, sweat and even tears to write that I admire authors who again and again go through the process and produce best selling novellas and books.

  5. Great post, Kimberly! I have only read one novella actually, but the thought of writing one has always appealed to me–esp. for secondary characters who deserve a story, but not necessarily an entire book.

    I’m amazed you manage to write at all with 3 kids!

  6. Wonderful post. I love novellas and tend to write them myself. I’m busy and like to think other people are too, so a good quality novella can satisfy those who only have a few hours to sit.

  7. Great post, Kimberly! I tend to read few novellas, but I love the idea of tapping both markets. Congrats on your new adventure. The golden nugget for me was leaning either to the internal or external element in a novella. Brilliant advice. Pacing is a challenge for me…your wordy twin! Making every syllable count is an exercise every writer can benefit from, whatever the word count. All the very best success to you!

  8. Wow! Great info, Kimberly. I may have to print this out and put it in my reference file. While I’ve written novels and short stories, I’ve never tackled a novella. When I’m ready to give one a shot, I’ll keep this close by. As for my favorite novella, I gotta go with Stepen King’s Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption. It was a pretty decent movie, too.

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