The novella is the comeback kid of literature. (Just ask The Atlantic Monthly and Forbes magazines.) And it’s brought a sidekick, the novelette, along for its return. Of course, I couldn’t be happier. I love novellas. Which comes as no surprise, I’m sure.
I bet you love novellas too but don’t realize it. Have you ever read (and loved) any of the following stories:
- “Binti” by Nnedi Okorafor
- “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” by Truman Capote
- “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley
- “Home” by Toni Morrison
- “The Hound of the Baskervilles” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
- “House on Mango Street” by Sandra Cisneros
- “Three Blind Mice” by Agatha Christie
- “The War of the Worlds” by H.G. Wells
If you answered yes to any of the titles, let me welcome you to the novella-lovers club. Don’t be concerned if you’ve always thought of those stories as novels, albeit short ones. Novellas are often marketed as — surprise! — short novels. And that moniker is pretty accurate. In fact, novellas and novelettes dwell in the gap between short stories and novels.
If you’ve never heard of novelettes, no need to feel alone. Novelette is a new term for me, too. However, I’m firmly on Team Novelette after reading “A Dead Djinn in Cairo” by speculative fiction writer and historian P. Djèlí Clark. (I’ll delve into that novelette and another story, the novella “The Haunting of Tram Car 015”, by Clark a little later in this article.) Novelettes also boast famous titles too. “The Birds” by Daphne Du Maurier is another novelette dubbed differently for a more marketable description.
Call Me What You Like
Novelettes. Novellas. Short novels. Whatever you call them, as with other short forms, their defining word count is a bit fluid. Generally, novelettes range 7,500 – 17,500 words. Picking up where novelettes end, novellas span 17,500 – 50,000 words. However, different writing organizations publish their own preferential scales of word counts. The Science Fiction Writers of America, sponsor of the Nebula Award, lists a novelette as 7,500-17,500 words and a novella as 17,500 – 40,000 words. The Short Mystery Fiction Society, sponsor of the Derringer Award, only considers novelettes for their award; they place word count for novelettes at 8,001 – 17,500 words.
So, why have they hit the recent popularity jackpot? Ebooks. The format makes them attractive for readers and writers in three ways: brevity, price, discoverability. Novelettes and novellas are quick reads. They’re marketed to readers as free or inexpensive ($0.99 – $2.99). Readers frequently try out new authors by choosing their short stories or novelettes/novellas. (Chances are if you’re an indie romance reader and snagged a freebie or five, you’ve read plenty of novelettes and novellas.)
Both forms capture the best about novels — an expanded story and a deeper involvement with characters. Timelines, action, and character focus are narrowed and concentrated, consumable in one or two sittings. What that translates into for the reader is more bang for the buck. For writers, they are a perfect vehicle to try out worldbuilding skills; test run plotlines, and develop characters’ backgrounds with a single or simpler story arc.
Portal to Other Forms
P. Djèlí Clark’s novelette “A Dead Djinn in Cairo” and novella “The Haunting of Tram Car 015”, are well-written and delightfully show the forms at their best. Both works share, what Clark describes, “an alternate 1912 Cairo of djinn, airships, & magic” and the Egyptian Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities.
I think of the stories as one piece because of how well and seamless Clark’s world-building flows between them. Yet they are, each one, so finely constructed that they can easily stand alone. To illustrate this, let’s consider them side-by-side.
“A Dead Djinn” occurs before “The Haunting” in the timeline of this alternate 1912 Cairo. The worldbuilding introduces readers to a mixture of unusual and magical entities. Clark has them all interacting within the normal human world. He introduces the impetus to this melange in “A Dead Djinn.”
“[…] Thank you, al-Jahiz.”
The last words were mocking, common Cairo slang uttered with praise, sarcasm, or anger. How else to remember al-Jahiz, the famed Soudanese mystic and inventor? Some named him as one and the same with the medieval thinker of Basra, reborn or traveled through time. Sufis claimed he was a herald of the Mahdi; Coptics a harbinger of the apocalypse. Whether genius, saint, or madman, no one could deny that he had shaken the world.
It was al-Jahiz who, through mysticism and machines, bore a hole to the Kaf, the other-realm of the djinn. His purpose for doing so—curiosity, mischief, or malice—remained unknown. He later disappeared, taking his incredible machines with him. Some said even now he traveled the many worlds, sowing chaos wherever he went.”
With al-Jahiz’s interdimensional rending, we are prepared for anything and everything to show up in the stories. In two paragraphs, Clark opens the normal world’s door for djinns and every creature associated with them. In “A Dead Djin,” we find djinns, ghuls, angels and more butted up against clashes within human class systems and gender norms. The first scene opens on a murder scene investigation, complicated because of identity — the victim’s and the lead investigator’s.
In “The Haunting,” Clark has included, alongside djinns and angels, even more unusual beings mixed in with humans and distinctly human concerns – suffragettes, secret societies, demons, and sentient automatons.
Both stories offer a unique, almost steampunk view of paranormal-edged technology filled with dirigible airships, trams, copper-plated spectral goggles, and alchemical-filamented lamps. Magic of all kinds has its place too in this world.
Yet, as exciting as this alternate 1912 Cairo is described, the characters are ultimately the lure that brings readers back to Clark’s stories. Agents Fatma el-Sha’arawi, Hamed Nasr, and Onsi Youssef feel distinct and very much themselves as we encounter their quirks and strengths throughout their adventures,
Agent Fatma el-Sha’arawi:
“Agent Fatma el-Sha’arawi stood in his doorway. She was resplendent as ever, in a lavender Englishman’s suit and matching vest with a white shirt and a deep purple tie, topped off with a black bowler no less.
“Good evening, Agent Hamed,” she greeted him pleasantly. “Am I bothering you?”
“Evening to you, Agent Fatma,” Hamed said, standing and unconsciously straightening his uniform. “And no, not a bother at all. Please, come in.” The smaller woman smiled, strolling in on a pair of black and tan wingtips.”
Agent Hamed Nasr:
“Unfortunately, Agent Hamed Nasr noted with the meticulous eye of an investigator, the superintendent’s contrived attempts at good taste were subsumed under the humdrum tediousness of a mid-level bureaucratic functionary: transit maps and line timetables, mechanical schematics and repair schedules, memorandums and reports, all overlaid one upon another on washed-out yellow walls like decaying dragon scales. They flapped carelessly beneath the air of an oscillating copper fan, its spinning blades rattling inside its cage as if trying to get out. And somehow, still, it was stifling in here, so that Hamed had to resist the urge to pull at the neckband of his white collarless shirt—thankful, at least, that the dark uniform he wore concealed any signs of perspiration in the lingering heat of late-summer Cairo.
Hamed cleared his throat loudly, coughing into his short moustache. If he had to sit through a conversation about the dried meats of Transcaucasia, he just might go insane. Or be forced to eat his foot. One or the other. And he liked both his sanity and his feet. Catching the superintendent’s attention, he spared a remonstrative glance for Onsi. They were here on Ministry business, not to spend the morning chatting idly like old men at a coffee shop.”
““My father’s family is Coptic, from right here in Cairo,” Onsi said. He absently ran a finger over the small black cross tattooed onto the inside of his right wrist, while nibbling away at a bit of sudjukh. He’d taken the superintendent up on his offer, making off with almost half the bowl, and had stashed it in his pockets.
“They live mostly in Shubra, and own a set of candy stores,” he continued. That would explain the man’s sweet tooth, Hamed assessed. “Now, my mother’s family on her father’s side are Copts as well, from down south in Minya—all cotton merchants. Made their wealth when the Americans had their troubles back in the sixties. Her mother, however, was a Nubian from Luxor. That produced quite the scandal, as this was before the religious tolerance laws. At any rate, this is all to say that of course I love Nubian food! My grandmother prepared it for us on feast days—enough for me and all nine of my sisters.””
With a deft hand, Clark makes both novelette and novella feel like reading a short story. Yet, he does so with all the richness and depth of a novel in a fraction of the usual time invested.
In a culture weighted towards novels, their shorter kin have traditionally gotten less attention. Brooklyn-based independent publisher Melville House has cast their preference for what they call renegade works of art: novellas. They offer a curated collection called The Art of the Novella, which includes classic and lesser-known works by literary greats.
To get a solid start on creating your own novelettes and novellas, consider (re)reading titles from Melville House. Or one or more of the novelettes and novellas listed earlier in this article. Their popularity resurgence has generated plenty of info on craft and technique as well as markets open to both forms:
- 10 Steps to Writing a Novella, Delilah S. Dawson
- Some Notes on the Novella, Ian McEwan, The New Yorker, October 29, 2012
- 33 Publishers and Journals Seeking Novellas, Bookfox/John Fox
- Contests/Prizes: Glimmer Train, Quarterly West, University of Pittsburgh Press’ Drue Heinz Literature Prize
- Other Publishers/Journals: Alaska Quarterly Review, Green Writers Press, Outpost19, McSweeney’s, The Massachusetts Review’s Working Titles, Seattle Review
As a reader who embraces literature outside most popular trends, I love the idea of reading novelettes and novellas as renegade. Why not join us renegades? Pick up a novelette or novella by a new author. You just might find your next favorite author. And the blueprint for creating your own novelettes and novellas.
Brenda Joyce Patterson is a poet, writer, librarian, and lover of short writing forms. Her poetry and flash fiction have been published in Vayavya, Gravel Magazine, and Melancholy Hyperbole. Along with works by Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Alice Walker, her travel essay “The Kindness of Strangers” appeared in Go Girl: The Black Woman’s Guide to Travel and Adventure.