Writers On Writing / The untapped potential of novellas, with Nick Earls

We spoke with award-winning author Nick Earls about his inspiration for writing novellas and their unrealised potential, ahead of his workshop, Writing Novellas at Writing NSW.

Nick Earls

For your PhD you carried out three years of research into 21st-century novella writing and publishing. What sparked such enduring curiosity into the form?

In 2013, I realised that the five best ideas I had were destined to be novella-sized. I realised I’d be faking it to turn any into novels, and brutally damaging them to cut them back to short story size. I was determined to write them in a way that did them justice. The standard publishing model would be to bind them into a single volume, like a collection of large short stories, but I couldn’t see industry morale being high around a product like that. I wondered if there might be a better way. I looked around online and couldn’t readily find one. The more I thought about it, the more I thought the idea might have something going for it – surely the novella could work really well as an ebook and a movie-length audiobook (maybe hooking podcast fans who are up for some fiction)? Surely, in our madly time-poor lives, fiction that goes deep but gets you to the end the same night might have a place? For all those people piling novels on their bedside tables, waiting for holidays, maybe the novella can let fiction back into regular life?

‘For all those people piling novels on their bedside tables, waiting for holidays, maybe the novella can let fiction back into regular life?’

So, I researched all that, looking at novella craft, novella perceptions and position within the industry, and the influence of technological advances on publishing, reading and our lives. With the support of some great publishing partners, that let me come up with a multiplatform series-publishing model. We published the novellas in five successive months in 2016. And the model worked. Not that I’m emailing from my own personal Tahitian island bought by the royalties but, compared with my benchmark (a previous collection of mine comprising five short stories and three novellas), the Wisdom Tree series got far more attention and earned me significantly more.

‘I truly think the novella has huge amounts of unrealised potential in the book market’

Beyond this particular series, I love working with the form, might well do more with it, and thought it would be good to inform myself as fully as possible. And beyond my own interests, I truly think the novella has huge amounts of unrealised potential in the book market, and wanted to test the orthodox position in a considered way that would deliver something resembling evidence, whether it pointed one way or the other.

What are some considerations that writers must bring to the novella that don’t necessarily apply to the novel?

In the mid-seventies, Judith Leibowitz talked about ‘the double effect of intensity and expansion’ being a novella hallmark, and I think that can be interpreted in a practical way. By containing the cast, the world and the time period of the novella and focusing intently on them and investing them with the detail, subtlety and complexity they call for, I think we can create the intensity. The expansion comes if we get that right, because we’ll create characters who feel real enough that what they experience generalises – we’re not just saying something about those people, we’re saying something about how people work.

One of the key decisions in writing a novella is working out if the idea is right for it, in terms of scope. If you want to illuminate a moment, maybe it’s a short story.  If there are multiple interweaving plots, a sizeable cast and a complicated narrative spread over time, you’re heading towards a novel. But if you have a contained cast of characters and a single plot line needing depth or two that can intersect and cast light on each other, you might well be in novella territory. That’s the times to ask yourself, ‘How do I get the most out of this as a novella?’

What is your favourite novella and why?

This is the point where everyone names a classic – Heart of Darkness, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, etc – but I’m not going to do that. I’m going to say some of the most exciting novellas are being written now. And some are hidden in plain sight, in short story collections. I’m a big fan of Melissa Bank’s collection A Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing, and a couple of pieces in there are around the fifty-page mark. Once anything is close to that, the category question is whether it’s a short story that just had a bit more story to tell, or whether it’s a story that needed to take on more detail to go deep, or more complexity to cast light where it needed, that is, whether the novella tools are at work. Australian writers are also writing accomplished novellas, for example, Delia Falconer’s The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers, or Mirandi Riwoe’s The Fish Girl (which was perhaps the first novella shortlisted for the Stella Prize).

Nick Earls is the author of 27 books for adults, teenagers and children. His writing has won awards in Australia, the UK and US, and appeared on bestseller lists in those countries. His Wisdom Tree novella series received gold medals in the Independent Publisher Book Awards (US) and the eLit Awards (US), as well as winning the People’s Choice Award at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. His PhD thesis comprised the Wisdom Tree novellas and research on contemporary novella craft and publishing.

Join Nick Earls for his workshop Writing Novellas on Saturday 9 November, 10am-4pm at Writing NSW. 

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