In Praise of the Novella
Watch an agent change her mind
I have devoured 6 novellas this year, all science fiction. Previous to this, I have said I don’t like novellas. And I cannot sell novellas. Guess what!! I was wrong. I totally love them and I can totally sell them*. (Yeah, note that asterisk.)
What made me change my mind? Well, uh, reading a few for starters. (Don’t throw tomatoes at me for that.) Listen, I can’t read all the books so I’m going to discover something from time to time that other people discovered long ago. It’s ok! I’ve also haven’t watched all of the Office or Parks and Rec. Life is a rich tapestry.
Anyway, I read a few science fiction and fantasy novellas for clients, and of course I liked those because I like my clients’ work. No brainer there. Then, I was looking for a new audiobook to listen to and I remembered I wanted to check out the Murderbot series. I mean, how could you not be curious about a series called Murderbot? I knew so many people who loved them, least of all my beloved sister, who reads everything and has great taste. And there was the first one, waiting for me on the Libby app, available from my local library. I clicked borrow and that was it for me. I’m on my 5th Murderbot book—the first full length novel, too!—and just read another SF novella on referral and gah I am loving them.
Previous to this, though, I was disinterested in novellas because I did not see a market for them as an agent. It’s only been recently, the last few years or so, that I’ve been able to separate my work reading from my personal reading (work/life balance lol) and have branched out into more formats/genres that I don’t have a specific professional interest in. I read a lot of self-help, too (especially on audio) but I do not really want to represent any of that. Frankly, this is growth to me, a person whose life is basically her job. (Yeah, I know. That’s what the self-help is for.)
But then, I did some work with Tor.com’s novella series (though it looks like they are not taking unagented submissions anymore). I was certainly not the first agent to sell novellas to them—far from it. My lovely colleagues were way ahead of me on this. But, huh—these seemed to be working! People were buying them! Tor.com does such a great job publishing them! It opened my eyes to novellas, espeicially SF/F ones.
I think they are a perfect study in efficient worldbuilding and plot development. You have 20k-40k words to get everything in there. It helps if the world you’re writing is semi-familiar to the reader, like, you know, basic space exploration, or Earth but one things is off, or a fairytale retelling. Let the reader’s existing knowledge do some of the work for you. And in those pages, you really only have time to do a few plot-things. You only have time to solve one big problem, and maybe a smaller one. Efficiency! If you’re struggling with this part of your writing practice, may I recommend writing a novella, for publication or not? I might try it myself.
I’m afraid, though, I cannot recommend writing novellas for traditional publication in other genres. Smaller presses I’m sure publish them in broader categories, but that’s not where my expertise lies. I wouldn’t know what to do with a literary novella, in terms of getting it published. (You’re welcome to leave more info in the comments if you know something I don’t!) I, too, as a writer want to write shorter things to be done with them faster, but it’s not always a faster way to actual publication.
It’s not often that I change my opinion on something, especially when it comes to my personal tastes AND what I want to work on professionally. (c.f.: Taurus sun, Capricorn rising, Leo moon.) But I’m happy that some personal and professional reading opened my eyes to exciting, interesting, bingeable SFF novellas. When I reopen to queries (which won’t exactly be soon, but will one day happen), I will update my stuff to say I want SFF novellas. Change and progress! Who knew!?
Here are some novellas you should read!!!
Alix E. Harrow’s forthcoming A SPINDLE SPLINTERED. (SLEEPING BEUTY IN THE MULTIVERSE!)
Martha Wells’ Murderbot Diaries. (A snarky half robot who doesn’t want to be a murderbot) anymore!
More TK from my clients that I can’t link to yet!
Take care my friends. Get vaccinated.