To Novella or not to Novella? That is the question

On today’s Saturday Spotlight on The Write Romantics blog, we were joined by fellow-RNA member, Liz Harris. Liz became a published writer two years ago with a novel and novella published in 2012. She spoke to us about writing novellas and that’s what I’d like to talk to you about today.

If you don’t know what a novella is or if you do and would like to find out more, you may like to start by checking out our blog post from Liz:

http://thewriteromantics.wordpress.com/2014/04/19/saturday-spotlight-guest-slot-writing-a-novella-by-liz-harris/

Got it? So, in very stripped-back terms, it’s basically a novel but a lot shorter, with fewer characters and one main plot rather than a sub-plot or several running alongside it. A writing friend had her first book published last year as well as a novella and said that the novella sold really well. This could be because it was a Christmas one and, with the stress and hectic-ness (if that’s not a word, it should be) of Christmas, perhaps readers feel they have time to read a Christmas-themed novella but not a full novel. I’d echo that. I like the idea of reading a Christmas novel each year but find my reading time is so limited that I started one Christmas novel in 2010, started it again in 2011 and finally read it all the way through during Christmas 2012!

It all sounds like a good idea doesn’t it? Fewer words = double the number of books I could write = more sales (if I get published or, if not, when I self-publish).

Except I’m stuck for an idea. I have several ideas for novels swimming around in my mind but, every time I think of one as a novella (i.e. shorter, more focused), the cast of characters have a fight with me and scream, “What about our sub-plot?” I’ll be honest and say that I’m struggling to think of an idea that isn’t too big. Let’s face it, my first idea for a novel became a trilogy and has since developed into a series so I’m not exactly from the school of thinking small and focused am I?

My wonderful writing friend and fellow Write Romantic, Jo, is currently working on a Christmas novella and she tells me she’s finding it great fun to write. I’m not sure whether the fun comes from the theme (surely anything Christmas-themed must be fun?) or the different approach needed so I must explore more. I feel I want to write one because I am someone who over-writes. My first draft of book 1 came in a little shy of 130,000 words so I had to do a lot of hard work to narrow it down to something closer to 100,000. A bit of focus on a novella could be really great learning.

I’m currently trying to write a short story which is presenting me with an even greater challenge for exactly the same reason. I’ve come up with the premise and my typical approach is to allow it to brew in my mind for a while before putting pen to paper. Whilst I can see how it could be a short story, the novelist in me has already made it bigger. I imagine the event in the short story being a chapter or two in a novel and can see great scope for developing the characters and sub-plots and I keep having to tell myself to stop getting carried away. Perhaps that’s where I’m going wrong. Perhaps I should stop fighting the bigger picture and write the short story but then write the novel featuring it. Maybe the short story could be a teaser? I’m sure I’ve ready many times that writers have done this; write a short story then create a whole novel from it. The thing is, I don’t think that would work with a novella as that’s like writing half a novel then padding it out with another 50,000 words by introducing another character or two and a couple of sub-plots. That really, really wouldn’t work.

Where does that leave me? I’m feeling quite comfortable with the idea of my short story being a springboard for a novel, now but I’m wondering if a novella perhaps isn’t for me. Or am I just thinking that because I’ve never actually read one. How can I make a decision about writing something when I’ve never read it? Perhaps it’s time to bob on over to Amazon for a few quick Kindle downloads. In the meantime, do let me know if you’ve ever written a novella and why. If you’re a reader of them, what do you like about them and can you recommend any you’ve really loved? Would be great to hear from you.

I now have a child-free and husband-free afternoon. The hoovering is done, the washing is on and it’s time to write. Perfect way to spend a bank holiday Saturday in my opinion, especially as yesterday was spent traipsing around a farm, zoo and playgrounds with my little one so it’s guilt-free writing time as her Nana will be entertaining her instead. Think I’ll just poddle downstairs and get my Easter egg first. Yes, I know you’re not meant to open them until Sunday but I dropped it on the floor and it broke so I have to eat it. Honest …!!!

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Stop the ride! I want to get off!

For the past few weeks, I’ve been driving my husband mad.

Text from me late morning at work: “Has the post arrived?”

Reply from him: “Yes. No MS.”

Text from me: “Grrr”

It got to the point where he’d pre-empt my question and text me as soon as the postman had been. Then the news I’d finally been waiting for arrived at 11.31am on Thursday: “The manuscript has landed!!” Only problem was, I was out for the day at a local play park/petting zoo with my seven-year-old. And I didn’t think she’d appreciate me saying, “I know we’ve only been here for 45 minutes and you haven’t fed the lambs or handled a guinea pig yet but we’re going home so mummy can read her critique.” So I stayed. And looked at the lamas. Or are they alpacas? Never really been sure of the difference!

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At 3.30pm, I finally convinced her it was time to leave. Even without the MS waiting for me, I’d had my fill and would have been leaving about then anyway so I didn’t feel too guilty.

I eagerly ripped open the jiffy bag, curled up on the sofa … and my heart sank.

Oh dear.

It wasn’t what I’d hoped for.

😦

My day job is in learning & development. I coach people for a living. I train them for a living. I develop them. Feedback is something that I give and receive regularly and one of the things I really loved about the two reports I received for book 1 were that they were balanced. Both flagged up improvements that could be made (particularly the 1st one where I was still learning and knew I needed further guidance) but they also had lots of positives about my writing style, my characters, the story, my use of dialogue and so on. I’d expected (and hoped) this year’s report would be similar. But it wasn’t. Before I go any further, I will say that the NWS is an absolutely incredible opportunity and I’ve been so grateful for the feedback during my three years of membership. It is a privilege to receive feedback from experienced published writers and I feel that I’ve been able to take the feedback on book 1 and use it to fine-tune my first novel into something pretty special (I hope!) I don’t think I’d have been able to take it where I’ve taken it without the insight offered by both reviewers.

This year, however, has knocked me. The report was filled with opportunities for improvement and, whilst my reviewer said I had great potential within my storyline, I was left in no doubt that she didn’t think I’d exploited the potential. At all. Did I cry? Did I get mad? No. I just felt completely and utterly deflated. And numb. And that feeling continued for the next two days. For the first time ever in the eleven-and-a-half years since I first had the idea for book 1 and started to write, I seriously questioned what the hell I was doing thinking I could do this. Why was I investing hours and hours of my life in research and writing and submitting and hoping and waiting … when I clearly had no talent whatsoever. My writing pals, The Write Romantics, and I have often likened being an aspiring writer to being on a roller coaster ride. At the weekend, I wanted to stop the ride. I wanted to get off. I’ve never, ever, felt like that until now. I felt lost because, if I did stop the ride, what would I do? My life is writing. I’ve worked everything else round it. I love it. It’s part of me.

By Saturday teatime, I wasn’t feeling much better. The Write Romantics had rallied around and been incredibly supportive as always which helped massively. One of the group, Alex, suggested that I put book 2 and 3 aside and work on something different. I know what my 4th book is going to be about. It’s set in the same fictional town as the trilogy but it features a new cast of characters. She suggested I start to think about them instead. So I went into the spare bedroom and chose myself a new notebook from the huge collection in there (I have a thing for notebooks) and started to create the four characters. It was the best thing I could possibly have done because it was new material so it was exciting. Best of all, it made me start to believe that I could do it.

Last night, I decided to start working through my MS again and was surprised to find little pencil entries like, “Really lovely”, “Nicely expressed,” and “Love it!” Those little scribbles were just what I needed. Whilst my reviewer had focussed on all the improvement areas in the report, there were some things she liked but they were on the MS instead. Phew! Another Write Romantic, Jo, has also suggested that much of the feedback may be as a result of going blind into book 2 when there is a prequel. She could be right. My beta readers loved book 2 and are clamouring for book 3 but maybe you need to read book 1 first to feel this way. Alex hasn’t read book 1 so she’s going to beta read book 2 for me and Jo (who has read both) has asked an avid reader friend of hers to do the same. It will be interesting to hear their views and compare them to the critique.

How do I feel a few days on? I’ve asked the fairground operator to slow the ride down but I don’t want to get off it as I love it too much. I just hadn’t realised there would be quite so many bumps in what had seemed like quite a smooth ride until Thursday. I’m going to finish reading book 2 and making some minor tweaks and then I’ll factor in the feedback from Alex and Jo’s friend before I do anything major. Because, as my reviewer said at the very end, it’s only her opinion and, so far, it differs from the opinion of all those who’ve read it so what’s to say it’s the opinion to be listened to. Tricky. Very tricky. Watch this space for more news of where the ride takes me next!

 

 

Give me just a little more time …

I’ve been home alone for nearly an hour this evening. My husband left for archery 50 minutes ago and my daughter hasn’t been dropped off from her Nana’s yet. The cats haven’t yet reached point in the evening where they stare at me and squeak annoyingly until I relent and feed them so all is calm and quiet. Which would be the perfect time to sit down and write. Yet how have I spent this time? I need some tea so I managed to spend about 5 minutes putting a pie and chips (hmm, healthy!) into the oven but they’re not going to be ready for 20 mins so I haven’t spent any time eating yet. I’ve changed out of my work clothes which took all of a minute. And I’ve responded to a text so that’s probably about 7 mins accounted for. As for the rest? I’ve flicked around on Yahoo! news, checked my empty email inbox several times, done a Bitstrips on Facebook and stared at my news feed for a very long time waiting for someone to say something interesting. Which, incidentally, they haven’t. As in nothing has appeared as opposed to someone has said something that I rudely deem uninteresting.

So why am I wasting this really valuable writing time? 

Several years ago, I met a writing friend. As a single mum with a young daughter, she was taking some time out of work and I used to envy her the days she could spend in writing heaven, particularly when her daughter was at nursery and then school. I, on the other hand, was commuting several hours a day and working long hours in a demanding job so time was exceedingly precious. Yet we used to often discuss how funny it was that sometimes I could get more writing done in a week than she could and we concluded that, the more time you have, the more time you waste. Well, maybe not waste but you do find other things to do. When your writing time is snatched, as mine was, you tend to just knuckle down and make the most of it.

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I decided to pack in my crazy commute and long hours a couple of years back and after a couple of job changes, I’ve now settled into a role that’s very local. So local that I finish work at 5pm and am home by about 5.20pm. Luxury. Especially for someone who spent 4.25 hours of her day commuting this time two years ago! So now that I have the luxury of time, I should be getting a lot more writing done. But I’m not. Yet I am spending most evenings in the office in front of my computer so why am I not upping my word count?

Some of my time can be accounted for. I run a Brownie pack so that rules out a Monday evening and I need to spend some time planning. But I’ve been doing that for 4.5 years. It’s part of my routine. I also have responsibilities for The Write Romantics blog and regularly communicate with the group on our closed Facebook page (our support network). But we’ve just celebrated our one-year anniversary. So that’s part of my routine too. I’ve started this blog but, realistically, I post less than once a week and blogging is also part of my routine. In February last year, I started a bootcamp and blogged about it after every session until I stopped going in January this year. That’s four times a week! Now we’re maybe talking three times a month. So that’s also part of my normal routine and is a lesser commitment than it used to be.

So, I work shorter hours, I don’t commute, my other responsibilities haven’t changed (become fewer if anything) and I do spend every evening in front of the computer. Yet I’m getting less writing done. Deep down, I know the reason why. There are actually two reasons and, if we really need to give them a label, we’d probably say “crisis of confidence”.

Let me explain …

It took me over a decade to write my first novel. During that time, it got submitted to the NWS twice (to great reviews), went to some beta readers (also to great reviews), was pitched to two editors at the RNA Conference last summer (both of whom wanted the full MS) and is now out there seeking a publishing deal. I’m happy with the book and on up-beat optimistic days, I convince myself that it’s going to find a home because other writing friends who have submitted to certain publishers after me have had regrets already which would indicate I’m in a process and successfully progressing through various stages. (I hope! It sounds more pleasing than the idea that it’s still on the slushpile completely untouched!)

BUT … and it’s a big BUT which is why I’ve put it in capitals … I had that “difficult second book” to write. And I’d set myself up for an even bigger challenge by making it a sequel. A double viewpoint one too. All change! I’d learned so much about the writing process during the book 1 decade that I actually wrote book 2 in seven months! I had my beta readers lined up and I have to say that I was more nervous about them reading book 2 than I had been about book 1. What if they didn’t think it was as good? What if they didn’t like the dual viewpoint? (Which would be a big EEK for book 3 which would be told in triple viewpoint). What if they didn’t think there was sufficient storyline to make a sequel? My relief was incredible when they all loved it. Phew. The ultimate test, though, would be the submission to NWS. As I submitted early in the process (you have until end August), I naively thought it would be back with me in a few weeks. I was completely forgetting that the reviewers are writers themselves with their own deadlines and it was very possible I may be delayed by one of those. It turns out I have been although it will be posted back to me this week. I’ve therefore been in this limbo knowing that my readers liked it (yippee) but wondering if the critique may come back full of development areas. Until I know this “professional” verdict, I’m almost afraid to progress with book 3 (which I’m a third of the way through).

Book 3 is the final book in the series and, as I’ve already said, is told from three points of view but, in its early draft form, I’m looking at it and feeling it’s too episodic i.e. we run from something happening in person 1’s life, then to person 2’s, then back to 1, then 3, then 2, then 3 again and so on. It felt like something was missing. Then I realised what that something was. My main character’s character arc. She doesn’t change by the end of the book. She doesn’t learn something. Well, she does change and she does learn something but not in the way she should for a character arc to really satisfy. I know what the arc will be but that means shifting round some key events and, typically, they’re the events that have already happened which means some major re-work. Do I do this now or do I just finish writing then shift it around?

That’s it, then. That’s the problem. I’m scared of what my critique of book 2 will reveal and I’m being overly critical of what I think would be revealed if book 3 was about to be critiqued and both those things together have put me in ostrich mode where I’m simply avoiding writing because that’s easier than facing up to the fact that I may be a one-book-pony! Ok, ok, stop shouting at me. I know I’m not really. I know my beta readers loved book 2 and, actually, so did I when I read through it (so much more refreshing than having read book 1 about a million times) and I know book 3 has great potential but is just going to be a little longer and more challenging to construct than book 2. Mind you, as long as it’s not longer than book 1, that’s fine by me!

I’m actually feeling better for having put fingers to keyboard. It’s probably the most writing I’ve done this month and it feels good to let it flow. I’ve now had my tea, I’m about to wash my daughter’s hair and sort out bedtime routine but, at 8pm, she’ll be going to sleep and all will be quiet (once I’ve fed those pesky cats) so that’s a great opportunity to get cracking and do some writing. Face my demons. Conquer this thing. Although fellow Write Romantic Helen Phifer’s second novel ‘The Secrets of the Shadows’ was released yesterday and, according to my Kindle, I’m 32% of the way through it. Just like her debut, ‘The Ghost House’, it’s really gripping. Maybe I’ll just finish that first …..