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Who on earth will buy my novella?

Ask Shelley

The commercial imperative rears its head in the latest appeal to ASK SHELLEY. Frugal Fred (is there such a person?) believes that, while a novel could earn him a fortune, sweating over a novella may be for the birds.

Dear Shelley (he writes), The novella masterclass that you’re running for Peirene sounds fascinating. I have read and admired the three novellas you’re going to focus on, and was pleased to note that although they’re classed as ‘Female Voices’, one of the three authors happens to be male. Great work, Peirene – I’m a big fan. But reading a novella is one thing; writing and trying to sell one is another altogether. Tell me: is it true that major publishers aren’t interested in the novella? It’s hard enough to market fiction as it is; the last thing I need is to struggle over a form without a hope in hell of getting it sold.

Although I understand your concern, Fred – who isn’t interested in money, after all? – I wonder whether you’re perhaps looking at the enterprise of writing from the wrong end of the telescope? It’s the doing of it that matters; seeing through a piece of fiction, whatever length or form, to its ultimate conclusion and to best possible effect

But, ok, you want to feel that someone out there will receive it or, even better, pay for it. And so here to convince you are four points that point to the novella as the form for our times:

  1. We live in an age of instant gratification. It’s all about speed, speed, speed. Speed and minimalisation. So the contemporary appeal of a work of fiction that is under 40,000 words long, ‘literary cinema for those fatigued by film’ (as the TLS puts it), is growing all the time;
  2. The best novellas are small but perfectly formed, allowing their authors to reach literary perfection. Think The Old Man and the Sea; Breakfast at Tiffany’s; Animal Farm … the list is almost endless.
  3. The novella can provide an intense, detailed exploration of its subject. It has both the concentrated focus of a short story, and the depth and richness of a novel.
  4. It is not, however, simply a short novel, for that would be like saying a pony is a baby horse …

There’s another point that is not so much an argument for the novella, but one to convince you that – whatever form of fiction you plump for – the Peirene masterclass, which studies how three writers achieve their excellence, can be a revelation and an inspiration. It’s a practical look at character, structure and setting that is applicable to all. And it is relevant even for those who aim to be a creative reader rather than a writer (and we need more of those).

So Fred – I’d say that you should take a punt. Come along, meet like-minded people, have fun, learn new techniques. You have everything to gain. And don’t be afraid of writing a novella: a good novella will find its audience; a bad novel will drop like a stone.