Worldcon panel – Novellas

Novella-panelThis is the first in a series of posts I plan to write on my Worldcon panel experiences. I sat on a number of panels and was in the audience for several more and I learned a lot. Some of the discussions were just awesome and I want to share some of what was discussed. Firstly, I’ll talk about the Novellas panel I was on. This was the big fanboy moment for me as I got to be on a panel with Robert Silverberg, moderating it no less. Also on the panel were Keith Stevenson, Coeur De Lion publisher, responsible for the X6 novella anthology and Peter M Ball, author of the Twelfth Planet Press novellas Horn and Bleed.

Firstly, for those that don’t know, a novella or novellette is a story length longer than the short story but shorter than the novel. To put numbers on it, a novellette is usually considered to be something between 10,000 and 20,000 words. The novella is defined by The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Nebula Awards for science fiction as having a word count between 17,500 and 40,000. Other definitions start as low as 10,000 words and run as high as 70,000 words. You get the picture.

The basic thrust of this panel was twofold:

Are novellas harder to write and/or sell?

Are novellas actually the best length for SF?

I think we were all agreed that novellas are certainly not harder to write. Robert Silverberg maintains that the novella is still his preferred length for SF and that it allows extensive character building and world building, far more than the short story, without the considerable detail and depth of a novel. It allows the writer to tell a tighter, more concise story, without the subplots that make novels so interesting, but also so long. It also allows the writer to tell a story and create great characters without the need for padding.

We talked about how some publishers are actually requesting more padding these days, especially in fantasy novels, because readers expect a “big fat fantasy” experience. Publishers also want to command more shelf space in bookstores by having thicker spines, thereby edging out other publishers. This is business for them, but it really does piss me off. I’m a journeyman writer, a big fan of small press and I want to see as many different publishers getting shelf space as possible. For their sake and mine – more publishers means more diversity in SF and more opportunity for emerging writers like myself to sell their work.

So, with that in mind, are novellas harder to sell? This, sadly, is a definite yes right now. But it could be changing. Peter’s novella, Horn, is one of Twelfth Planet Press‘s most successful titles and he’s scored a sequel published by them. The TPP novellette doubles (two novellettes by different authors, published back to back in a single volume) are a great idea, again selling well and scoring industry interest in the form of recommended reading and awards. Keith’s X6 novella anthology contains stories that are bagging awards all over the place, expecially Wives by Paul Haines and Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan.

The rise of the ebook is allowing more venues for novellas to open up as ebook readers can’t see and don’t care about the size of a book. It doesn’t have a spine width for them to obsess about. You can also charge very little, even a dollar, for a novella ebook and people will take a shot to see what it’s like.

Some print mags are still running one novella or novellette per issue and the rise of online zines means that space is irrelevant and word counts less strictly adhered to. So with the internet, ebooks and small press it seems that novellas are going to be easier and easier to sell.

I certainly hope so, because I love the length. My own Ghost Of The Black sci fi novella, originally serialised on this site and now available as an ebook and print book, has been very well received. I’ve got another novellette out in the marketplace now which I’m really pleased with – I think it’s one of the best things I’ve written – and I’m very hopeful that I’ll sell that. If it sells to the market it’s currently sitting at I’ll be Snoopy dancing for a week.

The novella is also an avenue to longer work. Margo’s Sea Hearts has become one third of her new novel and will be worked into it as such. With the interest generated by X6, that can only be good news for the novel once it’s published. A novella or novellette is a great way to test out a new writer without committing a big chunk of money or time. With that in mind, I hope a lot more publishers take on this format. I know that a lot of writers really like writing in the novella length. It’s a superb length for developing SF stories and, especially if the audience is to be believed, the vast majority of people love reading the novella length. Here’s hoping it continues on from strength to strength.


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9 thoughts on “Worldcon panel – Novellas

  1. I have to say, some of the better SF books I’ve read recently have been novellas, and I’m getting read to try writing a couple myself. I really do like the form. It’s one that’s really grown on me in recent days.

    I’d be just as thrilled as you were to be in a room with Robert Silverberg, let alone on a panel with him.

  2. It was a great panel, and a fascinating topic. As I believe was mentioned, the 20,000 word novella seems the perfect length for the emerging ebook market.

    Also, I went and bought X6 after the panel and am looking forward to getting stuck in.

  3. Thanks guys. Christopher, I hope you enjoy X6 – I loved it.

    I’ve added a picture to this post (or rather, I’m about to) to give the visuals of the panel in question.

  4. Hi Alan,

    Great blog, will definitely be checking it out regularly.

    I had a great time at AussieCon (see my blog for details) and I got to chat to one of my favourite authors, George R.R. Martin, a fair bit…so I had my share of fanboy moments. haha

    I see you had a story in Flesh and Bone: Rise of the Necromaancers too, if I had realised a fellow submitted was at AussieCon I would have made a point of saying hello. 🙂

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