The Nighttime Novelist...accomplishes more in about 240 pages than a dozen other "how to write" or "craft your novel" books have ever done.

--Helen Gallagher/Blogcritics



Saturday, November 13, 2010

NaNoWriMo Tip #11: Write a Novella

First, I understand that this is not NaNolaWriMo--I'm not sure there is such a thing, though there should be--and I furthermore understand that the stated goal of this month's work is to produce a novel, of which there's an allegedly clear definition right up front on the NaNoWriMo website: 50,000 words. (I say allegedly because it's a clumsy, imprecise, unhelpful definition...which is in no way NaNoWriMo's fault.)

Nevertheless, having said all that, I'd like to suggest something to you that I suggest to those students of mine who ask if I'll serve as advisor for their undergraduate honors thesis...for which they'd like to buckle down and (finally) try their hand at writing a novel:

Write a novella.

Typically how this works is, the student and I do an independent study in the fall semester, the first half devoted to getting an idea of what the student wants to explore, doing readings of other works which try similar things, and helping the student figure out the story he or she is interested in telling. (Generally the student has nothing more than a vague idea at first, which is fine, so this questioning and prep work is vital to pinning the idea down. And an important stage for the rest of us, too.)

For the second half of the independent study we do the writing--twenty pages at a time, due every two weeks, for a completed one-hundred-page manuscript by the end of that fall semester. That leaves us the beginning of the spring semester to discuss the work and how it might be polished up before giving the manuscript to the thesis committee and scheduling a defense.

I've advised three student novels this way to date--and a fourth currently--and the results have been heartening to say the least, and often astounding. Which says a lot about my students, and I want to praise them here--they're MUCH more together than I was at the same age--but also says something about the benefits of the approach:

1. Not all students realize what it means to commit to a 50,000-word novel, to be written while they're taking classes. Writing a novella, however--and breaking that down into twenty pages every two weeks--makes the process much more manageable, much less anxious and abstract.

2. Breaking a short novel down this way allows a student to think about, and deliver, an overall arc--by the end of the first twenty pages, we should understand who the charcater is and what she wants, and the section ends with the external conflict the character will face in the book; the next three meetings are all heart-of-the-novel chapters, leading us toward the final turn and final twenty pages, the climax. This allows a student to think about the big-picture arc--which we keep in mind all the way through--while also giving us the opportunity to look at smaller, chapter-by-chapter momentum and arcs and make sure the book has forward movement.

3. Once the hundred pages are finished, the student has a completed, sustained story arc...which can then be built up, after the defense is done, into a complete novel-length project. The framework is there, the defense often gives a student ideas about how it might be built up more, and where, and why (minor characters or subplots the readers are interested in seeing more of; aspects of the protagonist's external or internal journey that are suggested but not fully developed; and so on). Of course a few student novels I've seen seem pretty close to finished in a defense...but it's much more common that the writer leaves that meeting with ideas about how the story might be strengthened. Which is not about word count, of course--we wanted twenty thousand more words!!--but about story.
For these reasons, I'd suggest thinking of your own project in this way, even if it doesn't fit the letter of the law for NaNoWriMo. You might consider a more condensed version of the approach I take with students: twenty-five pages a week, and thinking of the overall structure (week one = act 1; weeks two and three, act 2; week four, final act) as you go.

The important thing is that you'll end up with a framework for your novel that you can then go back and build up, just by seeing what's already there and what needs more. Ray Bradbury famously wrote his classic novel Fahrenheit 451 in just nine days...a 25,000-word novella. And when a publisher showed interest in it as a novel, Bradbury revised the novella toward a full 50,000-word book, and a classic was born.

So by all means: write a novella if it helps you see your story as a whole, and to see it as a manageable goal.

And if 50,000 words, rather than a story, is really your goal for the month...well, you can achieve that pretty easily. See below.

(Wendy is thinking, "Is this really how he spent National Novel Writing Month??")

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