Archive | April, 2013

When does a novella become a novel?

26 Apr

And so we move from an earlier post about the composition of sequels and multiple volumes to one concerning a form at the opposite end of the writing spectrum, the novella.

When does a short story become a novella?  And for that matter, when does a novella become a novel? It’s a question that’s often asked and one to which we struggle to supply a satisfactory answer. Everyone knows the order – short story, novella, novel – but at what point does the transition occur?

The distinction is frequently made in purely numerical terms. Using word count leads us inevitably to artificial and arbitrary cut-off points. Does a short story, then, turn into a novella at 10,000 words? Or is it 12,000 words or 20,000? Is a book 50,000 words in length a short novel or a long novella? We can say for sure that a story 2,000 words in length is a short story and that one of 80,000 words is a full-length novel, but it gets messy somewhere in between.

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An illustration from my long-disowned first novella (felt pen on printer paper!)

Perhaps the novella should be seen as narrower than the novel but somehow purer also. It often sticks to a single narrative, told from one point of view, exploring a single theme. Is it then, perhaps, more akin to the yarn, closer to the ancient oral tradition of storytelling than to the novel and all the complexities that it brings to narrative? Think how much easier it might be to persuade a publisher to take on a novella if it were re-branded as such. ‘Dear Sir/Madam, may I bend your ear for consideration of my latest yarn?’ This doesn’t mean that we should view the novella as a necessarily less sophisticated form. It calls for an almost poetic economy in its use of words. There is no room in the novella for writing that is either flowery or flabby. Such compression calls for no little skill on the part of the writer and can imbue those words that do remain with significantly greater force.

I have already confessed my fondness for the novella as a literary form (see 21 Great Novellas), both from the reader’s perspective and the writer’s. Over the years, I have completed three novellas  (one renounced) and put a further one on hold (excerpts here, here and here). Although I have been working on longer fiction in recent times (my last completed manuscript weighed in at 150,000 words!) in many ways, I feel that the novella is my natural metier. The novella is better suited to the time that I have available for composition (which is far less than I would like). Needless to say, the time required for writing shorter, straightforward works is much less than for those with complex narrative structures and themes. The novella’s length also fits in with the limited time that I have for reading (demanding job, single dad, etc.). I suspect that I’m not alone in this. In the context of our pressurised modern lives, perhaps the novella is a form whose time has come… Since so few are published, though, there’s a problem in finding decent examples to read.

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A further illustration from the same novella (same media)

For an English writer whose fiction has yet to be published, all of this is unfortunate. Publishers aren’t generally interested in novellas, especially not from unpublished novelists. Unlike much of the rest of Europe, in the UK the novella has largely been removed from the literary landscape. I see it as a further aspect of the cultural decline of my home country. And this, despite the fact that some of the finest works to originate from these shores have been novellas. Think of Animal Farm or Heart of Darkness, for example, books that I would argue come just about as close as is possible to literary perfection. A while back, I discovered the website of a UK publisher specialising in novellas. Unfortunately, by the time that I’d found it, the house had ceased trading (I forget its name. I think that it was Welsh, but I’ve been unable to track it down again since – was this merely wishful thinking?). Self-publishing is a way around the problem, of course. If you become your own publisher, a book can be any length you want it to be. It’s tempting, but I continue to resist. Meanwhile, the search continues for a sympathetic house to publish my completed novellas… We can but dream!

All text and images © PSR 2013

Thoughts on Ten Thousand Words…

17 Apr

In my experience, it takes a long time to write ten thousand words. I’ve noted that my manuscripts take an eternity to produce. As a writer, then, working on a manuscript, that figure appears significant. It signifies that something of weight, of greater length than a short story, has begun to emerge, that the results of one’s labours are starting to take shape. And two people have mentioned this particular figure in the last week. Firstly, my Internet acquaintance, Tamar Hela (see Tamar’s WordPress blog here) mentioned on Facebook that she’d completed ten thousand words of her second book. And secondly, an acquaintance who shall remain nameless and who also writes fiction (blimey, we’re all at it, aren’t we?) told me that during the recent break she’d started work on a new book. I asked her how it was going and she told me that she’d got ten thousand words. ‘Wow’, I said, ‘and how long did that take?’ I invite you now to guess how much time she expended on it. Suffice to say, it wasn’t long. All will be revealed in the next paragraph.

I’ve ranted on this subject before. In my post, November: Can a novel be written in a month?, I cast doubt upon the quality of anything that might be produced in such a time frame. It seems to me symptomatic of the mindset that art can be created with a minimum of endeavour. You don’t have to put time into learning your craft. Nor do you have to spend much time on producing it. Looking at Tamar’s Facebook posts, I see that she began her current project back in September. Ten thousand words in eight months – now that sounds like crafting to me. And my unnamed acquaintance? ‘Six hours,’ she replied, ‘on the beach with a laptop’. Six hours? Who knows, perhaps she’s a genius? That might explain the ‘light bulb’ moment, the 1% of genius that is inspiration. But what about the other 99% of Thomas Edison’s equation? Where’s the perspiration? Philip K Dick and Jack Kerouac were both supposedly able to write with great speed, but let’s be honest, their work would suggest that was exactly how it was produced…

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The writing desk in a previous, temporary location (curtains not of the author’s choice)

I began work on my second fictional work over twenty years ago. My God, I’ve been writing forever! There’s a sense in which my current project could be considered my seventh work of fiction, though I’ve ‘disowned’ my first three efforts. I began writing it in October and I now have 36,000 words (see excerpts here and here). This represents spectacular progress for me, though it’s worth noting that it’s nearly five years since the idea occurred to me, so it’s been slow baking for some time in the Rayburn of my subconscious. And as noted in previous posts, like my writing friend, Mari Biella, I’ve adopted a twin-pronged approach to writing this time. So I have 15,000 words of a further work-in-progress that I began in summer. That would make fictional work no. 8!

I’m sure there’s a simple phrase that sums up the moral here – something to do with the swords of a thousand men, perhaps. No, that’s not it. The words of a thousand pens, then? Nope, not that either. The pen is mightier than the sword? A picture tells a thousand words… Hmm, it eludes me. Once again, it’s suggestions on a postcard time.

All words and image © PSR 2013

Grand tours, real and imaginary

12 Apr

In a previous post, I mentioned the grand European tour that I undertook in the summer of 2007. I saw some remarkable sights along the way. As noted, on this particular journey, though, I didn’t keep a diary of where I’d been. So once again, I need my readers to help me out. And I’m still waiting for somebody to tell me the identity of that German town. Toward the end of the tour, I stayed in a hotel on the banks of a canal, next door to which was the extraordinary Poppenhuis. I think this was in Belgium, but there again, it may well have been the Netherlands! You have to click on the picture and get the larger view to appreciate just what’s going on here… Did you see that? What about the ones in the window? Is that creepy or what?

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The extraordinary House of Puppets

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The canal just before sunset

And then we have a castle, somewhere in Slovakia, but again, I can’t remember exactly where. I know Slovakia pretty well and have travelled there quite extensively, as far east as the Tatras. But I’ve no idea where this castle, which looks as though it’s come straight out of the pages of a Brothers Grimm book, is located.

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In recent years, I’ve been lucky enough to spend a good deal of time in northern France, but I’ve yet to go travelling again as I did back in 2007. It’s logistically impossible for me to undertake such a tour at the moment, but I’m already planning some kind of shorter version for the summer, taking in new countries. I love travel for its own sake but also find myself drawing on the experience in my writing. And so, for instance, the Poppenhuis has just made its way into my latest project, some six years after I first saw it.

In the meantime, as previously noted, I’ve been touring the world through books. And so far this year, for some reason, it seems to be Japan to which I’ve been drawn. I’m still grappling with the mystery of Haruki Murakami and why my friends rate his novels so highly. I’m 300 pages through my latest attempt to understand – Kafka on the Shore – with 200 still to go. Yasunari Kawabata’s The Master of Go, on the other hand, had a wonderful sense of elegy and otherness to it that drew me in from the start. There were no flashy narrative pyrotechnics involved, just an account of an epic match between two players who dedicate their lives to the game, which becomes utterly absorbing for the reader too. I recommend reading this book while listening to Hymn to the Immortal Wind by the wonderful Japanese post-rock band, Mono. And if anyone can suggest any further good reads from Japan to accompany me on my travels this summer, they’ll be much appreciated.

All text and images © PSR 2013