|From Tolstoy's War and Peace|
I love novels with what used to be called “scope”, depth and breadth of subject matter, time or place. They sweep you away and involve you in a way their less-ambitious sisters never can. But in order to make that happen, words are required, sometimes lots of them. A typical King novel can run over a thousand tightly-packed pages (300,000-400,000 words maybe?). Try selling that to an editor at a digital-first publishing house, where the offerings generally run between 40,000 and 60,000 words, and a full-size novel is considered to be 70,000 words, 40k less than the industry standard for romance single-title paperbacks.
To be fair, not all epublishers are the same. Samhain Publishing, one of the oldest and best-established of the digital-first publishing houses, touts a wide range of word counts in its submission guidelines (12,000-120,000+) and now tells readers straight-up what they’re getting when they buy a title—novella, novel or whatever. You pay more for the novels, but I suppose it takes longer to edit them, too. At least you know what you’re buying in a title from Samhain.
My point here is that the digital press has embraced science fiction romance (and vice versa), but overwhelmingly the digital press encourages works of shorter lengths. I’m not sure that serves SFR well, particularly since the stories we write require both intricate world-building and indepth character-building. It is extremely difficult to do that well at shorter lengths. I’m not even talking here about the special requirements of short stories, which have a completely different kind of structure than novellas or novels. I mean that many writers treat a novella not simply as a short novel, but as a sketchy one, which leaves the reader unsatisfied. If that happens, the reader may not only pass on that author the next time around, but if it happens too many times she may also begin to think SFR is not for her.
I read several digitally published SFR works in a row twice over the past year. Once was as research for my own road to publication and involved randomly chosen titles from the publishers’ websites about nine months ago. The other time was more recently as part of my “homework” for a project you’ll hear more about later this month. In both cases I found great books and less interesting ones. (Among the randomly-chosen titles I found some truly terrible ones!) But only one title so far has been at what I would consider to be genuine novel length. And only that title was fully developed in plot, character, world-building, romance arc, conflict arcs and the rest. Every other story had something missing.
The easiest ones to dismiss were the stories in which it appeared the authors just “ran out of words”. The story is moving along at a decent pace, you’re just beginning to settle in, and wham! That’s all, folks! The ending is hurried, often makes no sense and seems tacked on in response to external pressure. Having worked in newspapers, where the editor’s scissors are constantly in play, I can understand how this happens. It’s just a shame.
If you truly have a word limit to meet, write to the limit all along, not just in the final pages or paragraphs. Even if you are a Pantser Extraordinaire, there’s no excuse for you to be surprised by the ending to your own story. At least not in the final draft.
The more heartbreaking stories are the novellas that should have been novels. These are the ones in which ideas are simply sketched out instead of explored, dialogue is reduced to the barest minimum, whole scenes are shrunk down to a paragraph of tell, not show. The reader feels as if he is skimming a glorified synopsis, being allowed a glimpse of something that might have been great.
The problem here is an embarrassment of riches, none of which can be adequately explored in a novella. Only a novel, with a greater word count, can allow the character development, the description, the world-building, the romance arc, the secondary characters, the subplots required by the author’s imagination. I recently read one such effort in which a complex medical procedure performed on the hero by the heroine was reduced to a two-sentence paragraph. Her medical skills were central to her character and the plot. His injury was grievous; his recovery essential. We couldn’t take a little time with this? Nope. She fixed him. Operation complete. Aaagghh!
A novella is a short novel. That means you must eliminate unnecessary subplots, secondary characters and detail, not introduce them and treat them shabbily. You only have time for one thing in a novella, not two or three things. I could write STAR TREK “novels” at novella length because my readers already knew my characters and my universe. If you have to introduce new characters and a new world, KEEP IT SIMPLE and allow yourself to develop the few things you choose in detail. If you find intriguing characters keep popping up, the plot keeps twisting, the hero and heroine just won’t behave, and your world keeps expanding, you have a novel, not a novella. Do it justice.
Should we worry that our audience doesn’t have the attention span to read a longer work? Go back to my opening paragraph. Stephen King is the second or third most successful writer in the world. Christine Feehan and J.R. Ward hit the bestseller list in hardback with every new title. Make the words sing and your readers will only want more of them.