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Writing the Novella

Writing the Novella

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Writing the Novella

Lunghezza:
387 pagine
4 ore
Pubblicato:
Mar 1, 2021
ISBN:
9780826362568
Formato:
Libro

Descrizione

“A novella compresses the world with a short story’s focus, but it explores that smaller space with a novel’s generosity.”—Josh Weil, author of The New Valley: Novellas

While the novella has existed as a distinct literary form for over four hundred years, Writing the Novella is the first craft book dedicated to creating this intermediate-length fiction. Innovative, integrated journal prompts inspire and sustain the creative process, and classic novellas serve as examples throughout. Part 1 defines the novella form and steers early decision-making on situation, character, plot, and point of view. Part 2 provides detailed directions for writing the scenic plot points that support a strong but flexible narrative arc. Appendix materials include a list of recommended novellas, publishing opportunities, and blank templates for the story map, graphs, and charts used throughout the book. By turns instructive and inspirational, Writing the Novella will be a welcome resource for new and experienced writers alike.

Pubblicato:
Mar 1, 2021
ISBN:
9780826362568
Formato:
Libro

Informazioni sull'autore

Sharon Oard Warner is a professor emerita of English and creative writing at the University of New Mexico. She is the author of several books, including Sophie’s House of Cards: A Novel (UNM Press).

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Writing the Novella - Sharon Oard Warner

farm.

part one

The seven chapters in part 1 provide craft information specific to the novella and guidance in making the early choices appropriate to the form.

Seven journaling prompts per chapter guide you in discovering a subject, the main character, a story problem, the setting, and a compelling point of view.

1WHAT IS A NOVELLA, ANYWAY?

Novellas in their early form of romans were, as their name suggests, romances. From their start, these were travel stories, grail quest stories, filled with magic.

TONY WHEDON | Notes on the Novella

History of the Novella

I believe the novella is the perfect form of prose fiction. It is the beautiful daughter of a rambling, bloated, ill-shaven giant (but a giant who’s a genius on his best days).

IAN McEWAN

Realistic fictional narratives have been around for seven hundred years, give or take, and for all that time, writers around the world have contributed to the form. Not surprisingly, scholarship on the evolution of the novel and its beautiful daughter, the novella, is difficult to summarize. Let’s just say that the ancestry of the ill-shaven giant has been traced and retraced. Some claim to have seen his footprints in ancient Egypt. Others point to the Greeks, specifically to the fables of Aesop. Most intriguing to me is a sighting of the giant in the eleventh-century Heian court, situated in what will later become Japan. There, a woman of the court—yes, yes, a woman—penned a voluminous narrative entitled The Tale of Genji, the life story of a man both handsome and well-born, son of an emperor and a concubine. The author, Murasaki Shikibu, was a patient and painstaking writer (the Knopf edition, published in 2000, runs to 1,090 pages). If you are interested in learning more about The Tale of Genji and its historical importance, I refer you to Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel by Jane Smiley.

Most literary scholars, including Smiley, agree that Don Quixote is the first modern novel. Modern is a word that often appears in scholarly discussions of Don Quixote, but it’s defined variously. Perhaps most important for our purposes is the innovation of interiority. Miguel de Cervantes is credited with being the first storyteller to include his characters’ thoughts and feelings—their interior lives. It’s difficult to overstate the importance of this innovation. By giving readers access to the inner lives of Quixote and Sancho, Cervantes opened the doors and windows to voyeurs everywhere, and we are all voyeurs. We want—and need—to understand the motives and emotions of others. By granting readers interiority, Cervantes changed the face of fiction writing forever.

The Spaniard published his masterpiece in two volumes—one in 1605 and the second in 1615. Like Lady Murasaki’s story, the tale of Don Quixote is lengthy. The two volumes combined run to about 730 pages. By the time Don Quixote arrived on the scene, Gutenberg’s press was up and running; therefore, the novel was widely accessible and achieved considerable success both when it was published and in the four hundred years since. As I write this chapter, a movie entitled The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is previewing in theaters. Likely, Don Quixote will be depicted tilting at windmills, or attacking his imaginary enemies, an expression that alludes to the behavior of Cervantes’s hero and one that’s still in use today.

This quick history of the origins of the novel applies as well to the beautiful daughter, of course. However, research reveals that the novella wasn’t born in Egypt or Greece, Japan or Spain, but in one of the most beautiful and haunting cities in Italy—Florence. Here, it is helpful to shift our attention to the word itself. Novella is Italian for new little thing, a term first used to describe a literary offering different from those that preceded it. In this case, the new little thing was The Decameron, written by Giovanni Boccaccio.

Boccaccio’s masterwork was not little: the current Penguin edition weighs in at 909 pages. I should explain at the outset that The Decameron is a compilation of one hundred tales, and the term novella, new little thing, refers to the individual stories that make up the book. It’s fair to say that The Decameron was new in 1353. No one had ever written anything like it.

The backdrop for the book is the Black Plague of 1347 to 1349. (Outbreaks were frequent in the Middle Ages. We now know a bacteria spread by fleas caused the illness. Before the advent of antibiotics, all mammals—rats, dogs, horses, people—were equally susceptible and vulnerable to disease.) This particular outbreak killed two-thirds of the inhabitants of the city of Florence, and Boccaccio was witness to the devastation. Like writers after him—like Elie Wiesel, for instance, who wrote the Holocaust novella/memoir, Night—Boccaccio focuses not on the event itself but on the coping strategies of its survivors.

The premise of The Decameron is simple: as the Plague sweeps through the city, ten young people—seven women and three men—flee Florence for a compound in the mountains, where they wait out the contagion. As you might imagine, they need a diversion. They pass the time by telling stories. Each night, they have an agreed-upon theme—tragic love tales, happily-ever-after love tales, the power of human will, examples of virtue, to name only a few. Boccaccio based most of the one hundred tales on earlier source material, but he added twists and reversals. He also made the storytellers individual characters, which gives their accounts an added dimension.

Particularly significant is Boccaccio’s use of the framing device. The organizing structure of The Decameron—a backdrop of death that looms over the proceedings—lends depth and dimension to the slightest tale. The structure provides the gravitas. When we turn to the characteristics of the novella, you’ll see that many are structured around frames and have an oral quality wherein protagonists relay deeply affecting and life-changing stories. (One such novella, Ethan Frome, serves as a touchstone for this text.)

By the first part of the nineteenth century, the beautiful daughter has grown up and assumed her own identity. Novellas are being written and published throughout the world, but it’s in Germany that the form finds its footing. In an essay entitled Notes on the Novella, literary scholar Graham Good points out that Goethe was one of the early practitioners. His novella, The German Refugees, is 165 pages, and the description on Amazon will undoubtedly sound familiar:

A family of German nobles have been forced from their home on the left bank of the Rhine by the French Revolution. Their peace is further disrupted by the arguments between the young Karl, a supporter of the ideals of the revolution, and the other men. The Baroness saves the day by suggesting they amuse each other by telling stories.

Goethe’s admiration for The Decameron inspired him to write something similar.

According to some scholars, Geoffrey Chaucer, a contemporary of Boccaccio, was also moved to emulation when he wrote The Canterbury Tales. As we will see, the tradition of emulating admired writers by updating, adapting, and otherwise borrowing from their plots, characters, and situations is a time-honored, accepted practice, one that deepens the legacy of literature.

The Container Analogy

I find it helpful to think of fictional forms as containers. I imagine them as vases, but you can picture them as bowls or baskets or boxes. The point here is that containers come in multiple sizes because they’re made to hold varying amounts of things, and what we fill them with depends on the construction of the container itself. Generally, we don’t load up baskets with rocks. Baskets are meant to hold things that don’t weigh much, like dried flowers or Doritos.

Fictional forms hold narratives constructed of paragraphs that are composed of sentences built with words. Here, I will provide a necessary clarification: For our purposes, the terms story and narrative are used interchangeably. Both refer to a recounted sequence of events—long, short, or in-between. If I am referencing a specific form, the word story will be qualified as short or flash or short-short. Here and there, I remind you that story is an all-purpose term by adding the phrase of any shape or size.

If we use the container analogy to extend the discussion, we can liken a short-short story or flash fiction to an apothecary bottle—itsy-bitsy, large enough for a tablespoon of water and a sprig of baby’s breath. Most short-shorts can be read in the time it takes to eat a piece of toast. These flashes of insight come in under 1,000 words and, most often, under 500 words. What’s in them, you ask? Something small that hints at something more substantial. One of my favorites, Brady Udall’s The Wig, weighs in at just under 350 words. On a rainy workday morning, a father finds his son at the breakfast table, eating cereal and wearing a discarded wig. The sight evokes a memory of the man’s late wife, the boy’s lost mother, her hair only slightly longer and darker than the hair of my son’s wig.

Short stories vary in length from 1,000 to 10,000 words. (New Yorker short fiction ranges from 2,000–8,000.) The smallest of these are akin to bud vases, while the largest will accommodate a full bouquet. That said, it’s important to note that definitions are subject to revision. In the past twenty to thirty years, the average length of a short story has shrunk from twenty-five pages to fifteen or fewer. Classics I first read as short stories—Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener and Kafka’s Metamorphosis, for instance—have been recategorized. Both are currently considered novellas. Melville’s masterpiece (a personal favorite) weighs in at a scant 10,000 words while Kafka’s tale of the man-who-would-be-beetle comes in at 13,450.

In the 1970s, when influential scholars began publishing books on the novella, neither classic would have been included. Mary Doyle Springer, the author of Forms of the Modern Novella, specified the length of a novella as 15,000 to 50,000 words. John Gardner discussed novellas at some length in his 1983 creative-writing text, The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers. He put novellas at 30,000 to 50,000 words. (No doubt the brilliant, opinionated Gardner would have scoffed at categorizing the short story, Bartleby, the Scrivener as the novella, Bartleby, the Scrivener.) In recent years, the small press publisher Melville House has exerted considerable influence on the public perception of the novella. Their series, The Art of the Novella, includes some forty exemplars of the form ranging in length from 10,000 to 60,000 words.

Note, too, that numerous classics classified as novels—The Great Gatsby, for instance—might now be more accurately classified as novellas. At 49,445 words, The Great Gatsby (1925) just squeezes under the fence set by Springer and Gardner but has room to spare using the Melville House definition. A contemporary classic by Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street was marketed as a novel when it was published in 1984. At 20,010 words, the book is a shortish novella. (Like many novellas, The House on Mango Street features an isolated narrator at a crucial moment in her life, something we’ll discuss shortly.)

Characteristics of the Novella

You see, we’re not just talking about size—we’re also talking about kind. What goes in the container we call a novella? Not just anything, as it turns out. (Remember, we don’t fill baskets with rocks if we want our baskets to last.) As has been noted by those who admire the form, novellas are intermediate. They have the focus of short fiction, but they open onto a larger window, one that allows access to a life or lives in progress. That said, novellas are never panoramic, as a novel can be. The author Ian McEwan likens reading a novella to sitting in a theater watching a play or a movie. Here’s how he puts it in his New Yorker essay, Some Notes on the Novella:

There’s a strong resemblance between the screenplay (twenty-odd thousand words) and the novella, both operating within the same useful constraints of economy—space for a subplot (or two at a stretch), characters to be established with quick strokes but allowed enough room to live and breathe, and the central idea, even if it is just below the horizon, always exerting its gravitational pull. The analogy with film or theatre is a reminder that there is an element of performance in the novella. We are more strongly aware of the curtain and the stage, of the author as the illusionist.

If you’ve ever been to see a movie made from a sprawling novel, one you’ve read carefully and loved, then you understand that the screenplay container can’t hold the width and breadth of a big book. Attempting the adaptation of such a novel, a prudent screenwriter will dispense with a subplot or two or three. Still, more of the story may end up on the cutting-room floor. Occasionally, the finished product still sings but never as loudly or as long.

A STEADY FOCUS

The container that is a screenplay will hold only so much, and the narratives it serves best are those with a steady focus. A steady focus on what? you ask. The quote above offers a quick answer, but I like the concise definition Philip Gerard provides in Writing a Book that Makes a Difference: A novella commonly follows the fortunes of a single character through a limited time in a circumscribed locale, focusing on a central idea. Let’s start with the end of the definition and work our way back to the beginning.

A central idea, which might also be described as a theme or a focus, is one of the fundamental features of the typical novella. Novellas tend to be about something in particular. They aren’t told in passing but to make a point. Sometimes, the point is to sound the alarm—think of Animal Farm (communism), Things Fall Apart (colonialism), and Fahrenheit 451 (television), for instance. Often, the point is holding a mirror to the ills of society: Of Mice and Men (mistreatment of the vulnerable), The House on Mango Street (inequality of women and minorities), Passing (a societal preference for lighter skin color), and The Awakening (suppression of women). About his novella, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and its unlikely hero, a teenage boy with Asperger’s syndrome, Mark Haddon had this to say in the Guardian:

It’s about how little separates us from those we turn away from in the street. It’s about how badly we communicate with one another. It’s about accepting that every life is narrow and that our only escape from this is not to run away (to another country, another relationship, a slimmer, more confident self) but to learn to love the people we are and the world in which we find ourselves.

Sure, it’s important to entertain, but if you are writing a novella, you will likely also be entertaining an idea. And whatever idea it is, the subject matter must be of real consequence to you. Writers are at their best when they explore their fascinations and deeply held beliefs, whatever those may be.

IN A SPECIFIC LOCALE

Novels are expansive. One of my recent favorites, The Signature of all Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, takes off in Kew Gardens in southwest London and finds its ending on the island of Tahiti. In between, it touches down in various South American locales, on to Philadelphia, the Galapagos Islands, and, well, the rest is a blur.

Most novellas rely heavily on setting, and some are named for it: On Chesil Beach (in Dorset, southern England), A River Runs Through It (Missoula, Montana), Brokeback Mountain (Wyoming), The House on Mango Street (Chicago barrio), Snow Country (a hot springs resort in Japan). Novellas are not traveling books. By and large, they are situated and settled. They’ve got roots, thank you very much. Setting is so crucial in the construction of some novellas that place takes on the role of adversary or antagonist: a river (Heart of Darkness), the ocean (Old Man and the Sea), a snowy New England town (Ethan Frome).

OVER A SHORT PERIOD OF TIME

You will find the occasional exception. For instance, Flaubert’s novella, A Simple Life, skates delicately over the decades of servitude that make up the life of Félicité, a French housemaid. But most novellas are circumscribed, spanning days or weeks, a season, or, less often, a year. They get in quickly, have their say, then bid you a polite goodbye.

Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day, for instance, covers twenty-four hours in the life of a young man named Tommy Wilhelm. Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice spans a little over a month in the life of its central character, a middle-aged German writer. One of my favorite novellas is Carson Mc-Cullers’s The Member of the Wedding, which takes place over a few short days in August of 1944. The backdrop, then, is World War II, which looms over everything and everyone, even a lonely, twelve-year-old tomboy named Frankie Addams, who lives in small-town Georgia.

She decided to donate blood to the Red Cross; she wanted to donate a quart a week and her blood would be in the veins of Australians and Fighting French and Chinese, all over the whole world, and it would be as though she were close kin to all of these people. She could hear the army doctors saying that the blood of Frankie Addams was the reddest and the strongest blood that they had ever known.

This beautiful little book has been adapted for the stage and the screen, and it’s every bit as touching as novels twice its size and weight. Because McCullers crafted it carefully, three days in the life of Frankie Addams speaks volumes.

WITH A SMALL CAST OF CHARACTERS

If a novel is a house that will hold an extended family and friends, a novella is a one-bedroom apartment. A single person can live there comfortably and easily accommodate a frequent guest. That guest might become a significant other, and the two could still be comfortable, assuming they are flexible when it comes to sharing a single bathroom. Most often, the story’s main character is introduced on page one and remains at the forefront throughout.

The novella may be named for its protagonist as in The Great Gatsby, Ethan Frome, Sula, and McGlue. Or the title may be a descriptor for the main character, as with the 2016 novella Convenience Store Woman by Japanese author Sayaka Murata, The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers, and Steve Martin’s Shop Girl (yes, that Steve Martin: actor, comedian, banjo player, art collector, and gifted fiction writer).

One way or the other, and sooner rather than later, the main character of a novella will find herself in opposition to someone or something. Usually the foil will be another person, but not always. In Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, the antagonist is the sea, which refuses the elderly fisherman its bounty for eighty-four straight days. And the protagonist of Death in Venice becomes his own worst enemy when he remains in Venice during a cholera outbreak.

Because we are human beings and most of us live and die by love, the struggle that ensues is often either romantic or familial. Take, for instance, Ethan Frome, besotted with his wife’s cousin, Mattie. The antagonist is Ethan’s wife, Zeena, who decides to send Mattie packing. Jay Gatsby, newly wealthy, dreams of reuniting with his former lover Daisy, who is married now to established wealth in the person of Tom Buchanan.

Family members can become formidable foes, as anyone who’s read Kafka’s Metamorphosis can attest. As we will see, the novella form is ideal for showcasing all the ways we misinterpret the actions of loved ones. Which takes us back to Carson McCullers’s small masterpiece, The Member of the Wedding. It’s told from Frankie Addams’s perspective, a troubled, twelve-year-old girl who misunderstands her role in the

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