Earlier this spring, I received a review copy of Writing the Novella by Sharon Oard Warner, and I continue to pore over it. I have loved many novellas in my time, often without even realizing they are novellas. Warner’s method of instruction (and identifying works as novellas) has encouraged me, and, I am sure, all of her students and readers, to try writing in this intriguing form.  It is with great pleasure that this month I am posting a Q&A with the author followed by an excerpt from her book.

First of all, I am excited to learn that you will be teaching writing the novella online later this month for the Iowa Writers Summer Festival, and I am happy to encourage people to register!

I’d like to start with your quote from Ian McEwan that attempts to define the novella:

Let’s take, as an arbitrary measure, something that is between twenty and forty thousand words, long enough for a reader to inhabit a world or a consciousness and be kept there, short enough to be read in a sitting or two and for the whole structure to be held in mind at first encounter—the architecture of the novella is one of its immediate pleasures.

You write in your book that every writer of fiction should write a novella, which usually has a restricted number of characters, covers a short time span and is contained in place.

How did the novella become a focus for you as a teacher and a writer?

Years ago, I read and reviewed (for the Dallas Morning News) a novella collection by Richard Ford entitled, Women with Men.  Such a stellar book. I think I got the novella bug then, but I didn’t begin my research on the form until much later.

What stood out for you about this book?

It’s been decades since I read and reviewed the book, but I recall being impressed by the depth of Ford’s depictions.  Up until then, I’d overlooked his work, in part because he is marketed as a man’s writer, a contemporary Hemingway. And maybe you agree that Hemingway shortchanged his female characters.  I assumed Ford would do the same, but I was wrong.  Though the protagonists are men, it’s the women who light up the page.

I get it. Often it is the content in a genre that inspires us to work in that genre ourselves. What delayed you in following through with your idea to write a novella?

Like so many of us, I’ve always had more interests than time.  It wasn’t until novellas became the solution to a pedagogical problem that I turned my attention to the form.

I began teaching graduate fiction workshops in 1994 at the University of New Mexico (UNM).  As I am sure you know, these classes tend to be set up similarly.  In fiction workshops, students sign up on a calendar, submit a story or a chapter of a novel-in-progress, which is then shared with the group.

During the workshop, the author sits silently while the members of the class engage in a discussion of the work’s strengths and weaknesses.  The question on everyone’s lips: “does it work?” Stories and chapters are treated more or less the same way in these workshops, though they’re not the same at all.   A story is complete unto itself, but a chapter is not. A chapter relies on other chapters. Chapters are cumulative, so it’s not helpful to assess them without reference to what comes before or after.  In fact, it’s damaging to the whole. I’m sure many worthwhile novels have been stopped in their tracks by this practice.

Maybe the problem became apparent to me because I was writing my first novel at the time—and on a tenure clock no less–and the work habits I’d developed in graduate school workshops were a hindrance. I was trying to write and perfect my chapters one at a time. It’s such a painful and pernicious way to write.

Right! I have to tell myself and my students again and again that we must not pressure our writing—editing comes last. Inventing and then shaping first. I learned that from an early poetry instructor, David Wagoner. If we polish and edit as we go, our most creative writing self goes underground.

What are the lessons you’ve included in your book on writing the novella that come from ones your students grabbed onto right away?

I have taught the novella workshop to graduate students and to advanced undergraduates, and both groups welcome the opportunity to focus on scenes. Scenes are manageable, easy to discuss, and amenable to revision and development. Whether you’re writing short fiction, intermediate or long fiction, memoir, screenplays or stage plays, you’re dealing with scenes.

What are the lessons they aren’t as quick to embrace and what do they learn from that hesitancy?

One of the key lessons in scene writing is providing “orienting information,” which is what the writer provides to “set” the scene. Most scenes are preceded by a few sentences that provide the who, what, when, and where. Readers cannot settle in and enjoy the proceedings until they know who is present, where it’s taking place, the time of day, and so forth. Students are often loath to do this sort of set-up work. It feels like busywork to them.

I love this sentence in your book under the subtitle “Scene Prep Makes a Big Difference:”

If you don’t imagine a bottle of merlot tucked in your armpit at the beginning of the scene, you can’t drop and break it at the end.

Your instructional method helps the writer concentrate on so many important elements as they work toward a finished novel. You prescribe a way of keeping a writer’s journal to help the writer begin and keep going with their characters, plot, setting, narrative arc and more, offering many journal writing prompts in your chapters. What is your thinking about the journal’s utility?

So much of writing is muddling—on the page and as you go about your daily activities. Journaling is a great way to begin a writing project and one of the best ways to sustain and conclude one.

I enjoyed the quote you include from Maxwell Perkins:

One can write about nothing unless it is, in some sense, out of one’s life—that is out of oneself.

What might writers of memoir take from your book and ideas? How does writing in the style of a novella help a memoir writer?

Because memoirists are composing narratives made up of scenes and summary, nearly everything in Writing the Novella is relevant.  Memoirs have a lot in common with novellas, if you think about it.  They are the slighter counterpart to biographies/autobiographies just as novellas are the slighter counterpart to novels.  Like novellas, memoirs tend to focus more narrowly—either on fewer characters or on a shorter period of time.

My question and your answer make me think of “The Proust Questionnaire” in your book’s appendix. You say it is from a parlor game and that answering the questions is a way to learn about yourself and others.

I came across the questionnaire late in the process of writing the book.  It was a parlor game in Proust’s time, but I included it in the book as a means of developing characters.  Answering even a few of these questions will give you new insight into your protagonist.

Now let’s do the reverse. Any tips on turning truth into fiction?

Funnel your feelings into a fictional character. Give that character your struggles but grant them their own identities.

In the book, I discuss Hemingway’s last book, the novella Old Man and the Sea. It was a piece of fiction, certainly, but it grew out of Hemingway’s despair.  The theme of the novella is identity, and Hemingway was struggling with his.  Aging, in failing health, having recently called it quits on his fourth marriage, he felt all-that-was-good receding.

In particular, the reviews for his next-to-last book, Across the River and into the Trees, were humiliating.   Kirkus declared the book a “bitter disappointment” and here’s the first sentence of the 1950 review in Commentary:

The first thing to be said about this novel is that it is so egregiously bad as to render all comment on it positively embarrassing to anyone who esteems Hemingway as one of the more considerable prose-artists of our time and as the author of some of the finest short stories in the language.

Santiago became a sort of literary doppelganger for Hemingway, an old man who’s lost his wife and his luck. Whereas Santiago was once the most revered fisherman in his village, now, he has gone 84 days without catching a fish.

There’s more: Hemingway once caught a marlin so big that it had to be tied to the side of the boat.  If you’ve read the novella you know what happened. He made excellent use of life experience and his own feelings of despair. In all likelihood, The Old Man and the Sea landed Hemingway the biggest fish of them all—the Nobel Prize in Literature.

In your experience, what are the lessons writers need to learn as they begin and what are those they need to learn again and again as they continue?

Over and over, we must learn that writing is a process which starts with the idea or the story question and proceeds to the brainstorming and planning.  Then, there’s the first draft, which is usually a bit of a mess.  Most often, the longest and most important stretch is revision—both large and small scale. Revising is where you learn the most about the story and the characters—and yourself.  Then, there’s the editing and the proofreading.

Writing is like gardening: You start with the seed, but the seed is not the plant, and the plant is not the fruit.

Any advice on how to get past stuckness or not knowing where you are in your story?

Write about stuckness.  Writing about it will dispel it.  Keep a working journal.  I do.  I came to the practice on my own, but since then I’ve discovered a wonderful craft article on the subject. It’s called “The Use of a Journal in Writing a Novel,” and it’s by Sue Grafton. Here’s a quote from the beginning:

The journal is a record of my imagination at work, from the first spark of inspiration to the final manuscript.  Here I record my worries and concerns, my dead ends, my occasional triumphs, all the difficulties I face as the narrative unfolds. The journal contains solutions to all the problems that arise in the course of the writing.

Sharon, thank you so much for your time here and for writing an incredibly absorbing and easy-to-use personalized guide for those of us wanting to try our hands at writing a novella. Honestly, I can’t imagine a better teacher—your book is full of anecdotes from your writing experience and process, titles of novellas we’ll want to read, and ways to understand structure and keep on writing. It’s all here in 195 pages and an extraordinary appendix that includes a long list of novella titles, where to publish novellas, where to read new ones, and how to draw schematics for building our own. Thank you again for this marvelous treasure! And thank you for the following excerpted pages from the book. I know the points you make will be valuable to memoir writers as well as fiction writers who are exploring the truth of their experiences.  Those lucky enough to have time this month to study with you online through the Iowa Summer Writing Festival May 17th to June 17th should look at registering right away.


From Writing the Novella, by Sharon Oard Warner pages 6-10:

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 McCullers’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 proceedings.

And a Restricted Point of View

The narration of the novella is usually limited to one perspective, that of the protagonist, though there are exceptions. In the opening pages of On Chesil Beach, for example, author Ian McEwan, quoted above, provides the thoughts of both the bride and the groom, though the narrative finds its focus with the groom.

The single perspective need not be the narrator’s, however. Although short stories and novels rarely make use of a peripheral narrator and a frame structure, novellas often do. A peripheral narrator recounts someone else’s experience, usually to a general audience. Nick Carroway is the peripheral narrator of The Great Gatsby. The story isn’t his, but he is privy to it. The same thing is true of the engineer who reconstructs the tragic tale of Ethan Frome.

Before we move on, let me reassure you: Your novella need not conform to any or all of the characteristics discussed above, but when you begin weighing your story ideas, it will be helpful to consider these hallmarks. As Boccaccio, Shakespeare, and Chaucer knew—and Goethe, too—we don’t write in a vacuum. We write out of a tradition. Over our lifetimes, we strive to contribute to that tradition, which is the least—and the most—any of us can do.

The Architecture of the Novella

Let’s take, as an arbitrary measure, something that is between twenty and forty thousand words, long enough for a reader to inhabit a world or a consciousness and be kept there, short enough to be read in a sitting or two and for the whole structure to be held in mind at first encounter—the architecture of the novella is one of its immediate pleasures.

Ian McEwan

The Need for Tension

In archery, the pull of the bow propels the arrow through the air and into a target, whatever that may be—a bull’s eye, say, or the heart of a deer. Similarly, the narrative arc in any work of fiction has a target: the mind and heart of a reader. The tension created by a series of unfolding events, skillfully managed, will keep the reader turning pages, curious or even anxious to find out what will happen next. Reviewers refer to such books as page-turners. While stories of any size must engage and hold a reader, the longer the fictional narrative is, the more potent the connection must be. If it’s truly unputdownable, some of us will have a brief physical reaction, called frisson, most often described as a tingling of the skin or goosebumps.

Anytime fiction writers discuss the need to hold a reader’s attention, the word conflict is bound to surface. Most of us agree that fiction is about conflict, or war, or struggle. In her famous and ubiquitous text, Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, Janet Burroway puts it this way: “a story is a war.” But not everyone agrees. As you read more about craft, you’ll find writers argue about the necessity for conflict in fiction. None other than Ursula Le Guin has taken issue with what she has called “the gladiatorial view of fiction.”

Conflict is one kind of behavior. There are others, equally important in any human life, such as relating, finding, losing, bearing, discovering, parting, changing.

Me, I find it easier to create and analyze fictional narratives if I focus on the tension in the situation. While it’s true that conflict creates stress, so do all the human behaviors Le Guin lists above.

  • Relating: As he struggles to relate to a widow’s confession,
    a priest accesses his long-denied emotions. (The All of It by Jeannette Haien)
  • Finding: A simple gardener with a penchant for truisms ends up advising the President of the United States (Being There by Jerzy Kosinski)
  • Losing: A farmer loses his moral compass when he accepts a young slave girl in lieu of a debt. (A Mercy by Toni Morrison)
  • Bearing: A refined, mixed-race woman bears the alienation of never fitting into her surroundings. (Quicksand by Nella Larsen)
  • Discovering: Hired to care for two orphans, a young woman governess discovers the country estate is haunted. (Turn of the Screw by Henry James)
  • Parting: The parting of a husband from his devoted wife precipitates the wife’s nervous breakdown. (The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante)
  • Changing: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” (The opening sentence of A Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka)

Whatever our circumstances, we are pulled and stretched by our interactions with others and with our surroundings. Sometimes the tension is more than we can bear, and we withdraw or snap.


Thank you, Sharon, for this instruction that includes one of the many reading lists in your book. Your tone of assurance and experience makes me ready to commit to writing a novella-length manuscript by following the exercises and discussion in your book.