Of all the lengths that SF&F can take…

One of my favourite points of literary confusion between English and Spanish is that a “novel” in English is a “novela” in Spanish… but a “novella” is treated as quite a different literary category in the English-speaking world. For Nebula-Award-nomination purposes, a “novella” is a work between 17,500 and 40,000 words. (In Spanish, the term is “novela corta”.)

For perspective, YA novels are often in the 65,000-word range, while adult SF&F aims for anywhere between 80- and 110,000 (with fantasy novels even edging toward the 150,000 mark at times).

However, higher size-ranges are a fairly recent industry standardization. Back in the era of pulps, book-length SF&F stories, especially the “juveniles”, were on the slender side: just long enough to tell the grand tale that was needed, and move on. Moreover, magazines in those days were much more inclined toward serialization, which gave genre authors an excellent opportunity to develop immense worlds by cobbling together shorter, previously published works.

These are called “fix-up” novels, and some of the most iconic mid-20th-Century SF&F works have their origins in this mode: Foundation; I, Robot; The Martian Chronicles; Orphans of the Sky; A Canticle for Leibowitz. For decades, SF&F was the place to find transitions from experimental storytelling on the short side into full-scale novels and book series.

And the trend continues, although the industry has changed a touch: Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti trilogy was published as an omnibus in 2019, so the three novellas — first published separately by Tor.com — can now be enjoyed in one swift, novel-sized binge. Similarly, Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station (2016) draws from a recasting of many previously published stories into one cohesive universe.

On its own, the novella also thrives. Beyond solid publication records in magazines like Analog, Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, and Fantasy & Science Fiction, SF&F also boasts individual writers whose most impactful work has come from precisely that size of sci-fi tale. Ted Chiang, for instance, is a master of the form: Story of Your Life, The Lifecycle of Software Objects, Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom. And Martha Wells’ The Murderbot Diaries brought her wide acclaim in the novella form, long before she published her first novel in the universe. Tor.com’s novella series has also elevated plenty of other authors (both new to the scene and seasoned) to new audiences in recent years.

But the real domain of the novella, these days, is the e-book world: self-published, indie-published, and big-name-published alike. I’d even go so far as to suggest that the novella is proving to be a perfect-sized literary production for the digital era: just a bit longer than some of the longform articles we already read online, without necessarily being long enough to compel a body to want the work in print. I’ve read quite a few novellas this year (all indie-published), and each has left a satisfyingly immersive taste of its author’s world, while not actually taking that much time to get through — which then leaves me open to sampling another author’s world, and another’s, so as to stay better apprised of the industry on whole.

With so very many books now being published — more than any person can ever hope to get through in a lifetime! — the novella offers a tantalizing promise: that maybe it is possible to stay current with more than a few writers’ latest efforts.

Unsurprisingly, then, my own foray into proper, professional e-book publishing involves SF novellas. Each of the Menagerie Mysteries is around 30,000 words in length, and the sequence of four progresses in such a way that makes a possible “fix-up” novel highly likely (at least of the first three). The first, Third Planet Fall Down, explores Pax Murillo as he’s becoming self-aware — not an easy task for an AI rendered from a 2040s movie franchise to work a theme park run by humanity’s conquerors! The second, The Moon Is Not My Name, set in the theme-park’s planetary-archives department, explores the impact of infotainment media in a big way, as Murillo grapples with the story behind his films and tries to solve a murder. In the third, The Stars, at Last Count, Murillo is given a “friend” — a rendering of a real human being, who also happens to be a child — and struggles with that added responsibility while saving the whole exhibit from annihilation. And in the fourth, Wildly Runs the Dying Sun? An opportunity arises, decades on, to take down the conquering empire for good.

What’s the allure of a not-so-short story? Well, short stories are generally thought of as “idea” or “mood” pieces, although some easily prove far more ambitious in terms of plotting, world-building, and character arcs than many a full-length novel. It all depends on what sort of idea you’re looking to explore — and how far you later realize you want to run with it. We’ve had plenty of genre writers, for instance, who tripped from acclaimed short-story concepts into whole novel series expanding on their original work. (Ender’s Game, for instance, was originally a short story!)

The novel for which I’m currently seeking traditional publication, The Parasite’s Lament, reflects another way in which shorter tales can lay the experimental groundwork for more ambitious projects. This novel is set in the same Partnership universe that saw success through three published stories at Clarkesworld over the last two years: “To Catch All Sorts of Flying Things”, “Leave-Taking”, and “Nine Words for Loneliness in the Language of the Uma’u”. Will the full-length book be a tough sell, as a 133,000-word of space opera inspired by Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov? Absolutely. But this track record of two published novelettes and one published novella from the same universe (all of which received praise from Locus Magazine for inventive worldbuilding) should help a touch during pitching.

Simply put, then, it’s easy to think of our industry as a series of concrete story-shaped objects, immutable once set forth into the world… but the reality for quite a few writers is different. Just as science-fiction is a genre of exploration, so too is the writing process. Some ideas are brilliant thought-experiments captured best at briefest length, while others require more breathing room, more intricate “moving parts”, for the same thought-experiment to be fleshed out properly.

And some ideas… Well, once you start to flesh them out, some just grab hold of you so tightly that they never let you go — and then, if you’re really lucky in the wild, erratic world of SF&F publishing, so might begin a whole lifetime’s journey into a much more expansive body of published prose.

May the voyage be rewarding for you all.

Third Planet Falls Down releases on December 14, 2020, but is already available for pre-order on kindle (35% author take) and Gumroad (100% author take).

You can read the first three chapters here!

M L Clark reflects on novellas, “fix-up” novels, & the fluidity of SF&F story lengths


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