Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Guest Author Delilah S. Dawson 10 Steps to Writing a Novella

By Delilah S. Dawson, @DelilahSDawson

Bonus guest post this week in honor of a writing bud's book release. Yay! Paranormal romance author Delilah S. Dawson's new novel comes out today: Wicked As She Wants, the second in her Blud series. On top of writing novels, Delilah's been busy with novellas set in her world, and she's here today to share some tips on writing those not-quite-a-novel stories.

Delilah is a native of Roswell, Georgia and the author of the paranormal romance Blud series for Pocket, including WICKED AS THEY COME and an e-novella, THE MYSTERIOUS MADAM MORPHO. The second book in the series, WICKED AS SHE WANTS, and a second novella, THE PECULIAR PETS OF MISS PLEASANCE, will be out in spring 2013, and her first YA, a creepy paranormal called SERVANTS OF THE STORM will be available in spring 2014. RT Book Reviews has called her "a wonderfully fresh new voice!"

Take it away Delilah...

 When I sold my first book to Pocket in 2011, it sold in a three-book series. Shortly after that, they requested three e-novellas. I'd never written a novella before, but I jumped at the chance. Here's what I learned about telling an exciting story in 40,000 words or less using my first novella, The Mysterious Madam Morpho, as the example.

1. A novella is not a book, so keep your ideas smaller.

Novellas run between 20k to 40k, which means you have less than half a book to tell a complete story. It's best to begin with a rock-solid premise that won't require too many twists and turns to be exciting. Example: A mysterious woman with a dangerous past joins the traveling circus and falls in love with a reclusive clockwork inventor.

2. Your characters still need to be just as deep and well-rounded.

Just because a novella is shorter doesn't mean you can skimp on the characters. You should still have a firm idea of their backstories, their quirks, their flaws, their strengths, and what they look like. Example: Imogen Morpho is bookish, blunt, educated, and has trouble trusting men due to being mistreated by her father and then her professor. She wears frumpy clothes, keeps a brooch hidden in her jacket, and doesn't think her copper-colored eyes are very pretty.

3. Your setting is still important, you just can't go crazy describing it.

Readers read to feel immersed in a world, and you have to ground them in a specific time and place and provide adequate detail to help them see what you're seeing. But you can't go into purple prose, describing every tree or statue or crenellation in the architecture. Example: My novella takes place in a traveling caravan that was established in my first book, but I describe the wagons, the smell of the carnival at night, and the loneliness of the grassy moors outside.

4. You need fewer subplots.

In a full-sized book, your story is more than the characters going from point A to point B. You have to throw extra challenges at your protagonist, provide subplots with secondary characters, and generally muck things up. In a novella, you still need to keep the reader on their toes, but you mainly need to stick to one stretch of straight road. Example: Imogen joins the caravan as a butterfly tamer. Henry is assigned the task of building her equipment, and they begin to fall in love. They are both hiding secrets, and Imogen tells Henry that she has stolen the butterflies from a former employer who mistreated her. On opening night, Imogen's employer shows up with police to have her arrested.

5. But! You must speed up the pace to keep the reader turning pages.

In order to keep things brisk, it's best to tell a novella from one character's point of view, when possible, and not spend too much time mulling over thoughts. Dialog should be succinct and purposeful. Action is key, especially since your word count is limited. Example: Imogen and Henry are forced together when the police come to the caravan to search for her. Later, she storms off and is almost killed in a wild animal attack. These aren't subplots, but they do add action and thrills to the otherwise straight line of the story.

6. Keep the time frame short.

A novella is not the time to tell a story that stretches out over a year. Confine your storyline to a few days to keep the pace up and make sure you can wrap up the ending. Example: The Mysterious Madam Morpho takes place over just a few days. Since Imogen's former employer is looking for her and the caravan is grounded, she's basically a sitting duck.

7. If you're writing romance, get ready for sooner-than-usual sex.

I don't write the typical paranormal romance couples who fall prey to insta-love, so it's challenging for me to include the requisite sex scene in a novella that takes place over only a few days. I want my characters to have a connection first and a chance of a happily ever after. If your characters aren't the sort who would usually hop into the sack after two days, make sure to have them discuss it or say something along the lines of, “I've never fallen for someone so quickly/done that before.” Example: Imogen is a scientifically minded scholar and unwitting feminist who is adamant that she'll take whatever pleasure she wants.

8. Limit the number of characters.

A novella is not the time to give names and back stories to all twelve dancing princesses. It's best to stick to one or two strong characters and use a few supporting characters as necessary. Remember that your words are definitely numbered, and don't waste them describing princess #4's hair. Example: My main characters are Imogen and Henry, with the villain lurking in the background. A few characters from the caravan are mentioned, but briefly and for specific purposes.

9. End with a bang.

Start strong and fast, keep up the pace, keep the writing tight, and end with an unexpected twist or something snappy and powerful that will affect the reader. They should walk away feeling satisfied, not confused or annoyed by a cliff-hanger or deus ex machina. Example: I can't say how, but the villain dies in an entirely unexpected and unusual way that's unique to my world.

10. Novellas are a great time to experiment.

Books often feel like these big, serious tomes. Novellas have more room to be experimental and playful. Take a risk in your writing, whether with point of view, characters, or setting. Example: In my first book, I felt that the heroine could have been more assertive. So I wanted Imogen to be a woman who had been a victim and then decided to take charge of her life and body. Her bluntness and unashamedness were fun to play around with, and it was also exciting to work within the confines of the caravan and deal with two characters who weren't blood drinkers, humans from our world, or magical. I set a challenge and enjoyed figuring out how to write it.

I wrote three novellas in the last year and have gone from slightly intimidated to energized and excited at the thought of the next one. It's truly satisfying to finish a complete story in one-third of the time, and I love knowing that I can give my readers another small escape.

If you have any questions about writing novellas, find me on Twitter and see if I can answer in 140 characters or less. I'm getting better on whittling down my word count. :)

About Wicked As She Wants

When Blud princess Ahnastasia wakes up, drained and starving in a suitcase, she’s not sure which calls to her more: the sound of music or the scent of blood. The source of both sensations is a handsome and mysterious man named Casper Sterling. Once the most celebrated musician in London, Sangland, he’s fallen on hard times. Now, much to Ahna’s frustration, the debauched and reckless human is her only ticket back home to the snow-rimmed and magical land of Freesia.

Together with Casper’s prickly charge, a scrappy orphan named Keen, they seek passage to Ahna’s homeland, where a power-hungry sorceress named Ravenna holds the royal family in thrall. Traveling from the back alleys of London to the sparkling minarets of Muscovy, Ahna discovers that Freesia holds new perils and dangerous foes. Back in her country, she is forced to choose between the heart she never knew she had and the land that she was born to rule. But with Casper’s help, Ahna may find a way to have it all….


  1. Fewer subplots and characters...Thank you for this!

  2. Great post. I just finished my first novella. I constructed it like a violin concerto in three movements. I liked that you talked about experimenting and not being afraid to try new things. This novella is very different, but I love it. Especially the ending.

  3. Excellent tips. When accustomed to writing novel-length stories, taking on a novella can be an interesting transition for exactly the items you list.

  4. So interesting! I didn't/don't know much about novellas and found this eye-opening (and fun to read). Thanks.

  5. This is an excellent post on the novella, although some novellas are around the 15,000 mark, a longer short story, really.

  6. Thanks for this post. I love it, and I will probably start writing about my very first novella.