Falling in love with the novella, and thoughts on story structure
Ever since I first put pen to paper, I’ve thought in novels. I never set out to write short stories. No, from the get-go, I wanted to produce mighty, expansive, world-sweeping novels.
And for the majority of the last ten years, what you might consider my professional publishing career, novels have made up the bulk of my work, at least in term of time investment. The process has changed considerably, because my life has changed considerably. For the most I think I’ve figured it out. I thought I’d cracked the nut of novel production, and though it takes more time than it used to, the end product is considerably stronger.
Then I was asked to write a novella, and of course I said yes, even though it’s not a length I’d worked in before. I’d had this idea brewing for a while, this concept of what I call “frontier fantasy” — in part influenced by some of Joe Abercrombie’s work, but also because I like the idea of discovery in fantasy and think it’s something not done enough. So often we, as the reader, discover the world, but the characters themselves do not.
Anyway, Wothwood began because I wanted to write a frontier fantasy without a villain. I also wanted characters to have conflicts that mirrored the adventure itself, more of a psychological journey than just a literal one.
I picked the main characters thoughtfully: a ruler, a would-be ruler, and an outsider. Glannon is the mormaer of her clan, The Bright Banner; Braig should have been the mormaer, but as you’ll read, things didn’t turn out so well; and Aoda is a half-Brezhian returning to her mother’s homeland as a scholar and an outsider. Aoda is also disfigured, being the child of syphilis. Glannon and Braig are both of heroic proportions, but their exteriors hold a whole lot of struggle — especially when they run into each other for the first time in a decade.
Three points of view in one novella might seem like a lot, but I found it actually worked really well. I wrote Wothwood faster than anything to date, clocking in around two months for the whole 50,000 word story (yes, I know it’s technically novel length, but since it’s fantasy, it’s practically a short story).
What helped from a storytelling and plotting sense is that this was one heroic fantasy adventure… that was, of course, open to many others down the road. I wanted to set the course in this new secondary world, my first in years (the majority of what I’ve written has been dark fantasy, steampunk, or magical realism), but to somewhat limit the scope. We hear hints of other cities and countries, but for the most part the tale focuses on the Wothwood in Brezhia (a big island akin to Roman era Gaul) and Yereva, the capitol city of the Therian Empire, which is modeled after an advanced Mesopotamian culture. We learn about differences in religion, experience cultural variances, and get hints about other complications, but one thing holds true: metal is scarce across all the lands, and the Wothwood might hold clues to a store beyond anyone’s dreams.
So, from a structural part, Wothwood itself is the main event. There’s no need, as in many secondary world fantasies, to world build beyond this particular adventure.
The problem: almost no metal for weapons, armor
The conflict: the newly conquered Brezhians may have access to metal stores of great value
The twist: the Therian army has sent a peaceful envoy with ulterior motives, unbeknownst to some of their own officers
The rub: Wothwood is rumored to be haunted, but only the locals believe that
The truth: The Therians can’t get through the Wothwood peacefully without the help of both the Brezhians and the local tyckners (nomadic travelers who are the guardians of technology, since technology is banned by the church). Also, Wothwood is actually haunted — just not the way they think.
Character pinches: Glannon left Braig to die and her guilt has shaped her, even if she believes it was the right choice; Braig didn’t die, but he’s never found the freedom he’s sought, either; Aoda must explain everything with science, even if it means risking the life she knows.
This is all manageable in 50,000 words because I don’t take any detours. The story begins by meeting the characters, setting up the conflict, and resolving it. The location is focused, the character motivations somewhat narrow, and the ending open enough to set other pieces in motion after the fact. Indeed, I’d love to write a novella trilogy in this world — each novella would have three separate POVs, distinct from the rest, to tell the larger story.
I’m busy at work with another, non-related novella, and I have to say I’m feeling the same benefit. I can comfortably manage about 1500 words a day when I’ve got a clear idea of what’s happening, and I’m already about 1/3 of the way through this particular work in progress after about a week and a half.
This is, of course, not to say that novels aren’t going to happen. I’m still hard at work on Cinderglow (the novel where privilege is the villain… haha, no small task). But in the mean time, I think I’ve hit my stride with novellas.
A short excerpt with some world building. I’m fond of the cheer flies.
Aoda didn’t want to love Captain Moll. She knew she was attracted to him for every wrong reason, and she could never let herself fully detest him. Just when she thought she was able to wash her mind of the more sordid thoughts of him and start anew, she would be reminded of why she couldn’t by the way he smiled or laughed. It wasn’t fair of her to feel that way, especially when he bullied Shenbar, who was always the first to recognize her talent and to defend her.
Still, she found herself pining from behind, riding beside Shenbar as they made ready for camp.
“It’s hard to get used to, isn’t it?” Aoda asked him when the company halted at dark.
They had spent about two hours waiting for the tyckners to return, a few of them having gone out in front to do some scouting. The Wothwood was not far, but they wanted to be sure nothing was out of the ordinary. Shenbar had allowed for this as a measure of trust, but certainly disagreed with it on matter of principal. If they were ahead of schedule, they should keep it that way.
Shenbar looked behind him and then down, spotting the professor and nodding in acknowledgement. “Which part? The air that is somehow cold and yet thick? The trees that smell of rot and disease? The forever hungry bugs?” To punctuate his irritation, he slapped at something on his neck.
“They’re called cheer flies,” Aoda said.
“What an ironic name.”
“They thrive in the cold weather, one of the only sort that manage such a feat out here. We’ve been slowly gaining altitude, the Wothwood itself is on a kind of plateau, and once we’re up a little higher, the bugs will be gone. But horse is their favorite dish, whenever they can get it. It’s why the Brezhians breed such wooly ones.”
Shenbar sighed, checking his tack one last time before turning to face Aoda a bit more squarely. “Your ability to remember every detail of this place never ceases to amaze me, Professor,” he said.
“I’ve been collecting my observations for the trail guide,” she said. “To make sure the next company through is better prepared than we are. We wouldn’t want them making the same mistakes. And while we’ve not been able to speak to the Brezhians as much as I’d like, considering they’re the ones who’ve lived here for time out of mind, I have gleaned quite a sum of knowledge from the tyckners on local herbs and lore.”
There was that pause again. Shenbar might have thought he was being clever about the whole business, but he was underestimating Aoda considerably. There were only so many pauses one made in responding to a subject before it became suspect. And the pauses got longer the deeper they got into the Wothwood and the more private conversations he had with Captain Moll.
Then Shenbar said, “The next company?”
“The one the Lord Re is sending,” Aoda continued, recalling her conversations with Captain Moll back in Yerevan. They were to clear the way, that was always the plan. “Once we’ve done the survey, they’ll arrive. The one with more scientists and engineers.”
He was going to say something more, to clarify just what it was that she hadn’t told him since they left. She knew it. She could see him preparing to deliver the truth. She’d already begun to feel relief that the lie between them was going to dissipate. Aoda hated when she knew she was being mislead. It was like having a persistent boil on your foot and being forced to walk a mile. Yet it was not enough to guess at it: she wanted to hear it from Shenbar, she wanted to know that he trusted her.
But just then the camp came alive.
What are your thoughts on the novella as readers or writers?
Featured image: By MichaelMaggs (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons