Talking Novellas with Rob Hart and Sarah M. Chen

By E.A. Aymar

Trends are a bit of a mixed bag in publishing. They tend to be fairly profitable if writers and publishers capitalize on them correctly, but over-eagerness from the industry occasionally gluts the marketplace and ushers them out (where did all those vampires go?). Novellas have recently earned a lot of attention , largely because of James Patterson’s BookShots program, which launched this year.

But novellas are more than just a trend. They’ve been around, in different forms, for years. And quality small presses like All Due Respect have produced terrific titles by some of today’s most exciting crime fiction writers, like Michael Pool, Marietta Miles, Eric Beetner, and Sarah M. Chen.

I had the chance to talk about novellas with Sarah Chen (CLEANING UP FINN) and Rob Hart (SOUTH VILLAGE), who is currently co-writing a novella with James Patterson as part of BookShots.

There’s been a lot of attention paid to novellas recently. Do you think this will be a trend that fades from discussion, or something substantial that becomes a regular staple in publishing?

Sarah: I participated in a novella panel a few months ago and we discussed this very thing, whether novellas are a trend that’s here to stay. The short answer was nobody knew, but that novellas aren’t really a new format. Classics like THE GREAT GATSBY and THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE are essentially novellas. Same with dime novels or pulp novels—it’s just that nobody called them that. 

Besides crime fiction, the other genre that I know of where the novella is popular is YA. YA fans are eager to get their hands on, say, the next title in Kiera Cass’s The Selection series or the Red Queen series by Victoria Aveyard, but in the meantime, they’re happy to read a novella. These are usually a prequel or a more in-depth take on a secondary character.

I like that there are more crime fiction publishers lately looking for good novellas, like ALL DUE RESPECT BOOKS, SHOTGUN HONEY/ONE EYE PRESS, and DOWN & OUT BOOKS. It shows there is a market for them. Of course, James Patterson has started BookShots, his novella imprint. I don’t know how this will affect the popularity of the novella, but I don’t think it can hurt it. I’m sure Rob has insight into this. Will BookShots attract non-readers? I honestly don’t think non-readers are more likely to buy a book just because it’s shorter, but I would be very happy to be proven wrong.

Other unique publishers seem to be banking on the idea that we are a fickle short-attention span society who can be lured away from games and videos, such as the short story apps Great Jones Street and Hooked. I’m all for it and interested in seeing how these concepts play out.

Rob: I think we’re going to see more of them. It’s a great format–more substantial than a short story, not as intensive as a novel. Easy to read in a sitting or two. I think the biggest hurdle, for a very long time, was printing costs; it wasn’t worth the return. Now with print-on-demand services and eBooks, they’re easier to deliver. And BookShots seems to have taken off like a rocket. If anyone is going to make the format more mainstream, it’s James Patterson. 

What makes a good novella, as opposed to a good novel?

Rob: It’s got to be relentless. Given the shorter format you don’t have time to dawdle. You’ve got to dive in and keep the energy up until the end. And they’re a great challenge for a writer–they force you to step up your game. It’s like that quote from Blaise Pascal: “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.” When you have a lot of information to get across in a shorter space, you have to work harder for it. 

Sarah: I think what makes a good novel can be applied to a novella. You may have fewer subplots (a novella may have none at all) but you still want engaging characters, a compelling plot, and a satisfying ending. You just have less wiggle room to do this, about 25,000 – 35,000 words.

Sarah, do you think you’ll continue writing novellas, or will you play within the different main forms (short stories, novellas, novels)?

I like to bounce around in many different forms. Short stories and flash fiction are my go-tos and what I love to write. I feel more comfortable in the short form. I wrote a novella because I had a contract with a publisher (who is no longer around) to write one. I immediately thought of my short story CLEANING UP FINN. I knew I wanted to spend more time with these characters so I expanded it. I don’t know if I would have written it otherwise.

A novel is much more challenging for me because I’m not used to allowing myself to expand or go off on tangents. But I do plan to have a completed novel by the end of 2016 (I’m saying that so I can put pressure on myself). I also have a children’s chapter book coming out in 2017 and that’s a new format I wasn’t used to, but it was a lot of fun figuring it out. So short answer that I made really long is, yes, I like to play within different forms.

Rob, how did the opportunity to co-write a novella with James Patterson (SCOTT FREE) come about? Did your agent call you with the news? Was it an excited and resounding yes on your part? Did you have any hesitation? This all counts as one question.

A buddy of mine who works at Hachette mentioned the program to me and asked if I was interested. I said yes–of course I said yes–and he put my name into the pot, but honestly, I thought he was being kind. I figured there’s no way they’d want me for something like that. I was pleasantly surprised when they got in contact, and even more pleasantly surprised when they brought me on board. There was no hesitation on my part. Right from the start I knew this would be a fun challenge and a great opportunity. 

Has co-writing SCOTT FREE turned you on to this form? If so, would you consider an Ash McKenna novella in the future?

I actually wrote and self-published a novella, years ago, called THE LAST SAFE PLACE. It’s a zombie story set on Governors Island. I did it as an experiment, to get a sense of the self-publishing mechanisms. I liked the process a lot, and I’ve got a few novella-length ideas kicking around. Maybe not for Ash. His story is finite and I’ve already got it mapped out. I’m not saying “never” but it’s not on the radar. That said, I think the shorter format is a great chance to experiment with narrative, and I have some ideas related to that… 

Sarah, CLEANING UP FINN had so many terrific characters. Would you incorporate any of them into other forms, or do you feel like they should stay in the novella realm?

People have asked me if there will be a FINN sequel or would I expand it into a novel. I always say no, but you never know. There are a couple characters that I had fun writing besides Finn (Tomas, the bartender, and the P.I., Jackson come to mind) so who knows, maybe I’ll incorporate them into a novella or even a short story / flash fiction piece.

Were there any unforeseen challenges that came up when you writing CLEANING UP FINN?

FINN started as a short story so the main challenge was expanding it into a novella. I mistakenly thought it wouldn’t be that difficult. But it’s so much more than just making it longer and adding new characters. In my original short story, Finn and Porter’s friendship took a backseat to the search for the missing young woman, Ronnie. But when writing the novella, I realized it was their friendship that propelled the story forward and became the main thread, which was a surprise for me.

Finally, for Rob, can you share one thing you’ve learned (or more than one, if you want, it’s cool) from co-writing with Patterson?

I learned pretty quick that I’ve still got a lot to learn. When I sent in my first set of pages, the note I got back was: This isn’t working. And I was pretty bummed, because I thought I did a pretty good job, but when Patterson explained why it wasn’t working, I immediately got it. I thought I was moving the story forward but I wasn’t. I came out of SCOTT FREE with a shiny new toolbox, and a deeper appreciation for the way plot and character interact.

Thanks, Rob and Sarah! Looking forward to seeing what each of you write next.

 

Sarah M. Chen has worked a variety of odd jobs ranging from script reader to bartender and is now an indie bookseller and private investigator assistant. Sarah’s crime fiction has been accepted for publication by All Due Respect, Akashic, Shotgun Honey, Crime Factory, Out of the Gutter, Plan B, Dead Guns Press and Betty Fedora. Visit Sarah at www.sarahmchen.com.

To learn more about CLEANING UP FINN, click on the cover below:
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Rob Hart is the author of NEW YORKED, CITY OF ROSE, and the upcoming SOUTH VILLAGE. His short stories have appeared in publications like Shotgun Honey, Thuglit, Needle, All Due Respect, Helix Literary Magazine, and Joyland. He’s been nominated for the Derringer Award and the Anthony Award, and received honorable mention in The Best American Mystery Stories 2015. Non-fiction articles have been featured at LitReactor, Salon, The Daily Beast, The Literary Hub, Electric Literature, Birth.Movies.Death., and Nailed. He lives in New York City. Find him online at @robwhart and www.robwhart.com.

To learn more about SOUTH VILLAGE, click on the cover below:

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E.A. Aymar’s latest novel is YOU’RE AS GOOD AS DEAD. He also writes a monthly column for the Washington Independent Review of Books, and is the Managing Editor of The Thrill Begins. Aymar is also involved in a collaboration with DJ Alkimist, a NY and DC-based DJ, where his stories are set to her music. For more information about that project, visit www.eaalkimist.com.

To learn more about YOU’RE AS GOOD AS DEAD, click on the cover below:

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