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Ill-defined and disreputable?

novella

‘Sir, what’s the German for notice?’ ‘Notiz.’ ‘No tits?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Really, sir? None at all?’ ‘What do you mean?’ ‘You just said, “No tits”, sir. Do mean, like, absolutely flat?’ ‘Any more of that, Bausse, and you’re in detention.’

That this and similar episodes are what spring to mind most readily when I think of German at school may well mean that my mind is as puerile now as it was back then. Nonetheless, by way of association, and with much effort, I recall other details too: the scarred wooden desks, the dingy yellow walls and the hapless features of Mr. Graham, whose life we made such a misery.

Also a book with a pale blue cover, The German Novelle, which presumably I read. Like pretty much everything else I studied at that time, I don’t remember a thing about it, except that the Germans were the first to take the novella form, originally established in Italy, and turn it into something with a specific set of characteristics, different from those of the novel. Notably – and here I turn not to my memory but Wikipedia – it is ‘restricted to a single, suspenseful event, situation, or conflict leading to an unexpected turning point (wendepunkt), provoking a logical but surprising end.’

Importantly, length is not a criterion. A Novelle could run to several hundred pages. But these days, when we use the word novella in English, length seems to be the determining feature. And I must admit that when I set out to write one, what I had in mind was something in the order of 30,000 words. But to reason only in terms of length would be a mistake, and run the risk of validating Carl E. Reed’s apothegm of wince number 69: ‘A novella is a book that ran out of steam.’

Stephen King has called the novella ‘an ill-defined and disreputable literary banana republic’. This hasn’t prevented him from writing several himself, though he points out the difficulty of selling them in the commercial world, being too long for a magazine and too short for a book. While this may indeed be a drawback, it makes the novella an ideal candidate for self-publishing, where a common strategy is to make it free in order to draw readers in to the rest of a series. This was indeed my reason for writing Closed Circle. I’ve read of that strategy many times – now I aim to test it out myself.

Not for a while, though. Because although I’ve finished a version that might pass muster, I’m not satisfied yet. It needs a good dose of improvement, for which I’ll need to let it simmer subconsciously – or whatever books do when we’re not actually working on them – for a couple of months or so. Basically, I didn’t realise when I embarked on it how hard it would be. All writing, of course, turns out more difficult than the initial vision promises, but I grappled with this one a lot. Not that it ran out of steam, on the contrary – it’s got a bit too much. I need to tighten the valves a bit, fix a gasket or two. It might gain a few thousand words in the process, but that won’t matter. It’ll still be a novella, because strangely enough, without thinking about it, I ended up with something close to the definition in The German Novelle. Maybe I did remember something more than the German for notice after all.

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24 thoughts on “Ill-defined and disreputable?

  1. GD Deckard says:

    Interesting, Curtis. You seem to suggest that word length no longer has relevance in the digital publishing age. Self published …uh, publications can be whatever length the author wishes. And price should reflect the author’s time & effort. So, for 99 cents why not be selling a short work that takes the reader into the world of longer and more expensive books in a series? That’s an insightful idea you have!

    Liked by 4 people

    • Well, I guess there’s a minimum you wouldn’t want to go under, but the constraints are certainly fewer than in traditional publishing. I don’t have figures, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s been a rise in the number of shorter novels since self-publishing became possible.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Good luck with this project, Curtis.

    I think we know what you mean re: all fiction writing turns out to be more difficult than originally envisaged. I’d like to dig a little deeper into the reasons why. In my experience, it’s because (a) putting the right words, in the right order, down on any communicative medium always proves more challenging/exhausting/tedious/maddening than anticipated (and only ever occasionally ecstatic–alas!), and (b) in the writing of any tale the near endless possibilities presented by sudden inspiration and/or discovered thematic content/character action/motivation/dialogue can so paralyse the writing (or should that more properly be “the writer”?) that hours become days, become weeks, become months as the author wrestles with how best to present a story in its optimal length/maximum impact entirety.

    Has that been your experience as well, I wonder?

    Anyone else care to chime in?

    Liked by 3 people

    • GD Deckard says:

      Being a morning person, I write early, when like morning sex it’s fun and -not easy, but more like slow anticipation resulting in satisfaction. I enjoy writing come to think of it, no pun intended.

      Liked by 3 people

    • (a) is certainly the case for me, (b) not so much, I think. It might take me off into pages and pages that then get deleted but any sudden inspiration or unanticipated idea is welcome! Whereas (a) is inevitable – the vision is still there but the words themselves betray it, turn it into something leaden and dull. That’s when I have to wrestle with them till they finally consent to gain a little brightness.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. mimispeike says:

    Interesting. This definition: ‘restricted to a single, suspenseful event, situation, or conflict leading to an unexpected turning point (wendepunkt), provoking a logical but surprising end.’ This is my idea of a successful short story.

    The novella does seem to be ideal for a decent intro to a full novel, short enough for a nice sample, long enough to show a pretty good development of the story, also a workshop, trying things out. All those ideas you’ve been kicking around, not sure what you’d actually do with them.

    One of my favorite ideas is a parody of a classic crime novel. Carl’s beaten me to that one.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Yes, I’m not sure yet whether my dissatisfaction comes from the shortness that I imposed on the text, making it unable to accommodate all I wanted, or whether it just needs another revision or two like any other text. Probably the latter. I hope.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I took a lot of German in high school, and rememeber precious little of it. I do remember inching our way through Tonio Kroger, a novella by Thomas Mann that our rather eccentric German teacher seemed to think we’d get something out of. I recall, dutifully, trying to appreciated it in the original German, only to find that the kids who were really understanding it were the ones who’d found an English translation. The obvious lesson wasn’t lost on me. I’m hever going to be more than passable in German or Latin, despite studying both. Even a moderately talented translator will produce an better translation than I could, and at far less effort. But I still feel bad about this. I long wanted to learn how to read ancient Greek, so I could read Homer and Aeschylus n the original, but why go through all that effort when there are translators like Richmond Lattimore around?

    The answer is, I suppose, because then it would be mine. My appreciation would be entirely my own, private and personal. But heck, Greek is really hard. So I never really tried. It’s not a big regret, but I still manage to feel bad about it from time to time.

    On the subject of selling short works on Amazon, I hear it can work pretty well. So well, in fact, that a lot of people do only that—sell scads of 80 to 100 page novelletes and novelopes, either standalones or series, cranking em out for $.99 apiece. I haven’t tried it.

    Liked by 3 people

    • GD Deckard says:

      I long wanted to learn how to read ancient Greek, so I could read Homer and Aeschylus n the original, but why go through all that effort when there are translators like Richmond Lattimore around? The answer is, I suppose, because then it would be mine.

      What a great insight, Atthys. Thank you.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Re: selling short works on Amazon for .99 apiece: It didn’t work for me. But then again, my reading audience of four people expended their supportive efforts in critiquing the manuscripts I published there, so I can’t really complain . . .

      Re: reading works in their original language. Dr. Isaac Asimov famously remarked (close paraphrase): “I was never exposed to foreign languages when young, so lost out on that early window to master half-a-dozen languages as easily as English. On a related matter: As a one-time member of MENSA who has written a book in every single category of the Dewey Decimal Classification System, I am flattered when a writer leaves entire sentences and paragraphs of foreign language text untranslated in their work. Truly. Flattered. Only–please don’t flatter me that much.”

      Liked by 3 people

    • Other than English, French is the only language I can read in. And doing that reminds me of the difference it makes. Now I’m reading Murakami and I can’t help wondering what it’s like to read it in Japanese. But since I’ll never have that experience, I make do with I’ve got.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. mimispeike says:

    Curtis, I know that English has a much wider vocabulary, because of all the words pulled from other languages. We have two dozen ways to say just about anything. Do you find a problem in French (German, whatever) with repetition of words?

    Liked by 2 people

    • That’s an excellent question. It’s true that English has by far the largest vocabulary, and certain semantic fields (sounds, ways of walking or moving) are exceptionally rich. I only find it a problem when I want to say something in French and it comes to me in English and there’s no word for it. Occasionally it happens the other way round as well. I rarely write in French except admin stuff, and I’ve never noticed a problem when I’m reading. The number of words at a writer’s disposal, whether English or French, is probably similar, and not vast – we can express a huge amount with a relatively limited vocabulary. Though some authors have an impressive lexical range – Shakespeare, Nabokov, Carl E. Reed to name but a few…

      Liked by 1 person

      • GD Deckard says:

        As some wag said about English, the sentence
        “All the faith he had had had had no affect on the outcome of his life.”
        makes perfect sense.

        Like

  6. mimispeike says:

    Of whatever length, we still have the problem of getting ourselves noticed. Jinx Schwartz on Facebook says, “The more places your name is mentioned, the better chance you have of finding new readers.” She says (she’s a bit unclear, this is my understanding so far) that you can have an author page on BookBub without a book accepted there. She also says she has gotten in there several times, and the key has been persistence.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Getting noticed is not the problem. Being so good that they can’t ignore you, is.

      Challenge: Let’s each of us write something of such outstanding literary merit that editors, agents, critics and discriminating readers alike beat a path to our door begging us to produce more work for them.

      :::sigh:::

      And if I knew how to do that, folks . . . first person I would help is myself. . . .

      Liked by 4 people

    • atthysgage says:

      Well… I’m not sure if persistence is the only key. I’ve tried to get on the Bookbub mailer several times, but my best known book, Spark, has 24 reviews. From looking at Amazon, Jinx Schwartz’s books have 400, 600, 900 reviews. It’s the BookBub Catch-22: if you’re already successful, they’ll list you. If you aren’t, well, not so likely. She’s pretty successful, and good on her. Well done. I’d be interested in hearing how she got to the stage where her books started garnering 600-plus reviews apiece. At my current pace, I might get there in about 50 years.

      And you can have a page on BookBub, but it doesn’t mean very much. That just means people who happen to be browsing BookBub’s site might stumble upon your work. The real value is getting listed on their email circulars, and that honor they extend to only about 10% of submitters.

      Of course, the more places your name is mentioned, the better. But sometimes that notice is just so much noise, like being one of a ten thousand authors listed on a website or mentioned on twitter.

      I know, I’m being my usual voice of gloom and hopelessness. Feel free to tune me out. I very much hope one of you proves me wrong and finds the magic door to success, if only so I can slip through after you on your coattails!

      Liked by 4 people

  7. GD Deckard says:

    Getting a number of reviews is actually easy. I’m tailoring my Facebook “friends” to be mostly writers and it’s a bit of an eye-opener. Reviews are swapped and sold. Some businesses promote your book, including whatever number of reviews you care to pay for. They have contacts around the world who make a third-world living from writing reviews. Given the retail price of books these days, however, I cannot imagine the level of talent running these businesses exceeding that of a cheap carnival barker.

    Obviously, authors like Nickie Seidler work their butts off getting people to buy, read & legitimately review their books (I see Nickie pitching on Facebook two or three times daily) and I’ve heard that Amazon bans books for spurious reviews when they catch them.

    Liked by 2 people

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