Thursday, February 2, 2017

Novellas and Candy and Context

I have two workshops coming up, and I'm reading like crazy for both of them. For the Anthology Workshop, the one at the end of this month that I go to every year, I'm currently reading all the other attendees' stories, 230+, and have to hit a 10-per-day schedule to get them done before I leave for Lincoln City. For the SF Workshop, in April, I have a pretty good advance reading list as well, and I've been working on it for about a month now.

The book I'm currently in the middle of for the SF Workshop is The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy Novellas 2016, ed. by Paula Guran. I'm enjoying the stories, but I noticed something weird about what it feels like to read a whole book of novellas.

By definition, a novella is a work of fiction between 20,000 and 50,000 words long. It's a mid-range length, between the novelette (7,500 to 20,000) and the novel (50,000 and up). You don't see novellas very often because they've usually been considered too short to be a (trad-pubbed) stand-alone book, but they're too long to fit comfortably into most fiction magazines.

There seem to be more novellas around, though, since indie publishing got into full swing. When you're publishing e-books, you can let a story be any length it wants. And novellas actually work fine as paper POD books, too; more and more indie-pubbing writers are publishing them in paper, and the New York publishers are occasionally putting out paper novellas as well.

I've enjoyed a lot of novellas -- Nnedi Okorafor's Binti is one of the few works I've nominated and voted for in the Hugo Awards that actually won, yay! (Great book -- give it a shot if you're at all into SF) -- but most novellas I run across are in magazines. Asimov's usually has a novella or two, for instance. And for whatever reason, I have a hard time getting into those. I might decide that I enjoyed the story quite a lot, once I'm done, but while I'm reading, it's hard to stick with it. I find myself getting easily distracted, wondering what's coming up next. There are more stories in the magazine, and maybe the next one is better?

I've always had this antsy feeling when reading novellas, but I never thought about it much. Then I read Binti as a stand-alone book, and... it was fine. It was like reading a novel, just shorter. Huh.

Then I sat down to read Guran's anthology (which also contains Binti, by the way), and the antsiness and distraction was/is back. I'm pushing through the book, and enjoying what I'm reading, but I'm having a hard time sinking down into the stories.

This time I thought about it, and compared how I felt reading Binti as a paper book, versus reading novellas in an anthology, or reading a novella in Asimov's. And I figured something out.

It's the context that makes all the difference.

Somewhere in my brain there's cemented the idea that a bunch of stories collected together is inherently that -- a set of stories, of shorter works. I expect them to be short, because the stories in a magazine or an anthology usually are, and while I'm reading one, I'm eager to move on to the next one. It's like eating a box of mixed candies -- the one I'm eating now is good, but I'm also looking forward to the next one, to something that'll also be yummy but will also be different. With a magazine or anthology, I'm enjoying a short story but also looking forward to the good-but-different experience of reading the next one.

Not that I actually think about that while I'm reading. I haven't been consciously aware of these expectations before; they've just always been there affecting how I read. With a short story, there isn't time to get antsy and eager to move on to the next story. (Unless the one I'm reading right now isn't doing it for me, but that's a different issue.) A novelette might hold me, or might be long enough that I start flipping forward to see how many pages before the next story starts.

Novellas, though.... Those are definitely long enough that I start feeling eager to move on before the end. Even if I'm enjoying the current story, I can't help it -- part of my brain starts straining ahead for the next one. It's noticeably harder for me to sink completely into a novella, if it's packaged with a bunch of other stories.

It took reading an anthology of novellas, for the first time ever, to get me to realize what's happening in my skull and figure out why.

A writer friend of mine who publishes a lot of short stories, and then collects them together and sells the collections, has noticed that there seem to be two very distinct audiences for individual short stories versus collections. Some people like buying them one at a time, and some people will wait for a collection, and there doesn't seem to be a lot of overlap. It looks like, at the novella length, anyway, I'm definitely a stand-alone preference reader. Because reading Binti as an individual book, I didn't feel impatient or distracted a all. The context does seem to make all the difference.

Is this just me? Anyone else have a hard time with these mid-length stories in magazines or anthologies?



Suzan Harden said...

Maybe it's a mix of expectations and where you are in your life.

In my case, I started reading shorter works more after my kid was born. I had an hour or two when he napped, or the couple of hours after he went to bed and before I did. I could read a couple of short stories or a novella and actually retain the story in my very tired brain. If I tried to read a novel, I literally couldn't remember what I'd read earlier that afternoon, much less what I read the night before.

Now that I'm out of baby fog, I'm reading longer works again, but short novels seem to be the main attraction. Indies are writing tightly plotted stories that aren't padded with a lot of fluff. One of my all time favorite stories is A Christmas Carol. It clocks in at a hair over 12K.

Angie said...

Suzan -- sure, but does the context make a difference to you? Is it any easier to read stand-alone novellas than it is to read novellas in a magazine or an anthology? That's what I'm wondering. I'm fine with stand-alone novellas. It's only in the context of being bound/bundled with other stories that I get twitchy. :P


Suzan Harden said...

I'm the weirdo who actually reads the articles in Playboy and Playgirl, so I'd have to say no.

Angie said...

Suzan -- no prob. I figured from the beginning that I'm probably the weird one here. :) I'm just curious about whether I'm unique, or whether there are others who get that jumpy, ready-to-move-to-the-next-story-'cause-it-could-be-cool feeling. [wry smile]