Archive for category Novellas
Novellas are a favorite of mine. Usually under two hundred pages, they don’t take forever to read. You don’t get bogged down. You do have time to get involved, though. It’s not in-and-out, like a short story. Novellas can be found in print and online periodicals, but increasingly can be bought as e-books. Because novellas are a favorite, I’m not as far behind as I am with Hugo-nominated novels.
All Systems Red, by Martha Wells–I have read this one, and I recommend it. It is one of several recent works about self-aware AI. This particular entity calls itself Murderbot. It does have a murderous past, because that was the purpose it was designed for. That is not what it wants to be. “Murderbot” is also the subtitle of the novella. The full title is All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries #1). So it’s a series!
“And Then There Were (N-One),” by Sarah Pinsker–This one, I haven’t read. Love the title, though. And, it’s a murder mystery! The title is tough to Google…it keeps wanting to route me to the Agatha Christie novel. I hate all forms of auto-correct.
Binti: Home, by Nnedi Okorafor–I read the first Binti at Worldcon in Kansas City a couple years ago, because it was being discussed at a panel. Binti is a heroic young woman of great intelligence, the sort of person who is held back and is underestimated. I look forward to reading this installment.
The Black Tides of Heaven, by JY Yang–I haven’t read this one. It is described as “silkpunk fantasy.” This novella was released simultaneously with another, The Red Threads of Fortune, as a twin introduction to the Tensorate Series. According to the author, you can read these first two in either order. A third installment comes out this July. Silkpunk fantasy sounds like a fine idea to me.
Down Among the Sticks and Bones, by Seanan McGuire–A second installment of yet another novella series. I’ve read both installments. I’m intrigued by this series, because it’s different in concept from anything I’ve read, while seeming utterly familiar. It concerns a home parents can send their children to, specifically children who refuse–or can’t–live in the so-called real world, but who occasionally escape to other, more fantastic worlds. I’m tempted to say the premise sounds like the biography of the average science fiction or fantasy fan–hence its familiarity.
River of Teeth, by Sarah Gailey–I haven’t read this one. It is billed as an alternate history about feral hippos overrunning Louisiana bayous around the turn of the twentieth century. That sounds like a very good idea for a story, and I do like alternate histories.
So…four of the six novella finalists are part of a series. Novella series seem to be a thing these days, a thing I like. The effect of a novella series is different from that of a serialized novel, or a novel series. The individual novellas in these series tend to be kind of free-standing. You never pick up right where you left off, even if the story does have an over-arching plot. Sometimes the individual installments are in the same universe, but feature different characters or different locales. It all provides a rich, deep sojourn in the worlds these authors create.
They come in various categories. Like, In an Unpleasant Place. Or, A Fascinating Person. Also, Based on a True Story, It Was All a Dream, Someone Says Something, and finally, Travel Tedium.
All of the above are triggers for stories. Unlike some writers, I don’t mind at all the question, “Where do you get your ideas?” I think it’s fun to think about. Getting an idea–an idea that will work–is one of the great highs of writing. (Then comes the hard part, which is actually making it work.)
Travel Tedium is one of most reliable. Air travel, long car trips, plane trips, taxi rides–all provide a space when there is nothing to do but woolgather. Our ubiquitous digital devices have cut into this space a bit, but the space is still there. I recall a car trip home from Albuquerque with my husband and infant daughter. On the way, I noted the turnoff for Phoenix, and had a road-not-taken moment. What if we went to Phoenix? What might happen? Those questions turned into a time travel story in which the protagonists try to right a wrong, with unintended consequences. (Love those unintended consequences.)
Sometimes, Someone Says Something. In this case, someone said he was guest-editing the December issue of a magazine, and was looking for Christmas stories. “I don’t do Christmas stories,” I said. An hour later, I was riding back to my hotel, and in spite of the chattiness of the taxi driver, I started making up a Christmas story.
Another favorite is Based on a True Story, one of my favorite trailer lines for movies. A crack in the house’s concrete slab became a sentient miasma. A broken watch found in a restaurant became the means for career rejuvenation. A house, under construction, possibly never to be finished, became a window to the future for a young girl.
It Was All a Dream is the most difficult story trigger to work with. Dreams are long on emotion and short on linear logic. The lack of linear logic isn’t necessarily a problem, but the lack of story logic can be. Dreams–however they might knock us for a loop emotionally–tend to fall apart once examined for story logic. My success rate for It Was All a Dream (success meaning being able to craft the story into something with a point to it) is probably less than fifty percent.
Fascinating People, are always attractive as centers for a story. By “center,” I mean focus. Sometimes, this is the protagonist or narrator, but often not. Often not, because then the plot can center on the protagonist’s interactions with this Fascinating Person, who are often difficult to deal with. My favorite fascinating person-who-became-a-character was David, a local homeless person. I’ve also used a terrible pair of parents, a crazy old woman, and my dad (although I transformed him into an heroic alien). I’ve used Jesus no fewer than three times.
Finally, there’s the conflict-on-a-plate one is gifted with when one is In An Unpleasant Place. Undergoing medical treatment, or moving, or faced with a difficult task, or encountering an unpleasant person. I may hate every moment of it, but damn it, I’m going to get a story out of it!
Recently, I submitted a novella. The writer’s guidelines strongly hinted a preference for a female protagonist, without saying so explicitly. They also said the writer should feel free to submit as he or she saw fit.
My submission had a male first-person protagonist. It was promptly rejected. I don’t know if my male POV was why, if my synopsis made it sound too much like a “he” story, precipitating a quick rejection. I’m not all that curious about that, though. The editor has every right to decide whatever he or she decides, for whatever reason.
The rejection did make me think about writing from a female vs. a male POV, however. I employ a female POV a good deal of the time, but I use male protagonists too, as well as a few that aren’t one or the other. What’s more, the gender (or not) of my protagonist is one thing I don’t dither over. I know, right from the get-go, whose story it is, and where they fall on the gender spectrum.
Here are my personal statistics: Of a total of forty-five short stories (forty published) and two unpublished novellas, twenty-seven (57.4%) are written from a female point of view. Eleven (23.4%) are from a male point of view. Three are neither male nor female (6.4%), and six stories (12.8%) are from multiple points of view. Leaving out the “neither” and “multi” categories–in other words, when I chose either male or female–71% of my protagonists are female, and 29% are male.
My choosing a female protagonist/narrator is the most natural, the expected. Multiple points of view could be seen as a way of covering my bases. “Neither” points of view are kind of special, and quite specific. One of those was a non-gendered narrator commenting on the sex-based gaffes of gendered individuals. The other two were things, not beings. One was an evil ceramic patio fountain, and the other (actually another multi) was serially a cake, a food magazine, and a supermarket magazine rack.
That leaves the men. Why do I choose a male protagonist? Much of the time it’s that I’m writing a character who is used to being in control of situations, but finds himself in a situation he can’t fix. He underestimates those around him–especially women, but men, too. He thinks he controls more than he does. He is a man of action, but this time, his actions don’t work. I have an abundance of female characters on hand to give him helpful advice, which he does not take. (To be fair, sometimes their advice isn’t all that great.)
My remaining male protagonists are, save one, passive. One is a statue. He is clearly male though, so I haven’t put him in my “neither” category. One is grieving. One is tired. One is clueless. The only one who isn’t either overly confident or overly passive is superhuman.
I choose my protagonist’s gender without much thought, but not without reason. Is the gender choice inevitable? Could my male or female characters be written as the other gender, or no gender at all? I don’t think so.
My goal is not to write “she” stories or “he” stories, but human stories. That said, gender is a big deal when it comes to how we see ourselves, and how our culture sees us. Usually, a story rests more easily in one gender, rather than the other, or none, or both.
I hope, at this stage in my writing life, I’m not submitting anything truly horrible. I think I can assume that much. But I fear mediocrity, because I’m fully aware I can’t recognize it in my own work.
When I edit myself, I catch outright errors. I recast awkward sentences. I read out loud (or mutter to my laptop while sitting on my couch) and make changes whenever I stumble in my reading. (If I get confused while reading my own work, what horrors might others experience?) I make sure the plot makes sense. I walk around inside the characters, so that their actions ring true. But only rarely can I tell if my work is any more than competent.
I finished a novella last autumn, thought it was all right, but wasn’t super in love with it. At some point though, you have to stop fiddling, so I sent it out. Six months later, it was rejected, but with a note that it had made it to the final round of consideration, and they hoped to see more from me.
Really? I reread the thing. It was better than I remembered. This is good!
I have also reread published stories. Some wear well, and I’m really pleased. Others make me cringe. I won’t say which ones!
On occasion, I have written something I knew was good. These rarities tend to be stories that are relatively easy to write, unlike my usual grinding process. Most of the time, writing is a grind, and I am working in the dark.
Late in 2007, I was listening to NPR, and I heard a jazzy-souding cello. The show’s host was talking about the artist, and his singular contribution to jazz, to the cello, and specifically to jazz cello.
I recall speaking out loud to the radio. “If it’s jazz cello, it’s Fred Katz.” And it was. He was, at the time, eighty-eight years old, and a bunch of his work was being reissued on CD. I could not have been more thrilled to hear his voice, and to hear he was still alive and productive.
Fred Katz was one of my two favorite professors at Cal State Fullerton many decades ago, where he taught musicology in the Anthropology Department. And now that we were well into the age of Google, his appearance on NPR prompted me not only to look him up (and order his CDs), but to look up my other favorite college professor as well. His name was Dennis Hengeveld, and he was an English professor.
At first there appeared to be no relevant results whatsoever. Strange. As I scrolled down, however, there were several entries for Mitzi Myers, an authority on the history of children’s literature. Included in the results was her obituary. She had died in 2001 as a result of injuries received during a house fire the year before, her injuries apparently the result of her trying to save her extensive and valuable children’s book collection. At the end of the obituary, I read that Dr. Myers’ husband, Dennis Hengeveld, had died in 1983.
My best guess is he would have been around forty years old then. There was no indication as to the cause of his death.
Until my first class with Mr. Hengeveld, my academic encounters in the subject of English literature had been spotty and unsatisfying. Junior High English was fine, but it was mostly about grammar. High school brought the introduction of Great Literature. Julius Caesar. Moby Dick. Boring. Difficult. I didn’t get it. I was able to slide through with B’s and C’s, but it was a grind. I became quite familiar with Cliff Notes. I continued for fun, though. These extracurricular titles included The Hobbit plus The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Jane Eyre, and Gone With the Wind. I read all the time, but declared myself “stupid” about English lit.
I remained stupid through my freshman year of college. In spring semester, I was unfortunate enough to have an instructor who spent a chunk of class time warning us students “…not to believe the things they are saying about me in the English department.” How a bunch of dumb freshmen were supposed to have special access to the inner political rumblings of the department was beyond any of us; meanwhile, I knocked my head against the wall, did my best, but could never do better than a B minus. He was the worst English teacher I’d ever had.
By sophomore year, I still had more core curriculum English to take. A roommate suggested Mr. Hengeveld.
It was a survey class of poetry, drama, and prose. Mr. Hengeveld himself was young, short, slender, and sported red hair and a goatee. He had a magnificent, rich voice, and was very friendly and funny. One of the first things he taught was that you don’t have to have a degree, or be particularly brilliant, or wield some heavy-duty literary theory in order to understand what was going on with a piece of fiction or poetry. You only have to read it. Yes, he spoke of structure, and themes, and recurring metaphors, and helped us notice those. Mostly, though, he said, you can do this. We could do it, and it was fun. He made us a promise: he would not grade down for any analysis we offered, as long as our evidence came from the text itself, whether or not he agreed with us. He wanted the work to speak to us, not to impose his view of the work upon us.
Only a few weeks into the semester, I stopped being stupid about English. I began pulling A’s.
Some people keep all their old text books forever; I have kept only those shown above, all from Mr. Hengeveld’s classes. I take them out from time to time and thumb through them, looking for some of my favorites. I find them, and smile. “Lay Your Sleeping Head, My Love,” by W. H. Auden, “Sunday Morning,” by Wallace Stevens, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and more. Through the study of these works I learned to analyze writing, thereby to enjoy literature more thoroughly, and thereby to demand more of the reading experience. It was the beginning of the end of junky best-sellers for me.
When I learned of Mr. Hengeveld’s early death, I was very sad, and I was left bereft of even the simplest information I’ve grown accustomed to being able to find out about anyone. I really knew very little about him personally. I could put it in a short paragraph: He was probably around 30 when I was taking classes from him. He was madly in love with his wife, whom he talked about frequently. She liked Elton John, and they went to his concerts. He was convinced, after the release of Plastic Ono Band, that John Lennon was the genius of the the Beatles, and based this opinion on the lyrics of two songs in particular, “God,” and “Working Class Hero.” He also loved Bob Dylan. His specialty was Elizabethan drama, but he adored Beat poetry as well. Most of all, he loved his subject matter, and found joy in everything he taught.
Had I not encountered Dennis Hengeveld, I might not have started writing. I might still be reading badly-written best-sellers. This is a teacher who changed the course of my life.
So, thank you Mr. Hengeveld. And God bless you.
My previous post did me so much good that I’ve decided to keep going. It is time to be honest about books, to get real about what I am going to actually, honestly want to read. My reward will be bookshelves that can breathe.
Aqueduct Press (www.aqueductpress.com) always snags my interest with their classy offerings. I have two from their Conversation Pieces, a short story collection by Carolyn Ives Gilman, Aliens of the Heart, and a Sue Lange novella, We, Robots. I also have a a third from them, Eleanor Arnason’s Tomb of the Fathers. Each one is clearly worthy of my time and effort. As to why I have not gobbled them up yet, I have to think it’s the form issue. Two of these slender volumes are novellas; one, a short story collection.
Novellas and story collections can be treated as stepchildren, simply not big enough to count as “what I’m reading now.”
Reading has been my principle, number one, way to relax for as long as I have known how to read. Science fiction, kids’ series (The Black Stallion, The Bobbsy Twins), historical fiction, fantasy, detective fiction, lit fix, satire…but mostly novels. Novels of between 200 and 550 pages are the most approachable size. (Note that, if you substitute calories for words, you could say that a novel is a nice, dinner-sized plateful of reading.) 1085 pages (Against the Day) is too much reading-food; 93 pages (We, Robots) is too little to make a meal. So, while I’ve always liked short stories and novellas, they are more like a side dish or appetizer, not my main course.
This is, of course, ridiculous. Literature is more that its word count. I can remember short stories that have had as much effect on me as any full-length work. And I’ve always maintained that the novella is the perfect length to adapt for stage or film, a length at which you don’t have to leave out plot lines or characters.
So, what about these three?
Tomb of the Fathers, is blurbed as a “…witty romp of planetary romance…” I have read Eleanor’s romps in the past, and they are wonderful. She may be the most carefully intelligent writer I know. She is able to make me believe nearly anything, because she has set it up so well, and because she has so clearly thought out all the implications. Of course I’ll keep this.
Aliens of the Heart is a short collection of “…stories of the heartland.” The heartland is something of a mystery to me, socially, politically, and spiritually, and Carolyn is another wonderful writer (Halfway Human) who I expect will illuminate it. Keep.
Sue Lange is a writer I don’t know. I must have purchased We, Robots because of the the subject matter: the story of robots becoming more intelligent than humans. I have a similar issue as a subplot in the novel I’m working on; I need to read this.
Uh oh, I’m sounding like those folks on Hoarders.
Another sweep of the shelves last night revealed two more titles from Aqueduct: one more each from Eleanor Arnason and Carolyn Ives Gilman. Ordinary People is an Arnason short story collection, and Candle in a Bottle is a Gilman novella. And yeah, I’m keeping them all. All five books go back on the shelf. Well, they are skinny.
Well, okay, this second post on unread books hasn’t helped me get rid of anything. What it has done, however, is bring these books to my attention once more. These slender trade paperbacks were overwhelmed by larger volumes around them. That shouldn’t happen to any book.
Maybe I’ll give them their own special corner of the top shelf, so they won’t get lost again.