I recently wrote and published my first cozy mystery novella – Robbery at the Roller Derby. It’s a prequel to my Mollie McGhie Sailing Mystery series and is set about twelve years before the first book in the series – Murder at the Marina. After I had published three books in my series, I decided it was time to get more serious about marketing and promoting. One of the things I decided to focus on as part of this effort creating a reader magnet and that’s where my roller derby prequel novella came into play.
Now that Robbery at the Roller Derby has been out in the world for about a month, I thought I would share some of my thoughts about writing novellas. This isn’t meant to be advice or a prescriptive formula about how you should do things. Instead, it’s just some random stuff that popped into my head while sipping on my morning coffee.
1 – How long is a novella anyway?
I had always defined novellas quite simply – something shorter than a novel and longer than a short story. But exactly how long are novels, novellas, and short stories? This probably won’t come as a surprise to you, but not everyone agrees on a single definition. Some people say that full-length novels need to be at least 60,000 words, others put the cut-off at 40,000 words, and I’ve also seen some folks say that the magic number is 80,000.
The same confusion flows down when determining word count criteria for novellas and short stories. And to add more fun to the equation, there’s even something called a novelette (the term always makes me thing of omelettes for some reason) which is longer than a short story and shorter than a novella.
I think it comes down to genre conventions and reader expectations. In terms of novels, fantasy readers expect a big fat tome that can double as a door stop. Cozy mystery readers are happy with much shorter novels.
In the end, I went with the following definitions:
- Novel – 40,000 words or more
- Novella – at least 17,500 and less than 40,000 words
- Novelette – at least 7,500 and less than 17,500 words
- Short Story – less than 7,500 words
When it came to writing my novella, I aimed for something between 20,000 – 30,000 words. It ended up being 22k. For comparison, my full-length novels have been between 62-72k to date.
2 – Books don’t have to be long to be good.
Some of our beloved classics are novella length. Hemmingway’s Old Man and the Sea was 26k. Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men was 29k. Conrad’s Into the Heart of Darkness was 38k. And Camus’ The Stranger was 36k.
Okay, there’s no way Robbery at the Roller Derby is ever going to be considered a classic, but the point is that you can tell a complete, compelling story in a shorter form. And many people like a quick read. Folks lead busy lives. Sometimes, it’s nice to be able to gobble up an entire book in one evening with a cup of cocoa and a plate of cookies.
I read something somewhere (sorry to be so vague, but I have the world’s worst memory – anyone know where I left my glasses?) that you should think about novellas not just in terms of word count but in terms of target audience. Some readers deliberately seek out shorter books, just like some people prefer box sets, and others like to read big, chunky novels.
3 – Keep it simple.
Check your complex plots and your huge cast of characters at the door. When you have a limited number of words to work with, you have to keep things focused. In my full-length cozies, I have a main plot (the mystery), a few sub-plots, and a whole bunch of characters (recurring folks who show up throughout the series and ones specific to that particular mystery).
In my prequel novella, I kept it simple. One main plot (the robbery) and a minor romantic sub-plot and a limited number of characters. I’ll tell you what, it made things so simple. So much less to keep track of and weave together.
4 – How much is your novella worth?
Pricing your books is such a thorny subject. You pour your heart and soul into something, invest your hard-earned money into covers, editing, formatting, marketing, promotions etc. Isn’t it at least worth the price of a latte?
To be honest, I don’t know the right answer to this. I price my full-length cozies based on the other comparable indie published wide cozy authors. (The “wide” point is important. Pricing strategies probably differ if you’re exclusive to Kindle Select More on the HERE.) When it came to this particular novella, I wanted to use it initially as a reader magnet, i.e., folks can get it for free if they sign up for my newsletter. But because I know that not everyone wants to get newsletters and would prefer to purchase it, I also currently offer it for 99c/99p on all retailers. My thinking was that if someone bought it, then found out later they could have had it for free, they wouldn’t be too annoyed as it cost them less than a buck.
5 – Writing novellas is fun!
I have a blast writing this prequel novella, in part due to the fact that it has a roller derby setting (way cool!) and in part due to the fact that it had a shorter word count and simpler plot. It was quite refreshing to be able to bang it out in a relatively short period of time. My full-length cozies take me forever to write.
Okay, my coffee cup is empty, so I’ll have to put an end to my random novella writing thoughts. I’d love to know what you think. Leave a comment and share your thoughts on reading and writing novellas.
6 thoughts on “Thoughts on Writing Cozy Mystery Novellas”
Interesting thoughts and tips. I wondered how long a novellete should be. I just finished the roller durby mystery and loved diving into that atmosphere. I think that’s the first time I’ve read about a roller durby. How fun!
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Thanks, Tonja. It was a lot of fun to write 🙂
Great info, Ellen. And I quite agree, books do not have to be long to be interesting and entertaining. Far too many “big-name” authors are leaving in the parts that people skip to justify their overly-long books. I loved Robbery at the Roller Derby! My sister and I watched roller derby on television as kids, so it was a blast from the past.
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Thanks so much, Lee! Glad you enjoyed it 🙂
Right now i think the same thing i always think, that my admiration for writers knows no bounds.
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My first published book was a novella, something I never would have expected, but it was a contest entry, and that’s what they wanted…novellas about childhood fears. I thought, “I can do that.” So I did, and it completely changed my life.
Great tips, Ellen!