From Superromance to Novella: Learning to write short

Ah, writing long…I’ve become most familiar with the idea (and in my head I’m accomplished at it).When I sold my first Superromance, the word count was a doable 65K. That particular length is perfect for writing a tight single storyline romance. Secondary characters can make appearances and there can be plenty of internal and external conflict. I loved my first several Superomance books for this very reason. No need to weave a secondary plotline or allow prose to get too fanciful or wandering. Dream up a heroine, grab hold of a hero, giving them something to keep them apart and sit back and let the fireworks happen. The  reader can gobble this sort of story up on a Sunday afternoon making it a satisfying length.

But then, my line upped the word count. 75K was still a good length. Now I had time to add a little more voice and have my secondary characters interact more with my primary characters. I could even introduce a secondary character’s point of view as long as I kept the conflict manageable.

And THEN there was the jump to 85K. Okay, I admit, at first I was baffled at how to write a tight story with good movement adding 10k to the plotline. I mean, 75K just worked ideally. No meandering, no drawn out throw away scenes readers hate, but I had to admit there were times I skipped over a scene I thought added some depth to the story. Now I had room to really punch up the secondary plotline, giving more a stake to these characters whose story developed just as much as the hero and heroine over the course of the book. Suddenly there was a lushness to the language, a beautiful layering of emotion that allowed the reader to connect to characters beyond the primary characters. With a larger canvas, came the challenge to paint a picture that didn’t crowd or make the story too fussy and ornamental. So here are a few tips for writing longer:

Liz’s tips for writing longer:

* add a third point of view from a character who has a stake in the action and/or can manipulate the goals and motivations of the hero or heroine.

* use deep third person point of view to create depth

* try same scene, differing point of view

* consider multiple goals for each point of view characters (this can lead to more motivation and conflict)

So after expanding my word count by 20k, I then faced a new giant…that was, well, a short giant. I got a call from Harlequin regarding writing a short story that would be featured on the Harlequin Community site. It was great exposure for readers who might not have tried one of my books but could now check me out through the free online read. I agreed. Sure, I could do that…uh, until I actually had to sit down and, ahem, do that.

It wasn’t easy.

That first short story – The Nerd Who Loved Me – is a bit like the first novel I ever wrote (except you can actually still read this one – the other is in my virtual “under the bed” file). I chafed a bit at the constraints and found injecting voice, which I felt was a hallmark of my writing, was very difficult with a tiny canvas of 11K. All of my cute scenes had to be tossed (painful!) and the GMC had to be tight, tight, tight. There wasn’t room to fully develop my characters, so I ended up feeling like what could have been a really lovely story got stifled by the shorter word count. Was the story bad? No. Was it something I wish I had a do-over on? Ehh…maybe.

I could  have given up on writing short after that less than stellar experience. After all, my bread and butter fell with writing “SUPER,” so why expend any more time on writing short?

Because the “market,” aka reader, likes a shorter story. Hello! That’s why so many authors are doing novellas. Raise your hand if you’ve written a novella. Ah-ha! I knew there were a lot of you. And it’s the same reason why I’ve taken up the torch and examined ways to make a short story “pop” and give the reader a satisfying read that feels bigger than the word count indicates. Currently, in between my bigger books, I’m writing novellas and short stories, so I’m focused on honing my shorter story writing skills. Here are a few tips for making your writing short and sweet (or sexy or suspenseful or whatever else you need it to be).

Liz’s Tips for Writing Shorter:

* consider a reunion story. This eliminates much of the “getting to know you” necessary for intimacy (at least in most books :))

* write shorter scenes (no more than 5 pages in each point of view) and shorter chapters to keep pace quick

* be thrifty with secondary characters

* be economical with your words. No double adjectives, decrease the compound subjects and verbs.

* Keep GMC simplistic

* no secondary story lines

Okay, I profess that I’m not a pro on writing short (or even long for that matter), so I want to open the floor to those writers who have considerable experience at writing shorter. I’m sure I missed some good tips. So let’s spend Monday talking about what makes a good short story/novella. And feel free to offer tips and make suggestions for writers who’ve done this well.


37 responses to “From Superromance to Novella: Learning to write short”

  1. Bria Quinlan says:

    OOOHHH Great post, Liz! This is one of my favorite topics! I actually blogged about it not to long ago because of all the questions I get since my first two published stories were shorts.

    One of my favorite pieces of advice I’d add to the conversation is: Everything should forward the plot, including character. For full-length we make these life-like fully fleshed out characters who have quirks that don’t impact the story.

    For a short, it helps if their flaws and strengths all somehow feed in. Everything bit of character description shows the reader something she knows specifically for this story.

    And cut what doesn’t. Cutting is your friend in the land of the short.


    • Liz Talley says:

      Excellent point. And even in longer books characters need a function and all action must move the story forwards.

      Thanks for adding that tips. We all need that one!


  2. Piper says:

    Hi Amy,

    I have no suggestions, since I write long as well, but I do appreciate you tackling this topic. Thanks! I would love to here what those folks who are able to “write short” have to say. *pulls up chair*



  3. Tamara Hogan says:

    Great post, Liz, and great advice for writing short.

    –> Because the “market,” aka reader, likes a shorter story. Hello! That’s why so many authors are doing novellas.

    Another reason so many authors are writing novellas? Let’s be honest. It’s financial. It takes a lot less time to write a novella than a full-length novel. Writing novellas, an author can release new work more frequently, and promote that work more often. It’s easier to keep your name in front of readers when you have multiple releases per year, and writing novellas really helps with that name recognition. Offering novellas as a free promotional piece can drive backlist sales. Some readers are more willing to take a chance reading a new-to-them author downloading a free or $0.99 novella than buying a more expensive, full-length book. Those $.99 sales can add up, and (repeat after me) drive backlist sales.

    Yeah, I’ve written and self-published a novella, and I’m happy with its content and its sales. But I’m one of those writers, and one of those readers, who much prefers a long, meaty story. Some novellas read like really thin gruel to me – like product released for the market instead of a lengthy, satisfying story. But /shrug/ this wouldn’t be the first time where my personal likes and dislikes didn’t align with the mainstream. 😉

    So I’m trying to compromise by writing one long book (90-100K words) and one novella per year.

    I can’t wait to read what others think about writing, and reading, short.


  4. Great post, Liz.

    I stepped into the novella world last November with my Christmas story PERFECT, not because of the market. I wrote PERFECT which is not my usual genre because of my life situation. I need to write and I needed happy, happy thoughts. The story went to #1 on Amazon UK in romcom paid and did very well here in the US.

    Did find it hard? Yes and no. Three things I learned; keep the plot and conflict simple, it’s all about character, (Every word has to reflect the character of the hero, heroine and secondary characters) and let your voice shine through.

    Did writing a novella outside my genre help or hinder my backlist sales? I think it helped. And, my readers reviews inspired me to revisit the town of Black Moose–something I’m doing now.


  5. Kate Parker says:

    I’ve never tried writing a novella. I’ve enjoyed reading them, and someday I’ll try it. In the meantime, it’s back to the long form for me.


  6. Vivi Andrews says:

    Love this topic, Liz! I’ve written a lot of short stuff (and some longer) and I love all different lengths. The short stuff can be such fun – a quick, snappy taste of romance. I will say I don’t tend to worry about shortening my language when I’m writing short – I’d rather keep my voice inviolate.

    Mostly for me writing short is about telling the HEART of the story. Even if it isn’t a reunion romance (and regardless of the length), we don’t always *have* to show the first time the hero & heroine meet. We need to show the moment when their relationship changes. The catalyst. But there can be a lot of history supplied by the reader’s imagination.

    My tip is don’t try to tell a big story in a short format, but that doesn’t mean you can’t tell a great story. A 30-min sit-com can be just as satisfying as a five part mini-series, in its own way. Respect the sit-com! 🙂


    • Liz Talley says:

      This is excellent advice, Vivi. The heart of the story is pretty darn important.

      I have to admit the short story I just write has two people who have never met before and I don’t feel I had an issue building intimacy and believability. So a reunion is not the only way. I like your idea of not showing the first meet.


    • Leslie says:

      PERFECT explanation. Thanks!


  7. Interesting discussion. I’ve tried to write a novella (mainly to bridge a secondary character’s story with their main story), but it didn’t work for me. I’ll probably try again someday, but the cadence just feels off to me. Probably because I don’t read a lot of short stories or novellas. I’ve read series-length on occasion, but I like a meaty plot and really getting to know my characters. So the novella I attempted ended up being a full-length story. 😉


  8. June Love says:

    I’ve always claimed to have a single title voice, but at the moment, I’m trying my hand at shorter…not novella short, by any means. I’ll have to ease my way into the that kind of short. lol. Although, I prefer longer reads, I have been reading shorter length books to get a feel of it. To learn.

    This is a great post and very helpful. Thanks, Liz!


  9. Kim Law says:

    Thank you for writing this Liz!! I love seeing others’ tips. I recently wrote my first short, and I’ll have to say that before I got finished, I was certain (completely, utterly certain) that it would be the thing that ended my career (that is only just barely started to begin with!!).

    I tend to write 100k books. I have no idea how it came to that, but that seems to be my standard length. So when it came time to do something short, I struggled to wrap my head around it. I guess the biggest thing I figured out is what you said about GMC. Keep it simplistic. And also (someone already said), it’s all about the characters. Do not let plot get in the way!

    Great post!


  10. This is great, Liz! I’m in the middle of revising my first novella and I’ve been hungry for this kind of discussion. It’s a tricksy beast, for sure.

    I read a tip recently–maybe from Courtney Milan on Twitter?–saying that in a novella, you can choose to focus on the inner conflict or the outer one, but not both. That made sense to me. I tend to think of novellas as more intimate stories, maybe partly for this reason. It also goes to what Kim just said, that it’s all about the characters. Which means that it’s usually about the internal conflict.


    • Liz Talley says:

      Hmmm…that’s an interesting way to look at it. I think it’s hard to write only external conflict without including some internal, but I suppose it could be done. I’ll keep that in mind as I work on the next one. Thanks for dropping in.


    • Kim Law says:

      I would agree with Liz on the external. How do you do that with a romance? Which is character driven. Hmmmm. Maybe a tiny little external thing that throws the two together. So…what? They have no backstory issues to work out? Just the plot? I can see that I need to write quite a few more novellas before I can really figure anything out.

      Someone should go find Courtney and ask her to come over and help me understand 🙂


      • Talia Quinn Daniels says:

        I don’t think the idea is to have NO external conflict at all. 🙂 It’s an exaggeration to make a point, though, and I do think there’s something to it. I also think that mysteries or SF/F may rely more heavily on external conflict in this kind of novella format. Romances tend toward the internal anyway, so a novella might make that more acute.

        Also, it might well not have been Courtney who said this. I shouldn’t have attributed it without checking…


        • Liz Talley says:

          We won’t hold you to it 🙂

          And I think the main point is that the writer needs to allow one to overshadow the other rather than giving equal time. I think that’s certainly wise. If the short story is set in a stuck elevator in a building about to be condemned, the external will dominate the storyline, but internal conflict can also exist…like say if the heroine has never been kissed and might die without ever feeling the touch of a man’s lips. Hmm…I may write this one. Sounds good.


    • Hope Ramsay says:

      Not sure I agree with this advice. I think it’s entirely possible to have both an external and internal conflict in a shorter romance. You need the external conflict for a story arc. And every romance needs and internal anchor. What’s missing in a shorter romance is the character arc. A short story usually has a twist at it’s end, where as a novel is all about character growth, where the HEA is only possible if the character learns something important. You have no time to do that in a short story. Irony is always good in a shorter length piece. And if you want to see a master at work, read O. Henry.


      • Talia Quinn Daniels says:

        I think you’re right about lack of arc when it comes to short stories. I was thinking more of novellas in the 25 to 30K range, and there I think you still can have an arc, though not with the same kind of depth as a novel.

        And it’s not all or nothing re. the external/internal, of course. Just an interesting element to consider. I found it helpful. You might not.


  11. Rita Henuber says:

    No secondary plot lines. Secondary characters do not have a story.
    This is a great post and the comments are just as good. Thank you.


  12. Hope Ramsay says:

    Thanks for this post, Liz. This is a topic near and dear to my heart right at the moment. I have always written big, long books. I had to get used to the 90K word limit my publisher imposed on my single title books. And then they turned around and asked me to write a 10K word short story.


    That first story was hard. But now, after writing several of them, I’ve come to love this shorter length. I think your writing tips are right on. I would add one additional tip. At 10 or 12K it’s almost impossible to write a full romance. So you might think about writing just one part of it, like the black moment, or the moment the hero and heroine meet. For instance, my story LAST CHANCE SUMMER is just about how the heroine and hero meet, while LAST CHANCE BRIDE is all about the black moment. I have written full romances in 12K words, but it’s tough. My two Christmas stories were like that, and I really had to pare down the scenes and characters.

    I have to add here that my story SILENT NIGHT, which will be out in the Christmas anthology A CHRISTMAS TO REMEMBER on December 3, was also “excerpted” in the December issue of Good Housekeeping. By “excerpted” they mean that my 12K story was edited down to 3500 words. It was interesting to see how the editors “adapted” my story for this short length. My voice was eliminated in the process, but somehow the editors managed to keep the story intact. I have no idea how they managed that in 3500 words. But it proved to me that it could be done. 🙂


    • Liz Talley says:

      So excited to nab this at the store. Making my grocery list now…guess what’s going on it?

      Writing short is harder, but it’s also an exciting challenge. I have to admit, after completing my 85K book last week, I’m looking forward to facing only 25K.


  13. I LOVE THIS!!! I’ve been planning a series of NA novellas and have been really curious about how to write them. I’m nervous. Not sure I can pull it off, but this, along with everyone else’s comments, will really help. Thank you!

    I think another problem for you might be the Southern tempo. It’s more languorous and lush. The shorter pieces could be throwing you off for that reason, but knowing you, you’ll be a pro at it in no time. Your writing is so cute, I can see this working well for you.


    • Liz Talley says:

      You’re likely correct in regards to my slower culture’s desire for lollygagging our way around a story. But this is what will trip you, too. You’re voice is your bread and butter and, frankly, what I love about your books. So packaging that great big voice in itty, bitty living space (in my best Genie voice)will be tough. But you can do it if you keep the conflict very simple…you pretty much can do anything 😉


  14. laurie kellogg says:

    Great post, Liz!

    Writing short is a LOT harder than writing long. I laugh at authors who poo-poo series romances and think they’re easier to write because the word-count is lower. NOT TRUE.

    It’s much easier (and lazier) to let your fingers run rampant over the keyboard and include every thought that pops into your head. Writing short means not keeping anything that isn’t pertinent, so every word has to be considered much more carefully.


    • Liz Talley says:

      Laurie, you have a good point and should likely go up there in the tips. One thing I do is not worry about writing tight as I’m writing. I meander a bit, but when it comes to editing, I get out my biggest shears and trim the heck out of it. So write big, trim big could be a tip 🙂 Thanks!


  15. Amy this is a fascinating post.

    I have tried all lengths at this point. My novels tend to be 100+, and my novella was just under 40,000, but my short stories (which I mostly write for my own amusement as character development exercises) have been anywhere from 3,000- 8,000 words.

    I have tended to think of the short stories as telling the story of one life lesson learned, instead of having it be a series of life lessons in an arc life a novel or novella. That always makes it seem manageable to me-just one little life lesson between two people. 🙂

    I’m liking writing short more and more.

    Thanks for the wonderful discussion! Cheers, EE


  16. Sorry I’m late, Liz! I recently had the opportunity to write a short story for an anthology. At 13,000 words, it was much shorter than my normal 50,000 word books. Boy was it hard!! I wish I’d had your tips before attempting it. In the end, I think it came out okay, but what I expected to be super easy…wasn’t!

    I’m bookmarking this for later use, because I have an idea for a story that’s rattling around in my head. And it’s short. 😉


  17. Hedonist says:

    I’m really glad to have found this post (and this site of course) while searching for advice on novellas. Maybe I’m the odd one out but my work tends to end up quite short and I was hoping to get more comfortable with longer works (yep, novella length would be a step up from most of my stuff). So I guess I’ll be following some of the opposite advice from the article to try and get my short stories filled out more.

    Thank you 🙂


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