How to Write a Novella: Short, Sweet, and Sellable

Abi Wurdeman
January 3, 2023

There are a lot of good reasons to ask how to write a novella.

Maybe you dream of writing a novel but want to sharpen your character and plot development skills first. Maybe you’re hoping to use your novella as a tool to entice new readers to dip a toe into the world of your book series.

Or perhaps you’re just a fan of brevity… of clean, compelling stories that deliver fast satisfaction without all the faffing about.

No matter what’s motivating you to look into this short-and-sweet approach to narrative, you’re about to add some powerful new tools to your writer toolbelt. You’re about to learn:

  • The benefits of writing a novella
  • The difference between writing a novel and a novella
  • How to write a novella, from outline to finished product

I’ll try to keep this brief.

What is a Novella?

A novella is a work of fiction that’s shorter than a novel but longer than a short story or  novelette. 

There’s no official decree on the exact word count range for a novella, but they generally land somewhere between 17,000 and 40,000 words. So something like:

  • A Christmas Carol
  • Of Mice and Men
  • The Alchemist
  • Ethan Frome
  • The Old Man and the Sea
  • The House on Mango Street
  • Convenience Story Woman
  • The Vegetarian

You probably recognize most of those titles, if not all of them. While novellas aren’t as prevalent as novels, they’re certainly not unusual.

Why Write a Novella?

An open novella with its center pages folded into the shape of a heart.

So what’s the upside of knowing how to write a novella?

As it turns out, there are several.

For one thing, learning how to write a novella will sharpen your story-structuring skills very quickly. With less than 40,000 words to work with, you have to be able to guide the reader through a streamlined, well-constructed story.

Same deal with character development. A novella won’t accommodate loads of flashbacks and long internal monologues. You have to show motivation, goals, and fears through what your character says, does, and thinks in the moment.

As you can probably guess, this storytelling format is also faster to write and read compared to a novel. 

Plan to self-publish? Writing a novella is a great way to:

  • Churn out material faster
  • Build an audience as you work towards completing longer works
  • Test a new series concept or experimental style without investing a ton of time
  • Attract readers who hesitate to invest novel-level time or money in an unfamiliar author

Many indie writers even opt to draw readers in with a free novella. Just know that, if you’re going to do this, it’ll pay off more if the free novella is either the first book of a series or set in the world of your series. Give readers something to get attached to and come back for.

Writing a Novella Versus a Novel

Knowing how to write a novel isn’t exactly the same as knowing how to write a novella. It’s close, but there are some key differences.

First, a novella typically stays rooted in one time and place. Big leaps across time and geography work best in novels.

Novellas also move along at a faster pace. No fluff, no tangents, no long flashbacks. Everything that happens builds towards the climax.

Side characters should feel real and well-developed, but they won’t star in a subplot unless that subplot supports the protagonist’s arc.

And the conflict of a novella is clear and focused. That’s not to say your shorter-form story can’t have layers. It’s just that any layers you do include—backstory, flaws, motivations, whatever—will all serve one central conflict.

How to Outline a Novella 

A great story takes the same basic shape no matter how many words you use to tell it. This means you can outline your novella using the exact same story structures you’d use to write a novel.

You can get a broad overview of these structures in this article or explore any of them individually in DabbleU. Use whatever makes sense for the story you plan to tell.

Also be sure to read novellas in your genre and take note of how those books are structured.

As for the actual outlining part, you’ve got options.

If you’re a pantser (as in, you prefer to fly by the seat of your pants), I recommend getting familiar with story structure before diving into your first draft. 

In fact, I suggest planning your major beats… or at least your inciting incident, climax, and resolution. They can still change as you write, but you’ll save yourself a lot of revising time if you kind of know where you’re going when you jump in.

If you’re a planner or plantser (the hybrid species), you can create a full outline of your story. Planners might go scene by scene while plantsers go beat by beat. 

Whichever category you fall into, Dabble’s Plot Grid can make outlining a novella a lot easier. You can see all your scenes at a glance, rearrange them effortlessly, and make sure everything is building towards the climax.

A screenshot showing how to outline a novella with the Dabble Plot Grid, with columns for scenes and character arcs.

Even pantsers can use the Plot Grid after they’ve written their first draft to make sure their fly-by-night structure is airtight. 

How to Write a Novella

Now that you’ve laid the groundwork, you’re ready to think about how to write a novella.

There aren’t a ton of rules in this phase. Every writer has their own system, and it’s best to do whatever works for you.

But if you’re still finding your system, here are a few tips to get you started.

Create a writing schedule and commit to it. Regular writing sessions are the best way to make sure you’re moving along at a steady clip.

Set (realistic) goals. How many words do you expect your novella to be? When do you want to have a first draft completed? Set daily word count goals or words-per-session goals to keep you motivated and track your progress.

Psst. If you write your novella with Dabble, you’ll have access to Goal Tracking. Just plug in your long-term word count goals and which days you’re taking off. Dabble will calculate your daily goals for you.

Keep it focused. As you write, remember that the rules for how to write a novella are slightly different from those for novel writing. Avoid tangents, unrelated subplots, and excessive backstory. At the same time:

Let it be awful. First drafts are rotting heaps of human error. Embrace it. Your goal at this stage is not to write an incredible story. It’s to write something that can be molded into an incredible story. 

So if you find yourself frozen at your computer because you’re obsessing over whether or not that one scene counts as a tangent, let it go for now. You’ll fix it in the next step.

How to Edit a Novella

A red and blue stick eraser.

Start by revising your work yourself.

Some things to look for:

  • How does the story flow? Are there any beats that need to slow down or speed up?
  • If you full-on pantsed this thing, how’s your structure looking? 
  • If your word count is 40,000 or above, what can you cut? Audit your draft for details or scenes that don’t support the central conflict. 
  • How many characters do you have? If it’s feeling overcrowded in your tight little story, consider eliminating or merging characters.
  • Are there any places where you could use fewer words by choosing more vivid details? Maybe instead of going on and on about how creepy the abandoned house is, you could let a rotting floorboard crumble under the protagonist’s foot. Oh! That reminds me:
  • Show, don’t tell.

Once you’ve completed your own revisions, you’re ready to share your work for feedback. This is a good time to reach out to:

  • Critique partners - Fellow writers you swap work with for feedback.
  • Beta readers - People who either read your genre voraciously or might have insight on a specific aspect of your novella.
  • Sensitivity readers - These folks pull from their own lived experience to help you portray culture, sexual orientation, gender, ability, and more with greater authenticity. 

If you plan to self-publish, you’ll also want to hire a professional editor. But not until after you’ve applied the feedback from the group above.

Once you’ve polished this thing to a blinding shine (including punctuation and grammar), you’re ready to talk publishing.

How to Publish a Novella

A hand holding a Kindle e-reader.

This is the answer we’re building towards when we talk about how to write a novella. Let’s turn that work of pure imagination into a book in a stranger’s hands.

Publishing Traditionally

If you want to publish your novella traditionally—meaning you want a publisher to handle production and distribution—you need to look for an agent.

You do this by searching agent databases like Poets & Writers and Query Tracker for agents who:

  • Represent books in your genre
  • Are open to novellas (You may need to pitch multiple novellas or a novella and short stories as a single volume.) 
  • Are currently accepting queries

Select the agents that seem like a great fit and send them query letters. A query letter is a letter that shares a brief synopsis of your story in the hopes that they’ll ask to read it. This article walks you through the process of writing a killer query letter.

Once you and an agent decide to work together, they’ll start shopping your novella to publishers. 

Now, a quick heads-up: novellas are much harder to publish traditionally than novels are, especially if you’re a first-time author. That doesn’t mean you can’t do it. Just be ready to embrace the challenge.

Self-Publishing

If you plan to do this yourself, start by clarifying the purpose of your novella.

Are you marketing this book as a freebie or inexpensive read to draw new readers into a series?

Or do you simply plan to sell this book as a standalone product? 

If your novella is part of a larger marketing strategy, take this into account as you prepare for publication. Make sure:

  • The next book in your series is ready to publish at the same time or shortly after
  • You’re working with a cover designer to ensure all books in your series have a similar look 
  • Your novella’s back matter promotes the next book. This could mean giving readers a preview of the next book’s first chapter in the back of your novella. Or it could be as simple as providing a quick summary with a link to the next book’s sales page.

Whether your novella is the first in a series or simply a standalone story, your self-publishing journey will also involve:

  • Deciding whether you want to publish your novella as an ebook, physical book, audiobook, or any combination
  • Selecting your preferred platforms for selling your book
  • Creating a launch strategy (This could include newsletter announcements, social media cover reveals,pre-orders, and more)
  • Working with a cover designer to create an eye-catching, genre-appropriate cover
  • Crafting a book blurb that gets readers to click “buy”
  • Deciding how to price your novella

Once your book is out there, celebrate! Then get back to work because you’re still not done.

How to Promote a Novella

You’ve gone to all this effort to learn how to write a novella; you might as well learn how to sell one, too. 

Like it or not, that’s part of your job as an author. Even if you publish traditionally, most publishers are conservative with their marketing dollars, especially where new authors are concerned.

So you’ll have to put yourself out there. Pursue book signings and podcast interviews. Engage with your readers on social media. Create a newsletter, build a website, and maintain a blog. 

If you self-publish your novella, you might also consider advertising on social media, Amazon, or BookBub.

Finally, make sure your fans know that one of the best ways they can support you is by reviewing your book on platforms like Amazon and Goodreads.

Get Help

Writing a novella looks like a breeze when you’re holding a slim 30,000-word book in your hands.

It’s really not.

But you don’t have to do it alone. Dabble is here to support you, whether it’s through the Story Craft Café writer community or the endless writing resources in DabbleU. We even have a free ebook to guide you through the entire book writing process. 

Finally, if you want to try writing your next novella with Dabble, you can give it a whirl for free for fourteen days. The free trial gives you access to all Dabble’s premium features, including the famous Plot Grid, Story Notes, co-authoring, and more.

Click here to get started and leave your credit card in your wallet; you won’t need it.

Abi Wurdeman

Abi Wurdeman is the author of Cross-Section of a Human Heart: A Memoir of Early Adulthood, as well as the novella, Holiday Gifts for Insufferable People. She also writes for film and television with her brother and writing partner, Phil Wurdeman. On occasion, Abi pretends to be a poet. One of her poems is (legally) stamped into a sidewalk in Santa Clarita, California. When she’s not writing, Abi is most likely hiking, reading, or texting her mother pictures of her houseplants to ask why they look like that.