What is a novelette? The jury is out on word lengths for different genres of writing. For those of you who like precision, you can take your cue from either the Science Fiction Writers of America or the Short Story Mystery Fiction Writers who use these subdivisions for their awards.
The Science Fiction Writers of America uses these definitions for its Nebula Awards:
- Short fiction: under 7,500 words
- Novelette: 7,500-17,500 words
- Novella: 17,500-40,000 words
- Novel: 40,000 words and up
The Short Mystery Fiction Society subdivides the shortest categories further for their Derringer Awards:
- Flash story: up to 1000 words
- Short short story: 1001 – 4000 words
- Long short story: 4001-8000 words
- Novelette: 8001-17,500 words
It’s all pretty confusing, especially when my two favourite novelettes, Breakfast at Tiffany’s (BAT) by Truman Capote, and the Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (TPMJB) by Muriel Spark, have been referred to as novelettes, novellas, and in the case of BAT, it has also been referred to as a short story! I am going to make a Hipsterette rule declaring that the novelette and novella are somewhat interchangeable in terms of word length, so to make things easier, I use the term ‘novelette’ when referring to either.
Most of us will be familiar with these titles and have probably seen the film BAT or TPMJB (which also was a television series). Both have been performed as plays at the theatre. Who doesn’t associate the song Moon River with BAT?
And, who doesn’t follow Holly Golightly’s lead and find solace in the perfectly ordered Tiffany window when they’ve got a case of the ‘mean reds’.
The incomparable Dame Maggie Smith gets the most memorable lines in TBMJB – it’s hard to imagine that these words, written by the author Muriel Spark, did not originate from her: “I am a teacher! First, last, always! And little girls! I am in the business of putting old heads on young shoulders, and all my pupils are the creme de la creme. Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life.”
Audrey Hepburn is irrevocably connected to BAT due to the hugely successful film, but if you look at the blurb on one of the first editions, it promotes the book as ‘the wickedly funny experiences of a delightfully uninhibited playgirl,’ which does not sound like Audrey Hepburn at all.
It was said that author, Truman Capote, wrote BAT with Marilyn Monroe in mind, which makes sense, because Marilyn had the perfect mix of fragility, innocence and street smarts.
As lovely and elegant as Audrey Hepburn was, if you read the novelette, she was not Holly Golightly.
I am in awe of authors who can write complete and satisfying tales using brevity of words. Shorter pieces of writing can be a great way to explore ideas and characters.
They can become complete entities in themselves, such as Charlotte Bronte’s novelette The Professor, which became the novel Villette.
Candace Bushnell introduced us to the character Janey Wilcox in her short stories called Four Blondes.
Janey took on a life of her own as the social climbing and one-time Victoria’s Secret lingerie model in the 2003 novel Trading Up.
Comparisons were made between Janey and the ill-fated Lily Bart from Edith Wharton’s 1905 novel, The House of Mirth. Both were young women who stepped outside societal norms and paid dearly for their real and imagined transgressions.
Lily comes to a tragic end when she finds she does not have the skills to ‘work’ for a living, as her station in life now requires of her.
Almost a century later, Janey fares a little better – her character lives on, albeit as a cameo reference, in Lipstick Jungle.
Personally, I can’t see why novelettes aren’t far more popular in our time-poor modern world. How satisfying would it be to finish a complete work during your commute, and not be left hanging until the next day’s journey?