The Long and Short of It...

I’ve been writing 70,000 word mysteries for so long that, without even trying, first drafts predictably wind up in that word range. Don’t get me wrong. I love writing full-length novels, but a while back I longed for new challenges.

To create new characters and write a novella required a lot of thinking. How would I create a satisfying whodunit in 30,000 words or less? Regardless of length, all mysteries have a crime, hero, villain, and resolution. Simple enough, right? But as I began outlining Dead Man Floating it became clear that I’d have to pare down and simplify the story to stay within Imajin’s word length requirements.

This meant reducing backstory and ensuring that the piece started in mid-action, something experts also recommend for full-length mysteries. In other words, there wasn’t room for long narrative descriptions. I had to nail down my protagonist’s goal and character traits quickly. With Evan, ambition often clashes with the need to help people. He doesn’t always do the right thing, but he does believe he’s doing it for the right reasons.

Full-length novels often have two or three subplots; not so in novellas. Some writers say that they shouldn’t contain any, but I say go with what works, if you can make it work. Since I wanted readers to know Evan professionally and personally, the subplot was a hot new romance which I wove into his crime-solving adventure.

On average (and there are plenty of exceptions), full-length whodunits have five suspects. Novellas work better with three, possibly four, depending on the story. Suspects and secondary characters need to be identified and easily distinguishable from one another. One point of view works well for me, but it’s possible to use more.

One of the great things about reading novellas is that they offer entertaining escapism where readers won’t struggle to remember characters and the layered intricacies of slowly merging storylines. They’re a natural fit for readers who don’t want to invest time in a 350 page book.

One of the great things about writing novellas is that you can write, edit, and polish the book at a much quicker pace than you can with full-length works. If you’re keen to publish a lot of books, or wish to experiment with different publishing platforms, then working with 70 to 80 pages is easier than 300.

I’ve found that fewer words doesn’t mean fewer drafts, though. A read-through of the first draft still requires an analysis of the big picture to see if the story works. Is the pacing okay? Is it logical? Are there superfluous characters? Are the ones I’m keeping sufficiently fleshed out? Tightening the manuscript and making the most of dialogue is crucial. And there’s always grammar, spelling, and punctuation to correct.

If you’ve been writing and/or reading full-length fiction, give novellas a try. It’s a whole new world just waiting for you to explore, and it’s a great deal of fun.

Debra’s Bio

Author of six full-length mysteries and over fifty short stories, Debra has won numerous awards for her short fiction. Drawing on her experiences as a security guard and communications officer, Debra’s created her ideal coworker in campus guard Evan Dunstan. DEAD MAN FLOATING is her first mystery novella. When she’s not writing, she’s working a day job at Simon Fraser University and substitute facilitating for the Creative Writing program with Port Moody Parks & Recreation. More information about her books and her blog can be found at


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