Five Life-saving Steps to Writing a Novella

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By Davalynn Spencer

I recently turned in my fourth contracted novella and I’ve learned a thing or three about writing these delightful little gems.

Emphasis on the word “little.”

My first novella developed from my traditional pantser perspective. It was a stand-alone and I could have all the words I wanted just so I didn’t end up with a full-length novel.


1. Simple romantic plot
2. Few secondary characters
3. Picturesque setting
4. Heart-rending conflict
5. Happily-ever-after ending.

However, these were NOT the five things I learned about writing novellas.

That first story was a honeymoon run. The glow soon wore off when I ran smack-dab into the day-to-day reality of word counts.

When bundled by a publisher with companion novellas, story contracts come with a pre-determined word count that is always, every time without fail, much smaller than I want.


Because I enjoy hanging out with my characters, exploring all their quirks and quandaries.

If you’re like me, you fall in love with these people. Even your antagonists. An interviewer once asked me how I felt about the characters in my stories. I told her that I know them better than most people in my everyday life.

So for a pantser, word-count limitation equaled bricks in the proverbial wall looming right there next to deadline. Like a heroine in a well-written story, I had to change. These five steps helped.

Step 1. Become a plantser.

This is not the hybrid offspring of a plotter-pantser. A plantser is a pantser with a plan-a map showing the destination while allowing creative license for pantsing along the way.

Step 2. Write a synopsis.

Include every scene you want. Chances are you will not have enough space for all of them, but you need them in your head (or a file) so you know the pathway to your ending. You can tighten your word count by combining scenes or (gasp) cutting some of them out altogether.

For every story I write-novel or novella-I have a “Notes” file on my computer of cut scenes just in case I want to include one of them elsewhere.

Step 3. Chart the story.

Where do you need to be by page XX? For a contract with a cemented word count of 15,000, I graphed 3,000, 6,000, 9,000, and 12,000 with notes from my synopsis about what had to happen by those points in order to end with a complete story.

4. Sharpen the scalpel.

“Cut that out!” I’ve always pictured the originator of this phrase as a frazzled mother screaming at misbehaving children. But perhaps it was coined by a writer or editor.

Do you need all that description/introspection? Not in a novella you don’t. Lob it off like a fruit tree in the fall. You’ll have a richer bounty in the spring.

5. Write like a poet.

Choose each word with care; you have none to spare. Technically that says you don’t have any left over, but that is exactly what you want. Make sure you are using the one right word that will beneficially substitute for the five or six you’d rather use.

My upcoming novella “The Columbine Bride” releases September 1 in Barbour’s Book 4 of The 12 Brides of Summer collection. Most of the twelve stories are sequels to last year’s The 12 Brides of Christmas.

“The Columbine Bride” had a word-count limit of 15,000. Imagine my elation when a new contract for 2016 gave me 20,000!

12 Brides of SummerDavalynn Spencer writes inspirational Western romance complete with rugged cowboys, their challenges, and their loves. Her work has finaled for the Inspirational Reader’s Choice Award, the Selah, and the Holt Medallion. She and her handsome cowboy make their home on Colorado’s Front Range. Connect with Davalynn online at

Comments 0

  1. Excellent advice, Davalynn. I’m a plaster and it works so well! I used to think I was a plotter, but have come to realize I’m not. I’m more of a pantster than I thought I was. So the word planets fits me well. 🙂 I’m making note of your 5 things. Thanks!

  2. I like the phrase “plantser”! That’s what I am. I just started a novella and wasn’t sure what to do. So your post was timed very well.

    Thanks for the great tips!

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