The Power of Novellas

A lot of folks seem to believe that you must either write short fiction, or novels in order to be successful.

The short game gets you into magazines and such, where you build up your name and polish your writing craft. I even know a few folks that do make a steady living on short stuff, mostly by turning around and selling all that short fiction as ebooks afterwards. (Lot of effort, but if it works, go for it.)

Downside is that $0.99 on Amazon nets you about 32c from a sale, so you have to move A LOT of units every day.

Flip-side of that are the folks that are convinced that only mega-doorstop novels (200,000 words+) on long series (Epic Fantasy comes to mind, but there are others) can be successful.

Today, I’d like to talk about the humble novella.

I published The Science Officer in December of 2014. And got struck by lightning in January, 2015. Dropped The Mind Field as fast as I could get it written, edited, and published, to take advantage of that incredible spike in sales that lasted about 100 days on the magic Amazon machine before it fell mostly back to earth.

After that, I wrote The Gilded Cage and I suddenly had a series on my hands. When I sat down and started the concept of following the Amazon Pulse, it was to write the next five books: The Pleasure Dome, The Doomsday Vault, The Last Flagship, The Hammerfield Gambit, and The Hammerfield Payoff, putting them up for pre-order spaced two months apart.

After that, I had enough material to go monthly (this would have been Fall, 2017)

Around that same period, I got struck by lightning a second time, in that the machines saw me dropping single genre, single series, back to back. It put me on the big advertising roundup. Plus I broke through somewhere with someone (to date, I have no idea who) blasting me all over the planet.

Put it this way, I was flying cross country in 2018 and got into a conversation with the woman next to me. Told her I was a writer and she was WAY interested, but turned out she didn’t like science fiction. Her husband was just across the aisle, so she handed him my Science Officer business card, because that was his gig.

He looks at it, smiles, and tells me that he liked the book.

Wait, you’ve already read it????


To date, almost eight years later, The Science Officer remains my single best mover in terms of units. Every month, I release a new novel/project. Every month, Javier is my second or third best selling title in terms of movement.

Don’t make hardly anything, since it is up for $0.99, so we’re back to that 32c again. At the same time, my top twenty titles frequently contains ALL THE REST OF THE SERIES (book twelve coming in December. Y’all pre-ordered?) including the Omnibuses.

I literally make my living on Javier and the crew. Fortunately, I figured out what Season Two should look like, and am slowly working my way through that arc. Currently, they’ve been annual, but I might manage two per year for a bit, as I have a pretty good idea what the next story should be, plus the one after that.

From The Science Officer to The Hammerfield Payoff, those are all novellas. 24,000 words up to about 32,000. The Bryce Connection (#9) is actually a collection of four short stories that introduce four new sets of characters and runs about 24,000 words combined. From there: Alien Seas, Buried Among The Stars, and Captain Navarre are all novels, running 50,000-65,000 words, mostly because it gives me the space to write bigger stories.

But novellas are where it started, and you have to be to book ten to hit the first novel.

Past that, I have an erotica penname (Cole Braddock) that is currently writing a series that is (intentionally, consciously) a pastiche/homage to Star Trek (TOS and TNG for the most part). I have four of those done so far (Haunted Space, The Rift, Secrets, and Dreamer) that are all specifically targeted as novellas.

Finally, starting in January, I will publish a whole new space western series inspired by something I saw on tv, but radically altered because I wasn’t pleased with the choices the showrunners made. “I could have done that so much better” sort of thing.

Book One in the space western is 31,000, because I needed to introduce eight characters (not counting the ship, who is also important), a universe, technology, culture, and tell two separate story arcs in one spine. Book Two came in at about 18,000. Three through Six (so far) are all right around 22,000.

I learned to write screenplays under a mentor who was good at them (though we never got the money to make them. Anyone got $5m they want to invest? I have five that are all pretty damned good. Horror to Animated Kids Adventure.)

The software you should use is called Final Draft, because it handles all the formatting. (On Linux, I use a variant called Fade-In, which is almost as good, and have not yet paid for the full product, because I might not ever open it again. Different story.)

In a screenplay, one page of text is traditionally one minute of screen time, depending on dialogue. The timing rules are STRICT, so you have to hit 90-120 pages of screenplay. Period.

It also taught me how to write to length. And identify genre, sub-genre, and expected tropes up front.

An American one-hour drama on TV, with commercials, is about 38-40 minutes of show, plus opening and closing credits and 18-22 minutes of commercial breaks.

I wrote the Science Officer as a one-hour episode of a TV show. The Space Western and the Stephanie Machesky erotica are all targeted to that same length. The Space Western is even listed as Episode One, rather than Book One, because I want someone to make it into a TV show or animation, one of these days. (Options available cheap, serious inquiries only, expect contract redlining otherwise.)

Novellas. My goal is 20-24k each. And I’m greedy here. They’ll sell for $2.99 (for now, not counting inflation later) so people can get a good fix for not a lot of money. I’ll clear about $2.05 per unit at that rate, instead of $4 for a $5.99 novel, so I have to make up for it in volume.

I tend to write about 120,000 words per month, when I am on pace. (That comes down from time to time due to reasons.) If I write a pair of Space Western novellas, plus an erotica, that’s a good month’s work, and I’m not putting those out that fast, so I can write ahead and still keep the monthly pulse going. (Flip side is the second book in Kincaide’s War, which came in at 157,000 words, because that trilogy requires mass. Took me two months to write, with other projects slipped in as I went.)

For folks that many can only write 20,000 words per month (average 5,000/week, or 1,000/day with weekends off), you might consider writing a whole series of novellas, rather than spending a year writing a magnum opus doorstop. It will get you in front of fans faster and regularly. It likely makes you more cash, assuming the quality of your craft is high enough to draw the reader into a high read-through. (The Science Officer series has a read-through above 50% to book eight, for example.)

And it will force you to write tight, taut stories, because at 24,000 words, you do not have any time to side quest. In fact, 24,000 words might be a complete side quest loop in the longer arc of five or ten such novellas, but then you can make it entirely self-contained and hype up the energy to draw the reader in, instead of taking forever walking to Mordor. The Pleasure Dome literally set up the next four titles, with The Doomsday Vault and The Last Flagship being side quests to get to the Hammerfield duology (cliffhangered in the middle).

So you might look at your writing speed. Your commitments outside of writing, and what you could reasonably expect to produce in a year. Half of a 200,000 word doorstop, or 4-5 individual titles on that long arc, each making you money now? (And you can go back and collect them into a single spine later. Javier has Omnibus One and Two for those first eight.)

There are no rules anymore. If you publish it, folks will find it and read it. (Your craft and especially your luck will factor in, because I have been very lucky, but I was also poised to take advantage of that luck, both times it hit so far, as well as any future occurrences.)

YOU need to find that story length that makes you happy. I grew up on comic books, so incredibly long, serialized arcs are my wheelhouse, broken down into monthly, digestible lumps, with occasional cliffhangers. Comic books, ya know?

What will fill you with joy to write? How do you make your writing compelling? And anyone that tells you you can’t do something is either a fool or a foe.

I’m telling you that you have more options, and that you need to consider what you can do with them.

Because we’re all here to make money and have fun, aren’t we?