October 20, 2022
by Beth Ann Bauman, writing for children and young adults faculty
If you write Young Adult (YA) fantasy, you may want to study Laini Taylor, an award-winning writer who knows how to tell a compelling story. Her Daughter of Smoke and Bone series is wildly inventive, and I’ve heard similar things about her middle-grade novel Dreamdark: Blackbringer. But the book I want to focus on for this post is the lesser-known Lips Touch Three Times, a finalist for the National Book Award, that contains three novellas centered on the power of a kiss. These YA novellas span different centuries and tell immersive tales, often blending realism with fairy-tale elements. What’s notable about them is how Taylor uses the novella form to good effect.
Many students find it daunting enough to write a full-length novel of any kind, but it gets even trickier when a genre is involved. World-building, invention, magic systems and a set of rules are just a few of the things that are required in addition to the craft elements needed for any story. This can make the work challenging, and it’s easy for a new writer to lose focus and overcomplicate a story. But there’s a good solution.
As a beginning novelist, you might want to start with the novella form. Basically, a novella is a short novel—longer than a short story but often considerably shorter than a full-length novel. Taylor’s collection provides an excellent model of what’s possible in the form. Her novellas range in length from roughly sixty to one-hundred-twenty pages.
The beauty of these stories is the clear, tight focus. In “Goblin Fruit,” based on Christina Rossetti’s Victorian poem “The Goblin Market,” a girl is tempted by a goblin that wants to steal her soul. The basic plot engine consists of a will-she/won’t-she question, but the story is anything but slight. While you might think that the short form could limit imaginative possibilities, “Goblin Fruit,” as well as the other two novellas, contain lush prose, deftly-drawn characters, and emotional insight.
A tight focus can be remarkably helpful for the new writer needing to gain confidence and skills. You will need to get to your story’s issues fast, and this momentum is helpful not only for focus and pacing but also for character development. Taylor’s novellas are hugely engaging because high stakes and conflict are immediately brought to the fore. Consider what she achieves in the opening to “Goblin Fruit":
There is a certain kind of girl the goblins crave. You could walk across a high school campus and point them out: not her, not her, her. The pert lovely ones with butterfly tattoos in secret places, sitting on their boyfriends’ laps? No, not them. The girls watching the lovely ones sitting on their boyfriends’ laps? Yes.
The Goblins want girls who dream so hard about being pretty their yearning leaves a palpable trail, a scent goblins can follow like sharks on a soft bloom of blood. The girls with hungry eyes who pray each night to wake up as someone else. Urgent, unkissed, wishful girls.
And short doesn’t have to mean short on rich prose, world-building, and foreshadowing. Consider these examples:
Besides anvils and the goat, there were plenty of no-name cats in the yard, always slinking and slipping along the edges of things, and there were chickens, a peacock that screamed “rape!” (as peacocks do), and some cars on blocks. Ghosts came from miles around to whisper and mope and feed, and sometimes strangers passed through in big, battered cars filled with all the things they owned and stayed a few days, playing accordions, swigging moonshine, and singing ballads whose words had never known paper but lived only on the rasping edge of their own voices.
. . . Kizzy kept walking into the straggling edge of the countryside, past a cemetery, a water tower, and a Christmas tree farm with a little trailer near the road, where a fat dog lying on the porch picked up his head and belched as she passed. A gutsy little bird chased a crow out of a tree, and a squirrel miscalculated his leap and fell stunned into a pile of rotting leaves. It was autumn. The sky was white and the trees black. Kizzy saw herself in a puddle and looked away.
If you’re struggling with a full-length project, or want to write a fantasy novel but feel a little overwhelmed by the prospect, consider using the novella form. Working on a smaller scale can be enormously beneficial and can give you a sense of mastery. And that’s what every budding novelist needs to achieve.
Beth Ann Bauman is the author of a short story collection Beautiful Girls and two YA novels, Rosie and Skate and Jersey Angel. Follow the author Laini Taylor on Twitter @lainitaylor.