Not quite a novel idea, and it works well

First a question: Which of the following much-loved stories, all made into feature films, were written as novellas, not novels? A Clockwork Orange, Of Mice and Men, The Old Man and the Sea, Breakfast at Tiffany's, A Christmas Carol, Heart of Darkness, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Coraline and The Shawshank Redemption?

Answer: every single one.

Something about its reduced length and singular plotline has lent the novella - by definition longer than a short story, shorter than a novel - to rich cinematic adaption but simultaneously undercut its commercial currency as a literary form.

Now, on the back of the rising popularity of the ebook and new ventures in digital publishing, the novella has a new stage on which to shine. The GriffithREVIEW has partnered with the Copyright Agency Limited's Cultural Fund to devote its latest quarterly edition to this undervalued of storytelling formats. Its Novella Project coincides with the release of Craig Silvey's action hero novella, The Amber Amulet, and comes after Julian Barnes won the 2011 Man Booker Prize for The Sense of An Ending.

As well, HarperCollins has announced HarperTeen Impulse, an eBook imprint dedicated to publishing short stories and novellas for young-adult readers.

''The digital environment is providing lots of opportunities and different formats for writers to experiment with wonderful shorter stories at a time when readers might find the reading of a novel, with all the distractions of modern life, more burdensome,'' the editor of the Novella Project, Julianne Schultz, says. ''The novella can be read in one or two settings. It makes complete sense.''

By virtue of their length, novellas have fewer plot twists but strong characters and intense, self-contained stories, Schultz says, while being grounded in their time. The best novellas never sacrifice complexity for brevity. The six novellas selected for the Novella Project were nominated from 200 submitted manuscripts and authored by emerging and established fiction and non-fiction writers alike. The settings of the six stories range from Japan to East Timor to pre-Depression suburban Melbourne.

For readers who might dismiss the novella as an undercooked novel, the Melbourne author Toni Jordan is finding writing a novella more difficult than she thought. ''Treading the line between sufficient complexity to justify, say, 20,000 words isn't easy,'' she says. ''It can't feel like a stretched short story or a compressed novel. It must be complete and perfect as it is.''

The length of the story depends on the size of the idea. ''Some ideas have a single act, or a single theme or single tone,'' Jordan says. ''They're short stories. Novel ideas have three or more acts, usually, or have quite complex themes and a number of different tones or pacing. Novellas, I'd guess - and I've never successfully written one - would fall somewhere in the middle.''

Outside the teen market, the Allen & Unwin publisher Elizabeth Weiss is wary of calling a renaissance just yet. ''Historically, novellas have been difficult to publish commercially because a single novella in a book format results in a book with a tiny spine that's hard to spot on a bookshop shelf, and because the book has to carry much of the same overheads as a full-length work - cover design, in-house overheads - but you could only charge a lower price for it.

''Also, fiction readers haven't flocked to shorter-form works in the way they have to full-length novels. Only some of these challenges can be overcome with digital publishing.

''Despite the apparent attractions of short-form for busy modern lives, people are not flocking to short-format works per se, at least not in the English-speaking world - unlike Korea and Japan, where short form is apparently very successful - and not yet. Serialised ebooks are a short-form format which looks to have some potential, however. And it's early days.''

Over the next 12 months, Schultz plans to release some of the shortlisted manuscripts as ebooks, while others would probably grow to become novels. The Sydney historian Peter Cochrane had his shortlisted novella snapped up by Penguin as an ebook for international release.

My Voyage with Papa dramatises William Bligh's 1806 sea voyage to Sydney Cove, in which the governor locks horns with Captain Joseph Short. Written as a journal in the voice of Bligh's daughter Mary Putland, the drama lies in the confrontation between Bligh and Short, described by Cochrane as a meeting of ''two mad men''.

Were it not for the GriffithREVIEW's novella project, Cochrane says, he would never have been tempted to write his first serious piece of fiction. ''I needed a break from other stuff I was writing and I took two months off and wrote flat out to turn the sketch that was in my bottom draw into an imagined journal.''

His novella of 28,500 words ''is really the beginning of a much longer story about Bligh and Mary which ends up in the Rum Rebellion'' but Cochrane believes My Voyage With Papa will probably stand alone as a piece of shortish ebook fiction.

''It's the way to go, it's the future. Sure, I'd like to see it in hardbook but I'm an unknown fiction writer - why would you do anything else?''

The story Not quite a novel idea, and it works well first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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