Novellas are relatively rare in crime fiction where formats are far more rigid than in literary and speculative fiction. Short story lengths greater than 5000 words are tolerated…barely. And novels must be no less than 65,000 and no more than 95,000 words.
No doubt the formats are dictated by business rather than artistic imperatives. The story or book length a publisher believes will hold readers’ attention spans.
So what is a novella exactly? A long story or a short novel? As an author whose work naturally tends to fall in this category, I believe a novella is a story with a linear plot but with more texture, atmosphere and complexity of character than can be captured in 5000 words or less.
The Orca Rapid Reads Series breathed life into the crime fiction novella. Mostly because of this series, the CWC Awards of Excellence have had enough entries to create and sustain a novella category. (CWC defines a novella as a story between 8000 and 20,000 words.)
The Rapid Reads series is aimed at adults who are ESL students, who have difficulty reading or those who simply want a fast satisfying read. Although the language is uncomplicated, the books are not simplistic. They are hard-hitting, with adult themes and they often focus on social issues.
It’s a challenge for an author to streamline their writing style without losing its essence. That’s why Orca contracted with leading Canadian crime fiction authors for the 68 books in the series, including my friend, Sam Wiebe.
Sam’s novella, Never Going Back (Orca, 2020) is one of the latest books in the Rapid Reads series. Its protagonist, Alison Kidd, is a tough young woman, a master thief who’s just gotten out of jail. She hated prison and she’s determined to go straight, but the local crime boss blackmails her into pulling off a risky job. If she refuses, her brother will be killed. Can she outsmart her old boss and save her brother and herself?
Sam’s hard-hitting, critically acclaimed Dave Wakeland series and his debut novel, The Last of the Independents, are both written very much from a man’s point of view. I was intrigued that Sam chose a woman hero for Never Going Back. Could he pull it off?
I’m delighted to say that, yes, Sam did! Alison Kidd is a terrific and likeable character. (More books and stories with strong women, Sam!) The plot has the twists and turns of a switchback highway and the suspense that goes along with it. An excellent thriller!
EAT THIS BOOK: 5 STARS
Do join me and my fellow crime writers for the Zoom launch of Carrick Publishing’s new crime fiction anthology, A Grave Diagnosis. This collection of tales of murder and malaise appropriately launches on Halloween!!
AND a special Halloween treat – here’s our video on YouTube! Thank you, editor and publisher, Donna Carrick!
My long story, “Brainworm”, is featured on Donna Carrick’s Story Stocking, Part One on July 22nd and Part Two on July 29th. “Brainworm” first appeared in the Mesdames of Mayhem’s latest anthology, In the Key of 13.
In the story, Fiona, a middle-aged woman worn down by looking after her difficult stepmother, has a near miss on the highway during a biting winter blizzard. The shock forces her to face the danger about to devour her.
Click here to tune in to this podcast.
I had the pleasure of meeting AJ Devlin at Left Coast Crime in Vancouver in 2019. We ended up sitting next to each other at the Crime Writers of Canada pub dinner and really hit it off. It turns out that AJ spent many years in Hollywood as a screen writer and our daughter, Claire, works in special effects so I know how tough the film biz can be. And we bonded over the challenges we’d both had to overcome to be traditionally published.
AJ’s first crime novel, Cobra Clutch, found a home with NeWest Press. It introduced “Hammerhead” Jed Ounstead, a former pro wrestler turned private eye. I loved it! Like pro wrestling, Cobra Clutch has it all: comedy, great characters and over the top action. (The shoot-out on Lion’s Gate Bridge is my personal favorite.)
Cobra Clutch was nominated for a Lefty Award and went on to win the Arthur Ellis Best First Novel Award. Not bad!
So I was eager to read Jed Ounstead’s next adventure, Rolling Thunder. I’m delighted to report that it’s great fun and a great read. Jed is in fine form as he dives into the world of roller derby. The coach of the Split Lip Sallies, whose stage name is Lawrence O’Labia, has disappeared days before a critical match. (Lawrence’s real-life name is even ruder.) The roller derby team hires Jed to find him.
Running Lawrence down lands Jed in enormous danger as he searches through Vancouver’s seamy side. Is it gambling? Drugs? Larry’s secret fondness for the (gay) leather scene? You’ll have to read the book to find out.
AJ has a gift for witty names and dialogue. He populates the pages of his thriller with hilariously weird characters, among them: an effete bookie who races dachshunds, an excruciatingly amateur talk show host and a 300lb roller derby star who likes to whack men’s butts. Jed gets lots of action in and out of the ring. The fight scenes are especially well-written: gritty and visual.
Rolling Thunder hits all the marks for a PI thriller. Thoroughly recommended. 5 stars.
I was delighted to be a guest on Lisa De Nikolits’ Goodreads blog, Interview with an Author on May 2nd. Lisa is the award-winning author of eight novels and numerous short stories. Her work leans to the dark side and the weird – which is why I love it! It’s crime fiction which explores mystical and philosophical issues. Highly recommended! Her most recent novel is The Occult Persuasion and the Anarchist’s Solution.
In our interview, I tell how a scientist with a business degree ended up writing crime fiction and I share some of my life experiences that led to Windigo Fire. Read it here.
I was also delighted to be Donna Carrick’s guest author on her 70th episode of Dead to Writes on May 17th. Our interview is on Zoom so you can see and hear us talking about crime fiction, my writing and the Mesdames of Mayhem, the author community that Donna and I co-founded.
Jayne Barnard and I first became friends in cyber space. We met in Real Space at the 2016 Arthur Ellis Banquet where to my delight, she won the Unhanged Arthur for her first crime novel, Where the Flood Falls (Dundern). Her hero, Lacey McCrae, is a former RCMP officer fleeing domestic abuse. Lacey is rebuilding her life in the Calgary foothills but gets drawn into solving homicides.
The second book in the series, Where the Ice Falls, debuted on August 10th, giving me an early read of this terrific thriller. The story touches on serious social issues, like cyber fraud while chasing down the true killer through a frigid Alberta winter.
In addition to crime, Jayne writes historical and speculative fiction. She is the creator of the YA steam punk heroine, Maddie Hatter. The first book in the series, Maddie Hatter and the Gilded Gauge, won the Alberta Book of the Year Award. Jayne unleashes her wild imagination in a cozy, vine-covered cottage where she lives with her husband and orange tabby cat.
All these great reads are available on Amazon. Where the Ice Falls is also available through Indigo/Chapters, Barnes & Noble, and at Jayne’s long-time home bookstore, Owls Nest Books in southwest Calgary. So readers, EAT THESE BOOKS and welcome, Jayne, to Cyber Café!
Jayne, how did you become a writer? Did you know from childhood?
The first time I really threw myself into writing a story was in Grade 3. My teacher let me have a whole week to finish it to my satisfaction. I sold a couple of poems in early adulthood and averaged two sales of short pieces (fiction and non-) per decade until my oldest child hit university.
How do you carve out time write?
I didn’t sell my first novel until after my last child left home. It’s a common trajectory for female writers with families; carving out the time and, more importantly, the mental focus to write, is a challenge.
How did you turn to crime…fiction?
I actually started selling historical short crime stories. “The Medicine Line” and “Tommy Palmer’s Ghost” were finalists for the Great Canadian Story prize from the now-sadly-defunct Canadian Storyteller Magazine. “Each Canadian Son” won the Boney Pete at Bloody Words 2011 in Victoria, BC. I’d written a handful of speculative short stories along the way but none got published until I was already working on my first Steampunk novella, Maddie Hatter and the Deadly Diamond (Tyche Books, 2015).
What was your inspiration for the Falls series and the main character, Lacey McCrae?
At heart the series is about women and the friendships that support us as we grow through the upheavals of early adulthood. Long ago, my best friend from high school joined the RCMP. Back then we were both into running, cycling, swimming, so the fitness requirement wasn’t a big problem for her. By the time she left the Force ten years later, we both had half-finished university degrees and failed marriages. In addition, she had PTSD and I had already been diagnosed with the illness that still rules my life (ME/CFS).
Lacey is loosely based on my friend’s experiences adjusting to civilian life, but her running and other active scenes are rooted in my kinetic memory from those active olden days with my friend. The character of Jan is in many senses my current life; she studied what I studied, and she has ME/CFS which limits what she can do. We both still crave exposure to the arts world we had to leave.
Where the Ice Falls is the second book in the series. How does it continue on from When the Flood Falls?
Where the Ice Falls takes place from early December to early January, six months after the events of Where the Flood Falls. Lacey and Jan were the main players in Flood; Lacey and her roommate Dee are central to Ice.
Dee’s mother is terminally ill, and determined to have a last Christmas with her only child before seeking a medically assisted death. Dee relies on Lacey’s support to come to terms with her mother’s wishes. But Lacey’s already crispy at the edges after months of looking after Dee during her long recovery from last summer’s injuries.
A new character, Zoe, is near breaking point from work, Christmas prep, and her stepsons’ impending visit. When Zoe’s teenage daughter finds a dead intern outside their borrowed ski chalet, all the women are yanked into a chilling holiday season filled with family dysfunctions and psychological stressors that lead inexorably toward danger and death in the cruel wilderness west of Calgary.
Tell us about your Maddie Hatter novella series (Tyche Books).
The Maddie Hatter Adventures are frothy romps that chase Maddie, renegade daughter of Britain’s most respected Steamlord, as she attempts to make her living by investigative reporting. Except no editor will give a young lady an investigative assignment; she’s trapped on the Society pages, writing about women’s fashion.
She has to break out of what we’d now call a ‘pink ghetto’ on her own. Whether hunting for batty Baron Bodmin and his mysterious bloodshot diamond across three seas and two continents, or parasol duelling in Gilded Age New York City with a devious Russian countess, or hunting industrial spies across the calles and alleys of Venice during Carnivale, Maddie needs all her wits – and the help of her clockwork bird, Tweetle-D, to catch the crooks and pen the exposés, or she’ll be relegated to hats-and-hemlines stories forever.
Maddie Hatter is Steampunk-inspired. (I love steam punk BTW) Do tell us more about Steampunk.
Steampunk got its start in the late-Victorian adventure tales of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Arthur Conan Doyle. Yes, the creator of Sherlock Holmes wrote a few Professor Challenger novels too, questing for lost worlds.
The modern twist on this genre is that the gasoline engine was never invented. Steam power kept evolving instead, with new gadgets and advanced transportation and communication technology. Nowadays, Steampunk is not limited to British literary tradition nor to Victorian England. In Australia, Japan, India, Russia, and all across the Western world, Steampunk sub-cultures are flourishing, with festivals bringing together hundreds of costumed revelers ready to show off their gadgets while they participate in parades, teapot races, and, increasingly, parasol duelling.
To be totally honest, my husband and I – both involved in the Alberta Steampunk community for many years – invented parasol duelling for Maddie Hatter’s world and are thrilled that it has been adopted by Steampunks around the globe. The World Championships are held in Alberta each September, but there are duelling groups in England, France, Australia, New Zealand, and several US states.
Both of us contributed stories to the noir anthology, The Dame was Trouble. Your story is cross-genre: a futuristic PI story set in space. Do you see an increasing trend in cross-genre crime fiction?
I think there’s a bright future in SFF/ crime crossovers. Modern readers live in a technologically complex world and expect their fiction to mirror that, but at heart we all want characters we can identify with, whether they’re human, humanoid, android, or entirely alien. Crime writers have been studying the human psyche across the full spectrum of good and evil for a long time; the more we’re able to expand our work to settings beyond the limits of contemporary Earth, the more new readers we’ll find.
What challenges face the cross-genre crime writer?
To write good crossover fiction, you must know the conventions of both genres well before deciding which ones you’ll break, bend, or stand on their heads. While crime fiction is based on human nature and the solution of a puzzle, SFF readers want exotic settings and alternative social structures that challenge them to imagine life outside the confines of the world they know.
It’s not enough to set a crime story on a space station or alien moon if you don’t think about what new opportunities and limitations the setting imposes on the criminals and the detectives. In “Painted Jade”, my story from The Dame Was Trouble, the body is found floating outside the station, all forensic evidence perfectly preserved by the vacuum of space. However, our intrepid detective must go out there to bring it in, and if you’ve ever felt that leap in your stomach on a carnival ride, imagine how your stomach will feel as it tries to keep your breakfast from rising in the absence of gravity.
Ideally you should be reading in the genres you’re writing in, so you can avoid the unrewarding task of crafting, for example, a compelling mystery in a setting that’s been thoroughly explored by a dozen masters of SFF already. You don’t want half your potential readers to dismiss your masterwork as being out-dated, or the other half to toss the book aside because they guessed the murder plot in the first few pages and aren’t interested enough in your careful world-building to keep reading.
What’s next for you, Jayne?
First off, I’ll be editing the third book in The Falls Mysteries. Why the Rock Falls picks up with Lacey and Jan the following summer, when Jan’s old university roommate comes to Bragg Creek with her movie-director husband and promptly attracts old lovers and new dangers in the sun-baked foothills. It will be released in the summer of 2020 by Dundurn Press.
Next, I’ll work on a contemporary Young Adult thriller in which a teenage foster child gets tangled up with a land-developer, a politician, and a deceptively mild-eyed collie with a penchant for escape. I’m quite excited about this blending of my crime-writing background with my YA adventure style. You could say it’s another kind of crossover.
Great having you on Cyber Cafe, Jayne. Really looking forward to reading your new books.
Thanks for inviting me to visit your blog. Always a pleasure to chat with you.
Blatant self promotion, Readers!
I’m delighted to announce that I have a new story in Coffin Hop Press’ noir anthology, The Dame was Trouble. The collection features stories by leading Canadian women crime writers – and every story features A Dame.
My story, “The Seeker”, stars Terry Snow, a tough 62 year old who handles fast cars, guns and gangsters to find her missing son.
This is a tale so noir, Jack Batten, the Toronto Star critic said: Catherine Astolfo’s story involving a pig, for example, offers an intriguing way of giving Paul Bernardo himself a case of the chills.
Not to forget that we received THREE further nominations for “There be Dragons” by Jane Burfield and “The Ranchero’s Daughter” by Sylvia Warsh and my own novella, “Snake Oil”, about which Jack said: M. H. Callway’s tale mixes snakes and the real estate business in a way that will make readers run a mile from both.
And as it this wasn’t enough, I’m delighted to share that both Cathy and Sylvia’s stories were long-listed in Otto Penzler’s Best American Mystery Stories for 2018!!
APRIL 18TH, the Arthur Ellis short list event was a triumph for the Mesdames of Mayhem – and a personal boost as well!
My fingers were crossed for one, maybe just one, nomination from our third anthology. I could not believe my ears when not just one but FOUR of us are finalists. And that includes my noir novella, Snake Oil!
Three fellow authors and dear friends have their stories nominated:
- Cathy Astolfo for “The Outlier”
- Jane Petersen Burfield for “There Be Dragons”
- Sylvia Warsh for “The Ranchero’s Daughter”
None of this would have happened without editor, Donna Carrick and Carrick Publishing.
Here we are with dear friends and authors, Lynne Murphy and Sylvia Warsh, at Chapters / Indigo still incredulous!