There's a lot of reasons to love Tor publishing, from the book clubs and re-reads on their website to the annual Best of Tor.com anthology, which is one of my favorite ways to discover new writers. (It's also offered for free.) But one of the things I love best about them is the selection of novellas they've published.
As a literary form, novellas usually get the short end of the stick. Few publishers bother with them, and even established writers tend to employ workarounds to get them published. (It's telling that even a writer like Stephen King, who has a massive following and regularly writes novellas, usually publishes them as part of larger collections.)
So the fact that Tor bothers with novellas at all is exciting to me, but I also love how they often serve as entry points for larger worlds. It doesn't escape me that some of my favorite Tor novellas -- Binti by Nnedi Okorafor, Buffalo Soldier by Maurice Broaddus, and All Systems Red by Martha Wells -- either kick off a longer series or share a universe with other novels. It's brilliant marketing: Gunshy readers may not be willing to commit to a 400-page novel, but 150-page novella? Hell, why not?
But novellas, like other short forms, can pack a real punch in just a few words. The book that inspired this post, Victor LaValle's excellent The Ballad of Black Tom, opens with a paragraph that gets marvelous results from an economy of language. Ballad is a standalone book, set in a world of eldritch Lovecraftian horrors while also reckoning with Lovecraft's racist legacy and long shadow over the genre. It's an ambitious book, made even more so by the fact that it sets out to accomplish its aims in only 149 pages. And from the very beginning, you can tell that you're in good hands:
People who move to New York always make the same mistake. They can't see the place. This is true of Manhattan, but even the outer boroughs, too, be it Flushing Meadows in Queens or Red Hook in Brooklyn. They come looking for magic, whether evil or good, and nothing will convince them it isn't there. This wasn't all bad, though. Some New Yorkers had learned how to make a living from this error in thinking. Charles Thomas Tester for one.
There's a lot going on in this opening paragraph. For starters, look at the way it draws you into the story by establishing the narrative voice. This is someone telling a story, someone who has an opinion. We are firmly inside a particular point of view, but we don't quite know whose. Is it Charles? An omniscient observer? Another character who has not yet been introduced? We don't know, but we want to read on to find out.
Then there's the way it handles the setting. Once again, as readers we find ourselves a little off balance, not quite knowing what to make of things yet. We zoom in from New York to Manhattan, then out to Red Hook, before finally panning back out with the phrase "Some New Yorkers," which implies that Charles belongs not to a borough but to the larger city itself. There's an implication of movement here, but we don't quite know how, or what that says about Charles.
Finally, there's the question of character. What we know about Charles so far is that he makes a living off of other's mistakes. People come to New York in search of something, and somehow Charles has found a way to fill in that gap. But notice who is making the mistake -- people looking "for magic, whether evil or good." That tells us Charles is morally neutral, or maybe indifferent. He's trying to survive, and that means he'll take advantage of whoever he needs to, whether they're a saint or a sinner.
That's an awful lot of character and setting to establish in just 80 words, but a novella requires a certain economy of words. Like short stories or poetry, nothing can be out of place, and every word and each sentence has to put in the work. The fact that LaValle does it so confidently, and makes it look so easy, says a lot about his skill as a writer. And two cheers to Tor for their part putting that skill on display.