Sometimes I can tell my stress or busyness levels by what my skin looks like, how hungry for comfort food I am, or the number of times I reach for sweat pants the minute I get home. Another way I can identify my stress levels is by what I want to read.

When I need comfort food reading, I reach for historical romance; the fluffier, the better. But when I'm really busy and stressed and have 65 things to do in each hour of the day, I find myself buying novellas. Lots of them. When I looked at my purchase history and realized the last six books I purchased and the last 4 books I read were all novellas, I realized it was clearly stress time in my world.

Read what Smart Bitches, Trashy Books had to say about difficult heroines.

A great novella presents an entire romance in a short space, and there's a lovely efficiency to the length and pace of a novella. There's enough room for decent conflict and the development of interesting, layered characters in the hands of a skilled writer, but there's also not a lot of extraneous subplot. There's enough to satisfy, but the efficiency in the storytelling allows readers to reach a happy ending in a shorter time.

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Often the conflict in a novella is relatively simple. There's not a lot of room for complex problems, and many novellas are meant to be read as stand-alones that don't require the reader to read a few novels in order to be fully fluent in a world or fictional community. The attraction between the two characters is satisfied and the conflict is resolved, but there's still enough for explosive tension and some explicit intimacy.

Many of the novellas I've enjoyed most feature a character facing a major life choice, such as moving home, moving away, changing jobs, eliminating a distance or choosing between two paths in life. The characters facing the choices, some of which can be complete 90-degree turns away from their expected destination, struggle with not being sure what to do, and find themselves in the unpleasant position of being in limbo while they decide. Being undecided in anything can make for powerful internal and external tension.

One of the best novellas I've read, and I've read it about 10 or 15 times, is Shannon Stacey's Holiday Sparks (Carina Press, 2010). The heroine, Chloe Burke, has moved home to her small New Hampshire town temporarily to housesit while her parents are on a cruise. When she blows half the fuses after plugging in her laptop, the electrician who responds to her call is former classmate Scott Quinn, a guy who has harbored a crush on her since high school. The conflict is relatively straightforward; she lives in Boston, the nearest city, and he doesn't want to leave his hometown. He likes his life as it is, though he's a little lonely. Chloe's just visiting, though the possibility exists for her to stay, if she had reason to. Their familiarity with one another is based on having known each other for many years, but the discovery of who they are as adults creates excitement for both that's new and different. Smaller conflicts compound their possible choices to leave or return, such as the neighbors' gossiping about his truck being in her driveway at all hours, and his best friend's teasing.

The question of whether to stay or go, to move or change jobs, isn't always enough to sustain an entire novel. Eventually the characters have to arrive at a point where they pick an option. The limbo between decisions is difficult, but it's not heroic to linger there in indefinite ambivalence either. The shorter length of a novella makes that life changing decision the central conflict, and it's usually enough to sustain the narrative.

ballroom blitz Another example of life changes in novellas can be found in Lorelei James' Ballroom Blitz, (Samhain, 2012). James writes erotic contemporary fiction, and this novella is plenty erotic. The heroine, Maggie Buchanan, has been laid off from her job in IT, and is trying to decide between pursuing her career in computer technology or returning to ballroom dance, a hobby she loved and might have been able to make her career had she not been discouraged years before by her brother. She teaches a ballroom dance class with her dance partner, and one of her students is Jon White Feather and his niece, who coerced Jon into taking the class with her. Jon is instantly drawn to Maggie, but he's facing a similar change in his life: He's a drummer in a pretty well-known rock band, and is taking time off to avoid total burnout. But while he's taking a break, other bigger bands come calling, just as he and Maggie begin to address the attraction between them.

Both characters have to figure out what they want, both as individuals and as a couple. If Maggie and Jon decide to follow their creative careers, they'll travel relentlessly, and it'll likely compromise the future stability of their nascent relationship. But each one also has to ask themselves if they are compromising a dream or squandering a tremendous opportunity if they choose to forgo the possible opportunities and stay in town and be together. Both Maggie and Jon have to figure out what they want, and how what they thought they wanted might have changed, while also figuring out a new relationship that not everyone in their families is thrilled about.

That's a lot of conflict in one novella, and while I really liked the characters and the vividness of the setting, not every conflict was sufficiently addressed. Yet I don't think it would have been enough for a longer book, because the smaller length of the story and the faster pace echoed the pressure Maggie and Jon were under: the opportunities before each of them wouldn't hang around while they made up their minds.

My love of romance novellas is relatively new. I didn't appreciate them until my life became a lot more crowded with so many things to do in each day. Now that there are so many novellas available, I love discovering new stories and new authors. Most of all, I enjoy experiencing a complete story from beginning to happy ending in an hour of reading. Often, that's enough to recharge me so that I can go tackle another 16 things on my never-ending to do list.

Do you like novellas? What novellas do you love? Are they novellas you re-read?

Sarah Wendell is the co-creator, editor and mastermind of the popular romance blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.