The Novella-in-Flash Fiction is one of my favorite forms in the genre and it is truly exciting that more flash fiction writers are experimenting with it. Thank you to Bath Flash Fiction for creating this opportunity and providing the impetus. This is my second year of judging the Award and it’s been an honor to do so.
I’ve said before that it’s hard to say what makes a winning novella and I want to repeat my thoughts here. There is no one recipe. The distinguishing characteristic of this form is that of compression. Saying a lot with a little. Technically the form involves skilful use of juxtaposition and what some call “white space”. I like to think of white space between chapters as something like deep breaths or short coffee breaks or a heartbeat. Within the story itself, white space is what’s silently alive, simmering under the surface of the story itself. We enjoy reading about people in the middle of a struggle we can identify with.
The writer is often tapping into a personal yet universal emotion such as grief, regret, isolation, or longing—and yet showing us the world in a way we’ve never quite seen it before. Often, there is generous use of specific, physical, unusual detail and a banquet of sensory information. At the end, we want to see and believe that something in the main character’s point of view changes, even if that change is subtle.
There were many strong entries this year once again. Writers composed their novellas-in-flash in interesting and inventive ways. There were compelling narratives—historical, contemporary and futuristic and interesting themes. In reducing the list down to the final ten, I paid close attention to how the different elements of the novellas worked together. I considered openings—some novellas drew me in more than others. I checked to see if each ‘chapter’ could stand alone. I looked at the use of language, sensory detail and compression. I thought about the individual chapter titles, the arrangement of the pieces, how they varied in tone or length and if that helped the overall structure. Yet ultimately, my winning choices are the novellas that moved me. I knew it because I was sitting on the edge of my seat, sometimes re-reading chapters because I loved them so much. In all three of these novellas, I experienced a breathless sense of wonder and satisfaction, a kind of rush, when I reached the end. And I didn’t want them to end. When they did, I wanted to read them all over again.
First prize goes to In the Debris Field by Luke Whisnant
In the Debris Field is a poignant, darkly funny novella about a small family’s demise. The story chronicles the unconventional experiences of a sensitive and perceptive male protagonist from childhood through middle-age. There are wild and witty 1960s and 70s pop-culture references throughout, adding color and intrigue. This author is a keen emotional observer, gifted in his specific, quirky and visual details, as well as in creating superb juxtapositions between sentences and fluid temporal leaps between chapters. We never feel left out, and our suspension of disbelief never falters. In the Debris Field is a breathtakingly imaginative study of the strangest ways family members will accidentally scar one another. Readers will relax and enjoy the ride, because they’re in the hands of a flash fiction master.
Runner up prizes go to A Slow Boat to Finland by Victoria Melekian, and Latter Day Saints by Jack Cottrell
A Slow Boat to Finland has one of the best titles of the novellas I read. We are not sure how the main protagonist, a bereaved mother, is going to reach a new place after losing her toddler daughter in a car accident. But things do move forward, if slowly, and there are more hopeful indications at the end, which felt the right way to complete this novella. Too much resolution in such circumstances would not have rung true. But some spark of light was necessary. The plot has many layers which intrigue. Most strikingly, the parents donate their baby’s heart and have to come to terms with it saving another little girl’s life. The families meet and the mothers of both children continue meeting and there is a continual tension as to how this element of the tragedy will unfold. The writing is strong and convincing and as a reader, I was pulled in to want to know what would happen next.
Latter Day Saints, the other runner up, is a quest story. A young man searches for meaning in life. He is precarious, suicidal. We gather this about him as small details about his life are revealed during his visits to ‘saints’ who give answers, some obscure and make him question more. I enjoyed the way this writer uses humor and humanises the saints as flawed characters, who, in his story include a labourer, a celebrity a, taxi driver, a city business woman, a second-hand dealer, an old and frail man.The endings of each chapter are particularly strong which helps to create a ‘breathing space’ between the individual pieces. Much of present day life and how different people negotiate it, is shown in this inventive novella-in-flash and more was revealed each time I read it.
Technical matters be damned. You can put these three novellas under a microscope and say “aha”! “That’s how they did it!” We love to think we can do this with our brains. We can study successful pieces, yes. But they can’t be replicated. With each of these novellas, the writer has reinvented it— has created something of lasting meaning. We’ve seen the world with new eyes and a new heart. We’ve come to care about these fictional people.