Michael Loveday’s new guidebook, Unlocking the Novella in Flash – from blank page to finished manuscript is published on May 17th by Ad Hoc Fiction, the third in their guide book series. It is currently available (until publication day) with a 25% discount from Ad Hoc Fiction. The guide book is packed with examples on many different approaches to writing a novella in flash and plenty of exercises to get you started and keep you going. The Bath Novella in Flash Award will open again soon, and close in mid January next year. And if you’re considering writing a novella-in-flash for the Award or elsewhere, if you have one on the go, or are in the middle of one that’s proving problematic, we really recommend you buy this guide book. This really useful extract from the book, about common problems, will whet your appetite.
THREE COMMON PROBLEMS
In the middle part of this book – Part Two’s Workbook – you’ll find writing and thinking exercises to help you build a novella-in-flash. For now, though, here are some tips about three problems that can frequently arise when attempting to write a novella-in-flash.
1. Lack of a thread
Some attempts at a novella-in-flash, including manuscripts that contain truly outstanding individual flashes, just don’t connect together well enough. They feel more like a miscellaneous, disparate collection of stories.
As you develop your novella, it’s worth continually thinking: what’s the thread, what’s the centre? Ask yourself this series of questions:
Novellas-in-flash with a clear central character or set of characters include Maud Martha (1953) by Gwendolyn Brooks, Evan S. Connell’s Mrs Bridge (1959), Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street (1984), and more recently Charmaine Wilkerson’s How to Make a Window Snake (2017), Sophie van Llewyn’s Bottled Goods (2018) and Damhnait Monaghan’s The Neverlands (2019). This is the most common form of novella-in-flash.
(b) If not, will it be clear what the central plot event or plot situation is?
John Brantingham’s Inland Empire Afternoon (2019), for example, doesn’t have a central character. Brantingham boldly introduces a cast of 40 characters within 45 pages, linked by a series of events on the same afternoon in a particular urban area. David Rhymes’s The Last Days of the Union (2022) explores a diverse, international ensemble cast connected to one central event – the landing of a plane in central Moscow in the 1980s
(c) If not, will it be clear to the reader what shared setting or location links the stories?
For example, in Maria Romasco Moore’s Ghostographs: An Album (2018), and Calum Kerr’s Braking Distance (2012), there isn’t a unifying plot or narrative situation. But the stories are set in one specific place that holds the material together. Each book feels like it amounts to a novella-in-flash
For example, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1974) takes the descriptions of imaginary cities as its common thread. The scenes in Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams (1993) all manifest different interpretations of time. Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America (1967) presents absurdist, irreverent vignettes using the motif of trout fishing as a recurring common element (plus a range of settings around the West Coast of the United States).
If the answer is ‘no’ to all four of the above questions, then it’s very likely you have only a collection of stories on your hands at the moment. You can either choose to adapt it into more of a threaded novella-in-flash (by including a recurring character, shared setting, common plot situation, and/or a very tight filtering theme), or instead keep it as it is and position it as a flash fiction collection.
One way to consider this is as follows:
The Writing Prompts and Exploration Tasks throughout Part Two’s Workbook revolve around creating a character-led or story-led novella-in-flash (although Steps #7 and #8 will help writers who want to use a particular setting or location as their cornerstone).
2. Too big a cast of characters
Generally speaking, it’s easier – for both the writer and the reader – to manage a novella if there’s a limited set of characters to focus on. Introducing lots of different protagonists into your novella can be problematic, unless they’re linked by location, or a set of central, shared events, or a tightly focused theme.
As you develop your cast of characters, ask yourself: what’s going to keep this novella in balance and in focus? Will I accidentally let some characters take over the story fleetingly, then completely lose sight of them? Will it be clear who is speaking or who the protagonist in a chapter is, if they’re unnamed? (At the very least, enough clues should accumulate in the various characterisations for the reader to realise in hindsight, when they look back over a novella, who exactly is speaking. A process of delayed revelation may be fine.)
Having dozens of named secondary characters beyond your primary character(s) can make it hard to really get to know the secondary ones and to get a sense of the centre of the story. This may be especially true in first person ‘I’ narration when the narrator is a background witness to diverse characters around them – unless there’s some particular event, setting or tightly focused theme as an additional tether for the material.
For example, in Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street (1984) the narrator acts as a witness figure describing the lives of dozens of secondary characters (her neighbours on Mango Street), but not only does the street itself act as the stitching that connects them; the narrator also has her own arc of personal change. And her thoughts and feelings about her identity are woven into those descriptions of her neighbours and relatives.
Overall, then, it’s important to pay attention to the size of your cast of characters and be deliberate about how you are bringing them into the story. There’s help with building your cast of characters in Step #4 of the Workbook.
3. Confusing chronology
If time passes through your novella-in-flash in a very complex way, you might need to assess whether it’s ended up too convoluted to follow. This includes thinking carefully about any large or unexplained leaps in time, or moving back and forth between multiple eras that might interfere with the reader’s understanding.
Though it may not suit all novellas, one option is to include years, months or dates in the headings of your flashes, if it’s a really complex timeline. Other devices include employing different tenses or points of view, or adopting other creative devices (such as italics vs ordinary font) to help readers orient themselves between distinct eras in your novella.
For example, Michelle Elvy’s coming-of-age story the everrumble (2019) mixes up its chronology into a completely haphazard order but states the protagonist’s age with the title of most chapters, thereby offering the reader a foothold into the underlying sequence of things.
On the other hand, not every novella needs to flag up and explain its chronology. Charles Lambert’s deliberately non-linear With a Zero at its Heart (2014) presents short scenes from one person’s life with an entirely random chronology. Instead, its stories are grouped into themed sections (Objects, Travel, The Body, Animals, Language, Colours, etc.)
So it’s up to you to think through carefully whether the chronology of your novella needs some simplification or signposting. There’s more help with signalling the passage of time in your novella in Steps #14 and #17 of the Workbook.
Michael Loveday has been a writer, editor, and tutor of creative writing for more than a decade. He judged the 2019 and 2020 Bath Flash Fiction Novella-in-Flash Awards, and in 2018 began publishing a series of articles about the history and form of the novella-in-flash at SmokeLong Quarterly, including How to Spot A Novella-in-Flash at 100 yards which also features in Michael’s craft guide).
Michael’s hybrid novella Three Men on the Edge which consists of three mini-novellas-in-flash, was shortlisted for the 2019 Saboteur Award for Best Novella. He has taught creative writing in Higher Education since 2017, and he coaches writers and edits novella-in-flash manuscripts through his online mentoring programme at www.novella-in-flash.com.