Read this really interesting interview by Jan Kaneen, about her novella-in-flash, A Learning Curve first prize-winner from our 2023 Award, selected by judge, John Brantingham. Jan calls the book a ‘found form’ novella-in-flash. And for anyone thinking of writing a novella=in-flash, it’s exciting to see how one can come together from several different sources or life events. A Learning Curve is available in paperback from adhocfiction.com and Amazon and Jan is selling signed copies (see end of the post for details and link)
Interview with Jude
- Can you give us a brief synopsis of A Learning Curve, your prize-winning novella-in-flash?
A Learning Curve is a tiny epic spanning the lives of the Jackson family over three generations focusing on the experiences of protagonist, Sharon as she struggles with growing up, her mental health, motherhood, grief, and quantum physics.
- What inspired you to write it?
A Learning Curve is more a found form novella-in-flash than something I set out to write. It’s made up from a core of tiny stories written over five years whilst I was studying writing at the Open University. Some of these stories are centered in real experience, some are entirely fictional, but all have science/physics/quantum theory running through them as metaphor or leitmotif. When I noticed this thematic ‘connective tissue’, I decided to experiment and see if I could sequence these flashes to make them tell an overarching story, but when I did, the emerging narrative felt a bit one dimensional, so I decided to dissect an essay I’d written about postpartum psychosis into four standalone flashes and add them to the mix. Weirdly the confusing strangeness of quantum theory resonated with the strange confusion of my protagonist’s experience of psychosis, and as I really liked the effect this created, I decided to develop it further. I’d started studying creative writing in 2015 as a sort of well-being therapy, to leave overwhelming emotions on the page and not in me and so already had flashes written on the theme of mental unwellness. I wove some of these into the narrative too, creating a second draft which I entered into the Bath 2021 novella-in-flash comp (under a different title). When it was longlisted, I took this to be a sign I was on the right track, but not there yet. Fast forward a year and I unpacked my novella from its digital drawer and saw more clearly its strengths and weaknesses – that the tragedy inherent in it needed balancing with a touch of comedy, and the despair needed counterbalancing with a little more hope, so I added new flashes (some of which were previously shelved drafts that I now rewrote). These did seem to bring better emotional balance to the whole, but also brought the unexpected effect of making my protag’s journey more of a reversal. Now the story was now not just about living – but living and learning – so I changed the title.
- I’m interested in the many different science references in the chapter titles and contents of A Learning Curve. How did you come to structure it in that way?
I think I (sort of) explain this in the previous answer in respect of the overarching narrative, but in relation to individual stories, form and structure are always an integral part of my storytelling. I’ve been writing hermit crab flashes since before the term existed because I love stories told as lists, instructions, recipes, handbooks. I think these forms create a solid, no-nonsense narrative backbone that can magnify evoked emotion and provide contrast to poetic and/or lyrical language, so I redrafted several of the constituent flashes to be more ‘science-y’ hermit crabs, making one an equation, one a theory, one a spreadsheet, and changed some of the titles to be more ‘textbooky’ to misdirect the reader and heighten emotional contrast between title and content.
- Did your novella go through many different versions before you decided it was finished?
- There were four versions, I think, with each subsequent version having additions. I didn’t take anything away, I balanced what I already had. But I’m not sure I thought it was completely finished when I subbed it to Bath for the second time, just ready to be evaluated again in the world outside my head.
- What did you learn about the form in the process of writing it?
I think the main thing I learned from writing ‘in flash’ is that any ‘in-flash’ form be it memoir, novella, short story or novel, benefits from the constraints imposed by the form, especially short chapters and interior endings. These allow readers to have moments of pause or stasis in which they can stop, recalibrate, get their narrative bearings, then really lean-in, and engage as much with the blank spaces as with what is overtly stated. This allows the writer in flash to take risks with form, voice, narrative time and fragmentary (or at least) non-linear storytelling.
- Any tips for those finishing writing a NiF now?
I’m not really one for giving tips because we’re all different and what works for one person can be anathema to another, but if I was advising someone who writes a bit like me, I’d say, keep at it and experiment, but also take breaks because it can be hard to see what you’re doing and be objective when you get really close inside a text. Also get help from feedback buddies. Expert and critical friends are so, so useful for flash writers. When omission and implication are a large part of your storytelling, seeing storylines through another’s eyes is gold dust and can really speed up the editing process.
- Are you writing any more longer works of flash currently?
I’m putting together another found-form novella-in-flash, this time a pure horror story which includes flashes I wrote for places like Molotov Cocktail, Janus and Weird Christmas. It’s going to be very dark and properly disconcerting and should be fun to work on of an evening, down the end of my garden as the shadows lengthen and the evenings draw in.
Jan Kaneen lives below sea level in the Cambridgeshire Fens worrying about the climate crisis and the cost of living whilst writing unsettling stories about unsafe places. A few signed copies of her memoir-in-flash The Naming of Bones are still available. For deets about how to order this, or a signed copy of A Learning Curve please follow the link Books for Sale by Jan Kaneen – Jan Kaneen Creative and Other Writing