If you’re interested in embarking on a novella-in-flash or novel-in-flash, you are in the right place. This writing course is designed as a chemistry lab in which you can incubate and grow a novella-in-flash or novel-in-flash concept.
(But wait! What exactly is a novella-in-flash/novel-in-flash? See here.)
The full course consists of 15 Modules, conducted by one-to-one exchange with the tutor and novella-in-flash specialist Michael Loveday. More about Michael’s teaching and editing experience here.
This course is designed to offer you a more sustained and in-depth level of one-to-one support for writing a novella-in-flash than you will be able to find anywhere else. It aims to provide the most comprehensive insights into all aspects of the novella-in-flash form. And it’s completely flexible.
YOU CHOOSE when you write and how quickly you work through the course. So you can fit your writing easily around commitments to your job, caring responsibilities, your yoga classes, cleaning the fridge (once a week, right?), and those late-night Breaking Bad re-runs that you love so much.
A brief course outline is here. A description of how the course works can be found here. What you can expect in terms of outputs and outcomes is listed here. Prices can be found here.
The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros (1984; London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2004; 110 pp.)
Subject matter – a short novella about a young Mexican American girl growing up in an impoverished district of Chicago and longing for a home of which to be proud. At once a coming-of-age story and a study of the fellow residents of her neighbourhood, it explores issues of poverty, sexual harassment, domestic violence and racism.
Structure/Style – many of the forty-four chapters are very short – the shortest being only about 70 words long – and approach prose poetry in their vivid lyricism, lightness of touch and absence of narrative arc. As a novella it would feel even shorter were it not for the large spacing between the top of each page, the title of each chapter, and the beginning of each story – these gaps have the dual effect of creating a meditative spaciousness and also encouraging the book to seem longer than it is, as a number of the tiny vignettes run to two pages when they would otherwise fit onto just half a page. Although the book is often described as a coming-of-age story, a significant proportion of the book is devoted to characters other than the narrator – Esperanza is writing the story of a whole neighbourhood through a kaleidoscope of varied scenes. The reading experience is like looking across a street at a large apartment block and peering in briefly through the windows. The novella has established itself as a classic of Chicano literature – Chicano/Chicana identity being seen as distinct from Mexican American identity partly through its resistance of pressures to assimilate into or be subsumed by white American society.
What can novella-in-flash writers learn from this book?
(1) Setting – The House on Mango Street is a great example of how to use setting as the springboard into narrative. The novella is bookended in its first and last chapters by Esperanza’s yearnings for a more affluent and permanent home to live in. Her desire to escape “the house I belong but do not belong to” (P.110) manifests as a conflicted relationship with her own family and community, and shapes the entire story. The book is a description of a street, which becomes a portrait of a community, which becomes an exploration of a racial identity, all of which is framed by that opening and closing expression of a desire for something other/something more. With a deft touch, Cisneros refers to this longing for home in occasional asides through the course of the book, perhaps most explicitly in the chapter ‘Elenita, Cards, Palm, Water’, in which Esperanza visits a fortune-teller and discusses ideas of “house” and “home” with her. All of this gives the book a through-line or thread, and the faint suggestion of a narrative arc, while it moves towards an ending that somehow balances the desire to escape with the desire to be rooted.
(2) Ensemble Cast – In its balancing of inner and outer worlds, this novella juggles the portrayal of a broad ensemble cast while never losing sight of the central character. Esperanza acts as witness to over two dozen characters within this very short book, and many are given their own dedicated chapter(s). The depictions of Mango Street’s residents explore questions about the society Esperanza has been born into and the cultural traditions and customs that press down upon her. In particular, Esperanza watches female neighbours closely, evaluating their negative and positive qualities, and we notice a strong undercurrent of her searching hard for role models. She processes and solidifies her own social consciousness and sexual identity through everything she observes, even learning about her own yearnings through other people’s disappointments. Of a new neighbour who has left a cherished home behind, Esperanza says “Home. Home. Home is a house in a photograph, a pink house, pink as hollyhocks with lots of startled light. The man paints the walls of the apartment pink, but it’s not the same you know. She still sighs for her pink house, and then I think she cries. I would.” Ultimately, Cisneros is exploring the boundaries of story-telling as an act of empathy, as Esperanza indulges in projections about her neighbours’ inner lives, all the while confessing so much about her own desires.
(3) Voice – So much of the success of this book is down to language and especially voice – it is street smart yet youthful, disappointed yet idealistic, yearning to be established and accepted yet yearning to escape, the voice of a victim (of racial and class discrimination), yet a voice of passionate strength and freedom of thought. Although the book’s primary language is English, Esperanza occasionally uses Spanish words, such that the narrative voice itself can be seen as an expression of Esperanza’s duality – blended as it is between the English tongue and her Hispanic roots. The sensory detail is intensely vivid yet delivered with a graceful, light touch, often rising into an everyday lyricism – “That is how it goes and goes.” (P.28) “Until then I am a red balloon, a balloon tied to an anchor.” (P.9) “Sometimes I hear them laughing late, beer cans and cats and the trees talking to themselves: wait, wait, wait.” (P.73) “The taxi door opened like a waiter’s arm.” (P. 76)
(4) Minimal Plot – The House on Mango Street is an example of how to succeed with pacing a novella patiently and plotting it only lightly. It’s only really towards the mid-point – about half way to two thirds through – that work and a growing awareness of sexuality and death start to crowd the narrator’s worldview and give the story more forward movement, as we realise Esperanza is growing up. Until then we have been hooked by that opening yearning for “a home” and then carried along by the vivid multiplicity of the ensemble cast crowding the foreground and by the wonderful qualities of Esperanza’s voice. Even in the final third of the novella, plot is suggested only with the barest of touches. The primary engines of this story are character, voice and setting, not plot.
We the Animals, by Justin Torres (London: Granta Books, 2012), 125 pp.
Subject Matter – a coming-of-age story about a young boy, one of three brothers, in a mixed-race family in New York. The family is a madcap, affectionate one, yet domestic violence is a feature of the parents’ chaotic relationship and their treatment of the boys. In the process of growing up, the boy discovers his sexuality.
Structure/Style – The book is written mainly through longer short-short stories. There are 19 chapters. Some are only 3-4 pages long, but many run to 6-9 pages, and one is 12 pages long. As a result this novella stretches the category of the novella-in-flash, with so many chapters over 1,000 words (though under 2,500). Stories of 1,000-2,000 words in length have been called “Sudden Fiction”, following the anthology Sudden Fiction: American Short-Short Stories, published in 1983 and edited by Robert Shapard and James Thomas. This was an influential book in the gradual crystallisation of the flash fiction category/label (before James Thomas’s 1992 anthology Flash Fiction: 72 Very Short Stories officially established the term Flash Fiction, describing stories of up to roughly 750 words). So if there were a category “novella-in-sudden-fiction” We the Animals would be there. Stylistically, the book is very energetic (in both the characters’ actions and also the vitality of the language) and the sentences are often strongly rhythmical, with recurring use of triple clauses (“We wanted more music on the radio; we wanted beats; we wanted rock.” (p.1)). These create a wonderful musicality.
What can novella-in-flash writers learn from this book?
(1) We the Animals is a classic example of how to use vivid action and dramatic energy to engage the reader – the boys have an irrepressible, defiant humour, and play wild family games (dressing up like monks, smashing fruit with a hammer, pretending to be trolls etc). These idiosyncracies linger in the memory. There is also significant conflict within the family – between the mother, father and children. And the descriptions are intensely physical and sensory. One of the lasting impressions of the book, therefore, is its sheer verve.
(2) This book is a good model for writers who want to produce extended scenes and give each chapter a clear narrative arc – generally Torres includes plenty of action and narrative progression, usually with a clear shift embedded in each story by the end – a kind of “lift-off” into an image or resonating new idea.
(3) We the Animals is a remarkable example of how to use Point of View skilfully. Many early chapters use a first person plural “we” narrator and present the three brothers as a group; but gradually as the boys grow older an independent “I” narrator emerges as a feature – someone with his own action, occasionally with his own chapters separate from his brothers, someone with his own particular responses to his situation – the POV thereby reflecting the individuation of the adolescent. The use of the children’s point of view is nuanced – there are times when they don’t fully recognise the evidence of domestic violence between the parents, but the reader can infer it – the POV conveying the limited understanding of youth. In the penultimate chapter, there is a brilliant shift into an almost “dissociated” narrator – the boy describing himself using a third person “he/him” – which absolutely fits the fraught emotional situation.
(4) We the Animals is also a brilliant model for how to “pace” a novella. The first six chapters set up the family situation without moving the plot forward – a kind of “kaleidoscope view” of the family life from different angles, a rich exploration of character for its own sake. In the seventh chapter, there is the first sense of narrative development, acknowledging material that has preceded – “Papa disappeared for a while, and Ma stopped showing up for work, stopped eating, stopped cooking for us…” (p.30). The independent “I” narrator, as mentioned, eventually appears more strongly, and the novella then takes a more serious turn as the boy’s awakening into adulthood changes our experience of the story. The final chapter is highly metaphorical and enigmatic – a lyrical prose poem quietly closing this sequence of chapters that otherwise feel emphatically like fully-fledged stories. The book brilliantly shows readers how to set up a narrative context gradually and then how to crank the gears of the developing story.