If you’re interested in embarking on a novella-in-flash or novel-in-flash, you are in the right place. This online course is designed as an incubator lab in which you can develop 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.)
This Novella-in-Flash Incubator 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.
The course gives you an informed space in which to figure out: what to write about, how to develop your characters and story world, how to link disparate material together, and how to shape an overall narrative arc. It also will expand your awareness of available options for the different forms and styles of novella-in-flash you can adopt, and the different narrative strategies you can employ.
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 description of how the course works can be found here. What you can expect in terms of outputs and outcomes is listed here. Four different course options are described here.
Forthcoming from Ad Hoc Fiction in May 2022 is Michael Loveday’s novella-in-flash craft guide, Unlocking the Novella-in-Flash: from Blank Page to Finished Manuscript. Now available to pre-order from the Ad Hoc Fiction website. All pre-orders before 17th May save £3.75 on the cover price.
Advance praise for Unlocking the Novella-in-Flash: from Blank Page to Finished Manuscript:
“This is it, writers. This is all you need if you’re even thinking of writing a novella-in-flash. Michael Loveday has written the destined-to-become-a-classic bible on the form. Part craft book, part workbook, part collected resources, Unlocking the Novella-in-Flash is packed with insights, inspiration, examples, and prompts to get you started and assist you every step of the way. A gifted teacher, Loveday anticipates the pitfalls and steers you around them. He provides tangible examples to back up his lessons. He makes the often daunting task of starting a book feel not just doable, but fun.” ~Kathy Fish, author of Wild Life: Collected Works
“An extraordinarily useful resource… Highly recommended for all writers, all teachers of creative writing, and anyone interested in new forms of expression.” ~David Gaffney, author of Out of the Dark and Sawn-Off Tales
“A beautifully written and practical guide for novella-in-flash writers. Michael Loveday effortlessly unlocks the secrets of this ever-evolving form of storytelling that is coming of age in our time.” ~Bambo Soyinka, Professor of Story, Bath Spa University
“Michael Loveday is our foremost champion of the cutting-edge literary form of the novella-in-flash, and in this practical, hands-on guide he takes both the new flash fiction writer, and the seasoned pro, through the process of turning discrete moments of inspiration into a cohesive, coherent whole, while never losing sight of the joy of creativity that should underpin all writing. If you’re a poet wanting to try to write something more substantial, or a prose fiction writer looking to branch out, this book will give you the inspiration and encouragement you need to start experimenting.” ~Rishi Dastidar, author of Saffron Jack and editor of The Craft: A Guide to Making Poetry Happen in the 21st Century
“Unlocking the Novella-in-Flash is a handbook, guidebook, reference book, map and compass for anyone thinking of embarking upon writing a novella-in-flash – and indeed those who’ve already written and published one… I guarantee that this book will become a staple in the reading diet of every flash fiction writer.” ~Johanna Robinson, author of Homing
“Writers have been waiting for this book and we didn’t know it… Unlocking the Novella-in-Flash is destined to join the canon of invaluable books on writing.” ~Pamela Painter, author of Fabrications: New and Selected Stories, and co-author of What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers
Available to pre-order now from the Ad Hoc Fiction website. All pre-orders before 17th May save £3.75 on the cover price.
I’m very glad this month to welcome poet and fiction writer Robin Thomas to this blog. Robin is the author of Margot and the Strange Objects (Ad Hoc Fiction, 2022), which arrives in the world on 25th March, and here he shares a writing prompt based on his process for that book…
“My forthcoming novella-in-flash Margot and the Strange Objects (Ad Hoc Fiction, 2022) had an unusual genesis: a couple of years ago my wife and I were watching an interview with Phillip Pullman in which he mentioned that he wrote, as a matter of course, a certain number of words a day. My wife suggested that I do the same. I thought I would try and settled for 400 words as my target.
“In poetry workshops, the facilitator often asks the attendees to start the day with a piece of automatic writing – the rules are ‘just write, don’t think, write as quickly as you can.’ The purpose of this is twofold – (1) to get the juices flowing, get into the habit of writing, warm the muscles and (2) to get material directly from the unconscious, involving the conscious faculties as little as possible. What you generally find is that about 70% of what you write is nonsense, but the remaining 30% contains useful material. I decided to use this principle, at least to begin with, for my daily 400 words.
“The paragraph below, with a lot of intervening tidying up and smoothing, is in essence as I wrote it on that first day, and became the first paragraph of my novella:
and then unexpectedly, Aunt Edith died. Margot loved her dearly and was grateful to be remembered in the old lady’s will. It wasn’t so much the money, a few hundred pounds, but nearly all the objects that the Aunt had collected in her travels and years of teaching. She had taught The History of Strange Objects at the local comprehensive school and comprehensive indeed was the collection of objects she had left. It was as if, along with the objects themselves, the aunt had left an injunction to continue the journey she had been on all throughout her life. There were sassing forks, nodality meters, spark diminishers, ferret radios, bath-o-pulsars, stoods, mirage flexors, stalling horse rings and many other objects besides. What would Margot do with such a collection? Where was the space to put them? One thing was certain – she would not part with any of them. While she sat perplexed, turning the solicitor’s letter this way and that in her hands, a small folded note fell out – it was from her aunt! Margot’s heart began to thump and she opened the note with delight. To hear her aunt’s voice even only in written form, and for the last time, made her start, and she looked round, as if her aunt were somewhere in the room. ‘My dearest Margot,’ began the note which went on to speak of their mutual feelings and thanked Margot for being so kind and loving always. That done, the note spelt out some instructions – these followed, the surprising result might be the return of the aunt to life!
“Out of this brain dump came the main theme of a quest, with a young girl as the protagonist. It also led me to the title: ‘Margot and the Strange Objects’ and indicated the tone of what was to follow – broadly comic (the names of the ‘strange objects’ are all fictional and rather jokey), although I didn’t realise this until later.”
Exercise: ‘Automatic Writing’
“Write a certain number of words over seven days using ‘automatic writing’ as above. This means: don’t think, just write, don’t revise, don’t check, don’t censor yourself, trust yourself and above all, write quickly. I would suggest somewhere between 100 and 500 words daily. (If you set yourself too high a goal, you might find that you give up.)
“I would also suggest that initially you don’t read on a given day what you wrote on the day before.
“On day eight review what you have written and see if it either (1) contains suggestive sentences or phrases which send you off in a particular direction or (2) is already looking like something that might suggest a story line. Though a lot of it will probably be nonsense I suspect you will find something there.
“Keep going each day, it will probably tell you when it’s time to stop – it might end up as a novella-in-flash or perhaps a modern War and Peace (remember that Joyce’s plan for Ulysses was originally as a short story to be included in Dubliners!).
“By ‘keep going’ I mean that you might (1) go on with the ‘automatic writing’ approach after that eighth day, perhaps checking from time to time that you are going in a direction that makes some sense, or you might now switch to (2) a more conventional way forward, making plans, drawing diagrams and so on. If this is to be your approach you will probably want consciously to identify characters and situations that can be developed, perhaps along the following lines…”
How I moved forward from that first day’s writing:
“Margot in the paragraph quoted above seemed already to be involved in a quest to find out more about the ‘strange objects’ and what she ought to do with them. Instinctively, I wanted to write more about this quest. I felt compelled to describe the nature of the ‘strange objects’. My writing hand unconsciously wondered: what kind of person is Margot? Does she want to combine her efforts with those of some others? Who would they be? Would they be cooperative or would they have a mix of approaches (would some have their own ideas about the objects and not want to follow the instructions for example). Would Margot be low level comedy, would it be surreal or absurd, would it become more serious, perhaps ending up as a murder mystery or political satire? I wondered what the instructions might be in the note that fell out of the solicitor’s letter. Would I disclose them now or later or bit by bit? Would there emerge a sub plot or plots, if so I thought about letting them run in parallel with the main plot but engaging with it later on – and in fact, this is what I decided to do.”
“Whichever method of keeping going you adopt, you may well find that something useful develops, one in which you use the conscious and unconscious parts of your mind working together.
“My motto, at least in the early stages of any writing is ‘don’t overthink’. And one more important point: have fun! This might be the opportunity for you to explore your own sense of humour, of the ridiculous or absurd – the unconscious parts of our brains sometimes seem to have more fun than the conscious parts!”
About the Author:
Robin Thomas completed the MA in Writing Poetry at Kingston University in 2012. He has published poetry books with Eyewear A Fury of Yellow (2016), Cinnamon Press Momentary Turmoil (2018) and A Distant Hum (2021) and Dempsey and Windle Cafferty’s Truck (2021).
Margot and the Strange Objects (Ad Hoc Fiction, 2022) is his first Novella-in-flash. He currently has two more simmering away.
Sudha Balagopal’s flash fictions and creative non-fiction pieces are always rich and fascinating.
Here’s a story of hers published recently in X-Ray Lit:
In this story, one thing that’s clearly in the foreground (for me) is the interplay between the past and the present, and the way this influences how “story” is cleverly revealed AND delayed (for example, the recurring, interrupting motif of the potato chips).
Also strongly in the foreground is the tension between individual choice/agency and social conventions – the constraints that families, communities, societies place upon on us. Some such constraints are of course written and explicit – for example, written into national law or policy. And some may be implicit pressures, unspoken codes or informal expectations. Many of these unwritten expectations, nevertheless, follow inevitably from broader social structures imposed by government policies, laws and judicial systems, religious doctrines, or organisational constitutions. A kind of trickle-down social ergo-nomics that permeates all behaviour.
Many writers consider that part of their role is to highlight social conventions, and ask questions about them, as Sudha Balagopal does here. This story, notably, ends on a question. One of the most radical things about this flash fiction, for me, is the fact that the narrator has seemingly agreed (in later life) to discuss exactly the kind of decision on behalf of her children that was made for her by her parents when she was young, and which she resisted at that time. Balagopal lets readers draw their own conclusions, and figure out how they feel. How might you do that in your own novella?
Invitation: Once you’ve read this story, consider the following:
• Explore an identity to which you are connected. (Or else do this for one of your novella characters.) This might be an aspect of national, religious or cultural identity. Or an aspect of identity to do with work/other responsibilities. Single out a social convention or expectation related to that identity – some unwritten code or formal requirement that is imposed by others. Work this into a flash fiction that fits your novella’s situation, exploring the push and pull between social expectation and the individual impulse to resist convention. Put pressure on the protagonist and their personal values, and see what unfolds. Does the pressure of convention/expectation affect the way they behave/speak/dress, their life decisions, their feelings about themselves or the world, and so on? What sparks of tension, disagreement or conflict might arise?
• Write a flash fiction for your novella that braids a scene from the past with a scene from the present, breaking each strand into sections, so the ongoing story alternates between fragments of the present and the past. OPTIONAL: Let one character be (in the past) a child or young person interacting with their parents, and then (in the present) the same character is a parent themselves, having to make choices on behalf of their child or children.
• Write a flash fiction for your novella about a disappointing date.
• Write a flash fiction for your novella about being a witness to (or on the receiving end of) the actions of an inconsiderate or capricious person. OPTIONAL: Characterise that person as sleazy or unpleasant in some other way.
• Write a flash fiction for your novella in which a character goes to the cinema with another person. Let the movie scenes on screen have some relevance to the relationship between the two people, creating a subtext that draws attention to an underlying tension between them (for instance, what’s shown on-screen might highlight a difference between what the two individuals each want or yearn for). OPTIONAL: Choose another cultural event or performance that’s not a film.
Of course, there’s the very strangeness of the scenario – it’s both macabre and surreal. Flash fiction is a good vehicle for that combination of gruesome weirdness and absurdity. Another notable feature is the sheer quality of the detail, the sentence-making itself. The language is conversational – we imagine a voice speaking, and yet it’s expressed with precision, invention, and relish. Lastly I’m struck by the move towards an unusual image at the end – taking the story in a completely new and unexpected direction (how did we get to hippos??) , and creating an unresolved, resonant quality by deliberately juxtaposing and not explaining. For a moment, we’re really there on the savannah (on a “blisteringly gorgeous day” – a lovely touch).
Invitation: Write a new flash fiction, made relevant to your novella’s story situation, in which:
• Something gruesome, macabre, or strange happens, yet the narrator considers it entirely normal or routine (OPTIONAL: let them explain their unconvincing justification for it).
• Someone is conserving or setting something aside for future benefit (it doesn’t have to be surreal or macabre). What’s their motive?
• Someone alters their physical appearance for a particular purpose or ulterior motive. (This could relate to their clothing, jewellery, tattoos, make-up, or hairstyle, for instance). What’s the expected benefit and does it pay off for the protagonist?
• Two people conspire in an activity that contravenes a perceived “norm” (whether a formal law or a social code, tradition or expectation). What’s at stake? What are the consequences?
• Identify and isolate some other ingredient of this story (one that you admire or are interested in), and transpose this aspect into your novella’s story situation, making it entirely new in the process, by thinking laterally.
OPTIONAL: For any of the above, end the story by moving towards an image (a metaphor, simile or comparison) that is unexpected yet apt. Don’t explain or spell out the relevance. Expand into description of physical details. Let the image and its sensations linger in the reader’s mind.
Then write a story for your Novella-in-Flash in which:
a long-awaited change in the weather affects how characters behave, what they can do, or how they feel.
there’s a contrast between one protagonist’s parent and another character’s parent (as here, between two different fathers) – they behave differently, have different values, or there’s some other kind of friction or tension between these two representations of parenthood, which is noticed by a protagonist or narrator.
there’s an exploration of contrasting experience between genders (for example, as happens here, a female narrator observing a male character, or otherwise another gender contrast).
a community of people (any kind of social group) is prompted, cajoled, inspired to act collectively in response to an event or a change
a character is actively interacting with the landscape or physical environment (for example, as happens here, a character wading into a river, catching fish)
identify some other ingredient or tactic in the story that you connect with or admire. Transplant it into the context of your own novella. Write a flash fiction using some twist or variation upon this particular element. Make it new.
Write a chapter about a character yearning passionately/desperately for something – some kind of yearning that’s a “big, wild thing”
Write a chapter in which a narrative event is prefigured in a night-time dream
In this story the main character Sylpha has a baby. Write a chapter in which a character makes something else/brings something else into the world, or wants to do so.
This story refers to twins (three sets of twins in fact!) Write a chapter featuring two of something – a pairing, or a doubling, or a mirroring. Think beyond human twins – for example, consider objects, animals, features of the natural or human-made landscape, events/actions, etc
Draw some other kind of inspiration from the example story and use this as a springboard for your own writing.
As always, with such prompts: “Make it new.” (Ezra Pound)
I love how the following story (at Pithead Chapel) by Kyra Kondis suggests a whole story-world in a compressed space, through the use of vivid, specific details. (A novel might be constructed from these beginnings!) The title too is neat – offering more than we might take from it at first glance. Taking this story as a springboard, why not write a scene/chapter for your novella in which…
a character gets involved in an affair (as revenge?)
OR: a character is propelled towards risky behaviour (of some kind) after experiencing a loss
OR: a character does something “wrong” but feels justified or has fair motive (you decide the justification/motive)
OR: a character checks someone else’s text messages or some otherwise confidential or private information (you decide the reason why – and what they find when they do)
OR: the story is split into a three-part “montage”, set at different times (use past/present/future as you see fit, and consider focusing on three primary characters)
OR: find some other angle that you unearth from the example
Something in the Potato Room, by Heather Cousins (Tucson: Kore Press, 2009), pp.69
Subject Matter – A somewhat hypochondriac museum administrator, who is also a collector of Victorian cutlery and reader of rare books, moves house and discovers a mysterious hominid hiding in a small room under the stairs. “A chief of the Inner Station”, Cousins writes, parodying Heart of Darkness.
Structure/Style – The presentation of this book is unusual, with large margins, and paragraphs as thin columns running down the middle of the page. The language has the strangeness, intensity and compression of poetry – although it has a narrative impulse, it’s clearly calling attention to itself as out of the ordinary. The book was classified as poetry by the publisher, but there’s surely a kind of novella-in-flash here, in all its quirky glory, with a clearly defined central character moving and acting through time and place in a linked sequence of narrative fragments. Something in the Potato Room might be categorised as a ‘novella-in-prose-poems’ – and a magnificent one. The book’s central crisis taps into that universal, childlike fascination: the possibility of a creature lurking in the dark of the wardrobe.
What can novella-in-flash writers learn from this book?
(1) Prose Poetry: Something in the Potato Room is full of unusual prose, more akin to poetry. Cousins is a fan of the quirky, verbless sentence that teeters on the verge of logical sense: “Wasn’t I just ‘stuck in a rut’? A standard pattern? A Federalist? A Simple? A Plain?” (p.11). And again here, in a passage that is broken into lineated verse: “What has been placed / here // has been placed here // to DORMANT. / to STILL. / to STULLIFY.” (p.44) This style of writing makes sense in a more intuitive way. Meanings are forged through the interplay of unusual sentence structure and word choice. And even amidst the more routine syntax and vocabulary, the descriptions still make metaphorical leaps: “Dr. Paul stood behind my desk. Looming. A reconnaissance balloon. A zeppelin.” (p.29)
Invitation: How might the flash fictions in your novella adopt some of the rich language strategies frequently used in poems: metaphor or simile, musicality, strange sentence structures, surprising word choices?
(2) Illustrations – Something in the Potato Room is also made strange by being peppered with odd, Victorian-style illustrations: extravagant moths and butterflies, a woman downing her head in a bowl of water, a detailed display of teeth, rows of kitchen utensils. Each one is captioned in a way that associates the picture with the ongoing story, yet the images themselves feel only tangentially relevant. This adds to the eerie atmosphere – a feeling that something is out of sorts. The visual experience is further estranged by the prose poems being presented in very narrow columns, centred on the page, surrounded by an expanse of blankness.
Invitation: How might you express your visual imagination through your novella? Is there an opportunity to do something unusual with layout or spacing? Might photographs, illustrations or diagrams appear at any point? (This won’t be relevant to every novella, of course, but these questions might spark ideas for some writers…)
(3) Off-kilter/quirky style: The narrator’s voice is delightfully off-centre, expressing anxiety and a quirky perspective, and the story itself is wilfully unpredictable. An increasing pressure on her job at the museum alternates with scenes at home describing the encounter with the hominid. These domestic scenes are creepy and fantastical, revelling in macabre sensory detail. The narrator adopts a stance towards her house guest that is maternal, forensic, and apparently sexual, all at once. “I called and called. We had so many more things to discover. To unearth. I yearned to rub his mandible.” (p.63)
Invitation: Would it be interesting to shift your novella into unsettling genre territory – for example by introducing magical realist, horror, Gothic, or fantastical elements? In what other ways might your novella grapple with elements of strangeness?
How to Make a Window Snake by Charmaine Wilkerson, published as part of the three-novella anthology How to Make a Window Snake (Ad Hoc Fiction, 2017), pp. 120.
Subject Matter: A woman looks back upon the death of her younger sister and the effect this event had on her family. Issues relating to gender and race supplement the domestic tragedy in the foreground, as the narrator reflects upon her African-American identity and male/female contrasts ripple below the surface of the story. This award-winning novella-in-flash was published in an anthology alongside novellas by Joanna Campbell and Ingrid Jendrzejewski, as part of Bath Flash Fiction Award’s inaugural Novella-in-Flash competition in 2017.
Structure/Style: 19 chapters, each one 1-3 pages long and each a full-fledged scene or story. We encounter a small ensemble cast of characters – the parents, three sisters, two neighbours – via a first-person narrator (one of the sisters) and occasional chapters presented from other characters’ third-person POV. Written in classic “novella-in-flash” mode: a brief book of self-contained chapters that link to suggest a broader tapestry, namely the community (and history) of one family.
What can novella-in-flash writers learn from this book?
(1) Certain Plot Events as “Obsessions” – Wilkerson uses an interesting device of recurring references to the younger sister’s death on a lake and to red paint splashed on the steps of the mother’s art studio. These feature repeatedly in the midst of chapters ostensibly devoted to other topics, as if they are traumas that the novella is obsessed with. The novella, of course, need only inform the reader once of these two events, but instead it mentions them repeatedly. It’s a bold technique that subverts accepted practice, since it’s generally understood that individual stories within a novella-in-flash don’t need to repeatedly re-establish the plot context. But Wilkerson’s innovation has a powerful effect that has nothing to do with plot. It’s a form of haunting. Gradually the reader accumulates information about the context for the family tragedy. It’s wonderful sleight of hand, and an object lesson in how to tackle fraught emotional trauma in a story – as Emily Dickinson wrote: “Tell all the truth / but tell it slant.” It is also done without melodrama or cheap sentimentality.
Invitation: Might there be certain elements of your story material that haunt your characters, such that they can’t help but keep thinking/talking about them? Might these, in a productive way, be obstacles inhibiting your characters from moving forward, struggles that they must overcome?
(2) Haunted by a Location – One landscape in particular – the lake – recurs as a liminal location several times. At least three (or arguably four) significant, life-changing events and transitions happen there during the story. This is another way in which the novella is haunted – not just by the sister’s death or the splashed red paint, but also by a location. It’s a good example of making the most of a setting in a story.
Invitation: Might there be one particular location in your story where major transitions and experiences repeatedly occur? A landscape/setting that haunts your novella as a liminal place of change?
(3) Secrets and Point of View – The novella uses an ensemble cast tethered by one main narrator at the centre. This narrator delivers five chapters in a self-addressed, second person “you”; the rest of her chapters she narrates using a first person “I” (which often expands into a plural “we” when recounting family stories, especially of the sisters). We also get to know a select number of secondary characters, via occasional chapters from their third-person POV (one by the father, two by a sister, one by a neighbour). These flashes take us away from the central narrator and help to build our understanding of events by uncovering unexpected truths – overall in the novella, at least four or five things are revealed that are secrets unknown to some of the characters. In another writer’s hands the chapters in other people’s POV might seem like arbitrary jumpcuts, merely functional chapters designed to fill in information from the plot. However, since Wilkerson focuses on several key events in the distant past, it often feels like the novella is not moving forward methodically to fill in gaps but proceeding via an intricate spiral or web, as we gradually go deeper into the story situation. There is nothing laboured about the writer’s unfolding of events – we discover the facts of the family situation in a very natural way, almost as if by accident. The novella treats its storyline as a series of important secrets to be revealed, and the intricate and gradual unfurling of these is achieved with breathtaking skill.
Invitation: Might you embed a small number of significant “secrets” within your story material – events, facts and hidden stories that some characters know and other characters do not? How might you reveal these to the reader gradually, in an interesting way, such that the novella becomes a process of gradual revelation?
Play it As it Lays by Joan Didion (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970; London: 4th Estate, 1998), pp.214
Subject Matter – Maria Wyeth is an actor, in her 30s, divorced from film director Carter Lang, and headed into a whirl of prescription drugs, alcohol and anorexia in a 1960s Hollywood of intoxicated, B-list parties and disillusioned romantic liaisons. The novel primarily describes the events that led up to Maria being treated in hospital following a breakdown, from which location she narrates the introductory chapter. It explores how Maria experiences “peril, unspeakable peril, in the everyday.” (p.100). An appealing cocktail of ennui, glamour, tragedy and spiky dialogue, depicting life on the margins of the movie industry. One of the classic novels – Time magazine included it in its list of the top 100 novels of all time.
Structure/Style – Compared to many “classic-form” novellas-in-flash, Play it As it Lays feels particularly novel-like. Over 200 pages, there are 87 chapters, varying in length from half a page to six pages. Some are impressionistic moments; others run in sequence, picking up where the previous one left off. Thus, not all the chapters are fully developed to become self-standing stories, and a narrative momentum builds that makes it feel close to being a continuous novel. Many chapter openings establish a strong sense of “joined-up-ness”, e.g.: “In November the heat broke, and Carter went to New York to cut the picture, and Maria still had the dream.” (p.98) The first chapter, a kind of prologue or introductory piece, runs to eight pages. It is written in the first person, as Maria recovers in hospital in Los Angeles. There follow two brief chapters also in first-person POV (spoken by other characters), and then there are 84 numbered chapters in close third person POV, following the events in Maria’s life leading up to her time in hospital. Even the longer chapters are broken into discrete sections or scenes, and chapter length overall feels deliberately varied– short follows longer, longer follows short etc. Dialogue, often full of conflict or tension, is used frequently throughout. Towards the end of the novel, the linear narration of Maria’s pre-hospital experiences breaks up slightly, as Didion deliciously delays (and prepares us for) a key plot event.
What can novella-in-flash writers learn from this book?
(1) Significant Events – Play it As it Lays is particularly dominated by two major plot events. The first begins to be announced on p.47 – roughly one quarter of the way through. At once, the whole novel’s energy lifts, and something is urgently at stake in the main character’s life. This plot ingredient casts a shadow over the next 100 pages. One could argue that that until p.47, the novel has almost meandered through the main character’s relationships and situation. Suddenly now, it catches fire, and everything changes. The other major plot point is actually referred to in passing in the second chapter, but isn’t shown happening in real-time until the penultimate chapter. Again, it’s a momentous event, and it retrospectively changes how we interpret the whole novel. Everything else – the divorce from her husband Carter, the casual affairs, the descents into drunkenness and self-medication, Maria’s half-hearted Hollywood career, her eventual breakdown and hospitalisation – does matter, but these ingredients almost feel like supporting context for the two major plot points that shape the meaning of the novel.
Invitation: Depending, of course, on the kind of novella-in-flash/novel-in-flash you want to write, might you include one or two seismic plot events that irrevocably change the course of your story? And is there enough at stake yet, in your story situation (again, depending on the aims of your novella)?
(2) Cast of Secondary Characters – Didion locates her central character in a web of relationships – there are at least eight significant secondary characters, each with desires that compete with Maria’s, values that conflict, and motives that tug her in different directions. Didion keeps three prominent secondary characters close to the centre, repeatedly returning to their relationship with Maria over time. But at least five other minor characters still have a significant effect upon Maria. Each of them is prodding her, provoking her, telling her how to live or wanting something from her. Dynamic energy arises from this – and it’s a testament to Didion’s skill that, within 200 pages, she conjures Maria’s network distinctly and somehow keeps a grip on all the moving parts.
Invitation: Do your secondary characters crave something from your main character(s), and if so – what? Without overloading your novella, would it help to establish some conflicting desires in your story situation, a tangle of motives and values surrounding your main character(s)?
(3) Dysfunctional main character? – Maria Wyeth is a zone of turmoil: a jumble of addiction, anorexia, sleeplessness, and avoidance of responsibility in work and relationships. She goes AWOL while filming, she vomits drunkenly into a friend’s lap, she casually sleeps with people without being fully present to the experience. Didion is a writer unafraid to explore demons and dysfunctionality, and yet she still salvages something positive and admirable in Maria by the close of the book.
Invitation: What elements of vulnerability could you explore within your main character(s)? Would it help the story to make them damaged, in some way? Alternatively, if your characters do feel like a wreckage, what positive qualities can you salvage?