What Novella-in-Flash writers can learn from Calum Kerr’s The Audacious Adventuress (2014)

The Audacious Adventuress, by Calum Kerr (Southampton: Gumbo Press, 2014)

Subject Matter: A comical adventure about Lucy Burkhampton, who is repeatedly thrust into situations of extreme peril and risk of death at the hands of her nemesis Lord Diehardt. Lucy was due to inherit the Burkhampton estate following her father’s death, but Lord Diehardt has other ambitions. The book primarily offers the reader scenes in which the protagonist’s life is threatened and she must enact an archetypal “thrilling escape from death”, over and over again – dangling from a cliff-face, hanging onto the rear door of a moving train, locked in a crate on a sinking ship, tied to a burning rope above the stage of an opera in mid-performance, etc etc.

Structure/Style: 36 short chapters, following the formula of heroic adventure stories. Written as a brisk, readable, good-natured romp, it deliberately toys with the genre tropes of mid-20th century radio or film serials. Each story is prefaced by a recap (beginning “Last time:…”), then delivers a short scene of Lucy’s life under severe threat, followed by an (often far-fetched or miraculous) escape, and closing with Lucy falling into a perilous situation once more. Endings are self-conscious “cliffhangers”, with the editor addressing the reader and speculating as to what might happen next: “Will our plucky girl be consumed in a fiery inferno? […] To find out, come back next week…” The “editor” (Kerr, of course) also becomes increasingly tired of the absurd lengths to which the story is going to keep placing Lucy in peril then rescuing her. The chapter numbers run from 1 to 199, so the 36 parts of the story Kerr provides are merely a partial account of Lucy’s adventures: there are “plot holes” everywhere, as we see the protagonist abandoned in one impossible situation after another, only to find out, in the next section, that she survived (but with precious little explanation given as to how!). In other words, exactly half of the book’s story is unresolved. The author revels in not bothering to fill in this information – “[s]uggesting plotlines that the reader never actually sees is a lot of fun to write”, Kerr says in an Afterword. And he revels, too, in exploiting as many clichéd conventions as possible in this affectionate and breathless literary parody. Our heroine is an intrepid solo adventurer; the antagonist is villainous yet charming, etc etc. The book is tremendous fun, as is Kerr’s equally remarkable sequel The Ultimate Quest (2014). (NB Kerr is one of the pioneers of the UK flash fiction scene, establishing National Flash Fiction Day in 2012.)

What can novella-in-flash writers learn from this book?

(1) Connective Tissue: Most novella-in-flash chapters tend to start in a new situation, place or time, with fewer seamless links joining the dots between chapters than would occur in a more traditional, continuous novel. And each chapter tends to create a world of its own, offering up a meaningful standalone story experience – with the overall effect of the book seeming like a “constellation” of stars (Beckel and Rooney, eds., My Very End of the Universe: five novellas-in-flash and a study of the form (Brookline: Rose Metal Press, 2014) pp. VIII). However The Audacious Adventuress radically subverts this model by drawing connecting lines between the individual stars of each story. It spends time at the beginning of each chapter explicitly referring back to preceding elements of the plot, as if to remind the reader of what has happened so far. And each story ending looks ahead and imagines what might follow, preparing the reader for what comes next. It’s the very opposite of what the novella-in-flash has usually done, and it’s done very self-consciously (as an adventure serial parody). One strategy it does borrow from the “classic-form” novella-in-flash is to set each story at some distance in time from the next – the narrative is a gap-ridden patchwork of fabric with holes in between – indeed there are arguably many more “gaps” here than a novella-in-flash would often have. Kerr is therefore toying with the very idea of the connective tissue existing between stories – deliberately leaving big plot-holes (and drawing the reader’s attention to these absences), then also stitching together what remains of the piecemeal design using thin, joining threads (each chapter’s “preface” and “cliffhanger conclusion”). Meg Pokrass’s analogy of the novella-in-flash as a “crazy quilt” composed of scraps of cloth (Beckel and Rooney, p.47) is here taken to an extreme – the scraps placed some distance apart, with the tiniest threads of cotton left dangling between them.

Invitation: How will you deal with the gaps between each star in the constellation of your novella? Will you join the dots between chapters, referring back to other parts of the novella? Or will you make each chapter stand up on its own, as self-contained a story as it can bear to be? The latter may be the dominant, classic method, but Kerr’s novella shows us that the novella-in-flash can be approached in different ways.

(2) Page-turning effect: Part of the enjoyment of this publication (by the independent publisher Gumbo Press), is that it is written as an extreme parody of the mainstream/commercial potboiler mode. It is informed by a postmodern awareness of literary conventions, and generally moves at extreme high pace towards its climax via a series of cliffhangers. Most “classic-form” novellas-in-flash published to date haven’t operated this way – they proceed more gradually and in a more straightforwardly literary style, at times lingering on moments of epiphany, lyricism or revelation, even encouraging us not to turn the page, but inviting us to pause and “celebrate small moments” instead. Kerr is engaged in deliberately different game here, using preposterously action-driven storylines and an energetic style in the sentences to propel the reader onwards quickly.

Invitation: Kerr may be adopting this mode for comic, playful purposes. But for the writer-as-reader, this novella invites us to ponder questions of pacing and tension. At what pace do you want your novella to proceed? Are there times when you want to speed the reader onwards – perhaps towards a dramatic climax? Are there times when it would be good to slow the story down? Do you want your novella to grip the reader with action and a strong sense of drama – with an engine of conflict between a protagonist and an antagonist in the foreground? Or are you aiming for a quieter effect? There are no right or wrong answers here, only strategies and style choices for you to explore, ones that will influence which kinds of readers (and indeed publishers) your novella will appeal to…

Flexible Novella-in-Flash self-study course: https://novella-in-flash.com/4-module-short-course/

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