What Novella-in-Flash writers can learn from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1972)

Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino (1972; London: Vintage, 1997), pp.148

Subject Matter: Marco Polo describes 55 fictitious cities to the emperor Kublai Khan. The cities are generally uncanny or unhomely: for example, a city that expels all its waste on a daily basis into its outskirts, such that it is threatened with landslide; a city on stilts where everyone refuses to touch the ground; a city whose construction is never complete; a city with a parallel city of its dead citizens living alongside it. Each city expresses a distinct way of living, and even could be said to resemble a state of mind. Wild, untameable forces compete against forces of order and benign structure. Twinned, doubled, split and shadowed cities feature repeatedly: if these cities resemble characters, they feel like late 20th century, post-Freudian representations of existence. The cities all have notably feminised names (Irene, Clarice, Phyllis, Laudomia, Beersheba, etc), which implicitly contrasts with the masculine identity of Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, but the reason for this is not made explicit. Ultimately, all these invisible cities speak to a single, imagined location – as Marco Polo puts it: ‘Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice’. 

Structure/Style: The city descriptions are grouped into eleven categories: Cities & Memory, Cities & Desire, Cities & Signs, Thin Cities, Trading Cities, Cities & the Dead, etc, and there are 5 cities in each category. Each category is gradually introduced through an alternating, spiraling mathematical pattern. The detailed, technical focus of Calvino’s world-building can be related to both dystopian speculative fiction and travel writing, and there’s a definite philosophical edge. The dense, highly descriptive chapters read almost like prose poems. It’s not a book that can be read quickly. A recurring narrative ‘frame’ (conversational interludes between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan) introduces a political context for the city descriptions, and queries the meanings of these cities and their relationship to Kublai Khan’s empire. This book is the epitome of what can be called the “novella-as-collection” – in the main body of the book (the descriptions of the cities), there isn’t really a developing narrative situation – it is more like a series of portraits, individually dynamic but lacking a collective forward movement. Only within the “frame” material (the conversations between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan) could there be said to be any progression, as their relationship changes subtly. The main material reads more like a miscellaneous anthology. We are left with a novella that feels like it has rejected “plot”. Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, along with the recurring pattern of city descriptions, provide the necessary “thread” for it all to hang together.

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

(1) Frame: The two very distinct types of material in Invisible Cities – the city descriptions and the conversations between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan – create the effect of a kind of scaffolding wrapping itself around the main body of the book. These conversations (between an authority figure and his more junior messenger/emissary, in which Marco Polo almost plays Fool to Kublai Khan’s Lear) add crucial texture to the themes the book explores: power, ownership, acquisition, ambition, politics, memory, language, journeys, time, acts of interpretation.

Invitation: Would it be relevant, in your novella, to use a “frame narrative” either at the beginning and end, or interspersed throughout, to add extra context to your main story situation? Or might you interweave two very different types of subject matter in some other way? How might that “narrative frame”/contrasting material add meaning and richness to the novella?

(2) Patterns: The city portraits in Invisible Cities are categorised in clusters of five (according to their titles) and then dispersed throughout the book – they can be read in the almost-random/spiralling order in which they are presented or a reader could sift through to pick out each group in sequence– Cities and the Dead 1-5, Cities and Memory 1-5 etc, Thin Cities 1-5 etc.

Invitation: How might you use patterns when sequencing your flashes? Might you create some groupings, either through a linking title given to each flash or through the subtler patterns of the subject matter itself?

(3) Meaningful description: Calvino’s descriptions of these imagined cities are so intensely vivid that each one is raised to the level of a philosophical statement, capturing an emotional state within each concrete physical description of the city’s structure. This is achieved by giving the reader very specific details indicating both animate and inanimate elements: “The man who knows Zora by heart… remembers the order by which the copper clock follows the barber’s striped awning, then the fountain with the nine jets, the astronomer’s glass tower, the melon vendor’s kiosk, the statue of the hermit and the lion…” (‘Cities & Memory – 4’, p.13). And the ingenious degree of variety within each city portrait creates contrast, tension, paradox, and development, so that not only is the animate contrasted with the inanimate, but the real is contrasted with the imaginary, vitality with entropy, the untameable with the ordered. Finally, each city-system has an impact upon the thoughts, feelings, and behaviour of its visitors or residents.

Invitation: How might you raise up your descriptions of landscape and setting so that they suggest emotional states or philosophical truths? Can you get more specific and vivid in your descriptions? Can you understand better the contrasts between different elements of your settings, and what these contrasts signify (animate/inanimate, real/imagined, vitality/ entropy, wild/ordered, and so on)?

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

What Novella-in-Flash writers can learn from Gwendolyn Brooks’s Maud Martha

Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks (1953; Chicago: Third World Press, 1993), pp. 180.

Subject matter: A coming-of-age story about an African-American woman, from childhood to motherhood. The novel illuminates the ordinary, daily struggles (social, domestic and spiritual) of a black woman in Chicago in the 1930s and 1940s. 

Structure/Style: Thirty-four vignettes (in close third-person) of mostly 2-5 pages, often making vivid use of setting and description, and often ending with a kind of gentle epiphany or musing that feels poetic in instinct. (The novel actually began as a sequence of poems but was rejected by Brooks’s publisher in that form.) It feels like a novel of quietly fraught reflection, as Maud Martha witnesses the world around her and contemplates its meanings and her place in it. Other than marriage, home ownership and motherhood, there are few major dramatic events (at least, not ones with lasting consequences) occurring in the plot. We glimpse a “story arc” mainly through the overall passage of time and personal development of the protagonist’s consciousness as she navigates from childhood to motherhood; a sense of “plot” moving forward is barely suggested. The central struggle feels spiritual in nature – how to make a life count and how to be happy. As Asali Solomon has put it: “good days and bad, no headlines.”

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

(1) A Single Character Study – If a writer wants to understand how to explore one central character really profoundly using a classic novella-in-flash form, they could do worse than use Maud Martha as their model. Maud Martha, published in 1953, has a strong claim to be the very first fully fledged novella-in-flash/novel-in-flash (it runs to 180 pages, so could be said to be almost novel-length). It is the epitome of the novella-in-flash as a character study, a coming-of-age story revealed only through impressionistic, individual moments. The early chapters (1-10) cleverly telescope time as they skip through her childhood years. They are a wonderful example of using “foundational” early chapters to establish the key values and character qualities that a novella is going to explore – in this case, Maud Martha’s place in the world and within her family, the broader context of social conventions of the era and aspirations to status, the financial insecurity of her family, romantic attachments, and the unsettled inner world of Maud Martha herself. As a character portrait the book is wonderfully rich: we watch Maud Martha being overlooked or mistreated, we sympathise with her struggles in terms of self-esteem, inferiority and shaky social status, her experience of racial prejudice; we warm to her determination to be a good person and her instinct for self-sacrifice. We admire her resistance in the face of her difficulties, her will to live positively and embrace life. The novel is a portrait of an opinionated young woman forming her consciousness. Brooks delivers all this effortlessly, exploring subtleties with a light touch that is incredibly sophisticated and skillful.

Invitation:  to what extent could your novella-in-flash go really deep into a single character’s worldview and experiences, even in third person?

(2) Epiphanies – Particularly notable in this novel-in-flash is Gwendolyn Brooks’s use of the quiet, almost transcendent epiphany after Maud Martha witnesses some small detail of the world around her. Gutting a chicken, listening to music, a view of dandelions, trapping a mouse – Maud Martha’s intelligent reflections and her instinct for musing mean that these moments take on deeper, spiritual qualities. She witnesses the world and draws conclusions about herself and how to live. These chapters are perfect studies in how to wring every last drop of meaning from a simple scene.  

Invitation: In what ways could your main character(s) be sensitive to the world, and be provoked (by what they witness) into thoughtful/emotional/sensory response?

(3) Social Context – The individual life here is set within a vivid social context: Maud Martha’s sense of her own mortality and her spiritual search are sparked by witnessing the deaths of relatives, and she experiences friction from society’s expectations about womanhood and racial identity. We know her partly through seeing her community connections with family, friends and neighbours, and partly through watching her soak up contemporary culture. Maud Martha is an examination of social affectation, signals and customs, and the book shows us very effectively how to portray one character from various social angles – the individual framed within a broader context. Seeing her through this wider lens, and through an accumulation of situations like a montage, we come to understand the main character much more fully and more intimately.

Invitation: to what extent could you set your main character(s) within a broader and more meaningful frame, by depicting significant details of the social context and culture in which they live?

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

What Novella-in-Flash writers can learn from Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street

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.

Flexible Novella-in-Flash self-study course – available for £42 – More information: https://novella-in-flash.com/4-module-short-course/

What Novella-in-Flash writers can learn from Justin Torres’s We the Animals

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.

Flexible Novella-in-Flash self-study course – available for £42 – More information: https://novella-in-flash.com/4-module-short-course/

Novella-in-Flash Mentoring 2023…

Writing a Novella-in-Flash/Novel-in-Flash

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.)

The full course consists of three main Phases (Incubation, Development, and Integration), with one-to-one support from tutor and novella-in-flash specialist Michael Loveday, author of the writing craft guide Unlocking the Novella-in-Flash: from Blank Page to Finished Manuscript (Ad Hoc Fiction, 2022). More about Michael’s teaching and editing experience 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. Three different course options are described here.  

The course is open for bookings. Please get in touch here: Apply for the Course.

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton