Novella-in-Flash Writing Prompt #7 – Picture Prompts: The Alchemy of Image and Word

We’re very grateful at novella-in-flash.com this month to welcome Ali McGrane, author of the remarkable novella The Listening Project, a story of family dynamics and an exploration of hearing loss and its recovery. Its beautifully crafted flash fiction chapters often verge on prose poetry.

Ali has designed this month’s blogpost as an essay exploring how to use visual writing prompts in a novella-in-flash. See the end of the post for Ali’s full bio. Now let’s hear from Ali…

Doorways into other worlds

I used to avoid using visual prompts. It felt like pinning my imagination down. But I soon discovered what a productive and inspiring tool it could be to override my internal censor, free up my creative brain, unearth half-hidden associations, and, best of all, surprise myself. A picture lets you travel in time and space, and see differently.

Bluer Than Blue, published by Fictive Dream, originated from an ekphrastic exercise using The Good Weather Umbrella by John Wilhelm. And I’m currently editing a flash based on a photo of three elderly women which led me to a story I would never have found otherwise. It’s clear that visual prompts can be fantastically creative springboards. I’m sure you know this already!

But how might you use picture prompts specifically for your novella-in-flash? Well, I think this longer form gives you extra opportunity to exploit their potential, particularly in terms of enhancing and enriching character development. Writing a NiF often involves gathering flashes without necessarily knowing in advance how the overall narrative will be structured, or indeed much of the detail. This uncertainty lends itself very well to the use of image prompts as a wonderfully creative strategy for imagining and exploring new territory.

Some key points to consider:

  • An image doesn’t exist in isolation. You’re viewing it through your own individual lens, teasing out unconscious and conscious memories, associations, and assumptions. You can go with those, or interrogate them – either might be fruitful! Don’t be limited by the picture, use it as a spark.
  • Time is frozen in an image. It lets you hover inside the frame – like staring at a magic eye picture when it comes into 3D focus and you can look around in all directions – tricking your brain – almost able to touch what’s there, or see what might be just out of shot.
  • An image might help kickstart or uncover something at any point in the narrative, and you might find it unlocks your story in unexpected ways. Maybe choose something you’d never normally be drawn to. If you’re hooked, follow that trail. If it excites you, it will likely excite your reader!
Photo by Darius Bashar on Unsplash

Writing Exercise #1: Find a photo to help create an authentic character.

This can be especially beneficial if you’re struggling to bring someone to life, or they’re a different age, gender, or background from you. For The Listening Project, I found an image to use as Edith, Imogen’s mother, and it was very much a two-way process – finding a photo that fitted what I had in mind, and spinning more of her story from that visual prompt.

Select a photo that seems right for your character, and mesh together the image with what you already know about them. Look at their expression. Listen for their voice. Jot down any thoughts as you imagine the story behind the picture. Write without stopping for five minutes. Let any associations flow, however random, unexpected, or apparently irrelevant.

Let new ideas about this character’s background, personality, or desires, help to shape their trajectory in the story, or inspire a new chapter.

Tip: Use images from particular eras to anchor and enrich your writing. For example, photos from the 1960s helped me see Imogen’s elderly parents as young parents themselves.


Writing Exercise #2: Use an image to take you directly into a setting.

A painting or photo is likely to include elements you’d never have thought up yourself. A brilliant catalyst to invigorate your writing. Placing your character in an unfamiliar or unusual location can provide extra insights into what makes them tick, and spark fresh discoveries across the whole novella. How do they react and why? Don’t forget you don’t have to always like what they do. Let them surprise you!

Tip: Choose an image to take your character into a liminal space where reality might be a little out of kilter, a little out of time. Deserted stairwells, late night bus shelters, abandoned buildings, empty beaches. Have them step into an Edward Hopper painting. Freewrite for five minutes.

Ask questions. What doesn’t quite add up? What jumps out? What lurks in the background? Who or what is missing? Look for connections, but also contradictions, conflict. It can be tricky to develop contradictions in a character without it feeling contrived, leaning into cliché or stereotype. Tapping into unconscious responses to an image can throw up more subtle elements.

The great thing about writing a novella-in-flash is that, although you gather far more material than you need, it’s not too painful to discard some, knowing everything you write helps build this vital hinterland, adding depth and richness to the final cut. Images are a valuable addition to your writerly toolbox, and when every picture paints a thousand words, what have you got to lose?!

Check out these resources:

Read The Ekphrastic Review  for inspiration. Take part in their regular workshops. Also see 7 Ways Visual Art Can Help You Write Better Flash Fiction by editor Lorette C. Luzajic (who would love to see more submissions from flash fiction writers).

Explore Google Arts and Culture, and sources like The UK Photo and Social History Archive, but beware of losing yourself down the rabbit hole!

Bio: Ali McGrane lives and writes between the sea and the moor in the south west UK. Her short fiction appears in anthologies and online, including Fictive Dream, Ellipsis Zine, Janus Literary, and Splonk. Her work has been longlisted for the Fish Flash Fiction Prize, shortlisted for the Bath Flash Fiction Award, and received nominations for Best Small Fictions, Best of the Net and Best Microfictions. She is a reader at Fractured Literary. Her Bath-shortlisted novella-in-flash, The Listening Project, published by Ad Hoc Fiction, received a special mention in the 2022 Saboteur Awards. Find her @Ali_McGrane_UK, and at her website: https://alimcgrane.com/

Ali McGrane

Ad Hoc Fiction’s Novella-in-Flash Craft Guide: now available to pre-order!

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.

Unlocking the Novella-in-Flash (Ad Hoc Fiction, 2022), by Michael Loveday

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.

Novella-in-Flash Writing Prompt #6

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.

Robin Thomas reading from his poetry collection Momentary Turmoil (2019)

“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.”

Conclusion:

“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.

You can pre-order Robin’s book here (with a 25% discount before 25th March): https://www.adhocfiction.com/2022/03/margot-and-the-strange-objects-robin-thomas/

Margot and the Strange Objects, by Robin Thomas (Ad Hoc Fiction, 2022)

Sign up to this novella-in-flash website’s series of writing prompts here:

What can Novella-in-Flash writers learn from Charmaine Wilkerson’s How to Make a Window Snake (2017)?

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?

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