The following flash fiction – the superb ‘In the Land of Plenty’, by Jayne Martin – tells the story of a series of repeated actions over the course of one day. A woman who sleeps in mounds of garbage, at a landfill site under a motorway, spends her daytime gleaning scraps of food discarded by people in various situations – at a schoolyard, outside an Applebee’s restaurant, behind a Safeway supermarket.
The story consists of a chain of brief moments narrated as individual vignettes, like a montage of scenes from a short film. At the end of the story, the woman returns to her “refuge under the highway”, where, we have been told, she is not the only hungry, homeless person. She must guard her day’s spoils carefully. And then in the very the final section, the view changes to a more dispassionate, material description of landscape itself – “the procession of garbage trucks” and the gulls overhead.
The poignancy achieved through the writer accumulating these understated and succinct mini-narratives into one flash fiction is heartbreaking. Here’s the story:
After reading Jayne Martin’s flash fiction, adapt any of the following prompts to fit your novella’s storyline. Write a scene/chapter/story that involves:
• A person living/sleeping somewhere other than inside a building.
• A chain of repeated actions over the course of one day, with the recurring action each time happening in a slightly different situation. Let the chain of actions add up to something poignant, through the character’s yearning to repeat the action.
• A flash fiction that features someone’s (unique) relationship to food (or consumption of any other goods or commodities). Let the piece evoke something about how we relate to contemporary capitalism or consumerism.
• A scene taking place under a motorway – where the location is a liminal space for something unsettling or unusual unfolding.
• A story in which, at the start, a character leaves a particular location, then returns to that same location again at the end of the story. In between departure and arrival, let the reader learn new things about the character (to do with their feelings, values, motives, life purposes, or life situation) such that we no longer see them as entirely the same person when they return to that location.
• A story where a character is given, out of compassion or solidarity, something by another person that the person would actually have wanted to keep for themselves.
• If it helps, use any of the following pictures as a way into the material:
PART ONE: Set aside some time and space to think laterally and imaginatively about your novella. Plan ahead for this, if necessary, by allocating time in your diary.
Focus your attention upon a favourite chapter from your novella (one that you’ve already written).
PART TWO: EITHER:
(a) Imagine a moment/an action/an event taking place some time after the scene in the original flash, and write a new flash using the same character(s) as a foundation.
You might set the new scene in the same location or situation, but allow some time to have elapsed in between (it’s up to you how much), so it feels like this new flash is beginning afresh in a new moment.
(b) Imagine a moment/an action/an event taking place before the original flash. Again, write a scene using the same character(s) as a foundation, maintaining a time gap between the two pieces.
Across the source flash and the newly generated flash, allow the story/situation to move forward. Let one flash develop the ingredients that are in the other. Explore what’s beyond the margins of the source flash.
Depending on whether the new scene is set before or after, consider:
Where must the character(s) have been previously or inevitably go afterwards?
Seeing, doing, and experiencing what?
Be as specific as possible when answering the above questions.
We might say the resulting pair of scenes creates ‘fragmented continuity’.
If you enjoy this tactic, consider using the process again (creating more ‘beforehand’ scenes or more ‘afterwards’ scenes). Do this as many times as feels right for your material.
PART THREE: Cultivate a list of such ‘beforehand/afterwards scenes’ you could develop. Again, explore beyond the margins of the existing material, or follow up any threads (character, setting, plot situation, etc) you glimpse within it.
In the following flash fiction – ‘Natalie’, by Tai Dong Huai – a young character tells the reader about someone she knows, effectively giving a summary character portrait of that other person. This friend, Natalie Bilotto, is, according to one adult, “on the road to disaster” – and she is frequently involved in “misadventures”. Her personality seems to provoke and trigger the narrator, yet also seems to intrigue her and provoke curiosity. Here’s the story:
After reading Huai’s flash fiction, adapt any of the following prompts to fit your novella’s storyline. Write a scene/chapter/story that involves:
• A child or young person who has to play with someone they’re a little bit afraid of. Or an adult who has to spend time with someone they’re a little bit afraid of. What is the (surprising/unexpected) outcome?
• Two characters who are friends but not really friends – “frenemies”, if you will. Explore the power dynamics and tension between them.
• A child or young person witnessing a parent/adult who’s a bird-watcher. (Or vice versa – an adult witnessing a youthful bird-watcher.) Let the bird-watcher’s behaviour seem a little strange…
• Some kind of hideout that’s not particularly effective as a hideout. Why has it been created? What are the consequences of the hideout not being effective?
• A narrative where the main events are triggered by any of the following actions. What happens next? – flushing something unusual down the toilet; – cutting off someone’s pony-tail; – throwing stones at something that deserves to be protected; – maliciously sticking something sharp onto an ordinary household/office/school object; – boy scouts sitting round a campfire and pretending to “roast their weenies”; – taking someone (or something) away in a pickup truck; – a parent (or step-parent, or adoptive parent) sending a child away to get treatment for “adolescent behavioural disorders”;
• Your main character narrating an anecdote (or confiding in the reader) about an unusual person they know – perhaps someone, following Tai Dong Huai’s flash fiction, who is often involved in “misadventures”. Is their behaviour actually all that bad? What might be its underlying motive or cause? What does the relationship between the two people reveal about the main character?
• If it helps, use any of the following pictures as a way into the material:
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!
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?!
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/
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.
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.
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.
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. Three different course options are described here.