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.
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?