Homemade Weather

We catch up with one of our newest authors Tom O’Brien to discuss his novel, learn about his writing process and find out how the brilliant Homemade Weather came to be.

Homemade Weather started life as a short story that I was never quite able to land and so put aside for years, but kept feeling pulled back to as I felt the core of it was good.

There are many ways of writing a novella-in-flash, and this book is an example of a few of them. It was a partially a deconstruction and rebuilding of a longer piece. As I explored more of Celia’s life, her story opened out. The more I rummaged, the more I found these nuggets I could shape into flash. In some cases, these had an element of story in them, in others I had to work some movement into a vignette. And of course, many couldn’t stand alone at all and had to be folded into other stories or cut. In the end, the original story became the spine of Book 3 of Homemade Weather, while the first two little Books grew on their own.

But while it was partially a job of deconstruction, there was quite a lot of new build too. As I ventured into other areas of Celia’s life, I met characters who didn’t exist in the original story or who were not developed and so on. These characters, and Celia’s relationships with them spurred new stories and/or needed to find ways to be expressed. It was during these processes that Homemade Weather came to life in the way that any piece has to at some point.

That process of deconstruction/rebuilding, as well as making pieces of flash to fill a story need are only a few of the approaches for writing a novella-in-flash. Building out from a single piece of flash, starting a story from scratch, attending to a theme, an idea or an emotion are only a few of the other options available, and in fact the form can be much looser than that.

I tried a similar technique to how I approached Homemade Weather for another novella-in-flash based in this world but this time joining two stories and intertwining them. It was interesting that this next piece refused to take a similar shape to Homemade Weather but still did respond to being broken down into flash-sized pieces. 

If there is a lesson, other than that every story is different, it might be that the more options you give yourself, the more chance you have to allow the story to find the shape it wants to be.

About the author: 

Tom O’Brien is an Irishman living in London. He’s been nominated for Pushcart and Best Microfictions consideration and has flash fiction in Ellipsis Zine, Spelk, Reflex, Blink-Ink and many more. His novella-in-flash Straw Gods is published by Reflex Press. 


“A beautifully written, deeply satisfying novelette-in-flash that revealed more depth with each read. A master class in both resonance and the use of white space. I could not get this story out of my head. A deserved winner.” – Damhnait Monaghan, novelette-in-flash judge on Homemade Weather 

What on Earth is Memoir-in-Flash?

by Jan Kaneen

When Retreat West first revealed the cover of my memoir-in-flash on Twitter, someone asked what I’d been asked again and again since I finished writing The Naming of Bones. What is memoir-in-flash? 

Not wanting to define an emerging form in terms only of what I’d produced, this was my reply, ‘… speaking for myself … my memoir-in-flash is an aspect of my real life written in a series of flash fiction ‘chapters’, that are each standalone … but which, when read in sequence, tell another overarching story.’

The questioner then asked if it was complicated to write. My answer was no, because the truth is, I wrote most of it without knowing what I was writing. Which sounds weird, so let me explain. 

I came to creative writing at the age of fifty as a sort of mindfulness therapy, pouring out free-written stories without ever thinking some of them might be linked. I just knew that writing them made me feel better emotionally. 

My epiphany came in a workshop run by Michael Loveday at the Flash Fiction Festival. That weekend was stuffed full of flash: reading flash, writing flash, chatting flash. I was very nearly all flashed out when, on Sunday afternoon, Michael presented his workshop about sequencing flash. He had us thinking about how theme and imagery can link flashes, and how sometimes writers can write to themes subconsciously. This struck me as fascinating and on the drive home, I stopped for coffee and bunged some of my flashes into WordCounter – Count Words & Correct Writing searching for the words I’d used most to see if this revealed any hidden themes. (Just follow this link if you fancy doing the same – it’s free, though it’s best if you take out common words such as ‘like’ and ‘because’ first). I won’t give away what my key words were, but it was a revelation. 

Over months, I sequenced my, as it turned out, themed and connected flashes, freewriting new ones to fill narrative gaps. This process was very, VERY emotional, and life-changing too, because it allowed me to reconstruct and reclaim my past in a way that was both empowering and healing, which leads me to my final point.

In 2020, I beta-read several novellas-in-flash and was surprised to see that works which draw, sometimes quite heavily on lived experience, are termed novella by their authors. This got me thinking about what differentiates novella-in-flash, i.e. fictional works told ‘in-flash,’ and memoir-in-flash, i.e. works anchored in real events, told ‘in-flash.’ 

I didn’t really find an answer. Maybe it comes down to individual motivation in the writer. Certainly, for me, it was crucial that The Naming of Bones be defined as memoir, because its self-therapeutic potency lies in the form itself – because that immediately tells the reader these characters really lived in a story that actually happened.

So far as I know, The Naming of Bones is the first memoir-in-flash to be published that describes itself as such (and I did look long and hard when I was final editing, keen to find previous examples that might guide my hand). If it is the first, I hope it’s the first of many, because it’s a form stuffed full of creative non-fiction possibilities and so, so much potential. 

Check out The Naming of Bones for yourself: retreatwest.co.uk/the-naming-of-bones/

First novel news: London Black

We’re delighted that John Lutz, a talented student from our course The Novel Creator, has recently signed a book deal for his first novel London in Black, which is published under the pen name Jack Lutz. We caught up with him to find out about his debut, what he learned from the course and what he’s writing next…

Credit: Emily Nytko-Lutz

– Congratulations on your book deal, John! Can you tell us a bit about your novel; what’s it about?

London in Black is a near-future police procedural set in 2029, two years after terrorists release a novel nerve agent at Waterloo Station with cataclysmic consequences.  A prominent biochemist has pledged to develop an antidote, but he’s found murdered under mysterious circumstances.  

Our hero is DI Lucy Stone, a cop suffering crippling guilt from something she did two years ago — something she can only call The Thing That Happened. If Lucy can solve the murder and recover the antidote she believes the murdered biochemist created, perhaps she can finally forgive herself. But is the antidote real, or just a figment of Lucy’s desperation?

Who’s publishing it, and when?

London in Black will be published by Pushkin Vertigo in Spring 2022.

– You completed Amanda and Craig’s novel writing course The Novel Creator: A Mentored Course. What aspects of it were most helpful for you?

Everything about the course was useful — the tutorials, the exercises, the Q&As, all of it.  

But if forced to choose a single most helpful aspect, I’d pick the mentoring. Amanda and Craig are immensely knowledgeable about the craft of writing — but even better, they’re engaged.  They truly care about their students. And they challenged me, which I loved because it meant I was being taken seriously as a writer.

– The course aims to create writers and careers, not simply one-off books. What aspects of the course did you find were portable into your next project?

The course does such an excellent job of focussing on the underlying principles of storytelling — on how plot, theme and structure interrelate, on how characters can be used to embody theme.  All of that’s super-portable because it’s not genre or style-specific — if you’re writing a novel of any stripe, the same concepts apply. In particular, Craig gave a lecture on linking plot and theme that I’ve probably re-watched a half-dozen times by now.  

– What are you working on now?

Another thriller! But even if I were turning my hand to a completely different genre, I’d be able to use what I learned on Amanda and Craig’s course. It really was a fantastic experience.

Author Q&A: Gaynor Jones

This week, we caught up with Gaynor Jones to talk about her upcoming book, Among These Animals. Available for pre-order now, this new novella-in-flash will be available from 1st March.

We spoke to Gaynor about what led to her writing this latest collection, and how these beautiful new stories see her evolving key themes that readers will recognise from her earlier work. There’s plenty of the unexpected in these intriguing tales; we think you’re going to love them.

How did you come to write your novella-in-flash?

I read The Neverlands by Damhnait Monaghan and I was blown away by it – if you’re only looking at word count, then it’s a small book, but to me that’s not what defines a novella-in-flash. It has a tight character focus, is packed with incredible emotion and is beautifully written. I was still writing fairly dark and bitter flash pieces at the time, and I wondered if I had it in me to write something with a really strong emotional connection to the reader. So it wasn’t about a shift in length or form for me, it was about exploring if I could take my craft to the next level. I then saw that Michael Loveday was launching a novella-in-flash course and was offering a discount to people who signed up early – so I did! I had two pieces that were set on a farm (Amongst These Animals, which had been published by The Forge and Apart From the Flock which had been longlisted in the TSS flash quarterly competition) and I’d already been thinking that the man and the woman in them were connected somehow so I decided to use that as my starting base. 

What challenges did you come up against while writing Among These Animals?

One particular challenge for me was that I was sharing the pieces with Michael pretty much as soon as I had written them. I think he would agree with me that I powered through the course (though the book and edits took a lot longer to complete). Obviously, it was incredible to have that one-on-one input, but it was also pretty vulnerable to work so closely with someone, though since then I’ve done it again with my short story collection and my New Writing North mentor CG Menon. So I’m guess I’m used to it now! The biggest challenge though, was that I wrote an entirely different book initially, with a central plot event which I then decided, for various reasons, I wasn’t happy to write. That version was a good book, it was well written, and it was quite emotional deciding to let go of that version, but I know myself well and I know it was the right decision. I am very happy with the final version and have no regrets. 

You tweeted that this book isn’t strange, supernatural or scary. Why do you think this is different from your earlier work, and are you concerned about how previous fans of your writing will react?

I’m still editing my short story collection, which is definitely heavy on the strange, supernatural and scary! And I think if you look at a lot of my writing, and particularly my own reading tastes, the strange definitely wins out. There is definitely some strangeness in this book, in terms of how Derfel and Carys interact with the animals, and some of the imagery in the book, but it’s not what I describe as the ‘splat’ of some of my earlier stuff – talking cheese graters, sentient belly buttons, a ticket machine that tells you when you’ll die … these are all things I wrote a good few years ago now, and I think my tastes have just changed a little. I don’t know if people will be disappointed or surprised, but I can’t control that, I have to write what feels right and true for me at the time. What I ideally want to do is write a novel which combines the strangeness of my short fiction, with the emotional depth of my novella-in-flash. And that’s what I’ll be doing for the rest of this year! 

For more about Gaynor and her work, visit: jonzeywriter.com

Pre-order here: https://www.ellipsiszine.com/among-these-animals-by-gaynor-jones/


Gaynor Jones is surely one of the most deft and skilful flash fiction writers we have. She does the hard, hidden work needed to make the page feel effortless, and has a fine-tuned instinct for knowing what not to name or say. It is one of the most powerful and assured novellas-in-flash I’ve encountered in recent years – defiant, passionate, and seething with life.’
– Michael Loveday, author of Three Men on the Edge

‘A beautiful and deftly-told tale of a family attempting to navigate grief. Jones’s trademark precise prose and potent imagery combine to create a strong current that flows beneath the surface. Quietly powerful, this is a collection of stories that whisper their way into one’s mind.’
– Lucie McKnight Hardy author of Water Shall Refuse Them

‘Among These Animals explores a rural existence far from the country idyll, deftly sketched in Gaynor Jones’s vivid and unflinching prose, and darkly laced with tendrils of fairy tale. This is a shiny gem of a novella.’
– Chloe Turner, author of Witches Sail in Eggshells

The craft of writing novella-in-flash

This week, we’re focusing on the craft of novellas written in flash fiction chapters: how can you build your stand alone flash fiction stories into a larger narrative? How can you tell a story as succinctly and clearly as possible? What comes first: character or plot? We spoke to three novella-in-flash (NIF) authors we’re big fans of to learn about their approach: Gillian Walker, Adam Lock and Diane Simmons; head to the bottom of this post for their bios!

Our first question to the authors: do you have any tips to share on using the flash form to tell a bigger story? It can be challenging to fit everything readers need to know into a short-fiction format; how do they approach it?

‘The tip I would give to writers looking to use flash to write a bigger story is to trust the reader,’ Adam Lock said. ‘What I love about a novella-in-flash is that there is so much white space – on the page, and for the reader to fill in. I would say it’s best to embrace this space and trust the reader will follow larger stories even if the words on the page only gesture towards the bits of the world missing.’

We love this idea, which really leans into the benefits of shorter-form fiction, rather than its limitations. Diane Simmons agrees: ‘My novella-in-flash An Inheritance follows four generations of a family from 1932 to 2002, so it was necessary to leave out a great deal. And that’s the part I enjoy  most about writing a novella-in-flash – letting the reader fill in the gaps… I think it’s important to let the reader join the dots themselves. I love the idea of a reader having a light bulb moment, and going back to an earlier story when they work out that something that seemed like a throwaway comment was actually significant. Having said that, I think I was very much guilty in an early version of making the reader do too much work – they aren’t mind readers.’

This is a key balance to strike: through re-drafting, figuring out how much information to restrict and reveal for the most effective storytelling.

When it comes to one of the classic chicken-and-egg writing questions —which comes first, the character or the story? — our authors share their approaches on their recent projects.

Gillian Walker had a clearly defined approach: ‘I began writing The World at the end of the Garden with two objectives,’ she says. ‘Firstly, to write a NIF. Secondly, to write a believable story set in America. (I’d written USA based stories in the past, which didn’t work, and I want to set a part of a future novel in the USA. I needed practice).’

Her character came next: a textile artist, living in America for a year, struggling to have a child. Then the setting: ‘a year in Arizona – changed with the seasons, creating challenges for my character. There was a key event the other flashes built to, and recovered from. The first flash did a lot of heavy lifting to establish context, and the rest wove the many individual narrative elements to tell my story. Sometimes there was one narrative element per flash, other times many. Writing it became an act of balance.’ 

Meanwhile, Adam found that a more character-first approach worked for him when writing his NIF, Dinosaur: ‘I began tentatively with two stories that featured the same couple. ‘I knew I wanted to write about their relationship, but also knew I wanted it to be real and gritty. Then, what happened, and I didn’t expect this, is that I went further back in time and wrote about these two characters as children. I followed this idea which meant I could tell two stories: that of a man and a woman as they grew up from around five years of age, all the way to forty. It was a surprise to me, but I funnelled my own experiences and stories other people had told me about their experiences growing up, and used them for my characters. All of a sudden, I had years of stories I could select and use, leaving the years between blank, giving the novella-in-flash that wonderful feeling of space and air.’

Another key consideration that’s unique to flash-fiction writers (and, perhaps, also poets compiling a collection) is deciding on story order. After winning the Bath Novella-in-Flash award, Mary-Jane Holmes — an award-winning writer, editor and tutor, who teaches courses here at Retreat West — spoke about juxtaposition, and how the story arc changed for her character depending on the order she chose for her stories. Do our three authors find themselves playing with narrative and structure when putting together their recent NIFs? Do they tend to have a story shape in mind when they start, or does it tend to flex as they write?

For Diane, her recent projects have required varied approaches: ‘With An Inheritance, I don’t think I changed the order much. Stories had to go in a certain place in order to move the plot forward. With Finding a Way, it was different, although I was still constrained to a certain extent by things that had to happen at certain times (anniversaries, Christmas, etc).  I did change the order to avoid having too many similar stories close together, and sometimes this opened up ideas for new flashes. With my latest novella, I moved the stories round a great deal as plot ideas occurred to me, as I didn’t have a clear idea of where the narrative was going.’

This is one of the joys of shorter fiction: with every NIF, there may be various different approaches — or perhaps one clear approach — depending on the story you’re telling, and the focus you choose for your narrative.

For example, Gillian’s says that The World at the End of the Garden decided her structure for her: ‘It has a key event linked to the weather and plays out over the course of a year in Arizona. The timeline of the narrative had to fit those parameters. Once I’d conceived the story, there were only minor structural changes.’

Adam found that self-imposing a narrative model proved very useful for shaping his creative output: ‘I used a sort of dual-Bildungsroman,’ he says. (That’s a novel dealing with one person’s formative years or spiritual education.) ‘It helped the structure, because it was chronological. The stories alternated between my two characters as they grew up and then met. It was quite early in the process that I realised I needed and wanted this narrative model. Having this limitation really helped; it meant I could play and experiment within this constraint. If I gave anyone advice about writing a novella-in-flash, I would tell them to do the same. Give yourself a constraint and then work inside it.’ 

Finally, we asked the authors about their favourite NIF reads and sources of inspiration. Adam’s favourites include Michael Loveday’s, Three Men on the Edge: ‘The overall scope of this novella is extensive, but each piece is honed and specific. Homing by Johanna Robinson is also a fantastic novella-in-flash. I love Johanna’s writing – it is controlled, measured and emotive.’ He also recommends Ross Jeffrey’s, Tethered. ‘This is an honest and sometimes raw novella-in-flash that shows real artistic bravery.’

For Diane, Nod Gosh’s, The Crazed Wind and The Neverlands’ by Damhnait Monaghan are stand-outs. ‘Ad Hoc Fiction produces some wonderful novellas and Karen Jones’s When it’s Not Called Making Love and Alison Woodhouse’s The House on the Corner, both published by them in 2020 are also worth checking out,’ she says. ‘All these novellas are very different from each other, but are all beautifully written and are excellent examples of how to write a successful flash fiction novella.’

Gillian recommends My Very End of the Universe, a collection of five NIFs and associated craft essays. ‘There’s a lot of NIF information!’ The book includes Shampoo Horns by Aaron Teel and Gillian found that this read in particular helped her with her own creative process. ‘The way he references key events throughout the story adds depth and detail to individual flashes while creating narrative drive for the novella. Shampoo Horns solved problems for me, and it’s wonderful.’

Thank you to Gillian, Diane and Adam for sharing their insights and inspiration with us; 

Adam Lock
Adam Lock is a writer hailing from the Black Country in the UK. His short fiction has appeared in online publications, as well as traditional printed anthologies and collections. His flash fiction has won competitions and continues to be published in an array of well regarded publications such as New Flash Fiction Review, Okay Donkey, Lost Balloon, Ellipsis Zine, Gravel Magazine, Moon Park Review, Spelk Fiction, Fictive Dream, STORGY, and many more. Adam was placed 3rd in the TSS Cambridge Short Story Prize 2018 and has been shortlisted twice for the Bath Flash Fiction Award. He has also been nominated several times for the Best Small Fiction Anthology 2019.

Gillian Walker
Gillian Walker is a fiction writer based in the UK. Her flash novella The World at the End of the Garden is published by Flash: The International Short-Short Story Press. Her work can be found in Popshot Quarterly, Ambit, Into the Void and Jellyfish Review. Her writing was shortlisted for the Cambridge Short Story Prize 2020 and she was a finalist in the Black River Chapbook Competition Spring 2018. 

Diane Simmons
Diane Simmons is a co-director of National Flash Fiction Day (UK) and a director of the Flash Fiction Festival. She has judged several flash competitions including Flash 500, Micro Madness and NFFD micro. Her flashes have been widely published and placed in numerous competitions. Finding a Way, her flash collection on the theme of grief (Ad Hoc Fiction), and her flash fiction novella An Inheritance (V. Press) were both shortlisted in the Saboteur Awards.

Introducing: Sam Jordison, judge of the 2021 First Chapter competition

We’re excited to announce that Sam Jordison is the judge for the 2021 First Chapter competition. (The deadline is 31st January, so start thinking about your entry once you’ve checked out Sam’s interview!)

Sam is a publisher, author and journalist. He’s the co-director of Galley Beggar Press, and has worked on many successful and award-winning titles — including Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, Preti Taneja’s We That Are Young, and Alex Pheby’s Lucia. He also writes about books for The Guardian and has written several non-fiction titles, including Enemies Of The People and the best-selling Crap Towns series.

We caught up with Sam to talk about what makes a submission stand out to him, what Galley Beggar Press looks for — and what he loves to read for fun, too. Competition entrants, take note!

  • When you receive a submission at Galley Beggar Press, what gets you excited enough to then ask for the full manuscript?

Mainly, it’s the sentences. If those grab us, we keep going. I’m afraid I can’t really give you an exact definition of those sentences or what it is that has to work… But it’s an inexact science. It’s a gut feeling and subjective aesthetic judgement as much as anything else…

  • Galley Beggar Press has a reputation for publishing innovative work and taking a gamble on novels that the trad publishers won’t. Is innovation something you exclusively look for when reading submissions or are you also interested in traditional storytelling approaches?

It’s not necessarily something we look for. But I do think it’s something we’re attracted too. I’ve just been reading a fantastic interview with the late great John O’Brien from Dalkey Archive talking about how much he valued subversion in books. Books that aren’t afraid to challenge – and say new things in new ways. I also really liked EL Doctorow’s idea that writing isn’t worth a damn if it isn’t transgressing… Anyway, I guess my general feeling is that writers shouldn’t be conformists. Part of what makes them important is their ability to make us think differently… But, you know, that can also be done through traditional storytelling. I guess. I might have trouble telling you exactly what traditional storytelling is… But it’s worth saying that you don’t have to use complex prose to say complicated things. Or to move emotions.

  • When reading the shortlisted first chapters, what’s going to make a story stand out for you? 

Mainly, I have to refer you to my first two answers, with more apologies about the vagueness of all that. I’m going to respond to beautiful sentences, smart ideas and a feeling that there’s heart in the story. Easier said than done, I know.

  • What types of writers and novels are you looking for at Galley Beggar Press?

Good ones! We just want to publish the best books we can find. Beyond that, we don’t really know. Part of the fun lies in being surprised…

  • When you’re reading for pleasure not work, who are your favourite authors?

There are too many to list. I’ve just discovered (rather late!) Edith Wharton and am in awe of how good she is. Otherwise, I like lots of the people you might expect: Hemingway, Dickens, the Brontes, Don Delillo, James Baldwin, Penelope Fitzgerald, Michael Ondaatje, PG Wodehouse… Some people are surprised at how much I like Terry Pratchett – but those are mainly people who haven’t read Night Watch. What can I recommend that your readers might not have read. I just finished Who Sleeps With Katz by Todd McEwen and haven’t got over it. The ending broke me! It’s beautiful and funny and made me long to go to New York. I’m re-reading Ragtime by EL Doctorow at the moment, which is a marvel.  

Thank you, Sam, for being our judge this year and for sharing your guidance and insights. To enter, and find out more about our competitions, please do head over here. Good luck!