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.

Author interview: Kathy Hoyle on the MAINSTREAM anthology

We were delighted to speak with Kathy Hoyle, one of the brilliant contributors to a new anthology: MAINSTREAM. She tells us how she got involved in the project, and why this anthology is such an important read.

Can you tell us a little more about what sparked the idea for MAINSTREAM, and why you’re excited to be involved?

The idea for MAINSTREAM is the brainchild of Justin David and Nathan Evans, both creative artists themselves, who had spent decades wrestling with gatekeepers and trying to convince producers, publishers and agents that their own work was relevant. They were well aware of the dearth of diversity and equality in mainstream publishing from the outset, so they set up Inkandescent, with the help of a small grant from the Arts Council.

They published their first book, Threads—a poetry and photography collaboration which was supposed to be a bit of fun. But they learned so much in doing that one project and felt so passionate about helping others, they decided to repeat the exercise for other underrepresented writers and artists. They wanted to do one project that would include lots of authors in the same volume and shine a light on some dazzling new and not so new talent. And so… MAINSTREAM was born. 

I first saw a callout for the project about six months ago and I knew immediately, it was something I wanted to be involved in. Growing up in a small, industrial North-East town during the height of the miner’s strike, becoming a writer was as alien to me as becoming a movie star or riding a magical unicorn. It’s only now, much later in my life, that I’ve started to believe that readers might actually want to hear my stories, that I’ve got something interesting to say, and it’s projects like MAINSTREAM that give me a platform from which to shout loud and proud! The fact that my story will appear alongside some brilliant authors such as Kit De Waal, Kerry Hudson, Paul McVeigh and Leone Ross is amazing to me, I’m still pinching myself!

Is there a theme for the stories involved in the project, or is there a mix of topics and sources of inspiration?

There are themes that have emerged as the book was put together but there wasn’t a set theme originally. The idea was to give writers the opportunity to speak their own truths and encourage original and interesting narratives that would represent every corner of society. 

Can you tell us a little bit about the story you’ve contributed to the anthology, and your background as a writer?

My story, Home Time, is a window into my own childhood, I guess. It’s set in a pit village during the miner’s strike and told through the eyes of a young protagonist. Although it’s not an outright memoir, it was written whilst I was studying for my MA at The University of Leicester, as an assignment focussing on memory and Life-Writing.

I was unsure, at first, how it might be received but was encouraged to send it out as I’d had some previous success writing in a similar vein – I was shortlisted for the Spread the Word Life-Writing Prize in 2018. Over the past year, my focus has primarily been on flash fiction, which I love writing, but having now come full circle thanks to MAINSTREAM, I’m starting to think once more about the North East and have begun work on a novel set on the North East coast.  

How can people find out more about MAINSTREAM and help bring this anthology to life in print? 

We’ve been delighted with the response so far! People seem really keen to be involved and I can tell you the stories are all wonderfully diverse and brilliantly written. It really is time to bring new voices in from the outside. 

For more information about the anthology and to pledge, you can go to inkandescent.co.uk/mainstream  


Kathy Hoyle is a working-class writer whose work has appeared in various literary magazines including Spelk, Lunate, Cabinet of Heed, Virtualzine, Reflex Fiction, Secret Attic and Another North. She has been shortlisted for several competitions including The Eliipsiszine Flash Fiction Collection Competition, Flash 500, LISP, The Strands Flash Fiction Competition, Fish memoir Prize, The Exeter Short Story Prize and the Spread the Word Life Writing Prize. She holds a BA (hons) and an MA in Creative Writing. She is mainly fuelled by chocolate. You can often find her procrastinating on Twitter @Kathyhoyle1

Glass Themed Flash Winners

Many thanks to Amanda Huggins for reading the shortlisted stories and choosing her winners. It was a tough decision as the entire shortlist is made up of stunning stories!

Amanda’s Judge’s Report

I’ve really enjoyed reading the amazing array of flash fiction on the ‘Glass’ shortlist, and I’d like to thank Amanda Saint for inviting me to judge this competition.

These eleven wonderful stories took me on a journey from Venice to Chicago, from a rose garden to the seashore, from a fire to a funeral, and followed the fate of a vicar and a fortune teller. The theme was interpreted in a myriad of ways, but more often than not the glass ended up in pieces! Smashed glass was to be found everywhere – shattered into diamonds and splintered into shards; metaphors for broken lives and damaged relationships. There were also many mirrors – illuminating the truth, creating illusions and delusions. 

When I first read the shortlisted pieces, I knew I was going to be re-visiting them again and again before I came anywhere near making a final decision. It’s a daunting task when all the stories are this good and every writer on the list is so talented. Every judge prioritises different qualities and likes different things, which is why I can say with total confidence that on another day, in another competition, any one of these flashes could be a winner – so make sure you send them straight out again!

For me, each and every aspect of craft is important to the whole – a great idea needs to be backed up with strong characters, a vivid setting, a plausible story arc and a tight, satisfying ending. I look for well-chosen words – the best choice rather than the easiest choice – prose which has rhythm and pace, is lyrical yet spare, where nothing is wasted. I want to be amazed and delighted by new slants on old ideas, to be surprised, shocked, made to think – but most of all I want to be moved by what I’ve read; I want to discover stories which resonate long after the last line.

FIRST PLACE: GLASS by Louise Watts

This story packs a huge punch in only 350 words. It was love at first sight for me, and it gets better every time I re-read it! 

The setting is immersive and evocative, as we are led by the hand through the alleyways and canals of Venice, watching a doomed relationship play out. Both characters are skilfully portrayed with a pitch-perfect touch and the language is lean yet poetic throughout the piece.

The glass in the protagonist’s dream “like smashed car windows” does more than describe their state of mind or the following morning’s hangover, it is also a metaphor for the broken dream of a romantic weekend away, for the sudden realisation that their relationship is over. The glass isn’t sharp, it takes the form of “small cubes”, and there will be no dramatic break-up – in fact only one of them is yet aware that they will part, making this story achingly poignant. 

“We might come to a sudden standstill in the middle of walkways and kiss – and with eyes closed imagine our kissing selves through the eyes of others…”  This is beautiful yet unsentimental, filled with unspoken yearning and regret, already foreshadowing the perfect ending; the confession that the “softness” of “old mirror light…made reflections more beautiful than the real.”


RUNNERS UP

Settling on just two runners up was very difficult, and you could hardly slip a cigarette paper between the pair I finally chose and the highly commended story.


FUTURE IMPERFECT by Lucinda Hart

This story of sibling love is beautifully told and the characters feel fully formed right from the opening paragraphs. The voice is effective and every word is well-chosen. It has a wonderful natural rhythm to it and the pace accelerates as the paragraphs shorten and the story darkens. The ending – where we discover the pair started life as “two embryos is a glass petri dish” – is perfectly judged and adds a final note of poignancy. 


GLASS IS JUST MELTED SAND by Anne Howkins

I really like the structure of this piece – the way it takes us through four different kinds of glass –blown, stained, cut and sea – and how these stand as metaphors for the disintegration and aftermath of a damaging relationship. There’s some great imagery here too – sea glass “Buffed to a milky sheen by the velvet bladderwrack” and “His screech sounds like seagulls keening for chips”.


HIGHLY COMMENDED

BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU PRAY FOR by Kathryn Ratzko

I love the wry humour in this story – the style and language perfectly suit the subject matter. And the characters are delightfully portrayed, particularly Derek, the Lothario vicar: “She…saw the tight, mean pucker of his mouth; it was not dissimilar to the one he assumed on the rare occasions they had sex.” This piece closes with another cracking ending: “she saw the perfectly shaped and still intact cupid’s bow of Christ’s mouth. She carefully picked it up, lifted it to her lips, and kissed it.”

Finally, I’d also like to give a special mention to ‘Crux (by Robert Marmeaux)’, a story chock full of rich imagery, and to ‘The Diaspora (by Keith Wilson)’, a beautifully crafted stream of consciousness.


Well done to everyone! The final themed flash competition for 2020 closes at the end of this month and we’re looking for your stories inspired by BRIDGES. New judges and themes for 2021 will go live in January.

MONTHLY MICRO FICTION COMPETITION: WINNERS

A huge well done to this month’s micro fiction winners — congratulations! Well done to everyone who entered, too; as ever, we loved reading your stories.

1st Place Winner: Wind-Up Shoes by Ali McGrane
Author Bio: Ali McGrane lives and writes between the sea and the moor. Her work has appeared in Fictive Dream, The Lost Balloon, Ellipsis Zine, Cabinet of Heed, FlashBack Fiction and elsewhere. She was shortlisted for the Bath Flash Fiction Award 2019 and nominated for Best of the Net and Best Microfictions 2019. Find her @Ali_McGrane_UK


Joint 2nd Place Winners:

Rain by Zoe Walker

Author bio: Zoe J Walker lives between Rome and Edinburgh. She’s currently editing her historical fantasy novel before searching for representation. Find her at www.zoejwalker.com


Aftermath by Sam Payne

Author bio: Sam Payne is a writer living in Devon. She holds a BA in English Literature and an MA in Creative Writing. In 2020 she was awarded first place in Flash 500, runner up in the Retreat West music themed quarterly competition and came third in the 15th Bath Flash Fiction Awards. She tweets at: @skpaynewriting


People’s Prize Winner: The Youth of Today by Sherri Turner

Prize: 100 Words Writers Notebook from Lightbox Originals https://lightboxoriginals.com/product/writers-notebook/

Author bio: Sherri Turner has had numerous short stories published in magazines and has won prizes for both poetry and short stories in competitions including the Bristol Prize, the Wells Literary Festival and the Bridport Prize. Her work has also appeared in several anthologies. She tweets at @STurner4077.

Themed Flash Competition: shortlist

We’re proud to announce the glass-themed flash competition shortlist; if you see your name below, congratulations! Thank you to everyone for entering – we loved reading your work. The eleven flash fiction pieces below are now with award-winning author Amanda Huggins for judging. Check back in around the first week of December for the winner’s announcement… good luck, everyone!

  1. A Study in Contrasts in County Mayo
  2. Atomic Memory 
  3. Be Careful What You Pray For
  4. Crux
  5. Fortune Teller
  6. Future Imperfect
  7. Glass
  8. Glass is Just Melted Sand
  9. Mosaic
  10. The Diaspora
  11. Reflections of a Narcissist’s Wife

For more on our competitions, head to our competition page.

Monthly Micro Fiction competition: shortlist

We’re delighted to announce the shortlist for the latest Monthly Micro Fiction competition – well done to everyone whose story appears below! The winner of the People’s Prize is decided by public vote, so scroll down to the bottom of this post to vote for your favourite. The winners of the cash prizes are decided by our judging panel. We’ll announce the results on 24th November, so there’s a week to have your say…

Good luck everyone!


A Still Small Voice

A still small voice whispered “it’s time to feel wild again”, so I hiked to a secluded spot I knew.  Keeping only my boots on to walk the last stretch, I left clothes and belongings behind, hanging in a bag on a branch. Slipping off my boots I stepped into the river, feeling the water tickle my naked body.  Then I spotted someone.  They just walked over and grabbed my bag, winked and ran off.  As I heard the still small voice again, butterflies danced my insides.  Dripping wet, with my boots on, I started walking.  Now I felt wild.


Acetominophen

My parents told me to take the pills and I’d feel better. I would soon go back to run along the Bisatto canal, shouting with friends. 

I did not want to feel better. With the fever I saw the roots of trees. I goofed around carried by the wind. There were no words to say it. No verbs, adverbs and not even the subject: I. 

They just walked over and grabbed my wrists, my father with a glass of water to swallow the pills. I had no choice, hoping everything would be the same. Knowing it would not be.


Aftermath

The sedatives are wearing off so I slip on your dressing gown and turn on the TV to see Sky News interviewing survivors. A woman describes her rescuers as heroes, they just walked over and grabbed my arms, lifted me from the rubble.

I stroke your side of the bed and imagine a scenario where confusion caused by concussion explains your absence. The camera cuts to what’s left of the train station. Something catches my eye. I press pause on unmoving escalators covered in shattered glass and plaster. There, half hidden in the debris and dust, a man’s empty shoe. 


Cosmic Runs

The Hubble Telescope turned 30 during week five of lockdown. So instead of homeschooling I  decided to share wondrous NASA images from deep space with my son. But after three minutes of  quasars and galaxy clusters so huge they could bend light, I ran to the bathroom. Too much. All those  theories. They just walked over and grabbed my intestines in a twist. Had the earth also had enough?  Had it simply stopped to sit on the cosmic toilet, waiting and wondering, blaming the cheese and  resolving to live on cooled boiled water. Perhaps the earth was one of us.


Mistaken Identity

She’s mine; of course she is. Do they really think a mother can’t recognise her own child?  

I don’t understand why they’ve taken her away from me. I was coming out of the hospital after our  check-up and they just walked over and grabbed my baby.  

I keep telling them that she needs me, that’s it’s time for her feed, but they won’t even let me see her. Even through these padded walls I’m sure I can hear her crying. 

It’s strange how the mind plays tricks on you, though. I could have sworn I gave birth to a boy.


Rain

It would work this time. This god would answer us.

Never had there been such a drought. Even the great trees, whose roots ran deep, wilted under the perpetual punishment. 

Heat smothered the expectant crowd outside an ancient tower dedicated to the false god, Money.  

The front line undulated. Frank shivered. He squeezed his shoulders together and slunk backwards into anonymity. I tried to follow in his wake. 

Too slow.

They just walked over and grabbed my wrists. Swooping down for my ankles, they bore me into the twisted metal temple. 

Where a blade waited and a hungry god slumbered.


Ringing the Changes

Something old. 

I admired the dress in the mirror, a few accessories freshen it up every time.

Something new. 

Starting again in a different town, different job. Carol in the office welcomed me.

“Come round for a coffee.”

Something borrowed. 

“You need a man,” she empathised, not expecting her Dave would be the chosen candidate. Cupid’s Arrow struck across her living room. 

Blue flashing lights strobed through the Registry Office. They just walked over and took my bouquet, clicking the handcuffs around my naked wrists. Wedding vows replaced by a police caution. 

 I never can wait for the decree nisi.


Siobhan

Standing shivering outside the elegant house, the stark choice rattled around my head. University, travel, freedom versus unrelenting responsibility, hardship, tediousness.

Sixteen years old.

My greatest achievement? The tiny life growing inside me, conceived with passion and love.

Placards, offering  ‘Financial and Moral Help’ with a faded picture of the Virgin Mary were pushed into my face by the angry protestors; they just walked over and grabbed my hand forcing a plastic foetus into it.

‘Be a good mummy. Don’t kill me’. The cry of ‘ Murderer!’ followed me as, with steely determination, I pushed open the clinic’s heavy door. 


The Youth of Today

Leaky bus shelter. Cold damp bench hard on a pair of under-fleshed buttocks. Used to have a nice arse, I did. And tits, too, that stood up on their own. Bus was late again. Gang of bloody teenagers coming down the road all pierced and whatnot. Ridiculous. Music from somewhere. Loud. Perky, though. Got my feet tapping. Expected a snigger, mocking, the usual. But they just ran over and grabbed my hands, twirled me round a bit. In a nice way, not rough, or mean. Gave me a can of cider and a wave. Felt like I’d been on Strictly.


Wind-Up Shoes

Two kids, pre-teens, full of sass, skinny as fawns. They just walk over and grab my bag. I hang on. Everything slows, my shocked blood, the street hum, the handle’s rip.

Balloons, candles, party poppers and favours, rainbow out, feather-light. As they land, time speeds back up like someone turned a dial.

One kid bends to the bright packets, something in his face I don’t want to see. I can’t stop this crazy pant-laugh. He picks out the tiny wind-up shoes, the kind that keep walking, into walls, off the edges of things. He stuffs them in his pocket. Runs.