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.