American writer, Meg Pokrass, is a flash fiction writer, poet and writing tutor. Her books include flash fiction collections, Bird Envy (2014), Damn Sure Right (Press 53 2011) and The Dog Looks Happy Upsidedown (forthcoming from Etruscan Press 2016) and an award-winning book of prose poetry Cellulose Pajamas (Blue Light Book Award Winner 2015). Among her many other publications, she has a flash-fiction novella and essay on the form in My Very End of the Universe, Five mini-novellas in flash and a Study of the Form published by Rose Metal Press. Meg recently moved from the United States to England. In addition to judging our new Flash Fiction Novella Award, you can often join her and others for an evening of flash fiction, booking here.
- We are thrilled to have you as judge for our flash fiction novella competition.
I’m thrilled to be a judge for this marvellous competition! The flash fiction community has been incredibly warm to me in England!
- In recent correspondence with me you said that the novella-in-flash is a form of writing you love the best? Can you tell us why that is?
If we had been in the same room, you would have noticed my sheepish shrug when professing love for writing the flash novella. My shrug would indicate that it is the form I love the best and it is also the most challenging.
All I can do is talk about my own experience writing the flash novella because for each writer it’s a different process. For me, writing in this form is mysterious and tricky. The story arc dawns on one in the process of linking up chapters (flash fictions) and experimenting with the order in which they fall. There will be many variations of that arc, and hard decisions to make. After becoming clear about which road to take the next challenge is in making that arc known to the reader without losing subtlety and mystery.
- In the Rose Metal Press guide on writing flash fictions novellas My Very End of the Universe, you write about how you compiled your own novella Here, Where We Live which is contained in the book. Will you summarise for us how you arrived at the final order of pieces?
It is best to explain here that I began with about 12 flash fiction stories about various teenagers that, when they were originally written, had no connection. I tried to find any connection between the stories and began writing “connective tissue”. I rewrote them so that they became pieces about the same teenage girl instead of about 12 separate girls.
Once I made the decision about what would happen to my main character, and how she’d contend with it, the writing flowed. But it took months of work until I got there. I really didn’t know what would happen to her until a certain point, deep in the writing drafts. After I committed to it, then it was backtracking and looking at everything knowing, with certainty, what would come later.
I like to compare the process of determining the order of chapters to listening to an album in which the order of songs feel as though they tell a story. There may be no obvious intellectual reason for how the songs line up on Abbey Road by The Beatles or Blue by Joni Mitchell, though clearly the makers had directional ideas. The magic is how a single song can feel entirely different because of the song that came before it.
I read the novella out loud in a number of different variations, until my body knew which version felt right.
- Do you think it matters what length the individual flash pieces are in this novella form?
No, I don’t think so. I just know that they have to feel like complete pieces… Stand-alone stories or micros or prose poems.
- What do you think writers most need to pay attention to when structuring their flash fiction novellas?
What our characters obsess about are the qualities that make them interesting to a reader. These are the areas where energy circulates, and which, through linking pieces, the writing is original and exciting. What are the chronic conflicts for your characters?
We have to know what our characters want and need—and where these needs are being thwarted. It is often those uncomfortably honest details about human nature which end up becoming the reason for linking the chapters and writing connective tissue. We have to want to know if they are going to win some great, inner (or outer) battle.
When beginning to structure a novella, direct it to tackle these emotional themes.
- Flash novellas are often much shorter than ‘standard prose’ novellas which are often around 20,000-40,000 words long. But even at 6,000 or 7000 words, they still seem different from a long short story composed of shorter pieces? Would you agree?
Yes, absolutely. In the flash novella, there is a feeling that the reader is being asked to take breaths, sometimes even coffee breaks, between chapters. With the short story there is a feeling of fluidity and an urgency to finish a story before taking that breath.
- Do you think flash novellas have to follow a distinct narrative arc?
Yes, but sometimes that narrative arc is quite subtle.
- Which novellas or novels-in-flash would you recommend reading? And why?
“We, The Animals” by Justin Torres
“Why Did I Ever” by Mary Robison
“Mr. Bridge” and “Mrs. Bridge” by Evan Connell
“Monkeys” by Susan Minot
“The Autobiography of Red” by Anne Carson.
All of the above succeed in keeping us at the edge of our seats through the brilliant use of connected fragments.
- Can you refer us to any articles that you or others have written about the flash novella?
I was satisfied with the craft essay I wrote for the Rose Metal Press book which was reprinted online by Talking Writing. The four other authors from that anthology write wonderful essays about they way they accomplished their novellas in flash. So, I would suggest ordering “My Very End of the Universe” and reading the five craft essays. Frankly, there has not been a lot written about the process of writing flash novellas… That is just one reason why the Rose Metal Press is such a valuable resource.
- Are there any other tips you would add about writing a flash novella?
Select a few of your strongest pieces. Write a before-and-after piece to go with each story. As with life, so often we don’t know how to understand the true importance of moments we are living until we look at what happened before and after. We can look back at times we lived through and say: Aha! That was when I was ….. before that happened!
Pay attention to themes that haunt your work and your dreams (they are often the same). Here, you’ll find you’re most vivid and creative material.
Instead of disliking yourself for the weird things you worry about use them. Your brain is messy? Good. Put it to work.
- We’d love to hear your views on titles and some tips on finding a good one for a finished novella.
The title should serve as a lantern in the dark for the reader, and offer a firm handshake between new partners. A proper title will open the door and then it must let the reader know a bit about what they will be getting. It must make a promise to the reader: Take a chance on me and this is what you will find or what you will figure out. You will know what this means when you are done.
Coming up with a perfect title is impossible, so take pressure off yourself. No title can make everything right, or become the novella’s agent! But it can really work to help attract the reader and to solidify trust in the material.
Sometimes, it can be rather straight ahead. Naming the subject itself may work quite well. For example, there is Evan Connell’s “Mr Bridge” and “Mrs. Bridge”. One might argue that those titles are boring, but they are brilliantly honest. Connell’s companion books are vignettes about the lives of two fictional people, Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge. It was intentional that the titles did not include the character’s given names, because the two books are studies of their marriage to each other.
Sometimes a good title may show the reader how to view the subject, but this only works if the way the subject has been written about is inventive: “We, the Animals” is an example of a title letting us know that the subjects of Justin Torres’ novella are being brought up by their parents (a bit uncomfortably) like animals. It is a dramatic title for a dramatic novella, so it works very well.
When the novella ends, a good title will continue to talk to the reader, to help them think back about the novella in a deeper way.