Ingrid Jendrzejewski tells us how she compiled her brilliant novella-in-flash, Things I Dream About When I’m Not Sleeping, which was one of the two runners-up in the inaugural Bath Flash Fiction novella-in-flash Award judged by Meg Pokrass earlier this year. The anthology of winning novellas How to Make a Window Snake was launched at the Flash Fiction Festival in Bath in June 2017 and the picture here shows Ingrid reading from her novella at the festival with winner, Charmaine Wilkerson, listening. Everyone at this event was very moved by both their readings. How to Make a Window Snake the anthology containing the novellas by Ingrid, Charmaine and the other runner-up, Joanna Campbell, is available from the Ad Hoc Fiction bookshop. The deadline for the second novella-in-flash award, also judged by Meg Pokrass, is on 29th January, 2018. Ingrid went through several stages, detailed below, before she finished her winning novella-in-flash.
Write and write
When Bath’s first Novella-in-Flash competition was announced last year, I was thrilled. I was working on a novella-in-flash, and a deadline seemed like good motivation to kick up my productivity on that project. So, I dusted off my notes and proto-draft work and wrote and wrote and wrote. I wrote until about two weeks before the deadline when I realised that there was no possible way of finishing the thing in time to submit, and that the final thing was likely to be too long for Bath anyway. At that point, I nearly gave up. I’m not a quick writer – I spend a lot of time editing and often go through many drafts – and two weeks didn’t seem anywhere near enough time to pull together a novella.
I had such a great experience with the Bath Flash Fiction Competition and was so impressed with the first award anthology, To Carry Her Home, and Meg Pokrass was judging…Although I couldn’t finish what I’d hoped to finish, part of me still wanted to participate, if nothing else to support the organisation and to show that yes, there is interest in linked collections of flash. However, with only a couple weeks left before the deadline, I had no idea what I could actually pull together that I’d be happy enough to submit.
I’ve constructed some found poetry and flash in the past, and I really enjoy constrained writing. So, it occurred to me that perhaps I could construct a novella-in-flash out of pieces that I had lying around. So, I printed out everything I had available to work with, and had a read.
At first, it was overwhelming. All told, I probably had around 250 eligible pieces, of all sorts of styles and forms. I tried various groupings around styles (everything from magical realism to minimalism to crazy experiments with form) and themes (parenthood, relationships, science, childhood, sleep, crazy strange weird stuff), but it all felt like a huge mess. So, I added another constraint. I reduced my selection to previously-published pieces and pieces that I’d quit sending out. That helped narrow things down quite a bit, but organising it all still felt like an impossible task.
Enlist the help of a writer friend
Still, I didn’t want to give up, so I enlisted a friend. On the 23rd of January, I traded huge batches of work with the inspirational Melissa Fu who was also working on a collection. We both read each others’ work and tried to find connections and themes and through-lines. It was so much easier to see what was going on in someone else’s text; I didn’t carry nearly so much baggage in to the reading as I did with my own pieces. And, sure enough, Melissa was able to pick out themes and relationships that I didn’t see in my own work. We got together for coffee and cake and played around with orderings and ideas, and by the end of the 24th, I had convinced myself that I could find a story about a female character who grew up, had various relationships, then children who themselves grew into adults.
Step back and focus – what’s it all about?
I started working to that brief, but found that the collection felt too sprawling. It lacked focus. I felt the material about early parenthood was most effective, but there wasn’t enough of that to reach the minimum word count, and it didn’t feel like ‘enough’ thematically. This made me step back and think carefully about what I wanted to say – what I could say – with this limited set of stories, and the idea I kept coming back to is the huge, monumental shift in identity that people face when they become parents. Relationships with partners change. Relationships to friends and work and time change. The self changes. When writing flash, I often think about writing to the shift, so I thought that perhaps I could do the same thing with the collection, just using stories instead of sentences to create the overarching story.
Remove and add pieces
Once I decided that I’d make the piece ‘about’ this identity shift during early parenthood, it all started coming together. I removed everything that didn’t support this theme. I added in a lot of the quirky, strange pieces that have to do with identity. I decided not to waste time making the point of view consistent; I liked the way shifting between ‘I’ and ‘she’ and ‘you’ felt a little destabilising, just as the main character’s sense of identity is destabilised. I rearranged and reordered according to a timeline of events, many of which happen ‘offstage’, but which I wrote out for myself so that (hopefully) the novella as a whole would feel as if it had an internal consistency, despite the huge gaps I was leaving for the reader to fill in.
Play with order
I spent days playing with the order. Eventually, I got it into a configuration I liked, but there were a few gaps. I mined my notebooks, journals and free-writes, and used this ‘found’ material to fill most of them. I then wrote one new piece to help make the beginning and end explicitly play off each other. Overall, I changed very little about the other pieces during the editing process. I gave everything a polish, of course, but there was only one piece in which I made a substantial changes: two pieces had similar final sentences, so I changed the ending of one of them.
The most exciting part of constructing the novella was the way that completely unrelated pieces started pinging off each other, and how characters and voices that I once had thought of as separate, distinct and utterly different melded into each other. The weirder pieces that once seemed so separate from the more reality-grounded pieces all of a sudden became part of a new mother’s internal life. Somehow, pieces started reading differently when they sat next to each other. Sometimes, they read so differently, it felt like I was reading a stranger’s work instead of my own.
Submit – magic things can happen
On the 31st of January, I finally, finally settled on a title and submitted the novella. When I clicked ‘send’, I had absolutely no idea whether what I’d created would make any sense to anyone outside my own head. However, I felt that no matter how it did, I’d learned so much about my own writing, about editing, about how isolated pieces can do strange and wonderful things when placed next to other pieces. I also learned that even when things feel impossible and time is running out, it can be worth stepping back and seeing what magic things might happen if you can find a very different way to frame a problem.