Michael Loveday's flash fiction novella Three Men on the Edge, is published by V. Press in summer 2018, and his poetry pamphlet He Said / She Said by HappenStance Press (2011). His writing has appeared in The Spectator; Flash: the International Short-Short Story Magazine; Funny Bone: Flashing for Comic Relief; and the National Flash Fiction Day Anthology 2017. He is a tutor in Adult and Higher Education, a Director of the National Association of Writers in Education and was judge of the inaugural Tongues and Grooves Prose Poem Prize, 2018. He runs a blog for flash fiction, poetry and prose poetry at www.pagechatter.org, and will be appearing both as a presenter and member of the team at this year's Flash Fiction Festival UK.
- You’ve been fascinated with the novella-in-flash form for several years. Can you tell us what drew you to reading and writing in this genre?
My interest emerged gradually. In 2011, I encountered Days and Nights in W12 by Jack Robinson (actually Charles Boyle). It’s a series of short prose pieces, each only a paragraph long, with a related photograph on each page. Some are clearly fictional stories, some are more like meditations, some are more journalistic – historical writing, urban landscape writing (it’s set in London’s Shepherd’s Bush district). There’s no central character, no plot – it’s a series of written snapshots about a location. I fell in love with the book (it’s still my favourite book of all time). At the same time I also read Dan Rhodes’s classic sequence Anthropology – 101-word stories about relationships. These were my first encounters with individually-authored ‘flash fiction’ collections (although Boyle’s book goes beyond ‘flash fiction’). Then I started asking other writers about books to read that were linked flash fiction sequences. That led me to Sandra Cisneros’s wonderful The House on Mango Street, which was my first encounter with a proper novella-in-flash, and the Rose Metal Press anthology My Very End of the Universe, which features novellas-in-flash by Meg Pokrass, Tiff Holland, Aaron Teel and others.
I realised that there was something very special and remarkable about this fiction form in which the parts matter just as much as the whole. My interest grew from there, as I began collecting such books and reading them more and more.
- Writers often get confused as to what a flash fiction novella is, and how it’s different from a standard novella. How would you describe the form?
A flash fiction novella, or novella-in-flash, may be a similar page-length to a novella and generally includes similar features such as a central character (or group of characters), and a sense of story or ‘narrative arc’. But the crucial difference is that the novella-in-flash is broken up into stand-alone sections, each generally functioning as an individual flash fiction – up to the 750 or 1,000 word length that is the typical ceiling for flash fiction, though sometimes as short as only few lines, depending on the type of story.
Each of the novella-in-flash’s stand-alone sections can be a ‘beginning-afresh’ - a new moment in the story, one that’s not necessarily picking up directly from where the previous chapter left off, not in that ‘continuous’ style one gets in traditional fiction. So the novella-in-flash’s sections may restart each time with a different situation, different narrative moment, a different character, or different physical location, say. Often, at the ending of each individual piece, there’s what I call a ‘resonating space’ - some unspoken invitation to pause, reflect and re-read or re-consider. This is exactly as usually happens at end of a one-off flash fiction or with any short story, in fact; but the difference with the novella-in-flash is that overall the individual scenes and moments (and gaps) accumulate into something bigger, something with a suggestion of a single cohesive picture. You can think of it as a process of tapestry and linkage (for both writer and reader), in enabling the individual flash fictions to add up to a whole, even though they can stand on their own too. [See Meg Pokrass’s essay: talkingwriting.com/craft-flash-novella-writing].
So the difference vs. a traditional novella is mainly a formal distinction, about length of sections / chapters – although that inevitably has a knock-on effect on the ‘feel’ and the qualities of the text.
- Your own novella-in-flash Three Men on the Edge is being published by V.press in July, 2018. Can you tell us what it’s about and your process of writing it?
It started in 2011 with reading Days and Nights in W12 and Anthropology. I wanted to write something informed by a landscape (the town where I lived – Rickmansworth, on the very edge of NW London and Hertfordshire, i.e. where city ends and countryside begins) but that also was a partly comical study of relationships (as Dan Rhodes had done in Anthropology). And, unlike these two books, which were more like miscellaneous sequences, I wanted to focus on recurring central characters, as Sandra Cisneros and others were doing in their traditional novellas-in-flash. I unearthed three men’s voices that were alter-egos – three, because Rickmansworth is in Hertfordshire’s ‘Three Rivers District’. Then I took them further, exaggerating their personalities, making composites with other people I’d observed, and generally making the characters distinctly fictional. I wrote about 20 pieces for my M.A. dissertation, working with the poet Fiona Sampson as my supervisor, and thinking of them as prose poems. Then when I finished the degree I thought I should probably keep going. Which I did, for six and a half years.
The process was very very exploratory – at various stages the manuscript was anything from a 12-page sequence of verse poems with line-breaks, to a 200-page novel about just one character, and everything in between. In the end it settled to 85 pages, and three distinct flash-fiction sequences, one for each central character, thematically but not narratively linked with each other. So in a way it’s three ‘mini-novellas-in-flash’ in one book. Each of the sections shows one of the men going about their daily life, as they struggle for connection with the world around them. And each of the men slips into crisis as they lose connection with the women in their lives. I tried to offer up a portrait of masculinity in crisis. As I finished the manuscript, I was very conscious of the ‘Time’s Up’ movement, and I hope I’ve written a book that shows the value of relationships with women, both intimate relationships and companionships, and their shaping influence, through the lives of these three deeply flawed men.
- Have you any new writing projects on the go at the moment?
I’ve got about two-thirds of a book’s worth of miscellaneous flash fictions that I’m gradually adding to, and about half of a slow-growing poetry collection. I have an idea for another novella-in-flash, but I’m delaying starting, because I’d like to finish one of these other two manuscripts first.
- What do you think are the main pitfalls in writing a novella-in-flash?
I’d say you have to apply patience and calm to the process of compiling it! It’s unlikely to proceed in the continuous way that a novel or novella usually does, and therefore almost inevitably will feel a bit fragmented, and maybe even a little confusing, as you try to work out how to connect the individual flashes. It may emerge very gradually from tiny beginnings, not necessarily a clear “I’ve-got-an-idea-for-a-novella” feeling – two or three flashes might seem to have something in common, and might lead you to the possibility of doing a sequence. And then that sequence can be expanded to something novella-length. Not everyone is lucky enough to have a clear novella-length story idea from the start, and that’s absolutely ok. It’s really really satisfying to watch the thing patiently grow.
Something to think carefully about is narrative point-of-view – using multiple points of view in a novella-in-flash is very hard to get right. The same is true of having a very varied chronology. (It would be absolutely wonderful, though, to see some submissions that succeed at either of these).
And you may find you’ve got 75% of your word count, but it still doesn’t seem to connect properly into a coherent picture. In which case, you probably have to write some material to ‘fill the gaps’. This material can often be the most interesting, but most difficult, to write. I think of these as the ‘album tracks’ rather than ‘hit singles’.
Lastly, based on my experience with Three Men on the Edge, you may write a lot of material that doesn’t actually fit the final manuscript. (I had about 150 sections that never made it).
Don’t lose your nerve in the face of all this! It’s part of the process, and what makes the novella-in-flash such a magical and rewarding thing to write, and for readers to then read. For writers, I’m convinced there really is nothing like it as a process, in terms of how fulfilling a challenge it is to take on and resolve. It’s a very very special form.
- What, for you, would create a stand-out novella-in-flash?
A really good novella-in-flash, when it’s finally finished, has conviction – you know you’re in safe hands as a reader because the individual sentences are so compelling. As with flash fiction itself, needless words should be omitted, and there should be a combination of electricity and complete assurance in the vocabulary and in any imagery. And as with longer fiction, characterisation and the overall story need to be in satisfyingly good shape – the central subject matter needs to have merit and depth. Beyond that, in terms of the technicalities of the form, it would be wonderful to see some invention and creativity in terms of how people approach putting it together. Overall, to paraphrase Ted Hughes (who was describing the novel), there is no correct way to write a novella-in-flash, or rather, there is only one, and that one way is to make it interesting.
You ran and edited a poetry magazine from 2005 to 2012 and would have seen hundreds of submissions. What would you say to writers about final checks and balances before submitting their novellas?
Have one or two (or a few!) people read it and give you comments. And – beyond using spell-check, which is a no-brainer – print it out, and read it out loud over and over until your ear actively hears it sounding absolutely right. The ear is often a better judge than the eye.
- Recommended reading in this genre?
Classic places to start are: Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street, Justin Torres’s We The Animals, and the Rose Metal Press Anthology My Very End of the Universe, from which I’d particularly recommend Meg Pokrass’s ‘Here, Where We Live’ and Aaron Teel’s ‘Shampoo Horns’ (this anthology also includes interesting introductory essays by the writers). Also, Lex Williford’s Superman on the Roof, Joan Didion Play It As It Lays (novel-length), Kelcey Parker’s Liliane’s Balcony, Alex Garland’s The Coma, the list could go on and on... it’s also definitely worth reading How To Make A Window Snake, the first anthology produced in 2017 as a result of this competition. I’m really looking forward to 2018’s anthology, In the Debris Field too – Meg Pokrass’s judge’s report suggests it will be another strong set of novellas-in-flash.
- You also write poetry including prose poetry, recently judged the inaugural Prose Poetry competition with Tongues and Grooves and you are discussing the difference between prose poetry and flash fiction with the poet and flash-fiction writer, Carrie Etter at the Festival of Flash Fiction in Bath, this coming July. It’s a subject of much controversy in the world of short-short fiction. Would you say there are distinct differences?
Yes. And no. Denise Duhamel: “Prose poetry and flash fiction are kissing cousins. They are kissing on Jerry Springer, knowing they’re cousins, and screaming “So what?” as the audience hisses.” This is a favourite subject of mine (prose poetry vs. flash fiction, not kissing cousins!), and personally I feel there’s some grey area, though for some people (including Carrie Etter!) there are clear distinctions to make. The interviews (and definitions page) at the blog pagechatter.org try to tackle this very subject.
- Can you see a prose poem working as a ‘chapter’ in a novella-in-flash?
Perhaps inevitably, I’d say yes. You could have a ‘prose-poem-style’ piece that serves the overall character arc in a novella-in-flash. Certainly that’s what I’ve tried to do at times in Three Men on the Edge, and some of those pieces were published individually in poetry magazines. Some people feel resistance when things don’t fit neat boxes of categorisation, and that’s fine; but I don’t feel that resistance, and I’d welcome competition entries this year that tread a fine line, just as much as I’d love to see entries where each flash follows a traditional, longer narrative arc towards a crisis or climax.
Most of the flash fictions in Justin Torres’s novella We the Animals are longer – 3 to 8 pages long in his case – with a full sense of narrative arc, building to a crisis or climax. But the first piece in the book is somewhere between a flash fiction and a prose poem – he foregrounds the sentence structures, the repetitions, and the rhythms. And the final one, the one he relies upon to draw the novella to a close, is very short and definitely more of a prose poem. Quite a few of the pieces in Liliane’s Balcony are like prose poems. So it can be done. I’m all for pushing boundaries and testing the form to its limits, just as much as celebrating examples of ‘classic’ form – otherwise the form becomes static.
- You work as a writing tutor, offering workshops and mentoring. Can you tell us more about these services?
My workshops these days are generally in Somerset, UK, for the St. John’s Foundation (creative writing for the over-55s) and for Frome Community Education (all adults). I also supervise extended fiction projects for American undergraduates at a college called Advanced Studies in England. In terms of mentoring I work by post and by email, as well as face-to-face in London and Somerset. Mentoring is one of my favourite parts of the role of writer-tutor – it’s so rewarding to work closely together and see someone develop through in-depth feedback – and I’m trying to do more and more of this. My workshop teaching too is very important to me, as I know how much other tutors’ workshops have helped me move forward as a writer. I want to give back to other writers some of my passion for literature, and help people feel and be more creative.
I love that special chemistry of getting people together in a room to talk about writing. In a more corporate former life I used to facilitate market research groups. Facilitating a writing group has some similarities, but we talk less about reasons for buying brands of toilet roll and shampoo.