Michael Loveday judged our 2019 Novella in Flash Award and he is pictured here at a panel about this exciting form at the recent Flash Fiction Festival in Bristol, with from left to right, Charmaine Wilkerson, winner of the inaugural Award in 2017, with How To Make A Window Snake, which later won the 2018 Saboteur Awards for a novella, Johanna Robinson, who wrote the historical novella Homing, a runner up in the 2019 Award and Ellie Walsh who is reading from her first-prize winning novella in the 2019 Award, Birds With Horse Hearts and Meg Pokrass, the judge of our 2017 and 2018 Awards.
Michael judged our 2019 Award and he thought the winning novellas were very impressive. You can read his judge’s report here. And we’re happy that Ad Hoc Fiction is publishing the three winning and the three commended novellas this year.
In our interview with him last year, we asked what he thought the main pitfalls in writing a novella-in-flash were and here he’s updated his answer and given his top three tips after assessing manuscripts from the 2019 Award, which were often very good, but didn’t quite work as a whole.
He says, overall the most common manuscript problems were as follows –
(1) Lack of a Thread – Some manuscripts (including some with really outstanding individual flashes) just didn’t link up enough. As you write your novella, it’s worth continually thinking: what’s the thread, what’s the centre?
(a) Will it be clear whose story it is or who the central characters are?
(b) If not, will it be clear what the central plot event is / events are?
(c) If not, will it be clear to the reader what the setting / location is that links the material?
(d) If not, will it be really, really clear to the reader which tightly focused, controlling theme or motif is filtering all the stories in your novella?
If the answer is ‘no’ to all four questions, then it’s likely to mean you have a collection of flashes on your hands – more of a miscellany or story collection than a novella.
(2) Ensemble Casts – It’s important to maintain good control of your cast of characters. Having lots of different protagonists is risky, unless they’re linked by location, or a set of central, shared events, or a tightly focused theme. Ask yourself, what’s keeping this novella in balance and focus? Am I letting some characters dominate fleetingly then disappear? Will it be apparent who’s speaking or who an unnamed third person protagonist is in any given story? (At the very least, enough clues should accumulate in the various characterisations for the reader to realise in hindsight when they look back over a novella. A process of delayed revelation is perfectly fine.) Also, if you have dozens of named secondary characters, have you obscured the sense of any centre to the novella?
(3) Timelines – If your novella has a very varied or complex chronology, it can be difficult to get it right. You might need to look hard at your timeline to make sure it’s, in the end, not confusing or too convoluted to follow. This includes thinking carefully about any large or unexplained leaps in time, or any back and forth between multiple “eras” in your story that might be obscured from the reader’s understanding. One option is to include years / months / dates in the headings of your flashes, if it’s a really complex timeline, though this may not suit all novellas. Other devices include using different tenses, different points of view, or adopting other creative devices (such as italics vs. ordinary font) to help readers orient themselves between different “eras” within your novella. For example, Michelle Elvy’s coming-of-age story the everrumble mixes up its chronology into haphazard order but states the protagonist’s age with the title of most chapters, thereby offering the reader a foothold into the underlying sequence of things.
As a final piece of advice, do maintain your patience in the process of compiling your novella! It 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. You may have to write a lot of material that doesn’t actually fit the final manuscript.
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 then to read.
Previously published examples from past years of the competition can give you ideas of what’s possible. But these published examples hide the messy processes of their own creation – there may be a long, ungainly “caterpillar” phase while a novella is developed. And you should also feel encouraged to create something entirely new, not previously attempted.
For writers, I’m convinced there really is nothing like writing a novella-in-flash, in terms of how fulfilling a challenge it is to take on and resolve. It’s a very very special form.