Interview with Michelle Elvy, Judge Novella-in-Flash Award 2021

    We thrilled Michelle has agreed to judge the 2021 Novella-in-Flash Award, which will be open for entries shortly and will close in mid January, 2021. Results out April, 2021 Read Jude's interview with her below if you want to write a novella in the next six months for our Award. Michelle has many interesting things to say about the form and the process of writing a novella-in-flash.

  • The term ‘novella in flash’ seems to have gained currency in recent years and writing a longer piece of work in short ‘flash chapters’ is fascinating to many. You call the everrumble, your own book, which was published by Ad Hoc Fiction last year, ‘a small novel in small forms’. Is there a particular reason for that? And for those who haven’t read ‘the everrumble’ can you tell us more about it and how you went about writing it? 
    The flash novella feels like a natural evolution – the next challenge, perhaps. Not to diminish the challenge, or fun, of writing one small story that encapsulates a moment, or a world. Just look at the array of literary journals focused around flash, and the exceptional work that is highlighted each year in both Best Small Fictions and Best Microfiction. But there is a different challenge in creating interlinking pieces and holding those between the covers of a book. The idea that you may have more to say, beyond the initial 1,000 words, is intriguing: What happens when…? What if…? Or: How could I look at this story from another angle? For me, that’s what happened when I wrote the everrumble. My first impulse was to write Zettie’s young life – to create a series of pieces that focused around her early years, and the moment she decides to stop speaking. But for me, writing is constantly evolving (I rarely see the ending when I start), and in this case it became clear that I could expand outward from Zettie’s young world, first geographically and then temporally. This led me places I did not expect. Zettie’s perceptions shifted as she continued to grow – and so did mine.

    Why call it a novel? In the end, the book contained a whole life and felt like a novel. But it wasn’t like other novels – and I had to think through the connotations and associations of a novel. I find it reassuring that we live in an age of challenging definitions, of crossing boundaries, of breaking down genre classification and all other kinds of labelling. It is a levelling, life-affirming trend, to me. It says yes to all possibilities. So for this little book, perhaps it’s pushing the boundary to call it a novel, but the definition is not in page count alone; the examination of a thing must come down to quality over quantity. Zettie transcends boundaries, so perhaps this label (something I sort of made up) – a ‘small novel in small forms’ – fits.

    • What essentials do you think writers need to pay attention to in writing in this form? 
      First, the big picture: pay attention to which pieces fit and which do not. When you sit down to write a set of stories that will eventually be linked, you may end up with far more than suit the pages. Don’t be afraid to jettison some. Follow your instincts from writing flash fiction: throw out what’s not essential; keep only what drives the story forward.

      Also, think of how these pieces link together. Small details might be revisited from one story to the next; there may be linking themes; perhaps repetition is your friend. Writing a novella-in-flash requires discipline around how to write the stories in the first place, and how to make connections between them. Someone once asked me why I did not elaborate on a chapter called ‘Silence’ from the first half of Zettie’s life in the everrumble. In this case, I did not feel compelled to give any more details: it was one moment of many moments that make a life. But I did come back to the theme of silence repeatedly – the book is about sound and the absence of sound – arriving, much later, at a deepening silence (a more important one) that occurs between Zettie and a herd of elephants in the wild.

      Finally, edit, edit, edit. Pay attention to detail. All details must fit, and your writing has to flow from one story to the next. By flow, I do not mean that they must develop chronologically or sequentially – you can move pieces around (and around some more), each time finding ways that one small detail makes sense here, but not there. Mind the gaps – and use them. Embrace freedom to experiment with how you tell the story. Play until the connections feel right, or review and rewrite, filling in further details or pulling some out. You may edit and end up with something smaller in word count than the initial draft – and that’s OK. I’ll say it again: quality over quantity.

      Additionally, I of course recommend reading examples of the form. There’s the Rose Metal Press book, My very end of the universe – containing five novellas-in-flash in one cover, as well as the books coming out of this competition each year. I am a fan of Eleanor Walsh’s Birds with Horse Hearts (recently featured at Flash Frontier, with an interview and excerpt), and I’m looking forward to Mary Jane Holmes’ 2020 winning novella, Don’t Tell the Bees, as well as runner-up Tracey Slaughter’s if there is no shelter.

      And – exciting new news! – this year, the two National Flash Fiction Day organisations, NFFD NZ and NFFD UK, are collaborating with a set of online events for our celebrations of the small form (always in June). Among other things, we’ve set up a brand new YouTube channel with an online video series of writers reading from flash novellas, among other things. Christchurch writer Nod Ghosh was the first reader in the series, with her new collection, Filthy Sucre, and Bath Novella-in-Flash winners are in the line-up as well. Watch this space! Subscribe to the Flash Frontier YouTube Channel! Get inspired!

    • And following on from that, from your own experience, can you give some tips on finding the final order of the flash chapters? 
      Ah, this is a fun part of the process. An art, and there’s no one way to do it. A bit like editing an anthology, or your own collection of work: the order of the pieces matters a great deal, as it will hint at connections, themes or spaces. You can assert quite a lot, in terms of tone and mood, in how you arrange the pieces. It’s not only about the flow of story (though that is of course important), but also about how the mood elevates or dips, how the pacing changes as we move through the pages. You can speed up or slow down, chapter by chapter. You can encourage the reader to take a breath and pause a moment.

      I like thinking of this as the grammar of the whole – the ordering of the collection is applying structure to it, to help the reader interpret meaning. If you don’t like grammar, try thinking of it as a puzzle, with the pieces fitting together just so. You get to determine how they do; you’re the puzzle-master. And despite my mention of grammar, there is a lot of freedom in this process – step back from the whole and experiment!

    • What, for you, would be the elements in a stand-out novella-in-flash entry?
      If the whole collection tells a unified story – even with a fragmented feel that is perhaps inevitable in this form – it works. If it does this with language that fits the mood – whether lush and poetic or spare and fleeting – it will work even better. And if it goes a step further and tells a story that feels complete at the end, that challenges the reader to make connections and gain a sense of meaning beyond the mechanics of writing – well, that flash novella will surely stand out.

      But there is no one way to go about this challenge. One writer may use plain language, another may use exquisite language; some are funny and some are dramatic. The main thing is to find the voice of the whole, and to carry that voice all the way through.

      Most of all, I think people working in this form need to allow themselves the space to stretch – to create the story in new ways that will surprise them as they go. Have fun! Be playful! If you’re enjoying the process of writing it, the reader will enjoy reading it.

    • Many writers say one criterion of a novella-in-flash is for each chapter to be able to stand alone. Is that something you agree with? 
      Yes and no. Some stories in a flash novella will stand on their own better than others. But some need the surrounding chapters to give them context. They can be read as single small things, but the context makes them all the richer. In this way, the pieces that create a flash novella are different to pieces written as standalone small stories, because they rely on the inter-relatedness of their existence, and because they expect the reader to bring an individual view to it, too. We talk about how flash fiction allows a lot of space for interpretation, the unsaid. We talk about how the flash writer might expect quite a lot from their reader, that it may even be a kind of dialogue with the reader – an invitation to play along, to join the game of What story am I telling? We rely on innuendo and reference. We hope for common ground. This is also the case with a flash novella: that space between chapters means as much as the space in an individual story. That’s the space for the reader. A flash novella is a small thing, but it can have enormous impact, and part of that is the role of pacing and space. In this way, each individual story matters, yes, and each one can likely be read on its own, but it’s OK that some may be stronger standalones than others. The overall effect of them together – how the reader experiences them as a whole – is what matters most.
    • You are running an ongoing online feedback class for writers. Can you tell us more about this? And how writers can join? 
      52|250 A Year of Writing grew out of a programme I launched in 2010, with childhood friend and adult writing partner John Wentworth Chapin. Back then, John and I set ourselves a challenge to write a story a week for a year: 52 weeks of writing, 250 words per week. Over one year, more people joined in, and we grew to be a community of nearly 200, some of us making connections that have endured ever since. It was a flash frenzy for a year – fun and inspiring, and a tremendous learning experience. In the decade since, I've continued writing and reading small fictions and also focused my professional life around working as an editor and manuscript assessor for novelists, short story writers, memoirists and even poets, helping writers bring their work to a publishable standard. Regular practice and starting small are underlying principles that inform my own work, as both a writer and an editor. These principles are connected to the 52|250 course as well. We have just started the second quarter – and I’m delighted if anyone wants to join us. You do not have to sign up for a year; you can join for a quarter, or even week by week for a time. Information is here. Thank you for asking about this programme – it’s another intense year of writing: challenging and fun! And the 2020 group includes novelists, poets, memoirists and more – and at least one novella-in-flash in the works.

      Thank you, Jude, for talking with me. I am looking forward to reading the flash novellas in the 2021 competition.

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