Tag Archives: Johanna Robinson

Interview with Johanna Robinson about her novella-in-flash, ‘Homing’

Johanna Robinson's wonderful novella-in-flash Homing was a runner-up in the 2019 Bath Novella-in-Flash Award judged by Michael Loveday. The novella, which spans four decades, tells the story of a family's involvement with the Resistance Movement in Norway during World War 11 and its aftermath on their lives. It was launched at the Flash Fiction Festival in Bristol at the end of June this year. Homing is already on its second print run and has been dispatched all over the world.
You can buy a paperback copy from the Ad Hoc Fiction Bookshop and digital copies will be available from Kindle via Amazon soon. Johanna's novella, although short at 18,000 words, has the scope and depth of a much longer novel, It is currently longlisted for the 2019 'Not-The-Booker Prize'. (although they have made a mistake on the list, saying it is published by Louise Walters Press and not 'Ad Hoc Fiction'. You might like to support her and vote for it. (Voting is openhere until next Monday 5th August) Read the fascinating interview below with Johanna if you are thinking of writing a novella-in-flash, historical or otherwise for our 2020 Award or elsewhere, or if you want to become absorbed in a compelling and beautifully written story on a subject you may know little about.

  • I believe you did some of the research for Homing years ago. Can you tell us about this and about the process of transforming it into a novella in flash?

I first picked up snippets about the Norwegian resistance when I was on a year abroad at Oslo University. A few years later, 2002 or so, I began to read the stories of the ‘Shetland Bus’, a scheme whereby fishing boats were used to smuggle men and goods from Norway to Shetland. In fact, I wrote a whole chunk of novel-style creative writing about it, but I never really planned to do anything with it and it has sat on various computers ever since. I couldn’t let go of the stories of that community, though. Then, last year, when doing more research, online this time, I discovered the story of the village of Telavåg, and it was here that I felt the various stories could crystallise. At first – and nothing to do with flash – I wanted to write about the teachers who were taken to concentration camps. This was the first piece I wrote, and it ended up very short, and that felt right. At that point, a door had been opened, a way into writing about that time in history. This coincided with discovering the novella-in-flash format. Actually, this first piece was the only one that changed substantially. Also, two chapters in Homing, ‘Lotion I’ and ‘Lotion II’, began life in that early writing – I was really happy that I managed to weave them into the novella; it seemed the right thing to do.

  • The story, spanning several decades, is very compelling and I particularly like how you use the symbol of the paper clip and the suitcase to carry the reader forward. Was this a deliberate strategy on your part?

Yes, and no. The paper clip was something that I couldn’t not have written about, as it was an aspect that I encountered a lot back in the early days of research, albeit often in a minor way. As a result, it featured in a number of the first flash pieces I wrote, and actually drove the story in the early stages. The suitcase, however, was a very late addition, and it emerged in one of the stories I wrote in a Meg Pokrass online workshop in December 2018. It found its way into one piece, and a couple of other workshop participants asked what may have happened to the case next/earlier. Already the suitcase was something that operated beyond the boundaries of that little individual story. When it came to weaving it through, it was a pretty easy job. It was as though my brain had inserted it in that Meg-workshop story, ready to be used elsewhere.

  • Did you write individual pieces first, before you put them into a sequence?

I wrote them first, without thinking of an order. The sequence came at the very end, although, because it’s largely chronological,that wasn’t a difficult process. Once I had a timeline of people’s ages and the events that couldn’t be moved because of historical accuracy, the sequence really took care of itself. I think having a specific event and time as a springboard for the whole story, and for all the small, individual stories, helped me not worry too much about a narrative pattern when I was in the process of writing.

  • Were there any particular novellas in flash you read beforehand that helped you to compose your own?

Yes, definitely. The first one I came across was Stephanie Hutton’s Three Sisters of Stone, in May 2018, and so this was my first encounter with the novella-in-flash form. I was hooked! I then read How to Make a Window Snake and the two others in the 2017 Bath Novella-in-flash anthology; I reread the title novella of this anthology by Charmaine Wilkerson a few times while I was writing mine. I read the Rose Metal Press Field Guide on my Kindle because I was too impatient to wait for delivery, as well as Meg Pokrass’s Here Where We Live, and the other stories in My Very End of the Universe. Finally, I devoured Sophie van Llewyn’s Bottled Goods one weekend in a motor home, in October 2018. I loved that the grand story was interspersed with different forms and strange ideas – as a reader I really didn’t know what I would be getting when I turned over the page, and that in itself kept me turning.

  • What did you find the most difficult thing about creating the novella?

Probably the voice in my head that kept saying only some of the pieces were really good enough to be published. Some of the pieces – once I’d found the story – needed to be written to ‘join’ others together, and I just wasn’t sure if they looked like filler pieces, like something dashed off to fulfil a function. Much later on, when the book was nearly published actually, I finally silenced that voice, as I realised not every chapter needs to be the best piece of writing you’ve ever written – and perhaps that’s even more the case the longer the final work is. In Birds with Horse Hearts, the 2019 Bath winning novella by Ellie Walsh, each chapter is filled with beautiful, lyrical writing. It’s gorgeous, and it fits perfectly the length of the book and the setting. With mine, I think another function of the ‘filler’ chapters was to provide a breather from some of the events and fall-out of the war.

  • What was the most unexpected thing that happened during the writing of it?

That I created a life for the main character that went way beyond the initial setting of Norway in WWII. Also, how textured it ended up feeling at the end. I liked how, although there is a linear movement, the short flash fiction form allows a texture to build up.

  • Top tips for writers who might be embarking on one?

Thinking back, what really helped me was the expectation that no one would ever read it. That allowed me to be experimental with form, to take different perspectives, beyond those of the main characters. Cheat. If you need to get from Chapter 7 to Chapter 9, experiment with Chapter 8 – how can it link 7 and 9 in the brilliant, brief way only flash fiction can? It might work, it might not, but of course, nothing’s ever wasted

The other thing that really helped me – and without it there wouldn’t be a novella – was doing a flash fiction course at the point I’d run out of steam a little. I had come to a standstill – I couldn’t be sure who my main character was, and I definitely didn’t have a narrative arc to the whole thing, or an end in mind. What Meg Pokrass’s prompts course did was, first, make me write seven pieces in two weeks, and second, drag me out of the story, giving me a different perspective. The prompts, of course, had nothing to do with my book’s setting, but they forced me to look at certain aspects of it in a new light, to pull on threads that I hadn’t realised were there and see what came of them.

  • Flash fiction is something you have come to only recently. What is it that you particularly like about the form?

In terms of the writing, I love the challenge. At university, I always over-wrote, always had to cut-cut-cut words out of my work, but that’s where and when things get to be good. In terms of reading flash, it has been a revelation to me what people can do in tiny numbers of words – and I feel it especially in historical flash, which can make snapshots into stories. Also, in terms of both reading and writing, I love language and word play, and the little coincidences and thrills that can happen when it really works in a new way. I think flash is just a great crucible for that.

  • Have you any new writing projects on the go at the moment?

When I finished the novella, I wasn’t sure I’d do another, because I’d had the history in my head for so many years. Yeah, well, that didn’t last! I’m planning another historical book, but hopefully a lot longer, and hopefully still in flash form. I’ve been doing research for it, and could go on for ever with that, but I’m planning on actually starting to write something soon. It definitely feels different this time – harder to just get on and do it – now that Homing is out in the world.

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Top Tips For Writing A Novella-in-Flash by Michael Loveday, 2020 Novella judge

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?

Ask yourself: 
(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.

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Out Now! ‘Birds With Horse Hearts’, ‘Homing’ and ‘The Roster’ – three winning novellas-in-flash

We launched three of the winning novellas-in-flash at the Flash Fiction Festival in Bristol 28th-30th June. Birds with Horse Hearts by Eleanor Walsh Homing By Johanna Robinson and The Roster by Debra A Daniel. You can now buy all these marvellous novellas in paperback from the Ad Hoc Fiction Bookshop. Just click on the book titles linked above to go straight to the correct bookshop page.

We were delighted that the first prize winner Eleanor Walsh and Runner-Up Johanna Robinson were able to attend the festival to read extracts from, and talk about their novellas. The 2019 judge, Michael Loveday chaired the panel which included Charmaine Wilkerson, who won the 2017 Award with her novella in flash How To Make A Window Snake and and Meg Pokrass, who judged the 2017 Award and whose novella Here Where We Live, is included in the Rose Metal Press Field Guide to writing a novella-in-flash. It was very interesting to hear from all these writers about the form.

Debra Daniel lives in the US, and wasn't able to attend the Festival, but all books were available in our festival bookshop and created much interest. It is so exciting to see three new examples of this fast developing genre. They are all brilliant reads and have had much advanced praise.

Birds With Horse Hearts takes us to the lowlands of contemporary Nepal and "explores the entangled lives of three women as they navigate grief, freedom and their own journeys to find people to call family and places to call home." Judge Michael Loveday said Homing, "an historical fiction encompassing the Second World War and telling the story of a Norwegian family from 1933 to 1970 has more epic sweep than many novels", and commented that The Roster, an "ensemble cast" novella, a superbly individualised, vivid, inventive and memorable sequence of stories about a teacher's pupils at a school is a story of immense charm with real emotional substance."

The 2020 Novella in Flash Award, judged again this time by Michael Loveday is now open for entries and closes January 12th 2020.

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Novella-in-Flash 2019 Winners

Read about our winners and highly commended writers and go to our judge Michael Loveday's report to see his comments on their wonderful novellas-in-flash. All six novellas-in-flash will be published in separate single author books by our small press, Ad Hoc Fiction and will be available to buy in paperback on the Ad Hoc Fiction bookshop and in ebook formats on Kindle and Nook in due course. We are thrilled to publish such a brilliant variety flash fiction novellas by these authors and to further support a form of flash fiction growing so much in popularity worldwide.
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Winner, Ellie Walsh, with Birds with Horse Hearts. Ellie is a PhD student at the University of Plymouth, where her research focuses on Nepalese feminist literature. She has short stories and poetry published in UK, Canadian and Indian journals, and her play was produced in London. Ellie spends much of her time in Chitwan, Nepal, where the villagers teach her how to farm rice and often tell her to lighten up. Read in Full

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2019 Novella-in-Flash Award Results and Round Up

Many congratulations to the 2019 winners in our 2019 Novella-in-Flash Award and also to the Highly Commended writers. First prize goes to UK based author, Ellie Walsh, for her novella-in-flash Birds with Horse Hearts. The two Runners-Up are Johanna Robinson, also from the UK for her novella-in-flash, Homing and John Brantingham from the US with his novella-in-flash Inland Empire Afternoon.

This year we are also pleased to be able to award three Highly Commended prizes to Francine Witte from the US for The Way of The Wind, Debra Daniel from the US for Roster and Dan Crawley from the US for Straight Down the Road.

We received 108 entries this year, nearly the same number as in 2018 and submissions came in from several different countries including the UK, Ireland, Spain, US, Australia and New Zealand. As our 2019 Judge, Michael Loveday, remarked in his report, the standard of entries was very high. And it has been exciting to read how different authors interpret the form. We love how the novella-in-flash allows for much experimentation, in the whole structure and within the individual flash fiction 'chapters'. We received novellas in several different genres - science fiction based stories, stories showing life within a family or a relationship, historical stories, crime stories. Some covered large time spans, others focussed on events in a day, but all the long listed novellas had their unique 'flash fiction' take, making them very different from a 'standard' novella or short novel. The novella-in-flash is a form growing massively in popularity, with our inaugural winner How To Make A Window Snake , by Charmaine Wilkerson, winning the Saboteur Novella Prize in 2018 and recently, Sophie Van Llewyn's novella-in-flash, Bottled Goods, published by Fairlight Press, being shortlisted for the Women's Fiction Prize.

Having tested the water over the past two years and in light of these developments, we are very keen to further promote the form and to support our winners and commended writers by publishing the three winners each as a single book in both paperbook and digital copies. And we are also offering a similar publishing opportunity to our three Highly Commended Writers. These six novellas-in-flash are all fantastic reads and we believe they will encourage anyone interested in writing one, to have a go at the form.

We also hope, later down the line, to offer publication to the four other excellent novellas on our short list: Kremlin Quixote by David Rhymes from Spain; Off the Resting Sea by US based writer, Al Kratz; At the Bottom of the Stairs by UK author Chloe Banks, and George X by Peter Matthews, also from the UK.

Finally, we offer our huge thanks and appreciation to Michael Loveday, for all his work on judging our 2019 Award. He read and considered all the longlisted novellas very carefully, and has studied the shortlisted novellas even more closely. He is very enthusiastic about the novella-in-flash as a genre and keen on all its possibilities. It has been wonderful having him as our judge and we are very pleased to welcome him back to judge next year. The 2020 Award will open in April and end in mid January, 2020. More details posted soon.

Jude Higgins, BFFA founder,

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