Tag Archives: Meg Pokrass

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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Six Bath Flash authors selected for Best Microfiction 2019

We are thrilled that micro fictions by five authors who won prizes, or were listed in our Bath Flash Fiction Awards 2018 and one winner from Ad Hoc Fiction were selected by guest editor, Dan Chaon from lists drawn up by series editors Meg Pokrass and Gary Fincke for their new anthology series Best Microfiction.
Read in Full

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Highlights from Bath Flash Fiction, 2018

2018 has been a fabulous year for Bath Flash Fiction and our publisher, Ad Hoc Fiction. We began the year with a joint launch of The Lobsters Run Free, Bath Flash Fiction Vol Two, the Ad Hoc Fiction published anthology from the 2017 Awards and Flash Fiction Festival One, the anthology of flash fictions submitted by particpants and presenters from the first Flash Fiction Festival in Bath. Thirteen writers, pictured on the left and below, who had fictions in one or both of the anthologies read their micros at the event. It was very pacy and fun. Read in Full

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Meg Pokrass: Writing From the Inside Out

Writer, writing tutor and editor Meg Pokrass is well-known for her amazingly inventive prompts. And she uses them herself in her own writing. This is what she says about it --

When people ask me: how did you do that? How did you incorporate that prompt idea? (as though it is a magic trick) this is what I almost always wish to say:
The writer works from the inside out. They live with a feeling, such as loss, for example the loss of love (my favorite) and they use the prompt as a way to explore the feeling in new ways, to "process" it (if we're being new-agey about it). There is no "trick" it is just letting oneself see your own life differently by using different filters, or metaphors, or situations, and letting oneself feel sad once again, which admittedly sucks (when writing hard stuff, feeling the loss again by looking directly at it). But on the bright side, to express it in some creative way, can create a huge sense of relief.

For November Meg is posting a prompt a day based on her wonderful collection Alligators at Night, which was published this July by Ad Hoc Fiction and which is available from the Ad Hoc Fiction Bookshop. Meg is posting extracts or full stories from the collection and giving you ideas to inspire a story. A great way to write in inventive ways, build up a sequence of fictions and to whet your appetite to read the whole collection. Hop over to her website to take a look. Her illustrative pictures are prompts in themselves.
And just for an added bonus, here's Meg reading the title story from 'Alligators at Night', a flash that was chosen as one of Wigleaf magazine's list of top 50 stories in 2018.

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Nominations 2018-2019

We like to nominate winners' stories from the Bath Flash Fiction Awards and the Ad Hoc Fiction winners for yearly anthologies and awards. Authors nominated by us have done very well. This year,'Tying the Boats' by Amanda O'Callaghan, the first prize winner,from the June 2017 Award selected by judge Meg Pokrass was included in Best Small Fictions 2018 and The Hand That Weilds The Priest by first prize winner, Emily Devane, from the February 2017 Award, judged by Kathy Fish, was included in the long list out of thousands of submissions. 'Roll and Curl', by Ingrid Jendrzejewski first prize winner in the February 2016 round judged by Tania Hershman was longlisted for Best Small Fictions 2017 out of a similar number of submissions, as was 'White Matter' by Julianna Holland, which won third prize in the October 2016 round judged by Robert Vaughan. Henry Peplow's micro 'Zeus Falls to Earth', winner of Ad Hoc Fiction in June 2016 was also included in the Best Small Fictions 2017 longlist. Finally, we nominated Charmaine Wilkerson's novella-in-flash How to Make A Window Snake for the novella category in the Saboteur Awards 2018, and it won the Award.

This year, two new opportunities to nominate stories have arisen. 'The Best Microfiction 2019 anthology co-edited by Meg Pokrass and Gary Fincke for stories 400 words or fewer published in 2018 and the Best 50 Flash Fictions from Britain and Ireland 2018-2019 organised by TSS. We're also looking forward to nominating our winning authors again for Best Small Fictions 2019. See which stories we've currently nominated below. Read in Full

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Writers and Their Dogs

At Bath Flash Fiction, a few winners have mentioned their dogs in interviews with me after their wins. So as we near the end of the October 2018 round of Bath Flash Fiction Award, judged by Nuala 0'Connor, we're giving the winners' dogs a spotlight. Dogs are inspirational and we know several other dog-loving flash fiction writers, whose dogs are essential to their writing lives.

Molia Dumbleton's lovely dog, Huckle is pictured here  with Molia. Molia won third prize in the February 2018 round of Bath Flash Fiction Award judge by Tara L. Masih, with her flash 'Why Shit is Still Like This Around Here and Probably Always Will Be'  In my interview with her, I asked her if her dog was her muse. She said. "I think my only muse might be a deadline. Ha! But sadly, kind of true. I go for very, very long walks with my dog and those are pretty essential, just for energizing and de-cluttering the head." Read in Full

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Interview with Victoria Melekian, runner-up, Novella-in-Flash Award, 2018

    Victoria Melekian's novella-in-flash A Slow Boat to Finland was a runner-up in the 2018 Bath Novella-in-Flash Award judged by Meg Pokrass. Meg said of the novella, "We are not sure how a bereaved mother will recover after losing her toddler daughter in a car accident. Especially when the little girl's heart saves another child. The strong and convincing writing will pull you right into this story and make you want to know what happens next." Here Victoria tells us more about how she went about writing the novella, and gives tips to anyone who wants to embark on such a project. You can buy In the Debris Field the collection of three winning novellas-in-flash, which contains Victoria's novella, in several different currencies at the Ad Hoc Fiction Bookshop

    • What sparked off your marvellous novella in flash? Was it built around one or two flashes? Or had you imagined the whole story to begin with?

    Thank you for the "marvellous". Pretty much everything I write comes from ideas that have percolated a few years. Sometime ago I’d wondered about the notion of a grieving widow, an older woman, developing an inappropriate romantic attraction to the young man who received her deceased husband’s heart. I played around with it in my notebook and there the idea sat until I began thinking more about organ transplants and relationships between donor and recipient. I came up with the possibility of a mother becoming attached to a recipient child and the story expanded. So yes, I had the story imagined before beginning. At first I thought it could be a novel, but I’m a poet and just can’t go long.

    • Can you tell us how you compiled the novella? Writers seem to have different methods of choosing the order of flash fictions?

    When I began writing the story, I had one narrator, and I was trying to decide between first or third person. Neither sounded right. I went back to the snippets in my notebooks and saw that I’d originally written from all different points of view and used different tenses, and that’s when I realized that could be the way for me to create a novella-in-flash—just let the characters tell their parts of the story. I was afraid it would be a jangled mess, but I also had nothing but time to lose so I went for it. Once I let everyone speak, the arc presented itself organically. I rearranged the sequence several times and amended parts here and there to strengthen the story.

    • Following on from the last question, what was the most tricky part in writing it for you?

    Oh, my goodness, the hardest part was making sure each piece stood on its own. There’s a repetition factor, I think, that can’t be avoided, but that’s also what creates the beautiful musicality I hear in my head when I read novellas-in-flash. I tried to just let it flow where it wanted to go, kind of like throwing water on the floor and watching it spread.

    • Meg Pokrass said that A Slow Boat to Finland was one of the best titles that she read and it certainly suggests so much about lonely endurance after a tragedy. What are your own thoughts about the title you chose?

    I smiled when I read that comment about the title because honestly, endings and titles are the bane of my existence. Of course, my creation needed a title and, as usual, I had no idea what, so I read through the novella looking for something, anything that remotely could serve and that’s where I found “A Slow Boat to Finland.” It seemed to ring true. I smacked it on top of the manuscript, mentally shrugged, and hoped for the best. Maybe our subconscious knows best.

    • Were you influenced by any other writers who had written novellas or novels in this form?

    Influenced, I don’t think so. More so, I was encouraged that this was even possible. I read the wonderful My Very End of the Universe and, of course, the three beautiful novellas in How to Make a Window Snake. Seeing that there was no one way to write a novella-in-flash reassured me that I could approach mine however it wanted to be written.

    • What other writing projects have you got on the go at the moment? Would you write another novella-in-flash?

    I don’t have a project right now and I do miss knowing exactly what I’m going to work on each day. When I’m in between, I write poetry and flash fiction. I have a file on my computer desktop called “52 Somethings.” My goal is to make sure I write something I kind of like once a week.

    If I had the right idea, yes, I would write another novella-in-flash. It’s an exciting challenge and I wouldn’t mind doing it again.

    • What advice would you give to anyone embarking on a novella-in-flash for the next competition?

    Know that it’s a daunting endeavour, but quite possible. Trust your instincts and you’ll write something amazing.

    • When and where do you do your writing?

    There’s no certain when and where I write. Once I have an idea, things start popping into my head. If I have no paper, I make notes on my phone. Eventually it goes into my notebook and from there, into the computer. I write on my bed. On my couch. In my car. At work. Waiting for appointments. Oh, yes, and sometimes at my desk. When I made the decision to write the novella, I put all the notes, vignettes and snippets into my computer and began corralling them into separate flashes. Any day I had a substantial chunk of time to spend, I sat outside and worked at my patio table. If the neighbors and dogs were too loud, I plugged in my earbuds and listened to rain, rivers, ocean waves—whatever water I found on my free app. For some reason, it was easier to concentrate outside. It felt like a dedicated space.

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New Collection by Meg Pokrass

We're thrilled that Ad Hoc Fiction has published Meg Pokrass's new collection, Alligators at Night, the first book of hers published in the UK. Acclaimed US author Stuart Dybek says of her new collection:

The nuanced tonal complexity, which can go from the whimisical to a darker irony in the turn of a phrase, has been a signature feature of the work of Meg Pokrass. That complexity is in her new collection, Alligators at Night, heightened further by the fertile invention and unpredictable interplay of these beautifully crafted pieces

The title story was recently chosen for Wigleaf's best fifty stories of 2018 and another story in the collection, Barista was selected by Amy Hempel for Best Small Fictions, 2018.

Alligators at Night will be launched at the Flash Fiction Festival in Bristol, 20-22nd July where you will be able to hear Meg reading some of these brilliant stories and it is available to buy now worldwide in many different currencies from the Ad Hoc Fiction bookshop

Meg Pokrass is the author of four other collections of flash fiction, and one award-winning collection of prose poetry, Cellulose Pajamas which received the Bluelight Book Award in 2016. Her stories and poems have been widely published and anthologized in two Norton Anthologies: Flash Fiction International and the forthcoming New Microfiction and her novella-in-flash, Here Where We Live, is published in My Very End of the Universe the Rose Metal Press Guide to the form. Meg was the judge for the Bath Flash Fiction Award, Novella-in-Flash competition in 2017 and 2018. She is curator of Flash Fiction Festivals and editor of The New Flash Fiction Review She currently teaches on-line flash fiction workshops.

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