How does one learn how to write in the flash-novella form?
The obvious answer is to read novellas-in-flash and let what works for you sink into your brain files. The oft-cited “My Very End of the Universe: Five Novellas-in-Flash and a Study of the Form” (Rose Metal Press, 2014), is a great resource. It includes works and essays on the novella-in-flash form by you and other authors and it helped me, not so much in the writing of my novella as in the editing process, which is an important part of any story preparation. The added value in this book was the essay written by each author about the process of writing flash fiction. Rather than make me feel that I was learning a certain form, these pieces left me feeling that it was alright for me to try to tell a story in a certain way. The main question that the book answered was not How do you write a novella-in-flash? but, Can your unique way of telling this story hold together and make sense to a reader? Surely, what I write does not always work. So, going back to authors whose work resonates with me as a reader and writer helped me to go back to my stories with fresh eyes.
Where does one begin when writing the story/chapters for a novella in flash?
For me, most stories begin with a detail of some sort that ultimately gives birth to a story, whether that story is 100 words or 200-thousand words. Something I see, or smell, or hear, or maybe an item in the news, will connect with ongoing currents of thought about life, and the initial cell of an idea cleaves into a story. So far, I’ve only published a novella and short fiction but what I’m saying applies, also, to the novel-length work which I’m developing. I think that writers need to give themselves permission to begin in the place that is most appropriate for the individual author.
Is there anything unusual that you might wish to share about the process of birthing How to Make a Window Snake?
My novella “How to Make a Window Snake” (which you chose as winner of the 2017 Bath Novella-in-Flash Award), leaned naturally towards the novella-in-flash format because I kept writing these short-short stories about the same two adult daughters and their aging father and a secret at the centre of the family. I didn’t sit down and say, Today, I’m going to write about two daughters and their father who’s seriously ill and a family secret and I’m going to do so in nineteen stand-alone pieces of flash fiction. I just wrote little stories and they kept coming back to the same people until I realized that I was, indeed, writing a longer story and the family’s difficult history began to reveal itself more fully. I knew, early on, that one of the daughters would find a note in the house that shed light on dramatic events from the family’s past but I didn’t know exactly what it would say or who had written it. I discovered that through the writing process. Then a mundane thought in my own daily life gave me the idea for another key detail in the story, which eventually led to the title. Finally, the competition’s requirement for stand-alone flash fiction pieces guided the editing of my pieces. I would ask myself, Can this individual tale still make sense without the other stories in the novella? What is the event or revelation in this short piece which makes it a fully-formed story, with a beginning, middle and end, and not just a scene from a story? Ultimately, I used the repetition of key images or phrases to help hold the story together.
Are you saying that the story should come first, and the form later?
Not necessarily. In my case, this is mostly true but other writers have had great success by thinking first about form. Look at poetry. It is proof that form can be part of the genesis of a story. You could approach the novella-in-flash form by looking at individual short-short stories that you’ve already written then asking oneself whether there is a novella-in-flash somewhere in there. Joanna Campbell and Ingrid Jendrzejewski, who wrote the other winning novellas-in-flash in the book “How to Make a Window Snake,” both developed their projects in this way. They saw the common threads running through existing stories then went on to write other material to pull their novellas together.
You’ve published some very short flash fiction, closer to 100 words. Is it a matter of editing them/whittling them down to compress them? Or are they born that way?
Again, my stories tend to tell me what they need to be. They may need to be cut down but not much. Even a little micro fiction that was published this year in 100-Word Story (“Row”) naturally grew to that general length, after which I snipped a word or two to meet the required word count. I didn’t take a five-hundred-word story and try to chop it into shape. Other writers can do that and with impressive results, but I tend to end up with a finished length that’s fairly close to where it began. The funny thing is that, all my professional life, first as a broadcaster, then producer of other forms of communication, I have written to meet specific subject and length requirements. But not in literature. I just write. It took me a long time to unblock the thought processes and language that I needed to access in order to express certain things, so I try not to tell myself what I should or shouldn’t produce. I’ve only published fiction with any frequency since 2017 and it’s an evolutionary process. What I have noticed is that some of my really short stories do mimic the fairly straightforward, declarative style of a news report but then take more intimate or emotional turns.
Here’s a recent example: Italy, where I currently live, was struggling to come up with a new prime minister after a particularly fractured election result. This absence of new government gave me an idea for a story but the resulting narrative, “Holes” (Bending Genres magazine, June 2018), isn’t really about any particular election or country. It centers around a fictitious character and a universal condition, which is the buying and selling of human relationships.
How much does the reader matter when you write a story?
Storytelling is a form of communication so, of course, I would like to share my stories with readers, I want other people to read them and hear them and relate to them, in some way. But a story is intrinsically linked to how I, as a person, experience and process the world around me. I start on the path towards a story and hope that it will take me towards the reader.
How well do you know your characters before you start writing about them?
I tend to see and hear characters but know little about them and discover them along the way, just as we get to know new people in our lives. Sometimes, we think we like them and then we grow to dislike them, and isn’t that interesting? I am fascinated by that kind of character and that kind of story, which calls to mind the shift in perception that changes how we feel about someone or something. I am working on a novel right now about an entire life built on half-stories and what happens when the larger story comes to the fore.
What’s the best writing advice you ever received? What is the worst?
One great piece of advice that I’ve received refers to the process of editing one’s writing after receiving feedback. When someone reads your work and they have a question about it or something bugs them, but you don’t agree with their suggestions, you’re not obligated to follow their advice. Still, it’s a good idea to stop and think carefully about why the reader is reacting in that way. It can be useful to consider what their comments reveal about something that might not be working. If someone says, “Why is her hat blue? I don’t like that blue hat. Get rid of that blue hat,” maybe what they’re really saying is, the story has not convinced them that her hat should be blue. Could you tweak the story a bit to make the blue hat more plausible?
You have won both the Saboteur Award and the Bath Novella-in-Flash Award for How to Make a Window Snake. How has life changed in going from a career that involves keeping the cards close to the vest (broadcast journalism) to being an expressive creative writer whose tools are emotional honesty?
After working in a newsroom, I moved on to working behind the scenes for people who wanted to share technical or institutional ideas with other people. While both of these roles involve writing, they are very different from my literary work because they focus on other people’s messages, other people’s objectives, and other people’s subject, length and language parameters. My role, there, is to use my skills to honor and convey the ideas of another person or an organization. When I write literature, it’s all about breaking away from that and coming up with my own way of processing the world, of sliding down a slope and tumbling into a universe of characters and situations of my own invention.
You are still relatively new to having published fiction. What was the catalyst for this change in your life?
I’d always wanted to write literature but studied other things. I published one story years ago and took a couple of after-work classes but never went beyond drafting stories or scribbling notes. More recently, I sensed an increasing agitation under the skin, a feeling that nothing was quite right. This feeling was heightened, in part, by living in a country and household where I rarely used my mother tongue. I had refused to live the kind of expat-ghetto life that I saw so many others living, where it was all about hanging out with people just like me. But years had passed, already, and I felt as though a large part of my mind was locked inside, even though I could chatter away in another language. Then, when my father died, I went back to the U.S. and stood alone in the cool, cement quiet of his studio, breathing in the scents of paint and canvas and unfinished wood and reflecting on how he’d managed to work all his professional life as a visual artist. He had done it, not by dabbling but by applying methodology and discipline and making huge sacrifices and changing his approach when something didn’t work out. Soon after, I put on a blue-plaid flannel shirt of Daddy’s that I always used to borrow from him and sat down with a notebook and let a few stories spill out of me. But the most important shift took place after that, when I actually started sending stories to editors in the hope of getting published. I went from saying, “This is what I want,” to saying, “This is what I’m doing.”
How have the literary competitions helped?
When I started sending out stories, I contacted literary magazines who, naturally, said, no thanks. Then I completed a novel and sent that to literary agents who, naturally, said, no thanks. I had been raised to open doors, to get people to say, sure, yes, not to keep doing things where people would tell me, nah. But I took an objective view. I didn’t have a literary track record, I didn’t have a literary social media profile and, maybe, my stories just weren’t that appealing. So, I kept writing and then I sent a couple of stories to competitions where the judges didn’t know whose work they were reading and I got a couple of bites that way. Editors still mostly say, no thanks, but I’ve learned that, statistically speaking, it’s common, even for some of my favorite, award-winning authors.
Anything you’d like to share about breaking in and gaining momentum as a not-under-40 writer?
Having had another career and other life experiences before trying to publish my stories with any kind of regularity has helped me as a budding writer. Earlier, I mentioned looking to my father’s creative-practical balance for inspiration. Eventually, I came to recognize that I, too, have lived through the process of making a plan, trying to accomplish something, switching to Plan B if Plan A doesn’t quite work and knowing that consistency and good dose of hard-headedness can make a difference. This has been especially useful because neither of my university degrees is in creative writing or literature and I live far away from the publication centers for the language in which I write.
Anything you would like to say to other older writers who are on the same journey?
It’s a learning process at any age. It can help to read amusing but frank revelations about writing by established authors as varied as Stephen King and Anne Lamott. It can help to read blog posts and watch interviews about the writing, editing and publishing processes. It can be useful and encouraging to turn to online chats and face-to-face writing groups. But, ultimately, it’s a bit like being a teenager, all over again. You need to respect the lessons of others but learn to listen to your inner voice. You need to appreciate the realities of the world around you but avoid letting trends or other people’s score-keeping shake your core. And it’s crucial to hold on to the why of writing. Other people’s stories have helped me to get to this point in my life and I use my own storytelling as a way to process the world, to try to make sense of things, from the most intimate struggles to the larger, social and political currents that are running through all of our lives. For me, writing has become a way to live and contribute to life. I think this is what we mean when we talk about finding one’s vocation.
Charmaine Wilkerson was born in New York, has lived in the Caribbean, and does most of her writing in Italy. Her story How to Make a Window Snake has won the Bath Novella-in-Flash Award and the Saboteur Award for Best Novella. Her flash fiction has won prizes from Fiction Southeast and Reflex Fiction.