A review of “Unlocking the Novella-in-Flash” (Michael Loveday, Ad Hoc Fiction) from a teacher’s perspective
Before I started reading Michael Loveday’s new craft book, I asked myself what I would generally look for in this sort of guide – what is it that makes a craft book a useful resource rather than something that sits on the bookshelf gathering dust? I pondered for a while and the answer I came up with is that a good craft book should act in place of a teacher (if I was going to take a stab at a Latin phrase, I might go with in loco magistri to echo in loco parentis). A craft book looks to impart knowledge to a reader in the same way a teacher looks to impart knowledge to a student.
Is it informative?
This is hopefully obvious – for a craft book to earn its stripes, there should be a point to the words within. They should add up together to tell a reader something new. And right from the start, I could tell this book was going to be jam-packed full of knowledge, reinforcing information I already had at my fingertips and providing new ideas, new ways of looking not just at the novella-in-flash but at writing in general. We find nuggets of gold in the form of “Key Insights”. We are given examples that underline the ideas being explored. The various steps that we are walked through encompass all the elements you might expect – plot, place, character, motivations, tensions etc. – providing insight into how these might specifically work within the framework of a N-I-F. In flash fiction, we often talk about each word earning its place on the page and in the same way, each small chapter of this book has a definitive purpose, there are no wasted sentences, no wasted words. Considering the length of the book, a remarkable amount of knowledge is to be found within these pages.
Is it clear?
In a classroom situation, if something doesn’t make sense, a student can ask for it to be explained in a different way, but in a craft book, there are only the words on the page. The author has no further interaction with their reader. So, it’s important that everything is clear, nothing is ambiguous – and if you’ve ever tried to explain a tricky concept (and there are lots of tricky concepts that need explaining when it comes to the N-I-F) then it’s a lot harder than it looks. For me, this book has found just the right tone. Each idea is explained in plain English and is broken down into easily-digestible building blocks. The clarity of the text is further enhanced by the way the book has been formatted, dividing everything up into clear sections on the page – exploration tasks, writing prompts, key insights; all visually unique.
Is it accessible?
One of the things I really like about this book is how it is structured in easily manageable steps. Many writers who are contemplating a N-I-F might find it quite a daunting prospect especially if they are coming uniquely from the world of flash fiction where drafting an entire story can be accomplished in a single sitting. If they are like me, they might be filled with an existential dread at the prospect of a page break. On top of this, many writers have busy lives, they might have health or other limitations that mean they don’t have the concentration span to absorb a whole craft book in one go. Here, through the way the book is set out, it is as if we are taken gently by the hand and told, “Let’s create a character”, “Let’s explore that character’s inner desires”, “Let’s put that character in a scene.” These are small tasks that will eventually add up into something much greater than the sum of their parts, allowing a writer to approach the book (and the project of writing a N-I-F) in a manner that works for them.
Is it differentiated?
In a classroom setting, there is always a chance for a teacher to adapt their lesson as they go along, to alter direction in order to explain a piece of knowledge that they’d presumed their students would already know, to provide additional layers of challenge for students who have arrived with a higher level of knowledge than their peers. But in a craft book, all of these eventualities need to be planned for in advance. There needs to be an understanding that every writer, every learner is different, everyone learns and creates in different ways. In Unlocking the Novella-in-Flash, we are presented with a mixture of exercises and writing tasks, explanation and close readings of relevant text – this creates variety for different types of learner, and there are starting points for both the writer who is coming at this with “a completely blank canvas” and the writer who has already started to make plans, the sort of differentiation that all good teachers should be aiming for.
Is it motivational?
As a teacher, there is a tightrope to be walked between condescending and uncaring, between heaping expectations too high and setting the bar too low – and it feels to me as though this book finds that sweet spot where most writers would feel empowered, to gain the confidence that so many of us lack. On page 63, once we’ve reached the end of “Phase One: Incubation”, we are encouraged to “take a breather”, to “consider treating [ourselves] to some kind of reward”, emphasising the importance of celebrating milestones. As I’ve been reading this book, I’ve not actively been writing a N-I-F but I still felt uplifted by those words. Indeed, I feel there is a sort of magic trick here because I started reading this guide as a fellow creative writing teacher reviewing a new and exciting addition to the slowly growing cannon of flash fiction resources but, by the time I reached Phase Two, I was suddenly filled with a sense of optimism that even I, reticent to the extreme of taking on any further projects, might be able to craft a novella-in-flash.
Is it cross-curricular?
While the title of this guide focuses very much on the novella-in-flash, there is so much here that will help writers develop their craft for any form they may wish to pursue. You could quite easily take the exploration tasks or the writing prompts as the basis to create individual pieces of flash fiction; some of them might be threaded together into short stories. The various contemplations of character and place might equally be applied to a more traditional novella or novel rather than an in-flash variety. Similarly, the thoughts about finding the direction of travel are ones that will be useful to any writer embarking upon a longer writing project. In my opinion, we can become a bit obsessed with labelling our work (is it a flash fiction? is it a prose poem? is it a vignette? etc.) and the difference between a novella-in-flash and a traditional novella is a blurred one. Some works obviously fall into the former category, some obviously fall into the latter; but there is plenty of ground in between – and this guide explores all of that territory as well as being relevant to forms that fall well outside its borders. For me, this is the final thing that a good craft book should accomplish – it should provide knowledge that extends beyond the particular subject being taught.
In his introduction to Unlocking the Novella-In-Flash, Loveday writes, “The novella-in-flash is a marriage of opposites – its short, individual components typically add up to an expansive whole, and yet that whole is often full of gaps.” There are parallels here with how I would describe the guide itself. It is made up of short, easily-digestible chapters that build together into something much larger than seems possible in a 200-page book; but the other part of that description is not something that could be so easily applied – there are no visible gaps. It is all-encompassing, motivational and in-depth. For a writer actively looking to write a novella-in-flash, this is surely a must-buy resource – as far as I can ascertain, it is one of the only craft books (if not, the only craft book) that currently focuses on the N-I-F. For a writer who is intrigued by finding out more about the novella-in-flash, it should prove a worthwhile resource whether or not you ultimately decide to take up the challenge of writing one yourself. And for any other writer, this is a book that is still worth its weight in gold – it is full of prompts, ideas, and wisdom that unlock not just the novella-in-flash but the potential of each individual writer to develop our writing craft.
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