Rise of the NiFs
Tiny books that pack a massive punch
What happens when short-fiction authors want to write a more complete project?
They don’t usually write lots of short stories on a theme.
(I tried this and it leads to many half-baked ideas)
They don’t give up on short stories. Novels, after all, are a very different form of story.
So, some writers choose NiFs - the Novella-in-Flash.
Short-fiction writers have battled for years to learn the art of short stories (a glimpse at a moment of change) or flash fiction (compressed scenes, often exploring trauma or causality).
With a NiF, they can use these forms to build a bigger picture. To a short-fiction author, this is the jigsaw they’ve been waiting to complete their whole lives.
What is a Novella-in-Flash?
The novella-in-flash, usually 10,000-40,000 words in length, comprises a series of individual yet linked stories. Each chapter is commonly a ‘flash’ of less than one thousand words.
These chapters don’t exist solely to form part of the bigger narrative. If you read chapter 17 from a novel, it wouldn’t make sense without the other parts. In a NiF, any section can exist as an independent story. At the very least, each chapter holds some kind of stand-alone meaning.
There are several different ways authors organise individual pieces into a novella — by character perspective, theme or fractured chronology for example. This is what makes them truly powerful. The ideas within expand way beyond the limits of the fifty-or-so pages, and you may find yourself thinking about the ideas at all hours of the day.
Novels are fantastical worlds in which readers can immerse themselves; the ideas contained within a NiFs will take permanent residence in readers’ minds.
For more tips on how to spot a NiF, read this excellent explanation from novella guru, Michael Loveday.
Why haven’t I heard of NiFs before?
Even if the terminology is new, the form isn’t. The idea of short books with individualistic chapters dates back to Voltaire’s Candide (1759). Writers in the twentieth century like Italo Calvino, Joan Didion and Sandra Cisneros, all wrote NiFs before the term ‘Flash Fiction’ was even coined.
Just as some writers are hardwired to produce one particular form, readers too become fixated on one type of story. The movie. The novel. The Hero’s Journey.
For most readers, that’s what a story is. That’s because, as mentioned in a previous lament, the three act structure of movies translated so well to commercial fiction, publishers decided to make it decided their entire focus. Magazines died. And who wants to read books that require more work to understand?
When non-fiction can vary so much in shape, length and format, it’s a shame that publishers and booksellers haven’t embraced more variety.
Benefits of reading NiFs:
They can often be read in one or two sittings.
They are full of surprises. You’ll never guess the ending.
They provide variety of voice and plot.
They offer readers more agency, as stories have room for interpretation.
They will make you return to them again and again. Great value!
Thankfully, independent publishers are starting to get behind the form. As Penguin Random House is not pumping out NiFs and stocking them in supermarkets, it’s free real estate.
In the UK, Fairlight Books, Reflex Press, Ad Hoc Fiction and V Press are leading the charge by publishing several NiFs per year. If this trend is seeding in your part of the world, please do tell me.
And critics are starting to catch on too. In 2019, Sophie van Llewyn’s Bottled Goods was longlisted for two major literary prizes.
Perhaps if they had a more catchy name, they might even hit the mainstream — one pot stories, books with the crusts cut off, chapter hacks?
Benefits of writing NiFs:
Of course, those of us who are most excited about the possibilities are writers.
Imagine writing the blank space — making the reader fill in huge gaps in time and character development.
Read Among These Animals by Gaynor Jones
Imagine writing thirty different imaginings on one theme — nothing happens, but they’re all possible outcomes.
Read Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman
Imagine exploring the futures of a cast of characters, all linked by one place and time.
Read Fifteen Brief Moments in Time by Philip Charter
If we expand our flashes and stories into patchworks masterpieces, it won’t be long until the NiF breaks through into the public consciousness.
For Readers: 12 Novella in Flash titles you can buy today
For Writers: Unlocking the Novella-in-Flash by Micahel Loveday
Community: Retreat West — discussion, courses, and events on the novella-in-flash
Classic NiF: Mr Palomar by Italo Calvino
Modern NiF: Straw Gods, Tom O’Brien
Thanks for reading.
Have you read or written a NiF? Let me know in the comments.
Thanks for reading Coming Up Short! Subscribe for free to receive new posts.