Clodagh you’ve had enviable success in a variety of genres—flash, short stories, poetry—what’s your process and do you take a different approach depending on form?
When I start to write I don’t think of form. For me it’s about the character and the type of piece evolves later. I’m a great believer in the first line; many of which do not survive the final cut of the story, but have served an important purpose. When writing I try not to overthink anything and just let the sentences arrive. I find this free approach often draws out interesting language that benefits from a lack of process.
When I first started writing it was poetry, a form I really enjoyed but was ill equipped for as I have no formal training as a writer and a lot of the ‘rules’ evaded me. I then fell in love with short stories and dabbled in writing my own. While I enjoyed and still enjoy writing them, I’m not sure how successful they are, and often feel dissatisfied with the end result no matter how many edits they have been through. Then I found flash, a wonderful ‘I think I might know what I’m doing’ moment! For me it’s the perfect form as it allows me to explore characters and indulge in imagery in a form that embraces brevity.
Your flash is very character driven with subtle subtext. Do you work in those lovely hints for a deeper story as you write or add this context during edits?
I love characters, the stranger or more interesting the better! For me, the subtext or hint of one comes in the first draft and it’s the subsequent edits that allow me to refine it. When I write I try to put myself in that person’s skin and place them in an environment I am familiar with. Then I let the words come and explore what they would do, say, act. I tend to use settings that are every day, such as a corner shop (used in my story 30% Off) or the kitchen, as I find this allows me to concentrate on the character and story rather than what’s going on in the background.
Sometimes I write a piece with the aim of tackling a certain issue or subject (which can be dangerous) and finish with a story that is nothing like what I imagined, but works better. One of the things I have learned, particularly with flash, is that finishing a story in one sitting is essential. It doesn’t matter if it’s not the ending I want or the middle, all that can be changed, but the flow of thought and being in that moment with that character cannot.
How is flash fiction different, in your view, from the short story?
Flash fiction is a punch in the face. The short story is a Chinese burn.
What, for you, makes a flash piece successful?
I need to be hooked from the first line and care about what comes next. It’s very hard to encapsulate a story in under 500 or 1,000 words, and for a flash to be successful the character needs to be believable and pique my curiosity. Most importantly there needs to be a plot, a thread running through the story from beginning to end. It is not enough to write beautiful sentences and just stop at 500 words. That’s just an unfinished story, not flash fiction.
An added bonus in a flash piece is sentences that I wish I had written, ones that make me stop and go ‘wow’ and then try not to steal them!
Considering other writers (in flash and any other form), who inspires you and what do you admire about their work?
As a reader I like to jump from genre to genre, form to form to keep things interesting and get inspired.
Aimee Bender is a writer I discovered recently and greatly admire, for her mastery of the written word and wonderfully bizarre characters. If you can make an iron interesting, I’m there! Angela Carter was a gifted short story writer and novelist, a feat in my eyes, while Christine Dwyer Hickey always draws me in and keeps me until the very last word. From my childhood I adored, and still do the great Roald Dahl. For his ability to transport you to another world, and create dislikeable characters you love to hate. Poetry-wise, Simon Armitage’s work never fails to get me laughing.
We have been very lucky in Ireland over the past few years as there are so many great writers getting their time in the spotlight. Danielle McLaughlin, Liz Nugent, Jan Carson, David Butler, Louise O’Neill, Caitriona Lally and Sara Baume are just a few doing something interesting.
In the realm of flash, the writers that resonate with me are Nuala Ní Chonchúir, Kathy Fish and the delicious words of Leesa-Cross Smith and Zoe Gilbert.
Finally, what advice would you give aspiring writers?
I’m going to be boring here and say write, write and then write again. Then rewrite, rewrite and rewrite again. It really is about sitting down and getting words written.
A huge thing I learned after labouring over a novel for two years is that you can’t be afraid to walk away. I know writers who have novels in some stage of draft that they cannot move away from, and as a result seem stuck. Once I decided to leave the novel behind, I felt freer and moved onto exploring different forms, forms which I now enjoy much more.
Also enjoy what you write, a thing I need to remind myself of when the rejections are flowing in and words are like fridge magnets. If writing is tough, change it up; read something you wouldn’t normally have time for, watch a well-written TV series or film, take a walk and look at what’s around you. I write because I need to. Remember why you’re doing it and then start again.
Try not to compare yourself to others. Successes come and go, and who knows when yours will come. Celebrate people’s triumphs with them and read what they have written. Finally embrace social media, but for your sanity take it with a pinch of salt!
Clodagh O’Brien writes flash fiction and short stories. Based in Dublin, her work has been published in Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, Litro, Literary Orphans, Visual Verse amongst others. Her flash fiction was highly commended at the Dromineer Literary Festival and shortlisted for the Allingham Arts Festival. She blogs at: www.clodaghobrien.com