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Amy Grace O'Neil

Amy Grace O'Neil, Recommended Writer, LISP 1st Half 2019

- What is your background and when did you start writing?

Both reading and writing fiction came late for me. I graduated Art school and took it up when I found I no longer wanted to paint. The writing was bad at first-long-winded, awkward, very ‘purple’. So I told myself I’d give it ten years. I studied books on self-editing, sent terrible drafts to friends asking for feedback, took courses and submitted to competitions. I never did this with my paintings and was always a little embarrassed of showing or even talking about my work. When I switched to writing I wanted that engagement from the outset. I had such a long way to go, I decided being uncomfortable and throwing myself into it was the only way I’d improve.

- What has been useful about entering writing competitions? Feel free to list any achievements.

Submitting to competitions taught me a lot. I learned to lower my standards early on in terms of the outcome I expected. The volume and quality of submissions is so high and the judges’ tastes are so subjective that it may take years to get placed.

I learned that getting longlisted is a win, passing the first round of judging is a win, that ‘No thank you but we liked your voice’, is a win.

Over the years my writing got better. It’s still getting better. I’m more likely to put myself in the reader’s mind if I’m sending it out to be read and judged.

And the extra work involved in entering competitions: following submission guidelines, reading other finalists’ work, committing to a deadline and considering the format and finish of your work also helps to feel like you’re engaging in the wider context of writing for a readership.

I’ve had stories longlisted twice for the Fish Flash Fiction prize, shortlisted for the Fish Short Story Prize, shortlisted for Retreat West’s themed flash fiction competition, commended in Leaf Books’ Memoir Competition, received honourable mention in Glimmer Train’s Family Matters competition, I recently won Curtis Brown Creative’s monthly #WriteCBC and of course, now recommended by LISP!

- How often do you write? Do you have a routine?

My partner and I love travelling so we tend to change up our lives fairly often. Any routine is short-term, but somehow writing gets done.

I struggle to write at home so I go to cafes or the library to work. Listening to music during first or second drafts keeps my editor-brain pacified and I write almost stream-of-consciousness in the beginning. The story doesn’t always come together until I start rewriting, cutting away and streamlining. For editing I need silence or the low hum of a coffee shop. I need to be alert, whereas for first drafts I can be completely worn out. I used to have a routine where I wrote in a cafe directly after a night-shift (I’ve worked in care on and off for the last seventeen years, so have often fit my writing life around shift work), typing until I was too tired to keep my eyes open. I got some surprisingly good material out of those sessions.

- How did you feel when you learned that you are on the Recommended List of The London Independent Story Prize? How does it feel to have your work recognised?

This was the first time I’d entered LISP so I was delighted to be on the recommended list. When I received the news I hadn’t written for a couple of weeks, so it was a wonderful boost that came along at the right time and sort of galvanized me back into action.

It’s so important to feel like you’re on the right track, both in the actual writing and in writing as a life choice. Any kind of acknowledgement is rare proof that your work is being read and appreciated somewhere and you’re not just investing hours talking to yourself.

- What's the best thing and the hardest thing about writing Flash-Fiction?

The hard part about writing flash is also what makes it so satisfying. When a story only takes up half a page you’re signaling to the reader that this space you’re occupying is very important. You’re asking them to come closer, to look carefully. So each sentence has to work as hard as a chapter in a novel, moving forward in these great leaps.

For me, stories emerge from language more than plot in flash. I can take this further in the edit by scrutinizing my word choice, that is, choosing the more loaded word over the literal or obvious one. So ‘plot’ can be largely suggestion.

I’ve also found that writing flash alongside my novel has been a bit of an antidote to the loose rambly pace of long-form. Flash is a great reminder that it’s possible to take a clumsy first draft and make something sharp and powerful.

- How did you come up with the idea for your LISP selected story? Is there a story behind your story? And how long have you been working on it?

I was away from home for a few days and asked my four-year-old if I could bring him something back. He requested a heart-shaped box. I went to a craft shop and found a plain cardboard one, then put all kinds of treats inside. Long after the gifts were eaten, mislaid and forgotten, he still played with the box. He’d put the most random things inside and ‘surprise’ me with them. He was always so pleased with himself even if it was just an old tissue or one of his cars. So my flash piece grew out of that. As the story progresses the characters become more broke and desperate. Their relationship and dwindling financial situation is told through the objects they put in the box and give to each other.

It was one of those stories that came easily. I wrote the first draft in half an hour or so and spent the following day cutting it down and polishing.

- Can you please give us a few tips about writing a 300-word flash-fiction story?

There are many ways to approach a flash fiction story. You can overwrite and strip back, you can start with a line or image and expand outwards, use prompts or unusual forms (lists, dictionary entries, emails etc) to spark an idea, you can work from memory or invent something new. I’ve taken an old short story before and challenged myself to find the most poignant sentence-the bit where everything comes to a head-and to weave the other story elements through later to give it a sense of roundedness or history.

However that first draft comes about, my advice is to be brave with the edits. See what happens when you cut the bits you assume the reader needs.

One unusual image can be shorthand for a lot of words, so check for places where you’ve over-explained an idea and see if it can be cut and hinted at elsewhere.

-Lastly, do you recommend that writers to give it a go with flash fiction and submit to LISP?

Yes, submitting is the final part of the writing process. The only way you’re ever going to push through the seemingly impenetrable writing world is if you keep prodding it. While you’re waiting, you’ll develop a thick skin against rejection and sharpen your writing skills!

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