Flash Frontier

Interview: National Flash Fiction Day 2024 Judges Lynn Jenner and Rachel O’Neill

Interviews and Features

The National Flash Fiction Day competition is open! Details are on the website.
Flash Frontier Editor Rachel Smith talked this month with the 2024 NFFD judges about their experience as poets and storytellers, including a few tips for writing small fictions.

Rachel Smith: Kia ora kōrua, Lynn and Rachel. We are thrilled to have you as judges for New Zealand’s National Flash Fiction Day 2024.

On Genre and Form


RS: You both create in a myriad of ways – Rachel as a writer and filmmaker and artist, and Lynn as a writer of creative non-fiction, essay and memoir – with work that pushes against ideas of boundaries between genres and form.


In particular, I’m thinking of your first book Lynn, Dear Sweet Harry (AUP, 2010), which has been described as using fragments and juxtaposition to create a narrative, and Rachel, Symphony of Queer Errands, which you are currently working on and describe as a hybrid-form narrative poem.


What is it that draws you to write across genre boundaries? (do these boundaries exist at all?) What do you enjoy about this and how does it challenge you as a writer?

Lynn: I like a bit of anarchy. Who’s to say that there are only certain genres? That’s like saying there are only certain truths. After all, the genres we know all started somewhere, and they fitted into a certain cultural context.  But times change and the ways people want to talk about themselves and their worlds change too. Maybe a writer needs to take some features from one genre and use them together with features of another genre in order to say what they want to say. For me it’s all about making the writing BE the thing you’re trying to talk about, and as a writer it’s your job to decide how that can best be done. If you do it well, readers won’t talk about what genre you have used. They’ll talk about what you said and how it made them feel.

Rachel: Curiosity and challenge are always welcome ingredients. Initially, I reflect on what the driving interest is for me. I want to enter into an inquiry that feels deeply connected to who I am and yet has profoundly wider scope and the potential to push me out of my comfort zone and beyond assumptions I might have. Part of the process involves listening to the ways the story is urging me to give it voice, which relates back to the driving curiosity at the beginning and then forward to the reader, who I envision activating the story through the act of reading once my part is complete. Form and genre can offer useful short codes for connecting with reader expectations and from there, as the writer, I am thinking about what surprises, interventions and transformations might be possible when the familiar gives way to as yet unvoiced aspects of human experience.


On Inspiration


RS: Rachel, your current book project Symphony of Queer Errands, draws inspiration from a range of poetic and musical forms. It was written during your 2023 Randell Cottage Writing Fellowship where you developed a ‘listening practice’. Can you tell us about how this practice developed for you and how, or if, it has changed the way you write?

Lynn, lived experiences and family stories are a prominent part of all of your books. Is it these non-fiction elements that provide initial inspiration for your writing and how does this then flow onto the more fictional sections of your work?

Lynn: I’ve always been drawn to certain events or people or parts of a story. It is a kind of instinct. I see something that grabs me emotionally and that tells me to look further into some subject. I call this ‘pink light’. Those moments of illumination are always my jumping off points for writing. I’ve learned to notice when that happens and to excavate in those places. Pink light shines for me most on historical events and real people. I have a taste for the weird and the gaudy and for the moods of irony and sadness. Nothing is as weird and gaudy and funny and sad as real life. I don’t really write fiction. I might add elements to the real. But I don’t fully make something up. As they say on TV shows, my writing is ‘based on real events’.

Rachel: Residencies offer a unique opportunity to explore new ways of working. In 2023 I was lucky enough to spend six months living at Randell Cottage, a 19th Century historic building in Thorndon, Pōneke. The books I was working on during the Fellowship focused on music and I began to collect found instruments and sounds and explore their auditory possibilities. I would then ‘play’, record and edit these into sound works, which in turn enabled me, metaphorically speaking, to go ‘inside the sound’, seeding ‘audial images’ that sparked poetry. My ‘listening practice’ allows me to be attentive to the sensory and imaginative nuances of place and moment. The Fellowship has inspired me to keep innovating in my practice and to value the process, or the ‘how’ of writing.

RS: Both, can you tell us about how you find the form of your work – do you have an idea on what it will be before you begin writing or does the inspiration for the piece go on to inform its shape?

Lynn: Sometimes I have an idea that I will write in a certain form, like a lineated poem, but almost always my initial idea falls apart. Initially I just try to find the core of the feeling and the ideas and I put the words in a form I think might work. The first idea usually doesn’t work. But I try a few options and the final form comes quite late in the process. I know this isn’t how lots of people write. I call myself a ‘bottom up’ writer because I just start with some stuff on the page and see where the piece goes form-wise. Occasionally I write in a structured form like a sestina, but probably ten of these fall apart for every one that survives.

Rachel: Like Lynn, I’d say it’s about paying attention to what the work wants to be, or how it can best connect with readers, and going from there. Writing is full of trial and error, and thus a lot of editing, however there are certain things that feel ‘true’ or ‘right’ as you go along. If I’m listening hard enough, the ‘solid ground’ of the project begins to take shape, sometimes early on. If key aspects are more elusive you just have to trust the process. A story can tell you that now isn’t the right time to write it, and that’s OK, too. Maybe a few weeks later you’ll experience something and everything unlocks. Or it takes years. I believe that when writing comes from an authentic place of enquiry, however, it is never wasted. This is how you build trust in yourself and the creative act of writing itself.


On Reading and Editing


RS: Part of being a writer is also being an avid reader. Can you tell us about the books that are currently in your ‘to read’ pile?

Lynn: Right now I’m reading The Story of a New Zealand River by Jane Mander. I moved to Northland in 2020 and I’m still very early in trying to understand this place. This book was written in 1938 and is about a woman who goes to live in a remote bush hut on the Kaipara harbour with her marriage-of-convenience husband in the colonial period. I’m reading it because it’s all about felling kauri trees and the economy of the time and pakeha womens’ and mens’ lives and colonial attitudes to sex and using resources.

I’m also reading The Left hand of Darkness, Ursula le Guin’s amazing 1969 story where people are male or female at different stages in their sexual cycle. It’s fascinating to read her comment about gender, written much later, where she acknowledges that despite her re-imagining her main character Estraven was still ‘masculine in gender if not in sex’.

Feminist critics ‘wanted me to have been braver. I guess I wish I had been’, she says. How fascinating that what was so radical in 1969 looks too accepting of social norms and just wrong, thirty years later.

This may freak people out, but I’m also reading the Old Testament. A bit each week. I realised that I just didn’t know all these stories that are the foundation of so much. I keep being astonished at how the people are just like us. They have feelings and they do terrible things. I’m fascinated by a book that is so old, and has meant so much to people over centuries.

Rachel: I am a rather slow reader and I have far too many books on my ‘to read’ pile! I am currently reading and loving the short story collections Ruin by Emma Hislop and Please, Call Me Jesus by Samuel Te Kani as well as an insanely smart and hilarious chapbook called AUTISTICGRANDADZ: An Indexed Catalogue of Fathers by Charlotte Simmonds. The next novel on my stack is Turncoat by Tīhema Baker and I also want to reread Audition by Pip Adam and The Words For Her by Thomasin Sleigh. I’m also very excited to read When I Reach For Your Pulse, Rushi Vyas’ debut poetry collection.

RS: Editing is one of the most important skills in writing. Can you please tell us a about your own editing process?

Lynn: I work on a piece until I think it is basically working. Usually by that stage I can’t see it or hear it because I’ve worked on it so much that I lose track of what is there and what I just think is there. I have two options then. I can either put it away for a few weeks to get a bit of distance, or show it to someone else for some feedback. I have some writer friends whose work I read and they are willing to read mine. I also belong to writing groups which means I can get feedback on a piece from a few people. I find these peoples’ feedback extremely useful. They find gaps and lumps and they tell me what they like and what they think isn’t working. After that I have a big think, decide which of their ideas to pick up on, and usually the final version comes together after that process. I can write without feedback from other writers, but the work is much better if it has that feedback. I’m not the best at punctuation or grammar, so for non-fiction I appreciate the input of publisher’s editors.

Rachel: Editing probably accounts for most of what I do as a writer. Planning and preparation are useful, especially for longer-form projects such as a project outline, synopsis or a story treatment. Once you know what you want to do and how you want to get there you can get to work on a first draft or ‘vomit draft’ as I affectionately call them. Taking time away between drafts can be good, too, so you can edit and redraft with fresh eyes. Sharing work in progress with trusted readers for their feedback is also useful. For smaller pieces, or work that I want to keep spontaneous and playful, I might focus more on charging myself up with inspiration, or living boldly, or simply being present in the world so as to retain connection to the reality (or realities) both the writer and reader share and seek belonging in.


On Writing


RS: Writing short, in whatever form this may take, requires a skill set quite different from writing longer pieces. Can you tell us what you look for as a reader in these short forms – what is it that draws you in and makes a piece of writing stick in your mind?


What are your 3 top tips for writing small fiction, for those who may be starting out or have been writing short short pieces for some time?

Lynn: For me flash is an essence, reduced down and strongly flavoured.  Writing short means catching something and sharing it so that it is complete in its own way. I’m looking for no wasted words and something striking in the experience of reading it. That might be humour or horror or just the absolutely everyday. This could all be talking about a poem except that the unit that makes up flash is the sentence. I’m looking for sentences that rise and fall and sentences where every word arrives in its space as neatly as a pool ball dropping in the corner pocket.

My 3 top craft tips are:

  1. Read other people’s small fiction and notice what you like and what you don’t like. Saturate your imagination with work you love.
  2. Use live words (sensory words and surprising words) and steer away from dead words (cliché words and abstractions).
  3. Aim for clarity. I don’t mean spell out everything. That would be dull. You can be clear and also strange. I mean make sure that you know what you mean. This tip was given to me by the late great Renée, Rest in Peace.

Rachel: As a reader I like it when a writer shows an understanding of what my expectations might be and then unsettles these in some way that is creatively, emotionally or formally satisfying. In flash fiction you can draw on key elements of both poetry and fiction. For example, you might explore contrast, say between the real and surreal, or between ordinary and extraordinary experience. You might include dialogue, play with conventional story structure (beginning, middle and end), or have a reliable or unreliable narrator.   

My 3 top craft tips are:

  1. What fascinates you as a human being?  What stories do you want to read more of? What is unique about your background or life experiences? How might what is unique about you be relatable to others? Journal about these questions even if your work isn’t autobiographical and see where they lead you as a creative writer.
  2. Consider what you yourself love about your favourite pieces of flash fiction. Why has a beloved piece impacted you as a reader? How did the writer achieve this at the level of craft? What might you apply or experiment within your own work?
  3. Rather than lean on a cliché or stereotype, see what happens when you get specific and use concrete or sensory detail instead. Think about the setting of your piece. What would you see, hear, smell, taste and touch? If you have characters, how do they speak? What do they want? What do they fear? What is the one thing they dare not say? You might not end up including any of these details in the final piece, however specific details in flash can really bring the world and character to life.


A chosen piece of writing from Lynn

Women’s Business


When I had a son in his early teens
a Russian thought formed in my head
that if a war came I would cut
the index finger of his right hand off
so that he would be no use for fighting.
The part of me which visits
hospitals would do the cutting.
I wouldn’t care if he hated me
for what I did.
I might even be pleased.
By this time I knew that he was nearly
a man, and that if I didn’t cut his finger off
or shoot him in the foot, he would go.
Even if he was afraid.
Even if he thought it was pointless.
Now he is a man and I ask him
to carry my suitcase.

This poem was published in Turbine 2008 https://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/iiml/turbine/Turbi08/poetry/t1-g1-g1-t18-g1-t2-body1-d1.html

It belongs to the time when I was writing Dear Sweet Harry and thinking a lot about what makes young men willing to go to war or feel that they must. I was also thinking about how we, the mothers, are part of putting this burden on the young men.


A chosen piece of writing from Rachel

The new lives of my children


Gently agitating the fleshy island of my kneecap, I wonder at the new lives of my children. I remember the day we gave them to the hill, wrapping them in earth like gifts. The mist came and carried them away and I heard the god of silence bury the last sublime notes of music. In the first dream, my children were undefinable from the plain of disquiet. After seeing them shake themselves out of the sea floor it occurred to me they were waiting there to ambush their prey. I spoke. Their unmoving mouths sat curved and rigid. Only their eyes were a-ripple, smooth grey clay and cartilaginous. I don’t know, I said, I will learn your language and come back. So I set about getting a grasp of their incredible system of gaze-respiration, their expressive eye-mouths, which I know now are properly called spiracles. When I finally made my way back to the deep ocean as before my children surfaced. I went forward. They hesitated and swung back into the barren muteness. Still I waited. Eventually they returned to touch my face. Each spoke their name and took a breath.

This poem was published in 2023 on NZ Poetry Shelf: https://nzpoetryshelf.com/2023/08/14/poetry-shelf-monday-poem-rachel-oneills-the-new-lives-of-my-children/


Hand on knee by Rachel O'NeillHand on knee by Rachel O’Neill

One day I went on a walk and chanced on a ‘dummy’ hand in a box of items that a neighbour was giving away on the roadside. Feeling inspired I took a series of playful photographs of the hand at various spots, including along the beach as I headed home. The photograph is a reminder for me that spontaneity, responsiveness and fun are essential and magical parts of creative practice.


Lynn with the Klezmer Rebs

Lynn with the Klezmer Rebs

Lynn with the Klezmer Rebs performing a version of Dear Sweet Harry. I always heard music in my head when I wrote about Harry Houdini and the klezmer music brought that raunchy and heartbreaking person to life. 



Lynn JennerLynn Jenner is a Northland-based writer and teacher of poetry, essays and creative non-fiction. Lynn has a particular interest in genre-bending writing. In 2023 Lynn’s poetry appeared in Landfall 246, Turbine Kapohau and The Spinoff. All three of Lynn’s published books use fragments and juxtaposition to create a narrative. Dear Sweet Harry (AUP 2010) won the NZSA Jessie Mackay Best First Book of Poetry prize. Lost and Gone Away (AUP 2015) was a Metro Best Books (2015) selection and finalist in the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards (2016). Peat (OUP 2109) combined the story of a road built against the wishes of a community with an exploration of the politics and aesthetics of Charles Brasch, founding editor of Landfall.


Rachel O'NeillRachel O’Neill is a filmmaker, writer and artist based in Te Whanganui-a-Tara, Aotearoa. The author of One Human in Height (Hue & Cry Press, 2013) and Requiem for a Fruit (We are Babies/Tender Press, 2021), Rachel has received a range of development grants, commissions and residencies including the 2023 Creative New Zealand Randell Cottage Writing Fellowship. In their practice they strive to seek out fresh ways to see and understand the human condition and to unearth the humour and strangeness that underlie experience. For more, visit their website.

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