Over the summer I was shortlisted for a competition. As a result I was given the opportunity to attend a workshop in Bristol, headed by Chelsey Flood, author of the Branford Boase winning novel Infinite Sky.
The workshop was excellent. I learned a lot in a short space of time. It’s rare for me to find workshops aimed at the intermediate-advanced level – they tend to get drowned in a sea of beginners classes. So perhaps I will write up some of the intermediate-advanced tips that Chelsey imparted, and post them here.
In the meantime, Chelsey has very kindly offered to answer some questions.
Hi Chelsey. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us.
Thanks for having me, I’m very happy to be talking to you.
I read Infinite Sky very quickly, it was a gripping story. For those who haven’t read it, can you tell us a little about it?
The story opens with a funeral. Iris, the protagonist, is mourning the body of the boy inside. The question hangs over the novel, of which boy she is mourning; is it Sam, her tearaway brother, or Trick, her tentative boyfriend.
Then the story flashes back, to before the tragedy when a family of Irish Travellers set up camp in one of Iris’ family’s fields. So begins Iris’s journey of discovery as she makes friends with Trick, the eldest of Traveller children, discovers secrets about her brother, and begins to understand her mum’s absence.
It is a story very close to my heart as it is set in a fictionalised version of my childhood home (well, one of them, as I lived half the week with my mum, half with my dad). Iris Dancy, the protagonist, is an idealised version of me, and her family (especially her father) have lots of the same traits that my family do. I’m very proud of the book.
Writing is hard! Was there anything you found particularly difficult when writing Infinite Sky? If so, how did you overcome those difficulties?
I found writing it very difficult! It’s hard to say no to invitations and TV and naps when you aren’t even sure that anybody will want to read the novel when you’ve finished. Also, it’s difficult to keep a novel under control. There are so many directions the story can take, and that is overwhelming at the start.
I was lucky because I was doing an MA in Creative Writing, and so was surrounded by intelligent, sensitive readers who helped me get the story right. I was also being mentored by Bernardine Evaristo as part of the Jerwood/Arvon Mentoring Scheme, so I had lots of support. Being part of a good critique group is a huge help when writing a novel.
Who or what are your biggest influences?
In my YA writing, I’m influenced a lot by classic English writers, such as Dodie Smith and Barry Hines, and also contemporary writers such as Meg Rosoff and David Almond. I’m also influenced by Shane Meadows, who is one of my favourite writers. He put the Midlands on the map with his films set in the area, and I really love his work. Another big influence is my childhood and adolescence. I remember this time very vividly, and draw a lot from it.
You studied for an MA at UEA, some of us at Storyslingers have done BAs or MAs, others opted for self-led study and some are still deciding what route to take. How important was your MA to your career, and do you have any advice for writers considering whether to take the leap onto academia? Also, do you have any thoughts about PhDs in Creative Writing?
My MA came at just the right time. I had gotten quite far by myself – I’d learnt lots about the different craft elements and had some short stories published, I was critiquing other writer’s work and offering mine up for criticism – but I still had a lot to learn. I’d begun the novel that would be Infinite Sky, and that was what I worked on throughout the MA.
It’s a very personal choice, and an expensive one, so I wouldn’t really want to advise anybody if it was right for them or not, but I was absolutely sure it was right for me, and I had a mostly wonderful experience. As for PhDs in Creative Writing, I don’t really have a stance on them. What’s yours?
Personally I don’t see the point of doing a PhD in Creative Writing – unless you’re researching something about the craft of writing and how it relates to academia or society. If I were to do a PhD, it would not be creative – it would be academic, moistly academic, but academic nonetheless. How about other members of Storyslingers and guests to this blog? Comment if you have an opinion, we’d love to hear. – Jennifer B
Have you been given any brilliant writing tips that transformed your writing?
Lots! The one I’m always banging on about, is: be specific. The specific becomes poetic. It can make your writing lively, make the reader trust you know what you are talking about, and also bring original detail into your prose, which makes your writing stand out.
And have you ever received any tough criticism that has helped (or hindered) you in the long-run?
Oh, I’ve received a lot of criticism. My first few workshops at UEA were pretty tough in that respect. Public humiliation is a great way to learn fast, it turns out… A writing colleague suggested I might love my characters too much to make bad things happen to them (a prerequisite for story, generally) and that helped me to break out of that pattern (read Infinite Sky and you’ll see how far I’ve come from there). I’ve been accused of soppiness and cheesiness. Sentimentality. Lately, I most often get accused of bleakness, which is a bit of a turnaround. Perhaps I’ve taken the soppy accusations too much to heart…
Can you share your writing process with us? (like, do you plot everything out before starting, or does it come out in more organic fashion?)
I try to plot, and when that fails, or dries up, I go back to writing. I move back and forth between the two arenas. With my second novel, I have been doing a lot more planning in the hope of writing faster, though that hasn’t been entirely successful. I always think of myself as a ‘pantser’ as the Americans say (as opposed to a plotter), but actually, I have always worked from a plan. I abandon it very easily when the writing is going well, that’s all.
Lastly, what are you working on at the moment? How does writing the second book compare with writing the first?
I’m working on a follow up to Infinite Sky, and have found writing the second book fairly hard going. Writing under contract is very different to writing for yourself, and it brings a different set of anxieties. Rather than worrying if a publisher will ever buy the book, you worry that your publisher will regret buying it.
It can be difficult to remember that your polished, published book was ever a confused, uncertain mess stored in your laptop. I think it’s like you say though: writing is just hard. Maybe the book you are currently writing always seems like the most difficult book.
Anyhow, I don’t know how to do anything else either, so I’ll keep plodding away at it…
Thanks very much!
Thanks for having me!
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