Death Of 1000 Cuts – Talking Chop #1: CJ Flood

Welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time. As promised, here’s the first of our interviews with authors, editors and agents about the tricky art of rewriting, desucking and trimming fiction. I’ve decided to call this tentative new section ‘Talking Chop’, partly because it’s an awful pun on cutting and interviews, and partly because it makes me think of a big talking chop with cartoon eyes. Even if the blog ends tomorrow, it will have been worth it for that delightful image.

Our first interview is with CJ Flood, whose first novel, Infinite Sky, came out in paperback this July to a landslide of acclaim and hoorays. Including from me – it was one of those rare novels where I just locked in and wanted to put all other duties aside until I’d finished it. It’s the story of a 13-year-old girl, Iris, her sort-of new boyfriend Trick, and her unhappy brother. The prose is deceptively simple, transparent, lucid. It’s gripping, and emotive without being mawkish. Basically it’s great.

Just in case you think I’m yanking your chain or indulging in smug, matey back-scratching, check out the glowing Guardian and Telegraph reviews. Infinite Sky has brokered an unheard-of bipartisan consensus, so mighty are its storytelling chops.

Before we start the interview, a quick reminder that Thursday is In The Barber’s Chair day, where we take an aspiring author’s first page and look at ways to improve it. If you’re working on a novel or short story – or you know someone who is – please submit your first page (250 works max, just a title, no explanatory blather) via the ‘Contact Me’ link on the right. I’d love to take a look at it for you. And thank you to everyone who has submitted so far. You’re absolute peaches.

Hi Chelsey. Could you start off just by introducing yourself and your book?

Hi Tim! Yep, my name is Chelsey Flood, though I wrote Infinite Sky using my initials, C. J. Flood. (This is to differentiate from my short stories, which I write as Chelsey Flood, and feature occasional masturbation/bad sex and such.)

How do you find the editing process? Do you prefer the flurry of creation in a first draft, or the redrafting process? Is it a single ‘stage’ for you, or does it break down into lots of phases?

I hate first drafts. Because I tend to work out what I’m doing as I go along, the limitless possibilities of the first draft overwhelms and intimidates me. I love it when I have some kind of framework in place, and some words to play with, and then I can start to enjoy the process of making it good/enjoyable.

How have you found working with an agent and an editor, in terms of editing?

I have found it a delight. My agent is very editorial, and really helped me get Infinite Sky into good shape for submission. It’s lovely to have someone who is invested in the project, but who is coming from a very different perspective to you. There is a nice no nonsense-ness about the agent/editor approach. It’s also good because an agent or editor can tell you when you need to do more, and also, very importantly, when you’ve done enough.

What did you learn through writing Infinite Sky – your (ace) first novel – that you wish you’d known at the beginning? Or would knowing those things in advance have spoilt the journey?

I learned many things, lots of which are being proven again as I work on book two (working title, Rag Woods). My favourite, is the way that stuff seems to finds its place. For instance, I might write one character saying or doing something, only to realise later that it isn’t them who says/does that, but another character. I often reassign dialogue/action to different characters, or switch something being said in earnest by one character to being said in spite by another. For me, it’s working out the events in the story, and then assigning them to their rightful place and time and owner. Which makes it, once I have established some actions and some characters, just like doing a puzzle.

And I don’t know if knowing these things in advance would have spoiled the journey, but it definitely would have taken the edge off the smug feeling I have knowing them now. It’s good if one wishes to lord it over one’s past writer self.

You’re an alumnus (ugh that word sounds horrible in the singular) of the UEA MA Prose Fiction course. What did you learn (if anything) from the workshop environment? Do you still carry around a little cast of peers in your head who comment on your work?

I learnt a lot. The process is really sped up when you see other people’s failures, and have to explain why you see them as such. I learnt what to watch out for in my writing, and got an idea of what I did well.

As for the little cast of peers in my head, they have faded somewhat, though the lessons they taught me have hopefully sunk in. I’m glad their voices are not too prominent; it’s hard enough to make the hundreds of decisions while writing a novel as it is.

Useful as I found the workshop environment, I would never want a crit group that big again. It was great for a year’s intensive learning, but it would scare the life out of me now!

You’re working on a second book now. Is your process the same as it was for the first? Is it hard starting a first draft after polishing up a first novel to beautiful shiny excellence?

The process is fairly similar, I think. Chaos and confusion for months and months and months. This book has been much, much harder, in spite of the knowledge that I have completed one before. I suppose because I had so much support for the first book (UEA and Jerwood/Arvon mentoring scheme) as well as not having any pressure of a contract or deadline.

And yes, it is hard to begin a first draft after editing a final draft for publication. The most important lesson I’ve learned this time round is not to begin straight away. Have a few months without writing. I wasted a lot of time and words by starting too fast.

Finally, please tell us about a book you’ve read recently that is amazing and we really all should rush to read.

I just read Mr Loverman, by Bernardine Evaristo, which I loved. It’s the story of a 74 year old Antiguan man, coming out to his family in East London. It’s really vivid and fun and full of life. Also I recently read and loved Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley, a beautifully written story about loss and belief, set in suburban America. Atmospheric and haunting, it is some of the best Young Adult fiction that I’ve read in recent years, and I can’t recommend it enough.