Vicky Newham


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Burnt Cakes and Pastel Pink Bloomers

The front door is wide open, as it always is, so I saunter in and deposit my school bag in the hall. The smell of burnt cake summons me to the kitchen where my grandmother is trimming a layer off two circular sponges with a bread knife. ‘Your mother rang,’ she explains, and dusts sugar off her fingers. ‘I forgot all about the oven.’

Fifteen minutes later we’re devouring homemade Victoria Sandwich in front of a crackling fire. Jam and cream squish between my fingers; the sweet, buttery cake is heavenly, and the fire is warming my back.

‘But do you love him, child? And are you happy?’ She asks when I tell her my parents have taken against my boyfriend, my first ever boyfriend. ‘That’s all that matters.’ She pats my hand, and in that moment something in her eyes shines a light on my confused teenage world.

My head wiggles an acknowledgement of how much her words matter to me, and I try to swallow the lump which has emerged in my throat: relieved someone understands how I feel; sad my mother doesn’t; desperate to squeal yes, yes, yes, I love him more than anything.

In the bigger picture, of course, what mattered wasn’t a boyfriend, that one or any other; it was the importance of deciding for myself what is – and isn’t – right for me, and what dreams I wish to nurture.

Encounters such as these occurred a handful of times before my grandmother died but they’ve etched themselves on the inner folds of my psyche.  A few years after the cake episode, I bumped into my grandmother in the street in Chichester. I was studying for my A-levels at the time and was relishing new-found freedom, whereas my poor grandmother had been progressively losing hers. Told not to drive by her GP, that day she’d given her residential carer the slip and got the bus from where she lived in order to do some shopping. It was this spirit which marked her out. She refused to be subdued in the same way that she refused to allow cynicism to infect her thinking. ‘It’s safe here,’ she always replied when asked to shut and lock her front door. Of course, she closed it at night but she didn’t lock it and she would often pop to the village shop and leave it open. In those days, and in that place, perhaps she was right: she never got burgled. It’s the trust which impressed me.

Another emotional memory of my grandmother is that she waited years for the house she wanted to live in with her family. She and my grandfather (who I never met) bought another house in the same village and asked the owners of their dream one, in a polite, English way, to let them know when they wanted to sell. The house in Singleton, which I knew, was her dream home. It may seem materialistic to fixate on a particular place to live but I don’t see it that way. She was somehow touched by its magic and waited patiently. When they eventually moved in, she made it into a place which everyone loved going to, and one which gave her immense contentment for decades.

Other memories are simply funny. She would never kill spiders; she would swoop them up in a voluminous pair of pastel-coloured knickers and chuck them out the window. We’d arrive for Sunday lunch and find her bloomers in the dahlias outside the kitchen or in the roses in the front garden. I am terrified of spiders and whenever I manage to relocate one, I always think of Granny’s knickers!

I’m sad that I didn’t get to spend much time with my grandmother but I also appreciate what an amazing and inspiring woman she was.When people visit me, I want to cook for them. In situations where I don’t know what to do, she is the person I channel. When I think I’ve got my priorities wrong, or world events are affecting how I feel, I bring to mind what my grandmother would say. I imagine her patting my hand, calling me ‘child’ and reminding me of the importance of happiness and love.

International Women’s Day 2017


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THE INTRUSIONS by Stav Sherez – a review

When you pick up a Stav Sherez novel, you know you’re in for something different. He weaves intricate layers into his stories, and cleverly transports the reader into mental landscapes beyond their imagining and into their worst nightmares. I tried to read The Intrusions slowly. It was my afternoon treat, and I wanted to savour the prose and mull the ideas over. I managed that for a third of the book, and then bolted through the rest, so desperate was I to find out what was going on at the (brilliantly named) Milgram hostel. I mean, with a name like that, you know something dodgy’s bound to happen, right?

The story begins with a girl in a dark alley, stumbling, and under the influence of a psycho-active substance or several. Then another girl arrives at Carrigan and Miller’s police station, saying her friend’s been abducted by a man who’s threatened to come back for her. From there, the reader is very quickly in the Hades-like world of the internet, faced with the stark reality of how much technology has changed all our lives – and continues to every minute of the day.

‘… what technology gives with one hand it takes away with the other,’ observes one character.

It’s fair to say that neither Carrigan nor Miller are on good emotional form in this book. Carrigan, in particular, I felt sorry for. He’s been through the wringer on the personal front and in this book we see his mother in hospital. His team are undergoing an audit which is allegedly about investigation expenditure but is really about rapping Carrigan’s knuckles over misdemeanours on a previous case. Life and time are slipping through Carrigan’s hands, and I was rooting for some reprieve to come his way, for a few feathers of hope for him to latch onto. Various aspects of Carrigan’s journey in this book had me stabbing at my kindle to gobble up the pages. I found the whole plot utterly addictive and completely terrifying. Sherez deftly uses technology to bring themes alive, and as part of the plot itself. The police, too, have had to change the way they investigate to keep up with developments. We experience events through Carrigan and Miller’s eyes, and as they reel through shock and horror, so does the reader.

CCTV prowled public spaces, Carrigan reflects, but the job pulled you into darker provinces where neither God nor cameras could penetrate.

In my opinion, it’s not possible to pigeon hole a Sherez book into a particular sub-genre. The Intrusions has identifiable elements of West London urban noir, serial killer thriller, techno-thriller, social realism and more. And then there’s Bali. Which I’ve now scrubbed off my bucket list!

‘You’ll never be alone again,’ one of the perpetrators tells the police. ‘If you use a phone or a computer or a TV, I’ll be there watching you.

As dénouements go, I found this one both electrifying and poignant.

‘Even if you catch me,’ says one of the suspects, ‘there’s hundreds of thousands just like me all over the word, looking for prey, and it’s only going to get a whole lot worse.’

Highly recommended and definitely one of my books of the year so far.

 

Vicky Newham ©2017

 


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Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough – a review

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Friendly single mother, Louise, meets David in a bar. Flirtation becomes a kiss, but it ends there. The next day, at work, Louise meets her new boss and gets a glimpse of his beautiful wife, Adele. Guess what? To Louise’s embarrassment, he’s the man from the bar. Then when Louise bumps into Adele on the street, they go for coffee together and start up a confiding friendship. It seems that it’s fresh starts all round. But while David says the kiss was a mistake, he cannot keep his eyes off Louise, and a love triangle develops.

The story is told from the point of view of Louise and Adele, and the reader quickly wonders which of the two is telling the truth, and whether Adele and David’s marriage is as perfect as it seems. With unreliable narrators, and a combustive domestic situation, it’s the perfect set-up for a twisty psychological thriller. But it’s also where Sarah Pinborough shakes things up.

What I adored about this book is the way the author deals with the subtle nuances of the inter-relationships, and brings them to life. For me – and it stands out in her YA novels too – Sarah Pinborough excels at writing relationships, and she brings an emotional intelligence to the many forms of communication which take place between people. She shows – in an often humorous, often poignant way – how easy it is to get drawn into a mutual obsession which escalates. And, with modern technology at everyone’s disposal, obsessions can be stoked and satisfied from the comfort of the sofa. Louise and Adele have very different lives, yet neither is happy.  The reader is privy to their reflections for all their honesty, neurosis and desperation. But what their reflections also show is how different people often are from the image they portray; how cruel and manipulative some people can be; how self-deception can eat away at their hopes and dreams.

Behind Her Eyes drips with menace from the first page, and that atmosphere continues throughout the novel. Most of the narrative is written in the present tense. It’s immediate and claustrophobic. It’s intimate and confessional. And it’s beautifully written.

What I admire about Sarah Pinborough is that with each novel she pushes her writing that bit further and is continually challenging genre boundaries. The #WTFthatending will certainly get people reading the book. And so it should. But in amongst the disturbing themes and dysfunctional characters, I also hope that people enjoy the subtle aspects of the book. After all, we know we can’t always trust others, but can we trust ourselves?

 

Vicky Newham ©2017


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SIRENS by Joseph Knox – a review

I’ve read this book twice now and both times it’s made me feel very strange for a while afterwards, the way a dream can possess and linger. I love books which do this. In the main, I don’t read for escapism or entertainment; I like books which make me think about life in a different way, books which make me feel. And I guarantee you will never feel the same again once you’ve read Sirens.

What drew me to the novel was the setting. I am fascinated by contemporary urban life and psycho-geography, and Manchester isn’t a city I’ve been to or know anything about. Once I was into the first page, though, it was the novel’s characters which intrigued me. It might be easy to think their lifestyles aren’t common but, having lived in London for years, and worked at night while I was studying, I know how realistic the author’s depiction is. I wonder whether cities necessarily create nocturnal characters who creep around in the shadows; perhaps it’s the complexity of modern life which so often results in the alienation and sense of being adrift which Sirens evokes? Large cities then attract and enable people to slide into a faceless cloak of anonymity, and lurk. ‘In spite of social media, CCTV and the state,’ DC Aidan Waits observes at the start of the book, ‘we still live in a world where you can disappear if you want to. Or even if you don’t.’ And Waits’ adopted world is one of seedy nightclubs and trafficked sex workers, gangs and drugs, canals and underground car parks. It’s a world of power, corruption and exploitation, where derelict building sites cosy up to penthouse apartment blocks and Hilton hotels.

With three strikes against him, Waits is sent undercover to check up on the seventeen-year-old daughter of local MP, David Rossiter. The girl, Isabelle, like her mother, has a history of depression and has run away and hooked up with drug dealer, Zain Carver. Waits’ boss wants to know which police officers are on Carver’s payroll. Waits observes and infiltrates Carver’s entourage. Rather than eat and sleep, he takes speed. The secrets which you know are there, gradually reveal themselves. It’s not a cheery world. It’s a powerful story of human alienation and suffering, and of the things people do to numb their pain and escape what they cannot face.

To me, the sirens of the title aren’t just the girls who collect Carver’s drug money. They’re our own self-destructiveness; the dangerous allure of the drugs and the lifestyle, of the lights which seem brighter at night. They’re a reminder of the rocks of Greek mythology, which can smash us all to death regardless of any vigilance we may possess.

The story in Sirens is devastating, but it isn’t all dark. I cared about Waits. His life trajectory – from the glimpses we get – shows how easy it is to take a wrong turn, then another, and find yourself completely lost. But he’s not a bastard or a psychopath. He cares about others, especially Isabelle and Catherine, perhaps more than he does himself, and genuinely wants to help them.

I see the author spent around ten years on the book. It’s difficult to believe that it’s a debut novel, mainly because the writing is so vivid and affecting. At times it’s staccato and sparse, at others it’s brutal and graphic and detailed. The whole narrative is steeped in ‘noir’ and many of the characteristics of US crime novels. Perfect.

Intense, visceral and raw, Sirens is a stand-out novel for me.

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Vicky Newham ©2016


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Making sense of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton

The allegations which arose about Hillary Clinton’s health and stamina a few weeks ago got me curious. Following the Trump ‘locker room banter’ débâcle, which surfaced over the weekend, and the allegations which followed, I tuned into C4 last night to watch the second presidential debate. I wanted to get an idea of how the two candidates come across; to try and understand Trump’s appeal and what people think of Hillary. Commentators were saying Trump was likely to go into attack mode to deflect attention. When I saw that, prior to the live show, Trump had gathered a bunch of women who claimed that Bill Clinton had made inappropriate sexual advances to them, it set the tone: it came across as him using them to mitigate his own behaviour by slinging mud at Hillary via her husband. Trump didn’t seem interested in what the women may have suffered.

One key thing intrigues me about Trump. Given the content of his communication, how can people in the US seriously think he’s going to deliver the sort of changes the country needs? I cannot claim to have listened to everything he’s said, but his modus operandi appears to be to make pronouncements about what he will achieve without stating how he proposes to go about them. I don’t know how this strategy convinces people. It doesn’t work for me. Or maybe it doesn’t convince them, and they’re simply projecting their hopes onto him and ignoring the stuff they don’t like? I’m not sure which worries me most. ‘I’m going to make America great again,’ he repeats ad nauseam, with his finger in the air. In last night’s debate he said he was going to get rid of ISIS. Right. How?

When I watch people like Trump speak in public, it reminds me of some of the footage of Hitler. Although Trump isn’t articulate, he has a sort of charisma, and he’s adept at zooming in on, and exploiting, people’s fears, and whipping them into a frenzy with adrenaline-fuelling slogans. Individual fears and life stressors quickly become universal ones we can all relate to, and ‘I’ becomes ‘we’. Identification results in de-individuation and robust group dynamics in exactly the way that social psychologists such as Zimbardo and Moscovici have described and demonstrated for years. In addition, when fear and stress are high, evolutionary theory tells us that people drift towards survival-enhancing decisions. Often this is instinctive (and explains why alpha behaviour is influential) and unconscious. It can mean that the decisions are ill-assessed and not the best option.

Related to this is the fact that much research has shown that voting habits are often dictated by self-interest anyway. The problem is that what people think they want might not be what they actually want, and in the words of the Rolling Stones … might not be what they need to make their life better. And self-interest can be a knee-jerk thing. Research has also shown repeatedly that when you want to persuade someone of something, you need to take various factors into account, especially if you want to change core beliefs in a lasting way. The main considerations are: consistency of message; confidence in the message; providing evidence to support the efficacy of the message; being impartial and flexible; whether the message rings true.

It’s interesting to consider these two candidates in terms of these factors. I have always found Hillary Clinton intriguing. I often wondered how she coped with her husband’s behaviour, alleged and otherwise. This is now her chance to be President Clinton, to continue the dynasty in the White House. I keep reading that she’s not ‘popular’. Have the email server accusations damaged her? What about the allegations that she got involved with some of the women who accused her husband of inappropriate sexual advances (as CNN calls them)? Do people judge her for ‘standing by her man’? If it’s true that she put pressure on women to drop complaints against her husband, that’s extremely troubling. Whereas Trump epitomises the power of celebrity culture in a world where people have felt increasingly disempowered and alienated, Hillary represents a complex set of values. The two couldn’t be more different.

According to the above criteria, the most effective way to win votes should be to find out what people want, figure out how to give it to them and communicate convincingly the steps along the way. However, if you stir in all the other factors, and group-think, it’s an extremely complex situation. It will be fascinating to see what else comes out about Trump. It should be impossible for him to become the next President of the US, but, given world affairs and the issues I’ve mentioned, I don’t think it is.

How do you perceive the popularity of Trump? What do you think is going to happen?

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Vicky Newham © 2016


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Submitting to agents and choosing the ‘right’ one

Since signing with Peters, Fraser & Dunlop in July 2016, I’ve had a lot of emails asking me about the submission process, and my agent, Adam Gauntlett, so I decided to write a blogpost. All I can say is how I used the advice I obtained, and went about things. It makes me sad when I read tweets and articles saying it’s impossible to get anywhere in publishing unless you have contacts, a private income and/or are supported financially. There are enough hurdles to overcome without unhelpful beliefs such as these. I don’t have any contacts, and I support myself.

 

Opening doors, timing and the book

At a talk which local author, Peggy Riley, gave about getting your novel ready for submission, she said that if you’re going to knock on doors, it’s important to consider the timing. I quickly discovered that it’s easy to talk about the novel you’re writing and drum up interest but if your book’s not ready to send out, it can be pointless. You will simply get, ‘Great. Contact me when it’s finished.’ If you get interest in your novel, you need to be able to send out the full MS within a day, preferably straightaway. If you cannot do that, I don’t think it’s worth querying agents. If you send out your book before it’s ready, you could blow your chances with that agent or book, and you may not find out why. You might get a chance with another book, or a substantial re-write, but you might get pigeon-holed as an average/dull/poor/whatever writer.

Several years ago, I had an agent ask to read my first novel. I rewrote it a few times, but what I sent wasn’t submission-ready, partly because I was over-excited (I know, can you believe it?!) and impatient. I got some useful and very encouraging feedback from it, perhaps because he’d asked to read it, but actually it would have been better to have rewritten that novel several more times and then sent it. As it turned out, someone published a novel with a very similar plot, so I shelved that book and wrote another.

It can be useful to do pitching events if you want a bit of feedback on your concept and writing, but it’s also important to bear in mind that your work will be judged on a small sample and a very short synopsis: polishing 2,500 words isn’t the same as re-writing 100,000 words and getting your structure and pace right. If the feedback you get is encouraging, that can be validating. If it’s bad, it can really knock your confidence. Whatever it is, though, it’s only the opinion of one person. I did a couple of one-to-ones at the York Festival of Writing in 2012. I pitched my first book to Juliet Mushens and Hellie Ogden. They were both lovely, and enthusiastic about the premise of the book and my writing, so it was a very positive experience for me – but, crucially, I was unable to follow it up as I hadn’t finished re-writing the book. When I then met Juliet to discuss my dissertation novel, I had to explain what happened with the previous one.

Regarding pitching at festivals, I know some people get their agents that way, but I decided the best approach for me was to submit through each agency, with a proper sample, detailed synopsis and cover letter. I find pitching sessions a little like speed dating but without the alcohol …!

Personally, I do not believe that all feedback is useful and I find it most useful when I’ve done my absolute best first. I also need to trust and respect the person giving the feedback.

 

Courses and masterclasses

There are numerous courses designed to demystify and ease the agent submission process. I always look carefully at who teaches any course I’m interested in, and what their credentials and experience are. I did a Guardian masterclass with the literary agent, Juliet Mushens. I knew and liked Juliet as she supervised my MA dissertation (which became my novel). Two of her authors, Jessie Burton and Francesca Haig, came along and talked through their submission processes. I also did a Guardian masterclass with Scott Pack, who I knew from Twitter. He’s worked as a bookseller and buyer, editor, and publisher. Between the two of them, what they don’t know about the industry isn’t worth knowing. Whenever I go on courses, I’m a complete geek: I write down everything, and write up my notes afterwards. And I followed their advice to the letter.

I saw on Twitter last night that Scott has written an e-book based on his masterclass, which can be found here.

 

Researching agents and agencies

If you query an agent, and they read your MS and offer you representation, you need to be prepared to work with that agent or turn them down. I decided, therefore, it was essential to only submit to agents whose comments and wish list appealed. I spent ages with the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook. I took notes from Agent Hunter and Query Tracker. I googled each agent, and read everything that had been written and said about/by them, making notes. I used this information to personalise my query letters.

When you identify an agent you want to query, check out their agency. Are they a new agent? How big is the agency? If they work alone, who handles their subsidiary rights? Can they handle film and TV inquiries? How many clients does the agent have, and who are they? What deals has the agent made? Does the agency appeal as a whole? (When I went to meet Adam at PFD, the first thing I saw when I came out of the lift was a dog’s toy. Good sign!)

This is the owner of the dog toys at PFD.

This is the owner of the dog toys at PFD

It’s really important to read and adhere to the submission guidelines for each agent and agency. Some are similar but some are specific, and even have their own submission portal. I had various documents of different lengths. Do check how your MS may fit their requirements. If they ask for the first three chapters, and your first three amount to five pages, you may want to re-jig the chapter breaks. I am sure it’s true that the first page is a good indicator of your writing, and the particular book, but a few pages won’t show much about your structure, pace, dialogue etc.

 

Market research, deals and debuts

In 2012 I went to my first London Book Fair and Crimefest, then Theakston’s crime writing festival in Harrogate in 2013. The debut author panels at these events are informative about what novels have been bought a year earlier by which publishers and from which agents. I went to every panel I could at each subsequent Crimefest, sat in the front row and took notes! I also started using Twitter more often, and reading announcements in the Bookseller. The Bookseller gives an indicator of which agents are selling, and the sorts of books publishers are buying. I firmly believe that you have to write the book that fires you up, but it is important to get a feel for the market, and know where your book fits in your genre or category.

I quickly saw that some agents were getting good deals for debut authors, and actively like working with them while others seem less keen. I also noticed that attitudes to the slush pile vary. If people make it very difficult for you to submit to them, it’s worth thinking about. Response time varies enormously. Some agents state they can take up to two months to read your submission. Some reply and some don’t. I only queried a dozen or so agents but most of them I heard back from very quickly, including a couple on the day I subbed.

This brings me on to editorial input. Some agents like to take on books which don’t need much/any work before they can be subbed to editors. Others enjoy working with their clients editorially. It is often the case that the more clients an agent has, the less time they will have to work with you on your MS. It’s worth considering whether you want detailed editorial input from an agent, what it will involve and whether representation is contingent on you making certain changes.

It’s also useful to check out which agents represent the authors of books you like. I looked up agents who rep crime novels which are a little ‘different’. My series isn’t a traditional police procedural. I call it #UrbanNoir. It combines the police procedural with reflection on cultural dislocation, urban life and the psychology of violence. The crimes stem from the psycho-geography and socio-economics of Tower Hamlets in East London. I thought it was important to flag up these aspects (not all of them) in my query letter, and make it clear from the opening of the novel.

 

Social media

I find it hard to mention social media without a groan emerging. While it can be a major time-suck, and the rabbit holes and misunderstandings can be awful, I’ve found Twitter a fabulous way to gain information and get to know people. Many of the people I got in contact with on Twitter, in 2012, I quickly met in real life at events and festivals.

It is worth thinking about what you post, not just from the point of view of libel laws but general perception. The reason I say this is because in the last week an editor told me he’d checked out my Twitter feed, and a TV production company executive told me he’d read a blogpost I’d written on education and social mobility. Perhaps this shouldn’t have surprised me but it did. That said, my rule for social media is the same as for everything else: to be myself. I use Twitter and Facebook for having a laugh, posting pix of the dog and the sea, and enthusing about books and dramas I like. I post about stuff which interests and bothers me. It is useful for getting a feel for what people are like. Most agents are on Twitter, so check them out.

 

Manuscript assessments, beta readers and feedback

I think it’s extremely difficult to know when your book is ready to send out on submission to agents. I don’t see agents as the people to use for feedback because they are extremely busy and you may not get any, or hear anything. In which case, how do you interpret that?

I decided not to query until I really thought my novel was ready. I was contemplating querying at one point but had reservations. Unable to decide whether my reservations were self-doubt and fear, or genuinely meant my book still needed work, I paid for a professional manuscript critique. In addition, an author friend offered to beta read for me. Having done two workshop modules on my MA, I knew I was okay with honest, constructive feedback. Unfortunately, the MS critique didn’t identify any strengths in my novel but listed a lot of ways I could write it differently. This was confusing and destructive for me, and I completely lost my confidence in the book and my own writing for at least a month. Fortunately, the report from my beta reader was more balanced and constructive, and another author friend offered to read for me, and gave me feedback. After a few weeks, I compiled a master list of all three sets of feedback, and set about making all the changes which felt right, ticking them off my list. After this, I rewrote the whole MS twice more, line by line, and read it aloud.

 

Which agent?

It helps to have a clear idea of the sort of person you will work well with. Having been a teacher for 10 years, I’ve had a lot of feedback from different people: as a teacher, you are ‘observed’ from the moment you step in the classroom. I also did the dissertation for my Effective Learning MA on feedback, and what is/isn’t helpful for learning. This has enabled me to clarify what feedback style works for me.

Above all, I wanted:

1) an agent I felt I could talk to, feel relaxed with and laugh with. You need to be able to be honest with your agent, and him/her with you. I didn’t want to have to have a gin before/after speaking to him (or both!). It is a business relationship but humour is a great defuser. (As Adam and I found out the first time I used tracking changes and didn’t realise you had to actually switch them on …! Gawd, the embarrassment.)

2) an agent whose judgement I respect, and who I trust.

3) an agent who liked my book on its own merits, not because others were interested in it.

When it came down to it, I was very lucky. I very quickly got several offers of representation. I also made my decision before everyone who had my full MS got back to me. Why? Because my gut feeling told me Adam was the right fit.

Do get clear before you sign with an agency what edits the agent is going to request, and whether you have a similar vision for the novel. None of the edits Adam suggested were deal breakers, and they’ve all helped to make the book stronger and tighter. I think it’s important to know what edits you are prepared to make and which will fundamentally change the book for you.

 

Attitude and beliefs

Assuming you want one, getting an agent is one step along the traditional route to a publishing contract. If you believe it won’t happen, that things like that happen to other people but not you, it’s unlikely to. If you believe it’s possible, it’s more likely. And if you can nurture the determination to do your absolute best, to get your novel as good as it can be, you’re in with a chance. Then, you can let go and see what happens. Expect nothing, hope for the best and believe it can occur.

On Facebook today, I got one of those memory things. Two years ago today I handed in the dissertation which became my novel. I began writing it in early 2014. Since then, I’ve re-homed a crazy puppy, finished my MA, finished the novel, bought three flats, done two up and sold them, written the first draft of another novel and half the follow-up of this one.

My point? ‘Luck’ and timing all come into play. All the rest is hard graft, and takes a lonnnng time.

 

Asking for advice

When I was subbing to agents, numerous author pals gave me advice on Facebook and privately. It was hugely appreciated and very helpful. I have written this post as I want to encourage people to feel optimistic about querying. All the agents I’ve dealt with have been really lovely, and there are lots of people around to ask for help. Everyone who’s written a novel knows how hard it is, and in itself is a massive achievement.

 

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Vicky Newham © 2016

 


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Stuff Kevin – we need to talk about education!

The more I hear about education and social mobility, the more it worries me. To be specific, what bothers me is the claim by some ministers that the purpose of education should be social mobility.

I don’t have a vested interest here: I don’t have a child who’s failed entry tests or been turned down by the school of their choice. My interest in this subject derives from having gone into teaching because I’m passionate about learning, and left the profession because I realised the system isn’t about learning. I believe we are making some serious errors if we don’t radically re-think what we see as the purpose of education, and bring our system back in line with goals which will help our kids most and prepare them for a happy, healthy life.

My first teaching school was a comprehensive in Stepney in London’s East End. Tower Hamlets is a fabulous, vibrant and diverse borough but a quick google will tell you about the disadvantage faced by many groups living there. At the school where I taught for four years, the percentage of pupils on free school meals was very high. Forget A-levels. At the time, while Tony Blair was championing the belief that everyone should go to university, I witnessed the frustrations and disappointments of kids whose language and literacy levels were significant barriers for them in preparing for GCSEs. It was as though they were expected to wade through treacle to get to a destination which someone else was telling them they should want. For many, what would have helped and empowered them was greater learning support (including provision in the sixth form), more EAL classes, and a system which valued skills and learning rather than tests, targets, exams, qualifications and predictions.

Of course education can help kids to learn and access vocational and higher education. These, in turn, can help them to reach beyond their socio-economic origins, if they want to. But the idea that the purpose of education should be social mobility is, in my opinion, as misguided as it is unhelpful. And the possible reintroduction of grammar schools is not going to be the solution which many ministers and pundits claim it will be. Schools which use an entrance exam to select pupils, inevitably advantage kids who’ve been to ‘better’ schools, or whose parents have been able to afford tutoring. Sometimes innate ability and application are enough to gain a place at a selective school. Often, though, they are not.

Amidst all of this, numerous things concern me, and their implications flutter about in my mind like birds trapped in an aviary at the zoo. In my ears I hear the echoes of many of my students’ voices, telling me they don’t want to go to university, or that they’re so confused by other people’s ideas for what their aspirations should be that they don’t know what they want. For kids who want to work in the family business or raise children, often what they need is to be able to read and write well, and to learn some life skills. They don’t need or want to be told that they should aspire to something else or ‘better’.

That said, there is nothing wrong with the desire to ‘better’ oneself, to grow, to develop. Aren’t many of us doing it one way or another? Who wouldn’t want to escape deprivation, disadvantage and discrimination? But there is something about the idea of making social mobility the purpose of education which implies that everyone should be unhappy with who they are and what their backgrounds are. Rather than being told we should want to be socially mobile, perhaps government could more usefully consider whether everyone wants that, and what other factors hinder that mobility, so it’s actually possible? The education system is only one of many factors which contributes. Others are: welfare policies; housing shortage and cost; skill demand and supply; health inequalities; discrimination and prejudice; and many factors connected to our status within the EU. Plus variables I’ve forgotten, I’m sure.

And if, by education, these ministers mean qualifications, what sort of social mobility are they going to result in? When qualifications enable young people to get into jobs, or onto higher education courses, which they then cannot do or hate, how is that helpful? What I mean is, they’ve often passed the exam but not learned the right skills or knowledge.

When I was teaching, vocational courses were becoming popular again and many students were relieved to escape traditional A-levels. However, some of these courses were still assessed via the traditional means of exams and coursework, and inevitably disadvantaged kids who struggled with language and literacy. Time and time again what I saw was that students of all ages needed greater learning and SEN support, and far more extensive access to EAL classes. Some faced insurmountable economic barriers. Some faced discrimination and prejudice. Others struggled to assess pervading social and cultural norms. It’s obvious though that what affects, and benefits, kids in one region of the country may not be relevant in another. Stepney is a world away from Wimbledon and Croydon (both places I’ve taught also). The South East is different from the North East, Wales and Scotland.

To my mind, what our education system requires is a curriculum which is useful to kids from the moment they start primary school, and one which will cater for the needs, preferences and abilities of all children. The system should be free, and should offer equal access to all. In addition, rather than having someone else’s vision of what they should want stuffed at them, I see a greater need for much earlier help with option assessment and decision-making. Like most teachers, I’ve taught all manner of pointless subjects in PSHE lessons, and I’ve had my suggestions for topics the kids really need to know about fall on deaf ears. I’ve also seen scores of students put on courses they aren’t suited to, or don’t want to do.

The way I see it, education needs to prepare youngsters for the complexity, challenges and wonderfulness of life. For dreaming their own dreams, and making informed choices about what they want. This should be its primary purpose.

Radical, isn’t it?

 

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Vicky Newham © 2016