Vicky Newham


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Q&A with Steve Mosby for the publication of I Know Who Did It

stevemosby

Steve, welcome to the blog!

Congratulations on the new novel, I Know Who Did It, which is out today. I was lucky enough to read an early copy at the end of August. Having already reviewed the book (linked at the bottom of this post), I thought it would be interesting to ask you a few questions about your writing and some of its psychological themes.

So, over to you.

 

1. On your website you refer to I Know Who Did It as the book that’s been the hardest to write. Can you tell us a little about this and how you feel now?

It’s certainly taken the longest, from start to finish. I started it in 2012, immediately after finishing Dark Room, and actually wrote a full draft that year. At that point, the story was very different. It had the same central idea, and several of the secondary characters that are in the finished version, but it was centred on Groves; none of the characters from The 50/50 Killer appeared in it, and the ending was very different. And it was a bit of a mess, to be honest. Back then, I couldn’t quite figure out how to make the idea work.

So I talked it over with Orion, and we agreed to shelve it for the time being. I went away, despondent at having basically wasted a year’s work, and started something new, which eventually became The Nightmare Place. But I couldn’t let the original idea go, and I decided to go back to it. And with that distance, I figured out that by splitting up a couple of the storylines and giving it all a different focus, I could make it work.

It’s actually not so different from how I’ve written any of them, really. My first drafts are always a bit exploratory. But I Know Who Did It is the first where I’ve had to abandon it and write an entirely new book in the middle of the process. I really, really hope it’s the last. I usually get a bit closer with the first proper draft than I did there.

 

2. There’s no snoozing with your novels! At any point, almost anything can happen and this creates an exhilarating read. Readers often don’t like ‘too predictable’ or ‘too unexpected’. I think you get the balance just right but have no idea how you do it. How and where do you draw the line?

Thank you! I appreciate that. I don’t really know, except to say that any unexpected developments emerge organically – hopefully – from the story as it develops. But I do think quite a lot about how to undermine or subvert things. For example, I’m not a big fan of reading or writing huge action scenes, so I tend to cut them off and take the book in a different direction. The ending of I Know Who Did It could have been a lot longer and more action-packed, but I always figure: why bother? That’s not the point, so why not just get to the point instead? So I often find I’m building up to something that in a more normal crime novel would go one way, and I decide to take it another instead. What’s the most interesting and unexpected thing that could happen here? It’s a good question to ask yourself. You can go anywhere you want, so long as it feels natural and doesn’t come totally out of the blue.

 

3. The new book sees a return of Mark Nelson and John Mercer, both of whom appeared in The 50/50 Killer. Why did you want to write about these characters again? Do you plan to do this with any of your other characters?

I’ve never deliberately set out to avoid writing a series; it’s just that standalones tend to suit me and the way I work. Because it always starts with an idea or a basic theme for me – not a story but a subject. So with Still Bleeding, it was “oh, I’d quite like to write about this online culture of sharing images of death, and what that says about us”. Or with Black Flowers, it was “I’m interested in how real life influences fiction, and then fiction can influence real life”. It’s always vague ideas like that, and from there, I develop a story and the characters I need to make it work. And since I like everything to fit together thematically as tightly as possible, I want characters that reflect the story and the subject matter – people I can fully explore and empty out through the book – and it’s usually easier to build them from the ground up. A series character comes with his or her own baggage, and that might clash with the wallpaper, if you see what I mean.

With I Know Who Did It, when I came back to look at it, I just realised that the characters from The 50/50 Killer worked with the themes and the ideas, and that it might be fun to return to them. The first book is very contained, and I’d never been able to see where to take them after that. But although I Know Who Did It is very different in some ways, it’s about similar concepts and has the same tone, and when I put the characters into it they didn’t seem out of place.

Whether I’ll do it with any of the other characters – I don’t know. Certainly not for the sake of it. But if the right idea comes up, I’d happily go for it. I mean, I know writing a series brings its own set of challenges, but for me, with this one, it really did help to have the characters lined up already.

 

4. Many of your books show ‘horror’ influences. Is this deliberate on your part and do you think that crime and horror are natural bed fellows?

I always wanted to write horror. When I was growing up, I fell in love with Stephen King’s books, and it was a short step from there to Dean R Koontz, Richard Laymon, Clive Barker, Ramsey Campbell, and so on. Those were the kinds of books I wanted to write. I think it was only as I got older and started to read more ‘slipstreamy’ stuff – people like Michael Marshall Smith, Graham Joyce, Jonathan Carroll etc – that I started to see what was possible and to blend different genres into my own writing. And I guess The Third Person could easily have been published as horror or SF, but the crime element stuck, and here I am. Which I like, because I find I can do whatever I want within the crime genre. It’s very flexible.

In general, I think crime and horror go together very well indeed. There’s a natural crossover there – to the point where books with a strong element of supernatural horror like John Connolly’s are published as crime, whereas you’ll find something like Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door on the horror shelf. Certainly, a lot of novels published as crime – the serial killer stuff, especially – could be packaged as horror instead. At heart, they’re basically ‘beat the monster’ stories: the serial killer could just as easily be a vampire, or whatever, and the point of the story would be the same. And I guess with some noir there’s this sense of existential horror: this bleak idea that we’re alone in an uncaring universe, making mistakes, and everything doesn’t necessarily turn out the way you might want it to. Crime fiction generally goes from order to chaos to order again at the end, whereas horror is allowed to leave you in chaos, and I think some crime fiction can do that too, albeit in less obvious ways.

 

5. In many of your books you play with what the reader ‘knows’ and thinks he/she knows. To an extent this is a trope of crime fiction but you do it in a very psychological way which makes for a particularly ‘Steve Mosby’ read. Can you tell us about this? Why and how you do it, and if anything is off limits?

I think I just like twists! And I tend to rate twists by how much of what you’ve read or watched you’re forced to re-evaluate in light of it. And since I tend to focus on the psychological side of things rather than, say, intricate plot machinations or big confrontations, the twists I try for generally happen on that side of things. I wouldn’t say my books have unreliable narrators as such, but they’re first person narratives, and I think people often do hide things from themselves to an extent. With first person, you’re listening to someone telling a story, and the story they tell is inevitably going to be biased and incomplete. And of course, you’re doing that too as the writer. But a twist has to feel right. That’s the boring answer to what’s off-limits: absolutely nothing is, so long as it works. It has to make sense and I think it also has to feel organic and even necessary on some intuitive level. There has to be a point to it – a moment of “oh god, of course the story had to go there; I get what it’s all about now”. That’s one of the differences between a top-drawer twist and, say, a character waking up, and there’s another character in the shower, and it was all a dream.

 

6. ‘Justice’ is a theme which occurs in your novels. What aspects of this interest you and how do you think morality complicates it?

Well, I think justice and morality are intertwined concepts. When someone does something immoral, justice is about them being punished; when someone behaves well, they should be rewarded. It’s not quite as simple as that, but it’s close enough. So the concept of justice is kind of predicated on the concept of morality. And that’s fine, because for the most part we share a sense of morality: it varies through time and around the world, but most of us growing up in the same stew of religious and social influences are going to agree on some basic norms of good and bad behaviour that serve to maintain social cohesion. Many of those will be codified in law; others just frowned upon. And there will be disagreements. But I don’t think you can have a sense of justice outside of a moral perspective.

Now, in crime fiction, the immoral act is frequently a murder: the social cohesion is broken by a killing, then restored by the culprit being identified and taken into custody, and there you go: that’s justice. But put like that, that’s obviously really trivial and mundane. And so of course, most crime fiction goes well beyond that. All is never well again, for one thing – how important or comforting really is ‘justice’ to the people left behind? And it’s never sufficient to say “the murderer acted immorally” and leave it at that; it’s the equivalent of just saying “he did it because he was evil”, which is an intellectually lazy cop out. Good crime fiction addresses these different aspects, and I think the complicating factor isn’t morality, but empathy. Empathy for the victims and the survivors, of course. But also, perhaps perversely, empathy for the perpetrator, insofar as trying to understand not just the motive but the reasons behind the motive.

One of the characters in I Know Who Did It, Groves, is a policeman whose infant son has been abducted and murdered. He’s a man of faith and a fierce believer in the law. And at one point, he’s investigating a suspected pedophile, a man he should hate, and he forces himself to try to understand, to think about the man’s upbringing and the social conditions that formed him. Groves says that the story of everybody’s life is a book that was started before they were born. And it’s important to me as a writer to try always to consider that aspect – to try to have empathy. Everyone walks their own hard road, and all that.

 

7. In both The 50/50 Killer and I Know Who Did It people do are faced with decisions which require them to save themselves or a loved one. Can you tell us why this intrigues you?

I don’t know; it’s always been an interest. I suppose one of the things I’m keen on exploring is how and why people care about each other, and what can intervene to change that. And the kind of decision you mention is just an ultra-extreme version of that. In The 50/50 Killer, the killer challenges one of a couple to decide which of them will be tortured and killed over the course of a night – and they can change their mind at any point. Which just seemed to me to be an apt metaphor for a relationship in flux! You can claim you’ll love someone forever, and that you couldn’t live without them, and so on, all that stuff – but what happens when real life gets in the way? How much hurt do you put up with? How much are you prepared to hurt someone to get what you want? When do you give up on love – or do you? The scenario is really just a dramatisation of those concerns, and it’s those underlying questions that intrigue me.

 

8. Crime fiction is evolving all the time. Are there any developments which interest, please or bother you?

Not really. Crime fiction is a broad church, and that’s wonderful, and the key thing with evolution is natural selection, so we all know that trends will come and go, and what’s successful will stick around. As a writer, it’s the same as ever: all you can do is work on what interests you and hope for the best.

Negative stuff? I suppose you could point to things like increasingly explicit violence, but I don’t know if that’s actually a problem, and I think it’s a cultural thing across the board anyway, rather than particular to crime fiction. Violence against women – but again, that emerges from the wider culture; I suppose it’s good that we have that conversation every so often, even if it never gets resolved. I sometimes wish crime fiction would be more open to cross-genre stuff. It is in some ways, but there are books like (for example) Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon, Adam Roberts’s Jack Glass and China Mieville’s The City And The City, which were all published as SF but I think deserved to have gained more traction and recognition in the crime world. So it goes, though.

 

9. In what ways do you notice changes in your writing since The Third Person in 2003? Either in terms of what you write about or how you do it?

I hope it’s got considerably better! I’m proud of The Third Person and The Cutting Crew in their own separate ways, and for different reasons, but they both feel a world away from what I’m doing now, and I always cringe slightly when someone who’s enjoyed one of the later books picks one of those up next.

There’s this conventional wisdom that a writer spends their life writing their first book, and then has to write their second really quickly to a deadline. Difficult second album syndrome, and there’s truth in that. Val McDermid told me once that she was often far more interested in a writer’s third book, because by then they’re starting to figure themselves out and find their feet. That was 100% true for me. In many ways, The 50/50 Killer was a complete break away from the first two, and that was the point I began to feel like “right – this is my subject matter, this is my style”. It hasn’t made it any easier, of course. Each book gets harder to write.

 

10. Finally, what can we expect for the book after I Know Who Did It?

Another standalone. But it’s very early days in terms of writing it, so I don’t want to say too much about the storyline at this point – not least because it will probably change!

But in the meantime, thanks a lot for having me here, and for asking such interesting questions. Cheers!

 

And now for the book. My review of I Know Who Did It is here.

 


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Vicky Newham © 2015


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Before It’s Too Late by Jane Isaac – a review

Having recently finished and enjoyed The Truth Will Out, I have been looking forward to reading Isaac’s new novel, Before It’s Too Late, a police procedural set in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Following an argument with her British boyfriend, Tom, Chinese student Min Li storms out of the pub in a temper and never makes it home. Somewhere along her route, she is abducted and held captive in a dark pit. With only basic provisions, Min Li is at the mercy of her captor.

Part of what makes the book interesting but also harrowing is that the reader gets a first person account from Min Li of her experience in the pit. As she struggles to stay alive, she reflects on her life. Her thoughts turn to her parents and how her boyfriend might be feeling, and she tries to fend off the dawning realisation that she may die. Isaac handles these sections extremely well and it is hard for the reader not to root for Min Li. When a book plot focuses around a kidnap, the writer has to decide whether to have that aspect occur off the page or on. I thought the first person sections were very emotive but they did mean that I knew Min Li was still alive. That said, Isaac has a gift for pulling the reader into the story and involving him/her in what unfolds and there are plenty of surprises.

DI Will Jackman is put in charge of the investigation. With every passing hour, he knows that the chances are receding of finding Min Li alive. I really liked Jackman, and it was refreshing to encounter a detective who isn’t stereotypically alcohol-dependent and lacking in relationship skills. He has challenges of his own, and the readers sees him juggling work, home life and childcare, and trying to come to terms with the personal tragedy which is at the root of these. His character seems human and real and I felt sympathetic towards him as a result. In addition, he comes across as dedicated and capable, and determined to locate the student and find out what the kidnap is motivated by.

In additions to chapters from the viewpoint of Min Li and Jackman, the author also includes ones from the perspective of the captor, and these are simultaneously fascinating and chilling. I found the story extremely interesting, and, as with Isaac’s previous novel, it has a dark plot which taps into contemporary issues in society and possibly real life events. Having recently listened to a few episodes of Serial, Before It’s Too Late reminded me slightly of the real life disappearance of Hae Min Lee in Baltimore, USA in 1999. This isn’t a criticism at all and it may be a coincidence, and in any event, I enjoy stories which use a real event as a starting point for something fictionalised. I know a little about Chinese culture from teaching psychology, and it was thought provoking to consider the ways in which the family dynamics affect how Min Lee’s parents in China respond to her disappearance. Their reaction is tradition-bound, and highlights significant cultural differences in family systems, norms and attitudes between western and non-western societies.

Overall, Before It’s Too Late is a compelling read, with a great plot and a rounded, likeable male detective. I look forward to finding out what is next for Jackman.

My copy was obtained from NetGalley.

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Vicky Newham © 2015


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The Trap – flash fiction

I’m turning into my mother.

It hits me as I lean over the bath and sprinkle talc between damp toes. A shiver of dread accompanies the realisation.

‘I’m going upstairs to wash my feet,’ she’d say, and then would return ten minutes later, lipstick refreshed, hair smoothed into place, and a dab of Penhaligon’s Bluebell behind the ears.

I know each step of the routine. Lolled on the rug in her dressing room dozens of times, pretending not to watch while all the time taking in each intricate gesture and the order in which they’re performed. The side to side lip movement to distribute colour. Not too vigorous, just enough. Then blot.

And here I am, carrying out the same rituals, in the same order, to collect my thoughts and recalibrate before day slides into evening.

You’ll be home soon, crackling with excitement about your trip, people met, sights seen. And you’ll inquire kindly, ‘How was your week?’

And I’ll wither inside and squeeze out, ‘Fine, thanks,’ when what I really want to say is, ‘I’ve turned into my bloody mother.’

As she looks back at me from the oval mirror, the one that always sat on her dressing table, heaviness pulls like emotional gravity.

And I scruff up my hair and wipe my mouth clean. Pull on jeans and flip-flops.

I am not my mother. I am me.

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Vicky Newham © 2015


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UNTOUCHABLE by Ava Marsh – a review

“If you start feeling anything for a client – and it does happen – count the money.”

Amongst crowded book shelves, a novel with an unusual setting or protagonist stands out. Untouchable appealed to me as it has both. It is the story of Stella who works as a popular and successful escort. She isn’t a stereotypical junkie hooker with a pimp. She is educated, well read and intelligent, has chosen this profession for her own reasons and clearly enjoys many aspects of it. She contemplates the ethics of her tax return, charges mega-bucks an hour, and when she needs a reality check she counts the cash. The reader quickly learns that Stella’s real name is Grace, and that something happened to Grace a few years earlier from which she hasn’t recovered. She exists. From one day to the next. Then, when one of her escort friends, Elisa, is found dead, and the death gets hushed up, Grace decides that she has to find out what happened. The book switches between the two mysteries: what has happened to Grace and how did Elisa die?

I love the title of this book with its multiple interpretations and conflicting connotations of power and shame. Is one to be sought, worshipped, and the other recoiled at? I thought that Grace was a brilliant protagonist: empathic and human, determined and caring, but also damaged and self-destructive. I really wanted to know what had happened to her and to understand how it might have resulted in her becoming an escort. The whole way through I was asking myself what I wanted for her, and what I thought she wanted and needed. I could see how her psychological state made her prepared to take huge risks and I feared for her. It was as if she felt that she had nothing left to lose and, at times, nothing to live for. I enjoy plots in which a character’s ‘situation’ compromises them when they discover dubious goings on, as this sort of set-up enables an exploration of the murky waters of agency, choice, responsibility and morality. No-one’s going to believe a hooker, right? The intrigue surrounding Elisa’s death is altogether credible and interesting. This, and the window-on-the-escort-world, provide an element of social realism to Untouchable. In general, the characterisation in the novel is superb. Marsh cleverly shows all her characters as multi-dimensional and no-one is monolithically ‘good’ or ‘bad’. I didn’t once get confused between the girls or their customers and with quite a big ‘cast’, this is a risk. Each person has a private and a professional persona. It made me think about Winnicott’s work in psychoanalysis on multiple ‘selves’. Which is, who is, our ‘real self’ and who is the ‘false self’? Is one necessarily ‘nicer’ than the other? Or are we all a mixture of good and bad, of our real and false selves?

In the first half of the book there is a lot of sex. Given Stella’s job I expected this. I felt that Marsh handled these sections extremely skilfully (and I’m not a fan of sex in books): sometimes she glossed over the sex and when it was an important part of the plot or character development, she showed us what was going on. I really hope that readers aren’t put off by the sex because the story strikes me as a universal one: someone makes a terrible mistake which has awful consequences, and finds it hard to come to terms with it all.

While I was reading the book, I found myself wondering if it bothered me that I didn’t know who the author was, that I couldn’t see what she (or he) looks like. Do I need to like an author to like their work? Do I need to know whether I think they are like me? Realistically, even if we see a photograph of an author on a book jacket, or we see them at a festival on a panel, we rarely ‘know’ much about that person. It’s all a mixture of what they want us to see and our own projections and fantasies. I think it takes courage to write a book set in the sex industry as you run the risk of having your book labelled erotica. And people are bound to be curious. To take all these risks? To me, that suggests that this story is one which is extremely important to Ava Marsh. And surely that’s one of the best reasons to write a novel? (I have christened her sub-genre #ViceNoir)

The storytelling is well paced throughout the novel, and the two plot strands complement each other. I raced through the book to find out how it ended. And then read it again for review. There are a number of types of crime in the book. I won’t spoil the plot by naming them, but these add to the story layers and epitomise how complex life often is. If we forget legal definitions, what is a crime? And do crime novels need to include death? If so, does it have to be murder?

In sum, if you’re looking for something a bit ‘different’, I highly recommend Untouchable.

My copy was purchased through Amazon and read on kindle.

My blog tour Q & A with Ava’s main character, Grace is here: https://vickynewhamwriter.com/2015/08/12/conversation-with-grace-from-ava-marshs-untouchable-blog-tour/

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Vicky Newham © 2015


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When does an idea become a story or a novel?

Have you ever had an idea for a story, optimistically hoped it might make a novel and then found to your dismay that it petered out? Have you tried to squeeze it, invent sub-plots, import compelling characters – only to find that it just doesn’t have any more life left in it? Conversely, have you ever started writing about a teensy idea and then found that it has mushroomed into a novel length plot? Ideas are funny like that, aren’t they? Unpredictable and unreliable.

I’ve been thinking recently about what we choose to write about and why, when we decide that a particular idea is viable as a long term project and what we do if we have a number of competing ideas.

What about you? Say you have an idea. You want to write about: a place where people are kept underground; a woman who gets the job of her dreams but turns it down and walks el camino de Santiago instead; a group of people who don’t know each other but who are all connected by a crime; a teenager whose superpower is to show others how to deal with fear. (It’s okay: they’re shit ideas. I’m just hypothesising)

Do you consider:

  • How much the idea, themes and plot interest you? After all, if you are going to write a novel, you will be spending the best part of a year with your idea.
  • How your idea and plot may fit in with the publishing landscape of the moment? Do you analyse publishing trends and try to emulate or predict what is/will be successful? It can never be a bad thing to keep an eye on the market but writing to it, seems, in my opinion, a risky endeavour. For one thing your assessment may be off, and, secondly, things change quickly.

Is it the case that some ideas will never be more than a (small?) collection of related thoughts around a theme? An image or a recollection? Or is it possible that the idea itself isn’t necessarily ‘to blame’? It’s simply that the idea itself hasn’t been given enough time and room to grow into a plot? I think that both can be true.

From what I’ve read, and heard others say, I gather that writers tend to fall into various ‘camps’ when it comes to ideas. Some say that they find it hard to get inspiration, to come up with what to write about. Others say that they have lots of ideas, often too many, and have difficulty deciding what to write about or sticking to that idea when a new one pops into their mind.

I tend to have a lot of ideas for things I want to write about. These can be things that interest me or bug me in some way. For me, writing – whether it’s fiction or non-fiction – is exploration. Of life, of my life, of people and relationships, of situations and predicaments and strange phenomena. Generally, I write down my ideas but I also forget a lot of them as they pop up at inconvenient times, for example: in the middle of the night; when I’m out with the dog; driving or in the shower. Some ideas return to me and then I know that I’m onto something. But many arise and fall away. And that’s fine.

Sometimes I find a plot forms itself around an initial idea, sometimes I have to flesh it out. I am usually itching to get writing and when this happens I write my way into the story to find out what that story is and where best to start it. This may involve simply letting the characters emerge and act and speak. If I am considering writing a novel, however, I like to map it out in my mind first and then on paper to see whether it has potential. Particularly with crime novels, I like to know that I can explain the crime(s) convincingly. Often, at this point, I can see that it’s just an idea, something which I can use for a piece of flash fiction or a short story, or maybe develop at a later date for a longer project.

Recently I’ve had to decide what I want to focus on. I needed a break from the novel I started for my dissertation. It was such an intense period of writing, re-writing, reading and more re-writing. Then NaNoWriMo came round and I was torn between using it to finish the first draft of that novel and using it to write something completely new. I had an idea for a ‘something new’ and finally plumped to write that for NaNo – and adored writing it. However, I had loved writing my dissertation novel too. When NaNo was over I finished the first draft of that novel and then faced a dilemma. Should I re-write the NaNo novel or return to the first draft of my dissertation novel?

People advised me to choose the one that touched me the most. Good advice but the difficulty was that I really like both novels. Each comes from the heart but in completely different ways. They are also different in genre. One is crime fiction, a police procedural, and one is a science fiction crime hybrid. I think that they both have potential. Neither has run out of steam (yet!). In the end I decided to go with the novel that I started for my dissertation. I know exactly why I wanted to write it. I feel as passionately about its themes as when I started writing it. Have I thought about where it might fit in the market? Of course. But my main motivation for writing it is to explore, through story, phenomena which are important to me and which I think matter in the world.

I’m not really into waiting for the muse. It’s not how I see writing. My ideas come from ‘out there’, ‘in here’ or a combination of the two. It’s simple. There are so many things in life which intrigue me and arouse my curiosity. Of course that doesn’t mean that they should all make it into a book … and they won’t.

How do you choose which ideas to run with? What do you do if you have competing ideas which you like equally? Have you ever started something and had to abandon it? Or found that something has grown beyond your expectations?

Vicky Newham © 2014


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MA thoughts and thank yous

Having now got #NaNoWriMo out of the way, I wanted to say a few things about my course and to thank the people who have helped me to complete it.

Like many of my peers, I’ve been writing for years but only decided that I wanted to write a novel about five years ago. Applying for, and starting, my MA Creative Writing at Kingston University in 2012 marked a formal commitment to that decision. I wanted to do the course because I was aware that teaching myself to write had limitations and I also wanted to get some feedback on my work.

How do you switch this thing on then?

How do you switch this thing on?

The tutors on my four modules were Paul Perry, Adam Baron, James Miller and Jonathan Barnes. I feel privileged to have studied with all of them as they are very talented writers and extremely nice people. I learnt different things from each of them (beyond the fact the modules were different, I mean). I don’t want to get into the debate about whether creative writing courses have any value, or whether it’s possible to teach a person to write and be creative, other than to say that as a teacher and a student I believe that it is possible to teach and show someone how to do/be both. The question is, though, how this is done and I have plenty of thoughts and ideas about that too.

I do feel that I’ve learnt a lot from doing the course and I think that it’s helped to improve my writing and inform me as a writer. I now need to build on what I’ve learnt and apply it to complete a novel that I am happy with and excited about, and which I can then send out into the world of agents and publishers. I still haven’t decided what to do about my first novel: I really like a lot about it but I am not sure it’s the novel I want to send out as my ‘calling card’, and hence I haven’t done so. I will definitely finish the novel I started for my dissertation, a police procedural set in East London which begins with a murdered Head Teacher. I will definitely finish my #NaNoWriMo novel, a sci-fi/crime novel which could also be described as a YA dystopian novel (thanks for that suggestion, Dave Sivers), details of which you can find here: http://nanowrimo.org/participants/vicky-newham/novels/the-exchange-633635. If I am a bit vague about its genre classification, I am not vague about the plot: it’s all plotted and I love it. Not surprisingly, they are both very psychological.

I am thrilled to have got a distinction on my MA overall and firsts on both my dissertation pieces … and I feel that I owe a lot to the many people who helped me in small and large ways.

I really enjoyed working with Juliet Mushens as my dissertation supervisor and feel that I learnt a huge amount from her. I completely trusted her judgement on my work and her feedback style enabled me to take on board what she said without feeling at all defensive. Having shown Juliet a very early draft of what I wanted to write (Why oh why did I do that? I cringed the whole way home!), I was worried that she would think I was an awful writer. However, I was determined that I wanted to use the opportunity to learn as much as I could and that meant I made myself take the risk of being honest with Juliet about what I think my strengths and weaknesses are as a writer. And then I made sure that I worked my butt off to improve my work each time I submitted it to her. We also had to figure out what to cover when and how – in just 5 hour long sessions – but it worked really well and we even had time to laugh and talk about dogs. Can you believe it?! Dogs. As if.

Lexi thought the early drafts of my work were rubbish too!

Lexi thought the early drafts of my work were rubbish too!

Thank you to Stav Sherez, for generously chatting to me about his books and about writing, and for being encouraging about my dissertation novel and writing aspirations. Thanks also to Sophie Hannah, Sarah Hilary, Eva Dolan and Anya Lipska, for chatting to me about their books and/or answering my questions for my dissertation essay. Sophie, it was your books, and those of Kate Atkinson, which made me want to write crime fiction.

Siobhan Campbell was kind enough to give me some feedback on my academic essay for James Miller’s Ten Critical Challenges module and my experimental creative piece just seemed to work from the off (which is what I’ve been developing for #NaNoWriMo).

I love writing more than anything (well, perhaps not the lil brown puppy) and I am determined to continue to experiment with mine, and to see where that takes me. Oh. And to read, read, read.

Anyone got any book recommendations, then?!

Lexi particularly enjoyed Erin's prose in the Broadchurch novel.

Lexi particularly enjoyed Erin’s prose in the Broadchurch novel.

Vicky Newham © 2014


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Why I’m doing #NaNoWriMo

It’s the first of November tomorrow and all around the world writers will be starting #NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, that is, rising to the challenge of writing 50,000 words of a new project in the thirty days of the month. For the first time this year I will be joining them. I have toyed with the idea before but the timing has never been right. So, why, this year have I decided to do it?

Having just finished an MA Creative Writing, and spent months bashing away at the assignments for my last two taught modules and days and nights re-writing the creative piece and essay for my dissertation, writing did not feel like fun. Each time I chivvied myself out of bed at Ridiculous O’clock (even the puppy looked shocked) or upstairs to my study after supper instead of watching telly or seeing friends, to re-write yet another section of my work, or to re-read it through yet another time, the Arrrghs! surfaced. I’d also had to study things which, had I been given the choice, I would not have. Were they all good for my writing? Who knows, I hope so. My bêtes noires were literary theory and poetry. Yes, I did spend weeks reading poetry, and weeks writing one tiddly sonnet, villanelle and sestina, and I found them extremely hard. Having to do it bugged the hell out of me, but Sssh! Don’t tell anyone, I actually really like poetry and enjoyed it in a sort of sado-masochistic way, a bit like having to eat spinach all day every day for several weeks (and I like spinach). However, doing it for assessment made it more stressful and took away some of the pleasure.

When I finished my dissertation work I decided that I wanted a few weeks off writing and that I would do #NaNoWriMo for fun. I really enjoy writing the first draft of any story. It is the stage where your imagination can fly free. You get drunk on your story and feel completely obsessed and possessed. Well, I do. When I wrote my first novel I did it via 1,000 words a day, and found that when the scenes were in my head, this was perfectly achievable. Writing a first draft quickly works for me. I get the story out of the murk of my head and onto paper. I can see whether it works or not and what needs doing to make it into a novel.

The dilemma for me has been about what to write. Initially I wanted to use #NaNoWriMo to finish the first draft of the novel I started for my dissertation. I really like this novel and hope that it will make it into print one day. But having re-written it so intensively for my dissertation, I don’t yet feel ready to go back to it. So what I’ve chosen to write comes from an experimental piece I wrote for my course. Having just come back from Harrogate crime writing festival at the time, I wrote a science fiction piece, set in 2030, with crimes in it. I absolutely adored writing it and my tutor was very enthusiastic about it, and said I should turn it into a novel. Initially I just thought, Aw, that’s nice. But the more I thought about the story, the more it captured my imagination. Creating an alternative reality was a lot of fun and extremely liberating after the realism and authenticity required by a police procedural. So, I’ve started the story in a completely different place, and, ta da, am going to attempt to turn it into a novel. If you want to see what the plot is about, this is me on the #NaNoWriMo site: http://nanowrimo.org/participants/vicky-newham/novels/the-exchange-633635 Do add me as a writing buddy.

Writing a novel is, as anyone who has tried it knows, extremely hard. It takes a lot of time and hard work to get the thing right, and good enough to be published. I firmly believe that as much of the process needs to be as enjoyable as possible so that the annoying bits don’t eclipse the whole thing. I know that I’m going to have great fun writing my sci fi crime story. I have the beginning and end mapped out and various chapters and scenes in between. Other than that, I am happy to see where my imagination takes me.

Something else which I think is fabulous about #NaNoWriMo is the ‘community’ aspect: the comraderie and mutual interest and support. Writing is a lonely business. It’s delightful to talk to other writers about their projects and experiences of doing #NaNo. We had a pre-start meet up in Whitstable last Friday, and there was a young girl there who has done it every year since she was fifteen. And met her target. I already know quite a few people from the Kent area who are #NaNo-ing but am looking forward to meeting up with some others.

Something that has made me sad is that people feel the need to sneer at #NaNoWriMo. Some of the sneerers don’t seem to actually know what it involves but some are published authors who seem to feel that the initiative devalues writing, or their writing. Whilst I think that everyone is entitled to their opinion, I also like to try and understand opinions I don’t agree with. The name “National Novel Writing Month” is slightly unhelpful. It does imply that it’s possible to write a novel in a month. But it isn’t a novel. It’s 50,000 words of a first draft of something, written quickly. If people think those raw words are then ready to be uploaded onto Amazon or sent out to agents, of course they’re not. But are people really that naïve? If they are, please direct the comments at those people and not #NaNoWriMo as a whole. However, I have noticed some slightly unkind sneering at aspiring authors in some quarters of publishing, about how deluded some are about how ‘easy’ it is to get published. Really? I don’t know anyone who thinks that. Anyway, back to #NaNoWriMo …. from what I can see, it gets people writing. That’s got to be good, surely? What I am curious about though is why #NaNoWriMo bothers people so much? Are they a teensy weensy bit jealous that people can write 50k words in 30days? Do they write ‘perfect’ first drafts over a long period and object to people who bash out rough ones quickly? Is it writing snobbery? Who knows. Stop sneering, people. You write your book how you want to and let others do the same. Yar? What I think is wonderful is that authors whose novels I read and love are doing #NaNo. Fandabbydozy.

It just remains for me to wish everyone luck. I hope to meet as many of you as possible. See you on The Other Side.

Love Vicky xxx