Vicky Newham


Reflections on Crimefest 2015

New and old author crushes and a welcome shift in attitude.


In the small hours of Thursday morning I wondered if I would get to Crimefest. With a poorly dog and neighbour noise, I had got half an hour of sleep just before the alarm went off at 6 a.m. But I grabbed another two hours’ kip, and then zipped down the M4 in the rain, spray and mist in four hours. And ta da! I was beamed up into a glorious bubble of crime fiction for three days.


As I approached the Bristol Marriott Royal on Thursday afternoon, I had that lovely feeling you get when you return to a place where you’ve had wonderful experiences in the past. Crimefest 2013 was my first crime fiction event. I went straight into the Nordic Noir panel this year. This was the first time I had seen Craig Robertson (who is hilarious). The banter between Craig and Quentin Bates, the moderator, was delightful. My first author crush was Kati Hiekkapelto, whose book, The Hummingbird, sounds A-M-AAA-ZING, and I dashed off to buy her book as soon as the panel finished.


The panel on Sub-genres was fascinating, with each author explaining why they chose their specific sub-genre. Simon Toyne, who has to be one of the best dressed men in crime fiction, was on this one. I have seen him before and he is always extremely funny. The panelists all mentioned that they had set themselves deadlines when they started writing, to get a book finished or published. Emma Kavanagh’s background as a psychologist interests me and I love the way she describes her route to publication.

On Friday I nipped along to the Debut Author panel at 9 a.m. These are my favourite slots at writing events as I find it so interesting to hear about the authors’ backgrounds, book plots and writing journeys. Nursing my Kati crush, I acquired another one on Ragnar Jonassen, and immediately bought Snowblind – but was too embarrassed to get it signed so I got Kati to sign hers instead, while I burbled away like an idiot about how I was also a teacher and was interested in …. (cringe, shuddup Vicky).

The rest of Friday involved the Crime Writing Day as part of the Flashbang competition shortlist. The first session was with the hugely inspiring Joanna Penn. I’ve met Jo before and her energy and enthusiasm are infectious. She honestly makes you feel that you can achieve whatever you want.


What I took from this session more than anything was that your definition of success should determine the choices you make regarding the books you write and how you publish them. I agree with this 100%. After this we had a lively session with two agents and two editors. Something I noticed over the three day event is that what I want for my writing hasn’t changed since 2011, which is when I decided to write crime novels ‘seriously’. There are various options which I am considering but my goal is still to write books which interest me and which others will enjoy. And I still would like agent representation and a traditional publishing deal.

I was sad to miss both of Stav Sherez’s panels on Friday, and the one on Private Investigators. And the one on Writing the Other. But the Crime Writing Day was brilliant and at the end of it Zoe Sharp and Sarah Hilary announced the winners of the Flashbang competition. I’d had two pieces longlisted and one shortlisted, and so I was simply thrilled to have been included. ‘Mercy’ won third prize which made me very happy as the piece was inspired by memories of my lovely father, who, sadly, suffered a great deal before he died. Unfortunately everyone probably now thinks that I murdered him. I didn’t, Officer, honestly.


During the weekend I realised how many people I’ve got to know in the crime fiction world. Some I’d met before, and some I hadn’t but know from social media. It wasn’t a surprise for me to know that what I want for my own writing hasn’t changed but it was reassuring to have it confirmed. I did, however, realise how much more confident I feel in what I want to do and how I am trying to do it. 2014 was a weird year for me. It was challenging on a personal and financial level, and completing my MA was wonderful but learning to write poetry, drama and short stories meant that I had to set aside my novel in order to concentrate. Starting a new novel for my dissertation was the icing on the cake for me, as this was – and is – the novel I’ve wanted to write since I started teaching in East London. And this is the novel I want to complete and get out to agents and editors. I mention this because I am aware of vague feelings on occasions that I got left behind in 2014. But I didn’t. I was just doing Other Stuff. I still can’t write a sestina for toffee, though!

I was aware of another shift at Crimefest this year. I took a quarter of the notes I did in 2013 and 2014. This does mean that I will forget a lot of what was said but it made things more enjoyable and relaxing. It is easy to think that authors on the panels have the key to successful publishing, that they know something I don’t, and that I have to go to every single panel and learn as much as I can. And part of me does want to do that. But, as mentioned above, I am also aware of feeling much more confident now. I have completed a novel. I can do it again with this current one … and I will. But I have to take it a scene at a time, a day at a time, rein in my impatience and excitement, and get to the end. I’ve learnt a load of stuff over the last few years, from books and from my course. Now I just want to get my bum on the seat and apply it. I know that I draft fast but it’s the rewriting which is essential for me, and this takes me aaaaaages. But I have my ruthless editor and writing companion, and she does the necessary when something is rubbish.

Saturday’s panels included the Debut Authors, then Entertainment or Message, then Brains or Brawn with Zoe Sharp and some chap called Lee Child. Clutching my LC author crush, I secured a front row seat – result! – and this was a terrific panel. I’ve seen Lee at events before and he is always generous, interesting and good value. Tom Harper is new to me, and Yrsa and Chris Ewan are writers I admire.

Sadly, there were a few people I wanted to say ‘hello’ to over the weekend but either didn’t see or it wasn’t the right time. I still find going up to people excruciatingly embarrassing and no-one ever believes me when I say that I am a) extremely shy and b) a classic introvert. To make matters worse, given that my contact lenses gave me a headache, I took them out and then couldn’t see more than fuzzy outlines and had to ‘peer’ at people, aware that I resembled my mother when she was choosing cheese in Waitrose. Attractive! Note to self: get bloody glasses sorted, woman.

Highlights of Crimefest 2015 for me were: people’s lovely comments about my flash fiction pieces; having a chat with Stav about writing; meeting Charlotte and Debs and rummaging through their book purchases; feeling much more confident about my own writing; catching up with Janet O’Kane, Dave Sivers and Alison Gray; and discovering new authors and books. Oh and the sofa outside the ladies loo at the Marriott which I intend to steal next year.


Thank you to everyone involved. See you next year. And don’t forget: your definition of success should determine the choices you make – JFP.


Vicky Newham © 2015


Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum – review

Hausfrau tells the story of housewife, Anna Benz, who lives outside Zurich with her husband, Bruno, and their three children. Anna, who is American, is unable to drive and cannot speak either German or Swiss German.

I finished the book last week and immediately wanted to re-read it (I did). There were a number of things which appealed to me about it. I loved the Swiss setting and, as I have known people who have lived the ex-pat life in Basel for many years, it was easy for me to substitute the references. One of my friends who lived there also didn’t drive or learn the language and I remember the issues that this raised.

Anna is a strange woman. When the novel opens she is clearly unhappy with her life and, perhaps more importantly, with herself. This leads her into affairs with various men, most of which she embarks on impulsively and extremely quickly. One of these has taken place before the novel opens. It is clear that this was a significant relationship for Anna, the loss of which she has not got over. Anna sees a Jungian psycho-analyst weekly, and the reader is privy to some of the questions and observations of both Anna and her analyst. In addition, she has finally enrolled for German lessons. There are repeated sections which explore the relationship between language (specifically grammar and vocabulary) and concepts. Having studied French and German at university I found these explorations fascinating. Other sections meditated on how language and thought might be inter-connected. I was interested in these also as this is something which Psychology considers. In addition a number of philosophical questions are raised, and many psychological ones. I found all of these utterly transporting.

I think that Hausfrau is an extremely brave book. Essbaum has taken a number of risks and has, it would seem, stuck to her guns and written the book she wanted in the way she wanted. Anna is not particularly endearing. She is self-destructive, self-regarding and deceitful. Whether these traits have arisen as a result of her unhappiness, or whether it’s how she is, is interesting to consider. It is indisputable that Anna’s actions and behaviour hurt others – in the way that many people who are unhappy, sadly, are unable to stop themselves from hurting others. But I didn’t find her irritating, and I didn’t see her as ‘a bored housewife’. I felt extremely sympathetic towards her. She came across as someone who was lost, who did want things but was split off from many of her own feelings, desires and motivations, perhaps as a result of depression, to the extent that she didn’t really know what she wanted. Her day-to-day existence seems to be one of anxiety and suffering and dissociation. To this extent I see her as immobilised by many of her feelings rather than globally passive. Anna has been compared to other characters in literature who have greater passion than her, and less passivity. I think this is a bit unfair: Essbaum wasn’t writing those stories. She was writing a different one.

Some of the sections with detail on Zurich and Dietlikon (where Anna lives), language, and Anna’s psycho-analysis may not appeal to everyone. For me there was a bit too much geographical and ‘tourist’ information but it’s clear from what the author has said about the book that this information is important to her. Everything else I found completely delicious. Some of it didn’t add to the plot or characterisation but I didn’t mind at all as I simply found it interesting. Much of Essbaum’s writing is lovely. There are phrases, images, metaphors which made me hold my breath. There is quite a bit of jumping around in the narrative and timeline, and between various parts of the story. Sometimes this jars in books, and pulls the reader out of the story, but I didn’t find this with Hausfrau.

It isn’t a plot driven novel, nor particularly character driven in my opinion. It is Anna’s story and I would describe it as a theme driven book. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a plot. There is. But it is quite leisurely and takes a back seat to themes. The events which unfold felt inevitable in their nature. Anna is hurtling out of control, taking risks and not attending fully to areas of her life. As I was reading I sensed that something bad was going to happen. What I loved about Hausfrau was that it made me think about how much control we have over our lives, how easy it is for a person to change learned behaviours and responses, where responsibility and accountability lie, what unhappiness is … and a whole lot more. I was also aware of thinking that there were a number of directions the plot could go in and would have been happy with several of these. The above may sound quite analytical and neutral. All I can say is that Hausfrau is an extraordinary book. It kept me spellbound for several days. It left me completely breathless and unable to move.

Vicky Newham © 2015

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The lovely blog award

Many thanks to fellow crime writer, Alison Gray, for nominating me for the Lovely Blog award.

The rules of a Lovely Blog post are to write seven facts about yourself and then link to up to fifteen of your favourite blogs, inviting them to do the same.

I have tried to think of things which you may not know about me.

Fact 1: my love of the sea

I grew up on the south coast of England in a village a few miles north of Chichester in West Sussex. My parents, aunt and grandmother had beach huts at West Wittering, and I think my love of the sea developed from the years spent sploshing through rock pools and swimming in the sea. When I was four, we were on holiday in Denmark and one morning I decided I wanted to swim. There and then. So, I put on my costume, with floats in the abdominal section, and took myself into the water. My dad found me swimming among stinging jelly fish. I had no idea what they were.

Fact 2: my name – nouveau jambon

When I was teaching in Tower Hamlets I lived in the neighbouring borough of Newham. It was always funny phoning the council and giving my name, and I had to keep producing evidence of my identity as the people on the phone couldn’t believe the coincidence. My mum always hated the name ‘Newham’, not sure why. To be fair, people often mispronounce it ‘New Man’ or ‘New Ham’ or ‘Newnham’.

Fact 3: my teenage crush

My most enduring crush is the utterly divine (in my opinion) Bryan Ferry. I have adored him since I was thirteen. I was once in a pub that he was in (I used to ride in Petworth near where he lives). We had ridden there for lunch. I didn’t know he was there until later, and smiled for about three days afterwards, saying that I had shared the same oxygen as Bryan Ferry. Bless. I still swoon, I’m afraid, when I see him on the telly box.

Fact 4: ‘Isobel? This way, please.’

Vicky (Victoria) is my second name. Isobel is my first. I’m guessing this must have been fashionable at the time my brother and I were born as our parents called us both by our second names. When the doctor/dentist/official person/whoever comes out and calls me by the name ‘Isobel’, I don’t recognise myself. And I never answer to ‘Victoria’. I like both names. Just not for me.

Fact 5: I used to work in damp-proofing

After completing my language degree, I was impatient to get earning and didn’t want to do any post-graduate study. I went into business with my boyfriend at the time, in … damp proofing! As I didn’t want to be seen as the office girl, who would be bypassed to speak to the man of the business, I did all the technical training courses. This work involved: taking up floor boards and crawling in sub-floor spaces to check joists; inspecting lofts for timber decay and infestation; installing chemical damp courses and learning how to plaster walls. I really enjoyed it and learnt a huge amount. I think I may still have woodworm in my hair. If you need a bit of silicone injection, you know where to come.

Fact 6: When I grow up I want to be a writer

I have wanted to be a writer since I was ten. As a child, I wrote stories in my bedroom for entertainment, to let my imagination run free and to make sense of the world around me. I have always said that writing makes me happier than anything. When I am writing I often completely lose all sense of time and forget to eat for the whole day. When I can’t sleep, I often get up and write. In my twenties and thirties, I wrote stories and articles but never did anything with any of them. It was when I read Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories and Sophie Hannah’s Little Face, I thought, I have to write the novels in my head.

Fact 7: I have rehomed two Lucys

When I rehomed Lexi (my crazy cockerpoo) she was called Lucy. My old cat, Loulou, also rehomed, was also called Lucy by her first owners. Coincidence, huh? Loulou was as hilarious, spirited and full of character as Lexi, and she had her own blog:

To finish this post, I’m passing the lovely blog award on to the six following blogs. I appreciate all of them for different reasons, and admire their interesting and useful content.

Please know that there is no ‘must’ about joining in, but if you do please: link back to me; share your seven facts; and nominate (up to) 15 others.

Rebecca Bradley

Isabel Costello

Janice Hardy

Liz Barnsley

Belinda Pollard

Pam McIlroy



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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BBC Crime drama, The Fall series 2 – a few thoughts



Having just watched episode 4 of the second series, I have to confess to having got a bit frustrated with the plot and how the investigation aspect of the drama is proceeding. I have also been wondering how series 2 is going to end. For my MA I wrote a feminist critique of series 1 and this meant reading as much as I could of what’s been written and said about it. There were a number of things which concerned me about the first series, and some of these things have continued into series 2. I also wonder how the plot development and eventual resolution are linked with (if at all) the decision to end series 1 when and how scriptwriter, Allan Cubitt, (or the producers?) did so that the second series could be made.

It is easy to criticise a drama for not getting things right. Having pored over Cubitt’s quotes a while back, I came to the conclusion that he has thought carefully about how to portray the themes and characters he had in mind, that he did care about how he did it and how the drama is perceived, and that he knows his craft and market. Having written some of the Prime Suspect scripts, this is evident: DCI Jane Tennison changed the landscape for female detectives.

I have read articles which make me wonder whether or not we will actually find out in series 2 why serial killer Paul Spector is behaving in the way he is. In the Radio Times piece, Cubitt’s comment about this was to say that “[…] we never know why people do the things they do. And […] you don’t know why you do the things you do, either.”[1] I don’t agree with either of these statements and am a bit concerned that they are setting up an ending in which character motivations aren’t explained. About this, Cubitt says, “You’ll have to wait and see whether you feel cheated or not.”[2] The other question is whether or not Spector will be caught at the end of this series. I guess this depends on whether there is going to be a third series. Personally, I can’t see how the producers can drag out the plot into a third series but if the viewing figures have been good, who knows?

Regarding the explanation for Spector’s behaviour, I hope that this is not going to turn out to be too clichéd. There have been mumblings in series 1 and 2 about children’s homes and in episode 4 Spector mentions that his mother committed suicide when he was a child. Whilst – from psychoanalytic and developmental psychological points of view, at least – most psychopathology originates in early experiences, it is sometimes covered in fiction in a clichéd or stereotyped way.

The issue of whether we learn in series 2 why Spector kills seems to annoy Gillian Anderson too, who in the Radio Times piece asks “But why do we need to know so much about somebody? The simplicity and sparseness [of the script] is what is pulling us forward and is so intriguing, but it’s almost as though we can’t take it at face value. But the reason why it’s as good as it is is because you don’t have all that stuff slapped on all the time.”[3] Oh. Okay. (Except it’s not)

I am also interested in how Cubitt’s motivations and interests inform his script-writing. He has said publicly that his aim in writing The Fall “… was to explore […] violence against the female body”[4], and said that he “find(s) serial killers fascinating”[5]. What I would like to know is what does he mean by ‘explore’ and what aspect of serial killers fascinates him? The answers to these questions are linked to whether the drama wants to understand violence against women or something else entirely.

I still have issues with Spector being portrayed as such an attractive serial killer and why we need to see so much of his abdomen. We know from forensic psychology and criminology that psychopaths can be charming. But I wonder if Spector the Gorgeous Killer isn’t a bit of a fantasy? To my knowledge, few male serial killers (and most are male) are as professionally high functioning as Spector’s character (Harold Shipman is one exception) and cluster analyses of traits show that many are found to have problems with personal relationships (whereas Paul’s character is married with two children and is someone who children seem to trust).

As with series 1, I have found Stella Gibson’s wardrobe distracting. Gillian Anderson is on record saying that she felt that her character would wear glamorous clothes but yet it seems to irritate her that people want to ask her about the subject. “Literally every interview, I am asked about the blouses,” she says.[6] Oh dear. She’s not happy. Again. As with Sara Lund’s jumpers, viewers do comment on character wardrobe, and I am surprised that Anderson, with her considerable experience as an actor, doesn’t understand this. To be honest, I would guess that she does, but that something else is pushing her buttons. Regarding the link between attractiveness-glamour-intelligence-competence, I don’t believe that an intelligent, competent woman can’t be attractive. My problem with Stella’s wardrobe is that although she has a senior rank, she still goes to crime scenes. In one episode we had her walking over a released crime scene in four inch heels. Huh? It’s like Dr Nikki in Silent Witness. If it were me, I’d ditch the heels and pull on my jeans and boots first.

Another aspect of Gibson-as-sex-object which bugs me is why we have to see prolonged shots of her swimming. If we need to know that she can’t sleep or takes exercise, a few brief shots could cover that in my opinion. Despite what Cubitt says about learning from the way that series 1 was filmed, I don’t see too much difference. There is still too much lingering on Gibson’s (Anderson’s?) face and body and cleavage. It seems unnecessary. I have liked Gillian Anderson since the days of the X Files and thought she was/is a good actress so it isn’t a personal thing … although I am curious as to why she wants her character to be so glamorous when she’s a jobbing detective.

When the second series of The Fall was commissioned I wondered if this affected how the producers wanted series 1 to end. I don’t know how much of the script was already written. There have been no murders yet in series 2. This has reduced the sexual sadism, the glamorisation of sexual violence and eroticisation of murder and death which, personally, I am relieved about.

Plot-wise I find the investigation aspect of series 2 rather amateur and incompetent. I know it’s fiction but I was surprised that a detective of Stella’s rank – and presumably, competence? – would not realise that she had put Rose Stagg in danger? And in episode 4 of series we see the Police tailing Spector when he visits his family. I am not convinced that the Police wouldn’t pick him up. He knows they are on to him, and has been playing a game with them all along. They have sufficient evidence on some of the associated or more minor charges (than murder) to arrest him. It seems that aspects of the plot have been treading water. There have been no more murders yet, just the kidnapping of Rose – although why most of this new development is happening off-screen is unclear. Spector dragging in Katie-the-babysitter as his accomplice is an interesting twist but I have concerns that aspects of this dynamic play to rape fantasy. Furthermore, I cringed at some of his lines to her about whether she is ready to embrace the darkness, and at his musings about whether the world is a place of suffering, of greed and despair. The funniest and strangest line ever, however, was delivered by pathologist, Professor Reed Smith, that she couldn’t go to Gibson’s bedroom for post-snog activity because she came from Croydon.

In sum, though, there have been some very dramatic and scary moments, for example, when Rose turns over to find Spector in her bed, and I like the technique that both Jakob Verbruggen (director of series 1) and Cubitt employ when a scene cuts from one thing to another quickly and the second scene is not what you expect. I also think that the acting is exceptional from every single character: intense and honest. However, whether series two has suffered from the departure of Verbruggen as director, which Chris Harvey in the Telegraph seems to consider is the case[7], I don’t know: I think some content and thematic aspects have improved in series 2 but then we haven’t had any murders yet. YET.

Vicky Newham © 2014

[1] (accessed 5th Dec 2014).

[2] Same as 1.

[3] Same as 1.

[4] (accessed 5th December 2014)

[5] Same as 4.

[6] Same as 1.

[7] (accessed 5th Dec 2014).


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: 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

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Psychology, psychotherapy and psychiatry in fiction

In view of #psywrite starting tonight on Twitter, hosted by @rosieclaverton and myself, I thought I’d add to Rosie’s blogpost and outline what psychology involves and how it differs from psychotherapy and psychiatry.

Psychology is the scientific study of human thought, emotion and behaviour. I did a 4 year BSc at Birkbeck College, London. We studied research methods and statistics each year. Other modules covered memory, perception, attention, developmental psychology, family studies, psychoanalysis, cognition and emotion, abnormal psychology, language development, social psychology, brain and behaviour, parapsychology and pseudoscience, and animal learning theory. Birkbeck has a reputation for excellent research and so my degree was very science-y, which I loved. When studying abnormal psychology, for example, we learnt about psychological explanations of disorders as well as biochemical and neuro-anatomical ones. This is how it should be and is how many of the A-level specifications work too.

I realised quickly when I first started teaching GCSE and A-level psychology that many people don’t really know what the subject covers. They sign up for the course thinking that it’s about analysing dreams and people’s body language, and hope that they will learn how to read people’s minds and psycho-analyse them (which usually means figuring out whether they think the person a) likes them or b) fancies them). Oh, how many people I’ve had to disappoint over the years.

Psychology is an academic subject. It is a science. It involves learning about and evaluating explanations of thought, emotion and behaviour using theoretical frameworks, and testing them using scientific methods. Studying ‘pure’ psychology at undergraduate level does not generally involve any clinical experience. Psychotherapy involves treating mental health problems using psychological methods. This sometimes involves post-graduate training (so the therapist has a general degree in psychology) but it is also possible to train as a psychotherapist without an undergraduate psychology degree. Psychiatry, which is Rosie’s area, is a specialism of medicine and involves diagnosing and treating (psychiatric) disorders in various settings.

There is some overlap between psychology and psychiatry and also points of departure and difference. For example, I know about hypothesised causes of a range of disorders, what treatments are used and what research shows about both … but I have very little clinical experience. Psychiatry is all about the clinical side of things.

Psychology covers lots of topics which don’t relate to mental health, and many which do, including:

• how memory works and when and why it doesn’t (amnesia), including eye witness testimony
• attachment between child and caregiver, attachment failure and disruptions, and day care implications
• body’s response to stress, effect of stress on health, causes of stress, treatments
• abnormality, explanations of why people develop mental health problems, eating disorders
• group behaviour, conformity, obedience, ethical issues in research
• relationship formation, maintenance & breakdown, love, cross-cultural differences in relationships, gay, lesbian & electronic relationships
• Pro-social behaviour (eg. altruism, bystander behaviour)
• Anti-social behaviour (aggression and violence), including causes
• Biorhythms, sleep and dreaming, including sleep disorders such as narcolepsy
• Perception (receiving sensory input) and attention (processing it consciously and unconsciously)
• Cognitive development (how thinking develops) and moral development, implications for learning
• Intelligence
• How we learn (operant & classical conditioning, and social learning theory)
• How culture, gender and individual differences affect phenomena
• How the brain works, including structure, neural pathways and neurochemistry
• Personality and gender development, including gender roles and gender dysphoria
• Evolutionary psychology and its influence on human reproductive behaviour
• Addictions, depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, autism, amongst others – symptoms, causes and treatments
• Psychological treatments and biological ones including psychosurgery
• Research design and implementation, validity and reliability

The purpose of #psywrite is to provide a regular time and place where writers can ask Rosie and I questions about psychology and/or psychiatry in relation to plots and characters. For example, you might want to check the plausibility of something you’ve plotted, terminology or accuracy. Don’t worry about whether your question comes under ‘psychology’ or ‘psychiatry’, just ask away.

The first one is tonight, Tuesday 21st October at 20.00 GMT on Twitter, using the #psywrite hashtag. Hosted by @rosieclaverton and @VickyNewham