Vicky Newham


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NORMAL by Graeme Cameron – a review

I hadn’t read any reviews when I started this novel, nor did I have much of an idea of the plot but I will say straight off that I absolutely adored it. In a busy sub-genre, this serial killer novel stands out from the crowd for me in a number of ways. Firstly, the concept and writing are extremely clever. The protagonist, the serial killer, is interesting, scarily likeable (if you didn’t know about some of his predilections and cooking habits), smart and funny. We know that many serial killers and psychopaths can be charming, and Cameron’s protagonist both conforms with and departs from the stereotype in different ways. There are hints at a childhood gone wrong and at difficulties experiencing emotion, for example.

What I enjoyed most about Normal was the narrative voice. Told from the PoV of the killer, some of his observations made me scream with laughter, sometimes because of how funny they are but also out of shock at what I was reading. Some of the throwaway comments are so simultaneously clever and funny, I did a double take along the lines of, what the actual flip was that? There is quite a bit that we don’t find out about the killer but that didn’t bother me excessively. In addition to the protagonist, Normal has some brilliant characters. Erica is a superb match for her captor and I really enjoyed their exchanges. In fact, in general, I thought the dialogue was very sharp.

Parts of the book are gory. Reference is made to which body part is chopped up with what instrument and what the blood flow and residue are like. I have either become desensitised after reading so much crime fiction or the humour made me feel detached from the graphic detail. My hunch is the latter: I don’t generally like books which are too violent, nor ones where the violence seems gratuitous. Cameron’s protagonist is performing butchery for his own pleasure, and describing it both with relish and dismissively, so I should perhaps have been wincing … but I wasn’t. The humorous way – and it is black humour – in which the killings, di-sections and disposals are described simply had me laughing too much to go, eeeew. And there was no way I was putting the book down. Perhaps this requires the ability to suspend morality, as with, say, Dexter, but if you can do this the book is great fun. I wasn’t, however, rooting for the killer to get away with his crimes, as some people have mentioned. I wanted him to get his come-uppance but I was sucked into colluding with his deeds for the duration of the book for sheer entertainment value. My only criticism is that the ending didn’t really work for me, but, hey, you can’t have everything and these things are often personal.

If you want to read something a bit different, pick up Normal. It is definitely one of my favourite crime fiction books of 2015.


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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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I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh – review

I Let You Go begins with a hit-and-run, a crime which is investigated by DI Ray Stevens and his team. The novel is part police procedural and part psychological thriller, with chapters alternating between these two aspects for most of the book. This structure provides suspense and the author keeps the pace going effectively throughout. I enjoyed the investigation element as it was written convincingly, with context about pressures in the service woven deftly into the story so that the reader sees how these affect investigations. I am not keen on crime novels which are gratuitously violent, and felt that this element was handled extremely well, sometimes alluded to and sometimes shown on the page: a good balance. Certain crime tropes were evident whilst others, refreshingly, were flipped. Ray’s relationship with his wife made me curious and the situation with their son added complexity to their home life and layers to their characterisation. I was aware of holding my breath at certain turning points in their exchanges. The female protagonist, Jenna, comes across sympathetically although the reader isn’t always sure what she may have done, let alone why. The author handles the sensitive topics extremely well. I like to understand why people behave in the way they do and the author provides enough to satisfy in this respect whilst also allowing the reader to make up their own mind about motivations. I Let You Go is a polished, compelling read. I look forward to seeing what the author has in store for DI Stevens if there are more to come with him.


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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


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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


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The London Short Story Festival 2014

The window at Waterstones, Piccadily

The window at Waterstones, Piccadily

I saw this event advertised some months back and followed the promo on social media. When the programme was announced I knew that many events, especially the workshops, would sell out quickly so I booked up the sessions I wanted via the early booking facility. I could only afford to go for one day and I found it hard to decide which day but in the end I plumped for Saturday. It is the first time the festival has been run and, as a short story aficionado, I wanted to learn as much as possible but also support the event, organisers and contributors.

With such amazing events, it was hard to choose what to book.

With such amazing events, it was hard to choose what to book.

 

I headed into London and made my way from Victoria station to Waterstones Piccadily on a shiny, black No 38 Routemaster, clutching a sandwich for the bus (breakfast) and one for lunch.

Lovely boards around the store

Lovely boards around the store

Someone has very neat writing!

Someone has very neat writing!

 

My first event was a workshop with Clare Wigfall, the winner of the BBC National Short Story Award. What attracted me to Clare’s event was that she likes to use characters that aren’t based on herself and says that she rarely writes from her own experience, preferring to jump around in time and place with them. Given that I am doing this in my WIP I wanted to see what I could learn.

 

 

 

 

The workshop was on idea and character development. We chose a photograph and then invented a character around someone in the image. Mine was (I discovered at the end) set near the Israel/Palestine border, taken in 2007, with the boys looking over Bethlehem.

Clare Wigfall (left)

Clare Wigfall (left)

 

Photo from the Magnum website

Photo originally from the Magnum website

I have done this exercise before but always enjoy it. Clare mentioned how photographs and short stories have a lot in common: both are snapshots in time, and with both we don’t know what has happened before or after the frame. One piece of advice she gave was to really take time to think about your stories and characters, and not put pressure on yourself, that thinking is as much part of the process as the actual writing.

The next event was The Short Story Gatekeepers with (from left to right in the photograph below, Ruby Cowling, author, the first on the left) Di Speirs from BBC radio, Jen Hamilton Emery from Salt Publishing, Vanessa Gebbie as Chair, Claire Shanahan from Booktrust, Carrie Kania from Conville & Walsh,and Jacques Testard from the White Review. Proceedings kicked off with a reading from Ruby who has recently won the White Review Short Story prize. If ever you wanted an example of a unique voice, Ruby had it in her reading.

The various 'gatekeepers'

The various ‘gatekeepers’

Discussion started with what puts the panel off a submission. Cue discussion of spelling, syntax, grammar, clichés, and entry / submission requirements. The nugget here was that editors and agents are looking for reasons to stop reading your work so the writer has to give them reasons to read right to the end. They all mentioned how many entries always come in on the deadline day, suggesting either that we writers take huge care to get things right or are a nation of last minuters! What came across from the panel was how enthusiastic they all are about the short story. They agreed that it is helpful for writers to enter competitions and awards, that these can open doors and attract attention.

The third event was Stories from the Heart, and the panel and readers included (from left to right in the photograph below) Roshi Fernando, Mary Costello, Anita Sethi as chair, and Jacob Ross.

Authors who write stories which stay with you

Authors who write stories which stay with you

As soon as Roshi started talking about her collection, Homesick, and how all the stories are about people trying to find their identity, I knew I’d have to take a copy home with me.

Roshi Fernando, reading from Homesick.

Roshi Fernando, reading from Homesick.

Mary Costello

Mary Costello

Jacob Ross

Jacob Ross

The authors discussed their writing process, something I can listen to for hours. Some set out to achieve something specific with their writing (Jacob Ross said that he likes to challenge our moral compass) whilst Mary Costello says that she likes to let the stories emerge and gets no peace until she’s written them.

 

 

My last event was with Claire Keegan. She was talking to Paul McVeigh about her writing, doing a Q&A and a reading. For me this was the absolute highlight of the day. I hadn’t previously heard of Claire but when she started reading from her remarkable story, Foster, I found myself intermittently making sharp intakes of breath, laughing, glugging down lumps in my throat and nodding a lot. I sometimes find that readings don’t do much for me but I’m pretty sure that Claire’s blew the entire audience away. It is quite a personal thing to say [but a) it’s meant positively, and b) writing and reading one’s work is personal] but Claire’s voice, accent and intonation all gave the excerpt extraordinary life. When Paul introduced her, he said that Foster was the story that switched him back on to writing again after a long break. This was enough to arouse my curiosity. I love it when things touch us so deeply that we are propelled into action.

Claire, reading from her remarkable short story, Foster.

Claire, reading from her remarkable short story, Foster.

Some of the things that Clare said about writing made me hold my breath. I won’t include them all here. In text, they might seem ordinary but at the time they felt extraordinary and still do when I read my notes  back.  I was interested to hear that she always stays in the present with her characters and never knows what’s going to happen to them but that she gets to the point where she ‘feels an ending coming on’. She describes her writing as ‘physical prose’, saying that she likes to be her characters. She said she that all good stories are about pain and loss, or about someone wanting something. She said that desire enters the body through the eyes. Her advice when writing characters different to oneself, is to lock onto the set of desires influencing the person.

Paul McVeigh, the Festival Director, introduced all the events in the main area. The whole day he was running around, greeting people, making sure they were okay, and bringing out the best in them.

Paul, in his role as a wonderful host.

Paul, in his role as host.

This was the first London Short Story Festival and what a stonking success it was. The spacious, multi-floor Waterstones venue worked well. It is, of course, a perfect and natural combo: bookshop and writing event. I can also highly recommend the banana loaf with chocolate chips.

If this year’s festival was anything to go by, I’m looking forward to next year’s event already.

Vicky Newham © 2014


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What benefit are writing festivals?

Having come away from Crimefest this year and last inspired and excited, and the same from the Festival of Writing in York last year, I’ve been reflecting on why these events can have such an impact and what one can gain from going to them. To some extent the way in which you benefit will depend on whether you are an author, an aspiring author, a book blogger and reviewer or a reader (although many of us are a combination of these).

There will be people there just like you

This might sound daft but actually it’s true, and rather nice. If you’ve written your first novel and are wondering about your next move, there will be people in the same position. If you’re an avid reader or write a blog, the same for you. A lot of published authors go along to contribute to panels and workshops, and also to hook up with their buddies and peers.

Something which made things easier for me when I went to my first event, Crimefest 2013, was that I’d previously been chatting to people on Twitter who were going and so I wasn’t introducing myself ‘cold’ to all new people. That said, at these events people are in ‘social mode’ and, to a large extent, ‘networking mode’. I found everyone at Bristol and York to be very friendly and helpful. But why is it of benefit to meet people who are in the same boat as you? As we know, writing is a lonely business and getting to know others who are trying to achieve what you are can be supportive and instructive. As readers become bloggers and often writers, boundaries blur and everyone chats in the bar, at the tea and coffee tables, in the bookshop and even in the loo (although maybe that’s women more than men!). People tell you about events, services, and individuals who might be able to help you, and you get to chat a bit about your book or blog or favourite authors.

The panels, workshops, keynote speeches and interviews

It might be teacher-speak but I see this as the ‘curriculum proper’. These are the formal events which you can attend. Some festivals charge per event and some are all in as part of your ticket price. At others, the majority of events are included but special, super-duper sessions are extra. Generally the programme has been carefully planned by the organisers to appeal and/or meet needs. That said, people can want different things: one person might want to see author panels and interviews, and another may be more interested in workshop type sessions on writing and publishing.

What’s fabulous about Crimefest – if crime is your thang – is that everything is about the (ever-expanding) genre of crime fiction. What’s lovely about York is that you get to meet people who read, write and work in other genres too. At Crimefest this year I attended a staggering twenty panel events and wrote 42 sides of notes. Okay, I’m a bit student-y but I can honestly say that I learnt masses from every one of those sessions, things which have helped me with my own writing since I came back. An example of this is the debut author panel feature at Crimefest. To see, and hear last month from twenty people whose debut novels have just been published was fascinating but also hugely instructive. They are all walking, talking, living, breathing examples of what publishers have put their money behind 12-18 months ago.

In terms of the overall messages I take away from these events, and the feelings I’m left with, I would summarise them as: what I am experiencing is completely normal for someone who’s writing a novel; all these authors have done what I’m trying to do so I can do it too; I need to bear x, y and z in mind when I am writing my book; and, best of all: oh-my-goodness-writing-a-novel-is-hard-but-also-just-the-bestest-thing-in-the-world.

Being able to listen and talk to published authors

When you learn to play tennis, coaches often say that it’s helpful to play with someone whose game is a bit better than yours. It’s Vygotsky’s ‘Zone of Proximal Development’. I would imagine that this applies to things like chess also. I find nothing inspires me more than listening to people who’ve done what I am trying to do. It is so interesting to hear about why they decided to write what, how they did it, and what their ‘journey to publication’ was like. At most events you can ask questions. At The Festival of Writing in York they have specialist genre panels with a combination of agents, editors and authors, and these are a place to ask questions. I hadn’t realised at York that this was the procedure, and it is worth having questions to ask at these panels so that you a) get what you need and b) so that  the person who wants to ask about THEIR novel EIGHT times can only do so six times.

Don’t forget the bar

To some extent this will overlap with some of what I’ve said above. For those who aren’t into loads of drinking – I was recovering from shingles this year at Crimefest and by 7pm was monosyllabic and dribbling, and sadly not up to much drinking – this might seem daunting or just plain unappealing, but you don’t have to drink. However, I have this notion that it’s where the ‘hidden curriculum’ takes place so it’s worth popping in. It is where people let their hair down and chat about all the normal things that people chat about, including books and writing. And it’s a good place to say ‘hi’ to people: whose books you love; whose panels you’ve been to; with whom you’ve tweeted. It doesn’t mean that you can expect to spend the whole night talking to your favourite author, but, hey, you knew that, right? It’s also a great place to meet up with your own peers and chew the fat. This year at Crimefest I re-met lots of folk who I met for the first time last year.

Pitch the agent or get feedback on your MS

At both Crimefest and The Festival of Writing there are opportunities to pitch your novel to agents. I think that Crimefest has changed it now so that you pitch a panel rather than an individual (I’ve never done it there) which sounds scarily like Dragon’s Den. At York this is a big part of the weekend, with a large pool of publishing professionals to choose from, including agents, book doctors and editors. Your ticket includes two one-to-one sessions – you choose who you want and it’s worth researching this carefully and booking early – although you can pay for extra sessions. These meetings are different from submitting to an agent via the slushpile, in as much as you are being judged on a shorter piece of your novel (3k-ish rather than 10k via an agency), and on a briefer blurb/synopsis and cover letter. This does have implications, but the York one-to-ones can be a great way to ease yourself into the world of submissions and professional feedback. If you’re going to pitch an agent at one of these events, it’s worth making sure that your full MS is good to go should the agent say they’d like to see the whole thing. I pitched two agents at York last year and found it to be a really useful and enjoyable exercise on a number of levels. But these are serious feedback sessions so you do need to prepared for an honest assessment of what you’ve submitted. If this doesn’t go well, it can be demotivating and upsetting. Although it might sound a bit sado-masochistic, that, too, is probably a useful thing to get used to.

Competitions

Most festivals run competitions, and the prizes can be definitely worth having, for example, a free ticket for the following year with accommodation. They are usually on things like the best: opening sentence; first chapter; a piece of flash fiction; 500 words; short story.

Survival tips

I do have a bit of an ‘I have to go to everything’ obsession but it is worthwhile bearing in mind that these events are exhausting. Sometimes there are no proper breaks for lunch, so you’re unlikely to be eating three ‘normal’ meals. Rooms are hot and stuffy – or over air-conditioned and freezing – so you will need water, snacks and, possibly, Nurofen. Did I mention comfy shoes? Those too. Having been on a number of retreats where the day is scheduled from 6am to 10pm for days if not weeks, I’ve learnt that I can’t go to everything and still be alive by day three. Also that an afternoon nap is a truly glorious thing. I recommend going through the programme before the event starts and deciding what you really want to see, then build in breaks. Otherwise you will get home and not be able to move for a week afterwards. Hopefully it will have been worth it though!

This year, for the first time, I am going to Harrogate for the crime writing festival in July. I am interested to see what I will get from that and how it will compare to the other writing festivals I’ve been to. I have a feeling that it’s much bigger … but I will get to see JK Rowling in her Richard Galbraith persona, which I’m very much looking forward to. I will also see some of the people who didn’t go to Crimefest this year. And in a couple of weeks I will be going to the London Short Story Festival which will be a different experience altogether. Woah! And my head’s still buzzing from Bristol.

 

Vicky Newham © 2014