Vicky Newham


Leave a comment

Keeping up the #NaNoWriMo momentum

Before starting NaNoWriMo, I’d been chewing over what I wanted to get out of the challenge. As it was my first time it was a bit of an experiment. I wanted to use it to have some fun with a new project and to kick-start my writing again after Possession by Dissertation. The pragmatic part of me also wanted my chosen project to be something potentially viable, something which would sustain my interest to the point of completion. On the whole it was a good experience for me. I learnt that I can first draft a lot more than 1,000 words a day if I have my plot and scenes in my head, and that I can get a lot written in 25 minute stints, I don’t have to put off writing until I have a clear couple of hours. Let’s be honest though: this is a rough, thin first draft. It doesn’t have subtlety, texture, detail. All these things I add in as I re-write.

Now the challenge is over it would be very easy to think, ‘Ah, I’ll have a little rest now’ but I don’t want to do that. However, I don’t want the external pressure of having to write 1666 words a day either, seven days a week for the next month, and clocking in to a website. And I don’t need it: I am determined to write the other 50k and build on that NaNo momentum. Knowing that I can draft up to 5k in a day if I need to, and 2k comfortably, gives me more flexibility. What I found hard with NaNo was that I had a couple of days where I had a bug and I made myself write through a foggy brain and a blobby body. Ordinarily I would probably have let myself rest for a day or two and then done catch-up, but with NaNo I didn’t want to do this as I was worried it would affect my average daily word count.

These are my top tips for getting that first draft finished.

1. Finish the first draft right to the end

Avoid the temptation to re-write and edit the 50k you’ve written as you may never get to the end of your draft. I am going to read through my first 50k to review my plot and structure and then crack on with my plot. At the moment I know that my chapters don’t link, they just proceed in a vague chronological order but that is something I can fix when I re-write. In actual fact, I don’t have a chronological plot – it has two time-frames – and this was another reason why I wasn’t fussed about my chapters. Oh. And the fact I have about five chapter sixes. Oopsy.

2. Decide how you are going to do this

I think that half the success of NaNo lies in the fact that you are told that all (ALL?) you have to do is write 1666 words a day for 30 days and you’re there. To me this is like not having to think about whether I want to go to the gym. If my routine is planned, I trog off like an obedient girl. If I begin to think about whether I want to go, or whether I could go later, it’s fatal. My sneaky, self-sabotaging mind talks me out of it and I’m on the sofa with the puppy and a Snickers Duo bar.

So, I have decided: I want to write the remaining 50k (or the rest of that first draft, however long that turns out to be) in December and am going to aim for 2,500 words a day, five days a week. That means that I will get a bit of time off but will still meet my target. This may not work for you. You may want to write more slowly, or less over a greater number of days per week. I don’t think it matters (within reason) as long as you have a plan in mind and stick to it.

3. Do it.

Yup. No excuses.

Just do it.

Of course I could be completely misguided and it may all go badly wrong. In which case I shall go back to the drawing board and start again.

To all my fellow WriMos, good luck with whatever you decide to do. And let’s share our experiences in six months time.

Now, where’s that Snickers bar?

If you would like to see my NaNo project, it is here: http://nanowrimo.org/participants/vicky-newham/novels/the-exchange-633635

© Vicky Newham 2014


4 Comments

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


2 Comments

Waiting for the past: flash fiction

 

‘’Ere you are, love! Another coffee?’

The waitress plonks the chipped mug down on the cluttered table, slopping liquid on his paperwork. She appears oblivious, picks up the old cup and walks off. Muttering under his breath, Danny grabs a handful of wafer-thin napkins and dabs at the spreading pool of milky liquid on the plastic tablecloth.

He snatches another look at his watch, and his cheek muscles twitch. Swipes the touch screen of his phone with his index finger. Nothing. Eyes peeled on the door, he glances up each time the mini wind-chimes announce an arrival. Where is she? She’s late now. Has she been held up? Changed her mind?

He opens his novel at the book mark. The third time in an hour. Frustrated with having to keep re-reading the same sentence, he closes the book and lounges back in the plastic chair, gently rubbing the two day stubble on his chin with his fingertips. Should he have made more of an effort? A haircut perhaps?

When they spoke on the phone, she hadn’t been convinced. Wasn’t it better sometimes to let sleeping dogs lie? He’d pleaded of course and she’d relented. But that was two weeks ago. The lady at the agency had emphasised the need to have low expectations. But how could he? After all this time.

‘You’ve got to protect yourself,’ she said. ‘Don’t think that this is going to be everything you’ve always wanted. It might lead no-where. It’s been a long time for you both.’ Her sing-song-y voice had floated round the room.

How many times before had she said the same thing? And how often had the outcome been positive?

‘Sometimes people in this situation agree to meet but change their mind. Get scared and don’t turn up. But Danny was sure that she would. She’d promised.

Ding ding. Danny sees her come in. Short, dark hair, she’d said. A pink top. Age about right. She clocks him. In the corner. Panic spreads over her face like a rash. She turns back for the door. Danny’s heart sinks. He’s about to jump up and shout out. Then she changes her mind again. Approaches his table. Her eyes dart, her outstretched hand shakes. Blotches creep up her neck.

‘Danny?’

He flickers a smile and leaps up. The mug goes flying. Thirty six years he’s waited. His whole life. To fill in the gaps about who he is, and why she gave him up all those years ago. ‘Mum,’ he stammers. ‘I’m so pleased you came. I knew you would.’

————————————————————————————————————————————————————–

(I wrote this piece a couple of years ago. Found it on my old PC)(Can’t seem to get proper formatting on WordPress)

Vicky Newham © 2013


5 Comments

What have I learnt from the first year of my MA?

In September 2012 I started the first year of an MA Creative Writing at Kingston University. As the year progressed I’ve reflected on how it’s all been going, and what I’ve learnt. I’ve now completed the first year. Have I enjoyed it? Have I learnt from it? Do I regret enrolling? Here we go.

Kingston University, Penrhyn campus, where the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) is based.

Kingston University, Penrhyn campus, where the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) is based.

A part-time student covers two taught modules in the first year, and two in the second (plus a dissertation). The module I started with was the Writers’ Workshop. This was followed by Special Study in semester two, which was basically the same (although was supposed to be more specialist).

I’ve organised this post around five main areas of learning.

1. Feedback is best viewed within its context

One of the reasons why I wanted to do an MA was because I wanted informed feedback on my writing. Some people say that all feedback is good. Having been a teacher for ten years, and seen how destructive feedback can be, I don’t agree with this.

Initially the workshop experience was an uncomfortable and negative one for me. The way this works is that, when it’s your turn, you send your work to your peers and tutor and you come to class with each piece printed and annotated, ready to discuss. Having set up and run a writing group, I was used to sharing my work with people but there no-one really wants to say anything negative. I knew that the feedback on an MA would be much more rigorous, and that was what I wanted.  The MA workshop experience was very different. Participants were supposed to say what they liked and thought worked well before they said what they didn’t but in practice people just launched in with perceived faults, and it went round the room like this. I was in a group with people who didn’t like crime fiction, and who weren’t familiar with the conventions and trends of the genre. As crime overlaps a lot with the thriller genre, I use a lot of crime- and thriller-writing techniques. However, many of my peers didn’t like multiple PoVs, not knowing what was going on, deliberate false clues, any use of italics, and short sentences. So I found myself having to defend my choices to people who didn’t seem to like my genre. It wasn’t that I wanted them to tell me my writing was great if they didn’t think so. I just wanted something that would transcend the conventions of crime writing and a balance between positive and negative. It was easier in the second semester as my tutor for that module is a crime writer so he was able to put things in perspective.

I had one peer who colour coded everyone’s submissions according to what she did and didn’t like and this meant almost every word. She wrote ‘lazy’ and ‘cliché’ all over people’s work, and crossed out every single adverb. I wouldn’t have enrolled on an MA if I didn’t know to avoid clichés and lazy writing and to minimise adverb usage. Many of her comments were detailed, and some useful; it must’ve taken her ages but it was excessive. It also made me doubt my abilities as a writer for a good few weeks which was a really horrible time. In the end I had to go and see my tutor and ask him to help me sift through everyone’s feedback and decide what to consider and what to forget about. After this I felt more confident. Please note: if you are going to workshop your writing, you have to expect to have it torn to pieces. Not everyone does this but some will and tutors don’t always intervene. You have to develop the ability to cope with it, and to weigh up feedback.

When processing criticism of your work I think it’s worthwhile considering the following in relation to the person giving it: their motivation; their experience; their technical knowledge. It is also true, of course, that some people will ‘get’ you and ‘get’ your writing and others won’t. You have to be prepared to be honest with yourself: if the feedback rings true, it’s worth considering. If you’re not sure where the person is coming from, or it doesn’t feel right, you don’t have to take it on board. I know I respond best to criticism from people who I know well and trust, and who know me well. The problem with ‘workshopping’ writing is that you’re often doing it with strangers.

Room 3005, where my workshop sessions were held in both semesters.

Room 3005, where my workshop sessions were held in both semesters.

2. Expect to read and write outside your comfort zones

Like all writers, I read widely within my genre. However, there are certain genres which I don’t tend to read. In my workshop groups I had people writing children’s fiction, dystopian fiction, science fiction, travel writing, memoirs, experimental writing. Some pieces were set in places and cultures I know nothing about.  One piece, for example, was part-fiction, part-non, on life in (very) rural Dakota, US and fracking. I couldn’t relate to it at all. Initially, it threw me. I found some of the pieces hard to read and I had no idea how to comment on them, let alone say anything useful. But gradually I grew accustomed to my peers’ topics and styles. What also helped was that at Kingston we are allowed to attend some of the undergraduate modules within the faculty so several of us went to lectures on genre fiction. I also read up on the conventions and tropes of different genres in commercial fiction. Both of these things helped me to feel more confident and informed. It was no different, of course, from my peers not knowing about crime fiction: we each tend to read certain ‘stuff’ and learn about our own writing genre.

In my final semester this coming year I will be doing ‘Structure and Style’. In this module we write and study multiple forms of writing, and also have to write it. I’m looking forward to this as I think that it will be good for my writing. Poetry. Er … yes, that too. Eek!

3. People have fixed ideas about how you should write

In an ideal learning world there is: ‘These are the ways that other people do it and this is how I do it’. In practice I’ve found that what you get told is mainly the latter … except it’s not presented as ‘This is just my opinion’; it is presented as ‘This is how it’s done’. I have also found that when you talk to some writing tutors about your work, the default mode is to tell you how they would write your book. Sometimes I do want to know how they would do it, but often I want to know what the options are.

So what do you do if one person hates prologues and says they should be avoided, and another says you have to have them? If one person says you have to write your prologue like this, another says definitely not, and someone else says that it doesn’t matter? Well? What do you do? It can be very confusing when lots of people tell you different things and insist that they’re right. What I do is think about all their views, have a look at other people’s prologues, and then write mine the way I want to. Obviously I’ve used prologues here as an example (although this happened to me with mine) but it’s the same with numerous aspects of writing: people have their own way of doing it and you have to figure out your own. Oh and just hope that you find an agent and publisher who like it.

When we submitted work for formal assessment, we had various student discussions about whether to write things according to our own style or whether to try to meet the expectations of our tutors. At MA level I want to be able to do the former but in practice, well, you get the gist … I’ve met a lot of other people who’ve done MAs in Creative Writing and who say the same thing: to get the highest marks you have to write things the way your tutor tells you to.

Fortunately, there are plenty of texts available which explain how to write, and what the various views are on keys issues, but you have to trawl through them and there isn’t one text which covers everything.

The post-graduate office, where we submitted work for formal assessment and collected it once it had been marked.

The FASS post-graduate office, where we submit work for formal assessment and collect it once it’s been marked.

4. Tutors vary in style and what they will offer

It’s stating the obvious but all teachers are different. Two people can respond very differently to the same one. I think that it is important to have writing tutors who are both successful, skilled writers and good teachers. The two don’t necessarily go together. There is no point having a tutor whose prose writing is divine but who is unable to communicate how to write, or who is unable to be encouraging and constructive. Similarly, some tutors are more approachable than others and some more accessible.

Given the fees charged, I expect to be able to make an appointment to see tutors in the department for a proper 20-30 min meeting if I need help with something. If you are planning to start an MA it is worthwhile checking how things work in your institution as, in practice, staff seem to be limited in the time they are able and/or prepared to give. When I did my Psychology degree we were able to make an appointment to see a lecturer in the department even if they weren’t teaching us. I did it numerous times when I need some pointers from an expert on a specific topic or issue. Maybe things have changed.

5. MAs are expensive

When I was researching my MA I saw that fees range from £5,000-10,000. I think it varies depending on the institution and whether it’s distance learning. I wanted to be able to attend seminars and speak to people in person.

You study 4 modules and complete a dissertation. Term starts at the end of September, usually with an enrolment week and then an induction week. Teaching doesn’t start until mid-October. After a few weeks there is reading week, then a few more weeks then it’s the end of term. I was surprised how little teaching hours you get for your money. Maybe this is partly because I’ve been within a school environment for so long and there you feel like the terms just go on forever. Of course, on an MA, the expectation is that you spend a lot of time doing independent study (which I do) but I don’t consider that I pay for this as I do it anyway. I consider I pay for teaching, feedback, access to staff and facilities. On my MA you get two hours contact time a week on each module. When I thought about it I realised that this is the same structure and format as the previous MA I did at the Institute of Education: 4 modules plus dissertation, two hours a week on each module, so perhaps it’s standard.

Conclusions? It is vital to research carefully the MAs on offer and to visit the university. I think it’s also important to be clear about why you want to do one and what you want from it. Some institutions will let you attend lectures and seminars to get a feel for what they’re like. This is a great idea and is definitely worth doing if you are applying before term ends. At the Open Evenings you will get the party line: ‘Come and do your MA here. Ours is the best and everything is perfect’. What you really need is to find people who’ve completed them and get the low-down. Despite being slightly disappointed about some aspects of my MA, I do not regret starting it and have learnt a huge amount. You do have to grow a thick skin but I consider that this is good training for entering the publishing industry. And it is worth remembering that we can be defensive and stubborn about our writing for free if we want to be! So, if you want to learn as much as possible, and you’re going to pay a lot of money on an MA to do so, it’s good to be open to the feedback you get but also to try to develop your ability to weigh up what people say, and also to edit your own work ruthlessly.

Vicky Newham © 2013