Vicky Newham


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Reflections on Crimefest 2015

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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Vicky Newham © 2015


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Four of my favourite panels at CrimeFest 2014

ImageI really enjoyed the following panels. This is a personal selection, based on what interests me as a reader and writer, and as a human being. I have tried to quote people accurately, and/or to convey the essence of what was being discussed but it will inevitably be a selective account.

 

Death in high heels: women as victims

The panel consisted of: MR Hall, Jessie Keane, Jessica Mann, Martyn Waites and Ruth Dudley Edwards as moderator.

ImageThis panel kicked off to a controversial start with Jessica Mann saying that the cover of a crime novel now has to have an image on it of a tortured woman. This sent a bit of a ripple through the audience. Jessica has written 21 crime novels and reviews them, so I assume she has some evidence for this statement but I’m not sure I think it’s true. Or perhaps it’s the word ‘torture’ that bothers me. Jessica said that levels of sadism and torture have increased in crime fiction. I think most of us would agree that this is true, overall, and I have noticed changes and trends in cover design but I don’t think they have necessarily changed in the same direction. A popular crime fiction cover is the ‘anguished woman’ on her own in a bleak landscape. I have seen dead female bodies on covers but I haven’t noticed this as a trend, or even that it is something particularly common. But, is a dead body on a cover that shocking? Okay, it might not be that subtle but we are talking about crime fiction after all.

In terms of convention it is often women who are victims in this genre. At a criminology lecture I went to a few years ago, given by Prof David Wilson, we were told that certain groups of people are often victims of violent crimes because they live on the fringes of society or under the radar. He said that they are often disempowered, voiceless and anonymous and therefore ‘easy’ targets. He cited prostitutes, the homeless and illegal immigrants as examples. Women as victims of real life crimes tend to attract attention when reported in high profile cases, for example, the Suffolk strangler. Other statistics tell us that young men are usually both the perpetrators and victims of violent crime. So, does fiction have to mirror society? Does it have a duty to be realistic? And, if it should portray reality, which reality? Do you read books to be thrilled, shocked, repulsed? For escapism and entertainment? Or to be made to think? Or does it vary? I know with my own reading I have definite moods, and often read a couple of books at a time to give me the variation I want.

Martyn said that it would appear that women don’t seem to mind violence given that more women than men read crime fiction. Jessie Keane said that her readers don’t have a problem with the violence in her books.

The panel then discussed whether the increasing violence does any harm, whether it depraves and corrupts. MR Hall says that he thinks it probably does, and that he is slightly squeamish about violence in his books. He said that what interests him is why women consume crime fiction when some of it is so violent. He said that it’s difficult to say what is and isn’t gratuitous in terms of violence. I agree with this. I’ve heard authors saying that it’s intrinsic to their plot or characterisation. And I’ve read crime novels where the violence has felt excessive and unnecessary. Interestingly, MR Hall said that he thinks that TV handles violence cleverly, that it often gets behind the violence. To some extent I think this is true, as it can show a victim’s life, personality and relationships – but then so can a novel. I think that some TV drama handles violent crime very well but I have noticed that some of it has become a bit sensationalist and thrill-seeking. I turned off a couple of episodes of Silent Witness in the last couple of years as the first few scenes had half a dozen or so murders, all shown in quite a graphic way. To me it felt like shock tactics.

Martyn mentioned that he’s based a couple of his plots on real crimes, citing embryo stealing and cannibalism. I wonder if this makes a difference to how a book is perceived?

One of the panel members said – and I didn’t make a note of who – that if violence is well written it is literature and if it’s badly written it’s torture porn. Initially this irritated me but when I thought about it I decided that in a way it is true: it’s all in the writing. For me, though, it’s not just that: I am bothered by the form that violence takes and what motivates it, also by how it’s framed and explained. For me, reading and writing crime fiction is about the exploration of what motivates people to commit hideous acts and how these acts affect both the person who’s committed them, and the victim and the people around them.

I had several questions I wanted to ask but in the end I didn’t ask any of them.

 

Entertainment or issues: does a crime novel have to have something to say?

This panel included: Simon Kernick, Michael Malone, Andrew Taylor, Robert Wilson and Sophie Hannah as moderator.

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Sophie started off asking the panel whether the topic was something that they worried about.

Robert said yes, and that he likes to tackle issues head on but also in the spirit of a Noir novel: as entertainment. With regards to what comes first, Robert said that it was setting then characters then story then issues. He cited the example of his book set in W Africa, in which school girls are captured and sold to cure people of HIV/AIDS. Michael agreed that setting is important for him too and that often issues just ‘find’ him through that. Simon said that he doesn’t think about whether his books have anything to say. He just wants to write a good story which people will enjoy. Robert said that his readers don’t reach for his books for light entertainment, that he deliberately makes demands on them.

Discussion then moved to whether issues can be part of the story. Sophie gave the example of Murder on the Orient Express which she says has two messages: that the seemingly impossible sometimes isn’t impossible, and that the murderer isn’t always the most guilty person.

Andrew said that for him his process starts with setting then story then a title, and that questions and themes emerge. He said that for one of his books it was: could someone like me kill, and if so, under what circumstances? (Perhaps also, could I kill, and if so, in what circumstances?) He said that in his first book, the Anatomy of Ghosts, he wanted to explore the various ways we can be haunted and by what.

Next came discussion of whether readers can take against a book which overtly ‘has a message’, or which someone perceives to have a certain message. Sophie referred to how it can be a strange experience when someone says, ‘Oh, you’ll like this book because it’s about x’ when this is just their opinion, especially when you read it and don’t think it’s saying the same thing at all.

Next came discussion of whether readers make assumptions about authors based on gender. Simon said that he thinks there is a perception that female authors write about issues in more depth. This led on to discussion of whether how a book is marketed can hinder it sometimes, for example, if it’s marketed as a thrill-a-minute read, it might not receive literary acclaim.

Sophie said she wondered whether all crime novels ask moral questions, along the lines of ‘Is this a good guy with some bad points or a bad guy with some good points?’ This is similar to the idea that most behaviour – and people? – are morally ambiguous. The panel discussed how the topic of moral ambiguity can be floated via the use of a ‘What if?’ question as the starting point for a story. Both Sophie and Andrew said that they liked using these.

 

Nicci French and Lars Kepler: when two pens are better than one

This included: Sean French, Nicci Gerard, Alexander Ahndoril, Alexandra Coehlo Ahndoril, with Maxim Jakubowski as moderator.

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This is the second time I’ve seen Sean and Nicci talking about writing together, and I find them both fascinating to listen to: warm, open and funny. It would be easy to think that they were always going to end up collaborating as they went to the same university and studied the same subject (but didn’t know each other). Then, when they were both working on the New Statesman, they used to read each other’s pieces and swap feedback.

Nicci said that she wanted to be clear that writing a novel with another person isn’t easier than doing it on your own. It’s not half the work, and although you have another person to share the highs and lows with, the actual writing process can be difficult. She said that their first book came about because they stumbled on the phenomenon of recovered and false memories and agreed that they had such a good plot idea that if they didn’t write about it, someone else would. This book became the Memory Game.

Alexander was writing mainstream books when he met Alexandra. She was an actress then and he ‘lured’ her into writing historical novels. They said they started collaborating to break the loneliness of writing. Alexandra says that they feel they owe a lot to Stieg Larsson, and that their name, Lars, is a tribute to him.

Something both couples agreed on was that it was important to have one name on the book cover, that two would be a distraction: the reader would wonder who wrote which sections. They also agreed that they have very different writing styles from their partners, and that they work hard to give their books a single voice which isn’t either of theirs, which is characterisitcally ‘Nicci French’ or ‘Lars Kepler’. Nicci said that how this comes about is a ‘mysterious act’, it’s ‘uncanny’. I’ve heard Sean and Nicci say this before and you get the impression that they genuinely don’t really know how it all comes together and that they are both slightly surprised (but pleased, obviously) that it does.

Both couples said that they each write separate scenes or chapters and then e-mail them to each other. Alexandra and Alexander sit side by side when they are writing, whereas Sean and Nicci work in different parts of the house: Sean in the shed at the bottom of the garden and Nicci in the attic. Nicci said that the ideas for their books come out of their marriage, and that they plan and plot their books together. Both couples referred to the need for trust between them, to drop egos and to believe that the other person, when changing work, will do so for the better. Nicci talked about how in their collaboration, they prod each other into areas they might not otherwise go, and that often what they end up with is very different from what they’d envisaged or planned.

Finally, they discussed how they switch off given that they work and live together. Nicci and Sean said that they don’t switch off really, that writing is their way of exploring things that they’re scared about. Alexandra said that they also tend to live, dream and think each book 24/7 but, because they have small children, they have a rule that the children are their priority.

 

Keeping us in suspense: thrills and chills

This panel had: Isabelle Grey, Penny Hancock, Claire Kendal, Robert Wilson, with Stav Sherez as moderator.

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Stav introduced the topic by referring to Hitchcock, who he describes as the master of suspense, and to Hitchcock’s examples of the ticking bomb (suspense) and the bomb that explodes suddenly (surprise). Stav mentioned how crucial time is to suspense and asked the authors how they use time in their writing, and how they controll it.

Claire said that The Book of You spans eight weeks, and that this was a deliberate technique to control time. Penny said that the plot of Tideline ran over seven days. Isabelle said that she doesn’t think about chronological time when she writes.

Next, Stav asked whether suspense is a technical thing, or whether it stems from ‘character’ and from the reader having empathy with the characters. Isabelle said that there are ways of creating suspense by setting up questions to which the reader wants answers, and by doing this in a clever way, for example, by layering the questions. She gave the example of the question ‘Is x going to happen to y?’ and how it becomes more interesting if the question is ‘If x happens to y, how will y be affected and what might y then do?’

Claire said that she thinks that character, language and empathy all intertwine to create suspense. Stav mentioned how suspense can be created by unsettling the reader’s expectations. Robert said that he has multiple PoVs in his novels, and that he switches between them to create suspense much in the way that Stav suggested. Penny explained how in The Darkening Hour, she has a dual narrative and the reader doesn’t know who the goodie is and who’s the baddie. As the reader never knows who’s telling the truth, this creates suspense.

Discussion then turned to whether it creates suspense if the writer doesn’t know what is going to happen in the novel, that if the writer knows too much, does this ‘telegraph through’ to the reader? Claire said that she planned her novel out before she started writing. Robert said that he doesn’t plan before he starts writing, and Stav says that it takes him several drafts to decide who’s responsible for the crimes, that it takes him this long to decide what serves the story best.

Finally, in response to a question, the panel discussed how tense and PoV might affect suspense. Isabelle said that she always uses 3rd person. Claire used 1st and 2nd person PoV in The Book of You because she specifically wanted intensity and immediacy.

How to create suspense has to be one of my favourite topics in writing. I honestly could have listened to the panel discussing it for another hour.

 

Vicky Newham © 2014


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The debut author panels at CrimeFest 2014

Having just realised that I went to 20 panels at the weekend and wrote 42 sides of notes, I’m going to break up my blog posts. This one covers the debut author panels. It is, of course, a personal summary of what touched and inspired me.

Some of the photographs are better than others: photography wasn’t easy in one of the rooms as the panel was positioned with windows behind them, hence the dark pics in some instances, or use of ones from when the panels were setting up.

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I find these sessions fascinating for a number of reasons and it is such a pleasure to see and hear authors, whose first novel has recently been published, talking about them with passion and excitement. When they mention how long they’ve been writing for or how long they’ve dreamed of seeing a novel in print with their name on it, it fills me with joy for them. I also find it interesting to hear what their influences are, and how their backgrounds and jobs inform or have enabled their novel writing.

Thursday’s panel kicked off this year’s convention. Authors were: AK Benedict, Ray Celestin, VM Giambanco, Sarah Hilary and David Thorne, with Jake Kerridge as moderator. I’d met Alexandra and Sarah for the first time last year at CrimeFest, and it is particularly lovely that since then both of their novels have been published and are doing extremely well.

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There was something on this panel for everyone and book settings included Essex, Seattle and Cambridge. I enjoyed hearing about the authors’ backgrounds and how these led up to, and have contributed to, their novel writing. Here we had a highly creative bunch of writers with backgrounds including film editing, music composition, and comedy writing.

Discussion turned to how their plots came about and what clinched their choice of location. David said that moving to Essex prompted his plot and how one of its themes is whether people can ever escape their origins. Valentina discussed her wish for a setting that offered both urban landscape and wilderness (Seattle). Her detective is the new girl on the squad, which I think sets up an exciting dynamic. Alexandra’s time travelling serial killer had me dashing off to the bookshop despite having The Beauty of Murder on my kindle. She was captivating to listen to and I predict huge success for her. Ray’s book is based partially on a true story of an unsolved crime, which interests me in terms of the necessary weaving of fiction and fact. Sarah said that when she devised her plot she wanted to write about domestic abuse, not as a polemic but through story, to make readers question what they know.

Friday’s panel included: MJ Arlidge, Mason Cross, Jake Woodhouse, Kate Griffin and Colette McBeth, with Jake as moderator again. It was interesting to hear about how the authors got published and also whether they told anyone they were writing a novel and hoping to get it published (two of them didn’t).

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Kitty Peck and the Music Hall Murders is the book that resulted from a competition win with Stylist magazine and Faber by Kate Griffin. Her protagonist stood out for me: Kitty, the ‘naïve but ballsy’ seventeen year old trapeze artist in an East End music hall in Victorian Times. I have a feeling that this book is going to grab people’s imaginations. Mason mentioned that luck had helped him to get published: he posted work on the website, Authonomy, and was contacted by an agent. He calls it ‘luck’ but the fact is he wrote the piece that was spotted and took a gamble. His writing has been compared to that of Lee Child.

MJ says he was influenced by Stieg Larsson and Larsson’s protagonist, Lisbeth Salander. He has nursery rhymes as the titles of his books in a nod to James Patterson. Jake discussed how James Ellroy’s American Tabloid had influenced him. In his (Jake’s) novel he has three characters, each of whom has equal weight in the narrative. Colette said that Precious Thing is a book about ‘appearances’, and how things are often not as they seem or as they are presented. She said that she’d had the story in her head since she left university. Colette took a Faber Academy novel writing course which she said was very good. The panel also discussed how much research they did. Most of them said ‘very little’, and commented on how research can be a displacement activity and distraction.

The panel on Saturday had: Clare Donoghue, Matthew Frank, Rob Gittins, Claire Kendal and Paul Mendelson, with Laura Wilson as moderator.

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Clare, an ex-lawyer, talked about writing Never Look Back whilst she was doing an MA Creative Writing and said that her journey to publication has been quick. She was one of two debut authors I heard say they map out their plot using a spreadsheet. Rob Gittins writes for a range of TV dramas and has come up with an ingenious witness protection plot. Claire Kendal teaches English and Creative Writing. She said that her novel, The Book of You, is a homage to Samuel Richardson’s book, Clarissa. It exaggerates the common phenomenon of unwanted attention into stalking, which often has an inbuilt escalation to it. She said she wanted the voice of her protagonist, Clarissa, to be fevered and intense. The way that Claire spoke about this book got me scuttling off to Foyles again, and I even broke my hardback rule in the process!

What I found interesting on this panel was that whereas Clare said that her path to publication had been quite quick, Claire and Rob talked about a more protracted process. I think this shows how different everyone’s experiences can be and that it’s important to have no expectations when you’re writing. Furthermore, that you have to be prepared to be in it for the long haul and the sheer love of writing.

Paul had success early on with a script he wrote, but said it took him a while (and twelve non-fiction books) to find his fiction voice. He chose to set his book in South Africa, a place he’s stayed in. Matthew described his protagonist detective who is just starting in CID. This is a fresh take on things, a departure from the popular Detective Inspector, and will open up interesting possibilities for his character as well as creating challenges for him. I’m curious to know more.

Sunday’s panel included: Neil Broadfoot, James Carol, Charlotte Williams, Emma Kavanagh and Rebecca Muddiman, with Laura Wilson as moderator again.

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The backgrounds of these authors definitely made me prick up my ears as three of them overlap with passions and interests of my own. James is a horse trainer and riding instructor and Emma has been a psychologist with the police and military, specialising in trauma. Charlotte has worked as a psychotherapist, and sings and plays folk music. Emma talked eloquently about how there are many degrees of normal, and how different people’s reaction can be to a situation, hence choosing a plane crash for her novel, Falling. Emma, like Clare Donoghue, also mentioned using a spreadsheet to map out her plots.

James didn’t mention that he had any horses in his book but Charlotte talked about how the stories of Raymond Chandler, and her training, made her interested in having a female protagonist in a room and an attractive man comes in as the set-up for her story. She wanted to examine how normal people can be driven to murder. Neil had the audience oooh-ing when he said that he had interest from a publisher via a tweet when he was shortlisted for the Dundee prize.

Rebecca completed an MA Creative Writing. She has won two acclaimed writing competitions, the second of which resulted in her publishing deal. She discussed writing about an experience which she’s not gone through, that of being a mother, and how she then had to extend this to how a mother would feel if their child was kidnapped.

These were my panel-inspired purchases. I am looking forward to reading all three.

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In many ways the backgrounds and writing experience of these twenty authors couldn’t have been more varied but they also had a number of things in common: they all came accross as highly creative, for one; some of them had studied writing formally, some hadn’t; and some of them plan in a highly detailed way whilst others plunge in. What struck me most, however, was their commitment to their projects and to writing the best story they could.

Vicky Newham © 2014