Vicky Newham


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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


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Why does shit happen when you least want it to?

Most of my blog posts here are about writing or books. This one isn’t. For the simple reason that ‘life’ has interrupted my writing and reading over the last week. And this has prompted me to reflect on what happened.

Many of you know that I had a fall at home last week. No I wasn’t riding a dangerous horse this time. Or skiing off piste. Nor was I drunk (as if). I was getting off the sofa. Who knew the lounge was such a dangerous place? My foot had gone numb, and pins and needle-y, and it collapsed underneath me, resulting in my ankle twisting over on my fit-flop, and me crashing down hard and at a strange angle on my other knee. The pain was excruciating. Fast forward 24 hours, a trip to A&E and a very unattractive knee support (I really want to say ‘Hello Mummy’ in a Hugh-Grant-in-Bridget-Jones voice) and a multi-coloured puffball of an ankle. It could have been a lot worse of course. I could easily have broken any number of bones and didn’t. However, as I was annoyed about what happened, and as my mind tends to be analytical, I found myself wondering why this had happened. Then I remembered that something similar had happened on previous occasions, just before I was about to head off into the unknown and go to an event which was important to me.

A couple of days before the London Book Fair this year, I went to the hairdresser (new hairdresser, new town). Disaster. I came out with yellow hair. Very yellow hair. A hasty colour correction thankfully resulted in a massive improvement. This might not seem like a big deal but to a lot of women it is. It might seem vain and shallow to worry about your hair when people are dying, starving and being killed around the world. And perhaps it was shallow of me. But I knew that it would seriously affect my confidence when talking to new people if I felt self-conscious about my hair.

Just before CrimeFest this year, something went wrong again. I had to re-tax my car. Yes, yes, I know that you have to do it. But as I’d been living in temporary rented accommodation in Whitstable, and only been popping backwards and forwards to my house in Coulsdon, I had paperwork in both places. And I couldn’t find my MOT certificate. I’d timed it so that I would swing by Coulsdon en route to Bristol, pick up my documentation, tax the car and then head down to the South West. I did manage it, but it was pretty tight. And I did curse. A bit.

My question isn’t ‘Why do things go wrong in life?’ We all know that shit happens. It’s ‘Why do they so often go wrong just before something important?’

I’ve mentioned my naturally quite analytical brain. Well, it’s also been influenced by all the psychology it’s been exposed to. Psychoanlaytic theory (and, no, Freud’s ideas were not all about sex, nor all rubbish) would say that there is meaning in these events. In things going wrong. Spiritual theory (in the interests of brevity I am rolling the vast array of spiritual theories into one) would tend to argue the same, although worse: it would want me to consider how I may have contributed to these events. What? You’re kidding? I made myself fall over and my hair go yellow? Thankfully, some cognitive theories in psychology comment on the biases involved in the way that we attribute events. That we often claim that something has meaning when in actual fact it is a completely random happening. And that when two events co-occur, they are often just a coincidence. Hurrah. Something sensible. And palatable. The pragmatic, non-neurotic part of my brain opts for cognitive explanations in this sort of situation. Partly because they are well supported by rigorous research. But the neurotic part of me wonders whether there is something I need to consider.

With York Festival of Writing looming, I have naturally been extremely anxious about how I am going to get there. ‘Wait and see how your ankle and leg heal’ didn’t work for me. Way too anxious for that. Especially since train fares go up in price the closer to the departure date. So I decided to hire an automatic car. Great. Problem solved. ‘We’ll need your driving licence, Madam,’ the nice man on the phone said. ‘Of course,’ I replied, followed by an under the breath, ‘Shit. Where is it?’ Having moved again since CrimeFest, yes, that means three houses in three months, my heart sank. I ransacked the new house three times, and I couldn’t find my driving licence anywhere. At the back of my mind I had a niggling memory that I’d had it in Whitstable. Turns out that the solicitor had requested it and . . . guess what? It’s been lost somewhere. I couldn’t believe that another thing could go wrong. The neurotic side kicked in. Was I a bad person? Was I being punished? Was it a test of my character? Was it a sign that I shouldn’t go to York? I was able to dismiss the first three, but, the fourth? Hmmm. I sincerely hope that it isn’t true. Fortunately I have a couple of really good friends, who’ve known me for years. Coincidence, they said. No, not a sign. And, Dhammavijaya, who I haven’t known for years but hope I will, thanks for the Buddhist input. I owe you a pint, sorry, I mean a coffee.

What to make of it all, eh? When I was at school I was always being told off for asking ‘Why?’ Some of the teachers liked it, some found it irritating. I assumed that I just had a naturally curious mind. Twenty years later, and some hard knocks, I’ve learnt that asking ‘Why?’ isn’t always productive. When I say ‘learnt’ I mean that intellectually I know that it’s not helpful but still can’t stop myself from doing it. But so often there is no reason. Or we don’t know what it is yet. Or it’s a combination of things whose precise inter-relationships are impossible to fathom. Or sometimes the answers are simple. Why did I fall over? Because my foot had gone numb. Why couldn’t I find my driving licence? Because the solicitors had not returned it safely. Why did my hair go yellow? Because the hairdresser used the wrong colour dye. Why couldn’t I find my MOT certificate? Er … ’cause I need to get better at filing my paperwork. Damn. That one was my fault.

As for the timing thing, I’m not sure. Why do things go wrong just before something important? The quotation from Robert Burns, ‘The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley’ is at the back of my mind. Maybe just as it’s a potential thought bias to associate two events, perhaps my wondering whether there is any relationship between said events and the fact that I have a long journey ahead of me on Thursday is also one? Perhaps it is simply: shit happens. Before important events and not. If there is a ‘message’, maybe it’s just that. That it’s no different from (although more serious) the fact that the printer so often busts when you need to print something urgent. In other words, sod’s law. We can only do so much to plan and prepare, but ultimately we are not in control of a lot of what happens in life. Sod, apparently has plans of his own.

I would love to know what other people think about this. Has something similar ever happened to you before you were about to go off on holiday or leave for a trip?  How did you explain what happened? Did you just accept whatever it was and not analyse it? And were there any silver linings to those clouds?

For me, the silver lining is that I at least got to eat my very yummy piece of salted caramel pecan cheesecake before I fell over and dropped the plate. Yes. Always joking. Seriously, I guess it’s that the outcome of my fall really could have been much, much worse . . .

However, to be frank, I think that Sod should just blimmin’ well sod right off and stop interfering. Y’know?

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Vicky Newham © 2013


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Keeping my eyes on the ball

At school we had a PE teacher whose favourite mantra was “Keep your eyes on the ball”. During the course of a 45 minute hockey, netball or tennis lesson she would yell it dozens of times. Of course, we sniggered and imitated her behind her back, as kids do. But it’s always stuck with me.

I’ve seen the Festival of Writing in York advertised in various places. Even got as far as looking at the website. Nope, can’t afford it, I told myself, and carried on with my novel and my course. On Friday, when I exchanged contracts on the sale of my house in Croydon, a millstone round my neck for the last six months, I happened upon a Tweet about the festival. See? Serendipity. Within half an hour I’d paid for my ticket for the weekend, selected my workshops, and very importantly, booked one-to-one slots with two of the agents on my To Submit To List.

Something that appeals to me about this festival is that, although it isn’t a crime-specific event, it seems to attract a lot of good agents, editors and publishing folk. I’ve always been of the mind that if you don’t try things, you can’t succeed or fail. And neither can you learn from trying or from feedback. I also believe in moving towards goals, and in practising the things needed to achieve them. And for me this is what York is about. I’ve no idea how I will find the one-to-one experience. I’ve always felt that the Literary Speed Dating Thing probably wasn’t for me, that a longer submission and introductory letter would be more advantageous. But, with that method, you don’t get to meet the agent unless he or she asks to do so.

Ultimately, I would like to secure agent representation in the next few months and I am after a book deal. As per my ex-PE teacher, my eyes are firmly on those two things. So I decided to give the one-to-ones a whirl. I am looking forward to meeting my two agents, and to hearing what they think of my opening chapter and book concept. Oh, and what they think of me. I have decided to view it as a source of information: Is my writing good enough? Does my first novel appeal? How can I improve it? Am I seen as a viable publishing prospect? Yup, it’s judgement time. And it’s of my own making. Staying at home might be free, less scary and potentially less disappointing than going to York but it’s good to put yourself out there, right? Precisely. I’m glad you agree with my argument.

So, in the next few weeks, once I’ve sent off the requisite bits of writing to York, I shall be re-writing and re-editing my first novel in case they request a full MS. I shall be preparing my elevator pitch and boring my friends silly with it. I shall be compiling a list of questions for my two agents, and will be practising answers to questions which they may ask me. I shall also be galvanising my courage and self-belief. Despite the potential importance of the event, I know that it will be terrific fun. I enjoy meeting new people, love talking to other writers, and several people I ‘know’ from Twitter are going.

And now I’m off to repeat the mantra and practise my forehand.

If you fancy a peek, the festival website is here: http://www.writersworkshop.co.uk/events.html

Vicky Newham © 2013