Vicky Newham


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My standout novels of 2015

This is a lovely way to reflect on what I’ve enjoyed reading this year, and why. I am hopeless at ranking things, and I’ve liked books for different reasons, so they are in no order.

 

A Devil Under the Skin by Anya Lipska

This is the third in Anya’s brilliant East London based series, featuring PI Janusz Kiszka and DC Natalie Kershaw. No sign of staleness here, these books just get better and better. I adore two things about Anya’s writing. Her style is unique. It is both clever and funny and this makes it a pleasure to read. For me, though, what marks out her style is that many of her phrases draw on multiple reference sources, and word choices are evocative and ‘on trend’. I loved the plot in this book. Janusz, Natalie and Oskar are caught up in, and have to respond to, events which show the many facets of their characters. The Polish context is handled with affection and honesty and humour. Some of the exchanges between Janusz and Oskar are comedy genius.

 

Huntress Moon by Alexandra Sokoloff

I often find that screenwriters write evocative prose, and dramatise events in their novels in ways which make you feel as though you are on a film set, not sitting on the couch with a paperback and box of Jaffa cakes. This is definitely the case with Alexandra Sokoloff’s writing. I found Huntress Moon gripping from the first sentence and deeply unsettling. Sokoloff’s language and writing are gorgeous. Descriptions of San Francisco and the other US locations are vivid and rich, and, in places, very unusual. Huntress Moon is the first in what is going to be a quintet of novels, with three already published.

For me, the ‘Huntress’ is the stand-out of the two main characters, but perhaps this is because female characters can be so hard to get right – in terms of gender stereotypes and clichés – and make ‘fresh’. This is a serial killer crime novel with several important differences. I adored the mythology and the way that the moon cycles influence behaviour. There was plenty of Psychology to get my teeth into, drawing on key aspects of Developmental and Forensic Psychology. Wonderful.

 

I Know Who Did It by Steve Mosby

Steve Mosby has become one of my favourite writers. His creative writing is different from his blog writing (as you would expect) but shimmers with the same intelligence. He explores unusual psychological terrain, and burrows into the rabbit holes of the human condition with empathy and nuance, including how morality adds additional considerations to the complexities of psychological processes. In this book, notions of heaven and hell, God and the Devil, right and wrong, good and bad, and what constitutes sin, are stirred in and create a heady mix. The book starts with a man named David Groves being driven into the woods. The atmosphere shudders with menace and intrigue. I had no idea what to expect. In a few brief chapters you have a woman who has come back from the dead and a man who’s receiving cards for his dead son. What I adored about this book was that I was continually having to check what I thought I knew. Mosby’s writing is a masterclass in the creation of suspense and atmosphere, and in manipulating reader assumptions in devilishly clever ways. In I Know Who Did It there are a number of game-changing plot twists which spin the reader three sixty degrees. Strap yourself in and enjoy the ride.

 

Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

Hausfrau kept me spellbound for several days. It left me motionless on my bed when I finished it, thoughts swirling as I lay there, all sorts of emotions competing. In the book, Anna’s life is hurtling out of control. She is taking risks and not attending fully to areas of her life. 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. There are phrases, images and metaphors in Hausfrau which made me hold my breath. Having studied German at university, and long been interested in language and linguistics, I purred at the way Essbaum played with and explored language, and the relationship between language and thought.

 

The Abrupt Physics of Dying by Paul Hardisty

The Abrupt Physics of Dying is absolutely not my usual kind of novel but reading it felt like savouring a long cocktail with bite while necking the occasional shot of tequila. It’s a tense, gritty eco-thriller set in Yemen in 1994. It has a gripping plot based on fictionalised versions of real events which the author experienced over many years. It opens with Claymore Straker (Clay), an oil company engineer, looking down the barrel of a Kalashnikov into the eyes of a ‘kid’ terrorist who has hijacked him. By the end of the first page the reader knows some key information about Clay: something BIG happened thirteen years ago, and he has killed. So many questions arise from this first page. Clever hooks and wonderful writing.

 

After the Fire by Jane Casey

I knew I was going to love Jane’s writing and I had a feeling it was going to be funny. Getting humour ‘right’ in crime novels isn’t always easy. There are a number of mysteries within After the Fire – and a couple of sub-plots – and each one adds a layer of intrigue to the investigation, and ramps up the tension. The reader is quickly drawn into the murky lives of the residents and visitors at the tower block where the fire occurs, some of whom are more sympathetic than others. What makes this novel is the two main characters, Kerrigan and Derwent, and the various facets of their relationship. Their sparring is very funny and clever, and they clearly care about each other and watch each other’s backs. While Derwent is the senior officer, he and Kerrigan pass the power baton back and forth. I love the way they complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses – and need each other. We see Derwent through Kerrigan’s eyes, and Kerrigan (mainly) through her own. In addition, Jane Casey’s writing is a treat. Her dialogue is sharp, and the character observations are astute and funny.

 

No Other Darkness by Sarah Hilary

When the bodies of two boys are found curled together in a bunker in the garden of a house, twelve feet underground, DI Marnie Rome is determined to bring to justice whoever is responsible for their suffering. As she and DS Noah Jake tease out the strands of the mystery, they realise they are dealing with a crime which is as disturbing as it is morally complex. Sinister discoveries, involving foster children and ruthless property developers, pull Rome further into the maze-like investigation, and yet again she is forced to reflect on the reasons why people commit awful acts and whether it is possible to forgive them when they do. From the reactions and comments of Rome, Jake and another key character we gradually learn what occurred. It is more devastating than you could ever imagine.

Sarah Hilary is extremely good at showing the reader how characters are reacting and feeling. Sometimes she maintains the emotional intensity; others she makes tiny adjustments to the emotional barometer within each scene but without descriptions becoming melodramatic. For me, it is partly the emotional intelligence which threads through Hilary’s writing which marks her out. The other thing is the writing itself. When a writer describe things in ways which make me see the world differently, I’m in awe.

 

Untouchable by Ava Marsh

Amongst crowded book shelves, a novel with an unusual setting or protagonist stands out. The story at the heart of Untouchable is a universal one: someone makes a terrible mistake which has awful consequences, and finds it hard to come to terms with it all. It takes courage to write a book set in the sex industry as you run the risk of having your book labelled erotica. However, to dismiss this extremely well written Vice Noir novel as that is to miss something fresh. There are a number of types of crime in the book, raising the question of whether crime novels have to include murders. These add to the story layers and epitomise how complex life often is. I really liked Ava’s main character, Grace, and felt hugely sympathetic towards her. The guilt she was experiencing as a result of the mistake she made had pushed her into self-destructive and self-punishing behaviour. Gutsy, principled, flawed and vulnerable, she’s a brilliant female character.

 

The Hummingbird by Kati Hiekkapelto

The Hummingbird is a fascinating and honest examination of what it can be like to be an immigrant in Finland. It delves into the thorny issues of prejudice and stereotypes, and belonging and identity. The protagonist detective, Anna Fekete, is a Hungarian from former Yugoslavia. On the first day of her new job, a female jogger is found dead and a Kurdish girl reported to be in danger.

The author has lived in the Hungarian region of Serbia and has taught immigrants in her role as a special needs teacher, so clearly knows her subject. Chapters are written from Anna’s point of view and that of one of the victims (the Kurdish girl), the combination of which provides useful insight to the forced marriage situation. I loved the way that Kati integrates landscape, weather and nature into the story of this novel, as it contributes to the tone and mood in a way which feels relevant rather than indulgent, and in a way which doesn’t pull the reader out of the story. For me, this is Finnish social realism at its bravest and best.

 

The Death House by Sarah Pinborough

If there is a book which demonstrates how redundant genre classifications can be, it is The Death House. It has elements of several genres and is set in the future. However, at its most essential it is a story about how a group of children of various ages respond to being taken away from their homes in a van to an institution. This happens because they have something in their blood tests which makes them ‘defective’, and which means that sooner or later they will get sick and die. And this is what makes the book delightful: it shows, via beautifully written prose, how differently each of them responds to the same situation. Toby is an emotional and sensitive boy, also proud and scared and angry. When Clara arrives, the bond they develop, and her response to her prognosis, have a profound effect on him.

I enjoyed the scenes in the dorms with the boys bantering and jockeying for position. Toby’s fellow ‘inmates’ are characterised well, distinct and real. I loved how Clara arrives on the scene and shakes everything up, apparently confident but with her own vulnerabilities.  While they all wait for their symptoms to develop, and for the lift to come in the middle of the night to take them to the sanatorium, the emotions of the children are continually changing, and so are their friendships and the group dynamics. If any one of the children exemplifies the words of the strapline, ‘Everyone dies. It’s how you choose to live that counts’, it is Clara. But it could equally well apply to any of the inmates, as this is the dilemma they are faced with having received their prognoses. Perhaps it applies to the reader as well. If life is so impermanent, how are we to live our lives?

 

Normal by Graeme Cameron

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. Forensic Psychology tells us that many serial killers and psychopaths can be charming, and Cameron’s protagonist both conforms with and departs from the stereotype in different ways. Told from the viewpoint 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?’ Normal has some brilliant characters. Erica is a superb match for her captor and I really enjoyed their exchanges. It’s gory in places and requires the reader to suspend their sense of morality, and I absolutely loved it.

 

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Vicky Newham © 2016


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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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The Crooked House by Christobel Kent – a review

I thoroughly enjoyed this psychological thriller and was swept along by the story and the mysteries within it. It starts with Alison, who we learn has witnessed a violent incident when she was in her early teens and which left her an orphan. The precise details of the incident emerge as the story progresses and form part of the mystery. The book blurb says that she was the only person to survive. Alison, whose name was originally Esme, lived with her aunt for a while afterwards. She changed her name and decided that she didn’t want to know what happened to her parents and siblings, nor who was responsible. Eventually she moved out of her aunt’s and set up her adult life in a particular way. But an event brings Alison back to her home village of Saltleigh, with boyfriend, Paul, and she starts to ask questions about, and piece together, what might have happened. Part of her own denial, suppression and amnesia mean that she is unsure what she actually saw and heard that night in the crooked house. She appears quite detached from it all and from relationships. The lives of the inhabitants of Saltleigh have moved on to some extent but the killings are still on everyone’s lips, and there is a sense of menace about the way they watch each other – and Alison.

What I found particularly enjoyable about this novel was the atmosphere the author creates. Alison has gaps in her memory and is ambivalent about knowing the truth, and the reader doesn’t know whether she is reliable. And this is the same for almost all the other characters. Everyone seems to have something to hide and a vested interest in stopping the truth coming out. Suspense is well maintained throughout mainly via the creepy atmosphere and plot questions. Furthermore, the author drops in subtle reveals and poses questions and then shifts the narrative to another part of the plot. All of this did keep me guessing but as it involves quite a bit of switching between time frames, it is a little disorientating at times.

I found Alison interesting and I wanted her to get the answers she sought – but was also fearful for her. As so many people were involved in the original crimes (the killing of Esme’s family) and so many people were part of their lives in the Saltleigh, what happened is like a vast jigsaw puzzle. Each time Alison put a piece in place, and thought it fitted, it changed the appearance of the picture. Throughout the novel I had ideas about what might have happened but for most of the book, it was wide open, and I loved this about it. I also found interesting how the village community had responded to the killing of Esme’s family, and to her return thirteen years later as ‘Alison’.

There was a lot of psychology in this book for me to get my teeth into. I adore stories where characters are trying to piece together ‘who’ they are and what the reality was of their parents’ lives. I found myself imagining what it must be like to lose your family in the way Esme had. We see a little of how it has affected Alison, and how she has set up her life along certain lines. I wondered if she was perhaps a little too well adjusted but don’t know how to gauge this – and it didn’t affect the story. If you like complex psychological thrillers, I highly recommend The Crooked House. I’ve not read anything by this author before but will definitely read others of hers.

 

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Vicky Newham © 2015


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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


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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