Vicky Newham


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:

Vicky Newham © 2013

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Post-finishing Book One dilemmas

I’ve been thinking a lot about timing recently. And about how much waiting is involved in writing books and wanting to get them published. Why have I been thinking about these two things? Because they both have a number of implications for my life and my writing at the moment.

Essentially my main question is what do you ‘do’ when you’ve written a book and are waiting for feedback on it? Do you put your feet up and have a rest? Or do you get on and write something else?

me and boots at sea re-sized

I’m not great at sitting around, treading water. I like to get started with the next project because it a) gives me a means of distraction, b) makes me feel that I’m doing something constructive, and c) offers an insurance policy of sorts. But in this situation it can be difficult to decide what exactly to get started on next. If what you’ve written is a standalone novel, you can plunge into plotting and writing the next one. If you’ve written the first book in a series, your decisions are more complex. Do you assume that the first book is okay-ish, and start writing the next one in the series? Do you assume it’s rubbish and cut your losses? Or do you keep your options open and attempt to keep both sets of balls in the air? Or is it in fact better to be patient and wait for that feedback to come in and, er … do nothing? And what if that feedback never comes in? Decisions, decisions.

For me, personally, I’ve always believed that you have to be positive in life but also realistic. I know how difficult it is to get a publishing contract in an already over-crowded market. Since finishing my first novel – and when I say finishing it I mean getting it as good as I can get it for now – I’ve plotted the next book in the series, and have also plotted a whole new novel, nothing to do with the first one. This is a different type of crime novel from the first one. I’ve realised there are a number of implications to each potential writing choice. If I continue writing my series, without feedback on Book One, I may be unwittingly repeating mistakes I’ve made. If I start on something different I may not want to return to my series. Oh darnit. It’s not easy, is it?

I also believe that nothing is really ‘a waste of time’ as long as you keep writing, and keep reflecting on your writing. So even if you start on a short story or an experimental piece, you will still learn from that. Perhaps there isn’t a right or wrong way of handling the situation. You just have to do what works for you. At times it does feel disconcerting. But what I’ve realised in life is that sometimes you do just have to wait and put up with not knowing what’s going to happen. It’s hard, particularly when what’s at stake means a lot to you. That means finding strategies to cope with the frustration that waiting causes.

For me, one way to cope with uncertainty is knowing I have options. And that means creating a Plan B and a Plan C. It means knowing what I will do if this situation arises, or that one. It also means making sure that I have the psychological flexibility to cope with possible outcomes, to not be immobilised by not knowing how things are going to pan out. And – it also means that I have to feel confident that I can cope with the unexpected too.

When you’ve finished a book it’s a good time to reflect on it. To leave it to breathe for a while and then be brutally honest with yourself about what needs to be done. If you don’t know, you can get some advice or get it read by a few people. I’ve enjoyed leaving my book on my Kindle. It’s not been forgotten; it’s in both my conscious and unconscious mind. I still wake up thinking, “damn, I forgot x”, or “there’s not enough y”. And I write it down, and will use that running list when I return to Book One in due course.

Waiting sucks. But it can be used to your advantage and psychologically that can help you to feel more in control. You can use it as a period of reflection, planning, research and reading. And that’s not so bad because it still feels constructive. It’s also a good time to update your website and blog, and to think about how you could access alternative or supplementary sources of income. I like to take photographs and jot notes of things which I want to include in future pieces of writing. Often it’s characters, titles and places.

planning eqip pad & sunnies re-sized

Of course, another option is to submit your book and then take off on holiday and forget all about it. On that note, if anyone has a villa on Lake Garda that’s lying empty, I’d be happy to look after the plants and open and close shutters every day in exchange for bed and board. Just kidding, people: I have my house to move into in two weeks time.

Vicky Newham © 2013


What have I learnt from editing and revising my manuscript?

Over the last three weeks I’ve been re-writing my first novel. With a particular and important goal in mind, I made the decision to re-write it until I was able to say ‘It’s finished for now’. It has been a fantastic experience, a brilliant learning opportunity and highly satisfying. It has also been intense and demanding.

On previous occasions I’d re-written lots of the chapters several times, and some of them a few times, sort of picking at it, I guess. So, I decided to start at the beginning and work systematically through each chapter. I will definitely do this next time.

One of the problems I encountered was that the story had evolved as I wrote the first draft, and this meant that with each significant change, I’d had to start the story again in a different structural place. When it came to the re-write, and deciding on that all-important first chapter, and the first 10,000 words, I needed to think hard. I tried to draw on what I’ve learnt on my MA, what I’ve observed successful authors doing in their books, plus, of course the creative writing theory.

When it came to re-writing the other 80,000 words, I decided to cull a large sub-plot. I think that this has been in the interests of the novel as a whole. There were two reasons for this, which I will cover in another blog post, but doing so cut my word count by 10,000 words. Initially this sent me into a panic, but I decided to hold my nerve and just keep re-writing.

As this is the longest piece of writing I have completed, I found that re-reading the story from start to finish was essential to having every little detail in my head. The Post-its on the wall and the mind maps were great, but I needed it in my head to have a sense of the whole. It was, however, very time-consuming to do this. I also wanted to make one set of revisions, print out the whole manuscript, read it through on paper and mark up further edits. I’ve always done this with academic pieces, and report-checking for school, and have found that it works for me. But, again, it’s very time-consuming and uses a lot of paper! As I’d seen authors on Twitter refer to the benefits of reading manuscripts on an e-reader (Cheers, Fiona! @fcmalby) I decided to try this. I found that I read more quickly on my Kindle, but I didn’t like having to then leaf through a printout to find the relevant page to mark up an edit. Perhaps this comes with practice. But I found it was a really good way to read my book through quickly to get a sense of how any major changes affected the overall story.

Something else I wanted to do was alternate interlinking plotlines as much as possible and found that this is very complex to organise. If ‘x’ is here doing something, he can’t be there doing something at the same time. Obvious, of course, but very fiddly to write and edit. I knew from my planning and timelines that the whole plot takes places in just over a week. When I wrote the first draft I used chapter headings and the navigation pane to help me to organise the story as it grew. I have decided to leave the chapter headings in for now, as I’ve seen them in other books with a non-linear narrative. Some of my MA peers said that they didn’t like not knowing ‘where’ and ‘when’ they ‘were’ at the start of a chapter, and some said they didn’t like being told! So I shall have to wait and see on that one, and see what advice I get.

Each time I marked up a set of edits on paper, it took me almost a day to make the required revisions in my document. Then it took me a day to read the whole thing through again, and mark up the next set. I did this three times, and then did a final proofreading. Each time I did it, I varied the font type and size, which helped to focus my attention. I’d love to know how other people go about this. Perhaps it is simply the case that it takes everyone a long time, and that one has to factor that into one’s schedule for deadline-meeting.

From starting this process to finishing it, I found that I got quicker at some aspects and slower at others. I got quicker at re-writing, and slower at reading and making revisions on the document. Psychologically, I can see how and why this would be the case. I also discovered, that the whole process took me longer than I’d envisaged, but this also wasn’t a major surprise (most things in life seem to!). Because I had a specific goal in mind, and a self-imposed target to meet, I had to go about it in a more intensive way than I would have liked. But what I’ve learnt is that a) I can write, re-write, edit and revise a novel, and b) I want to approach the re-writing of the next one in a more measured way.

Having submitted my novel yesterday to its destination, I couldn’t resist having another peek at it today on my Kindle. Guess what! Yep, a few typos, and I cringed and nearly wept with disappointment. However, I know from the tweets and blogposts of experienced writers on Twitter (Cheers Stav! @stavsherez and Julia! @thatjuliacrouch) that this is invariably the case, and is why ‘proper’ editing is essential. Whilst I’m saying thanks, a mention to Mel Sherratt (@writermels) for being an awesome sounding board.

Is my book “completely finished”? Nope. I am sure that it needs professional editing, hopefully through an agent or publisher, and will benefit hugely from this. What I am confident about, though, is that I have done the absolute best I could on it at the present moment. All in all, I feel that it’s a major achievement, and I have lots of learning to carry forward with me into novel number two! Has it put me off writing another novel? And wanting to be “a writer”. Absolutely not. It’s made me more determined and, in a strange way, has given me confidence. And whilst it felt a bit masochistic at times … I absolutely loved every minute of it!

Vicky Newham © 2013