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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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


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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Feedback is best viewed within its context

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Expect to read and write outside your comfort zones

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

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

3. People have fixed ideas about how you should write

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Tutors vary in style and what they will offer

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

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

5. MAs are expensive

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

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

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

Vicky Newham © 2013


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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


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What’s that Twitter thing all about?

twitter-logo (2)

Recently there have been a few articles and blogposts about the use of Twitter by writers. As someone who uses it regularly, but only really in the last six months, I’ve been reflecting on how I use it, what I feel I’ve gained from it, and what its downsides are. Yesterday I was telling a couple of business-y friends  how useful Twitter can be – and fun – and they both looked at me as if I was talking about running down the local high street naked (not that that would necessarily be useful, of course!). ‘We don’t get it!’ They chimed. Fair enough.

The main thing I’ve found of value is the way it’s enabled me to make contact with a range of people all around the world. Of course other forms of social media also facilitate this, but I find Twitter the most user-friendly. It’s great to be able to tweet a person whose talk, book, TV programme I’ve enjoyed or am looking forward to. It’s fun to make the acquaintance of people with the similar interests. I’ve found out about local author and writing events, informative writing blogs and fantastic new (new-to-me, and new-new) authors. In addition I’m able to keep abreast of developments and issues in psychology and neuroscience (which, despite giving up teaching, still remain a great passion of mine).

‘Launching’ myself on Twitter a year ago was a bit weird. I typed my first tweet and pressed the button with trepidation. I felt like ‘the new kid on the block’. Albeit one of millions of new kids every day! An imposter, even. I read articles on Twitter protocol and etiquette to try and reduce the likelihood of faux pas commission. I wrote and re-wrote my ‘biog’ section goodness how many times. ‘Writing a crime novel’ it said. You and lots of other people, the cynical voice in my head said! (In fact, any concerns I had about making this statement on Twitter only mirrored those I already had so by the time I wrote it I was actually ready to ‘put it out there’)

On one level it feels a bit strange tweeting people who are ‘famous’, authors whose books I love and people who could potentially become my agent, publisher or editor! But in real life and on Twitter I tend to relate to others first and foremost as human beings, and am naturally friendly. And I don’t really ‘do’ star struck. I also happen to have a slightly cheeky nature which can be useful for breaking the ice … but can get me into trouble too. (I’m good at apologising and am genuinely mortified if I ever offend!) It’s been awesome to get in contact with other people who, like me, are writing books and hoping to get them published, and it’s genuinely inspiring and delightful to see authors getting agents and being offered publishing contracts.

I still find the public nature of Twitter a bit confusing. Reading someone else’s tweets makes me feel a bit like I’m spying on them, or reading their diary. But they are in the public domain. People also have heated debates on Twitter and sometimes it’s like witnessing a row in the pub. And then there are the people who rant a lot and seem to think that Twitter is their very own, personal, individual, very loud, loudspeaker. Another issue is that of ‘butting in’ on existing conversations. Sometimes they’re just so fascinating, aren’t they? However, it’s not really any different from butting into a conversation at the bus stop. But, hey, I do that sometimes too …

Regarding self-promotion on Twitter, my view is that everyone uses it to some extent for that – and what’s wrong with that? However, the folk who only tweet about their books, and their 5* reviews, and their special offers, they aren’t for me. The same with the serial RT-ers: to go onto my timeline and see nothing but other people’s RTs (and always book promos) is annoying, but I’ve discovered that you can turn these off. Hurrah! I enjoy following people who are genuinely humorous and interesting, and who reveal a bit of themselves and what their life is like. People who are human. I like to find out when their book is being published, and if it’s on special offer. I find it reassuring to know that they also struggle with sections of their books, have days when they don’t get dressed properly or leave the house, and eat strange food sometimes. I have also discovered that, as in real life, people’s idea of etiquette differs. Some people thank you for RTs, some don’t; some people take offence if you ask for an RT, others do it willingly; some people ask for information and don’t say thanks when you supply it. Some people return your ‘follow’ without a ‘hello’ or any social lubrication, just a link to their book/website/blog/Facebook page. Nice. But, hey, there’s always the ‘unfollow’ button. And on the whole I’ve found people to be absolutely loverly.

One perplexing aspect of Twitter is its speed. On my phone the Twitter and Tweetdeck apps only supply a few hours’ feed. Consequently, it’s easy to miss interesting or useful tweets but you can always check the tweet feed of individuals (although this still makes me feel a bit like a stalker!). I am getting used to using Twitter and it is a constantly evolving medium. Sometimes I’m not in the mood, sometimes I love it. As someone who’s writing their second novel, it’s made a huge difference to my life, largely via an increased sense of connection with other writerly folk.

Vicky Newham © 2013


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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


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Life after the London Book Fair

After the whirlwind of the London Book Fair it took me a few days to come back down to earth and settle into a routine again. I found the event informative, inspiring and highly thought provoking. It was also exhausting as I wanted to attend everything remotely relevant or useful. That meant back-to-back panel discussions, workshops, interviews and talks from 9.45 to 6pm, with no real opportunity to eat or drink.

One of the main things that struck me – as many of us have commented on – is how much publishing has changed and is changing, and how much opportunity is open to authors now that self-publishing is a credible and viable alternative to the traditional route. It really does seem that the stigma of self-publishing is beginning to fade, and with the amazing success stories of people like Colleen Hoover and SLAMMED (see here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/16/colleen-hoover-books-_n_3093617.html), it’s not before time. This made me feel very positive. I like to feel that I have options. If Plan A falls through, there is a Plan B and C. And not consolation prizes in any respect. Real alternatives. And another appeal of self-publishing is the increased control which it gives the author.

However, the other message which rang through loud and clear was quite how much clout the sales and marketing departments of publishing companies have. I knew that a book had to be a commercial proposition … but not to the extent that it clearly needs to be now. This is the reality of the situation for those of us who would like to acquire a traditional publishing deal, and is not so encouraging. There was a lot to mull over on the way home and since then my brain has been buzzing with ideas, questions and information.

So, has LBF put me off wanting to get my books published? Or has it strengthened my resolve and commitment? Most definitely the latter. I’ve always believed that knowledge is a good thing, and I would prefer to know exactly what I am dealing with, particularly since I am entering a completely new industry. It will enable me to make the necessary preparations and – hopefully – do what is required.

Having wanted to write and be published since I was twelve, I still believe that the ‘agent route’ is right for me. Given how complex the rights structure is now in publishing – especially with multi-media developments – I believe I need the input of an agent. I would also like some editorial advice on my book before it gets sent to publishers (although I am considering getting a structural edit done).  My current book is the first novel I’ve written the whole way through. I am aware that this may not be the one that gets published. It may be the next one, or the one after that. But it just MIGHT be this one. Who knows? I can only give it my best shot, be optimistic, keep writing new material and work hard to improve my writing. I may decide to self-publish whilst I am waiting, and if I am unable to obtain agent representation, I definitely will do that.

At the risk of blowing my own trumpet, everything I’ve achieved in life has been off my own bat. I had a good education but everything else has come through hard graft, perseverance and sheer determination. Where doors have opened for me, it’s been because I’ve knocked on them at some point. Having given up teaching to write and study creative writing full-time, I’ve taken a gamble … and made a huge sacrifice to my income. Do I have what it takes? Will I be lucky? Who knows? Only time will tell. I firmly believe that if you don’t try things, you never know. I also believe that life is too short to want to do something … and not. It’s a steep learning curve at the moment. It’s scary. But it’s very exciting and without doubt the best decision I’ve ever made (apart from moving to Whitstable … but that’ll be the subject of another post).

Vicky Newham © 2013