Vicky Newham


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The lovely blog award

Many thanks to fellow crime writer, Alison Gray, for nominating me for the Lovely Blog award.

The rules of a Lovely Blog post are to write seven facts about yourself and then link to up to fifteen of your favourite blogs, inviting them to do the same.

I have tried to think of things which you may not know about me.

Fact 1: my love of the sea

I grew up on the south coast of England in a village a few miles north of Chichester in West Sussex. My parents, aunt and grandmother had beach huts at West Wittering, and I think my love of the sea developed from the years spent sploshing through rock pools and swimming in the sea. When I was four, we were on holiday in Denmark and one morning I decided I wanted to swim. There and then. So, I put on my costume, with floats in the abdominal section, and took myself into the water. My dad found me swimming among stinging jelly fish. I had no idea what they were.

Fact 2: my name – nouveau jambon

When I was teaching in Tower Hamlets I lived in the neighbouring borough of Newham. It was always funny phoning the council and giving my name, and I had to keep producing evidence of my identity as the people on the phone couldn’t believe the coincidence. My mum always hated the name ‘Newham’, not sure why. To be fair, people often mispronounce it ‘New Man’ or ‘New Ham’ or ‘Newnham’.

Fact 3: my teenage crush

My most enduring crush is the utterly divine (in my opinion) Bryan Ferry. I have adored him since I was thirteen. I was once in a pub that he was in (I used to ride in Petworth near where he lives). We had ridden there for lunch. I didn’t know he was there until later, and smiled for about three days afterwards, saying that I had shared the same oxygen as Bryan Ferry. Bless. I still swoon, I’m afraid, when I see him on the telly box.

Fact 4: ‘Isobel? This way, please.’

Vicky (Victoria) is my second name. Isobel is my first. I’m guessing this must have been fashionable at the time my brother and I were born as our parents called us both by our second names. When the doctor/dentist/official person/whoever comes out and calls me by the name ‘Isobel’, I don’t recognise myself. And I never answer to ‘Victoria’. I like both names. Just not for me.

Fact 5: I used to work in damp-proofing

After completing my language degree, I was impatient to get earning and didn’t want to do any post-graduate study. I went into business with my boyfriend at the time, in … damp proofing! As I didn’t want to be seen as the office girl, who would be bypassed to speak to the man of the business, I did all the technical training courses. This work involved: taking up floor boards and crawling in sub-floor spaces to check joists; inspecting lofts for timber decay and infestation; installing chemical damp courses and learning how to plaster walls. I really enjoyed it and learnt a huge amount. I think I may still have woodworm in my hair. If you need a bit of silicone injection, you know where to come.

Fact 6: When I grow up I want to be a writer

I have wanted to be a writer since I was ten. As a child, I wrote stories in my bedroom for entertainment, to let my imagination run free and to make sense of the world around me. I have always said that writing makes me happier than anything. When I am writing I often completely lose all sense of time and forget to eat for the whole day. When I can’t sleep, I often get up and write. In my twenties and thirties, I wrote stories and articles but never did anything with any of them. It was when I read Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories and Sophie Hannah’s Little Face, I thought, I have to write the novels in my head.

Fact 7: I have rehomed two Lucys

When I rehomed Lexi (my crazy cockerpoo) she was called Lucy. My old cat, Loulou, also rehomed, was also called Lucy by her first owners. Coincidence, huh? Loulou was as hilarious, spirited and full of character as Lexi, and she had her own blog: https://itsacatslife2012.wordpress.com/

To finish this post, I’m passing the lovely blog award on to the six following blogs. I appreciate all of them for different reasons, and admire their interesting and useful content.

Please know that there is no ‘must’ about joining in, but if you do please: link back to me; share your seven facts; and nominate (up to) 15 others.

Rebecca Bradley

Isabel Costello

Janice Hardy

Liz Barnsley

Belinda Pollard

Pam McIlroy

 

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Vicky Newham © 2015


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The room on the left – flash fiction

Ruby rolls the sole of each foot on the stair carpet, ears pinned for warning signs. Inside her sock, each millimetre of skin has to touch the fluffy surface so she can delay her progress. It’s always like this now. Scared to stay but dreading the walls of her bedroom.

Some days it’s a slammed door. Others, it’s the tone in his voice, the ‘aar’ of ‘darling’ oozing contempt. And the relentless taunts of her mother, about the life she could have had, the life she should have had.

The items at the side of the stairs collect dust: the torch to show visitors out, toilet roll for the bathroom, the mended radio. They aren’t taken to their destinations or even seen anymore. And no-one ever visits.

Ruby pulls herself up on the bannisters, another game she plays with herself, a fireman climbing a pole. Or an Olympic gymnast swinging on bars. The girlie name plaque emblazons her bedroom door. The ‘keep out’ sign, both erected by a different father, when he smiled and laughed and took them for walks with the dog.

She slides down onto the carpet, and the threadbare rug, joining her friends: her pens and pencils and her chunky pad. And the plastic pony from Auntie Mary.

Downstairs it’s gone quiet. She wasn’t listening but hears anyway.

And in the corner, the tap still drips.

Ruby closes her eyes. Connects with her heart’s wish. May Mummy and Daddy be happy again.

And may I feel safe.

Vicky Newham © 2015


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When does an idea become a story or a novel?

Have you ever had an idea for a story, optimistically hoped it might make a novel and then found to your dismay that it petered out? Have you tried to squeeze it, invent sub-plots, import compelling characters – only to find that it just doesn’t have any more life left in it? Conversely, have you ever started writing about a teensy idea and then found that it has mushroomed into a novel length plot? Ideas are funny like that, aren’t they? Unpredictable and unreliable.

I’ve been thinking recently about what we choose to write about and why, when we decide that a particular idea is viable as a long term project and what we do if we have a number of competing ideas.

What about you? Say you have an idea. You want to write about: a place where people are kept underground; a woman who gets the job of her dreams but turns it down and walks el camino de Santiago instead; a group of people who don’t know each other but who are all connected by a crime; a teenager whose superpower is to show others how to deal with fear. (It’s okay: they’re shit ideas. I’m just hypothesising)

Do you consider:

  • How much the idea, themes and plot interest you? After all, if you are going to write a novel, you will be spending the best part of a year with your idea.
  • How your idea and plot may fit in with the publishing landscape of the moment? Do you analyse publishing trends and try to emulate or predict what is/will be successful? It can never be a bad thing to keep an eye on the market but writing to it, seems, in my opinion, a risky endeavour. For one thing your assessment may be off, and, secondly, things change quickly.

Is it the case that some ideas will never be more than a (small?) collection of related thoughts around a theme? An image or a recollection? Or is it possible that the idea itself isn’t necessarily ‘to blame’? It’s simply that the idea itself hasn’t been given enough time and room to grow into a plot? I think that both can be true.

From what I’ve read, and heard others say, I gather that writers tend to fall into various ‘camps’ when it comes to ideas. Some say that they find it hard to get inspiration, to come up with what to write about. Others say that they have lots of ideas, often too many, and have difficulty deciding what to write about or sticking to that idea when a new one pops into their mind.

I tend to have a lot of ideas for things I want to write about. These can be things that interest me or bug me in some way. For me, writing – whether it’s fiction or non-fiction – is exploration. Of life, of my life, of people and relationships, of situations and predicaments and strange phenomena. Generally, I write down my ideas but I also forget a lot of them as they pop up at inconvenient times, for example: in the middle of the night; when I’m out with the dog; driving or in the shower. Some ideas return to me and then I know that I’m onto something. But many arise and fall away. And that’s fine.

Sometimes I find a plot forms itself around an initial idea, sometimes I have to flesh it out. I am usually itching to get writing and when this happens I write my way into the story to find out what that story is and where best to start it. This may involve simply letting the characters emerge and act and speak. If I am considering writing a novel, however, I like to map it out in my mind first and then on paper to see whether it has potential. Particularly with crime novels, I like to know that I can explain the crime(s) convincingly. Often, at this point, I can see that it’s just an idea, something which I can use for a piece of flash fiction or a short story, or maybe develop at a later date for a longer project.

Recently I’ve had to decide what I want to focus on. I needed a break from the novel I started for my dissertation. It was such an intense period of writing, re-writing, reading and more re-writing. Then NaNoWriMo came round and I was torn between using it to finish the first draft of that novel and using it to write something completely new. I had an idea for a ‘something new’ and finally plumped to write that for NaNo – and adored writing it. However, I had loved writing my dissertation novel too. When NaNo was over I finished the first draft of that novel and then faced a dilemma. Should I re-write the NaNo novel or return to the first draft of my dissertation novel?

People advised me to choose the one that touched me the most. Good advice but the difficulty was that I really like both novels. Each comes from the heart but in completely different ways. They are also different in genre. One is crime fiction, a police procedural, and one is a science fiction crime hybrid. I think that they both have potential. Neither has run out of steam (yet!). In the end I decided to go with the novel that I started for my dissertation. I know exactly why I wanted to write it. I feel as passionately about its themes as when I started writing it. Have I thought about where it might fit in the market? Of course. But my main motivation for writing it is to explore, through story, phenomena which are important to me and which I think matter in the world.

I’m not really into waiting for the muse. It’s not how I see writing. My ideas come from ‘out there’, ‘in here’ or a combination of the two. It’s simple. There are so many things in life which intrigue me and arouse my curiosity. Of course that doesn’t mean that they should all make it into a book … and they won’t.

How do you choose which ideas to run with? What do you do if you have competing ideas which you like equally? Have you ever started something and had to abandon it? Or found that something has grown beyond your expectations?

Vicky Newham © 2014


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MA thoughts and thank yous

Having now got #NaNoWriMo out of the way, I wanted to say a few things about my course and to thank the people who have helped me to complete it.

Like many of my peers, I’ve been writing for years but only decided that I wanted to write a novel about five years ago. Applying for, and starting, my MA Creative Writing at Kingston University in 2012 marked a formal commitment to that decision. I wanted to do the course because I was aware that teaching myself to write had limitations and I also wanted to get some feedback on my work.

How do you switch this thing on then?

How do you switch this thing on?

The tutors on my four modules were Paul Perry, Adam Baron, James Miller and Jonathan Barnes. I feel privileged to have studied with all of them as they are very talented writers and extremely nice people. I learnt different things from each of them (beyond the fact the modules were different, I mean). I don’t want to get into the debate about whether creative writing courses have any value, or whether it’s possible to teach a person to write and be creative, other than to say that as a teacher and a student I believe that it is possible to teach and show someone how to do/be both. The question is, though, how this is done and I have plenty of thoughts and ideas about that too.

I do feel that I’ve learnt a lot from doing the course and I think that it’s helped to improve my writing and inform me as a writer. I now need to build on what I’ve learnt and apply it to complete a novel that I am happy with and excited about, and which I can then send out into the world of agents and publishers. I still haven’t decided what to do about my first novel: I really like a lot about it but I am not sure it’s the novel I want to send out as my ‘calling card’, and hence I haven’t done so. I will definitely finish the novel I started for my dissertation, a police procedural set in East London which begins with a murdered Head Teacher. I will definitely finish my #NaNoWriMo novel, a sci-fi/crime novel which could also be described as a YA dystopian novel (thanks for that suggestion, Dave Sivers), details of which you can find here: http://nanowrimo.org/participants/vicky-newham/novels/the-exchange-633635. If I am a bit vague about its genre classification, I am not vague about the plot: it’s all plotted and I love it. Not surprisingly, they are both very psychological.

I am thrilled to have got a distinction on my MA overall and firsts on both my dissertation pieces … and I feel that I owe a lot to the many people who helped me in small and large ways.

I really enjoyed working with Juliet Mushens as my dissertation supervisor and feel that I learnt a huge amount from her. I completely trusted her judgement on my work and her feedback style enabled me to take on board what she said without feeling at all defensive. Having shown Juliet a very early draft of what I wanted to write (Why oh why did I do that? I cringed the whole way home!), I was worried that she would think I was an awful writer. However, I was determined that I wanted to use the opportunity to learn as much as I could and that meant I made myself take the risk of being honest with Juliet about what I think my strengths and weaknesses are as a writer. And then I made sure that I worked my butt off to improve my work each time I submitted it to her. We also had to figure out what to cover when and how – in just 5 hour long sessions – but it worked really well and we even had time to laugh and talk about dogs. Can you believe it?! Dogs. As if.

Lexi thought the early drafts of my work were rubbish too!

Lexi thought the early drafts of my work were rubbish too!

Thank you to Stav Sherez, for generously chatting to me about his books and about writing, and for being encouraging about my dissertation novel and writing aspirations. Thanks also to Sophie Hannah, Sarah Hilary, Eva Dolan and Anya Lipska, for chatting to me about their books and/or answering my questions for my dissertation essay. Sophie, it was your books, and those of Kate Atkinson, which made me want to write crime fiction.

Siobhan Campbell was kind enough to give me some feedback on my academic essay for James Miller’s Ten Critical Challenges module and my experimental creative piece just seemed to work from the off (which is what I’ve been developing for #NaNoWriMo).

I love writing more than anything (well, perhaps not the lil brown puppy) and I am determined to continue to experiment with mine, and to see where that takes me. Oh. And to read, read, read.

Anyone got any book recommendations, then?!

Lexi particularly enjoyed Erin's prose in the Broadchurch novel.

Lexi particularly enjoyed Erin’s prose in the Broadchurch novel.

Vicky Newham © 2014


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J K Rowling talks to Val McDermid

It was a muggy Friday evening, 18th July 2014 to be precise, and several hundred people had assembled outside the stunning Royal Hall in Harrogate to see J K Rowling in conversation with Val McDermid about her Robert Galbraith crime novels. For me, this event, which was part of the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, was an opportunity not to be missed. Others will have been Harry Potter fans, Galbraith fans, J K fans, whatever. Or just curious about the woman who became a publishing and multi-media phenomenon years ago. And I am in this last category. I haven’t read Potter, the films weren’t for me, I didn’t buy the Casual Vacancy and Galbraith’s novels aren’t quite my kind of crime fiction. But I adore J K Rowling and have a huge amount of admiration for her.

J K came on stage in a beautiful grey suit and salmon tie. It was a humorous nod to her male writing identity and looked sharp and fresh. Humour and wit are things which ooze from J K, and both appeal to me. What was evident from the start of the interview was that Val and J K have a good rapport and a mutual respect. They also share an editor. She mentioned how delighted she’d been at Val McDermid’s comments on The Cuckoo’s Calling, and how she’d written to Val as Galbraith to thank her, and a second time as J K Rowling once her identity came out. Asked about her choice of pen name, J K said that ‘Robert’ was one of her favourite male names, and that she’d had a thing about the name ‘Galbraith’ since childhood. Regarding her protagonist’s name, Cormoran is the name of a Cornish giant, which appealed to her, and she wanted the character to have a name which people would get wrong. She hates her own name, Rowling, as it’s so often mis-pronounced (to rhyme with growling … instead of Rowling, as in bowling). Names. They seem to be important to JK.

I was stunned when she said that she’d read hardly any fantasy novels when she wrote Harry Potter, but one of the main things which strikes me (sorry!) about J K is that her imagination has an extraordinary quality to it, and I find this fascinating and compelling. She emphasised how much she’s always loved crime fiction, citing Marjorie Allingham and Agatha Christie as her Golden Age favourites and Val and Mark Billingham as her contemporary ones. I thought she seemed a little nervous, talking about contemporary crime authors, and I was surprised she couldn’t think of some others but a) perhaps she simply went blank, and b) maybe she prefers the Golden Age writers, either of which is forgivable.

Regarding the Cormoran Strike novels, she said she has the story arc planned for over seven more novels. I know a lot about Cormoran, she said, nodding her head slowly, as if she’d been rifling through MI5 files. She referred to herself as being ‘obsessive’ and mentioned that she does detailed planning and research, using a colour coded system to keep track of plot strands, before she starts writing. This enables her to focus on the writing aspect once she starts. She likes to get details right and ‘sneaks around’, doing research. To indicate the extent of her desire for accuracy she mentioned the tomes she has in her house on forensics, body decomposition and insects, and recalled a time when she took her husband for breakfast at a café to check the specifics of the menu. She joked about how, for a few moments in the café, she thought she’d been recognised until the person said ‘Nah, I wouldn’t know what she looked like’. Whilst she laughed about this episode, and said at the start of the interview that she would never complain about the hype around being ‘J K Rowling’, I got the impression that she feels ambivalent it.

When asked about the decision to use a pseudonym, J K said that it was simply to prove to herself that she could get a crime novel published on the strength of the book alone. She has, of course, said this publicly before … and whilst people have questioned it, saying it was all a big publicity campaign, I actually believe her. Despite her enormous success as a writer, she came across as being just as doubt-ridden and validation-seeking as most writers (and if it was a PR campaign, it was a good one!). She said that she’s enjoying basing the Galbraith books in reality after the fantasy of ‘Potterverse’. She said that the plot for Silkworm had been in her head for about six years, but that she wrote The Cuckoo’s Calling to introduce Strike via a less elaborate story. Silkworm is the most complex plot she’s ever written. So, for the future, we can expect more Galbraith novels. J K is also working on the script for Fantastic Beasts. This is a trilogy of Harry Potter spin off films, set 70 years prior to the arrival of Potter and his peers at the Hogwarts. She has many more novels that she wants to write, these are her passion. She admits to having a restlessness in her imagination, and it’s clear that it’s partly this that drives her to keep writing. She is a canny business woman but she obviously adores writing. I anticipate more surprises from J K in the future, and I admire this about her. Despite her success with Potter, she is clearly still driven, and says ‘The One is still shining in front of me’. I liked that. There is something childlike and innocent about it.

To me, J K came across as open, warm and honest – and very down to earth. She said that with every book she’s got bogged down in plot strands and thought, ‘This is utter crap’. That when this happens she takes the day off and then returns the next day and reads the whole manuscript through from start to finish.

I was lucky enough to land a compooter-generated-but-very-jammy front row seat for this event which was very lovely but what was extremely weird was that at the start of the interview a huge spider came crawling over the floor from the stage to where my sandal-ed feet and bag were. This was extremely distracting, and resulted in me wriggling and trying to suppress squeals for ten minutes whilst fearing I was going to be thrown out of the venue – or worse, told off by either J K or Val (oh gawd, imagine the shame!). Fortunately a kind lady a few seats down picked it up and moved it to the side. Please, someone, tell me that spiders are lucky…?!

This event was strictly controlled. No photography was allowed, and book signings were done row by row. The photography ban bugged me a bit (a few snaps are fine, surely? Obviously video is a no, no) but it didn’t surprise me. Overall, I am pleased I have seen J K talk about her books and writing. It’s such a cliché to say that I found her inspiring … but I really did. I get the impression that she knows what she’s good at, and what she needs help with, and I think that shows good judgement and an honesty with herself. But more than anything, she came across as an extremely nice person.

 

Vicky Newham © 2014


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Waiting for the past: flash fiction

 

‘’Ere you are, love! Another coffee?’

The waitress plonks the chipped mug down on the cluttered table, slopping liquid on his paperwork. She appears oblivious, picks up the old cup and walks off. Muttering under his breath, Danny grabs a handful of wafer-thin napkins and dabs at the spreading pool of milky liquid on the plastic tablecloth.

He snatches another look at his watch, and his cheek muscles twitch. Swipes the touch screen of his phone with his index finger. Nothing. Eyes peeled on the door, he glances up each time the mini wind-chimes announce an arrival. Where is she? She’s late now. Has she been held up? Changed her mind?

He opens his novel at the book mark. The third time in an hour. Frustrated with having to keep re-reading the same sentence, he closes the book and lounges back in the plastic chair, gently rubbing the two day stubble on his chin with his fingertips. Should he have made more of an effort? A haircut perhaps?

When they spoke on the phone, she hadn’t been convinced. Wasn’t it better sometimes to let sleeping dogs lie? He’d pleaded of course and she’d relented. But that was two weeks ago. The lady at the agency had emphasised the need to have low expectations. But how could he? After all this time.

‘You’ve got to protect yourself,’ she said. ‘Don’t think that this is going to be everything you’ve always wanted. It might lead no-where. It’s been a long time for you both.’ Her sing-song-y voice had floated round the room.

How many times before had she said the same thing? And how often had the outcome been positive?

‘Sometimes people in this situation agree to meet but change their mind. Get scared and don’t turn up. But Danny was sure that she would. She’d promised.

Ding ding. Danny sees her come in. Short, dark hair, she’d said. A pink top. Age about right. She clocks him. In the corner. Panic spreads over her face like a rash. She turns back for the door. Danny’s heart sinks. He’s about to jump up and shout out. Then she changes her mind again. Approaches his table. Her eyes dart, her outstretched hand shakes. Blotches creep up her neck.

‘Danny?’

He flickers a smile and leaps up. The mug goes flying. Thirty six years he’s waited. His whole life. To fill in the gaps about who he is, and why she gave him up all those years ago. ‘Mum,’ he stammers. ‘I’m so pleased you came. I knew you would.’

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(I wrote this piece a couple of years ago. Found it on my old PC)(Can’t seem to get proper formatting on WordPress)

Vicky Newham © 2013