Vicky Newham


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Why I’m doing #NaNoWriMo

It’s the first of November tomorrow and all around the world writers will be starting #NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, that is, rising to the challenge of writing 50,000 words of a new project in the thirty days of the month. For the first time this year I will be joining them. I have toyed with the idea before but the timing has never been right. So, why, this year have I decided to do it?

Having just finished an MA Creative Writing, and spent months bashing away at the assignments for my last two taught modules and days and nights re-writing the creative piece and essay for my dissertation, writing did not feel like fun. Each time I chivvied myself out of bed at Ridiculous O’clock (even the puppy looked shocked) or upstairs to my study after supper instead of watching telly or seeing friends, to re-write yet another section of my work, or to re-read it through yet another time, the Arrrghs! surfaced. I’d also had to study things which, had I been given the choice, I would not have. Were they all good for my writing? Who knows, I hope so. My bêtes noires were literary theory and poetry. Yes, I did spend weeks reading poetry, and weeks writing one tiddly sonnet, villanelle and sestina, and I found them extremely hard. Having to do it bugged the hell out of me, but Sssh! Don’t tell anyone, I actually really like poetry and enjoyed it in a sort of sado-masochistic way, a bit like having to eat spinach all day every day for several weeks (and I like spinach). However, doing it for assessment made it more stressful and took away some of the pleasure.

When I finished my dissertation work I decided that I wanted a few weeks off writing and that I would do #NaNoWriMo for fun. I really enjoy writing the first draft of any story. It is the stage where your imagination can fly free. You get drunk on your story and feel completely obsessed and possessed. Well, I do. When I wrote my first novel I did it via 1,000 words a day, and found that when the scenes were in my head, this was perfectly achievable. Writing a first draft quickly works for me. I get the story out of the murk of my head and onto paper. I can see whether it works or not and what needs doing to make it into a novel.

The dilemma for me has been about what to write. Initially I wanted to use #NaNoWriMo to finish the first draft of the novel I started for my dissertation. I really like this novel and hope that it will make it into print one day. But having re-written it so intensively for my dissertation, I don’t yet feel ready to go back to it. So what I’ve chosen to write comes from an experimental piece I wrote for my course. Having just come back from Harrogate crime writing festival at the time, I wrote a science fiction piece, set in 2030, with crimes in it. I absolutely adored writing it and my tutor was very enthusiastic about it, and said I should turn it into a novel. Initially I just thought, Aw, that’s nice. But the more I thought about the story, the more it captured my imagination. Creating an alternative reality was a lot of fun and extremely liberating after the realism and authenticity required by a police procedural. So, I’ve started the story in a completely different place, and, ta da, am going to attempt to turn it into a novel. If you want to see what the plot is about, this is me on the #NaNoWriMo site: http://nanowrimo.org/participants/vicky-newham/novels/the-exchange-633635 Do add me as a writing buddy.

Writing a novel is, as anyone who has tried it knows, extremely hard. It takes a lot of time and hard work to get the thing right, and good enough to be published. I firmly believe that as much of the process needs to be as enjoyable as possible so that the annoying bits don’t eclipse the whole thing. I know that I’m going to have great fun writing my sci fi crime story. I have the beginning and end mapped out and various chapters and scenes in between. Other than that, I am happy to see where my imagination takes me.

Something else which I think is fabulous about #NaNoWriMo is the ‘community’ aspect: the comraderie and mutual interest and support. Writing is a lonely business. It’s delightful to talk to other writers about their projects and experiences of doing #NaNo. We had a pre-start meet up in Whitstable last Friday, and there was a young girl there who has done it every year since she was fifteen. And met her target. I already know quite a few people from the Kent area who are #NaNo-ing but am looking forward to meeting up with some others.

Something that has made me sad is that people feel the need to sneer at #NaNoWriMo. Some of the sneerers don’t seem to actually know what it involves but some are published authors who seem to feel that the initiative devalues writing, or their writing. Whilst I think that everyone is entitled to their opinion, I also like to try and understand opinions I don’t agree with. The name “National Novel Writing Month” is slightly unhelpful. It does imply that it’s possible to write a novel in a month. But it isn’t a novel. It’s 50,000 words of a first draft of something, written quickly. If people think those raw words are then ready to be uploaded onto Amazon or sent out to agents, of course they’re not. But are people really that naïve? If they are, please direct the comments at those people and not #NaNoWriMo as a whole. However, I have noticed some slightly unkind sneering at aspiring authors in some quarters of publishing, about how deluded some are about how ‘easy’ it is to get published. Really? I don’t know anyone who thinks that. Anyway, back to #NaNoWriMo …. from what I can see, it gets people writing. That’s got to be good, surely? What I am curious about though is why #NaNoWriMo bothers people so much? Are they a teensy weensy bit jealous that people can write 50k words in 30days? Do they write ‘perfect’ first drafts over a long period and object to people who bash out rough ones quickly? Is it writing snobbery? Who knows. Stop sneering, people. You write your book how you want to and let others do the same. Yar? What I think is wonderful is that authors whose novels I read and love are doing #NaNo. Fandabbydozy.

It just remains for me to wish everyone luck. I hope to meet as many of you as possible. See you on The Other Side.

Love Vicky xxx


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Psychology, psychotherapy and psychiatry in fiction

In view of #psywrite starting tonight on Twitter, hosted by @rosieclaverton and myself, I thought I’d add to Rosie’s blogpost and outline what psychology involves and how it differs from psychotherapy and psychiatry.

Psychology is the scientific study of human thought, emotion and behaviour. I did a 4 year BSc at Birkbeck College, London. We studied research methods and statistics each year. Other modules covered memory, perception, attention, developmental psychology, family studies, psychoanalysis, cognition and emotion, abnormal psychology, language development, social psychology, brain and behaviour, parapsychology and pseudoscience, and animal learning theory. Birkbeck has a reputation for excellent research and so my degree was very science-y, which I loved. When studying abnormal psychology, for example, we learnt about psychological explanations of disorders as well as biochemical and neuro-anatomical ones. This is how it should be and is how many of the A-level specifications work too.

I realised quickly when I first started teaching GCSE and A-level psychology that many people don’t really know what the subject covers. They sign up for the course thinking that it’s about analysing dreams and people’s body language, and hope that they will learn how to read people’s minds and psycho-analyse them (which usually means figuring out whether they think the person a) likes them or b) fancies them). Oh, how many people I’ve had to disappoint over the years.

Psychology is an academic subject. It is a science. It involves learning about and evaluating explanations of thought, emotion and behaviour using theoretical frameworks, and testing them using scientific methods. Studying ‘pure’ psychology at undergraduate level does not generally involve any clinical experience. Psychotherapy involves treating mental health problems using psychological methods. This sometimes involves post-graduate training (so the therapist has a general degree in psychology) but it is also possible to train as a psychotherapist without an undergraduate psychology degree. Psychiatry, which is Rosie’s area, is a specialism of medicine and involves diagnosing and treating (psychiatric) disorders in various settings.

There is some overlap between psychology and psychiatry and also points of departure and difference. For example, I know about hypothesised causes of a range of disorders, what treatments are used and what research shows about both … but I have very little clinical experience. Psychiatry is all about the clinical side of things.

Psychology covers lots of topics which don’t relate to mental health, and many which do, including:

• how memory works and when and why it doesn’t (amnesia), including eye witness testimony
• attachment between child and caregiver, attachment failure and disruptions, and day care implications
• body’s response to stress, effect of stress on health, causes of stress, treatments
• abnormality, explanations of why people develop mental health problems, eating disorders
• group behaviour, conformity, obedience, ethical issues in research
• relationship formation, maintenance & breakdown, love, cross-cultural differences in relationships, gay, lesbian & electronic relationships
• Pro-social behaviour (eg. altruism, bystander behaviour)
• Anti-social behaviour (aggression and violence), including causes
• Biorhythms, sleep and dreaming, including sleep disorders such as narcolepsy
• Perception (receiving sensory input) and attention (processing it consciously and unconsciously)
• Cognitive development (how thinking develops) and moral development, implications for learning
• Intelligence
• How we learn (operant & classical conditioning, and social learning theory)
• How culture, gender and individual differences affect phenomena
• How the brain works, including structure, neural pathways and neurochemistry
• Personality and gender development, including gender roles and gender dysphoria
• Evolutionary psychology and its influence on human reproductive behaviour
• Addictions, depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, autism, amongst others – symptoms, causes and treatments
• Psychological treatments and biological ones including psychosurgery
• Research design and implementation, validity and reliability

The purpose of #psywrite is to provide a regular time and place where writers can ask Rosie and I questions about psychology and/or psychiatry in relation to plots and characters. For example, you might want to check the plausibility of something you’ve plotted, terminology or accuracy. Don’t worry about whether your question comes under ‘psychology’ or ‘psychiatry’, just ask away.

The first one is tonight, Tuesday 21st October at 20.00 GMT on Twitter, using the #psywrite hashtag. Hosted by @rosieclaverton and @VickyNewham


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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


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The debut author panels at CrimeFest 2014

Having just realised that I went to 20 panels at the weekend and wrote 42 sides of notes, I’m going to break up my blog posts. This one covers the debut author panels. It is, of course, a personal summary of what touched and inspired me.

Some of the photographs are better than others: photography wasn’t easy in one of the rooms as the panel was positioned with windows behind them, hence the dark pics in some instances, or use of ones from when the panels were setting up.

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I find these sessions fascinating for a number of reasons and it is such a pleasure to see and hear authors, whose first novel has recently been published, talking about them with passion and excitement. When they mention how long they’ve been writing for or how long they’ve dreamed of seeing a novel in print with their name on it, it fills me with joy for them. I also find it interesting to hear what their influences are, and how their backgrounds and jobs inform or have enabled their novel writing.

Thursday’s panel kicked off this year’s convention. Authors were: AK Benedict, Ray Celestin, VM Giambanco, Sarah Hilary and David Thorne, with Jake Kerridge as moderator. I’d met Alexandra and Sarah for the first time last year at CrimeFest, and it is particularly lovely that since then both of their novels have been published and are doing extremely well.

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There was something on this panel for everyone and book settings included Essex, Seattle and Cambridge. I enjoyed hearing about the authors’ backgrounds and how these led up to, and have contributed to, their novel writing. Here we had a highly creative bunch of writers with backgrounds including film editing, music composition, and comedy writing.

Discussion turned to how their plots came about and what clinched their choice of location. David said that moving to Essex prompted his plot and how one of its themes is whether people can ever escape their origins. Valentina discussed her wish for a setting that offered both urban landscape and wilderness (Seattle). Her detective is the new girl on the squad, which I think sets up an exciting dynamic. Alexandra’s time travelling serial killer had me dashing off to the bookshop despite having The Beauty of Murder on my kindle. She was captivating to listen to and I predict huge success for her. Ray’s book is based partially on a true story of an unsolved crime, which interests me in terms of the necessary weaving of fiction and fact. Sarah said that when she devised her plot she wanted to write about domestic abuse, not as a polemic but through story, to make readers question what they know.

Friday’s panel included: MJ Arlidge, Mason Cross, Jake Woodhouse, Kate Griffin and Colette McBeth, with Jake as moderator again. It was interesting to hear about how the authors got published and also whether they told anyone they were writing a novel and hoping to get it published (two of them didn’t).

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Kitty Peck and the Music Hall Murders is the book that resulted from a competition win with Stylist magazine and Faber by Kate Griffin. Her protagonist stood out for me: Kitty, the ‘naïve but ballsy’ seventeen year old trapeze artist in an East End music hall in Victorian Times. I have a feeling that this book is going to grab people’s imaginations. Mason mentioned that luck had helped him to get published: he posted work on the website, Authonomy, and was contacted by an agent. He calls it ‘luck’ but the fact is he wrote the piece that was spotted and took a gamble. His writing has been compared to that of Lee Child.

MJ says he was influenced by Stieg Larsson and Larsson’s protagonist, Lisbeth Salander. He has nursery rhymes as the titles of his books in a nod to James Patterson. Jake discussed how James Ellroy’s American Tabloid had influenced him. In his (Jake’s) novel he has three characters, each of whom has equal weight in the narrative. Colette said that Precious Thing is a book about ‘appearances’, and how things are often not as they seem or as they are presented. She said that she’d had the story in her head since she left university. Colette took a Faber Academy novel writing course which she said was very good. The panel also discussed how much research they did. Most of them said ‘very little’, and commented on how research can be a displacement activity and distraction.

The panel on Saturday had: Clare Donoghue, Matthew Frank, Rob Gittins, Claire Kendal and Paul Mendelson, with Laura Wilson as moderator.

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Clare, an ex-lawyer, talked about writing Never Look Back whilst she was doing an MA Creative Writing and said that her journey to publication has been quick. She was one of two debut authors I heard say they map out their plot using a spreadsheet. Rob Gittins writes for a range of TV dramas and has come up with an ingenious witness protection plot. Claire Kendal teaches English and Creative Writing. She said that her novel, The Book of You, is a homage to Samuel Richardson’s book, Clarissa. It exaggerates the common phenomenon of unwanted attention into stalking, which often has an inbuilt escalation to it. She said she wanted the voice of her protagonist, Clarissa, to be fevered and intense. The way that Claire spoke about this book got me scuttling off to Foyles again, and I even broke my hardback rule in the process!

What I found interesting on this panel was that whereas Clare said that her path to publication had been quite quick, Claire and Rob talked about a more protracted process. I think this shows how different everyone’s experiences can be and that it’s important to have no expectations when you’re writing. Furthermore, that you have to be prepared to be in it for the long haul and the sheer love of writing.

Paul had success early on with a script he wrote, but said it took him a while (and twelve non-fiction books) to find his fiction voice. He chose to set his book in South Africa, a place he’s stayed in. Matthew described his protagonist detective who is just starting in CID. This is a fresh take on things, a departure from the popular Detective Inspector, and will open up interesting possibilities for his character as well as creating challenges for him. I’m curious to know more.

Sunday’s panel included: Neil Broadfoot, James Carol, Charlotte Williams, Emma Kavanagh and Rebecca Muddiman, with Laura Wilson as moderator again.

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The backgrounds of these authors definitely made me prick up my ears as three of them overlap with passions and interests of my own. James is a horse trainer and riding instructor and Emma has been a psychologist with the police and military, specialising in trauma. Charlotte has worked as a psychotherapist, and sings and plays folk music. Emma talked eloquently about how there are many degrees of normal, and how different people’s reaction can be to a situation, hence choosing a plane crash for her novel, Falling. Emma, like Clare Donoghue, also mentioned using a spreadsheet to map out her plots.

James didn’t mention that he had any horses in his book but Charlotte talked about how the stories of Raymond Chandler, and her training, made her interested in having a female protagonist in a room and an attractive man comes in as the set-up for her story. She wanted to examine how normal people can be driven to murder. Neil had the audience oooh-ing when he said that he had interest from a publisher via a tweet when he was shortlisted for the Dundee prize.

Rebecca completed an MA Creative Writing. She has won two acclaimed writing competitions, the second of which resulted in her publishing deal. She discussed writing about an experience which she’s not gone through, that of being a mother, and how she then had to extend this to how a mother would feel if their child was kidnapped.

These were my panel-inspired purchases. I am looking forward to reading all three.

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In many ways the backgrounds and writing experience of these twenty authors couldn’t have been more varied but they also had a number of things in common: they all came accross as highly creative, for one; some of them had studied writing formally, some hadn’t; and some of them plan in a highly detailed way whilst others plunge in. What struck me most, however, was their commitment to their projects and to writing the best story they could.

Vicky Newham © 2014


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Why does shit happen when you least want it to?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Vicky Newham © 2013


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Keeping my eyes on the ball

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vicky Newham © 2013


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Back on track and raring to go

A few of you know that I’ve moved recently. I really hoped that this wouldn’t affect my writing routine and flow but it did. Having spent ten days in Coulsdon, packing up the house there, I was completely shattered, mentally and physically. Initially I was going to pay for the removal company to do the packing but when the boss man came round and saw all my books and teaching folders, the estimate shot up by several hundred pounds. So I decided to do it myself. It also seemed like a good opportunity to have a good clear out. Anyone who has done this knows how exhausting and time-consuming it is. Some of it was easy: I took three quarters of my clothes, shoes, boots and bags to the charity shop in those enormous IKEA bags. There were loads of clothes I hadn’t worn for years. Some impulse buys still had labels on and hadn’t even been worn (gulp!). The biggest problem was my books. After two undergraduate degrees and an MA, and now being half way through another MA, plus having been a teacher for ten years, I have mountains of text books. Then there’s the fiction and the books on writing. I tried to have a cull but in the end decided to keep all my Psychology books. The charity shop was thrilled. My shoulders and back much less so. I’ve learnt two things from doing all this: 1) it takes quadruple the time you expect it to take, partly because you get progressively more knackered and slow down, and 2) I will never do it again on my own. I did have various friends come and help me but you can only expect people to do so much. Consequently, the bulk of it I did myself.

Moving day was very stressful. The day before – yes, the day before – the council had started digging up the pavement on the opposite side of the road to my house. As it’s a small arterial road, and very busy all day, with no parking outside, I was extremely worried whether the lorries would be okay parked out front for loading. I had terrible insomnia for the whole of those two weeks as I just felt completely overwhelmed with the task at hand so I was getting up in the night and doing more packing, of course, making myself more exhausted, but somehow unable to stop myself from doing it. On moving day, when we arrived in Whitstable, the people hadn’t left the new house. They were still packing and were transporting their stuff via small DIY van loads. We had to wait nearly three hours before we could start unloading. Removal companies charge extra if they cannot unload straightaway so this cost me an extra £100 and created an unpleasant atmosphere for moving in. And then there was the unpacking. Which just goes on and on, doesn’t it? Although I’ve moved to a larger house and have inherited a shed, I don’t have any book shelves so I still have loads of bags of books upstairs, teaching folders and related paraphernalia, waiting to be housed. I’ve had two weeks plus of more heavy work: lifting, carrying, digging, cleaning and DIY. Lots of people said ‘Oh, relax, you’re there now, just take your time’ but I don’ find it easy to relax when I’m sitting in a house surrounded by boxes, bin liners, bags and debris … and can’t find anything. I can only relax when things start to get done and I can see light at the end of the tunnel.

Unfortunately, I still have the house in Coulsdon hanging over me, and, after three months, am still waiting to exchange contracts on its sale. So I have to find ways to keep at bay the worry that that causes. But, the new house is getting straight and I absolutely love it. Downstairs is now tidy and I can put my feet down in the study. Hurrah! So, this post is to say that, as of yesterday, the hiatus is over. I am now back on track with my writing. I’m not doing a follow-up to Book 1 in my detective series yet; I’m doing a standalone psychological thriller. Having set my first book in London, I wanted a different setting. I also want psycho-geography and community to play much more of a part this time, and so I decided a while ago that this book is going to be set in Whitstable. It’s all plotted (something I was doing whilst I was packing and unpacking, so it wasn’t all time wasted) and I’ve written the first 5,000 words. I am sad to leave my detectives for a while but I have a feeling I shall return to them. For now, the new book feels exactly what I want to be writing. The plan is to achieve 1,000 words + a day on the first draft until it’s finished. This is what I did on the first novel and it worked really well. I have new locations to write in, both at home and around Whitstable, new landscape to inspire me, and I couldn’t be happier. My body is recovering and I’m sleeping well (despite the seagulls going crazy in the small hours every night!). I know in my heart that moving here was absolutely the right thing to do.

Vicky Newham © 2013