Vicky Newham


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Submitting to agents and choosing the ‘right’ one

Since signing with Peters, Fraser & Dunlop in July 2016, I’ve had a lot of emails asking me about the submission process, and my agent, Adam Gauntlett, so I decided to write a blogpost. All I can say is how I used the advice I obtained, and went about things. It makes me sad when I read tweets and articles saying it’s impossible to get anywhere in publishing unless you have contacts, a private income and/or are supported financially. There are enough hurdles to overcome without unhelpful beliefs such as these. I don’t have any contacts, and I support myself.

 

Opening doors, timing and the book

At a talk which local author, Peggy Riley, gave about getting your novel ready for submission, she said that if you’re going to knock on doors, it’s important to consider the timing. I quickly discovered that it’s easy to talk about the novel you’re writing and drum up interest but if your book’s not ready to send out, it can be pointless. You will simply get, ‘Great. Contact me when it’s finished.’ If you get interest in your novel, you need to be able to send out the full MS within a day, preferably straightaway. If you cannot do that, I don’t think it’s worth querying agents. If you send out your book before it’s ready, you could blow your chances with that agent or book, and you may not find out why. You might get a chance with another book, or a substantial re-write, but you might get pigeon-holed as an average/dull/poor/whatever writer.

Several years ago, I had an agent ask to read my first novel. I rewrote it a few times, but what I sent wasn’t submission-ready, partly because I was over-excited (I know, can you believe it?!) and impatient. I got some useful and very encouraging feedback from it, perhaps because he’d asked to read it, but actually it would have been better to have rewritten that novel several more times and then sent it. As it turned out, someone published a novel with a very similar plot, so I shelved that book and wrote another.

It can be useful to do pitching events if you want a bit of feedback on your concept and writing, but it’s also important to bear in mind that your work will be judged on a small sample and a very short synopsis: polishing 2,500 words isn’t the same as re-writing 100,000 words and getting your structure and pace right. If the feedback you get is encouraging, that can be validating. If it’s bad, it can really knock your confidence. Whatever it is, though, it’s only the opinion of one person. I did a couple of one-to-ones at the York Festival of Writing in 2012. I pitched my first book to Juliet Mushens and Hellie Ogden. They were both lovely, and enthusiastic about the premise of the book and my writing, so it was a very positive experience for me – but, crucially, I was unable to follow it up as I hadn’t finished re-writing the book. When I then met Juliet to discuss my dissertation novel, I had to explain what happened with the previous one.

Regarding pitching at festivals, I know some people get their agents that way, but I decided the best approach for me was to submit through each agency, with a proper sample, detailed synopsis and cover letter. I find pitching sessions a little like speed dating but without the alcohol …!

Personally, I do not believe that all feedback is useful and I find it most useful when I’ve done my absolute best first. I also need to trust and respect the person giving the feedback.

 

Courses and masterclasses

There are numerous courses designed to demystify and ease the agent submission process. I always look carefully at who teaches any course I’m interested in, and what their credentials and experience are. I did a Guardian masterclass with the literary agent, Juliet Mushens. I knew and liked Juliet as she supervised my MA dissertation (which became my novel). Two of her authors, Jessie Burton and Francesca Haig, came along and talked through their submission processes. I also did a Guardian masterclass with Scott Pack, who I knew from Twitter. He’s worked as a bookseller and buyer, editor, and publisher. Between the two of them, what they don’t know about the industry isn’t worth knowing. Whenever I go on courses, I’m a complete geek: I write down everything, and write up my notes afterwards. And I followed their advice to the letter.

I saw on Twitter last night that Scott has written an e-book based on his masterclass, which can be found here.

 

Researching agents and agencies

If you query an agent, and they read your MS and offer you representation, you need to be prepared to work with that agent or turn them down. I decided, therefore, it was essential to only submit to agents whose comments and wish list appealed. I spent ages with the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook. I took notes from Agent Hunter and Query Tracker. I googled each agent, and read everything that had been written and said about/by them, making notes. I used this information to personalise my query letters.

When you identify an agent you want to query, check out their agency. Are they a new agent? How big is the agency? If they work alone, who handles their subsidiary rights? Can they handle film and TV inquiries? How many clients does the agent have, and who are they? What deals has the agent made? Does the agency appeal as a whole? (When I went to meet Adam at PFD, the first thing I saw when I came out of the lift was a dog’s toy. Good sign!)

This is the owner of the dog toys at PFD.

This is the owner of the dog toys at PFD

It’s really important to read and adhere to the submission guidelines for each agent and agency. Some are similar but some are specific, and even have their own submission portal. I had various documents of different lengths. Do check how your MS may fit their requirements. If they ask for the first three chapters, and your first three amount to five pages, you may want to re-jig the chapter breaks. I am sure it’s true that the first page is a good indicator of your writing, and the particular book, but a few pages won’t show much about your structure, pace, dialogue etc.

 

Market research, deals and debuts

In 2012 I went to my first London Book Fair and Crimefest, then Theakston’s crime writing festival in Harrogate in 2013. The debut author panels at these events are informative about what novels have been bought a year earlier by which publishers and from which agents. I went to every panel I could at each subsequent Crimefest, sat in the front row and took notes! I also started using Twitter more often, and reading announcements in the Bookseller. The Bookseller gives an indicator of which agents are selling, and the sorts of books publishers are buying. I firmly believe that you have to write the book that fires you up, but it is important to get a feel for the market, and know where your book fits in your genre or category.

I quickly saw that some agents were getting good deals for debut authors, and actively like working with them while others seem less keen. I also noticed that attitudes to the slush pile vary. If people make it very difficult for you to submit to them, it’s worth thinking about. Response time varies enormously. Some agents state they can take up to two months to read your submission. Some reply and some don’t. I only queried a dozen or so agents but most of them I heard back from very quickly, including a couple on the day I subbed.

This brings me on to editorial input. Some agents like to take on books which don’t need much/any work before they can be subbed to editors. Others enjoy working with their clients editorially. It is often the case that the more clients an agent has, the less time they will have to work with you on your MS. It’s worth considering whether you want detailed editorial input from an agent, what it will involve and whether representation is contingent on you making certain changes.

It’s also useful to check out which agents represent the authors of books you like. I looked up agents who rep crime novels which are a little ‘different’. My series isn’t a traditional police procedural. I call it #UrbanNoir. It combines the police procedural with reflection on cultural dislocation, urban life and the psychology of violence. The crimes stem from the psycho-geography and socio-economics of Tower Hamlets in East London. I thought it was important to flag up these aspects (not all of them) in my query letter, and make it clear from the opening of the novel.

 

Social media

I find it hard to mention social media without a groan emerging. While it can be a major time-suck, and the rabbit holes and misunderstandings can be awful, I’ve found Twitter a fabulous way to gain information and get to know people. Many of the people I got in contact with on Twitter, in 2012, I quickly met in real life at events and festivals.

It is worth thinking about what you post, not just from the point of view of libel laws but general perception. The reason I say this is because in the last week an editor told me he’d checked out my Twitter feed, and a TV production company executive told me he’d read a blogpost I’d written on education and social mobility. Perhaps this shouldn’t have surprised me but it did. That said, my rule for social media is the same as for everything else: to be myself. I use Twitter and Facebook for having a laugh, posting pix of the dog and the sea, and enthusing about books and dramas I like. I post about stuff which interests and bothers me. It is useful for getting a feel for what people are like. Most agents are on Twitter, so check them out.

 

Manuscript assessments, beta readers and feedback

I think it’s extremely difficult to know when your book is ready to send out on submission to agents. I don’t see agents as the people to use for feedback because they are extremely busy and you may not get any, or hear anything. In which case, how do you interpret that?

I decided not to query until I really thought my novel was ready. I was contemplating querying at one point but had reservations. Unable to decide whether my reservations were self-doubt and fear, or genuinely meant my book still needed work, I paid for a professional manuscript critique. In addition, an author friend offered to beta read for me. Having done two workshop modules on my MA, I knew I was okay with honest, constructive feedback. Unfortunately, the MS critique didn’t identify any strengths in my novel but listed a lot of ways I could write it differently. This was confusing and destructive for me, and I completely lost my confidence in the book and my own writing for at least a month. Fortunately, the report from my beta reader was more balanced and constructive, and another author friend offered to read for me, and gave me feedback. After a few weeks, I compiled a master list of all three sets of feedback, and set about making all the changes which felt right, ticking them off my list. After this, I rewrote the whole MS twice more, line by line, and read it aloud.

 

Which agent?

It helps to have a clear idea of the sort of person you will work well with. Having been a teacher for 10 years, I’ve had a lot of feedback from different people: as a teacher, you are ‘observed’ from the moment you step in the classroom. I also did the dissertation for my Effective Learning MA on feedback, and what is/isn’t helpful for learning. This has enabled me to clarify what feedback style works for me.

Above all, I wanted:

1) an agent I felt I could talk to, feel relaxed with and laugh with. You need to be able to be honest with your agent, and him/her with you. I didn’t want to have to have a gin before/after speaking to him (or both!). It is a business relationship but humour is a great defuser. (As Adam and I found out the first time I used tracking changes and didn’t realise you had to actually switch them on …! Gawd, the embarrassment.)

2) an agent whose judgement I respect, and who I trust.

3) an agent who liked my book on its own merits, not because others were interested in it.

When it came down to it, I was very lucky. I very quickly got several offers of representation. I also made my decision before everyone who had my full MS got back to me. Why? Because my gut feeling told me Adam was the right fit.

Do get clear before you sign with an agency what edits the agent is going to request, and whether you have a similar vision for the novel. None of the edits Adam suggested were deal breakers, and they’ve all helped to make the book stronger and tighter. I think it’s important to know what edits you are prepared to make and which will fundamentally change the book for you.

 

Attitude and beliefs

Assuming you want one, getting an agent is one step along the traditional route to a publishing contract. If you believe it won’t happen, that things like that happen to other people but not you, it’s unlikely to. If you believe it’s possible, it’s more likely. And if you can nurture the determination to do your absolute best, to get your novel as good as it can be, you’re in with a chance. Then, you can let go and see what happens. Expect nothing, hope for the best and believe it can occur.

On Facebook today, I got one of those memory things. Two years ago today I handed in the dissertation which became my novel. I began writing it in early 2014. Since then, I’ve re-homed a crazy puppy, finished my MA, finished the novel, bought three flats, done two up and sold them, written the first draft of another novel and half the follow-up of this one.

My point? ‘Luck’ and timing all come into play. All the rest is hard graft, and takes a lonnnng time.

 

Asking for advice

When I was subbing to agents, numerous author pals gave me advice on Facebook and privately. It was hugely appreciated and very helpful. I have written this post as I want to encourage people to feel optimistic about querying. All the agents I’ve dealt with have been really lovely, and there are lots of people around to ask for help. Everyone who’s written a novel knows how hard it is, and in itself is a massive achievement.

 

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Vicky Newham © 2016

 


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Crimefest 2016 – observations and highlights

I got two wonderful reflection opportunities over the weekend: one thanks to a banshee-awful, cackling hen group on my Travelodge corridor on Saturday night, the other on the drive home from Bristol yesterday. Each year I feel different about aspects of my own writing and the Crimefest event varies too, depending on who’s there, but one constant is the friendliness and inclusivity of everyone involved.

Rather than a review of panels, I thought I’d share my observations and highlights.

It hasn’t all been done

In such a huge, competitive market, and with a lot of similar books, it’s wonderful to see fresh ideas, settings and concepts swim to the surface of the publishing pond. Not only does this broaden the scope of the genre, it invigorates it and introduces new sub-genres. Just as society is constantly changing, so is fiction. To me, anyone who says it’s all been done, and nothing is new, lacks imagination.

I’d seen Matthew Blakstad’s Sockpuppet gif-ing on Twitter. Having heard him talk about the novel, I bought it and started reading it. I firmly believe in ‘write what you’re passionate/curious about’ and Sockpuppet is a brilliant example of that. Vaseem Khan’s Inspector Chopra series is another imaginative creation, with Baby Ganesh, the elephant. I’m excited by books set in Eastern/Central Europe, written by British authors, and which are becoming mainstream, for example David Young’s Stasi Child and James Silvester’s Escape to Perdition. At one of the panels I asked what’s changing and new in crime fiction and which excites the authors. Two of them mentioned the World War I era as a setting, and explained its relevance to the present day.

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Less rigid boundaries and hierarchies

For a few years now a handful of independent publishers have been putting out high quality crime fiction and it’s encouraging to see this model going from strength to strength, and newbie publishers joining them all the time. It means there are more doors for authors to knock on, not just the big corporate publisher who may not see a book as an obvious commercial hit.

Similarly, I really believe self-publishing has lost a lot of its stigma. With authors such as Rachel Abbott, Joanna Penn, Mark Edwards and Mel Sherratt indie-publishing well edited bestsellers for several years, the indie route is a credible and worthwhile option for those wanting greater speed of publication, more creative control and higher royalties. Rather than a ‘vanity’ project, I see it as a business-savvy option for the clued up, pro-active author. It makes me sad when people say they won’t read self-published novels. Surely, read first, decide later?

Publishing is hard, competitive and wonderful

Ian Rankin was one of this year’s star attractions. He read from his Rebus-in-progress.

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In his interview with Jake Kerridge, he spoke candidly about his experiences in publishing. I know he’s done this numerous times but each book seems to give a new slant of insight. In a writing career lasting 30 years to date, it’s strangely comforting to know he struggled for years with his books, then was a mid-lister, until one book catapulted Rebus onto the bestseller lists. While these days many publishers might not keep on an author whose books don’t sell well, it is reassuring to hear him say he didn’t make the big time for years. Likewise, when he describes his writing process, and having little idea when he begins a new book what the plot is, you realise some stuff never changes however long you’ve been writing.

Authors have fascinating backgrounds and day jobs

When I was talking to Neil White about the Making a Murderer mock trial he, Steve Cavanagh and Sophie Hannah put on, I commented on how interesting it is to have events which are a bit different from panels and Q&As. Seeing Neil and Steve in action was a real treat. I kept wondering who I’d want to represent me if I was on trial for murder. (I asked Sophie the same question. We couldn’t decide) And I had no idea how important hand gestures are to justice! With such wide-ranging backgrounds, it would be fun to see more of these events at festivals and conventions. And different panel topics.

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The rise and rise of Scandi-Noir

I admit to first reading Jo Nesbo because I saw him on Richard and Judy and liked how he pronounced his name (Yo) and Harry Hole’s (Horry Hooler) in his Norwegian accent. Since then I’ve tried to be more mature in my selection process. Fabulous dramas such as The Killing, The Bridge, Follow the Money, have broadened the appeal (although I still hear people say they won’t watch anything with subtitles). It isn’t just the scenery. What appeals to me is the psychology and history of the people who live in Scandinavia, Finland and Iceland, and of those who’ve moved there. The norms of their societies. I adore the multi-layered plot foci on: society and politics; immigration and employment; violence and addictions. Contemporary and new authors such as Yrsa Sigurdardottir and Kati Hiekkapelto, Ragnar Jonasson are making my reading much more expensive, not least because I am determined to get to Iceland Noir soon. Ragnar, stop with the stunning photographs, okay?

The generosity of the crime fiction community

We’re all busy. Yet so many people take the time to chat, read books and review them for pure book-love reasons, write interviews and blogposts, read manuscripts to help others, boost the confidence of people when they’ve had a knock or a setback, help people with introductions and publicity. Beneath this is a wonderful respect. And a shared love of good fiction. Since 2011, I’ve been very pleased to help others, and hugely appreciate the kindness and help I’ve received. What is tremendous at Crimefest is the inclusivity and friendliness of being able to chat in the bar – as equals – to readers, writers, publishers, editors, past writing tutors and agents. Great fun also were meals, giggles and drinks shared with writing buddies from social media.

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Being sent home with a bottle of prosecco wasn’t bad either. Nor was getting to show Ian Rankin a photograph of my dog! 😉 (I didn’t really)

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In addition to the awesome people, it’s about the books. And this is what I brought home with me. Stroke stroke.

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Vicky Newham © 2016

 

 

 

 


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My standout novels of 2015

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

 

A Devil Under the Skin by Anya Lipska

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

 

Huntress Moon by Alexandra Sokoloff

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

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

 

I Know Who Did It by Steve Mosby

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

 

Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

Hausfrau kept me spellbound for several days. It left me motionless on my bed when I finished it, thoughts swirling as I lay there, all sorts of emotions competing. In the book, Anna’s life is hurtling out of control. She is taking risks and not attending fully to areas of her life. It made me think about how much control we have over our lives, how easy it is for a person to change learned behaviours and responses, where responsibility and accountability lie, what unhappiness is … and a whole lot more. There are phrases, images and metaphors in Hausfrau which made me hold my breath. Having studied German at university, and long been interested in language and linguistics, I purred at the way Essbaum played with and explored language, and the relationship between language and thought.

 

The Abrupt Physics of Dying by Paul Hardisty

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

 

After the Fire by Jane Casey

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

 

No Other Darkness by Sarah Hilary

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

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

 

Untouchable by Ava Marsh

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

 

The Hummingbird by Kati Hiekkapelto

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

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

 

The Death House by Sarah Pinborough

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

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

 

Normal by Graeme Cameron

In a busy sub-genre, this serial killer novel stands out from the crowd for me in a number of ways. Firstly, the concept and writing are extremely clever. The protagonist, the serial killer, is interesting, scarily likeable (if you didn’t know about some of his predilections and cooking habits), smart and funny. Forensic Psychology tells us that many serial killers and psychopaths can be charming, and Cameron’s protagonist both conforms with and departs from the stereotype in different ways. Told from the viewpoint of the killer, some of his observations made me scream with laughter, sometimes because of how funny they are but also out of shock at what I was reading. Some of the throwaway comments are so simultaneously clever and funny, I did a double take along the lines of ‘What the actual flip?’ Normal has some brilliant characters. Erica is a superb match for her captor and I really enjoyed their exchanges. It’s gory in places and requires the reader to suspend their sense of morality, and I absolutely loved it.

 

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Vicky Newham © 2016


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The Trap – flash fiction

I’m turning into my mother.

It hits me as I lean over the bath and sprinkle talc between damp toes. A shiver of dread accompanies the realisation.

‘I’m going upstairs to wash my feet,’ she’d say, and then would return ten minutes later, lipstick refreshed, hair smoothed into place, and a dab of Penhaligon’s Bluebell behind the ears.

I know each step of the routine. Lolled on the rug in her dressing room dozens of times, pretending not to watch while all the time taking in each intricate gesture and the order in which they’re performed. The side to side lip movement to distribute colour. Not too vigorous, just enough. Then blot.

And here I am, carrying out the same rituals, in the same order, to collect my thoughts and recalibrate before day slides into evening.

You’ll be home soon, crackling with excitement about your trip, people met, sights seen. And you’ll inquire kindly, ‘How was your week?’

And I’ll wither inside and squeeze out, ‘Fine, thanks,’ when what I really want to say is, ‘I’ve turned into my bloody mother.’

As she looks back at me from the oval mirror, the one that always sat on her dressing table, heaviness pulls like emotional gravity.

And I scruff up my hair and wipe my mouth clean. Pull on jeans and flip-flops.

I am not my mother. I am me.

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Vicky Newham © 2015


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The Island Escape by Kerry Fisher – a review

I really enjoyed Kerry’s first novel, The School Gate Survival Guide. I bought and read this when it was called The Class Ceiling, after Kerry came along to talk to my writing group. It was clear from that book that Kerry’s writing is clever: she puts things across humorously but underneath the funny scenarios and quick exchanges lurk important life issues and questions, and tricky relationship dynamics.

The Island Escape is another cracking read and showcases similar witty writing and well observed characterisation. It revolves around the friendship between long term friends Octavia (who is married to Jonathon) and Roberta (who is married to Scott). The two women are very different characters but both have been married for a long time. Chapters alternate between the two friends and the story is told from both points of view. Roberta’s marriage is on its last legs and, as so often happens, this results in Octavia wondering about her own marriage and reminiscing about the time she spent in Corsica. It was there that she met and fell in love with Xavi.

I adore books which have female friendship as a context, as this can be an intense relationship with many potential ‘rabbit holes’. It is fascinating to consider – through story – how changes in the life of one person so often affect others around them, and the range of feelings that can be prompted when someone close is either struggling or experiences success. The actions of those around us can be contagious, but they can also arouse fear, jealousy and conflict. The tensions and jealousies between Roberta and Octavia are very believable, all the more so as they genuinely care about each other. I also enjoy books which address questions which we all have about our lives, jobs and relationships: is it better to stay put with ‘the devil you know’ or get out and take a risk in the hope of something better? This aspect of the Island Escape is affirming and optimistic. There are never any guarantees but it’s always worth having dreams.

The story gallops along, taking the reader with it. Many sections are funny, with real laugh out loud lines, and other moments are poignant. Highly recommended.

My copy was obtained from NetGalley. Thank you.

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Vicky Newham © 2015


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Reflections on Crimefest 2015

New and old author crushes and a welcome shift in attitude.

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In the small hours of Thursday morning I wondered if I would get to Crimefest. With a poorly dog and neighbour noise, I had got half an hour of sleep just before the alarm went off at 6 a.m. But I grabbed another two hours’ kip, and then zipped down the M4 in the rain, spray and mist in four hours. And ta da! I was beamed up into a glorious bubble of crime fiction for three days.

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As I approached the Bristol Marriott Royal on Thursday afternoon, I had that lovely feeling you get when you return to a place where you’ve had wonderful experiences in the past. Crimefest 2013 was my first crime fiction event. I went straight into the Nordic Noir panel this year. This was the first time I had seen Craig Robertson (who is hilarious). The banter between Craig and Quentin Bates, the moderator, was delightful. My first author crush was Kati Hiekkapelto, whose book, The Hummingbird, sounds A-M-AAA-ZING, and I dashed off to buy her book as soon as the panel finished.

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The panel on Sub-genres was fascinating, with each author explaining why they chose their specific sub-genre. Simon Toyne, who has to be one of the best dressed men in crime fiction, was on this one. I have seen him before and he is always extremely funny. The panelists all mentioned that they had set themselves deadlines when they started writing, to get a book finished or published. Emma Kavanagh’s background as a psychologist interests me and I love the way she describes her route to publication.

On Friday I nipped along to the Debut Author panel at 9 a.m. These are my favourite slots at writing events as I find it so interesting to hear about the authors’ backgrounds, book plots and writing journeys. Nursing my Kati crush, I acquired another one on Ragnar Jonassen, and immediately bought Snowblind – but was too embarrassed to get it signed so I got Kati to sign hers instead, while I burbled away like an idiot about how I was also a teacher and was interested in …. (cringe, shuddup Vicky).

The rest of Friday involved the Crime Writing Day as part of the Flashbang competition shortlist. The first session was with the hugely inspiring Joanna Penn. I’ve met Jo before and her energy and enthusiasm are infectious. She honestly makes you feel that you can achieve whatever you want.

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What I took from this session more than anything was that your definition of success should determine the choices you make regarding the books you write and how you publish them. I agree with this 100%. After this we had a lively session with two agents and two editors. Something I noticed over the three day event is that what I want for my writing hasn’t changed since 2011, which is when I decided to write crime novels ‘seriously’. There are various options which I am considering but my goal is still to write books which interest me and which others will enjoy. And I still would like agent representation and a traditional publishing deal.

I was sad to miss both of Stav Sherez’s panels on Friday, and the one on Private Investigators. And the one on Writing the Other. But the Crime Writing Day was brilliant and at the end of it Zoe Sharp and Sarah Hilary announced the winners of the Flashbang competition. I’d had two pieces longlisted and one shortlisted, and so I was simply thrilled to have been included. ‘Mercy’ won third prize which made me very happy as the piece was inspired by memories of my lovely father, who, sadly, suffered a great deal before he died. Unfortunately everyone probably now thinks that I murdered him. I didn’t, Officer, honestly.

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During the weekend I realised how many people I’ve got to know in the crime fiction world. Some I’d met before, and some I hadn’t but know from social media. It wasn’t a surprise for me to know that what I want for my own writing hasn’t changed but it was reassuring to have it confirmed. I did, however, realise how much more confident I feel in what I want to do and how I am trying to do it. 2014 was a weird year for me. It was challenging on a personal and financial level, and completing my MA was wonderful but learning to write poetry, drama and short stories meant that I had to set aside my novel in order to concentrate. Starting a new novel for my dissertation was the icing on the cake for me, as this was – and is – the novel I’ve wanted to write since I started teaching in East London. And this is the novel I want to complete and get out to agents and editors. I mention this because I am aware of vague feelings on occasions that I got left behind in 2014. But I didn’t. I was just doing Other Stuff. I still can’t write a sestina for toffee, though!

I was aware of another shift at Crimefest this year. I took a quarter of the notes I did in 2013 and 2014. This does mean that I will forget a lot of what was said but it made things more enjoyable and relaxing. It is easy to think that authors on the panels have the key to successful publishing, that they know something I don’t, and that I have to go to every single panel and learn as much as I can. And part of me does want to do that. But, as mentioned above, I am also aware of feeling much more confident now. I have completed a novel. I can do it again with this current one … and I will. But I have to take it a scene at a time, a day at a time, rein in my impatience and excitement, and get to the end. I’ve learnt a load of stuff over the last few years, from books and from my course. Now I just want to get my bum on the seat and apply it. I know that I draft fast but it’s the rewriting which is essential for me, and this takes me aaaaaages. But I have my ruthless editor and writing companion, and she does the necessary when something is rubbish.

Saturday’s panels included the Debut Authors, then Entertainment or Message, then Brains or Brawn with Zoe Sharp and some chap called Lee Child. Clutching my LC author crush, I secured a front row seat – result! – and this was a terrific panel. I’ve seen Lee at events before and he is always generous, interesting and good value. Tom Harper is new to me, and Yrsa and Chris Ewan are writers I admire.

Sadly, there were a few people I wanted to say ‘hello’ to over the weekend but either didn’t see or it wasn’t the right time. I still find going up to people excruciatingly embarrassing and no-one ever believes me when I say that I am a) extremely shy and b) a classic introvert. To make matters worse, given that my contact lenses gave me a headache, I took them out and then couldn’t see more than fuzzy outlines and had to ‘peer’ at people, aware that I resembled my mother when she was choosing cheese in Waitrose. Attractive! Note to self: get bloody glasses sorted, woman.

Highlights of Crimefest 2015 for me were: people’s lovely comments about my flash fiction pieces; having a chat with Stav about writing; meeting Charlotte and Debs and rummaging through their book purchases; feeling much more confident about my own writing; catching up with Janet O’Kane, Dave Sivers and Alison Gray; and discovering new authors and books. Oh and the sofa outside the ladies loo at the Marriott which I intend to steal next year.

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Thank you to everyone involved. See you next year. And don’t forget: your definition of success should determine the choices you make – JFP.

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Vicky Newham © 2015


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My Flashbang 2015 entries: ‘Sinker’ and ‘Mercy’

A few people have asked if they could read my two Flashbang entries, so here they are. Both were longlisted. ‘Mercy’ was then shortlisted and won 3rd prize. This is such a fabulous competition, with very generous prizes, and anything that encourages a bit of flashing gets my vote!

SINKER

I’d planned it meticulously. The virus would spread on your laptop and you’d need the technicians. I would allocate myself the job and plant the images, each one selected to make the judge’s pupils dilate.

You, the most un-computer savvy person in the company, the one who just happened to have nabbed the guy I’d been warming up for the last two years. Oh, I’d seen you, swishing that blonde hair of yours with its split ends, throwing out that hyena laugh.

And I’d watched him fall hook, line and bloody sinker.

But he wouldn’t want you for long. I knew him. Unlike you.

I’d emailed my concerns to the CEO. He’d be onto the police in a flash.

Ah. Here they are now.

‘Ms Harris? I’m arresting you for installing indecent …’ The words were a blur. What …?

You’d only gone and installed tracking software, hadn’t you?


MERCY

He’d asked for freesias. ‘They were Jean’s favourite,’ he said.

In the vase by the bed, the buds loosen and release their delicate aroma.

He’s already half asleep. His body, barely a bump under the covers. Eye sockets hollowed out and cheek bones protruding.

‘No-one important,’ was how he described himself. ‘Not famous or special.’ A simple life, of love and loss: fish paste sandwiches eaten on the beach in the wind; an afternoon movie and night-time drive; the death of his wife.

Except – he was no ordinary man. He’d survived the war but was no match for this disease.

Six o’clock he’d requested, the same time he was born.

I glance at my watch and check everything’s in place. Increase the dose into the cannula. And clutching his frail hand, with skin gathered round joints, I sit with him and wait.

And say farewell to my beloved dad.

‘Mercy’ is dedicated to my lovely father, who, sadly, suffered – but I didn’t murder him. Honest.

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Vicky Newham © 2015