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Capital Crime 2019 – as welcome and refreshing as a good cup of tea

As part of his advice to writers, David Headley (agent, bookseller and co-founder of Capital Crime) said, ‘Don’t get in a taxi with Adam Hamdy’ (author, screenwriter and David’s co-conspirator on the festival). It was a reference to the amount of time the festival took to organise whilst juggling the other demands of writing and publishing, and the fact that they cooked up the idea in the back of a New York taxi. I’m glad he did get into that taxi because Capital Crime was marvellous.

I still have a soft spot for the Killer Women who put on the first London-based crime writing festival (that I’m aware of). Their event has the intimate feel of a club, and those of us who spend most of our time holed up alone reading and writing, and feeling very ‘unclubbable’, love to find a club to which we can belong. And London is plenty big enough for two crime writing festivals.

Capital Crime was a blockbuster, with big names and a fancy venue, but it had an inclusivity and generosity of spirit beyond my expectations – and I loved it for that. It was a perfect reflection of London.

I used to live in London and people often say to me, ‘but wasn’t it really unfriendly?’ They’re thinking of the reputation Londoners have for not smiling on the tube and not tolerating slow walking on pavements. That’s just about getting on with the business of living in a city bursting at the seams with people, people with things to do and places to be. If you’re stuffed in under someone’s armpit, you don’t want to make eye contact. Out of that context, I have always found London folk – those staying and those passing through – to be open and friendly. London itself is a huge collection of neighbourhoods that have merged together over time and it contains people of every nationality, culture, type and interest. London opens its arms to all – with respect for personal space – and Capital Crime was just like that.

So many of the huge names in crime writing were giving talks and on panels on Friday and Saturday. Highlights for me were Ian Rankin, Kate Atkinson and Denise Mina. The Killer Women were there. I have to admit to never having read Will Dean, but a number of swoony ladies told me that I should go to his panel – and I’m not sure it was completely about what he had to say. (I have seen A LOT of photographs on social media of women posing at the festival with Will Dean and his fabulous hair. Just saying.) Other people will have named other writers as their headline events. There were so many to choose from: Mark Billingham, Robert Harris, Lynda La Plante, John Connolly…

What there wasn’t so much of was big publishers and writers’ cliques. There were no separate parties and meals and ‘dos’ for people on the inside track (or if there were, they kept them very quiet and didn’t invite me *cue moment of social insecurity*). If there were any stars of this show, I’d say it was the bloggers. There was a particular posse of bloggers whose glee and enthusiasm lit up whichever room they were in. They were fabulous and represent the readers to whom every writer and publisher at the event owes their living and career.

I took part in the Digital Festival, recording video footage that will go live as part of an online showcase at the end of October. I’m new to this game – one little book being digitally published by Orion’s new imprint Dash Books. I saw other new authors waiting to be recorded alongside much bigger, more established names. Again, a platform for all, and one that recognised how much of the book business is now in the virtual world, rather than ink and paper, and bricks and mortar. (Like London, accepting of and alive to change.)

For me, the symbol of this festival was the free tea and coffee (sponsored by Pan Macmillan) – kind, practical and sustaining. Every effort had been made to keep the festival affordable – writing isn’t always the most lucrative of endeavours and books are a costly addiction – and free tea was a much-appreciated touch. (Hoping for an aligned sponsorship from Mcvities next year, maybe??) Capital Crime was a tea and coffee festival, rather than a prosecco and cocktail festival, and I loved it for that. I’m feeling energised and ready to get writing, and reading, ready for next year’s Capital Crime.

Thank you to all the organisers for making it such a smooth-running, friendly and enjoyable festival.

Holiday reading

11902521_10153119920583333_1817372311601665677_nI’m on holiday and for me this means that, in between the usual paddling, sandcastles and family arguments, I’m reading. Two books so far this week.
The first was Ian McEwan’s cool and confident The Children Act. Very hard to find fault with it, it was engaging and thought-provoking, yet I can’t help feeling that maturity has stripped him a little of his va va boom. I miss the McEwan of the short stories and novellas. (I feel the opposite about Angela Carter. I find the early stuff compelling, like watching a confusion of fireworks shooting out from different places, but as she matured into a master sorcerer, weaving the lights and colour into perfect patterns. Imagine what she would have created if she’d lived a little longer?)
Next I read a classic and much lauded crime fiction novel by a woman. I like the crime genre. It has a pleasing plot structure and it takes you to interesting places in the human mind. I’m not going to name the author or the book because I don’t want you to think that I have anything against this specific book. It was brilliantly plotted, fast-paced, it kept the tension high, interesting and real central characters, loads of good stuff. The problem I had with it didn’t really hit me til I picked up my next book, something else in the same genre by a woman, and read the first line – another woman in pain and danger and more blood.
This isn’t a feminist complaint about female victims in crime. Sometimes, now, the perpetrators are women and the victims are men. Either way, women are in pain or in danger of suffering pain. And there’s lots of blood (often with the addition of some other bodily fluid). Why? The thing I like about crime is the puzzle, the plot puzzle and the human puzzle. Where can I get this without the blood and the women in physical pain?
And it’s not just crime. Even the usually safe ground of romance now comes with the same flavours – think vampires, Fifty Shades, domestic noir… What’s happening to us that is being reflected in our fiction? Has it always been like this and I haven’t noticed? Has it always been there but presented in a more palatable manner? Is it some reaction to the growing outward power of women? And if so, why are women embracing it, rather than fighting its imposition?
Whatever is going on, for me, it’s making very tedious reading. I’m off to the pile of holiday books to find something that doesn’t start with a strong woman made vulnerable and leaking some combination of sweat, tears, mucous or blood.

Genre à la mode

 

Literary fiction gets up my nose. Not the books themselves, necessarily, though some of them do put up-yer-arse-ness above readability and a bloody good yarn to far too great a degree. I mean the idea of it and its elitism. ‘So whose bloodline can you claim? Austen? Conrad?’ … ‘Sorry? Weldon. Keyes.’ ‘Oh. You’ll be needing next door.’

Then there’s the fact that most people, whilst claiming it as their friend, don’t know what it is. I’ve heard publishing folk talk about the need to categorise books so they ‘know where to put them in a bookshop’. Really? I’ve bought all kinds of books off alphabetised shelves and tables of random picks, and my local Sally Army secondhand shop doesn’t even bother dividing the As from the Zs. It never stops me finding what I want. Academics say they know what it is – generally it’s the ‘good’ stuff. A friend who writes genre crime fiction was once asked, ‘Why don’t you write literary fiction instead? You’re good enough.’ I went there once and wrote an essay challenging the existence of a binary opposition between literary fiction and genre fiction. Let’s just say that it was not wholly successful and my theory was not well received. I like to think that the problem was that I didn’t find the right way to make my point, not that I was entirely wrong.

Agents, publishers, academics, the writing industry, seem to be obsessed with labelling books and writers. Writer as brand is where it’s at. I once worked in branding and was told by the very bright but very drug-addled Creative Director that what the label was mattered less than that it be stuck to, consistent. Fine for a toothpaste or a firm of accountants, but a writer?

And the labelling starts before the work is created. It’s marketing, baby, respond to customer need! Tell me what you’re writing? Is it literary fiction or genre? These were the most common questions I was asked during my writing MA. I don’t know! If it’s not deep and intellectual, unlikely to be short-listed for a booker, does that mean that it needs to fit into a pre-existing genre jacket? You find yourself shopping for a genre, checking what’s in fashion, what might suit you. Young, unmarried female protagonist – clearly the high heels and designer handbag of chicklit. She’s married with children – grab the Boden catalogue for slim fit jeans and a co-ordinating sweater to disguise the mummy-midriff. Someone dies in dodgy circumstances – crime – something black, purple nail varnish. Add a bit of horror – stick a hoody on.

What if I want to shake things up, create my own style? Did Dickens think: Ahh, I think I’ll write literary fiction, something Dickensian?

Fine. I accept that it helps to know who you want to read your book and to be able to say it’s a bit like X or Y to help readers to find it. But if you try to hard to write within a box you can create a monster. What would Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights have been like if she’d tried to write it for the YA market? All those sensitive souls who want to write literary fiction and end up writing something faux brow (thank CF) and unreadable. What if you want to mix things up?

What do I know? I’ve decided to write my story and create my own genre (with some help – thanks AB). It’s called ‘Mummycrime’. It’s a mix and subversion of mummylit and crime fiction (not detective fiction – that’s another genre, silly!), and it’s literate, not literary. I’m hoping that if I say this enough, by the time the novel is finished I will have willed my genre into existence – think Boden jeans with something boho from Camden Market and purple nails, probably Mac.

A kick up the whatsit from Transworld and Cath Staincliffe

Last night I was lucky enough to attend a Transworld event marking the launch of Cath Staincliffe’s new Scott & Bailey novel ‘Bleed Like Me’. It was a great opportunity to meet the real people who work in publishing and discover that they are not the money-obsessed naysayers nascent writers, like myself, fear exist only to shatter our dreams. They were really rather nice. Furthermore they were genuinely passionate about books and writing and loving every minute of making dreams fly for both writers and readers.

Cath Staincliffe was there to talk about her writing process and career, and specifically about the Scott & Bailey novels. I had been avoiding the books because I assumed that they were re-tellings of the TV series plots. Not so, the first is a prequel to the series and ‘Bleed Like Me’, and the future titles, slot in between the stories told on TV. So, another couple of books to add to the to-read pile.

However, despite having a signed copy of the book in my paws, thanks to last night, I won’t be reading it right away. I’m sure this wasn’t the intention of last night (sorry lovely people), but what I took away with me was the determination to get on with my writing. Cath is an inspiration. Her output is phenomenal and her publishers clearly love her for her professionalism – because that’s what she is a professional who is bloody good at what she does.

I’ve written commercially for years – mastered the structure, written properly formed sentences and paragraphs, targeted to my audience and finished on deadline. So why am I being so airy fairy and insecure about my creative writing? I might not be Cath Staincliffe but I’ll never get anywhere if I don’t get what’s in my head down on paper.

So, thanks Cath for being so gracious and for the book. Thanks Transworld for the meal, the wine, the chat and the murderous cup cakes. I hope you will forgive me if I don’t read the books just yet. I have a few thousand words to write first.

What next?

Assignment done. Or rather I’m done with my assignment. There are the correct number of words, more or less (ok, more), a bibliography in alphabetical order, mostly (I have a morbid horror of mixing apples and Fiats) and there is a title, two titles actually, one for each part (but panic ye not oh pedants of the university administration, they are in one document with one properly printed cover sheet). So, just the handing in to do. Then what?

I’m handing in Act I of a screenplay for a TV crime drama – an urban, more contemporary  Midsomer Murders, set in a university city – Cambridge not Oxford – with a very un-Morse-like detective. I’ve drafted Acts II and III, but they need editing. The assignment is done but the completer-finisher in me insists I complete and finish. Then what?

I don’t know!

Do I go back to the novel I abandoned eight chapters in about modern, urban witches with life issues rather than broomsticks? I think the solution to the novel’s own issues could be a switch from third to first person. Or there’s the crime novel based on the story from the screenplay. Possibly more commercial. But will I get bored having done it. And I rather enjoyed writing a screenplay – I could make the witches into a screenplay. Or write another Inspector Gunn story. Or there’s Bev…

To be a writer, just write they say. But what? Screenplay or novel? Witches, Gunn or Bev?