Theakston’s Old Peculiar Crime Writing Festival 2011, Harrogate

Posted on July 23, 2011 in Blog

I’ve just returned from two great days at the Harrogate Crime Festival.  For the first time I took part in ‘Creative Thursday’ – a full day of crime writing with bestselling authors Allan Guthrie, Stuart McBride, Dreda Say Mitchell and N J Cooper.  It was a great event, see below for more details.  Mac joined me later in the day and we stayed overnight at The Old Swan hotel in Harrogate where the festival is being held for the first time.  It was a better venue than last year in terms of size and on-site parking, although a little pricey for the ‘faded grandeur’ accommodation on offer.

After a hearty breakfast we kicked off our ‘Friday Rover’ day at 9am with the formidable Martina Cole, interviewed by author Dreda Say Mitchell.  Martina’s books aren’t to everyone’s taste but no-one can deny her popularity and her unique appeal to readers of all ages and both genders.  Mac and I loved the TV adaptation of ‘The Take’ and ‘The Runaway’ and Martina herself said she was delighted with the quality of the adaptation and talented cast.  We can look forward to more TV adaptations and Martina is also involved in theatre and film projects, as well as her work within prisons….busy lady!

After a 45-minute interview, questions were opened up to the audience.  I asked Martina to tell us about her writing routine.  She said her home was a busy place, always with people coming and going.  For this reason, she normally starts writing around 10 pm for about 3 hours….it’s the only time she gets a bit of peace and quiet!

10.30: ‘Penned In’featured investigative journalist and crime author Duncan Campbell interviewing former prison inmates Erwin James, who served a life sentence for murder before becoming a Guardian columnist; ex-football hooligan-turned-writer and publisher Cass Pennant and Jonathan Aitken, former Cabinet Minister, ex-prisoner and author.

This made for a fascinating hour, learning how all the men had managed to turn their lives around despite terrible childhoods and (for some), equally terrible crimes against others.  None of them showed self-pity, all seemed remorseful.  Without getting into politics, they had all been saved by and helped others, through their writing.  Every one of them said they had queues every night outside their jail cells – men who needed letters reading or writing to solicitors, girlfriends, wives, etc.

Mac bought Cass’s book to take on holiday.  At the signing table I couldn’t help but feel sorry for Jonathan Aitken….the others were steadily signing books but I never saw one person at his table…an author’s nightmare!!

12 noon: ‘Wrong ‘Uns’ – Authors Mandasue Heller, Denise Mina, Craig Robertson and Alex Wheatle were interviewed by thriller writer James Twining.  The theme was the depiction of dark underworlds and complex anti-heroes in their novels.  Heller talked about her own experience of assault as a young woman and the panel debated amongst themselves on whether violence and gore was justified in their books.

Denise Mina, a feminist crime writer, said she was sick of reading novels about sex workers (the pc term for prostitutes, for those who don’t know).  Denise felt that sex workers are an easy target because readers will generally tolerate far more violence against these women, who are widely viewed as being undeserving of support and respect.  Cue Craig Robertson grovelling to Denise as he confessed his second novel featured sex worker murders!

1.00 pm– Scrummy roast beef lunch in the dining room,  included in our £79 pp Friday Rover tickets.

2.00 pm: ‘Old Blood’– Each year at the festival, the great Val McDermid interviews a panel of ‘New Blood’ – four promising debut crime writers.  All of the authors on the panel; Nick Stone, Allan Guthrie, Cathi Unsworth and Mark Mills, were previous ‘New Blood’ writers and the purpose of the interview, by the irrepressible crime author Martyn Waites (aka Tania Carver), was to catch-up on how their writing careers had developed since their first novels.

All had prospered, particularly Guthrie who is now an established author, a champion of e-publishing (his recent e-novella selling around 30K copies) and the only writer who is also an agent.

When questions were opened up to the audience, I asked about their self-promotion. Did the publishers do a lot for them, publicity-wise, or were they expected to do lots for themselves?  Unequivocally, they all said they had to do lots of self-promotion.  Guthrie pointed out that authors themselves are the brand and for that reason, readers want to see them in the flesh.  They all also said that publishers encouraged and expected them to use all means – including social networking – to promote their work.  Personal author websites, Twitter and Facebook are all powerful tools that writers can no longer afford to ignore yet I got the impression most have little interest in using.

3.30 pm: ‘What Lies Beneath’– Crime author N J Cooper hosted a panel of authors, getting to grips with the fascination and appeal of the psychological thriller.  Sophie Hannah, Tana French, Steve Mosby and Andrew Taylor, standing in for bestselling Scandi-crime author Camilla Lackbergwho was unable to attend as she is suffering from Lymes disease, which sounds perfectly horrid.

I particularly enjoyed this session, partly due to N J Cooper’s excellent interviewing technique and velvet tones and also because I write in this genre.  The authors discussed how the particular build-up of mystery and tension in a psychological thriller seemed to hook readers more than other crime genres.  A woman in the audience said to Andrew Taylor that the last book in his Roth Trilogy, had a very disturbing affect on her…the author apologised!  He also explained that unfortunately, similar things are happening all around us in society.

The consensus between the authors seemed to be that although they may start with a rough outline of the story, they don’t strictly plot and the narrative evolves in the writing process.

Sophie Hannah said she thought that psychological thrillers were even more satisfying when something is left unresolved at the end of a book because this mirrors real-life.  She quoted Tana French’s novel ‘In the Woods’, where two mysteries run through the narrative.  One is solved at the end, one remains open.

ABOVE:  Highlight of the festival for me was grabbing bestselling authors Mark Billingham and Val McDermid for a photo opportunity!

CREATIVE THURSDAY – A day of crime writing with bestselling authors

9.30-11.30 am ‘Serial Characters’ The morning workshop was run by author Dreda Say Mitchell and her partner Tony Mason who she credits with helping her write her books.  Our task was to look at how crime authors create lead characters interesting enough to sustain a whole series of novels.  Dreda is a great workshop leader.  A trained teacher she was vibrant and enthusiastic and kept us motivated and on-task.

We explored a variety of techniques and tools that help to create memorable characters.  Some of the exercises were familiar to me from the first year of my degree but I found it useful to explore such techniques again.

We all picked a different footwear picture out of a bag and then wrote a passage describing the footwear but at the same time, developing the character who would wear them.  My picture was a pair of very shiny black bovver boots similar to the pic on the right.  My character sprang forth:

The shoes are shiny and black because he works to keep them that way.  Every night, without fail, he gets out his shoe polish kit and he buffs them up.  And as he shines, he thinks.  It’s the only time he thinks.  He thinks about his daughter, Kira, and what she might look like.  He thinks about what her mother tells the kid about him, if anything at all.  He thinks about getting a job and he sometimes acknowledges that his trouble is, he is all thought and no action.

He’s particular about his laces.  They have to be white.  They have to be pure white.  He keeps spare laces in his pocket, wrapped in his Grandad’s old hanky.

The shoes make him feel hard.  Powerful. 

The soles are thick, the steel toes are tough and dangerous.  When he wears them, he feels angry and bad.  No-one can see anything soft or hurting.

 And that’s the way he likes it.

Once we had our character, we were asked to develop it further by dropping them into a situation such as; What if my character is in debt and needs to get money quickly?  What if they go home to confront their partner about an affair?  What if they stumble across a burglar?

Despite the basic character being developed in the five-minute previous exercise, as a writer you already had a flavour of how that character might react in the given circumstances.  This exercise can be particularly useful to keep your protagonist ‘in-character’ and on track within a novel and also would be useful to kick-start a period of writing block by dropping them into a dramatic situation and keeping it pacy.

11.45-12.45 pm ‘Getting to ‘Yes’ – Submission Letters and Synopses’ – Always useful to review one’s first approach to a prospective agent or publisher.  Author and former publisher N J Cooper and Random House publisher Selina Walker, gave us the benefit of their expert guidance on making the most of a submission.

We learned the Five things agents and publishers are looking for:

  • A writer who knows instinctively how to tell a story
  • A writer who knows how to create characters the reader likes
  • A writer with distinctive tone or ‘voice’
  • A writer who can create convincing dialogue
  • A writer who’s clear about the genre he or she is writing in, whether it’s crime or romance or women’s fiction.  This means the publishers will know who the ideal reader is, and where shops should display the book

And of course we covered the importance of a submission letter that has been proofread with all spellings and grammar correct.

We were given examples of good submission letters and a good synopsis and Selina Walker gave us a mock pitch of a book.  If a publisher gets a manuscript from an agent and they want to buy it, they must themselves pitch it to a panel in order to get permission to go ahead.  This helped us understand the importance of the five points above for authors to consider while they are writing.

The cost of the day was £99, including lunch.  I thought it was a fair price considering the quality of workshops/tutors and networking opportunities with other writers.

13.45-15.45 pm ‘Show Don’t Tell’ – Acclaimed authors Allan Guthrie and Stuart MacBride showed us (didn’t tell us!) how to succeed.  Allan and Stuart’s workshop style was far more laid back than our morning session and there didn’t seem to be as much energy in the room but that could have been due to a post-lunch low!  The duo were witty and obviously accomplished writers who practised the ‘rules’ we were covering in the session.

Again, I’d done much of this stuff on my NTU English and Creative Writing degree but you forget things and it’s always useful to take a refresher on the ‘rules’.

Basically, it’s lazy writing to simply ‘tell’ the reader what’s happening in the narrative.  It is far more dynamic and pacy to ‘show’ what you want to say instead.  Example:

TELL:  She suspected that Bob was lying to her because every time she asked him where he was going, he looked guilty.


“Where are you going?”

“Nowhere,” said Bob, averting his eyes.

In this example, the reader gets to make a judgement themselves on a character, rather than be spoonfed what the author wants them to think.

We looked at the dangers of using passive voice in our writing.  Example:

X – He had been a doctor

√ – He was a doctor

X – He had a car that he had paid for by working overtime

√ –  He had paid for the car by working overtime

Passive voice slows down the pace of a piece, over-qualifying meaning and using redundant words that take the ‘bite’ out of prose.

We were given bad examples of writing, illustrating these points and others, as an incentive to avoid making the same mistakes in our own writing!

16.00 The Dragon’s Pen–  Hosted by bestselling crime author Mark Billingham, all delegates had the opportunity to spend two minutes pitching to four publishing professionals in front of an audience and to receive feedback.  This opportunity was invaluable and I was praised for my confident pitch, although it was noted that I needed to make the genre of my novel clearer and also, as it is a crime novel, to have more deaths!!

6.00pm Alibi’s Search for a New Crime Writer 2011– as a delegate of Creative Thursday, I was pleased to receive two invitations to this glitzy reception with drinks and canapés!  Alibi a crime channel on SKY tv, sponsored by HarperCollins publishers, Theaksons Crime Writing Festival and the TV times, had a crime writing competition this year (which I am gutted to have missed) to discover a new crime-writing talent.  Unfortunately, Camilla Lackberg, the bestselling Scandi-author was ill and unable to present the award.  After several glasses of fizz and tasty canapés, we headed to a lovely Harrogate Italian restaurant for more fizz and delicious nosh.  A perfect ending to an exciting and informative day!

The Festival continues until 24th July.  Although my time commitment wouldn’t allow me to spend any longer there, I hope to attend for maybe three days next year.  It’s a very well organised and thrilling event for writers and readers of all types of crime fiction and I can’t recommend it enough.

4 commments on “Theakston’s Old Peculiar Crime Writing Festival 2011, Harrogate”

  • Nanette says:

    Love your story “A Helping Hand”, Kim! Found myself tensing up reading it! “Slumped into my old man posture” …. really creepy! Well done on impressing the judges!

  • Amanda Ward says:

    Hi Kim, Was just looking up the old TOPCWF website to recall every author who participated and came across your blog so was wallowing in the nostalgia of a fabulously wonderful weekend in Harrogate. I remember you very clearly and it was lovely to read your descriptions of the various talks and the educational Creative Thursday (including Dragon’s Pen, which I did as well as you). Quite harrowing but instructive even to those the panel hated! Natasha (NJ) Cooper was really sweet to me and said don’t get discouraged, just keep going….I went away in the end with 21 books signed, so I was zinging with pleasure, and my Library was quite pleased as I had arranged with them to get a couple of their copies signed. I can’t believe that in that whole time I hadn’t caught up with Mark Billingham but knowing he was chairing the very last talk with Dennis Lehane,I figured I’d wait ’til last, only Mark sloped off early to catch a train! I ‘told him off’ on Facebook and he apologised! Keep up the good work Kim.

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