Recently, I came across an old article discussing why writers can feel like frauds. "The Imposter Syndrome" - when you have difficulty internalising your own accomplishments. This isn't unique to writers, it's pretty common among a plethora of vocations. Though it links in pretty neatly with a favourite quote of mine: "The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt." - Sylvia Plath.

 

All of this left me a tad reflective on the nature of our self-doubt for writers. Especially crime writers. For many crime writers, their work needs to feel realistic in order to maintain the suspension of disbelief. I'm not saying there aren't other genres that require this. What I'm saying is that readers of crime tend to be particularly savvy when it comes to picking up inconsistencies, errors in police procedure and technical aspects of forensics which the average man on the street won't know (or care about.) As the self-doubt ridden creatures we are, it makes it tougher to stomach when we need to exercise some artistic license (in order to keep the story from becoming bogged down in the land of tedious real life.) We look at these bits and go "is anybody really going to believe this nonsense?" Obviously some people do... there's many a massively successful author who seems to draw opposing opinions in this area. Some people think they're the best thing since sliced bread, yet others will decry them, shouting from the rooftops how they've written unrealistic drivel.

 

Then there's an area, brought up recently by Rosie Claverton's sharp piece, covering whether crime fiction contributes to the mental health stigma in society. (If you haven't read it, you should.) Which brings in another area of writing crime that pops into my mind every now and again. Does a writer have a moral obligation to steer their reader towards more conscientious and ethical behaviour? If you believe this, then it gives a brand new clip of ammunition for your self-doubt. Am I achieving the right message in this dubious grey area? Am I making the societal stigma of mental illness worse or better? Do I even know how I'm affecting this? The list of questions goes on.

 

Of course, just about everybody is familiar with the negative outcomes from self-doubt. You miss out on trying something new. You discover something you were ashamed of for years isn't anywhere near as awful as you thought it was. Writers do tend to be our own worst critics. Every novel, story or article is another wreck we drop while travelling along our winding road of lingual destruction. At Harrogate I was surrounded by so many talented writers. I felt like a minnow in a great ocean. I was even starstruck a couple of times. Every time I read anything I enjoy, it always makes me doubt my own work. "It's just substandard." I tell myself. "It's not good enough to sit on the shelf next to what these people have written." Self-doubt really is a killer! A buzz killer!!!

 

It's at this point I stop to doubt my own doubt. (Take that Descartes!) All these great writers are all still human. They eat, they sleep (well, some of them do), they drink. Yeah, we all definitely drink. The point being, not one of them is some superior deity. If all of these humans can achieve these great things through hard work and talent, then anybody else with enough talent can. The thing that probably makes all the difference, is the hard work they put in. Self-doubt doesn't defeat them. It just pushes them on to work harder and make sure their writing, their story... is the best quality it can be.

 

It brings me back around rather nicely to the opening quote - Well Sylvia, I agree that self-doubt may be our worst enemy, but I think like many of our greatest... you haven't completed the thought. It may be our worst enemy, but we need it to keep us honest. To keep us strong, yet humble. To keep us working hard, and to work harder even when we think we're almost done. Every last sentence smoothed down and then polished for that fine glossy finish. That's how the best work is created. Self-doubt may be the worst enemy to creativity, but it's the greatest ally of quality writing.

HarrogateThere's something rather heady about the atmosphere at this particular event in the crime calendar. It manages to combine all the excitement, fun and inspiration... with a debilitating lack of sleep and a temperature that makes you slowly melt into the fabric of your own clothing. Everyone attending demonstrated some remarkable stamina as they drugged themselves with coffee and nicotine to counteract the sleep deprivation. So my hat comes off to anyone who was able to withstand the heat and make it through more than two event sessions in a row... or anyone who was wearing more than one layer of clothing. There should also be a mention of the 4:30am survivors. Who can doubt the fortitude and stamina of those people who then showed up for a 10am panel?

One thing really pleased me about the weekend - how things like this never cease to provide a pleasant surprise. Even when you're expecting a surprise (does that mean it's not a surprise anymore by definition?) you still get that feeling of surprise. I'm going to stop using the word surprise now. The various panels/interviews I'd mentioned before leaving were all great. I'd like to make particular note of "The Good Old Days" panel with James Oswald, Mari Hannah, Mark Edwards and Mel Sherratt. Very entertaining and gave me one of my quotes of the festival. James Oswald responding to the discussion on whether publishing is in a crisis today: "I've been hanging around the fringes of publishing for twenty years and it's always been in crisis."

J.K. Rowling interviewOf course the most memorable bits are the ones you weren't even expecting. Somehow I managed to fluke a front row seat at the J.K. Rowling (as Robert Galbraith) interview. Unfortunately photography was not allowed, so all I was able to get was empty chairs. The interview itself was great fun and addressed all the areas we had questions on, including why J.K. Rowling took the pseudonym Robert Galbraith and whether the use of characters in the publishing industry was inspired by real people. In case you're wondering, she was looking to see if she could get a book published exclusively on its own merits, and she only based the nice characters on real people. We were even treated to the knowledge that the Cormoran Strike series is planned to be much longer than the Harry Potter series was. Witty and charming, I still feel a little privileged to have been able to get up so close to the interview.

The other major high point for me was the panel on "The New Wave of Forensics." We were given a really entertaining and energetic discussion, as resident forensic advisor to the police, Dave "the semen expert" Barclay had us all rolling in the aisles. The depth of his knowledge, combined with his raw wit, used in an unyielding deadpan delivery was nothing short of hilarious. (Extremely informative too! I can never look at a sauna in the same way again now.) There were, of course, other great events which deserve a mention. The Broadchurch panel, the murder mystery dinner and of course - the farewell interview for crime fiction and writing giant John Harvey which concluded the festival.

John Harvey interviewed by Mark BillinghamNaturally the events and panels were only part of the experience. The chance to talk with some of the authors who you've read is great. You can't walk very far without getting into a conversation with somebody, whether they're a reader or a writer. Everybody is just so friendly (and tipsy?) at this event. You can't help but be touched by the warm and welcoming atmosphere. After getting over a little case of being starstruck, I managed to meet a couple of the writers I'd been hoping to meet. Though the best thing was discovering how many fellow readers and writers just have a fantastic sense of humour. (It's usually quite a dark sense of humour.) It's impossible to describe all of those laugh out loud moments I enjoyed... but one unpublished writer was telling me about a breakfast she'd shared with other aspiring authors. They were all discussing, in fairly gory detail, the pros and cons of different methods of murdering people. She then looked at me with a sparkle of magic in her eyes and said "THIS is exactly how life should be! It was wonderful." There were plenty of other lines that made me laugh, but this one stood out because of the excitement she clearly felt at being able to discuss darker topics in a such frank way. We should all be this happy at thinking those darker thoughts.

Mark BillinghamI also took a couple of books along to the festival to get them signed. After catching a terrified Mark Billingham to sign my first edition of Sleepyhead, I was able to hunt down the infamous cow chasing James Oswald. After accosting him in the drive of the hotel, I roared threats of violence at him until he signed my copy of Natural Causes. After realising the immediate danger of his situation, his shaking hand quickly scribbled lies about enjoying my company. As he scampered off, thankful to escape with his life, I was left wondering why I invented such a silly story. I think it's because he's such a thoroughly nice bloke, that if I told you how it really happened... it wouldn't be so interesting or funny. It's great to see his latest book is doing so well. I haven't had chance to read it yet, but I will... and if it's as good as his last ones then I'll be able to recommend that to everybody too.

One final thing which should never go unsaid: everybody who worked behind the scenes to put the festival together and ensure it ran smoothly can't be thanked enough. The programming chair for this year, Steve Mosby, paid tribute to them in his speech and I'd like to thank them too (along with everyone else who helped to put the events together and everyone who took part.) You've all done an amazing job and I'll be back next year.

James Oswald's signed book 

The Harrogate Crime Festival is on the horizon once more. Thinking about all the great events this weekend is enough to excite any aficionado of the genre. A couple do deserve special mention. The obvious one is Val McDermid interviewing J.K. Rowling on her writing under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. It says that Val was a big fan of "Robert Galbraith's writing" before the media revealed who was behind the pseudonym. I'd heard similar at another even from another big author who shall remain nameless. So that definitely put this on my ever-lengthening "to read" list. It intrigues me on a couple of levels because the cynic in me thinks this is just more smoke and mirrors to sell books and make money.... but the lover of a good story is quietly hoping that it's all about the literature for Val, which if I'm honest, I suspect it is. Whatever is really going on, it's a can't-miss event.

As an independent author, the panel on Friday with Mel Sherratt and James Oswald will be a nice treat. While I'm already aware of their journey to market that ended with a traditional publishing deal, you never know what new questions might unearth. There's always something new to learn! Ann Cleeves will also be doing a couple of things there. Besides the interview, she's doing another murder mystery evening. I had the pleasure of attending the one she created for the Lit & Phil in Newcastle. (She's been incredibly supportive of the library there and, as someone who uses it frequently, I think we can't be grateful enough to everybody who helps out and gives up their time for free.) So that's something I'm really looking forward to. No doubt there'll be a Poirot or Miss Marple present who'll beat me to the conclusion.

Finally there's another panel on plot twists which I'm quite excited about. The shooting star that is Nick Stone is on the panel with the enormous (figuratively) Simon Kernick. This is chaired by the man who we have to thank for putting together these interesting panels - the Programming Chair, Steve Mosby. I'm really looking forward to this one in particular because good plot twists have always been something I enjoy the most in any book. So it's a great topic and great choice of people talking.

There will be other phenomenal writers there, including others that I like, but these are just a couple of the events at the festival I'm looking forward to. I'll probably come back and say I enjoyed something else even more.

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