Guest post: The Newcastle Literary Salon by Ben Aaron MacLeod

Today on the blog, we have Ben Aaron MacLeod talking about the Newcastle Literary Salon. Ben is one of the co-hosts of the Salon, along with the lovely Juli Watson. I’ve been fortunate enough to read at the Salon before and it’s a really unique atmosphere. 

Thanks to Ben for appearing on the blog.

Vic x

The Newcastle Literary Salon.

By Ben Aaron MacLeod.

What single word is the most frightening to modern aspiring authors? Rejection? Editing? Typos? None of those, I’d argue. If you’ve ever been to a workshop on getting published, one hosted not by authors or small-time presses, but the big international print houses, you’ll know that there is only one word on everyone’s lips. One confusing, cringe-worthy word, without which, they tell you point blank, you’ll never even get an agent, never mind published on a global scale. That word is platform.

This was the grim discovery I made when I attended the Hay House Writer’s workshop in London two years ago, where they’d jetted in their CEO, Reid Tracy, all the way from LA or somewhere, just to put us all out of our misery and open our eyes to the true sausage-making of books. But what is platform? I remember asking myself, and as Reid explained I liked the sound of it less and less. An author’s platform is their presence, nowadays chiefly online, it’s about the influence they have, who they know and most importantly, how much of the public they can reach. It’s what I call the neo-nepotism of the literary world and it all boils down to this: How many people are listening when you speak? Basically, you already have to be famous before you can become a famous author. This is the enigma offered to many starting on the Road to JK Rowling, a perpetual chicken and the egg argument that sinks so many dreams in a tide of rejection letters. This is the cold, number-crunching reality of the traditional publishing world, that nobody will do your marketing for you, that big publishers won’t accept submissions except from an agent and if you haven’t got a big enough platform, a ready-made audience, then agents won’t even read your work.

Most writers are typically of the shy and retiring disposition, content to spend their days cloistered by computers, barricaded behind walls of words. It seemed like this cruel world was asking a lot of its introverts. It was with this clarion message and resounding dichotomy still ringing in my ears over a year later, that I decided to moot the possibility of founding Newcastle’s first permanent Literary Salon with poet and artist Juli Watson. As shy and introverted as Juli and I are in private, in public we are the reverse. Together we decided to use this hard-won superpower for good, not evil, to help encourage and promote the literary and poetic arts of Newcastle and support our fellow writers in the development of their elusive fame.

So, back in January, our new spoken-word night emerged onto the literary scene. The reasoning behind the Salon was thus, that we would be there for the North East’s book-hungry, poem-drunk masses to quench their fill of the region’s latest offerings and to provide a marketplace, where local word-farmers might come and tout their wares, while gaining tips from worthy peers. From the outset, we chose the word Salon, eager to bring a flush of grand civility, the smell of the Lit and Phil to a spoken-word scene dominated by pubs. We were keen to return to the old ways, the heritage of the Salon ideals, because this modern world of self-publishing, platform and publishers-beyond-reach have unwittingly returned us to the patronage of old, only now our patrons are the public at large and not merely a select few.

We established a theme for each evening, something to give our writers camaraderie and the audience something to get their teeth into. In November, we’re set to tackle Revolution and Revolt and after a Christmas break, in January we will examine Childhood and Family. With no topic anathema, we hope to carry the spirit of Salons of old, to stir discussion and dissent in equal measure. In line with tradition, we dispensed with open-mic, but made the invitations open to all. Anyone can write to us and request to perform; our email address is below. Without open-mic we feel the evenings are structured and organised, as comfortable as theatre and not like truck-spotting on a windy bridge, waiting for something good to come around the bend; always waiting, never sure. But if the future will of the people bends to open-mic, then who would we be to refuse? We are, after all, an instrument of the great unread. From the audience side, we hope it is a fun night out, where cup of tea and slice of pizza or glass of wine and piece of cake can accompany fresh forays into the literary arts; a feast of discovery, expanding both waistlines and minds.

Having spent our youth in the cosy environs of the Scrumpy Willow, we are now venturing to pastures new, with our inaugural appearance at Bar Loco on Friday, 27th of November. We’ve had some great guests performing for us along the way, including Valerie Laws, Scott Tyrell and Josephine Scott, as well as many local favourites like Jenni Pascoe, Harry Gallagher, Patrick Shannon and Steve Urwin. I’ve been particularly pleased to witness the emergence of a new generation of talent, people I never would have read or heard of otherwise; the astounding poetry of Anna Chen and Catherine Selkirk Ayres, the performance talent of Leila Hussein and Alix Alixandra or the gripping prose of MJ Wesolowski, Andrew Atkinson, James Tucker and countless more that spring to mind. Because the Salon is ultimately there for you. If you write, it’s your chance to read and grow. If you like books, then it’s your opportunity to shake the hands that wrote them, to guide and shape the artists’ development with your opinions and insight, to get the inside track on what’s really going on.

As far as I know, we are still the only regular spoken-word night in the North East where admission is free. This isn’t because our performers are sh*t, or what we have isn’t worth paying for, it’s because Juli and I strongly believe that access to the arts should be free to all. If poetry moves you to remove twenty quid from your pocket and thrust it through streaming eyes at our performers, or even us for that matter, then that’s greatly appreciated, but just because you haven’t got five pounds to rub together doesn’t mean you should be denied that experience in the first place. But freedom often comes at a cost and without your presence and support, we simply can’t continue. So rather than sell tickets, we receive donations at the end of the night, so everyone can pay what they feel the evening was worth to them and we can put the money back into the Salon, towards marketing and bringing it to a wider audience.

We want to spread the word, not only about good writing, but about good writers and poets. We always set aside time for the performers to tell the audience a bit about themselves and their work; what inspires them, why they became writers and what the work is really about.

I knew from the outset that I didn’t want bare, stark readings, plain writing standing alone. If that was all we had to offer, you might as well sit at home with an audiobook. I want a connection between artist and audience, something more than you get from paper and ink, to be able to see behind the scenes and put the backroom front and centre. Really, it is only through connecting with an audience, through standing up and reading aloud that a writer or poet can truly get a measure of themselves, of the power and influence of their work. In this way, the Salon isn’t a means to an end, it’s not about sales and platform, it’s about self-improvement, development and a meeting of minds. I can’t speak for Juli, but this is my vision, as grand and romantic as it probably is. We have a long way to go, admittedly, but if there’s one thing that writing novels has taught me (or trying to write them, at least!), it’s the essential art of patience.

Ben Aaron MacLeod


To read more about The Newcastle Literary Salon and for details of their latest event, simply follow:

The Newcastle Literary Salon – Bar Loco, Leazes Park Road, Newcastle

Contact for a list of upcoming themes and to enquire about appearing.

Review: ‘Master of None’ (Series 1).

Master of None

I’ve been a big fan of Aziz Ansari for several years now. I first discovered him when he starred in Parks and Recreation  as Tom Haverford, the self-assured but loveable purveyor of the ‘Treat Yo’self‘ school of thought.

Now it’s becoming increasingly difficult to avoid Ansari if you use social media – his strong feminist stance is garnering him a lot of publicity (thanks, Aziz, by the way). So it was with bated breath that I sat down to watch his new series Master of None on Netflix.

I’ve spoken to a couple of friends about Master of None who watched the first episode but felt they couldn’t get on board with a show about a dude – Dev, played by Ansari – who was thinking it might be time to settle down. But it’s so much more than that. The trailer, which shows Dev at a kid’s birthday party ruminating on his future, doesn’t do it justice.

It’s difficult for me to explain what I liked so much about this show but, for one thing, Aziz Ansari tends to play loveable characters. There’s nothing to dislike about Dev; he’s fun, funny and caring. I think I can relate to him, an actor who – despite being in his 30s – is still trying to make his way in the world. He’s watching his friends grow up, get promoted and get married while he basically stands still.

Then there’s the love interest. The interactions between Ansari and his main leading lady, Rachel (played by Noel Wells) are both sweet and realistic. The pair have excellent chemistry and, as another millennial, it’s easy to identify with their circumstances. The episode where Dev takes Rachel to Nashville is beautifully nuanced.

However, this isn’t just about dating. It’s about life. Each episode has a different theme, like old people, parents and Indians on TV, and Dev goes about his life pondering said subject.

The episodes featuring his parents (yep, Aziz’s actual parents) further demonstrate the heart inside this brilliant series. On balance, though, Master of None isn’t a saccharine cop-out. It still features plenty of absurdity. For example, everything about the movie Dev is shooting for most of the series – The Sickening – is hilarious.

I expected to plough like this series (like I have done with others) but I devoured it in just two sittings thanks to the fully-rounded characters and thoughtful storylines.


Vic x

Guest post: Stephanie Butland on the ‘difficult second novel’.


The ever-lovely Stephanie Butland has released her second novel, ‘The Other Half of my Heart‘, and to celebrate, Stephanie is visiting the blog today to talk about the ‘difficult second book’. Is it myth or is it that much harder to write your second novel? Read on to find out! As always, thanks to Stephanie for taking the time to share her writerly wisdom.  

Vic x

The Other Half of my Heart

Ah, the Tricky Second Novel. Is it as tricky as the name suggests?

Well, the first thing to say is that telling someone that something is going to be difficult isn’t really a brilliant start. Just try, right now, NOT thinking of a purple snake and you’ll see what I mean.

I think I managed to dodge a bullet, second-novel wise. There was a two year gap between my signing a two-book deal and the first novel coming out. That meant I was writing the second novel without any pressure from either:

  • the critical acclaim/worldwide success of the first book
  • the fact that it died on its arse.

(The reality for the first book, as so often in life, was somewhere between those possibilities.)

Also, I was already being paid for Novel 2. I think that was more important than I knew: although the money wasn’t enough to Be A Writer and nothing else, it did make my early fumbles at a second manuscript necessary. It took me a long time to grope my way into the plot and shape of my second novel, so had it not been expected – was it not being paid for – I think I might have abandoned it altogether. In fact I did, for a while. I started writing something else. My agent and editor admired it, and then pointed out that that wasn’t really the book that had been bought. So I went back to ‘The Other Half Of My Heart’ with much the same frame of mind as whoever it was who had to spin straw into gold. Except I didn’t even have any straw. But I was being paid. So I kept at it.

And as well as an advance, I had a deadline. This meant I ended up writing seventy thousand words in two months. (In fairness to myself, I’d written the first thirteen thousand over the previous – um – year.) Most of the words were terrible, but I had something like the shape of a book. Honour was satisfied and my editor put on her rose-coloured specs (or maybe her x-ray ones) and saw through the mess to the novel that was waiting to be coaxed into life. She gave me some hints and I did some editing and, bingo. (Well, not quite. You can read about the whole business here.)

In all honesty I don’t think my second novel was any harder to write than my first. It was a different experience, but because I’d had two non-fiction books about my dance with cancer published already, I knew that every book was different. And of course part of the reason each book is different is that the writer changes, grows more, knows more.

When I was writing ‘The Other Half Of My Heart’ I knew a lot that I hadn’t before. I had more of a sense of how publishing worked, so I didn’t feel quite so small and lost – a bit like when you’ve started a new school, but you’ve been there long enough to figure out the short cuts and understood how the canteen works. I knew that there would be a period during the writing, towards the end, when I was convinced that it would Never Work, but when I got to that point I remembered that I’d been there three times before and ploughed on.

I knew that I could write a book, and I knew that it was a question of making time and working hard.

I also knew how thrilling it is when the words do start to work out what they are doing and the characters are real enough that every little thing you write about them doesn’t have to be decided. (The first time I dress a character, everything needs a lot of thought. Once I’ve decided that someone wears, say, a tweed Crombie coat with a velvet collar, then the rest of their wardrobe will follow very easily. Put that character in hospital fifteen chapters later and I don’t even have to pause before putting his button-up pyjamas on – this is not a man who sleeps in boxers and a Def Leppard t-shirt.)

I’m just completing my fourth novel, and I think I can say though every writing experience has been different, there was nothing about this second novel that was more difficult than the first – or either of the books I’ve written since.

I suspect that, as writers, we are more fraught when we approach the second novel. It feels as though there’s more at stake. I don’t know that there is, because at the end of the day, it’s about the reader and the page and whether there’s enough on the page to keep the reader interested, whether it’s a first, second, or seventeenth novel they’re reading.

Guest post: Jennifer C. Wilson on NaNoWriMo.

Today is a really special day for one of the members of my writing group, Elementary Writers. Jennifer C. Wilson’s début novel, ‘Kindred Spirits: Tower of London, is released by Crooked Cat Publishing. 

To celebrate her publication, Jennifer has kindly agreed to appear on the blog today to talk about the process that started it all off: NaNoWriMo. 

Over to Jennifer to explain all about it! Congratulations, Jennifer, and thanks for appearing on the blog.

Vic x

Jennifer C Wilson in Leicester Cathedral

To Boldly NaNo?

Every November since 1999, writers around the globe have been signing up for the gloriously mad challenge that is National Novel Writing Month, or “NaNoWriMo”. I first took the plunge in 2009, following the advice of a friend, and was delighted to hit the magical 50,000-word target with only a day to spare. It was fun. It was exhilarating. It was rubbish. My dialogue was terrible. Not a lot actually happened, despite having a plot full of twists and turns, and I told everything, hardly showing a thing.

Reading it back now, the adaptation of a plot first dreamt up so many years before, there is clearly some semblance of a story, some decent characters, even a theme, but the writing quality is dreadful. Yet, that isn’t the point of NaNoWriMo.

The point is to have a go, and, if you manage it, to come out at the end of the month with 50,000 words that you can review, revise and edit the life out of. It is a very rough draft, the first cut, in need of a lot of refinement – but if you think about it, you cannot edit what you haven’t written. One day, I’ll go back to my first attempt, but I know for a fact that my second ‘win’ in 2013 was significantly better, mainly thanks to the rubbish I wrote in 2009.

In 2013, I tried harder. Focused on the quality, even though you’re meant to ignore your ‘inner editor’ for the duration… I got lost in my ideas, became obsessed with my characters, and generally had a fabulous month with them all.

And I think that showed. Don’t get me wrong, it still needed a lot of work, but when I read it back, it was a pleasure, not a cringe-inducing wreck of a text. As a result, I felt it was worth spending more time on, giving it a thorough edit, and hopefully, a bit of a chance in life.

Part of it was written during the Elementary Writers workshops, and when the time came that I finally felt brave enough to share, having that feedback was invaluable. It especially helped me through that necessary evil, the synopsis. I am not good at synopses.

After almost two years, it was ready to be released into the wild, and I’m thrilled that Crooked Cat Publishing took it on.

Kindred Spirits

Knowing how much it helped my writing, I’m already working on my plot for NaNoWriMo 2015, and cannot wait to get started.


About ‘Kindred Spirits: Tower of London’: 

A King, three Queens, a handful of nobles and a host of former courtiers…
In the Tower of London, the dead outnumber the living, with the likes of Tudor Queens Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard rubbing shoulders with one man who has made his way back from his place of death at Bosworth Field to discover the truth about the disappearance of his famous nephews.
Amidst the chaos of daily life, with political and personal tensions running high, Richard III takes control, as each ghostly resident looks for their own peace in the former palace – where privacy was always a limited luxury.
With so many characters haunting the Tower of London, will they all find the calm they crave? But foremost – will the young Plantagenet Princes join them?

About Jennifer Wilson:

Jennifer is a marine biologist by training, who developed an equal passion for history whilst stalking Mary, Queen of Scots of childhood holidays (she has since moved on to Richard III). She completed her BSc and MSc at the University of Hull, and has worked as a marine environmental consultant since graduating.

Enrolling on an adult education workshop on her return to the north-east reignited Jennifer’s pastime of Creative Writing, and she has been filling notebooks ever since. In 2014, Jennifer won the Story Tyne short story competition, and also continues to work on developing her poetic voice, reading at a number of events, and with several pieces available online.


Guest Post: Darren Sant introduces Aidan Thorn.

On the blog today, we have a man who helped me on the road to success more than I can ever explain. Darren Sant read this very blog when it was in its infancy and invited me to guest on  Close to the Bone, a forerunner of the massively successful Near to the KnuckleI became a regular on CttB and it gave me a huge confidence boost. Darren has also been a big supporter of my fiction and through NTTK, he and Craig Douglas are championing gritty fiction. Today, Darren’s on the blog to show some love for Aidan Thorn. Enjoy!

Vic x

I first came across Aidan Thorn’s fiction in one of Byker Books fantastic Radgepacket anthologies. Aidan’s story featured a frozen finger and had that gritty sense of humour that I have come to love about some of the better British crime writers. I dropped him a comment about how much I liked the story and we’ve been friends ever since. I’ve seen his talents grow exponentially, along with his confidence, since I read that story and with reading more of his work I’ve seen a style develop that is uniquely his own.

Urban Decay

Urban Decay is a collection of thirteen stories. In the first story in this collection, Loathe Thy Neighbour, Aidan’s keen observations about life on a council estate are bang on the money. The relationship between the main character and his mother is very convincing and touching. The sense of pride felt by hard working everyday folk comes across well. The hard man in the story is pushed too far and as you’d expect there are consequences. Thorn’s observations cut through the bullshit of everyday existence with the thoughtful precision of a surgical scalpel.

Throughout the grimy reality of the criminal underground is brought vividly to life through blood washed streets and dark, dangerous back alleys. No metaphorical stone is left unturned in this graphic exploration of the seedier side of things. Aidan Thorn tells it like it is, pulling no punches and putting it boldly. If you can handle it why not download it?

If you’d like a taster, ‘Loathe Thy Neighbour’ is read aloud by Daz here on SoundCloud.

Guest post: Kate Kerrigan, author of ‘The Dress’.

Kate Kerrigan’s novel The Dress has a dual timeline that brings the past into today. The modern-day protagonist Lily loses her grandfather whom she is close to in the early part of the book which triggers her journey into her own past.  In this blog post Kate talks about the special relationship she had with her late grandmother, Anne Nolan.

Vic x

 The Dress

In recent years I have found myself storing half-onions under saucers and saving bits of leftover bacon to throw into a quiche. I have also begun to suspect that supermarket sell-by dates are a con designed to make me buy more yoghurt. I know that my new-found thriftiness isn’t just a reaction to the economy then the other day, reaching for the bone handled knife I always use to peel apples, a picture flashed into my mind. My grandmother was seated at the table in her simple kitchen tearing the leaves off rhubarb stalks and in her hands was that very same bone handled knife. 

My Mayo grandmother lived with us in London and she died when I was in my early twenties. I have always missed her humour and her presence but recently I have come to feel her legacy in the domestic details of my life and I miss having her to there to share them with.

I want to show her my own wonderful rhubarb patch, ask her advice on keeping the crows away from my gooseberries, have her show me how to darn the elbow on my expensive Lainey Keogh cardigan. Mostly I want to stand at her side in my mother’s kitchen and have her teach me to make her wonderful soda bread again. This time I would take real note as she throws the flour and bread soda into the bowl, measuring by eye alone, gradually adding in the soured milk then gently kneading the dough into a delicate round, gathering in every last crumb and leaving the red Formica tabletop spotless. I’m ready to learn from her now. I am ready to listen. I want my time back with her not as a girl in my twenties, my head full of new clothes and boyfriends but as a mature woman whose domestic situation reflects so much of her own.

When my mother refurbished the kitchen in her family home, she passed me on a number of Granny’s things. Her cookery books, the mixing bowl she had made her bread in for forty years, and crucially – the bone handled knife that she carried about in the pocket of her apron, always. The small, flat instrument with the rounded blade had started its life as a dinner knife, but, for some eccentric reason, Granny had sharpened the centre of it until the blade was concave. To this day it is extraordinarily effective in cutting everything from vegetables to bread.  “Granny’s Knife” sits in my cutlery drawer and I use it everyday. My husband is mystified and slightly nervous of the thing and never touches it. With it’s ancient yellowed handle, and strange shaped blade it looks like a hybrid butter knife – but it still works, and using it is a way of keeping her with me.

 Often, when I am chopping an onion, or peeling an apple she comes into my mind – stout and stern working at our kitchen table, then hearing something funny the radio, throwing her head back into a loud burst of laughter so suddenly you’d nearly jump out of your skin! Material possessions are not as important as people, but they often outlive them and for what they represent, for they way they remind you of a person, they are important. My grandmother’s knife had no significance for me until she died, but now I can remember her using it from when I was a child. My own children are unaware of these things now, but as they reach adulthood, the legacy of my grandmother’s generation will live on through them in the comfort of the home I have created. I let them know “this is my grandmother’s recipe” when I serve them up a traditional dinner. 

They aren’t listening, they don’t care that I ate the same foods as a child but just as I by some mysterious process absorbed my grandmother’s ways I hope that my children will come to appreciate the history of their home lives. Despite their eye rolling, the meals I cooked and the knife that I used, which once belonged to their great-grandmother, will all log in their memories. Perhaps one day they will come to cherish the way history can enrich our everyday lives as I have.

A proud day

In the past, I’ve blogged about the sense of achievement I felt when qualifying as a teacher in July last year. I was to finally be a qualified teacher but I was not happy when I saw my graduation photos. The woman in the photos looked about six months pregnant, sweaty and uncomfortable. The dress she was wearing was tight in all the wrong places. That woman was me, aged 30.

I was utterly disgusted. I had managed to avoid cameras for so long that I’d been able to live in blissful ignorance, unaware to some extent of how bad my weight problem really was. OK, so at medical appointments, doctors expressed their concern at my BMI but seeing the photo below really brought home to me how far I was from the idea I had of myself. Basically, I think I had body dysmorphia in reverse.

July 2014

Another thing I’d avoided was clothes shops. I had taken to ordering things online if I was really desperate but, with a new job on the horizon, I had to go shopping for new work clothes. In August last year, I was in a size 20 in Primark clothes – and they were snug.

I think my mum had also got an unpleasant surprise when looking at the graduation photos and so, because we had a family holiday planned for November, we agreed to give Slimming World a go. We initially went with the intention of joining and going for a few weeks to learn the plan then going it alone.

On attending my first session, I sat at the back of the meeting and cried. I cried because I was intimidated by my consultant – not because of anything he did but because I was so introverted that I couldn’t believe anyone would be so confident and outgoing. I cried because of how fat I’d let myself get. I cried because I thought Slimming World was going to be another fad that wouldn’t work. And I cried because I felt sorry for myself, after all, I’d been really poorly and pumped full of various drugs which hadn’t helped my weight.

When I joined Slimming World on Tuesday, 9th September, 2014, I weighed 16 stone 2lbs. My BMI was 32 and I was clinically obese.

Yesterday, I stood at the front of my Slimming World group as a nominee for their Woman of the Year. I also obtained my 2 and a half stone award yesterday, bringing my BMI to 27 and me only 9lbs away from my target weight. I wore size 14 pants from Primark to yesterday’s meeting.

Now and then

When giving a short speech to the group last night, I admitted that I never realised how out of control my eating was. I could blame my medical condition and the drugs used to combat it but I know that my weight gain was mainly down to my lack of self-control. And that’s why I will continue to go to Slimming World even when I do hit my target. I am able to admit now that I could not maintain a healthy weight without the support of the group members and my wonderful consultant, Adam.

Me and Adam, my wonderful consultant

When Adam called me a fortnight ago to tell me I’d been nominated as Woman of the Year, I laughed down the phone. Who thought I was anywhere near worthy of Woman of the Year? I suspected it was my mother and maybe one of the friend’s I’ve made over the course of the last 49 weeks.

When I first started SW, I sat on the back row with my mum and avoided eye contact with everyone. I was anti-social and negative. I refused to tell anyone other than The Boy Wonder that I was a member. I was ashamed. Now, I will happily tell anyone that I’m a member of Slimming World and how it has changed my life. In my weekly group meetings, I’m one of the most vocal people there – can you believe that?! I can’t. Nor can I believe that I cooked Slimming World yorkshire puddings to take to share at the group – I do more cooking than I ever considered I was capable of.

I’m not going to lie and say that I have found Slimming World easy all of the time. I would struggle to keep up with the plan without the help of my mum – she cooks several meals a week for me and that is a huge help. I have had several unexplained large gains – on two separate weeks I gained 8lbs in one week and still have no idea why – but I have never truly believed that I would quit. What would I achieve from quitting? I’d end up back where I started – or worse. The feeling of gaining a lot of weight without a reason is truly devastating if you’ve been trying hard to stick to the diet but if I did quit, I’d certainly be no better off.

Lovely gifts

Adam treated his nominees like stars last night and I felt so special. Although I didn’t win, last night was one of the proudest nights of my life. I may have let myself get to a very bad point but I am well on the way to putting it right with the help of some amazingly supportive people.

If you need a way to lose weight, I cannot recommend Slimming World enough.

Vic x