What goes on behind the scenes of Crime Writing? I chatted with Guess Who writer, Chris McGeorge, to find out more about the life of a full-time novelist.
Chris McGeorge didn’t always have aspirations to be a Crime writer; in fact, when I met him at a writers’ conference back in 2013, he was pitching a comedy. Now he’s writing book number three in a series of Crime thrillers as part of his deal with Orion.
Emily: Obviously, you’ve had Guess Who published and you have a three-book deal. Do you want to tell us what you’re currently working on?
Chris: I can’t, really! I’m not allowed! I can tell you about Now You See Me, if you want? So Now You See Me is my second book and it’s out - I can tell you now, because I wasn’t allowed before when it got delayed, unfortunately - so Now You See Me is out on 16th June 2019! It’s set in Marsden, Huddersfield, based around the Standedge Canal tunnel, which is the longest canal tunnel in England. It takes about two hours to get through. Six friends go through the canal tunnel on a private canal boat, and only one of them comes out the other side.
It’s not the only time during our conversation that Chris has to politely excuse himself from answering; he is understandably keeping many things about Now You See Me and the mysterious Book 3 under wraps.
E: So there aren’t any characters coming over from Guess Who? This is not a standalone, obviously there are the same themes, but are they different characters?
C: Yeah, so I won’t answer that directly, but I’ll say it’s in the same universe as Guess Who.
E: It must be quite hard to be restricted in the things you’re allowed to tell people and allowed to say.
C: Well, I could tell you that one, but it would be better to read it!
Having met Chris when we were both in our early twenties and both new graduates seeking the same publishing fortunes, what I’m really interested in is his journey. He’s a fully-fledged, full-time writer. So how did he get from A to B?
C: Really, for me, it would be doing the [Master’s] course. I got the agent eventually - I must have sent out to about thirty agents... but in the end I got my agent from the end of the course; the university did sort of a portfolio of writers, and they sent it out to a lot of agents over London, and that’s how I got my agent, she rang me up from that.
E: Tell me more about your Master’s degree, how you went about going on that course, what happened during it, and what effect that had on your writing.
C: It was a two-year course, 2014 - 2016, and it was called Creative Writing (Crime Thriller), at City Uni, London. I was really attracted to it because the final thesis was to write a full novel, which seemed - and still is - rare. I don’t think I’ve seen any other course do that.
E: I think it’s quite rare over here in the UK.
C: Yeah. So I applied for the course. I had to send about 3000 words, just to kind of get vetted, make sure I could write a little bit… But that wasn’t a crime novel, that was comedy... My writing was a lot different from the start of the course to the end of the course. I learnt how to write Crime along the way. I’d always read Crime, but I’d never really written it before - I don’t know why. It was just something I’d never really thought of writing before... We had guest lectures with Crime writers. We also had seminars, where in groups we would give each other advice, we would read each other’s books. And that was probably the bit that helped the most, to see where other people went wrong or where other people did well, and try to identify what’s good and bad and apply it to your own work.
E: Brilliant. And am I right in saying that Guess Who kind of came from one of those first seminars that you did?
C: Yes. On the two-year course, first year was all assignments and tutor-run sessions, and the second year was meant to be writing the book. But Guess Who actually came from the week one and week two assignments put together. So I started writing Guess Who really early on and I think I had done a first draft by the end of the year. So I had more time to go and do the business side, look for agents and get the book out to people, and try to get published, really.
Though he’s writing full-time and can put ‘author’ on his business card legitimately, Chris is humble about his successes and, sometimes, a little amazed by it all. He writes, then the editing and publishing team make magic happen. As a writer myself, I asked the question that was begging to be asked: how do you do it?
E: Are you a bit of a plotter and a planner? Or do you just kind of let thing evolve as they go? How do you approach writing?
C: Well, I’m not a planner in terms of writing down things. But I do think about stuff a lot. So much so that I probably do plan, but I just don’t put it down.
E: Right, it’s all in your head.
C: Yeah, I need to kind of know where it’s going. Usually, I need to know the end before I can start properly writing. Which is the problem with what I’m currently writing!
We couldn’t talk more specifically about those problems, for obvious, secretive reasons. Chris’s editor will be happy to know that he keep schtum about all things Book 3. Naturally, since signing on with Orion and getting an editor, Chris’s writing routine has changed significantly. I was interested to find out how.
C: It was a lot quicker, I had to learn how to just adapt to the schedule of having a publisher wanting a book and having a deadline. Trying to meet the deadline, there’s a lot more pressure - especially when you’ve had an advance and you feel like a publisher has already paid for your book. There is a lot more pressure to deliver, really.
E: I guess it’s a kick up the backside, in a sense! It must be a good motivator, that they’ve put their faith in you and they trust your ability to do it.
C: Oh absolutely, but that’s also what makes it more scary.
Keeping up with deadlines is something that obviously plays on Chris’s mind; I was in mind of all the writers who recently finished National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo) in November, though Chris writes more in a day and across several months on his current quest to conquer Book 3.
E: Do you find that writing energises or exhausts you? After a day of writing, what’s generally the feeling?
C: There’s usually a sense of accomplishment. Mostly that’s just just tied to word count, so that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good! … It totally depends. You can have a great day where you write 5000 words and it’s been fantastic and you’ve found something out, something important. Or it can be a really terrible day where you write two hundred words. It’s not really anything I can put a finger on.
E: So in terms of those days that aren’t so great, do you have any tips for other writers in terms of getting out of a slump, or out of a block?
C: Just get up, go out somewhere. If you’re already out somewhere, change location. I wear places out. If I go to Weatherspoons in Durham city for a while and it’s been fantastic - I can get a bottomless coffee there for 90p, it’s amazing - eventually I mine that place out of whatever magic has happened and I have to move on. I have go somewhere else, I’ve been there too long or something. So I would say change location. If you’re listening to music, don’t listen to music. If you’re not listening to music, listen to music. If you’re in complete silence, turn the TV on. If you have the TV on, turn it off, you know? Change as many variables as you can and just hope it works! And if it doesn’t work, then maybe today’s not the day. And that’s absolutely fine as long as that doesn’t happen every day for a month!
As we wrapped up our conversation with uncertainties about house moves and deadlines, Chris gave one final parting word of advices for writers that he’s learned over the course of writing Guess Who, Now You See Me, and the elusive Book 3.
E: If you could give your younger self any writing advice, what would it be?
C: For some reason there’s a stigma around commercial fiction. Particularly when I was young, I read the classics of Crime, but I never really read contemporary Crime, because I thought it was throwaway, popcorn entertainment. There was so much more weight put onto literary fiction, especially in school. Now I think I would go back and say there’s no issue with you just being a bit of throwaway, light entertainment for someone for an afternoon. That’s actually great! You’re providing a bit of escapism, you know? It doesn’t have to be this monumental thing, you don’t have to win a Man Booker prize for every book you write, you don’t have to say some profound thing about the human condition or anything. You can just give a really fun story for someone to get lost in. I’m not sure what it is, whether it’s English Literature or just the way I was brought up, but I did have a stigma around commercial stuff. So if I could tell my younger self something, it would be ‘stop being an areshole’, you know?
E: No need to be pretentious about it!
C: Pretentious, that’s the word I was going for!
E: ‘Arsehole’ is still a very good word to use!