Interviews

COFFEE WITH THE INDUSTRY: interview with Crime Writer, Chris McGeorge

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!

You can check out Chris’ book, Guess Who on Amazon and Goodreads, and look out for the next book, Now You See Me, coming out June 2019. Chris is also on Twitter!

COFFEE WITH THE INDUSTRY: interview with Aunty Fox of Fox Spirit Books.

What goes on behind the scenes of a small indie publishing press? I met with one to get the insider view on a difficult industry to crack.

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Adele (A): It’s why I have the Aunty Fox persona. So I can have my wibbles, but Aunty Fox always knows what’s going on… she’s got it... One of my artists started calling me Aunty Fox and I said, “can you do me an icon?” and it kind of stuck. I’ve got people who’ve known me for years before I started Fox Spirit calling me Aunty! I’m just embracing it! How much of an aunt can I be? “It’s cold out! Have you got your mittens?” People are fond of that.

Adele Wearing, a.k.a Aunty Fox. Image courtesy of www.foxspirit.co.uk

When starting her press, Fox Spirit Books, Adele Wearing certainly didn’t picture herself taking on the Aunty Fox persona. In fact, she didn’t picture herself starting a press at all. The business’ origins seem to be a bit of an in-joke that keeps on giving.

A: I think at the end of the second year, beginning of the third year, when I had committed to a couple of longer-term projects, I was like, oh. Oh, so I’ve got to do this for at least five more years to finish those. Rii-ight... I was never supposed to be a publisher. We were going to do one book for a bit of fun. I just emailed out to a whole bunch of writers I knew from events and said, “we’re doing this thing for a laugh, do you want to be part of it?” Even people like Wayne Simmons and Adrian Tchaikovsky, who are - in genre - quite big writers, said, “yeah alright, it sounds like a giggle.”

That collection became ‘Tales of the Nun & Dragon’ (2012), and six years later, the accidental Fox Spirit press is still putting out new books.

Without meaning to, Aunty Fox became a leader. Just in the hour we’re together for coffee, she has nuggets of wisdom to share with a quick wit and a crude tongue. She doesn’t shy from honesty and doesn’t sugarcoat the truth of running a business in a difficult industry. I asked her about the publishing scene, which Aunty Fox openly admits is a mess.

Adele (A): [With some of our non-fiction], that’s really a case of create it, they will come. And we just put those out and let them sell themselves, you know? Whereas the fiction market is very crowded, so we’ll always battling against the noise. That’s much tougher! And that’s also where my heart is, in fiction.

Emily (E): And I think so many writers think to themselves, how can I make money from this thing that I love?

A: Yeah, forget it. That’s not the place to sell them. It should be. I mean, the whole publishing industry need reviewing, it’s a mess. The models are not sustainable. Small presses are closing left, right and centre because we can’t make money. These days, I’m honest about it. In old money, Fox Spirit would have been called ‘a folly’. But some people play golf, and I do this!

Adele Wearing, a.k.a Aunty Fox. Image courtesy of www.foxspirit.co.uk

Adele Wearing, a.k.a Aunty Fox. Image courtesy of www.foxspirit.co.uk

This ‘folly’ takes a lot of man hours in her ‘spare’ time, but Aunty Fox continues to make her way through the figurative and literal slush pile. She not only runs her own business, but also works full-time - very full-time. It was evident, during our meeting, that she shoulders a lot of responsibility; my mum would call this ‘burning the candle at both ends’, though Aunty Fox openly adores the work she does at Fox Spirit and has no plans to give it up yet. The silver lining that came with her brief respite at the beginning of the year, she told me, was practising a new and valued skill.

A: I just started saying no to everything because I was having to be so careful with my energy levels… I mean, learning to say ‘no’ is one of the hardest things about running your own business, I think. Because you say, “oh, I want to do that, but it’s not sensible!”

Talking about submissions was a fiery subject that boiled down to some basics: read the guidelines, let your writing do the talking, and don’t be an arsehole.

A: There’s a very American thing of making your CV different from everybody else’s. Have you watched Legally Blonde? You know the thing where it’s pink and it’s got perfume on it? That’s a really American thing. So I’ve had some really weird querying emails over the years. And we’re like, look. What happens is we take all the attachments and dump them in a big folder, and we only skim the query for anything that makes you offensive. The reality is, we’re looking for reasons to not publish you, because we have to whittle it down. So we’ll skim your query and if there’s nothing in there that puts us off, you get dropped into the slush pile. We then go in there, read something in the slush pile and think, ooh there’s something in there, I like this one, then we might go back and look at your synopsis and your query. That’s how I do it. I know some people read the synopsis first, but I tend to dump everything in a bucket and read through it.

E: So what would you recommend to people looking to get noticed from the slush pile?

A: That first paragraph is really, really important, because if that’s terrible, I’ve already switched off and moved on to the next one. And the bigger it gets, like an agent or somebody, the more popular they are, the more stuff they get through, the less time you have to impress them. So you treat the query letter like the covering letter of a job. You’re professional, you follow the guidelines, you send what they ask you to send. That’s it. Then you let the writing stand for itself. But that first paragraph is absolutely essential, so go back and revise it. Don’t think, I’ve gone through everything, I’ve edited everything, everything’s perfect. In fact, go back and look at that first paragraph. And don’t info dump at the beginning of a book!

E: So, on average, how much do you think you’re reading of each one?

A: It depends on its level of awfulness! Basically, I read until I’m put off or I want to stab myself in the eyes… [Though] I’ve had ones I haven’t even started reading. I’ve taken one look at the query and gone, nah. I don’t care how good the book is, I’m not going to work with you, because people come off as such massive jackasses sometimes.

E: And how can you do that in just a couple of paragraphs, you know?

A: There’s one I used with [a university class] slot this year… as a learning point... All of it says “I’m a pretentious arsehole, I’m going to be a nightmare to work with, and I think I’m cleverer than I am.”

E: Do you get a lot of people who obviously haven’t looked over your website and don’t really know what you’re about?

A: Oh yeah. And we get people who, even if you say ‘we are not open to zombie submissions’, they’ll send you zombie submissions because it doesn’t apply to them. Now, my view, and the view of anybody who’s dealt with people, is if you’re not prepared to follow the submission guidelines, you are going to be a pain in the arse to work with. So however good your book is, I don’t want to work with you. That’s the first message you send, the first thing you’ve done. You know, really trust your gut. If people seem a bit hinky to you, get away from it, no matter how much they seem to be presenting something good. Because they usually turn out to be hinky.

‘Hinky’ people don’t get past Aunty Fox and very rarely has she had to step away from an author, as they don’t tend to get through that first submissions process. She defends members of her community with pride and cares deeply about the industry as a whole, despite its ups and (frequent) downs. Though she has hope about the current climate turning.

A: The sales - not just for us, but for a number of small presses - have found that sales have really bottomed this year. So hopefully people will be a bit more optimistic next year. Or, hiding in books because reality is so awful!

When I first met Aunty Fox last year during a talk at my university, we arranged to meet together for coffee somewhere so that I could wheedle some more wisdom from this experienced insider. Misfortune struck when Aunty Fox’s cat got sick and when our coffee date fell through and life continued, I neglected to rearrange.

Fast forward a year, and she tells me her cat is feeling much better, though it seems to be a fairly poorly household. Between her three felines, herself, and her partner, they’ve all found themselves prone to illness in some area or another.

A: “A part of why I had such a shit start to the year was I had very low vitamin D… So this year’s just been bollocksed!”

Of course, with illness came a slower pace, but the Fox Spirit community came through. The Skulk, as they are known, are a rallying force to be reckoned with. Not only do they come together to support the books that are published and events that take place, but they are also an incredibly understanding group in the face of Fox Spirit’s slower start this year.

A: My authors have been really chilled out with it… I’m very very proud of what we’ve done, and I am very very proud of the Skulk, they’re amazing.

E: And how wonderful that this thing that you kind of found yourself suddenly doing and that you kind of stumbled into, you know -

A: That’s taken over my life!

E: Yes! But the people you’ve met from it and the things you’re able to do, and the events and all of it…

A: Oh yeah… It has become a much bigger part of my life… caused some tensions in some friendships, but others have become much stronger and it’s introduced me to a lot of new people.

From bakers of book-cover cookies, to writers and artists, to fans of genre fiction - Aunty Fox raves about them all. It’s very clear that all are welcome to the Skulk and she regularly engages with them online. She even gave this Twitter-phobe a much-needed lesson in social media.

A: I think you have to want to have those conversations. When it first became a thing, I realised Facebook is like when you’re at uni and you’ve got that noticeboard up on your door and people leave you messages. You come back and you see such and such is looking for me. Twitter is like you’re sat in a canteen in halls or the union, and everyone is talking and you’re eavesdropping over here for a minute, then eavesdropping over there for a minute. Then unless you want to be part of those conversations, it gets a bit pointless. So until you’ve built up the relationships on Twitter, it’s a bit weird.

E: You’ve got to put in the time.

A: Mmm and I was lucky that I was able to put in the time years ago when I was just reviewing, and now that’s paying off a bit.

E: You already had some of your community set up.

A: Yes, so I’ve got people I can talk to regularly, people I can tag. Obviously, my writers and artists, too, a lot of those are on Twitter.

Engaging with wider, inclusive communities is Aunty Fox’s goal; having been a book reviewer in a past life, it’s clear her passion for reading - particularly fantasy fiction - was the flame that sparked this enterprise in the first place. Now that she has a following and louder voice, she wants to use it for the greater good; when we got talking about her reading habits and TBR pile, she waxed passionately about diversity in publishing and the messages she wants to send.

A: The last couple of years, I’ve been reading a lot more women writers and writers of colour… Unless they’re people whose books I’ve liked for a long time, I’m trying to avoid straight, white men… Just because they’ve dominated for so long on everybody’s bookshelves… There are still a few in amongst mine, because there are some of my friends who I want to read... I’m just proactively trying to make them the minority in my purchasing, because I just really want to strongly send the message to places like Waterstones that that’s not all we want, you know?

All in all, Fox Spirit’s fearless leader has learnt a lot from her nearly-six years heading this surprise publishing press. Thinking back to the start, she openly wonders if she’d have begun had she really knew what she was getting into, though perhaps it was best that she didn’t.

A: Yeah, you can’t worry about it. My whole philosophy, which is probably not wise, has been the Wile E. Coyote philosophy of life, which is just running off cliffs. Run off cliffs, peddle your legs, don’t look down. It’ll all be fine. And I think maybe, possibly, I do it a bit too soon, but you can spend an awful lot of time standing on the edge and testing the air, and eventually you’re going to have to run off the edge of the cliff anyway. It’s always going to be like that, no matter how prepared you think you are, you’re going to get halfway over and think have I done the right thing?

E: So take the leap.

A: Yeah, just do it. God, I sound like a Nike advert!

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Visit www.foxspirit.co.uk to find out more, or follow Aunty Fox on Twitter, @foxspiritbooks