Welcome to the three hundred and eighty-ninth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more (and my 1,001th blog post ). Today’s is with Crime Squad website host, CWA judge and author Chris Simmons. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello, Chris. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you became involved in the writing industry.
Chris: Hi, Morgen. I am based in the UK and since a teenager when my Nana Simmons gave me a couple of Agatha Christie’s to read I have been a huge crime fiction fan. When I was a young there wasn’t the great choice teens have today. There wasn’t such a thing as ‘Teen Reads’! So I was very bored with the limited choice. Then Nan gave me the Christie’s and the rest as they say is history! I became involved in the industry because I was fed up with the lack of good reviews out there for crime fiction.
Morgen: It’s my favourite genre and I’m surprised when I don’t have a body in one of my stories, however loosely connected. Your website is http://www.crimesquad.com – how did that come about?
Chris: It was started in 2004 when I talked about it with different people. One conversation led to another and I began to put together a ‘Wish List’ of what I would like to find on my version of the ideal crime fiction website. Then in early 2005 I started putting it together and in March 2005 Crimesquad.com was launched upon the world.
Morgen: One of your features is Author of the Month – how do you choose who to feature, and of all the authors you’ve spoken to, does anyone stand out?
Chris: I have a fantastic team of reviewers who will come to me and tell me about a great book they’ve read and that they’d think it a great one for ‘Author’ or ‘Fresh Blood’. I also keep my ear to the ground and listen to what books people in the industry are getting excited about. I also like to mix it up a bit so that all publishers (big and small) get a bite of the cherry.
Morgen: You just mentioned Fresh Blood which features new authors – do you pick them or do they approach you (or perhaps via a third party)?
Chris: ‘Fresh Blood’ is a very heavily contested page – THE most heavily contested page of the site. With the number of visitors to Crimesquad.com and with our standing within the industry, they know that any new author who doesn’t necessarily have a huge marketing budget will be instantly seen on Crimesquad.com. And if it is also on ‘Fresh Blood’ then they feel that it automatically has a seal of approval from a crime review website like Crimesquad.com. (Those are not my words BTW – but from different people in the publishing industry).
Morgen: Reviews, as you say, is another aspect of your site – with all the books to choose from, what grabs you to review the ones you do?
Chris: My team of reviewers who include Helen, Sylvia, Sarah, Michael, Graham and Kirstie thankfully all like different sub-genres within crime fiction. So I am blessed that they know what they like and that I am going to bring something new and fresh to the table every month and that there will be such a mixed bag that there will be something for everyone who visits Crimesquad.com.
Morgen: They’re pretty generous, with everything currently reviewed receiving 4 or 5*s (I love your magnifying glass rating system), have there been any books to your knowledge that they really didn’t like?
Chris: I wouldn’t call it ‘generous’ – just what books get us reviewers excited. I do not decide on the ‘Spyglass’ ratings. That is down to the individual. We have scored some threes but never a two or a one (or even a zero!). The whole point of Crimesquad.com has always been to ‘promote’ crime fiction. I want to tell our visitors out there what is good and current and fresh. We don’t review with rose-tinted glasses. We will say if something in the book jarred or we weren’t quite convinced by the conclusion – but there will always be the positives. Whenever a new reviewer comes on board I tell that exactly what I have written here. I want to PROMOTE crime fiction – there are enough places you can go to who are more than happy to rip a piece of work to shreds, to tell you how crap a book is and fill their site with negativity. We read plenty of stuff that doesn’t float our boat or is so-so. In those instances we simply don’t review it. I want to get our readers buying those great, shiny new books. Only the other day I got an email from a guy who came to Crimesquad.com and bought three books we had reviewed. For me, that is what it is all about.
Morgen: You’re absolutely right because listing books that no-one should buy would be wasting your and their time and readers want recommendations, don’t they. Do you have any tips for anyone who’d like to become a reviewer?
Chris: Be honest – but not too honest that you become unkind. If you hate a book, put it aside and read the next one. The next one may blow your socks off where the previous one left you cold. And if you’re going to review either of them let it be the one that excited you and wouldn’t let you go. Spread the word! With all the debate about e-books vs. the printed word and literacy, we need to give people a good reason to get people in bookshops or downloading on to their e-reader. And that is with honest reviews.
Morgen: I enjoyed your Classic Crime section – apart from the language used and police procedures, are there differences are between crime writing of the early 20th Century and now?
Chris: There are masses of differences. In Christie’s day DNA hadn’t even be thought of. There wasn’t a CCTV camera on every corner of every street. You couldn’t find a killer with a simple piece of fluff. Then it really was a matter for the ‘little grey cells’ whether you were Poirot or not. In the Golden Era characters were sacrificed for the sake of the plot. As crime fiction developed in the 50’s / 60’s the lives of the people became as important as the plot. Practitioners of this were excellent writers like Celia Fremlin and Margaret Millar who wrote exceptional crime novels in the 50’s both of which won the Edgar for Best Crime Novel. Millar in 1955 for ‘Beast in View’ and Fremlin in 1959 for ‘The Hours Before Dawn’. Both excellent books. I have recently written a piece about The Heritage of Crime Fiction for the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate which is on the 19th – 22nd July and is a must for any crime fiction fan.
Morgen: I’d love to go to that, hopefully next year. You also have an Events listing – do you manage to get to many of them?
Chris: Thankfully I don’t live too far out of London so I can get to a number of events. It is always good to meet the authors as well as catch up on news from the publishers.
Morgen: I’d go to everything if I could. Now I don’t have a day job it’ll certainly be easier, just the small matter of affording them all. Are you involved in any competitions?
Chris: Not at the moment but it is something I am currently exploring.
Morgen: I’m sure it would be popular. You write as well – is this in the crime genre too?
Chris: I have written a novel which ISN’T crime fiction and is being looked at by an agent. I am currently writing some crime short stories, though for an e-book.
Morgen: Oh good luck with your novel (and your shorts, of course), do let me know how you get on and I can add it as an update to this posting. eBooks are pretty easy to do but give me a shout if you get stuck, although I’m sure you have loads of people who would help you. Have you had anything else published to-date?
Chris: I haven’t had anything published. I am one of those terrible writers who thinks that anything they write isn’t good enough. However, in recent years I have decided that won’t get my work in print so I have a few projects that are currently in progress.
Morgen: I’m not great at submissions, I keep writing but rarely send anything out so I only have 28 rejections, less acceptances sadly but I’ll be working on that this year with my shorts to magazines, online etc… and I’d like to do more guest blogging and interviews on others’ blogs (in case anyone reading this would like to ask me ). Do you write every day? Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
Chris: I try to write every day but work, Crimesquad.com take precedence so sometimes writing takes a back seat. No, if anything I am the opposite. I have to curb myself from writing too much. And my head is always full of ideas so I want to get on to the next book / short story whilst still writing the current one!
Morgen: I’m the same. I’ve been writing a short story every day since May 1st (Story a Day May then 5PM Fiction) so 33 stories so far (34 as at 5pm today ) and it’s great, hard work, but great. Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Chris: I have tried many different ways from meticulous plotting to simply running with it. The one I feel comfortable with is having an outline / sketch and then seeing if I keep to the path or go off in a different direction. For me, too much plotting made me feel too constraint. I know it works for others and talking to many writers they all have a different approach to writing.
Morgen: Again I’m the same. I plotted more for my first novel (a lad lit about a hitman, which I plan to eBook this year) but then realised that the characters took over so have plotted less with each one – I’ve written four and a half and will be doing another this November for NaNoWriMo). What’s your least favourite aspect of your writing life?
Chris: It is when you get to a point in the book and you begin to doubt yourself. Many writers, even the big sellers have that ‘moment’. Their advice is to simply work through it and believe in yourself.
Morgen: Because it’s going to be a first draft, so no need to worry until it’s done and you have to go back through it by which time you’ve (hopefully) loved the story and found it all hangs together. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Chris: Keep writing! As long as you have that fire in your belly you can create great fiction.
Morgen: I do. If you could invite three people from any era to dinner, who would you choose and what would you cook (or hide the takeaway containers)?
Chris: That’s a difficult one. I’d like Agatha Christie as it was her book, ‘Sad Cypress’ which got me on the crime fiction road. I know it has been well documented she was painfully shy but it would be nice to have her at my table. Oscar Wilde would be my second choice as he was so witty and acerbic and went through such trials during his life. A great talent cut short by a close-minded society. My third choice would be the novelist, Margaret Millar. She wrote some great crime fiction and really pushed the envelope by writing about taboo subjects like race and homosexuality in her novels during the 50’s. Plus she was a screenwriter in Hollywood and I am sure she will have some VERY interesting tales to tell about the Golden Era of the silver screen. And can I be cheeky and have a fourth guest? Eartha Kitt who was an amazing woman who went through so much adversity during her lifetime. She’d be by the piano purring away with that divine voice of hers.
Morgen: As it’s Eartha you could definitely have a fourth, she’s great… I’d get her to purr all the way through the meal. Is there a word, phrase or quote you like?
Chris: I have a week where I use a word and try to put it in a sentence. This week’s word is ‘umbrage’. Don’t ask me why – it just popped in to my head!
Morgen: It’s a great word. Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than your website and writing?
Chris: I am currently a judge for the John Creasey / New Blood CWA Dagger for first published debut crime novel. It has been a great honour being a judge for this award as new writers are and always have been my passion. It is always wonderful to welcome someone new to the party! Also, I will be moderating at Crimefest this year, which is a great honour for me. Again, I will be interviewing five fresh, debut authors.
Morgen: How wonderful. I hope you’re there when I go. What do you do when you’re not writing? Any hobbies or party tricks?
Chris: Reading! I am currently reading all the time. I still have a few books for the Dagger to read and then a couple of the panellists at Crimefest. Then I have a summer of reading more – but this time I get to choose what books I want to read! I also enjoy the theatre and cinema.
Morgen: I love the cinema and have a season ticket for one of the ones in Northampton so can go as often as I like for £15 a month, it’s great. What do you think the future holds for the writing industry?
Chris: I think it is a very exciting time for publishing at the moment. Lots of people fear the e-book but I believe that like everything else it will all calm down and there will be equilibrium between the printed word and e-books. There are those that are scaremongering that the days of the printed word are numbered. I believe that books and e-books can and will live happily alongside each other / hand-in-hand. But for any new writer, e-books are a great opportunity to get your book out there. What I do advise is to get any book edited and checked professionally. If you put your book out there without making sure its flies are done up and shoe laces tied properly, then you will have to live with people saying how shoddy your work is – and no writer wants that!
Morgen: I totally agree. I have an editor and two regular first readers (as well as my writing groups) and put my shorts / writing workbook on Smashwords first because of the daunting 70-something page style guide but it turned out just to be thorough and after that Amazon was a breeze – I’d also recommend doing it that way round as Smashwords provide free ISBN numbers which Amazon asks for. I’m doing a talk on the subject at one of my writing groups in a couple of weeks which will (hopefully) be fun. Your site is http://www.crimesquad.com – is there anywhere else where can we find out about you and your work?
Chris: I think one website is enough! I rather it focus on the books than be about me, really. When publishers and writers sing Crimesquad’s praises I get quite embarrassed. Maybe when I’ve printed my own book I will have my own website – for now Crimesquad.com suffices.
Morgen: I know what you mean. It’s lovely when people say good things about this site (which I’m very fortunate that they often do), it makes the late nights and early mornings worth it. Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Chris: I’d like to mention my exceptional team of reviewers – Helen, Sylvia, Sarah, Michael, Graham and Kirstie. I have been blessed to find so many great people who have become great friends as well. Plus, they are as intense and as passionate about crime fiction as me – so I don’t feel quite so alone anymore!
Morgen: I’m lucky that I love being a solitary writer (although I have a dog and a new lodger so not alone) and I’ve made so many friends through my blog, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter etc. that I can’t imagine feeling lonely. Thank you, Chris. It’s been great ‘meeting’ you and hopefully our paths will cross in real life before too long.
Chris Simmons conceived and created Crimesquad.com seven years ago. It was his passion for crime fiction, in particular debut novels that started this path. With ‘Fresh Blood’, Crimesquad.com has highlighted many new and exciting writers who have gone on to receive awards for their first novels (Stef Penney, Ryan David Jahn, Louise Penny amongst others). Due to this passion Chris was approached by the CWA and is currently a judge on the CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger for best crime fiction debut.
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