Behind the Scenes – the Awards Judge

This is the another in my ‘behind the scenes‘ look at some of the often unsung heroes who help to bring great crime fiction to bookshops and ultimately our shelves. This time my Q and A is looking at the role of the judge in some of the best known crime fiction awards.

IMG_4808Ayo Onatade commentates on all things crime fiction. She writes articles and gives papers on all aspects of the crime and mystery genre. She blogs at Shotsmag Confidential, writes articles for Shotsmag and Crimespree Magazine. She is the Chair for the CWA Short Story Dagger, a judge for the Ngaio Marsh Award (New Zealand crime writers award), the HWA (Historical Writers Association) debut novel and CrimeFest’s Flashbang short stories. She is co-editor of the anthology Bodies in the Bookshop.  She is also a dissertation tutor for the MA in Publishing at Kingston University.  When not doing all of the above she works at the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom where she is the Head of Judicial Support and PA to two of the Justices, one of them being the President of the Supreme Court.

As an introduction, which awards have you been involved in judging? 

I have been involved in judging the Crime Writers Association Short Story Dagger, the Ngaio Marsh Awards, Flashbang Contest and the Historical Writers Association Debut Novel.

Can you describe the practical process for judging and does it vary greatly between awards?

It varies, for the CWA Short Story Dagger (which I still Judge and actually Chair) anthologies are submitted and received.  The judges read all the eligible stories and a long list is drawn up followed by a shortlist. The winner is then decided from the shortlist.  With regard to the Ngaio Marsh Awards books are submitted and the judges submit their views on the books in order of preference. The convener then does his magic and calculates the marks from those received and works out who the winner is. The Flashbang Contest we have to read all the submission and submit our list of all the stories marking them from our favourite to our least favourite.  This is done across a number of rounds as the stories are whittled down. For the Historical Writers Debut Novel we actually used a spreadsheet to record our views. The administrator then whittled the stories down and then a meeting is held to decide the winner.

How do you go about ‘rating’ one book or story against another, or is this not the way it’s done?

With difficulty. For me it is all about a matter of taste and which stories you are drawn to and stand out.  Good writing, good storyline and in addition for me how long does the book/ story resonate with me.

Does the judging (and reading) process take place over a limited time and does that pose any particular problems? 

Normally a year. But for a number of the contests it has been shorter.  It can pose particular problems when the judging for the different stories overlap with one another.  In addition I juggle my judging with a full time busy day job and running a blog.

What happens if the process reaches a stalemate, how is that resolved? 

Err, I have only been in that position once and we ended up sharing the award.

Have you been involved in ‘blind’ judging and how do you feel that works? 

The Flashbang contest is done by blind judging and it works incredibly well. I like not knowing the author as it does not give you any pre-conceived ideas about the author’s writing especially if you are used to reading the author’s work.

Do you notice similar themes or trends in submissions each year?

No, but then again I think it is because of the type of books that I judge.

What really makes a submission stand out for you? 

Good writing especially economical writing, (I hate long winded writing) good characters and a plot that makes you think and a

What do you enjoy about being a judge?

The variety of the stories that one gets to read.

What have you learnt from the process?

It is hard work being a judge. It requires dedication, an open mind and a willingness to read  a wide variety of stories.  I have also learnt that my reading has changed depending on whether I am reading a book because I am judging it or reading for pleasure. I am much more critical when judging than when reading for pleasure.

And now the’s time for your pitch – is there any award that you would like to be asked to judge? 

I would love to judge the CWA Historical Dagger or the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger. The Historical Dagger having the edge.

What are you reading at the moment?

Grandville – Force Majeure by Bryan Talbot.  This is a cross-genre steampunk/ detective graphic novel where all the characters are animals.

You can find Ayo on twitter under the name @Shotsblog.

I’d like to thank Ayo for taking the time to answer my questions.

Paula Daly and her writing process

The Trophy Child by Paula Daly, her fifth novel, was published on 26 Jan. A mix of domestic / psychological thriller and police procedural, in a similar vein to Eva Dolan’s Watch Her Disappear it explores the internal pressures within a family and the dark side that can be hidden behind a perfect facade.

As part of the blog tour Paula talks about her writing process.

I’m often asked about my writing process. Not so much about where the ideas themselves come from, but how I go about shaping those ideas, how I go about actually writing a novel.

I can understand the curiosity. When I first started writing it was the one thing I wanted to know. I read lots of books on how to write, how to write a novel, how to write a thriller, a crime novel. I watched endless YouTube videos of authors explaining how they went about their work, creative writing teachers extolling their methods, other writers at the same stage as me, sharing what they’d learned so far.

What was clear was that there were many ways to tackle writing a novel. You can come at it from lots of different angles and still arrive at the same end point. Some writers don’t plan at all and are happy to get what Anne Lamott calls the ‘shitty first draft’ down fast, and then revise the manuscript until it’s ready. Others plan meticulously. A lot of writers do both.

I used to write freely. As in, I had no idea where I was going and I let the plot take me where it wanted it to. Trouble was, I ended up with three unpublished novels as a result. So I decided to try planning instead and I’ve stuck with that process ever since. I realise now that I need to know what I’m writing towards or I’ll go off at crazy tangents and waste a lot of time. And I find writing hard. Getting the words down on paper is not easy for me. So I don’t want to have to delete whole chapters when I’ve got it wrong.

So, once I’ve got an idea for a book, I sit on it for a while. I know when it’s a good idea because I get excited about it. And other ideas seem to start flooding in and ‘sticking’ to that original idea, making it better, more interesting, adding layers.

Then I research. Researching is great because it throws up more ideas for your plot. Often, I can actually begin to fashion a story out of what I discover during the research period. Then I start to write down ideas for scenes. Nothing concrete, just things that I think would be cool to write about, or would maybe surprise the reader, because they’d not seen something done in that way before. Once that’s done, I organise the scene list, and list of ideas, into something coherent that resembles a proper plot. This again takes practice. Structuring a novel is where most people stumble and it wasn’t until I read lots of books and articles about structure that I finally cracked it.

Eventually I’m ready to write. After around three to four months of planning, I’m ready to write Chapter One. It is the scariest moment for me because so much of what happens in my books is rooted in that first chapter. So I have to get it right.

I write seven hundred words a day (it used to be a thousand but I’m limited by back pain now) until the book is done. I edit as I go along, something that a lot of writers don’t do because it stops them from finishing the book. But I have to edit as I go as it’s the only way I understand what I’m writing about, and it’s how I keep track of my story and my characters. When the thing is finished it doesn’t need much of an edit as I’ve been through it over and over by then. Maybe just a day or two tidying up last bits and pieces before it’s ready to go out to my editors.

Then I send it off and I pray.


Behind the Scenes – the Independent Publisher

orenda letterhead redThis is the third in my ‘behind the scenes‘ look at some of the often unsung heroes who help to bring great crime fiction to bookshops and ultimately our shelves. This time my Q and A is looking at the role of the independent publisher and Karen Sullivan of Orenda Books was kind enough to give up her time to answer my questions.

Karen is the powerhouse behind Orenda Books which she launched in late 2014. Renowned for the way she supports her authors Karen is a master of social media, plays football for England in the annual  ‘Bloody Scotland Crime Writers’ Football Match: Scotland v England’, is a talented baker – providing themed cupcakes at her authors’ launches and even finds time to support authors outside her own list with a section on the Orenda website.

Was being a publisher something you imagined you would do when you were at school?

Well, apart from wanting to be a nurse or a fire-fighter, a ‘books’ career has always been on the radar. I remember reading a novel (the name escapes me) when I was about twelve or thirteen, and the protagonist was a young woman who read slush piles for a publisher. I couldn’t believe it. Reading books could be a JOB? I wrote short stories throughout my teenage years, and read voraciously from the moment I could do it myself. I also had a habit of making notes in the margins of books. I think I might have been made for this job! When I moved to the UK from Canada after university, my first ‘real’ job was with a publisher.

What prompted you to start Orenda Books?

I worked at the job above for a few years, moving from secretary to the editorial director to commissioning editor. I then left to become freelance, and ended up writing books about raising children, discipline, emotional health, education, etc., and did some TV and other media. I actually became tired of writing about the same type of thing, and when I was offered a job in a small independent, working a day or so a week writing press releases, jacket copy, etc., I leapt at it. It was an interesting and intensive experience, and I ended up working about seven days a week, not one! When a decision was taken by new shareholders to slash the list, I didn’t feel comfortable being there. After lying on my bed for about 24 hours, I made the decision to start my own publishing company. Towards the end of my former tenure, I was doing almost everything anyhow, so it wasn’t an entire leap. A month later, Orenda Books was born, and I haven’t looked back.

How would you describe the ethos of Orenda Books and the titles you choose to publish?

We publish literary fiction (and I use that word deliberately, because I have a very firm belief that you must never underestimate readers of genre fiction, and assume that they all want the churn-em-out stuff), with a heavy emphasis on crime thrillers, and about half in translation. There are some exceptionally wonderful aberrations on my list, and it is honestly a huge relief and source of excitement to be able to publish exactly what I want, with no one to whom I have to account!

I believe in a lot of things. We publish across many formats, including audiobooks with the wonderful Audible, a few in hardback, all in ebook and in paperback. But I firmly believe that people who choose a physical book over an ebook want something beautiful – something that is a joy to read, to hold! We use great paper, have fantastic jacket designers, truly wonderful typesetting with lots of little details, and I think it makes a real difference. In less than two years we are competing well with the conglomerates, and producing books that certainly match theirs, in both look and feel, not to mention content.

The writing REALLY matters to me, as does a tight, seamless plot. All Orenda authors are exquisite writers – that is essential. And I love the idea of pushing the boundaries of a genre – bringing something new or different to it, upholding its greatest traditions, enlightening, drawing attention to social or other issues while entertaining. It’s a vibrant market and it’s an honour to have the opportunity to bring some truly amazing authors to readers.

I don’t care about becoming rich or famous; I care about doing this job well and doing justice to my increasingly BRILLIANT stable of authors!

What has been the biggest challenge for you and what has been your biggest success to date?

last-days-of-disco_december-with-quotes-copy-2You know what? I would say that EVERY book has been a success in its own way. To date, our runaway bestselling titles are Ragnar Jonasson’s Snowblind, Nightblind and Blackout, and Amanda Jennings’ In Her Wake, but in Scotland David F. Ross’s books (The Last Days of Disco and The Rise & Fall of the Miraculous Vespas) have received unbelievably wonderful critical acclaim and sold both in other countries and (secret) formats! We’ve had rights sold, books optioned for film and the stage. We’ve won prizes, had seven number-one kindles, achieved excellent review coverage in the papers, been incredibly well supported by the all-important blogging community, been shortlisted for the IPG Best Newcomer Award, got a Bookseller Rising Star this year, got authors into over 40 festivals. I could go on! Every author on my list is magnificent, and their achievements never fail to astound and excited me. Having wonderful new authors keen to join is also a success. We have a team that people want to join, and I LOVE that!

Challenges. OK, well it’s hard to make a name for a new company and I also have a LOT of debuts, which means that it can be even harder to persuade booksellers to take us and our authors seriously. We do a lot of translations, so cash flow is always slightly alarming (we spend probably £15K per book for a translated title before it even hits the shelves, which is considerably higher than it would be for a book in English). I am the only employee in this company, and luckily have a brilliant team of freelancers who sort me out with jackets and editorial things (I would be remiss if I did not mention West Camel here, who is my second eye and the best editor I’ve ever met! Plus Mark Swan, who does my jackets and Liz Wilkins and Anne Cater, who have done other magnificent things), but the amount of work is sometimes terrifying! We’ve gone from six books in the first year, to almost triple that this year, with the same again next year. I often feel faint!

Another challenge is an obvious one. The bigger companies tend to be more risk-averse, and often watch smaller companies to see which authors are performing well, before swooping in with a big cheque. This is a frustration, but I suppose that’s business. The irony is, of course, that bigger doesn’t mean better and being published by someone completely passionate about your books can equate to very strong sales. That’s certainly happened here.

How might being an author with an independent publisher differ compared to a major publishing house? 

2016-03-22-18-55-50I think the main thing is the personal approach. I work closely with my authors from the moment they are signed onwards. I attend events  and festivals with them, edit, promote, pitch to the sales teams around the world, and that’s something that I think authors enjoy. Having been an author myself for many, many years, I understand that everyone needs to feel valued and know that they are getting full support. I don’t know about other independents, but we are very much a team here at Orenda. We are growing together. We support each other. Celebrate the successes, and push when things are trickier. It’s just the BEST environment to nurture some incredible talent, and I think we are all happy and home, and all working VERY hard to achieve the best. Being a big fish in a small pond, or even a noticeable fish in a pond, is something that attracts people to small publishers. Plus independents tend to be more nimble, able to take risks and act quickly, and generally do things with authors that might never get past a big acquisitions meeting at a conglomerate. We’ve had a number of very big-name authors interested in joining us, so that probably says something about the ‘small town’ approach.

What impact has the rise of self-publishing had for smaller publishers?

I don’t think it’s a problem at all. I’ve signed two self-published authors and would actively encourage authors who are struggling to get an agent or a deal to consider this approach. There is no shame in doing it yourself, and some very good writers have their roots in the self-published world. It does, of course, mean that the market can become quite saturated, and the quality is, unfortunately, not always there. I worry sometimes that books are devalued by the number of free and very cheap ebooks available, and becoming strongly geared towards disposable reads. After all, if you pay only 99p or get it free, who cares, really? I never lower prices on our ebooks unless they are supported by a major retailer (or they reduce it them themselves) because I am well aware that authors need to earn a living, and we need to survive, too. Having said all that, our ebook sales are increasing month by month, and we know that people are happy to pay full price (not expensive by any means) for wonderful, readable books!

What one piece of advice would you give to an author who is trying to get their first publishing deal?

in-her-wake-hbcover-copy-4I would suggest that you get and take every bit of constructive criticism that you can. Beta readers (first readers) are invaluable, and although it is very painful to cut words, plotlines, characters and even passages of prose, you need to trust the opinions of those who know what they are doing. In particular, agents, or publishers who take the time to point out where there might be weaknesses. There are some incredible mentoring programmes for aspiring authors, courses (sometimes expensive, but possibly worth it) and other authors who run these courses or will do a report for a small fee. I DEFINITELY don’t like to promote anyone in particular, but Amanda Jennings is very involved in the Womentering scheme, and Michael J. Malone actually earns his living sorting out people’s books (around writing his own). If you can’t get a publisher or an agent, and feel that your book is as strong as it can be, then go ahead and self-publish. But get yourself out there, too. Attend fairs, festivals, events where other authors in your genre might be. Make friends. Network. Get some support and help. Use social media wisely – to befriend and let people know your book is there, without repeating messages and becoming annoying. It’s a close and supportive community, this book world, and I think that if you make friends and attract potential readers, you’ll be in with a chance. But don’t forget how important it is to get your book right before you submit it. And learn the art of writing a blurb – a summary of your book, much like what appears on the back of the books you pick up in the bookshops. If you can sell your book in a paragraph, you’ll attract notice.

sealskin-vis-3-copyFinally, I REALLY dislike it when a writer compares themselves to someone on my list. It’s nice to have an idea of the type of reader it might attract (for example, I am publishing a book called Sealskin next year, and a few wonderful comparisons came to mind, such as a book called The Year of Wonders and the author Angela Carter), which is very useful for the sales team. But if you tell me that you write exactly like Amanda Jennings or Michael Malone, chances are you aren’t going to get very far. I HAVE those authors. I don’t want copycats. Every author has to bring something new, special and different to the table.

Without giving away any trade secrets – what are your ambitions for Orenda Books?

My ambitions are to carry on exactly the way we are at the moment. Acquiring authors that fit the list and will add to the company – and the genre and industry in some way – while keeping it small enough to maintain the personal touch I mentioned above. My authors didn’t buy into something grand and big, and I will ensure that we are always a team, and that everyone is important. Having said that, I publish wonderful books, and I expect to win prizes and sell lots of them. These authors are magnificent, and I will be sticking by them as they soar. And I fully expect that all will do so. And that’s also what they bought into. A great future.

Another ambition is to demystify translated literature. While there is a thriving niche market, there is no reason in the world why the average reader wouldn’t enjoy books from other countries. I’ve got some of the MOST amazing translators in the business working with me, and I think you’d be hard pressed to find even one of our translated titles that feels awkward. We cherry pick the VERY best books from other countries, and that’s something that we want to continue.

Have you ever been tempted to write yourself?

I was a writer for many, many years, and I also ghostwrote a lot of books (for quite famous people, too!). I can write a blurb and a nice advance information sheet. I can pull apart a book and put it back together again in the BEST way. But could I do what my authors are doing? No way! They are imaginative, smart, brilliantly creative and talented, and I never buy a book that doesn’t give me at least four goosebump moments. And that doesn’t mean just plot. It means writing, too. I truly believe that I have some of the best writers in the genre on this list, and the stuff that is happening around them – awards, fresh talent picks, prizes, TV deals, reader and blogger top reads, review coverage, festival and event invitations, bestseller lists – it all confirms that we are on the right track. While I can fix books that need attention, I would be a complete fool to think I could write anything like the books that appear on my list!

What are you reading at the moment?

Ooh, OK! It’s a mix! I am a person who has books all over the place. Beside my bed is Craig Robertson’s Murderabilia, and I am LOVING IT! Today I got a copy of Gallows Drop by Mari Hannah, and that is going to be my downstairs, on-the-sofa read. In my handbag, I’ve got more, including the OMG BUY IT Fiona Cummins’ debut Rattle, and, similarly, the new Erin Kelly (He Said; She Said, gasp!), which I should pass on, but can’t bear to. The new Ian Rankin is buzzing in my bag.

Then on my computer, it’s all about submissions and editing. We’ve just finished Steph Broadribb’s Deep Down Dead. And for the first time, we’re experimenting with bound proof copies. This is ONE book you won’t forget in a hurry!! But I’m also reading the beautiful, mesmerising Sealskin by Su Bristow, a debut author retelling the Selkie legend. Again, oh WOW! Something always on the go, and fortunately not only are my personal reads all different, but my authors are absolutely different! My last ‘non-crime’ read was Schtum by Jem Lester and it would not hesitate to recommend it. There are LOADS more in the pile.

I do a ‘community blog’ on the Orenda website, and we feature Q&As with ‘other’ authors. So I get sent a WHOLE load of books with a view to doing just that! On the horizon are books by Anya Lipska, Eva Dolan, Michael Wood, Doug Johnstone, Derek B. Miller, Ali Land, Erin Kelly, Mark Hill, Joseph Knox, Luca Veste and more … I am SO busy, so I only read the ones that hook me with the blurb, the jacket or the premise. Aspiring authors, take note!

You can find Karen on twitter under the name @OrendaBooks.

I’d like to thank Karen for taking the time to give such candid answers to my questions.

An Interview with Quentin Bates – author of Thin Ice

One of the co-founders of Iceland Noir, and translator of Ragnar Jónasson’s ‘Dark Iceland‘ series, Quentin Bates is currently celebrating the publication of Thin Ice, the fifth full length novel in his own ‘Gunnhildur’ series. To mark this he is the focus of perhaps one of the longest blog tours ever – which demonstrates his popularity amongst the crime fiction community. 

Here he talks about one critical aspect of any Icelandic novel – the weather.

‘You don’t like the weather? Then just wait a while and it’ll change. It’s almost an Icelandic cliché that you can expect four different kinds of weather in a single day. With weather fronts rolling across the Atlantic all winter long, it’s never going to be anything but changeable.

‘For me Iceland is less about the magnificent landscape, high mountains and lush green valleys, than about the constantly-changing weatherscape. It becomes ingrained after a while, to the point that for every scene I write, every new chapter and situation, the first thing is to establish what kind of a day it might be, even if it doesn’t rate a mention in whatever I’m writing.

‘Thin Ice is set in the beginning of winter, it’s getting dark early. It’s cold and by the coast it’s windy and wet, but upcountry where part of the action takes place, it has already started to snow, to the consternation of the four fugitives the story revolves around. They find themselves snowed in as both the police and the underworld search and hope to find them first.

‘Winter in Iceland can be harsh. It can rain and snow alternately for days and weeks at a time, although those who hail from the north coast or the Westfjords will snort with disdain at the mention of a heavy snowfall in Reykjavík, where, according to the hardy northerners, it just drizzles with rain all winter long and Reykjavík grinds to a halt as soon as there’s an inch of the white stuff on the ground.

‘Fair enough, in the south it rains more than it snows. Sometimes there can be a whole winter without a significant fall of snow. In the north, where the north-easterly storms regularly batter the coast, a winter without serious snow is a rarity. But it’s not all about snow. Summers can be chilly, damp affairs during which the sun hardly breaks through the cloud cover. Other summers can be brilliantly bright as a clear blue sky, not a breath of wind and scorching sunshine can turn the north into an absolute paradise.

‘Autumn can be a matter of a couple of days between the sunshine and the first howling gale of winter as the anti-cyclones start to queue up out over the deep Atlantic. The same goes for spring. It can be snowing one day, followed by blazing sunshine the next that sets the streets awash with meltwater.

‘Weather is crucial to Icelanders. It’s something people are far more conscious of than we are further south. It’s understandable. Until a generation ago, Iceland was a community of predominantly farmers and fishermen. That’s changed, but that’s another story… For those people, being able to predict the weather in an age before even rudimentary forecasting could be the difference between life an death, the difference between survival and starvation.

‘Letting the livestock out too early in the spring could meaning losing your flock to a sudden snowstorm, while failing to take advantage of a few dry days at the height of summer could mean your sheep starving long before the next spring and your family going the same way. The dangers to fishermen working open boats from a shingle beach are glaringly clear. Will the wind still be in the right quarter to bring you home before nightfall, and will the surge of the swell be enough to help bring the boat clear of the water, or could it have worsened enough to smash it to pieces against the rocks?

‘There’s no doubt it makes a great backdrop to a crime story, or any drama. Maybe that’s the appeal of Nordic crime fiction, the merciless background of rocks and snow contrasted against comfortable, safe societies.

‘Sunny? Windy? A cold wind from the north that brings snow with it, or a warmer wind from the south that ushers in a thaw? Snow is dramatic for a story set in Reykjavík, but rain is more likely to be realistic. But if you don’t like it, just wait an hour or two and it’ll change.’

So if you plan to attend Iceland Noir later this year – you’ve been warned!



Behind the scenes – a Q & A with the organisers of Crimefest

This is the first in a series of interviews with some of the people without whom we wouldn’t have our favourite crime fiction books or events but who don’t normally get their share of the limelight.

First up is the team who organise Crimefest each year (Adrian, Donna and Myles) and with just a few months to go I really appreciate them sparing time for this.

What makes CrimeFest stand out amongst the many UK crime fiction events?

Adrian: CrimeFest came about after we organised the one-off visit of the US Left Coast Crime convention in Bristol on 2006. As a result we still follow the American crime fiction convention model where everyone pays to attend and any commercially UK published author who registers in time is offered a minimum of one panel appearance. If I am not mistaken, we are still the only convention in Britain that is not by invitation only and as a result we are able to offer many authors the opportunity to appear at a major event when they would be unlikely to do so elsewhere. Possibly more important is the fact that we encourage delegates to attend for the duration of the convention and, because it is held in one location, everybody socialises in the tea room and bar between panels and in the evening. Everybody is equal, authors aren’t whisked away after their panel, and it is common for a readers to be chatting to their favourite authors in a very relaxed environment. The social aspect is key at CrimeFest.

Donna: Adrian’s totally right about the social aspect. Over the years, many people have commented that CrimeFest is one of the friendliest conventions and festivals they attend, and that’s why people come back year after year. For me, it’s the one weekend in the year where I get to catch up with loads of lovely people who I only see once a year, and meet new people who I then look forward to seeing the next year! Also, we give newer authors the opportunity of being on a panel with household names. There’s no hierarchy – if you sign up early enough you get a panel, and you could end up on that panel with anyone.

Do you think Bristol is important in the feel of the event?
Adrian: Originally we purposely did not incorporate Bristol into the name of CrimeFest in case we wanted to move it around the UK, and depending on the costs of hosting the convention in Bristol we may still have to consider this. However, with its international airport, two train stations and access by motorway it is relatively easy to get to Bristol. Also, the feedback on the hotel is overwhelmingly positive, as it is in the centre of the city and is close to shops and restaurants. So, all of that, together with the fact that one of us lives here – which makes things easy – means that there would have to be compelling reasons to move.

When do you start and how do you approach the planning and programming?
Adrian: In some form or other we usually are already planning the following year’s CrimeFest before the current one has begun. With regard to programming, Donna is largely responsible for that and she does an amazing job, so over to you…

Donna: I love doing the programming. It’s basically the focus of every second of spare time I have from my day job and university studies between October and February (Christmas Day is often partially spent poring over a hot spreadsheet). It’s a really daunting task at first – a long list of authors that you need to wrangle onto a set number of panels, making sure that everyone has at least one. And you have to make sure each panel has a suitable topic. The topics need to be varied and the panellists need to ‘fit’ but, to be honest, it’s the panellists and moderators that make the panels work. You could give five different panels the same topic and each one would come up with different discussions. That’s one of the absolute joys of CrimeFest – no matter how many times I’ve scheduled a particularly themed panel, the discussion always takes a new and interesting course. Hang on…I think my job has just become simpler…I’m just going to call panels ‘Panel 1’, ‘Panel 2’, ‘Panel 45’ from now on… One of the side benefits of doing the programming is that I get to find out about new to me authors. In order to try and put authors on suitable panels I check out every single author’s website and books, see what their latest book is, what sub-genres they write in, what their interests are etc. I’ve discovered several authors that way whose books I’ve immediately gone out and bought.

How big is the team that organises the event?
Myles (smiles): Adrian and Donna organise the convention, and I run it…

Adrian (laughs): That’s not even completely untrue! We three are the core of the team. Donna, as I mentioned, does the programming; Myles, is in charge of set up, audio-visual, the practicalities of running the convention, coordinating the front of house and technical staff, and smoothing any ruffled feathers; and I do the all the other stuff, like contacting the publishers, contact the moderators and panellists, organise the awards, etc, etc. Having said that, we have incredible support from Jen, my wife, who designs the programme book; Liz, who is the ‘face’ of CrimeFest and who, with help of friends, greets delegates at the registration desk, and also proofs the text for the programme; and Sue, our wonderful website mistress.
Did any of you ever dream that you would be involved in something on this scale?
All chuckle!
Adrian: We only ever intended to organise the one off 2006 visit of the US Left Coast Crime convention. However, following that convention we were approached by publishers, asking us to continue because they could sign up most of their crime list for what they would pay for one of their authors to appear elsewhere. Authors were eager for us to carry on because we offered them a platform they were unlikely to get elsewhere, and readers loved the fact that they could discover new authors and meet favourites and socialise with them between and after panels.

Donna: Yes, Adrian promised me it would be a one-off…

Myles: Adrian promises me every year that it will be a one-off…

Every CrimeFest I’ve attended has seemed to go smoothly, is that how it feels for you? If something has gone disastrously wrong would you mind sharing?
Adrian: Knock on wood, nothing has gone disastrously wrong so far. We’ve had one last minute cancellation of a featured guest author, but we were lucky that someone gracefully stepped in in time. And if things appear to be running smoothly, then that’s because Myles and I are running around trying to keep all the plates spinning! Donna’s pretty much done all of her work by the time the convention is in full swing, but she instantly and effortlessly finds a replacement if there is a hiccup with one of the panellists.

Donna: As Adrian’s mentioned, I’ve mostly done all my work by the Thursday lunchtime that CrimeFest starts. So, while Adrian and Myles dash around looking red, frazzled and sweaty, I get to swan around, checking authors and moderators in the Green Room are happy and hugging people.

Myles: If you see me sitting at the front desk, looking asleep, then everything’s going well.
Do you get much opportunity to attend the panels?
Adrian: I occasionally do but not often. Donna does, but that is mostly to ensure how the panels are running. We try to record the panels, so I listen to them afterwards, and we have put quite a few of them up on the site. Which reminds me that we’re running behind on doing so for the last year or two. Must work on that.

Donna: I try and pop into all of the panels to see how they’re going. Sadly, I don’t often get to stay for a full panel, because I need to check the others that are happening at the same time, or go down to the Green Room to check things there, but sometimes I get so drawn into the discussions that I have to stay until the end!

Myles: I haven’t sat through a full panel for years. I have to pop in and out to check sound levels and quality and that they are running on time. However, sometimes I get caught up with an interesting discussion and have to drag myself away.

Who (living or dead) would be on your dream panel?
Adrian: I’ll go for the obvious: Arthur Conan Doyle, Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie, Edgar Allan Poe, and Dashiell Hammett as the Participating Moderator? Other than that, we’ve been very fortunate with our headliners and loyal regulars, and having P.D. James, and Lee Child interviewing Maj Sjöwall (the Godmother of Scandinavian crime fiction), it doesn’t get much better than that…

Donna: I love film noir and pulp fiction, so I’m going to go for Richard S Prather (who wrote the hilarious pulpy novels about Private Investigator Shell Scott who wisecracked his way through over 30 novels in the 1950s and 60s. In each one of them Shell manages to solve crimes despite being beaten up, shot and whacked over the head and still had time to sleep with a blonde, a brunette and a redhead before dinner time); Dorothy B Hughes (who, amongst other things, wrote the brilliant novel In A Lonely Place which was made into a great film noir featuring Humphrey Bogart. The film is good, but the book is even better); Margaret Millar (who should be far better known than she is (primarily for being Ross Macdonald’s wife) and who wrote loads of great books including one of my all time favourites – Beast In View – a real heart-stopper of a psychological thriller); and William Lindsay Gresham (who wrote the 1946 stunner Nightmare Alley – another book which was made into a film noir, this time with Tyrone Power. Like In A Lonely Place, the book is far, far darker than the film). The panel would be brilliantly moderated by Eddie Muller – one of my favourite authors and the Czar of Noir. He organises Film Noir festivals and is also the author of two wonderful noir San Francisco set novels The Distance and Shadow Boxer.

(Adrian: Sadly Eddie and I are not related, but he is a good friend.)

What has been the most contentious panel discussion you can recall?
Adrian: The only contentious panel that immediately springs to mind is one where the moderator cheerfully announced at the start at the panel that, despite having three months to prepare, she only did so one or two days before the convention with material her child had managed to find on the internet. Needless to say we… I think someone just kicked me in order to shut me up! We try to celebrate crime fiction at CrimeFest rather than create contention. Instead we try to encourage panellists and (participating) moderators to meet socially before a panel so that they are comfortable enough for the panel to become a conversation where they (politely) interrupt and/or disagree.
2016 will be the ninth year – how has the event changed since you started?
Adrian: Well, it’s become more popular and the attendance has grown – which is great. I don’t think it has become easier to organise. I’m sure Donna will confirm that with regard to the programming. Also, as much as we love the hotel and working with the regulars, they have increased their prices which makes things harder. This is another area where support from friends of CrimeFest comes in, especially Edwin Buckhalter from Severn House who has negotiated the hotel contracts and kept things relatively affordable. He and David Headley from Goldsboro Books have provided invaluable advice and support. I don’t think we would still be hosting CrimeFest if it hadn’t been for their input. I can’t immediately think of anything else other than that the main constant has been to celebrate crime fiction in a very social atmosphere…

Myles: A lot of the day-to-day event management has become easier and smoother both through our gained experience and the long-term cooperation of Marriott hotels in knowing what our requirements are and just being in the right place at the right time. From having no idea what we were doing, or letting ourselves in for, we have progressed to surrounding ourselves with a great team ranging from young sound engineers through dedicated volunteer receptionists to the coffee lady (who – despite being promoted – has it written into her Marriott contract that she will work at CrimeFest no matter what).

What has been your highlight?
Adrian: Getting to personally know more authors, and people like Edwin and David; the headliners for our 5th anniversary – Lee Child, Jeffrey Deaver, Frederick Forsyth, Sue Grafton, P.D.James and more – wasn’t something to sneeze at; having the BBC’s Sherlock team was a treat; and again: Lee Child interviewing Maj Sjöwall…

Donna: Each year, CrimeFest gets bigger and better. My own highlights are just getting to spend time with people I love to bits, talk about and celebrate crime fiction, discover new to me authors, have fun and buy books.

Myles: To me, the highlights are the very human aspects, from Jeffery Deaver explaining how his dog set off the fire alarm to Jasper Fforde giving an impromptu comedy turn for the entertainment of those on reception.
What are you reading at the moment?
Adrian: I’m reading James Laws’ Tenacity. James has been a CrimeFest regular, attended Crime Writing Day, and Pitch-an-Agent as well. Following the latter I know that various agents were interested in representing him and that multiple publishers made offers for the book. Reading the book seemed like a minor way in reciprocating his support, and so far it has been a compelling read…

Donna: Apart from an academic text about the plight of women in mid-nineteenth-century Victorian factories I have two great books on the go – David Young’s Stasi Child (one of the new-to-me authors discovered while I was programming) and Mignon Eberhart’s Never Look Back (part of my pulp fiction kick). Both highly recommended.

Myles: Because I’m a judge, all my spare time is being taken up by reading the 150-plus books submitted for the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger award for the best crime novel of the year, the longlist of which is announced at CrimeFest in May.

What would you say to someone thinking of attending for the first time?
Adrian: CrimeFest is a party, come and join the fun. Read the Frequently Asked Questions on the website, and, if you still have queries, we’re here to answer them.

Donna: If there’s an author you’d love to speak to – do it. Everyone is really friendly and, in my experience, just loves to talk! And please come up and say hello. I’ll be the organiser who looks calm and unruffled!

Myles: This is an event organised by people who are not part of the publishing industry. We are primarily readers and fans (although multi-talented Donna has gone and become an author in the meantime). I agree with both Adrian and Donna: this is a very social event where all the back-stabbing is done on the page. Do come and say hello, don’t be nervous I only shout at Adrian!

If that’s whetted your appetite you can check out all the details and the full event programme on the Crimefest website or catch them on Twitter or Facebook.


An Interview with Simon Booker – author of Without Trace

Simon Booker’s debut crime fiction novel “Without Trace” was published by twenty7 book as an ebook on 28th January. Although this is Simon’s first novel he is is no stranger to crime fiction – having worked as a screenwriter for many years. So how different has the process of writing a novel been? Simon tells all!

Simon Booker Author Photo-2“After many years writing TV drama (Inspector Lynley Mysteries, Holby City, The Mrs Bradley Mysteries … etc) penning my first crime novel has been a very different experience. Not better, not worse – just different.

“Working in TV is ‘writing by committee’. The moment you start work on a script, you must necessarily take into consideration the views of a small army of people, including the script editor, producer, executive producer, commissioning editor, channel controller, director and, very often, the actors who will speak your dialogue and bring to life the characters you create.

“Writing a book is, of course, a much more solitary business. You need to be mindful of your editor’s views, and your agent’s, but that’s it. Ninety-nine percent of the time the process of just you and the world taking shape inside your head.

“In my psychological thriller, Without Trace, I introduce readers to my series character, Morgan Vine. She’s a single mother and investigative journalist who specialises in miscarriages of justice. Her childhood sweetheart, Danny Kilcannon, has been convicted of murdering his stepdaughter. Morgan believes him to be innocent and campaigns for his release. But when he’s freed on appeal – and her own daughter goes missing in mysterious circumstances – Morgan is forced to question everything she thinks she knows about her old flame. As the ‘shout line’, er, shouts, She fought to free him. Now is he free to kill?

“Morgan Vine lives in a converted railway carriage on the beach at Dungeness. As I write about her desperate hunt for her missing daughter, and her determination to discover the truth about Danny, I visualise every image in my mind’s eye, just as I would if I were creating scenes for a TV drama. The key difference is that I am free to feature as many diverse locations as I like, and as many characters.

“Writing for TV means producing scripts that can be brought to the small screen without breaking the budget, or driving the director and cast crazy
with unfeasible demands. There would be no point in letting my imagination run riot in a TV script and creating, say, a huge manhunt in which viewers need to see hundreds of volunteers (too expensive), or even a small-scale domestic scene where a cat is required to jump on Morgan’s lap on cue (animals are notoriously unpredictable).

“But the broadcast medium with the most freedom is radio drama, where everything happens in the mind’s eye of the listener and where, as the saying goes, ‘the pictures are better’.

“Without Trace is the first in a series of psychological thrillers. In each book, Morgan will tackle a fresh miscarriage of justice. Perhaps the series will find its way onto TV at some point soon. If so, I know just the writer to tackle the adaptation.”

If you would like to find out more about Simon and his writing he will be appearing at Deal Noir on 2 April.

Without Trace Blog Tour

Author interview – J S Law

JS LawIt might have taken me a while to get to my second author interview but I’m thrilled that it is JS Law, whose debut Tenacity is published this week.

Tenacity is your debut, can you say a little about the story – what’s your elevator pitch?

Elevator pitch huh? Well, it’s Girl Gone from a Train meets The Bourne for Red October!!!

Or, a trifle more accurately, it’s about a female investigator from the Royal Navy, Dan Lewis, who’s called in to investigate a murder-suicide onboard a nuclear submarine. She’s an ultimate outsider – female in a very male dominated environment, a crusher (military police) – and when the submarine hatch closes, I don’t think there’s a locked room environment quite like it.

How have you found the process of getting your book published?

Getting published is a hard old slog, no question about that. I know some very talented, or very lucky, people just write the one book and it becomes a phenomena and fair play to them, but they’re few and far between. For the rest of us it’s about learning how stories work, writing some very bad novels as we start to hone our skill, and then submitting and hoping we get picked up by an agent.

And really, when you get picked up by an agent, that’s not the end of the road, but it is the point at which you get really great, market-savvy advice from someone who is invested in you and your book, and that is a huge help.

I was fortunate enough to be picked up by Jonny Geller at Curtis Brown, and this led to a three month re-working of Tenacity before we sent it out to publishers. Tenacity then sold at auction to Vicki Mellor at Headline and I was delighted, but that again led to another round of heavy re-writes. So it’s a long journey, but very, very worth it.

What drew you to crime fiction as a genre?

I tried a few genres and have completed novels that are horror (really, really awful!), Fantasy (I think I was being pretentious at the time and called it a Phantasy – it was terrible), Erotica (Oh hell yeah, I went there, and it was before 50 Shades – truly dreadful) and then hit upon thrillers and crime. I think my writing started to improve when I began writing in this genre and I really started to enjoy it more too. Once I started going to events like Crimefest and Harrogate, and met other authors in the genre, I was hooked. It should have been obvious really, as the vast majority of my reading is in Crime Thrillers, so I think I’ll be happy here for a long time to come.

Your investigator is a Royal Navy Special Investigator, have you ever crossed paths with one yourself?

Errr, I’ve crossed the Regulators on several occasions as young sailor – stories for the bar maybe?

What facts were you surprised to find yourself researching? 

You know what!! I dread someone looking at my search history, I really do – I think all authors must be the same. The things I Google about decomposing bodies and how people look when they’ve been suffocated and stuff…

Fortunately I do have some great friends in the medical profession who spare my search history sometimes and humour me by answering my odd questions.

The things that surprise me the most though are things I should know and have forgotten. I spent years walking on and off submarines and then have to Google pictures on the web because I can’t remember what the ship’s name boards look like or some such thing. You use it or lose it, definitely

What have your former submarine colleagues made of the book – do they think they can spot themselves?

You know, this made me more nervous than anything else – how would the submarine community react to the book – but it’s been hugely positive so far and several of the guys have read and enjoyed Tenacity, which is a huge relief. It’s also worth noting that it was only in my last few years of service that people found out that I wrote at all, as I’d kept it secret for many years (I don’t know why) so for them, this all seems to have happened very quickly and they’re very much behind me.

In regards to spotting themselves – they aren’t in there and I’ll never say otherwise 😉

Have you found the writing process differs for the second book?

Definitely! When you write your first book you have carte blanche and can do as you please. You can twist and turn, add or remove characters at will, and stop and write something completely different if you choose. For me, I found getting the second book flowing much more difficult. All of a sudden I had markers laid down – a main character who already had a forming background and personality – supporting characters who we wanted to see more or less of – a location and a theme (the Royal Navy) that we wanted to stick with – and my new story had to fit within these markers, and comfortably engulf them.

I started book 2 twice, each time writing around 35 thousand words before I abandoned it. But, with help from Jonny and Vicki, (and this is where excellent agents and editors really are worth their weight in gold) we were able to locate the problem and I’m now off and running on book 2 and feeling much happier about it. In fact, I’m very excited about it.

Who are the writers who have inspired you?

So many, but to list a very few – Cormac McCarthy’s use of language is just phenomenal; William McIlvanney’s ability to present a ‘sense of place’ is second to none; Thomas Harris has a rare ability to create tension that you can actually feel through the pages. But there are so many others who have also helped to inspire me – Mark Billingham, Peter James, Val McDermid, Stav Sherez the list just goes on and on and I could wax lyrical about each of them, what they do brilliantly, and what it is that really helped me to develop as a writer.

I think the thing is, when you want to be a writer, you need to read books from these authors, as well as newer authors in your genre, and alternate between reading for fun and just enjoying it, and then reading to understand what these authors are doing, how they drive the story forward, how they foreshadow events and bring about amazing plot twists. Read it to study, slowly, take notes if you need to, and try to learn your craft from their work.

What are you reading at the moment?

Just finished The Dying Place by Luca Veste – Very, very good!

Next up is The Defence by Steve Cavanagh – really excited, reviews have been amazing!

After that on the TBR pile are

I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh – top ten bestseller by an amazing author – I can’t wait to get to this one.

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn – Gone Girl and Dark Places were excellent – so really looking forward to this one.

But…. I don’t really read fiction when I’m writing my first draft, so it’ll be The Grudge by Tom English and other rugby related non-fic until mid-October, I’m guessing.

Thank you very much for having me on the blog ☺ see you at the launch xx

Thank you to James for taking the time to answer my questions – you can find out more about him and Tenacity at

Author interview – Ben H Winters

BenHWintersI am delighted that as a guinea pig for my first author interview I have Ben H Winters, author of the Hank Palace trilogy. The Last Policeman (book 1) was one of my 5 star reads last year and the excellent Countdown City is published this week.

You’re described on Wikipedia as “author, journalist and playwright” – is that how you see yourself?

Well, you know what they say about Wikipedia: Everything you read there is literally true. And yes, I am technically still a playwright, as a couple things I wrote in the past are produced now and again, but I haven’t written a new play or libretto in about eight years. I miss it! As for journalism, that’s how I started my career as a writer—at a Chicago free weekly called NewCity—but again, I’ve been pretty dormant on that front for years. I would more accurately call myself “an author and teacher.” When I’m not writing, I teach in the Master’s Program at Butler University, in Indianapolis, and online for a marvellous place in Boston called Grub Street.

I was unable to fix on a single genre to describe your book – how would you describe it and do you think being able to pigeonhole fiction into a genre is important? 

I think it’s very important for people who sell books for a living, and not that important for people who write them. For the record, I think of these books (I’m including The Last Policeman, the sequel Countdown City, and the third in the trilogy, to come next summer) as mystery novels or detective novels, although I’m delighted to see them called “science fiction” by others. Really, there are only two kinds of books: good, and bad. I hope mine are good.

Hank is pretty unusual, especially as the main character in crime fiction. How do you think he would describe himself? 

Inexperienced? Focused? Actually, he would be embarrassed about the question.

When you started The Last Policeman did you plan that it would be a trilogy and if so did you know how it was going to end? 

The idea was for one novel, but my editor at Quirk felt it would make sense as a trilogy, and I agreed. I knew how it was going to end only in the very broadest sense: I have known from the beginning that at the end of the trilogy an asteroid will smash into the Earth. That fact being, after all, the animating conceit of the whole package. I’ve also known that in each book, Hank would try to solve one big, complicated crime while civilization slipped further into chaos.

What gave you the initial idea of the “Earth on the brink of disaster” setting? 

I think if writers knew where interesting ideas came from, we would have a lot more of them! I knew I wanted to write a mystery story with an unusual, heightened setting, to test the fortitude of a very dedicated hero.

With the critical acclaim that you’ve now received for The Last Policeman, including the Edgar Award earlier in the year, do you now regret having a setting that had such a fixed end point? 

Thanks, first of all—I’m delighted with the response, obviously, and particularly to have won the Edgar. And in terms of regrets, not really—without that fixed end point to inspire the story, it wouldn’t have been as good a book, and probably would have missed out on most of that acclaim. And hopefully people who dug these books will be interested in whatever I do next.

Are you currently working on the final book in the series? When is it due for publication?

I am indeed. There is a (very) rough draft. July of 2014.

You’re on Twitter (@BenHWinters) – how has your experience been of engaging with readers of your books? 

Oh, extremely positive! I’m not a huge Twitter/Facebook person, because I try to stay off the internet as much as I can when I’m actively writing, but I do love to hear from people, especially when they say stuff like how they want to marry Hank Palace, or they wonder what diagnosis he would get from a trained clinician. I’ve also done a lot of book clubs, via Skype, which is always delightful.

Do you have writing plans for after the series is finished?

Many, many, many. I am working on a new novel for young readers (I’ve written two previously: The Mystery of the Missing Everything, and The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman, which was nominated for an Edgar in 2010), and researching a new police series set here in Indianapolis.

Who would you cite as your biggest influences as a writer? 

Hard to pick one. Charles Dickens? PD James? Philip K. Dick? There is a short story called The Drowned Giant by JG Ballard, that is the single most interesting thing I’ve ever read.

Any plans to come to the UK to promote your books? 

Not at present, but one never knows! I spent my junior year of college studying at Oxford, and had an extraordinary experience.

What are you reading at the moment? 

Ripley Under Water, by Patricia Highsmith. A history of the Amish. Two back issues of the Economist I missed when we were on vacation. Oh, and I’ve also recently finished a remarkable first novel called The Unknowns, by Gabriel Roth. Highly recommended.

Thank you to Ben for taking the time to answer my questions – you can find out more about him and Hank at