Chris Ewan is the author of the Good Thief’s Guide series of comic mystery novels about globetrotting crime-writer and professional thief-for-hire, Charlie Howard. His first novel, The Good Thief’s Guide to Amsterdam, won the Long Barn Books First Novel Award. Both Amsterdam and The Good Thief’s Guide to Paris have been shortlisted for CrimeFest's Last Laugh Award. Other titles in the series include The Good Thief’s Guide to Vegas, and the recently released, The Good Thief’s Guide to Venice.
Chris lives in a small village in the Isle of Man with his wife, Jo, and their labrador, Maisie, where he spends his days planning imaginary burglaries and learning how to pick locks. His neighbours are thrilled. Find out more at: www.thegoodthief.co.uk
Tell us a bit about your current project.
I’m just beginning work on the fifth book in the Charlie Howard series, The Good Thief’s Guide to Berlin. The Good Thief’s Guides are a series of comic mystery novels that also include an element of travel fiction, since each book in the series is set in a different international city. Berlin follows on from the events in Venice, which means that Charlie is just getting over his run-in with a slinky female cat burglar when he’s approached to commit a series of burglaries on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government. A diplomat from the British Embassy in Berlin suspects that one of the embassy’s employees has stolen a sensitive item and he wants Charlie to steal it back. Problem is, the item is so sensitive that he’s not prepared to tell Charlie what exactly he’s searching for …
We are all about journeys...unique ones at that. How convoluted was your path to your first published book? Share some highlights or lowlights from your path to publication.
It took me around ten years to get published from when I started writing my first novel. I found an agent on the strength of my first manuscript, but publication didn’t follow, and I eventually got my break via a competition. The novelist Susan Hill operates a small but perfectly formed publishing company called Long Barn Books, and back in 2006 she was running a competition to publish an unpublished writer. I had just completed work on the manuscript of The Good Thief’s Guide to Amsterdam as the closing date for the competition loomed and I sent in the opening four chapters. A week or so later, Susan sent me an e-mail asking me to send her the whole thing. Several anxious months went by, and then I found myself on the shortlist for the competition. A week later, I got a phone call at work. It was Susan, ringing to tell me that I’d won and that I was going to be published. It was without question the single most exciting phone call of my life. Ten years of hard work and dreaming had finally paid off, and that would have been thrilling in itself, but to have my book read and enjoyed by an author I admire as much as Susan Hill was a huge honour.
Do you still experience self-doubts regarding your work, or struggle in a particular area such as writers block or angst driven head-banging against walls? Please share some helpful overcoming hints that you’ve discovered.
I always experience self-doubt, and I can’t imagine a time when I’ll ever be 100% confident in whatever it is that I’m working on. As for coping with that, I’m maybe naïve enough to think that doubt is something that affects 100% of writers, and that’s a source of some comfort. Beyond that, find a reader you trust to take a look at your work. In my experience, if they query anything about your manuscript, it probably won’t be the thing(s) you’ve been worrying about.
What mistakes have you made while seeking publication? Or to narrow it down further what’s something you wish you’d known earlier that might have saved you some time/frustration in the publishing business?
Based on my experience, I think it can sometimes be a mistake to concentrate solely on submitting work to agents. I followed this approach for a long time before I tried my luck with the Long Barn Books First Novel Award, so I’d definitely recommend keeping an eye out for writing competitions. On another note, I look back now and realize that the length of time it took me to get published, and the endless frustrations, were pretty useful. They forced me to write more and to improve as a writer. Hard as it would have to acknowledge at the time, if my first manuscript had been published, it would have been a disaster.
What is your favorite source for finding story ideas?
Panic? Honestly, I think that finding ideas is one of the most fascinating aspects of writing fiction. My ideas come from all the usual places. They’re usually extrapolations from books, movies, newspaper stories or idle daydreams. Part of me wishes I had a system. The other part really likes that unexpected buzz you get from stumbling upon an idea out of nowhere. Mind you, in my experience it’s not the generating of ideas that’s the tough part. The real trick is knowing which idea is the right one to build into a novel.
With the clarity of experience what advice would you offer up to the wet-behind-the-ears you if beginning this writing journey today?
I’d tell myself to stop endlessly rewriting my first novel. I must have spent three or four years going over old ground, trying to improve a script that was fundamentally flawed. I learned so much more from starting a new project. And after that I started another new project. So that gave me two more flawed manuscripts... But I’d learned enough by then that my fourth manuscript became my first published novel – The Good Thief’s Guide to Amsterdam.
What event/person has most changed you as a writer? How?
In the Summer of 2001, I was traveling through New Orleans and I stepped inside a second-hand book shop and asked the guy behind the counter to recommend something to me. He gave me Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. Reading the opening of that book while sitting on a bench in Jackson Square changed everything for me. It introduced me to hardboiled noir and led me to explore all kinds of crime fiction. Pretty soon, I went from thinking that I wanted to write literary fiction, to knowing that I wanted to work in the crime and mystery genre.
What gives you the greatest writer buzz, makes the trip worth the hassles (besides coffee or other substances, or course )?
So many things. Shaping a paragraph so that it feels just right. Watching a character come alive. Seeing a plot fit together in ways you hadn’t expected. Also, hearing from appreciative readers. This is probably the best thing of all.
What is the best writing (or life) advice you have ever heard or wished you had followed? Why?
I’ve learned a lot from writing guides. Two of my favourites are Lawrence Block’s Telling Lies for Fun and Profit and Stephen King’s On Writing. Perhaps the simplest, and most effective advice, was King’s formula for the second draft of a manuscript: the second draft = the first draft, minus 10%.
What is one of the more unique or strange life experiences that has really given you an extra oomph in your writing?
Finding that I’d spent half-an-hour in an apartment with a burglar, and not knowing they were there, was pretty influential. It was while I was training to be a lawyer in London. I’d come home from work one night to find that the front door to my apartment was ajar, but I assumed that my housemate had simply forgotten to lock-up when she’d left earlier in the day. Turned out I was wrong. The burglar had been hiding in my housemate’s bedroom and they made off with her jewellery while I was taking a shower. I was in the middle of singing Justin Timberlake’s Cry Me A River at the time. Just as well I was singing, really. Otherwise the burglar might have cleaned us out completely.
What is the first thing you do when you begin a new book?
I get a notebook and start jotting down ideas. If I’m writing one of my Good Thief’s Guide novels, I begin to do as much research as I can about the city I’ll be writing about. After that, I try to come up with my opening line. It sets the tone and feel for the whole book.
Writing rituals. Do you have to sit somewhere specific, complete a certain number of words, leave something undone to trigger creativity for the next session? Some other quirk you’d like to share?
I start work in the mornings and I work by page count. Now that I’m writing full-time, I write five pages a day, double-spaced. When I was still working as a lawyer, I’d write two pages a day before work, and five pages a day on the weekends. After a lot of experimentation, I learned that I didn’t like working towards a particular word count. Besides, working by page count encourages me to write more dialogue so that I’m done faster.
Plot, seat of pants or combination?
A combination. I usually have a pretty solid idea of what happens in the first five or six chapters of a manuscript before I begin, plus certain scenes or high-points that I want the book to develop towards. I try to pack enough into the opening chapters so that my lead character, Charlie, has plenty to be getting on with.
Parting words? Anything you wish we would’ve asked because you’ve got the perfect answer?
Well, it’d be handy right now if you were to ask me if I’d like to stay for free in the luxury apartment you keep in Berlin while I’m writing the next Good Thief’s Guide…