Sunday, January 5, 2014

Having A Stab At It

Well, 2014 is under way. Come the end of this month it will officially become the Year of the Horse, according to our Lisa Brackmann and if you’re one for making Resolutions, top of many a New Year’s list will be finally to get that novel Finished and Out There.

Mind you, although there have never been more ways of independently publishing your work, there’s no doubt about it that many of us crave the sense of approval that comes with a traditional publishing deal. If you’re currently sitting at home contemplating your as-yet-unseen masterpiece in the crime, mystery or thriller genre, but are finding the process of submission a bit daunting, hope is at hand.

There is a bit of light at the end of the tunnel in the form of the Debut Dagger Competition from the CWA—the UK Crime Writers’ Association.

I’d never heard of the Debut Dagger when I was writing my first crime novel, or I would have been in there like a shot. Or a stabbing, or a strangulation, or a disembowelment—or whatever other method of murder I could devise at the time. It might even have saved me a good deal of heartache.

The name Debut Dagger is a bit of a misnomer, because that does make it sound as though it’s a prize for first novels, and that’s not quite the case. It’s for the beginning of a first novel. It doesn’t even have to actually be your first novel. You could have written dozens, providing none of them have been commercially published. Short stories and non-fiction doesn’t count. Even some on-line and self-publishing doesn’t count, although it would need to be OK’d by the organisers before you sent your entry.

The Debut Dagger is for the opening chapter(s) of a crime novel, up to a strict maximum of 3000 words, plus a short—500-1000 words—synopsis of the rest of your proposed book. I recall seeing the synopsis in this sense described as a distilled idea of what the book is about, written in present tense, up to and including the denouement. Cliff-hangers and teaser endings are not allowed—the judges want to know what you have planned. Indeed, they put it so much better than I could:

“The challenge of writing a good synopsis is out of all proportion to its length. Writing a synopsis requires you to simultaneously know everything that’s going to happen in your story, and be able to strip ninety-nine percent of it away to leave only the most important details—and to then sum that up in a fluid and engaging way. If you haven’t written the book yet (as many Debut Dagger entrants haven’t), that can be tough, but if you don’t have a clear idea of your story then the difficult business of writing a synopsis becomes almost impossible. Clarity of expression always follows clarity of thought.

“You’ll probably find you need to take shortcuts and make simplifications that underplay the complexities of your novel. Don’t worry. The judges don’t know (and don’t care) how much you’ve oversimplified or even misled them with the synopsis, they just want it to sound like something they want to read. Equally, don’t worry that the story may change when you actually come to write it. All books change during their writing, characters begin to grow and take on lives of their own, to veer away from the planned path, unexpected events impose themselves. None of that matters if the completed book works. Look on the synopsis as a road map, but one which allows a few unexpected but interesting diversions along the way. And above all, remember this. With the synopsis, you’re not giving us a schematic plan of the novel; you’re not bound to give us the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. You’re doing what writers have always done: you’re telling a story. Just shorter.”

The competition has been running since last November, and closes on January 31st 2014, so there is still time to polish and submit your opening 3000 words, and wrestle with your synopsis. You can enter as many times as you like, with as many different starts of novels as you have sitting in boxes under the bed, providing you pay the £25 entry fee with each one. (I think that’s about $40 at current exchange rates.)

All the entries are read by professional readers, with the best passed on to the judges, who put together a shortlist of about ten, and select the winner. This lucky soul collects £700 (about $1150-ish) sponsored by Orion. The shortlist will be announced at CrimeFest in Bristol in May, and the winner at the CWA Dagger Awards Dinner soon afterwards. The best thing about it, however, is that the judging panel is made up of top UK agents and editors. What better way to put your would-be novel in front of such people?

Of course, there is no guarantee that the winning entry will be published, but the Debut’s record to date is pretty impressive:

“Inaugural winner Joolz Denby was short-listed in 2005 for the Orange Prize (now the Baileys Women’s Prize For Fiction) while 2001 winner Edward Wright was awarded the 2005 Shamus award for best PI novel by the Private Eye Writers of America. Allan Guthrie won the 2007 Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award at the Harrogate Festival for TWO WAY SPLIT, developed from his entry shortlisted in 2001. Barbara Cleverly, shortlisted in 1999, won the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Dagger award in 2004. Louise Penny, highly commended by the judges of the 2004 Debut Dagger, was awarded the 2006 New Blood Dagger, now called the John Creasey Dagger in honour of the CWA’s founder.” And 2007 winner Alan Bradley has gone on to considerable success with his Flavia de Luce series.

“Oh, but what chance does my novel stand against all those others?” you cry. Well, a pretty one, actually, just purely from a numbers point of view. The Debut Dagger, for some unknown reason, receives entries in the hundreds, rather than thousands.

So, what’s stopping you? Is it fear of failing? Because, trust me, if you’re going to write and hope to be published, you’re going to get a LOT of knock-backs. Get used to the idea. And, who knows? You might just be one of the lucky ones.

 My question this week is, did you enter competitions like this before getting published, and if not, why not? Is that how you got published in the first place? If you don’t go for this kind of thing, why not? What’s your opinion of them? Are you a supporter, or what puts you off? If you’re not yet published, would you consider it?

And if you are considering making 2014 the year you write your first novel, might I just take this opportunity to mention Crime And Publishment, which takes place on March 7th-9th at The Mill Forge Hotel on the outskirts of Gretna Green (elopements optional but not essential). I’m honoured to be one of the tutors for this course of crime writing workshops, along with Chris Ewan, Michael Malone, Darren Laws and Inga McVicar. Contact Graham Smith on for details.

This week’s Word of the Week is monophthong, meaning a simple vowel sound.


  1. As a matter of fact, I entered my first Andreas Kaldis book in a contest. The prize was a "guaranteed" publishing contract. I was into the semi-final round and actually wondered what I'd do if I won, because the publishing contract terms struck me as onerous. Luckily, I didn't have to face that decision because I reached a deal with a different publisher during the contest, making the issue moot. I also didn't make the finals:).

    BUT, the story does not end there. The actual winner, a very talented writer, never got the deal he was promised. The sponsor garnered a boatload of publicity but did not keep its word. And I believe that sponsor still runs those contests drawing in other hopefuls with the lure of a "publishing contract."

    The sponsor, I should add, is not what we'd consider a true member of the mystery world.

    As for your word of the week, ZOË, it would have been a real stinker had you hit the key to the right of "v" as in vowel.

    1. Hi Jeff, and a very Happy New Year to you.

      Yeah, you do have to read the small print on some of these contests very carefully, but the CWA is a reputable organisation (albeit filled with reprobates) and many of the previous winners and shortlistees have gone on to considerable success.

      Not quite a competition, but I was once asked to contribute a short story to an anthology, and asked for sight of the contract before I sent in my bit. When it eventually arrived the terms (from a recognisable small publishing house) asked for 'All rights in perpetuity'. When I queried this the editor threw a bit of a hissy fit and 'withdrew his invitation to submit'.

      Best thing I can recommend is look to the history of any competition and see what happened to previous winners.

      Oh, and only you could have spotted the potential in that kind of a typo, my friend. I like that about you :)

  2. With the attitude of "what's there to lose", we entered the first 3000 words of A Carrion Death to the Debut Dagger and - guess what - made the final cut. So, what the hell, off to London we went for the award dinner. We didn't win - sigh - but learned something about the world of publishing. After the dinner, one of the judges, probably as inebriated as we were, told us that we shoudn't have set our mystery in Botswana because McCall Smith owned it. Unfortunately our brains were too slow to come back with the obvious retort about whether the UK should have allowed any mystery writers after Conan Doyle.

    Zoe is absolutely right. Use the Debut Dagger to focus your attention and get over your reluctance to submit. Win or not, the benefits are great.

    1. Having made Dagger shortlists but not being an actual winner myself, I sympathise, Stan. Maybe this accounts for my attitude that making the shortlist can mean more than actually winning. When I was on the CWA committee, I was an observer at several judging lunches where the shortlists and winner was chosen, and frequently the eventual winner was a compromise choice. So, making the shortlist was what counted.

      Or maybe that's just my version of sour grapes!

      But in your case it has done you no harm at all. Out of interest, who won that year?

      Oh, and one day you're going to have to tell me the name of that judge, although I think I may be able to guess ...

      Happy New Year to you.

  3. I was short listed for the New Blood Dagger ( First published book ) and did not win- despite my good frock. My agent told me not to swear if I didn't win as the cameras would be on me and folk watching the TV can lip read. ( you are supposed to clap and nod as if you agree with the decision.) The lovely Matt Rees won. He beat Absolution, Die With Me and some book called Child 44 ( that went on to win best novel the same night I think but Gyles Brandreth was talking so much my ears were bleeding!! ).
    Great fun, but it is what it is and nothing more!

    1. There you go, Caro -- far more impressive to be shortlisted! And Gyles can talk for Britain, but since much of what he says tends to be quite entertaining, I can forgive him for that :)

      Happy New Year to you, also!

  4. Are you sure that monophthong isn't a disease that you contract from kissing underwear???

    1. LOL, Everett. Erm, is that the voice of experience talking ...? :)))