Having A Stab At It

by Zoë Sharp

We spent yesterday officially snowed-in out here in the wilds of Cumbria, with no mail delivery, no rubbish collection, and temperatures which have been dropping into minus double figures every night. For a country totally flummoxed by its weather, that’s perishin’ cold. And what with the world economy on its arse and the publishing industry sprouting doom and gloom in every direction, there’s not much to smile about at the moment.

If you’re currently sitting at home contemplating your unfinished first novel, you might be forgiven for wondering, "What’s the point?"

But don’t give up, there is a bit of light at the end of the tunnel in the form of the Debut Dagger competition from 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. The organisers give some excellent tips, and helpfully describe the synopsis 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 in the synopsis – you've got to tell it like it is! The organisers 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 99% 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 February 7th 2009, 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 $37 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 £500 (about $730-ish), sponsored by Orion, and a couple of tickets to the Dagger Awards, which last year were held on Park Lane in London. 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 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 Theakston's Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year 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 CWA New Blood Dagger".

"Oh, but what chance does my novel stand against all those others?" you cry. Well, a pretty good one, actually, just purely from a numbers point of view. The Debut Dagger, for some unknown reason, receives entries in the low-mid 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?

This week’s Word of the Week seems almost superfluous after Pari's wonderful post on Monday, but I’ll go for monophthong, a complicated word meaning a simple vowel sound.

And my apologies both for the slightly later-than-usual posting, and for the lack of illustrations. There's only so many times Typepad/Internet Explorer can fall over and lose everything before you either throw the entire computer out of the nearest window, or give up trying to be clever …

31 thoughts on “Having A Stab At It

  1. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alex

    Yes, it is. It amazes me that, talking to would-be writers at conferences like Harrogate and Caerleon, how few people are aware of the CWA Debut Dagger.

    Like I said, I wish I’d known about it when I was starting out!

  2. JT Ellison

    I entered Debut Dagger right before I got my agent. It was a hugely helpful experience, mostly because it taught me how to write a killer synopsis. Those skills have carried over into proposal synopses, and that’s a handy skill to have in your back pocket. It’s a great contest.

    Hope you’ve got lots of wood and tea, Zoe! Stay warm!

  3. Zoë Sharp

    Hi JT

    Wow, I didn’t know you were a former Debut entrant. Did you enter any other comepetitions before you were published?

    And yes, we have plenty of tea, and a full tank of propane!

  4. Michael McGovern

    As someone who has never been published I have to say it sounds like an intriguing opportunity, and a terrifying one. Especially paying money to possibly have your work rejected, which would probably feel a lot like hiring thugs to mug yourself. I realize that’s the fear talking, but I think I’ll just keep practicing for free until I get good enough to enter.

    Thanks for the info on the contest, maybe by next year I’ll feel like I’m where I’d need to be to take part.

  5. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Michael

    An interesting comparison, but look at last year’s judges for the Debut:

    Krystyna Green from Constable & RobinsonJane Gregory from Gregory & Co Authors’ Agents (and my own excellent agent, I might add)Lesley Horton, the current Chair of the CWASelina Walker from TransworldJane Wood from QuercusJon Wood from Orion

    If I was starting out fresh today, I’d be seriously thinking about selling a kidney to get my work in front of these people …

    Yes, showing your work to anyone is a scary proposition, but you’ve got to face that fear sooner or later if you want to be published.

    And all those shortlisted for the Debut receive the judges’ comments on their entries.

    Are you sure that isn’t worth £25?

  6. Paula Matter

    “…there’s not much to smile about at the moment.”

    Hey, Zoe–what’s the difference between sugar and sweet ‘n low?

    Did that bring a smile…?

  7. Louise Ure

    Excellent post, Zoë. I’d never heard of this competition before I was published, but soon ran into Adrian Muller at a conference and learned all about it. It’s got exactly the cachet and professional punch that a new writer should be looking for.

    Stay warm, my dear!

  8. Jude Hardin

    Hi Zoe,

    I’m wondering if it’s all right if the novel is simultaneously being submitted to publishers through an agent. I didn’t see anything in the rules about it.

  9. R.J. Mangahas

    Thanks for posting this Z. I may have to give it a shot. I’m pretty close to 3000 words anyway. It’s the synopsis that may present a slight problem, but what the hell?

  10. gregory huffstutter

    Two years ago, I entered a first chapter contest hosted by “The Writing Show”… and to my happy surprise, won.


    Not only was it the first check I’d received from my fiction efforts, but:

    – I got the pleasure of hearing my opening chapter read by a trained voice actor

    – It provided needed validation I was on the right track with my nascent writing career, and maybe all those weekends working on the book (when I’d much rather be on the beach) might pay off one someday

    – The news came while I was in the query process, and gave me a valid excuse to re-contact agents showing interest

    That one contest didn’t lead to instant publication, but it absolutely helped me eventually land my first agent.

    I believe the path to legitimate publication is a series of small steps, and a ‘first chapter’ contest can be a long stride toward your goals. Just don’t expect to be immediately catapaulted to the finish line.

    That said, where to I send my £25?

  11. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Paula

    “Hey, Zoe–what’s the difference between sugar and sweet ‘n low?

    Did that bring a smile…?”

    Hell, yes … but I think Tom Cain may still be having therapy for that one … ;-]

  12. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Louise

    Yup, I’m in just the same boat. I always mention it whenever I’m giving talks to unpublished writers and, 9 times out of 10, get blank looks as a result.

    Hence the reason for mentioning it here …

  13. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Jude

    “I’m wondering if it’s all right if the novel is simultaneously being submitted to publishers through an agent. I didn’t see anything in the rules about it.”

    An email query to the organisers should clear that up, but I know several writers on previous shortlists already had agent representation, so I don’t see why not.

    After all, if your agent can say, ‘this novel was shortlisted for the CWA Debut Dagger’ when they’re submitting to publishers, that’s got to be good, hasn’t it?

  14. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Fiona

    I hope you do give it a whirl, and best of luck to you. It has a good success rate.

    I read something about a national novel-writing competition a couple of years ago that received something like 40,000 entries. The odds for the Debut Dagger are considerably better than that, don’t you think?

  15. Zoë Sharp

    Hi RJ

    Glad to hear your book’s progressing well. There’s some very helpful info about the opening chapter(s) and the synopsis on the CWA website, if you follow the link. I only quoted part of it.

    And it’s good practice for later on … ;-]

  16. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Gregory

    Congratulations on your success with that first chapter!

    I agree about the small steps and am reminded of a writer friend, Christine Poulson, who said, “When you first get a publishing contract, it’s like winning the lottery … and then you realise that all you’ve actually won is a ticket for another lottery …”

    Very true, but we keep taking those steps.

    Follow the link to the CWA website – http://www.thecwa.co.uk, just in case it got mangled somewhere – and then click on the Debut Dagger link. All the info is there, including a newsletter you can sign up for on the Debut.

  17. Allison Brennan

    Wow, I wish I knew about this. I think I was so focused on “romantic suspense” and that I was part of romance and not suspense. I still can’t write a synopsis that can save my soul, but I’m pretty good with 1-2 sentences. Which is all I know about the book until I start writing.

    I did enter a lot of contests through RWA and found that either I did very well, or I got trashed because 1) My violence was too graphic; or 2) I didn’t have my hero/heroine on the same page by the end of the first chapter. Judges who loved me loved me, judges who hated me hated me.

    I learned a lot, though, especially in how and where to start a book. I had one request for a full manuscript from an editor judge. This was at the end of 2003, before I sold. The book was a futuristic/science fiction romantic suspense–I pitched it as “JD Robb’s Eve Dallas meets Alias’s Sidney Bristow” and I still LOVE this story (though it needs work.) Someday . . . at any rate, I overnighted the manuscript to the editor the week before Thanksgiving 2003 and . . . I’ve never heard from her since.

  18. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Allison

    Synopsises(?) are a whole separate subject, I think, but I liked the fact that the organisers of the Debut accept that the finished book will probably not stick faithfully to the synopsis. It’s just to show the entrants have thought far enough ahead to know how the story develops.

    Besides, you’ve more than proved you can work extremely successfully from those one or two sentences, don’t you think?

    And I love the sound of your ‘Eve Dallas meets Sidney Bristow’ book!

  19. Allison Brennan

    I hope to rework that book someday, Zoe. I really love the story and I did a bunch of research about Mars (this was BEFORE the Mars Rover) and a lot of my research was proven true after the Mars Landing. I also came up with an idea of a diamond mine on Phobos (one of the moons) and asked my husband (who is a Mars nut and also a former geology and physics major) and he said it was certainly plausible. My agent read the book, loved the characters, but felt it was too science fiction. Well, I was raised on Star Trek, what can I say?

    Ironically, I called that book FATAL SECRETS and now I have a new book with that title that is not science fiction.

  20. Zoë Sharp

    Once you’ve got a title you like, it’s hard to let go of it, isn’t it?

    I still like the sound of the story, by the way …

    But I know what you mean about sci-fi meeting resistance, though, which is a huge shame. I love Peter F Hamilton and Iain M Banks.

  21. Jude Hardin


    Liz Evans from CWA wrote back to me and said it’s okay to have your book out on submission, but that you need to notify them if you get an offer for publication.

    So I’m going to enter!

  22. pari

    Zoe,What a wonderful idea to get some of our unpublished reader-writers motivated.

    Thank you for this.

    And sorry about the late comment; I’m going to write about it on Monday.

  23. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Pari

    Sorry for the even later response and I’m looking forward to your Monday post – as always!

    When I started writing my first book, the internet wasn’t really as widespread as it is now, and the world-wide information and encouragement just wasn’t out there.

    Carpe diem, people!

  24. Chris Ewan

    Hi Zoe

    I’m late chipping in here, but I got my publishing break from a competition just like the Debut Dagger – Susan Hill’s First Novel Award – and as someone who’d been submitting to agents for close to 10 years (with mixed results) I’d encourage anyone who’s hesitant to try the competition route. Seems to me there’s one big advantage – in a competition like the Dagger, the judges not only want to find a winner, they pretty much have to find a winner, whereas your latest submission to an agent might go unread. And like you say, with the roster of past winners/shortlisted authors, not to mention the judging panel, it’s a great opportunity.

    Best of luck to anyone who gives it a shot.



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