Debut Dagger Success Story by Fiona McPhillips
I had never written a novel before I entered the 2021 Debut Dagger. I was halfway through an MA in Creative Writing and too focused on the rhythm of my prose, the structure and shape of my short stories. A novel felt like a marathon when I’d only ever run 5k. But that was the endgame, the whole point of the MA. So I put together a first chapter and a synopsis, sent it off and forgot about it.
I was so unconvinced of the merit of my work that I sketched out a completely different novel for my MA thesis. When Underwater was longlisted for the Debut Dagger, I had to scramble together another chapter and by the end of it, I was hooked on my own story. I was thrilled to be runner-up in the competition and even more so when I received requests from agents and publishers for the full manuscript. Unfortunately, there was none. What followed was nine months of furious writing for which I was lucky enough to receive an Arts Council literature bursary.
I’m not sure there could have been any greater motivation than knowing agents were waiting to read my work. All I had to do was keep up the momentum of those winning chapters and pull off everything I’d promised in the synopsis. Simple, right?
Well, not quite. I sent that first draft to seven agents and five asked for the same structural edit. So it was back to the drawing board, albeit with detailed feedback from experienced professionals. I spent another three months working on draft two and that was the one that earned me multiple offers of representation. It was stressful! The dream situation, for sure, but still an agonising choice. In the end, I signed with Rachel Neely at Mushens Entertainment who turned out to be the best agent in the world.
After another few rounds of edits, Underwater went on submission and within a week, we’d accepted a six-figure pre-empt from Transworld (Penguin) in the UK and a “significant” six-figure pre-empt from Flatiron (Macmillan) in the US. We’ve also sold Hungarian rights and are waiting to hear back from several other territories. I’m smiling as I type these words and to be honest, I’ll probably never get over the thrill of it.
I’ve no doubt the Debut Dagger helped me over the line. At the very least, it got me to the top of the slushpile and maybe more importantly, gave me the confidence to keep going with the belief that this novel would be published. Underwater will be out in early 2024.
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