Debut Dagger Adds Polish to Any Writer’s Resumé by Jayne Barnard
Jayne was Highly Commended in 2013 for When the Bow Breaks.
It was a balmy spring day in Calgary, Alberta, Canada when the email arrived from Dagger HQ in London, England. Shortlisted!
I might have screamed. It’s possible there was dancing involved. I went to London for the banquet, met agents and editors, famous authors, and my fellow short-listers. It was a heady experience, and all stemming from an opening chapter scribbled initially as a prologue exercise at my writers’ group.
That’s right. The words that led me to a Highly Commended in the Debut Dagger started out hastily scrawled in a crowded room to the soundtrack of a ticking clock.
Of course the words were edited. Steadily and continually groomed during the process of writing a novel to fulfill that opening promise. The first pages hardly changed at all, and eventually carried my name to the shortlists, first for Canada’s 2011 Unhanged Arthur and then to the 2013 Debut Dagger. Although I didn’t win the Debut, mine was that year’s Highly Commended. I was on top of the world, convinced my writing career was assured.
Sadly, no agent or publisher was interested in my almost-winning Debut Dagger manuscript. After two years of shopping it around, an agent told me it was stale and I should write something new. Well, I had written a sequel. Its opening chapter, agonized over and continually rewritten, had already been passed over three times by the Unhanged jury and the Debut Dagger pre-readers. The start of another manuscript had also gone nowhere competitively. All that early promise from my scribbled prologue had crumbled to dust.
Did I give up? Almost.
I took a year off mystery fiction to write a totally frivolous speculative fiction novella. I sold it on the first chapter and an outline, and on the expectation of quality that the publisher saw in my Debut Dagger near-miss. The novella, “Maddie Hatter and the Deadly Diamond,” (which I think of as ‘Famous Five meet Indiana Jones’), was a finalist for the Prix Aurora and now anchors a series, The Maddie Hatter Adventures, featuring a feisty young lady fashion reporter determined to break into investigative reporting. That first book deal would not have happened without that near-win of the Debut Dagger.
With my confidence restored, I tackled that mystery sequel again. My first go-round had introduced me to some of Canada’s top crime-writing women, four of whom read the opening and offered an opinion about what was lacking. With their feedback in mind, and knowing exactly where the novel was going, I put myself through a crash course in writing suspenseful scenes, and re-crafted the opening from scratch. The new opening chapter returned my name to the Unhanged Arthur shortlist, five years after my previous appearance. This time around, I won Canada’s variant of the Debut Dagger. Arthur, named for Canada’s official hangman, is a wooden statue wearing a noose. He lives on my mantelpiece.
Soon I had an agency – The Rights Factory – and a three-mystery deal with Dundurn Press. My agent and I had supper while I was in Toronto for Bouchercon. She said she would not have signed me on the strength of a single winning manuscript, but with the Unhanged on my mantel, the YA series churning along, and the Debut Dagger near-miss on my resumé, she was convinced I had the work ethic and determination to turn out more publishable manuscripts. I haven’t asked if Dundurn’s three-book initial offer was influenced by my previous manuscript’s placement in the Debut Dagger, but you can bet they examined my awards history before sending that contract.
To reiterate: the Debut Dagger shortlisting was but one step on a multi-year journey, but it immensely eased my path after that point. It led to my first book contract and thus to my YA series, to mentoring by wonderful women crime writers and winning the Unhanged Arthur, to landing an agent who negotiated my mystery deal far better than I could have done on my own.
This summer of 2018, while I’m watching for the Debut Dagger announcements and cheering on the finalists, I’ll be celebrating my first full-length mystery’s publication. In ‘When the Flood Falls’, a burnt-out ex-Mountie struggles to save her oldest friend from both a stalker and rising floodwaters in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Flood debuts on July 14 from Dundurn Press of Toronto. Maddie Hatter and the Singapore Sting, the fourth in that series, comes out August 12th from Tyche Books of Calgary. It’ll be a busy summer indeed, and it all became possible with that email from the Debut Dagger coordinator in spring of 2013.
Debut Dagger: you don’t have to win it to reap the benefits of adding it to your resumé.
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