The Crime Writers' Association

The Debuts

Debut Dagger Winner’s Journey (So Far) by Sherry Rankin

Mystery novels have always fascinated me. As a girl, I would hide beneath the blankets with a flashlight to finish Nancy Drew mysteries after my parents had called ‘lights out.’

Later on, I developed a particular fondness for the classic British mystery novels of Agatha Christie, G. K. Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers, and others—Sayers’ Gaudy Night is, and will always remain, my favorite novel of any genre. In my teen years, I began attempting to craft mysteries of my own. When people asked me what I wanted to do with myself, I invariably said, ‘I want to be a writer.’

I’m not really sure when I let that determination fall by the wayside. Writing—for me, at least—requires enormous stretches of solitude and focus, and adult life was busy with career and family. I never fully lost sight of my dreams; I continued to dabble, and even took a class in creative writing at the university where I teach. But I never seemed to be able to make much progress on any particular writing project.

Midlife crises come in many forms, however, and a few years ago I found myself thinking: ‘If writing a mystery novel is the one thing I’ve always wanted to do, then why am I not doing it?’

The answer to that question, I realized, was largely self-doubt. I would start writing something but then, after a few thousand words, become discouraged with the quality of the work and consign it to a folder titled ‘Embryonic Novels,’ which leads a shamefaced existence buried deep in the bowels of my laptop.

Inspired by a quote from Jane Smiley, that ‘Every first draft is perfect, because all a first draft has to do is exist,’ I decided to set my worries aside and simply write. My goal was to finish a novel, even if, at the end, I stuck it in a file and never looked at it again.

It was remarkably freeing to write without the ghosts of all my literary idols frowning over my shoulder. It was also enormously difficult to remain motivated to keep going on my own. I didn’t get very far with the book until teaming up to form a writing group with some university colleagues who were also working on creative writing projects.

Their positive voices—plus the patient encouragement of my best friend, who tolerated my reading each chapter aloud to her upon completion—helped me develop some momentum, and I managed to finish a draft of the book this past January.

I found out about the Debut Dagger contest only a few weeks before the submission deadline. Intimidated, I decided to pay for the CWA’s mini-critique of my first chapter and synopsis, and, when the results of that were encouraging, I summoned the nerve to enter the contest two days before the final deadline.

When I learned I had made the long list, I was surprised; when the shortlist was announced, I was stunned. I’m one of those introverts who is happiest at home, writing in my pajamas, so it took the concerted efforts of all my friends to convince me to go to London to attend the CWA awards banquet. My daughter, Emily, agreed to go with me, and I thought, ‘Well, at least we’ll have some good mother-daughter bonding time.’

Getting to the banquet itself was a real comedy of errors. An old knee injury of mine flared up, and we spent a good part of the day searching London for a place to buy a cane. Eventually, we managed to find a hiking staff at a sports outfitters’ shop near St. Paul’s. That took awhile, and by the time we made it to the Underground to go to the banquet, it was rush hour and all the trains were full. After missing four, we gave up, found a cab, and arrived at the Grange Hotel fifteen minutes late.

I was a nervous wreck at that point. I remember saying to Emily, ‘Let’s just leave—I don’t want to go in there when it’s already started. I’m positive I didn’t win, so it really doesn’t matter.’

She gave me the sort of derisive, ego-withering look that only one’s adult child can, and said: ‘Mom, you’re not wimping out now. It’ll be fine—come on!’

And of course she was right. We found our seats, everyone at our table was lovely and interesting to talk to, the food was delicious, and I soon began to feel at ease.

I’m not sure why I was so deeply, utterly certain I hadn’t won the contest. When it was announced that winners should keep their remarks brief, I even recall thinking: ‘I’m glad I won’t have to worry about that! I haven’t prepared a thing!’

When Leigh Russell called my name, I was caught completely off guard, and my recollection of what followed is a bit foggy. I think Emily kicked me under the table. I have a vague memory of hobbling in a daze across the stage—with my bright blue hiking staff emblazoned with the word ‘Eurohike’ on the side—to receive the trophy. I hope I thanked Leigh. I recall babbling something about enjoying her books. Then I fled.

Back at the table, Emily whispered, ‘You were supposed to say something from the podium, Mom!’

In retrospect, it’s probably for the best that I didn’t. I’m not sure anything I could have come up with in that befuddled frame of mind would have improved anyone’s impression of me.

Now that I’ve had a little while to reflect, though, I would like to thank the CWA and Orion Publishing for one of the most remarkable, exciting, and affirming experiences of my life. I’m very grateful to them for holding the Debut Dagger contest. It’s wonderful to encounter the generosity of spirit that seeks to support aspiring writers, and I hope my story will encourage others to take advantage of the opportunity this contest affords.

Sherry found an agent as a direct result of the competition.