Interview: Finn Clarke
What made you enter the CWA Debut Dagger in the first place?
I had heard about it as the competition for beginner crime writers, though I can’t now remember how. I first entered it in 2011, was long-listed for a different novel in 2012, and the year I won was my third try – so it’s certainly worth persevering.
How did you approach submitting your manuscript compared with, say, submitting to an agent or publisher?
The opening is always important, but for an agent or publisher there’s a little more flexibility regarding length and how you draw them in. You also know that if you succeed in holding their attention, you’ve got the rest of the novel to convince them to take you on. For the Debut Dagger you absolutely have to make those 3000 words count – it’s no good having an amazing twist in chapter two. What I learnt over my three tries was to fine-hone my opening for maximum impact, make key events happen more quickly, and give a strong sense of character right from the start. Actually, these turned out to be skills that improved my manuscript full stop, so it turned out to be a great exercise in focusing on what’s important. Having said that, my experience has been that not all agents want an attention-grabbing start, some preferring a sense of ‘what’s normal’ before you kick off the action.
Has your entry been published so far?
No. However, it has received a lot of interest and agents have been kind enough to give me feedback and ask to see a rewrite. This has been really encouraging and I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have happened without the Debut Dagger.
How did you approach the synopsis?
With a heavy heart! Seriously, I think the synopsis took longer than the actual writing. I read a lot of online help, including that given by the CWA, obviously, and then wrote, rewrote and rewrote again. The challenges were working out what the key events were, leaving out everything else, giving a sense of the main character’s emotional arc as well as the storyline, and writing it in a style that echoed the novel rather than just being a list of points. Nothing too hard then! I’m very literal and conscientious by nature, so had real problems summarising, but I decided the synopsis was one type of writing where I could play with the truth. For example, if what actually happened in the novel was very complex, and a snappy one-liner didn’t cover it accurately but gave a good flavour, then that’s the way I went.
Did winning the Debut Dagger mean you stuck with writing crime novels?
Absolutely. Along with the rewrite of Call Time I have written most of a sequel and the first draft of a related book. I’ve also just started the MA in Writing Crime/Thriller Novels at City University, so I can learn how to do it properly! Crime is such a broad genre, with so many options, I plan on having fun with it for years to come.
What’s your advice for would-be entrants in the future?
Everyone has their own way of doing things but this is what worked for me. I chose something I really enjoyed writing so that working hard on my entry and ignoring the family/housework/day job/TV came easily. (This didn’t always make for happy families but, hey, you can’t have everything.) I read and reread the guidelines, so I didn’t make stupid mistakes. I swapped work with friends/fellow writers to get their feedback, and found that analysing their work was almost as useful as getting comments on mine. I took it seriously – i.e. I decided I was allowed to do this and consider it an important part of my life. And I learnt from my entries that didn’t win – and kept trying. Probably the most important advice for any would-be writer of any kind is to keep trying and to believe in yourself. I used to think I should have I Tried written on my gravestone (though my ex suggested I Was Very Trying would be more to the point!). However, these days I’m working on a whole new model: think I Succeeded, and maybe you will.