How Entering the Debut Dagger Led to Gold, by M W Craven – Winner of the CWA Gold Dagger 2019
It was late in 2012 when I finally decided to bite the bullet and enter the CWA Debut Dagger competition. I’d thought about it the year before but my mother had fallen ill and I pretty much forgot about everything except making sure her final few weeks were as comfortable as possible.
But in 2012, I had a renewed sense of optimism. I’d got married and my new wife had been encouraging me to start writing again. So I looked at the Debut Dagger as a way to kick-start me into taking it seriously.
Little did I know that it would go on to change my life.
But I need to spin back a decade first. In 2003, after having an upset stomach for a week, I saw the after-hours GP and he immediately had me admitted to hospital. After being prodded, poked, X-rayed, biopsied and put into magnetic tubes, and after 10 hours of surgery, I was diagnosed with a form of cancer only found in the jaws of African children. Yay, lucky me. It was so rare that I had to be transferred from West Cumbria to the RVI in Newcastle. I left 6 months later, half the weight I’d been before I went in, and with mobility problems. So instead of the cricket and cycling I’d enjoyed, I needed a more sedentary hobby. And I’d always written – never seriously – and had always enjoyed it.
So I dibbled and I dabbled and I wrote stuff that I didn’t share with anyone. But, at some point you have to put yourself out there and the Debut Dagger seemed a great way to dip my toes in the water. Maybe get some feedback on what I was doing.
The great thing about the Debut Dagger is that you don’t have to send completed work – you can try out different ideas. The first 3000 words and a 1000-word synopsis [Now 1500 words – CWA]. Easy right? Wrong. I took a week off work and spent three days trying to get it making sense, and another two writing the dreaded synopsis (my agent asks for a one-page synopsis – a tough ask for anyone).
Finally I was ready. I had the start of a novel. It featured Avison Fluke, a detective returning to work after cancer treatment who’d had to hide some of the side effects of his chemotherapy. And I’d had a stab at a synopsis. I also had some stamps and a cheque for £25. [Also increased; now £36 due to escalating admin costs – sorry – CWA].
Best. Investment. Ever.
A month or so later I got the most extraordinary email – I’d been shortlisted. Much excitement in the Craven household that morning I can assure you.
Anyway, shortly afterwards, an agent contacted me and asked to see the whole thing. I thought I’d better crack on and write the damn thing. I did, and was able to send it to her shortly after the Dagger Awards. I didn’t win by the way . . . She spent the weekend reading it and I received a resounding rejection email first thing Monday morning. She explained that the novel was at least 50,000 words too long, halfway through had morphed from a police procedural into an international political thriller and was overloaded with detail. And that was just the first page.
You have two choices when this happens. Sulk or take it on the chin. Or do what I did: sulk first then take it on the chin. I rewrote it then submitted to Darren Laws, the owner of Caffeine Nights Publishing after I’d met him at a writing conference in Gretna. He offered me a contract and told me that the Dagger shortlisting – which was by then the first thing I put on any submission email – had influenced his decision enormously.
In 2015 Born in a Burial Gown was published, and although it didn’t break any sales records, I was a published author, and more importantly had a calling card. A calling card I gave to David Headley the following year at the same writing conference. He read it then asked to see my next book, the almost finished Body Breaker.
David offered me representation on the condition that, after we’d submitted the second Fluke book to Caffeine Nights, I wrote him a brand new series.
I did exactly that and I called it The Puppet Show . . . David sold it to Little, Brown (as part of a two-book deal) and it went on to win the CWA 2019 Gold Dagger for Best Crime Novel of the Year. He’s also sold it, to date, in seventeen foreign language territories including Russia, Japan, Taiwan, Denmark, Israel, Germany, Spain, Holland, Portugal and Greece to name but a few. The TV rights were sold a full year before the hardback was released. The sequel, Black Summer, is out now in both hardback and paperback and is doing very well. I’ve been able to leave my job and become a full-time writer.
And all this success comes from entering the Debut Dagger in 2013. I hope I’ve shown you the direct evolutionary line between posting my entry to all that followed. It really was that important.
As for advice, well that’s the million-dollar question isn’t it? For what it’s worth I think the advice I’d give anyone thinking of entering the Debut Dagger is the same advice I’d give anyone thinking of writing a crime novel – the first few pages need to have impact. That doesn’t necessarily mean that someone has to die on page one – although when I sent the first draft of The Puppet Show to my agent, he did tell me to delete the first chapter, all eighteen pages of it, and burn someone to death on the first page . . . – but something should happen. It’s all about pace, and pace isn’t the same as action, it means the speed the reader wants to keep reading at. Lee Child says that he asks a question in the first few pages and then doesn’t answer it until the last few pages – great advice from one of the best there is. The judges of the Debut Dagger are first and foremost readers and they want to be entertained. Entertaining reading can cover a multitude of easily corrected mistakes, while a perfectly written book that’s a bit dull won’t make it past the first stage. Be brave, be creative, and most important of all, have a bit of fun with it.
As for the synopsis, you’re on your own there . . .
For more details about Mike, see his Author Profile.
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