The Crime Writers' Association

The Debuts

‘How to write a novel to trade standard’ by Helen Corner-Bryant of Cornerstones Literary Consultancy

“I’m entering the Debut Dagger Competition and now I have to write and edit my novel to trade submission standard! Where do I start?”


When you enter the Debut Dagger you don’t have to have a completed first draft. However, in taking this first step you may wonder if you can complete your novel, how to go about editing it, and, if it gets shortlisted, how to attract the judges’ attention (and even an agent or publisher). Here’s how:

To plot or not?

Whether you plot or not in advance of writing a first draft I always advocate having at least a shape in mind before you begin writing. Knowing who your characters are, their core fear and goal, what happens in the plot to drive them forward and more or less an idea of where they will end up will keep those kite strings connected to your story. Having this loose handle on the story as it unravels and bends, dips and dives, should stop you going wildly off course. And of course, given that an important part of your Debut Dagger entry is the 1500 word synopsis, in this case it’s important you’ve got some strong plot ideas in mind – even if you change it later.

Try to get that first draft down

Writing a first draft involves huge amounts of creative and mathematical problem-solving and can keep those candles burning way into the night. This creative surge is often what produces the spun gold that runs through an untarnished first draft and sets it apart from whatever else is out there. Try not to think about editing until you’ve finished your first draft. Get it down and then spread it out on the table and take a look.

Keep tension and pace in mind

For crime and thrillers particularly, the plot should be weaving a tension thread, creating conflict and posing questions that keep the reader turning the page. You’re looking for a tight cause-and-effect on plot driving character, and character driving plot, so that it reads in a fast-paced way. One of the key elements in this genre is pacing. Is there anything you can hold back from the reader, and do you know when to reveal? If you can do this with increasing rising tension peaks you should have your reader hooked.

How do you go about editing your novel?

    • Read your first draft through and make margin comments – either on paper or digitally. Note down anything that makes you stop reading. Have you noticed the story going off-piste, is your attention waning (often due to overwriting), is one of your characters taking over from your protagonist? How’s the pace of the story? Are you rooting for your protagonist, can you heighten their conflict? (Watch out for the writer’s instinct to save their beloved character!)Write the emotional conflict and plot point of each scene on a postcard, lay them out and look at the order of events. Is there anything that can be shifted around, cut out or embellished?
    • Style-wise, you’re checking that your scenes are as involving (showing) as possible. Is the reader on your protagonist’s shoulder experiencing everything as it unfolds? Is the reader making their own connections, or is your character relaying (telling) things and interpreting on behalf of the reader? (NB: If the reader is left out in the cold during the scene or if the character is over-explaining, it usually means the snooze button for the reader.)
    • Compile your notes and set about your revision plan. Look at how to make bold changes or cuts (macro) and then focus on line-editing (micro).
    • Get revising. Trust your instincts in knowing what to change and how. It’s all about confidence and what feels right.
    • Never edit if you’re stuck or not enjoying the process. Put things to one side and give yourself permission to switch off until revision ideas start to bubble up again.

When is it ready to show to a publishing professional?

Read through one more time and check you have a finished first draft that you’re happy to share. It’s now time to see what someone else thinks! Ensure that you trust the (informed) feedback and only take on board suggestions that resonate. Own your revisions!

Try to get industry feedback; if your story has real potential it’s time to present this to agents. Cornerstones offers free feedback on the opening pages and synopsis of your novel, with suggested next steps to be placed with one of their industry professional editors. If your novel is at submission stage they also scout for agents. Find out more www.cornerstones.co.uk

Helen Corner-Bryant spent a number of years in editorial at Penguin before setting up Cornerstones Literary Consultancy in 1998. In 2016, she opened Cornerstones US, creating the world’s first transatlantic literary consultancy. Cornerstones is known for teaching self-editing techniques, providing feedback on all types of genres, scouting for agents, and launching many writers such as: Ayisha Malik, Sarwat Chadda, Ava McCarthy, Kate Glanville, Victoria Selman and Emily Gunnis. Helen is a guest lecturer at writer conferences and leading universities including UCL Centre for Publishing and the Columbia Publishing Course at Oxford University. She is co-author of On Editing: How to Edit Your Novel the Professional Way (John Murray, 2018)and director of the Cornerstones/PWA online course: ‘Edit Your Novel the Professional Way’.

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