Interview: Tom Keenan
Tom Keenan was shortlisted for the CWA Debut Dagger in 2014.
What made you enter the CWA Debut Dagger in the first place?
I had heard of the CWA Daggers and (being Scottish) knew some of my favourite writers in the ‘Tartan Noir’ genre, e.g. William McIlvanney, Ian Rankin and Val McDermid, were winners. I knew these were prestigious awards, not that I thought I had any chance of being shortlisted for the Debut Dagger. Before entering, however, I was getting positive responses to my submissions and I thought the Debut Dagger would offer the chance to compare my work alongside other non-published (very credible) entrants.
How did you approach submitting your manuscript compared with, say, submitting to an agent or publisher?
My entry was a synopsis and the first chapter (and a bit of the second) of the book (3000 words). It was like an introductory chapter (almost a prologue), leaving the reader wanting to know/read more. I went over it until I was blue in the face ensuring format, layout, spelling, punctuation were perfect. After I submitted it, however, and even after being shortlisted I realised it could have been better (isn’t that always the case?).
Has your entry been published so far?
The Father will be published by McNidder and Grace next month (February).
How did you approach the synopsis?
I just kept working at it, honing it down, making it striking to the reader. Later, through Writers and Artists, I sent it with my submission letter and the first three chapters to Jo Unwin (agent) who gave me fantastic advice: “Prove to the person reading it that you have a story to tell beyond the three chapters they have just read.” In my synopsis, I did one paragraph on the story (and the plot that held the characters together, i.e. the crucible), one paragraph on the main characters (protagonist, antagonist, etc.), one on the central message I was trying to convey (e.g. change brought by conflict), and one on the phases of the book (e.g. when change occurred).
Did being shortlisted in the Debut Dagger mean you stuck with writing crime novels?
Well, it helped me realise that I was indeed writing crime novels! Although I knew the emphasis of my writing was within the psychological thriller mode, I didn’t really think it was particularly crime related (how wrong I was!). My proxy killer, having killed through others, was indeed a ‘criminal’; what else would he be? And yet, he had characteristics I admired. Does that mean I have a criminal mind? If so, is this a good basis for being a crime writer (it takes one to know one!)? Please note I am not a serial killer, but I try hard to understand what one is. Being shortlisted helped confirm what kind of writer I am.
What’s your advice for would-be entrants in the future
You just have to go for it, but give the submission the same respect you would a submission to an agent or publisher. It could be more important than the submission you make to secure a contract. It could land you that contract, as it did for me.