The Crime Writers’ Association

Opening Windows, by John Kennedy

A certain writer, arguably lauded for the wrong things but at the same time often underrated, once said something about writing behind closed doors and rewriting with the window open.

Well, for me, the Debut Dagger competition opened that window.

Getting shortlisted in 2016 more than anything else gave me a much-needed reality check. You see, I’d been deluding myself for a little while and the shortlisting snapped me out of it. How?

What I was working on, the novel I entered, it had problems. I won’t go into too much detail, but let’s just say I was trying to bang two genres together in a way that just wasn’t working.

Now, I always think that having the singlemindedness to write can easily tip you over into delusion. You can get so close to what you’re doing that you can’t see the flaws. You need someone to grab you, say, ‘Look, this works, this has potential, but this doesn’t! Get rid of it!’… or even, the dreaded two words no writer wants to hear, ‘Start again!’

The dagger shortlisting gave me that, but not in the way you might expect. There wasn’t one single person who slapped me across the face, metaphorically or otherwise, as a result of the Dagger. But the message was there, hidden in the silence, just waiting for me to hear it.

It’s great to be shortlisted, an amazing feeling, because you know that both short and longlistees have a very good chance of being published, maybe not straightaway, but somewhere along the line. And it happens to people who don’t make the longlist too. Sometimes, just the getting together of the chapters to submit is galvanising enough as a process, giving people the impetus to finish that ephemeral first draft, and rewrites and edits and so on.

But for me, getting shortlisted and then…

Well, actually, pretty much nothing.

Nothing happened.

I had a little agent interest, sure, after the shortlisting. But it fizzled fairly quickly. But bizarrely, this gave me exactly what I needed. It told me something was wrong. I’d written a novel with potential, but something about it just wasn’t working.

It took me four years to sort it out. It was published last year and I’m just finishing the second in the series. And I feel great, thank you very much.

So, the Debut Dagger competition, shortlist or longlist are valuable places to find yourself, in all kinds of ways, even if you don’t realise it at the time.

Of course, there’s every chance you’re nothing like me. Your journey might be smoother or rougher. Maybe you’re not deluded at all, in any way. I hope that’s true for you, I really do. But one thing is absolutely for sure.

It gets dark behind that door. You won’t see clearly until you open the window.


John Kennedy is author of The Trauma Pool. Read more about him here.


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