The Crime Writers’ Association

Trust your gut: how a Debut Dagger longlisting led to a publishing deal

People often ask me where the initial idea for “Trust Me, I’m Dead” came from, and I talk about an article I read many years ago where one snippet caught my eye, and then stuck in my brain. It was a small thing, about a man who’d left behind a tape of secrets that his family knew nothing about. I kept that article but of course now I can’t find it!

The first draft was written back in 2008, I think, and a few people read it over the years, giving me all kinds of feedback. “The voice is too YA”, “It’s not dark enough”, “It’s a fast read – too fast”. Although I didn’t always agree, I knew within each comment was a kernel of truth, feedback that went deeper than fixing grammar and punctuation. So what do you do? You keep revising, deepening, working in complexity.

And then along the way, because it still wasn’t right but the characters well and truly had their teeth into me, I started a sequel and wrote about 30,000 words. My writers’ group read most of it, and wanted more, but other things got in the way. I was teaching and studying, but I rewrote “Trust Me’ yet again. And I saw the ads for the CWA Debut Dagger. I wasn’t ready. The book wasn’t ready!

I had been writing children’s books for quite a few years. They were short, sometimes only the length of a short story, or a long poem if it was a picture book. My adult novels had taken a back seat all along.

Life changes. My writing changed. Perhaps it was the academic writing I did while I was studying, but when I revised “Trust Me” again, I felt more in charge of the sentences and I had more confidence in Judi, my main character, and her voice. This, I decided, was how she wanted to tell her story, no matter what. I would trust my gut and keep at it. Then I went and did one of those coaching courses that showed me it was time to get off my rear end and try – seriously try with this manuscript. The coach’s advice? Yep, stop f****g around. (Thanks, Craig Harper.)

When I entered the Debut Dagger, what I really hoped for was to be shortlisted (never mind winning!). The opportunity to get the judges’ feedback and also have my novel put in front of a number of UK agents and publishers was crucial to me. What I didn’t expect was that when the novel was longlisted, the news was reported in the Australian Bookseller & Publisher, and several Australian publishers jumped in and asked to read it.

Some said no, or sat on it for ages. But Verve Books asked to read the whole manuscript after I was shortlisted, and were so enthusiastic that I knew they would be great to work with. I signed up for a two-book deal and “Trust Me, I’m Dead” was published in July 2019. It’s all been absolutely brilliant.

And that sequel? Well, it was initially lost, and then I found about 80% of it in files on an old USB. So now my writers’ group (and eventually everyone else) will find out what happened to the body in the dumpster!

Sherryl Clark’s novel Trust me, I’m Dead was shortlisted for the Debut Dagger in 2018. It then went on to receive a publishing deal from Verve Books. You can read more about Sherryl and her books on the CWA author page.

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