Trying Again, by Sherry Rankin
I do not have a risk-taking personality. The whole idea of attempting to find an agent and get published always seemed so daunting to me that, for decades, I was afraid even to try. I always loved to write, however. So a few years ago, I took stock of my life and set myself a “bucket-list” goal of writing a mystery novel. My aim was not to publish a book, because I felt I had little control over that. I simply wanted to finish one.
As I was completing a draft of that first novel (titled Strange Fire) towards the end of 2016, I read on a mystery writer’s Wikipedia page that she’d gotten her start through the CWA’s Debut Dagger award. I looked up the contest and learned the deadline for submissions was just a few weeks away. I paid the extra to get some feedback on my first chapter (a step I highly recommend); then I revised and submitted it, along with a synopsis, to the contest. I entered mostly because I wanted to do something to mark what was, for me, a momentous accomplishment. But, to my surprise, I won the Debut Dagger in 2017.
I wrote about that experience on the CWA website a few years ago, so I won’t describe it here—except to say that it was one of the highpoints of my life. I wish I could tell you that Strange Fire became a best-seller as a result, but it did not. In fact, it’s never been published. I’d written it for fun without any notion of how to structure and pace a novel or abide by the expectations of the genre. But from that contest in 2017, I was able to obtain a wonderful agent. She gave me some guidance on the kinds of things publishers and editors look for in a crime novel, and I got busy writing another one.
As a full-time teacher, my writing time was limited, and I didn’t finish a rough draft of The Hare’s Mask until October 2022. Fearing that my agent would dump me if this second book also failed to sell to publishers, I spent months editing and polishing it before sending it to her to read in the spring of 2023. When she called me a few weeks later to say that Thomas & Mercer was offering a two-book deal, the first of which would be The Hare’s Mask, I was naturally shocked and thrilled. But mostly, I was terrified. I’m not sure why. I felt the same way when my daughter was born—incredulous excitement tempered by fear that I would somehow mess the whole thing up. My poor agent had to double as a therapist that day while I had a mini-panic attack over the phone.
Everyone’s path to publication is different, and there’s no secret formula for achieving that goal. But I’ve learned a couple of important lessons from the process. First, no work is ever wasted. It is easy to feel that a piece of writing is a failure if it’s rejected, but that’s not true. Even if it is never published, each thing you write can teach you something and help to polish your craft.
Second, being a good writer is not enough to succeed; you also need the sort of “foot in the door” that writing contests—especially high-profile ones—can provide. The Debut Dagger contest is an immense gift to the community of aspiring crime writers. I am extremely thankful to the CWA for holding the contest, and to the many busy authors and editors who take the time to serve as its judges. I and many others owe them a great debt of gratitude for the work they do in giving talented unpublished writers the opportunity for success.
Sherry Rankin, winner of the Debut Dagger 2017. To be published in 2025.
Photo credit: Matt Maxwell
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