Winning the Debut Dagger by Amer Anwar
If I’d known then what I know now, I may not have entered the Debut Dagger competition when I did – but then things would have gone very differently for me and I might well not be in the position I am today.
Looking back, the main thing I might’ve done differently is to have had a completed book before entering. The flipside is that I wouldn’t have entered the competition that year and won the Dagger – and in all probability, it would have taken me much longer to finish the book than it eventually did.
Thing is, I didn’t actually enter the competition with any hope or even intention of winning. I’d only recently started writing, having not written any fiction since high school, and was on a writing course. I wasn’t even sure I was ready to tackle a novel as I’d only been working on short stories. It was my tutor (the novelist Mary Flanagan – thanks, Mary!) who encouraged me to start a novel if that was what I ultimately wanted to write, as I’d be able to work on it and workshop it in class. And that’s exactly what I did.
I’d made a few unsuccessful attempts at starting the novel – which was always going to be a crime thriller set in Southall, West London – but none of them had been any good so I’d scrapped them. This time though, I did a couple of things that helped; I read ‘52 Pickup’ by Elmore Leonard and happened to rewatch ‘Payback’, the Mel Gibson movie, just as I had another crack at that first chapter. Their combined influences helped me nail the tone and atmosphere I’d been striving for and allowed me to find my way into the story. I was pretty pleased with the result.
It received a good reception from my writing class and I was given various suggestions for how I might improve it further. I took another 3-4 drafts until I was happy with it – and finally had something I felt I could enter for the Debut Dagger.
I’d known about the competition for a year or two but had never had anything to submit. Now I had a first chapter I was happy with and thought, why not? Having read numerous author interviews and articles on publishing, I knew how difficult it was going to be to get both an agent and/or a publishing deal – and that the path to either would involve a lot of rejections. So, I sent off the first chapter of my first attempt at writing a novel with absolutely no illusions of winning or even coming close. For me, the whole purpose of entering was to get my first official rejection, to prepare me for all the rejections to come. That was it.
So it was a complete shock to receive a letter from the CWA a few months later informing me that I’d been shortlisted for the award. I was amazed. Now, when I finally finished the book, I’d be able to mention that I’d been shortlisted, which might get me a little higher up the slush pile. It was more than I’d ever hoped for and I didn’t expect anything else. I was more than happy with that.
As a shortlisted writer, I was invited to the gala awards dinner held in central London. Of course, I jumped at the chance to attend and spend an evening with all the famous authors who’d be there. After a super dinner – and several glasses of wine – it was time for the awards to be presented. The Debut Dagger was first up. The shortlist was read out and then the winner was announced – and I was shocked to hear my name read out! I couldn’t believe it. Never in my wildest dreams had I expected to win. I very gratefully accepted the award and the congratulations of many of the wonderful people there. It was an evening I’ll never forget.
Next day, I was contacted by several agents who’d loved the first chapter and asked to read the rest of the manuscript. Ah! Right, well… It having never even crossed my mind that I might win the award, I only had three chapters of the book written. The agents said to send the finished manuscript when it was ready – all except one, who must’ve seen something in those first three chapters, and possibly me too, and signed me regardless of the fact I didn’t have a finished book.
My agent, the wonderful Jane Gregory, patiently waited for me to finish and submit the book. Working around a full-time job, a part-time MA in Creative Writing and a family life meant progress was slow. There were also two years when I didn’t write much at all for various reasons. As it was my first attempt at writing a novel, the whole process was a huge learning experience and it took me two and half years to finish the first draft – then another two and half years of revisions before I felt it was ready to send to Jane. While, overall, it was good, it still needed another rewrite and a further couple of drafts before it was finally ready to send to publishers – what happened then is another story, for another time.
When Western Fringes is published next year, with a new name, as part of the exciting new Dialogue Books imprint of Little, Brown, it will have been 10 years since I won the Debut Dagger.
That’s certainly a long time. But, if I hadn’t won the Dagger, it might well have taken even longer and writing a book might still be a far off dream. Winning the award spurred me on and gave me the confidence and self-belief to keep going when I might otherwise have given up.
It sometimes feels like I did the whole thing back to front. Instead of learning how to write, completing a novel (maybe even more than one), writing, rewriting, honing, improving, and then entering the competition when I was really ready, I had to do all that after winning the award. A funny way to do it, but I wouldn’t change it for the world. It’s been an amazing experience.
To anyone thinking of entering the competition, I’d say definitely go ahead and do it … though you might just want to think about what you’ll do if you win and have that manuscript ready to send out to all the interested agents and publishers who’ll undoubtedly want to read it.
Best of luck!
Amer won the CWA Debut Dagger in 2008. Congratulations to him on his success, and on the new publishing contract with Little, Brown.