Writing Your Debut Dagger Submission – Thoughts from a Debut Dagger Reader
Please note these are the views of one reader. They’re not necessarily shared by all. Each Debut Dagger entry is read by at least two readers and because we have so many entries, there are around a dozen Debut Dagger readers.
The marking scheme for the CWA Debut Dagger is as follows.
The reader is looking at: quality of prose, originality of plot, execution of plot, narrative voice, plausibility, characterisation, evocative setting, and good read factor – equal marks for each.
1. Quality of prose: You don’t need me to tell you how to write … but you do need a friend to proof-read for you. If you’re in a writers’ group (and if you’re not, you’re depriving yourself of the best, most supportive mates a writer can have), then get one of them to do it. Check on a paper copy for things like spelling (with the human brain, not by computer), repetition, paragraphing, speech punctuation … the basics. Reading aloud helps pick up grammatical errors, and extra words.
If you’re a solitary writer in a garret with no writerly friends, then why not go along to the local school and find a sympathetic English teacher? A bottle of wine will probably be acceptable payment, but it might be polite to mention money…
Present-tense narration is a personal hate of mine. [Editor’s note: note every reader shares this view! But the following comment is very valid.] If you must do it, then please watch out for those places where you get your tenses tangled because you need a past.
2. Originality of plot: make sure you have a proper synopsis, one that explains what happens in the rest of the story and doesn’t leave anything vital out, including the ending. Don’t try to be literary, comparing your method to Hemingway. Don’t tell me the chases are ‘high-octane.’ I just want a clear, neutral account of all the plot, making it clear who did what to whom and why. (This neutral voice will also highlight your personal style I the actual novel – see 4.)
Bad or incomplete synopses are self-penalising. I can’t tell how original the story would have been if I don’t know what it was, and I can’t give marks for how you’ve established the plot so far. That’s a lot of marks you stand to lose, and you’re going to lose some more when we get to plausibility.
3. Execution of plot (= how well what you’ve done so far fits your synopsis). Call in another writing friend and tell them your plot, then ask them to read your 3,000 words. Does it fit what you said your plot opening was? Does it launch your story in an interesting way? Does it show the key themes? Alternatively, ask them to read the opening and then tell you what they thought the plot and themes were going to be. You might need to change your emphasis in the next re-write.
4. Narrative voice: if you are using first-person narrative, does the story sound like that person speaking? If you’re using a variety of voices, does the way you tell each person’s story change according to their voice? Even if you’re being neutral third-person, we should feel your voice in there.
5. Plausibility: I take that as plausibility in the terms of a crime novel, which per se involves implausibly frequent murders, abductions, chases, coincidences and so on. Just don’t over-do it – and here again your synopsis is crucial in convincing me this plot would work. Plausibility of character behaviour is equally important; as Jane Austen told her niece, ‘though I find your papa did walk out immediately after his arm was set, I think it can be so little usual as to appear unnatural in a book.’ (No, you don’t get brownie points for quoting Jane Austen back at me, just a place in Pseud’s Corner.)
6. Characterisation. Please, show not tell! Make me believe in your characters as living, eccentric, interesting beings at crisis point. Tell me things I can see, and don’t expect me to infer a mood from the playing of a named CD which I’ve never heard of. Gucci bags or designer labels cut no ice without a description of the actual item: Jimmy Choos is just expensive footwear, but precipitous scarlet stilettos worn to go shopping gives me a person. Show me the trembling fingers as they lift that letter, or the way they leap on a bus, heart thudding, with no idea where it’s going. Oh, and please, please, don’t waste long paragraphs on their past history. Show me only what I need to know and only once your story’s hooked me.
7. Evocative setting: it doesn’t have to be exotic. You’re the writer – you can make me see mean streets or a run-down kitchen in a grotty flat as easily as you can make me see a penthouse suite or a Caribbean beach. Just make me see it: sights, sounds, smells, tastes, feel. Take me there.
8. Good read factor: I want to be hooked by your characters or plot straight away. I want to end your extract wishing I knew your name, so that I can read the book when you find that publisher. I want to hurry to the synopsis to find out what happened. I want to wish I could write as interestingly as you do, and be envious of the publishing contracts you’ll attract with this shortlisted entry.
Good luck and happy writing!