I see on Absolute Write that some aspiring authors are hoping to follow in the steps of Alan Bradley and Louise Penny by submitting an entry to the CWA Debut Dagger this year.
If you are short-listed, it won’t guarantee publication, but believe me, it will help. Instead of sending off dozens or hundreds of letters to agents, you’ll have them asking to see your full manuscript and pitching their agency to you. It’s quite a trip when that happens, believe me! Here are five tips to help you get there:
1) Remember that you have only 3,000 words to catch the panel’s attention. The whole entry has to be a ‘hook.’ Pull your readers in by letting out information slowly, like a fish on a line. Take a look at the entries for previous winners posted on the CWA Debut Dagger website. They’re great examples of what works. (Not all years’ entries are posted.) The first few pages of my entry is on my earlier post about Prologues.
2) Make your characters larger than life by giving them larger than life qualities or struggles. Put obstacles in their way. My Cuban police inspector saw ghosts. He wasn’t sure if he had inherited a fatal dementia that killed his Yoruba slave grandmother and caused her to hallucinate or if he’d inherited her sixth sense.
Remember, we don’t want to read about ordinary people. We want to read about situations and people that lift us out of our routines, that take us somewhere else.
3) Think of your setting as another character. Louise Penny came second the year she competed by taking a traditional mystery format – the cozy — and setting it in Quebec. Alan Bradley set his novel in the 1950s in an eccentric English village. The setting for my shortlisted entry was Old Havana.
The judges are looking for something interesting. They see the usual murder mystery plots every single day as editors and agents. They’ll probably have a thousand entries from around the world to read. Make yours stand out.
4) Polish your manuscript. You’re like an oyster, making a pearl. Get out the grit. Take a look at my blog posts on dialogue tags and pleonasms for help in recognizing what to delete. Be ruthless! Wordsearch ‘had’ and ‘was’ in your manuscript and remove 95% of the times that they appear.
Make your script clean and uncluttered. Shorten your sentences and your paragraphs. Use punctuation sparingly. The judges will notice a comma monster.
5) Subscribe to and read all the bulletins the CWA sends to you before you send off your entry. They are super helpful. Also read Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakthrough Novel. He sets out the elements that will make your book stand out, and he knows what he’s doing.
And if you are fortunate enough to be shortlisted and can afford it, go to the Festival in Harrogate: you’ll have a blast. Good luck!