The Debut Dagger

Some of you have asked — what the heck is this Debut Dagger Award all about?

The Crime Writers Association (UK) holds this competition annually, with submissions beginning October 31 and ending February 6. 

They get submissions from around the world: the shortlist last year included entries from the UK, Australia, India, New Zealand, Canada, and the US. This year, a young writer from the UK won, and the ‘highly commended’ runner-up was from Australia, but last year, a Canadian won, so the competition is very much open. One of the judges told me they have no idea where an author comes from when they read, and judge, his or her work.

You can apply online, and there is a fee (I think it was around 25 GBP last year).  If you check the appropriate box, from then on, you will receive a newsletter a week with tips on writing, some of which are hugely helpful.

Every submission is read by a panel of top flight, well-regarded judges. Most of them are editors or submissions editors with publishing houses, i.e. the people who are the gatekeepers in real life as to whether a book gets published or not. One member of my panel was the President of the Crime Writers Association of the U.K.

You can also apply more than once. (I submitted twice: I entered The Beggar’s Opera in October, and then revised it to add a new prologue, and submitted the revison — The Beggar’s Opera #2 –days before the competition closed. It was the revised version that was shortlisted.) The only rule is that you must not have published a novel previously.

Your entry has to be 3,000 pages (about the first fifteen pages) accompanied by a 1,000 word synopsis, maximum. This is tough to do, and it’s important to make sure that your submission doesn’t end in the middle of a chapter but at a logical place to leave some tension and interest. It doesn’t have to be 3,000 words; it can be less, so adjust accordingly.

You upload the entry, pay by Paypal (use any credit card) and then wait. The newsletter will tell you when the judges are making their decision: the times shift a bit each year, no doubt contingent on their availability.

If you are fortunate enough to be one of the dozen people shortlisted, you’ll get a letter in the mail from the chair of the CWA Debut Dagger Committee congratulating you, along with an invitation to Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate (Yorkshire) where the winner of the award is announced.

Perhaps more important, if you agree (and who wouldn’t?), your submission will be sent by the CWA to agents and editors all over the UK. (They also issue a press release announcing you’re on the shortlist, which is pretty cool.)  And if those people like your entry, they’ll start contacting you for copies of your manuscript even before the winner is announced.

The winner is pretty much guaranteed publication, and many of the shortlisted authors end up finding agents and publishers as well. The CWA does not rank the writers: only the winner and the person who is ‘highly commended’ (i.e. second) is named — meaning your entry could have been third or twelfth; you’ll never know.

You will also receive about a dozen crime novels, most by debut authors, and a month or two later, you will receive the judges’ detailed written evaluation of your work.

I was shortlisted for the 2010 Debut Dagger Award, and although I didn’t win, I found an agent because of it. In fact, the moment the shortlist entries were circulated to agents, I had requests come in from agents asking me for my manuscript. It was kind of a reverse query process, with them selling their agencies to me, telling me how much they liked my entry, and trying to persuade me to let them see it.

For a relatively small investment, it’s a chance to leap right over that slushpile.

And if you do go to Harrogate, you’ll meet some really terrific people and have a lot of fun. The festival attracts not just editors and agents but high profile authors like Ian Rankin and Jeffrey Deaver, and while I missed meeting Jeffrey Deaver because I left the night he arrived, I did meet Ian Rankin and can only rave about how friendly and helpful he was.

Harrogate is the gorgeous little village where Agatha Christie wrote many of her books. (It’s also where she mysteriously disappeared in the middle of her career, perhaps due to depression, although she never commented on her motives after she returned.) I stayed at the Old Swan, which was her favourite hotel, and is now quite possibly mine as well. Beautifully appointed, thoughtful staff, lovely stay.

The CWA staff were great throughout the festival; there are tons of workshops and panels to go to, and the moors are amazing. Well worth a trip, even if you don’t submit: as I’ve discovered, publishing is as much about networking as it is hard work. The festival is open to everyone: only the reception for the Daggers is by invitation.

The banner at the top of this blog is the outline of one of the two (fictitious) dead bodies that the CWA staff created in the parking lot of the hotel where the crime festival was held. Theakston’s Old Peculier, by the way, is the local brewery which sponsors the festival: another good reason, in my view, to go!

This year’s competition is almost open: details here:

Update: I’m grateful to Roger Cornwell from the CWA (see today’s comments) for pointing out that the coming year’s dates haven’t been set yet for the Dagger, but if people sign up to the newsletter, they will be notified of them. Also, since the CWA website is being reorganized, one should check for details on the home page. Finally, to give credit where credit is due, while the CWA organized the Daggers awards ceremony, it was the Harrogate International Festivals that did the work for Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival. (And darn good work it was, too!)


 Check out Penguin Canada’s book trailer for The Beggar’s Opera  here! It’s pretty cool!

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3 Responses to The Debut Dagger

  1. I was in the room, too, and I’m sorry we didn’t meet. As the CWA’s webmaster I get to see the entries coming in: it starts with a trickle and ends in a flood, with around half the entries arriving in the final week.

    Just a few points: the dates you quote are the ones that applied last year. The coming year’s dates haven’t been set yet (and I don’t set them) and are likely to be similar. If people sign up to the newsletter then they will be notified in good time.

    A second point is that the CWA’s website is being reorganised and it’s probably a good idea to go in via the home page.

    Finally, although the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival is awash with CWA members, the only bit the CWA actually organised was the Daggers awards ceremony. There’s a separate team from Harrogate International Festivals that do the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival — that’s their website I’ve just linked to.


  2. Awesome article, i came online in search of Debut Dagger means and this article of your’s was very informative! Hope i need to share this on facebook! thanks a million!


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