Debut Dagger 2014

Writer’s diary: stardate: 15.11.2013


This week I received an email from the Crime Writers Association (CWA). My reaction was something approaching a cocktail of excitement and smugness. At last, finally, they’ve come to their senses. They realise their error. The recognition overdue to the Romney and Marsh Files has arrived like the good old second post. (Why does that memory make me tearfully nostalgic?)

So, I made myself a tea in my finest bone china, shrugged on my Noel Coward replica smoking jacket – something I got cheap on ebay some time ago for just such an event – fitted a tailor-made to my ivory cigarette holder and clicked open.

Debut Dagger Now Open

Welcome to the CWA Debut Dagger

For fifteen years the CWA has been encouraging new writing with its Debut Dagger competition for unpublished writers. The submissions are judged by a panel of top crime editors and agents.

The 2014 competition is open from Friday 1st November 2013 until Friday 31st January 2014. The Debut Dagger is open to anyone who has not yet had a novel published commercially. The first prize is £700 and is kindly sponsored by Orion. Short listed authors receive a professional assessment of their entry.

Winning the Debut Dagger doesn’t guarantee you’ll get published but it does mean your work will be seen by leading agents and top editors who have signed up over two dozen winners and shortlisted Debut Dagger competitors.

Over the period of entry we will be sending out regular emails with updates and writing tips. But we also have a new Facebook Group “The Debuts” where members of the CWA are on hand to answer your questions. We will also be sharing more tips.


An advertisement.

I stubbed out my cigarette in the Earl Grey threw my jacket into the corner of the room, crossed my arms and brooded.

Let’s get something clear: this IS a sour grapes post so I don’t need anyone telling me that. My writing clearly wasn’t good enough to get noticed in last year’s competition so I don’t need anyone to tell me that either. This post will be dripping with unprofessional jealousy, tainted by the scorn of the overlooked, infected with bitterness at the slight of the Crime Writers Association. Think thirteenth fairy in Sleeping Beauty. And double it.

Last year I entered my three books in the R&M Files in the Debut Dagger 2013. And I am not embarrassed to admit that I had high hopes for at least one of them making the short list. (All of them actually. I dreamed about being the first author to have more than one title singled out for special mentions rather than end up in the CWA office toilets as emergency bog paper.) I really did. Not one of them did.

I took it badly. I still am.

I had entered three books at £25 a throw – that’s £75. A fool and his money and all that – and invested more hope than was probably decent or healthy.

I won’t be entering again. And this is why.

I so wanted this post to be far more comprehensive than it is. But I haven’t found the time to do the necessary homework and because the 2014 competition is here my hand is forced. I’ve run out of time. Where I don’t have the information to back up a point I’ll do what I did for my university degree dissertation – I’ll make it up with an uneducated guess. (Come to think of it, it was probably the great marks I received for my largely invented essays at uni that encouraged me to try my hand at writing fiction for money.)

I wanted to investigate things like exactly how many people who have been on the short lists of recent years actually go on to get picked up by agents and subsequently published.(This is the dazzling diamond encrusted carrot that the CWA allude to without actually guaranteeing in the spiel for suckers like me.) I had a bit of a scoot about the Internet on that but could find very few names who had made short lists of recent years and now had traditionally published books to their name.

I did do some background. In June I contacted the CWA with the following questions:


I am preparing to write an on-line article about the CWA Debut Dagger competition for a leading crime and thriller website that has asked me for a contribution (that’s actually true). 

Would you be able to supply answers to the following questions? 

1) How many entries were received for 2013’s competition? 

2) How many readers do you have sifting through the entries? 

3) What number, or percentage, approximately, of entries were not considered for reasons to do with breach of entry rules and guidelines? (Any general details here would be very helpful.) 

4) When the closing date is reached, what is the process and time-scale involved for entries received, up until the short-list is announced? 

5) It is well-known that some entries go on to be picked up by literary agents and then find publishers. How do literary agents become aware of manuscripts that they might be interested in? 

6) How does the CWA use the money generated by the entry fees? 

If you are able to assist me with the answers to all or any of these questions I would be most grateful. If you have anything else regarding the Début Dagger competition to share that you think readers and prospective entrants would find useful, or just be interested to learn, please don’t hesitate to mention it. 

I look forward to hearing from you. 

Kind regards 

Oliver Tidy

I was particularly interested in the answers to questions 1 & 6.

According to the responses I received from a most helpful and friendly lady at the CWA there were four hundred and fifty six (456) entries for the 2013 Debut Dagger. If not an avalanche of entries, certainly a decent slush-pile. (Maybe that could be the collective noun for entries in a writing competition – a slush pile of entries.)

In response to question six – How does the CWA use the money generated by the entry fees? – the following response was provided:

This goes on administration for the awards which, as I am sure you can imagine, is very labour intensive. As a non profit all of the CWA’s monies go towards our mission.’

There is one cash prize for the Debut Dagger. It is £700. But no one is entering for the money. Everyone’s there for that diamond encrusted carrot. I think that the least the CWA could do would be to provide every fee paying entrant with a set of cardboard cut-out donkey ears.

£25 x 456 = £11400

Take the £700 prize money away from that and you are left with £10700. £10700 for the administration of the awards. £10700 for the administration of the awards. (I know I’m repeating myself.)

It strikes me that the CWA Debut Dagger, as much as anything, is simply a fund raising initiative. A net of hope and vanity that shoals of berks like me swim into dreaming of fame and fortune and our very own tame literary agent. The lure of getting one’s work in front of agents and publishers who allegedly make up the judging panel (after the slush pile has been vetted by ordinary mortals) blinded me to what I see now as the reality – that the Debut Dagger preys on the hopes and dreams of the deluded (like myself) who think that for £25 it’s got to be worth a shot. You’ve got to be in it to win it! Sound familiar? Same shit different toilet.

On the Internet I saw some pictures of this year’s dagger awards ceremony – the one I wasn’t at. It felt like looking through the window at a party I hadn’t been invited to but should have been. Lots of people were wining and dining and laughing and joking and looking all dressed up and happy. As I mentally pulled up the collar of my coat, shoved my hands deep into my pockets and bent my head to walk off into the chilly night, alone, I vowed that never again would I fall for something like that.

13 thoughts on “Debut Dagger 2014

  1. Gonna have to stick up for editors/readers here, Oliver. Those entries are all being read by someone. And thought about by someone. That all takes time, and all that time is worth money. Forget the multiplication; the big number you get at the end is a red herring. I’d say £25 to properly judge the standard of a 4,000 word submission is cheap.

    Maybe some can get chucked in the bin straight away, but I imagine the standard is high enough that 60% of them get read all the way through. Then they presumably get a long list, and get read AGAIN by different people to narrow it down to a shortlist. Then those get judged and critiqued.

    I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think that, balancing that over the course of the competition, the average entry is getting over an hour of attention. So administration is being charged at under £25 an hour. Is that really that ludicrous? And that’s just thinking about the judging. Emails need to be written, websites need to be maintained. Yes all these jobs are small, but there are lots of them. If this is a plan to dupe people out of money, it’s crap. Why go to all that trouble for a measly few grand?

    I don’t doubt that SOME competitions are merely moneymaking exercises. I get a lot of screenwriting emails for competitions with higher entry fees and (I suspect), a far lower average standard of entry. I suspect that you only get about 300 entries worth considering for more than a nanosecond in any writing competition, whether the total number of entries is 500 or 50,000. If you can reduce the average time spent per entry to five or ten minutes, then you’ve got a scam. But I just can’t see how that can apply here.

    I also suspect the entry fee is high to discourage timewasters. Smashwords shows that if you open up crime writing to everyone, you get a LOT of rape fantasies and other grim stuff. No-one wants to read through 10,000 of those… The stuff that’s considered high enough quality to be published is bad enough.

    • Hi Rich
      Good to hear from you.
      Thanks for your perspective. I sincerely hope that anyone who reads the blog post also goes on to read your reply. It provides a splendid alternative view from the other side of the desk to my bitching and moaning. 🙂

      • Thanks. Actually, having thought about it some more, I suspect it’s even more extreme. I could easily believe that the competition makes a loss, and the entry fees have to be supplemented by money from the sponsors.

        Did you get an answer to all your questions? I’d be interested in hearing about #3.

      • Here are the answers to all the questions. Best.

        1) How many entries were received for 2013’s competition? We received 456 entries.

        2) How many readers do you have sifting through the entries? The average amount of readers we have to sift through the entries is 10. However the person who organises the Debut Dagger can change this depending on their own circumstances and how many entries they anticipate.

        3) What number, or percentage, approximately, of entries were not considered for reasons to do with breach of entry rules and guidelines? (Any general details here would be very helpful.) Very few is the short answer. There are a few things that we do see year in year out – entries that are too long, that don’t follow the guidelines, are sent in too late. On the whole people do read through and follow the guidelines – which is good!

        4) When the closing date is reached, what is the process and time-scale involved for entries received, up until the short-list is announced? The short list is announced at CrimeFest so we work backwards to give the sifting readers and final judges plenty of time to be able to consider these.

        5) It is well-known that some entries go on to be picked up by literary agents and then find publishers. How do literary agents become aware of manuscripts that they might be interested in?

        6) How does the CWA use the money generated by the entry fees? This goes on administration for the awards which, as I am sure you can imagine, is very labour intensive. As a non profit all of the CWA’s monies go towards our mission.

      • Ah. Just as I suspected, she treated that question pretty literally. What I really wanted to know was how many entries had to be chucked out because they weren’t up to the grade technically, regardless of other merits. The shortlisted entries aren’t edited or redrafted before publication, and the CWA are going to get it in the neck if they publish a winner who can’t use apostrophes, even if they showed the most promise. So there’s FAR less leeway than you’d get when submitting to an agent.

      • Thanks for uploading all these though. It’s very interesting. I’ve been thinking about the Debut Dagger this week, similar questions to these, but it never occurred to me to just email and ASK!

        I’m surprised at how few entries there are. I suppose the synopsis is the killer. If you just had to submit chapter 1 I think a lot more people would chance it.

        I wonder if the short story competition gets more entries.

      • No problem. It’s good to have your opinion.
        That bit about the correctness of entries regarding their English is quite believable and something else to consider – I completely get your point about why they are like that but what do they end up judging then? Great writing or appropriate use of punctuation, spelling and grammar? Could it not be argued that such considerations above original and stunning composition (not mine, I hasten to add) detract from the integrity and point of the competition?

      • Actually, Rich, just looking at the answer provided to question 6 again by the CWA: ‘This goes on administration for the awards which, as I am sure you can imagine, is very labour intensive. As a non profit all of the CWA’s monies go towards our mission.’ Bearing that response in mind I stand by my assertion that the Debut Dagger seems like a fund raiser for the rest of it.

  2. Can’t really argue with that! Although I stand by MY assertion that the man-hours involved in a properly run judging system could easily run to thousands of pounds. So maybe a whole lot of people are being short changed?

  3. Very interesting post Oliver – well done to you for scrutinising the DD comp with an FOI request! Well done to the CWA for being up-front with their responses also. Have also read the above exchange with much interest. I thought the point about the most promising story being sifted out for mechanical errors was also interesting – ’twas ever thus, however.

    Though I suspect that the post is less about whether the competition odds/charges are justified (a debate which could go on forever) than it is about how aspiring authors are a slave to such things – you just lose your head (and open your wallet) when there’s a sniff of that diamond-encrusted carrot.

    As you know (because I tend to bleat on about it) – there are in fact two carrots. There is a general view that once you secure an agent, the multi-million publishing deal will drop in your lap next week. Not so. It’s more like a snakes and ladders board – once you’ve secured representation, slide back down to square one for the hard bit.

    So giving up once and for all and going the indie route must be very liberating, particularly as I imagine that if you carve a niche for yourself – which you clearly have done – you can find a route in to the trad-business ‘from the side’ because you’ve done half the hard work yourself already.

    • Hi Tin
      I appreciated the CWA responses and openness. And I like Rich’s perspective. He knows what he’s talking about whereas most of the time I just don’t.

      And you have raised a very valid point. The progress to level two ‘aint always all it’s cracked up to be. If I ever, ever had an agent or publisher interested in one of my books and they started asking for rewrites and changes and blow jobs, which they most certainly would, I just don’t think I could swallow the writing side of it. When I’m finished with a project I’m finished with it. I seriously need to get my backside into gear over producing further edits of the three R&M Files but I’d rather sweep up leaves in a gale with a toothbrush.

      Yes, going native (surely indie?) is liberating and satisfying and easy in comparison to being a proper author but I still dream about walking into Waterstones one day and seeing my books on the shelves. Actually, I’d settle for occupying the wire basket full of battered remaindered books outside the front of The Works.


  4. Hi, I am the Director of the CWA and just saw the comments on this post. Am happy to answer any questions anyone has about the Debut Dagger. I was probably too vague with my admin costs answer – there are readers and judges of course but the administration of these isn’t just relating to the 3 months the competition is open as we receive queries year round plus spend time building relationships with writing groups and those that have signed up to our Debut groups and mailing lists.

    All of the entries are read by our team of readers in the first instance and then a long list will be read by the second team who, in turn, produce the short list that goes to our judging panel. These will then be read again, a report on each by each judge produced, and the winner decided upon after a full face to face meeting of the judging panel.

    Behind the scenes there are year round queries, recruiting and managing the readers, maintaining the websites, the debut dagger bulletins, the Facebook group. The sheer number of enquirers and the amount of time it takes to process the submissions over that 3 months the competition is open is also a major factor.


    Our core mission is to encourage writers and to promote the crime genre as a whole and I can think of nothing more heartening than those that are entering this competition. Please don’t think we do anything other than value those that enter – it is the new writers coming through that help to make this such a thriving genre and a great one to work in.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s