Well, it's time again to submit. Every year, I enter one of my mystery books in the Dagger Awards, a prestigious award for best mystery or crime fiction. It's a British award.
I haven't won yet but, I have to try.What to write: (This advice is actually for any writing fiction.)
It's only 25 British Pounds.
Leave ’em hangingWe used to describe the 3000 word opening as the ‘first chapter’, but a lot of authors write chapters which are substantially shorter than 3000 words. To clarify: you should send in as much as you can within the word limit, but send chapters not chunks. The point of a chapter is that it has a clear structure, and builds to a dramatic conclusion of some sort. The same should be true of the entry as a whole, however many chapters it is. Don’t let it dribble out on the 3000th word: build to a cliffhanger or climax which leaves the reader desperate for more.
Cut to the chaseIf you are writing for a competition like the Debut Dagger, try to have a significant scene. That doesn't mean you have to have a body on page one, but if you have ten or twelve pages to play with, make sure you use them. One of the beauties of fiction is that you can skip over all the boring bits of life: taking the long way round slows things down for your reader, and doesn't make best use of the limited space you have to impress the judges.
Hoard your charactersCharacters are the key to the story: if the reader doesn’t care who people are, he won't care what they're doing. Try to give each character a solid introduction, and don't overload the reader with too many characters at once. As the author, you've probably spent months or even years with your characters and you know exactly who they all are, but the reader doesn't have that advantage. This is particularly true for the Debut Dagger, when the judges are having to meet whole new casts of characters at bewildering speed.
Build TensionMany of the entries that work best grip the reader with a genuine sense of tension. This isn't just about overt danger or violence: it's amazing how dull a gruesome murder can be made to seem if it's written badly. Effective tension comes from a sense of menace and anticipation, built up with mood, little clues and tell-tale signs.
Beware the malapropism.Typos are bad and you should strive to eliminate them, but if a few typos could ruin a novel then most bookshops would have empty shelves. Far more dangerous is using a homonym or near-homonym to unintentionally hilarious effect. Two examples we’ve come across (in strong entries) were the man being chased through the supermarket who hid in the 'isle of crisps', and the 'burlesque policeman' who walked into the room. Both of these made the readers laugh out loud, breaking the tension of otherwise good scenes.
Avoid clichéThere are any number of clichés associated with crime fiction – grizzled cops, hard-boiled PI’s, sexy dames and psychopathic villains, to name but a few. Part of the fun of working in the genre is being able to play with these stereotypes, but you’ve got to do something new with them. One year an editor made the plaintive - or pointed - observation: 'Why are all innocent female victims invariably blond and beautiful?'
The warning against clichés applies equally (or even more) to language. Unless you're writing for a tabloid, avoid really common terms: 'emotional rollercoaster'; 'heart-stopping surprise'; or, a pet hate, 'feisty'.
The Wow FactorIt seems fitting to leave the last word on this subject to another one of the judges. For any chapter to count in a competition like this, the reader must put the material down thinking ‘Wow!’; and then, ‘I need to read more’. It's not enough for the reader to want to read more, they must put the excerpt down feeling they need to know what happens next.
If you want more information about how to enter both online or by mail, check this link.