Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Shoutout to Debut Authors by Terry Shames


Terry here, and here’s our subject this week: Let’s do a shout-out to the debut authors. What’s a wonderful book by a first time crime fiction author you’ve read in the last six months? 

 Is it just me, or are debut authors getting better? Some of the debut books I’ve read in the past couple of years have blown me away. When I read Please See Us, Caitlin Mullen’s 2021 debut, I noted in my reading list, “Absolutely brilliant. If this is a debut, I shudder to think what some of her future books will be.” I was not surprised that it won the Edgar Award among a field of other amazing debuts that included, the riveting Darling Rose Gold, by Stephanie Wrobel, and the absolutely fabulous Winter Counts, by David Heska Wanbli Weiden. I have yet to get to Catherine House, by Elisabeth Thomas, or Murder in Old Bombay, by Nev March. I’m told that both novels are terrific. 

 In the past year, Wanda Morris has gotten a lot of buzz with her debut novel All Her Little Secrets, winning the Macavity Award and a Lefty Award for Best first Novel. The story is riveting, and the writing is top-notch.
I look forward to her second, Any Where You Run, which comes out next week, October 25! And then there’s Arsenic and Adobo, by Mia P. Manansala. Another multiple nominee who won the Anthony Award in 2022. 

 Looking at the last couple of years’ debut novels, I’m struck by how few I manage to read, and how many I want to read. I suppose I’ll get around to them eventually. I’m in the middle of Jamie Mason’s Three Graves Full, which I was astonished to find was Mason’s debut novel. It’s so damn good! 

 But here’s the thing I think makes debut novels so spectacular these days. They are highly polished because they have to be to find a publishing home. Agents and/or editors won’t look past page two of a submission that isn’t honed to near-perfection. I’ve read several novels by experienced, published writers that I don’t think would get a full reading from an agent if it were a first submission. 

 I started writing in the days when agents would take on a “pretty good” read, because editors were poised to polish diamonds in the rough. Somewhere around the eighties (or nineties?), publishing changed. There were fewer editors, and they didn’t have the time to carve a good book out of a decent story. It fell to agents to spot the best among their submissions and work with authors to hone them until they could be presented to editors as polished work. Before the eighties, writers could work largely in a vacuum and send off what they hoped would be a “discovery.” 

These days, before a fledgling writers even attempts to find an agent, they will workshop the novel with writers groups, beta readers, manuscript swaps, and even professional editors. They probably don’t all do this. There are probably writers who simply know deep in their bones what makes a good book. I don’t know whether the authors I mentioned above fall into that category or whether they wrote, rewrote, got advice, found readers, rewrote, and found an agent who recognized the quality of the work. And then got hooked up with an editor who made the words golden. 

 I also think another thing that makes debut novels so good is that often the writer has had all those words pent up for years, and finally set them loose! I know these days my novels take a few months to write, and a few more to edit. My first book took exactly two months to write. The words poured out. I think it’s because that book had been sitting in the back of my brain, waiting to be tapped. All I know is that the debut authors I read these days seem like seasoned veterans. 

 One more thing about debut novels. Recently there are a lot more previously-ignored writers breaking what was for so long a hateful, invisible barrier to publishing their work. I don’t want to think there was a conscious decision on the part of publishers to shut out writers of color, and LBGTQ writers. I think it was more a matter of laziness and worry about the bottom line. It was a matter of choosing the familiar, choosing the recognizable subject matter, protagonists and settings. That seems to be changing, and it’s a change that readers will be the better for. Reading about other cultures that exist right alongside my white culture, in my city, can only expand my understanding. I celebrate it! 

I’m reading and appreciating the authors who have so long been ignored in a stifling publishing culture. So here’s to debut authors—of all kinds! May they thrive.


Vinnie Hansen said...

I loved Winter Counts and admired All Her Little Secrets. Another debut novel I really liked this year was Deer Season by Erin Flanagan. For my Bouchercon panel "The Modern Gumshoe," I read the first book of all the authors on the panel--not new books, but debut books. I was blown away by Brad Parks' Faces of the Gone.

Anonymous said...

Vinnie those are great recommendations.

Catriona McPherson said...

Wanda's debut was amazing! So was Winter Counts. So many fabulous books.