Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Margie Lawson's How-to Interview Series with Chris Roerden

Welcome to the How-to Author Interview Series
from Margie Lawson

Featuring: Chris Roerden

Wednesday, July 29th, 2009

Don't Murder Your Mystery, Agatha Award-winning Best Nonfiction Book

Don't Sabotage Your Submission

  • Don't Sabotage Your Submission just won the National juried Benjamin Franklin Award for Literary Criticism.
  • Required reading in two (so far) university writing programs.
  • 230 examples show what authors do well that most writers don't.
  • Graduated NY's Music & Art High School School at 16; college summa cum laude.
  • Taught Korean teachers one summer in South Korea.

  • Kate Flora gave Don't Murder Your Mystery a 5-star review in ForeWord Magazine, and Chris didn't know who she was (past president, Sisters in Crime).
  • Kate said Chris wrote for 40 years in the trenches, "Unlike the writer who writes one book then publishes a 'how-to' book, evidently believing that writing is a 'see one, do one, teach one' profession."
  • Why nonwriters would read a book for writers, Cozy Library said even the tone deaf take music appreciation: Don't Murder Your Mystery was author appreciation.
Website: www.marketsavvybookediting.com

Post a comment today -- and you may win:
  • Don't Sabotage Your Submission by Chris Roerden
  • A Lecture Packet from Margie Lawson

Questions for How-to Author Interview

For Chris Roerden

ML: Chris – When DON’T MURDER YOUR MANUSCRIPT was released in 2006, the title hooked me, your humorous style hooked me, and the power-punch content hooked me. I was thrilled to see it win an Agatha Award!

Thank you! I was thrilled.

In 100 words or less – could you give our blog guests some hints about how your two editing books DON’T MURDER YOUR MANUSCRIPT and DON’T SABOTAGE YOUR SUBMISSION can benefit them?

CR: Even if writers already know about some of the writing habits to avoid, my books analyze dozens of such habits and demonstrate numerous alternatives to consider (DON’T MURDER has 140 positive examples; DON’T SABOTAGE has 230). Nowhere else are so many options presented for more effective ways of writing dialogue, tags, beats, physical description, setting, hooks, and on and on. Writers tell me these books sit next to their computer, and they wouldn’t think of submitting anything without going through all the checklists during revision.

ML: Loved your chapter on ‘Fatal Flashbacks.’ What recommendations do you have for handling flashbacks, including the issues of time and tense?

CR: Narrative that writers don’t think of as creating a flashback can be just as awkward if it reverses an ordinary sequence of events. For instance, “Jeff had run ahead to hide the gun, then came back from the bedroom as Ann reached the top of the stairs. In the car they’d argued....”

Perhaps the author feels that hiding the gun is a more compelling way to open the scene, but reversing the sequence calls attention not to the action but to the sequence, which is screwy. The reader pictures one thing, then gets snapped backward to something that happened before it — and there’s no good reason for the reversal. Just yesterday I came across this construction in a manuscript, but I’ve changed the details here to protect the writer. I never want to embarrass anyone; writing is hard enough, and I admire everyone who even tries to create a full-length novel.

My recommendation is to first be aware of events in sequence, then whether part of the sequence is reversed, and how important that reversal is to the story. A true flashback is a dramatization of a significant experience adding meaning to the main story that could not be conveyed as compellingly via any other narrative method.

As for verb tense, characters are always being made to think or speak in ways that none of us would ever use in conversation. “I knew he’d been disappointed when I’d said no.” That’s the writer’s perspective, not the character’s. Take out that second contraction of “had” — the first already places us in an earlier time, and in that time the ordinary past tense is fine: “I knew he’d been disappointed when I said no.” Doesn’t everyone love to read this kind of minutia?

ML: Your chapter on ‘Dying Dialogue’ is a killer. A good-for-writers killer. You cover relationships, sowing dissension, informational dialogue, simulated disagreement, and pacing dialogue. Could you select one area and tell all?

CR: My suggestions for informational dialogue got me into trouble with one writer I’m certain had finished writing a restaurant scene that she was happy with — until I came along. Exchanging information is necessary to a story, and it may advance the plot or expand character, as dialogue is supposed to do, but if an exchange isn’t confrontational it lacks dramatic interest. So instead of sitting two people at a restaurant table exchanging data — with no activity occurring except for sipping a drink and taking a bite and chewing and taking another sip (yawn) — either create conflict or move the conversation to a setting that offers its own conflict, like a football game.

I was fortunate to find a perfect little scene in Blues in the Night by Rochelle Krich that let me demonstrate conflict in an informational interview and also analyze a delightful bit of Krich’s use of dramatic irony.

ML: You cover some dynamite tips in the section labeled ‘First Offenders.” Could you share some details about what you call ‘Hobbled Hooks?’

CR: The earliest chapters are so important in hooking a reader’s interest — including that all-important first reader who controls which manuscripts make it to the next level of decision-making. In DON’T SABOTAGE YOUR SUBMISSION I really got carried away presenting examples of some excellent opening lines from both romance and mystery. I love those that contain the subtext of a contradiction, such as this from Lynn Viehl’s DARK NEED: “Men did not dump Lena Caprell. She dumped them. That was how it went. That was how it always went.” Effective hooks make you want to read the next line, and the next, never stopping. Who could stop after this opening from Julie Garwood’s SLOW BURN: “Kate McKenna’s Wonderbra saved her life.”

ML: I bet our blog guests are dying to know about Poisonous Predictability. ;-)

CR: Predictability is poisonous to any novel. As an editor I see it in descriptions that stop the action for an inventory of physical features immediately upon a character’s making an entrance. And the features themselves are usually predictable, this color eyes, that color hair. Among the effective alternatives I present is a passage by Margaret Maron that makes you feel you know the characters — they’re your family! — but I challenge you to find the physical description.

ML: What do you cover in your ‘Strangled Speech’ chapter?

CR: Many writers, unpublished, either make all their characters sound alike or work so hard at making them sound different that the result is ludicrous. Some love inventing ‘Southern’ accents by droppin’ the endin’ of all “ing” words, somethin’ that sets an editor’s teeth on edge. Avoid odd punctuation and phonetic spellings, puhleeze. In DON’T SABOTAGE, my ‘Strangled Speech’ clue reviews 23 examples of effective speaking styles taken from many authors. One is a monologue from a piece of flash fiction by Janice Holm that suggests the speaker’s social class, attitude, values, and age through word choice alone. And flash fiction uses few words, as you know

ML: Digging deeper into Strangled Speech, what are some ways writers can make speech distinctive for different characters?

CR: There’s so much more to speech than pronunciation. There are regional expressions, intentional grammatical lapses, vocabulary, syntax — the careful, resourceful writer is a good eavesdropper. I review an example from a short story by Dottie Boatwright in which the violence is understated because the viewpoint character is a child who’s been taught to run and hide upon hearing certain sounds. As a result she hears but doesn’t see what’s happening. I think this story shows a brilliant choice of techniques.

ML: From your POV, what are the TOP TEN mistakes writers make that could keep them from getting published?


  1. Putting others’ needs and wants so far ahead of your own needs for time and space to write that a work-in-progress never progresses.
  2. Sticking it out with a critique group that’s not right for you, your genre, or your writing.
  3. Failure to read widely and absorb the sound of good writing.
  4. Reading primarily for plot without analyzing how favorite authors achieve the effects that make them favorites.
  5. Focusing writing efforts exclusively on plot, as if the story is what happens instead of whom it happens to.
  6. Embarrassment or laziness in not reading aloud all dialogue.
  7. Underestimating how important it is to have a “fresh, new voice” for catching the interest of an agent and editor, and how numerous and subtle the writing habits are that smother one’s natural voice.
  8. Devaluing the comments of agents, editors, and contest judges, when offered, because they contradict each other, instead of viewing contradictions as proving the range of personal preferences that make perseverance necessary.
  9. Feeling devastated when a first effort is rejected, assuming that becoming a professional writer should not require the years of practice and development that becoming a professional musician or artist requires.
  10. Arrogance — from ‘I’ve read enough books on writing’ to ‘I don’t have to follow submission guidelines’ — believing they’re all the same.

Chris and Margie, thank you for allowing Five Scribes to host this interview. It's been fascinating and a pleasure. Margie recently won her own web site, gang, so she's taking her How-to-interview to her own site. I look forward to many, many great interviews there. Next month she will interview Macavity Award-winning and Edgar-nominated non-fiction author, D. P. Lyle, M.D. So with that announcement, let's see those comments and questions.


Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

What a fascinating interview, you two! Chris's books have gotten me past some bumps in the writing road, that's for sure. And I went to one of her classes--which was completely SRO (Chris? Redundant?) and there were so many questions the audience barely let her get away.

One big benefit of Chris's books:just taking a few moments to dip into them--even opening at a random page--gets your writing-mind moving in new directions. Always works. Always inpirational.

Margie, wonderful to meet you!

Terry Odell said...

Defintely will have to add these to my craft books. Thanks so much for sharing. Just when you think you've figured something out, there's a fresh way to look at it, and all sorts of possibilities leap forth.

Margay said...

There are a lot of nuggets tucked away in here, but I like your top 10 list of mistakes the best. We should all read that and take it to heart to get us through the rough times. Judging by the titles of your books (and some of the chapter names mentioned), it seems as if they are geared toward mystery writers. How can they benefit someone like me who writes mainstream and romance?

Edie Ramer said...

Fabulous interview! I need to read both of these books.

Peg said...

I've read Don't Murdery Your Manuscript" and took away sooo much from it!

Sir John said...

Fantastic article. In this business I have learned that you have to constantly improve to have a chance to succeed in a world of competition that appears to be constantly growing.

Diane Della said...

Wonderful interview! Sorry to say I've never heard of these books but I definitely have a heads up now! Thanks.

Beth Gray said...

I loved this article. It highlights what needs to be concentrated on but still gives encouragement to writers. I will add this site to my blog list where I give writing advice.
Beth Gray

Donnell said...

This article is fantastic. I felt like Chris's top ten mistakes spoke directly to me. Thank you!

Barb H said...

Super interview. Many of the pointers will apply across genre. Some of the examples made me think, "Now, did I do that right?" I really appreciated the top ten list of things to avoid. too.

Both books are now on my 'to buy' list.


Diana Duval said...

Great stuff. Your ten comments are golden.

I learned a great deal when I took one of your courses, Margie. Now I'll have to take a look at your books, Chris. Thank you both for generously sharing your expertise.

Sandy Wickersham-McWhorter said...

I've made a few of the top 10 mistakes. I've also seen that in my curret WIP I have that very restaurant scene you mentioned, and tried to improve it last week--needless to say, it still needs improved! Even though I have two books published, I still think I desperately need to read these books!

Amy said...

Excellent interview and a perfect example of how to hook a reader! I'll have to purchase both of these books now.

I highly recommend Margie's courses as well. I learned so much from the one I took.

Thanks to both of you for taking the time to do this.

Judi Romaine said...

Hi Margie - great to read the stuff you and Chris discuss from someone who's spent the past five months completely rewriting my 1st book published five years ago - I'm working hard to implement some of the great things I learned from you, Margie -- keep the advice and suggestions coming - judi writing as Lynn Romaine - Long Run Home due out 09/18/09 The Wild Rose Press

Julie Robinson said...

Thank you, Margie and Chris, for this detailed interview! Wow, I feel like I've just gone through a mini-course on writing.

I'll be adding these books to my amazon wish list and adding this interview to my "Margie Lawson's How-To Series" booklet.

Helen Hardt said...

Amazing information -- thanks so much!


Karen Graffenberger said...

Thank, Margie, for interviewing Chris, and thanks, Chris, for doing the interview. I now have two new books to buy. Chris, I really appreciate your comments on verb tense. That's a big help. And, Margie, I remind myself often of what I've learned from your classes.

mtz322 said...

These sound like must haves for editors as well as writers!

Hmm, wonder if there is anything about writers who spend too much time making the page look good to the eye at the expense of spending that time on improving the flow from eye to brain.

Julie Rowe said...

I really needed to read that top ten list of mistakes. Especially the first one!

Thanks for the kick in the pants!!

Chris said...

Thank you, all, for these heartwarming comments. Let me do what authors should never do: advise you NOT to get BOTH books -- at least not to start -- because the clues to "average" writing (hence, rejectable writing) are the same in both.
When the reviews of the first book, DON'T MURDER YOUR MYSTERY, were overwhelmingly positive and said my content was applicable to all writers, not only mystery writers, my publisher asked me to revise it for all writers. (Well, he really said, write one for romance writers, another for sci-fi, and so on, but I said no, I'll be 100 years old by then!
So I revised DON'T MURDER and gave it the generic title DON'T SABOTAGE YOUR SUBMISSION -- but I couldn't revise without adding. So the second DON'T book offers 130 new excerpts in addition to 100 of the original examples, and a few other additions.
The only reason to own one copy of each seems to be if you do what a number of writers have shown me they've done, bringing their original copy to a conference where they know I'll be speaking: they show me how their copy no longer closes because of the number of sticky notes on the pages, or it's no longer readable because of all the marginal notes. A number of writers have gone on to buy the other title primarily to have a fresh copy. Much as I appreciate the extra sales, I don't want to mislead anyone.

Chris said...

To answer your question about how a mystery theme (as in clues to writing habits that are dead giveaways) might signal a book of interest to a romance and mainstream writer, I hope you'll read the longish comment I just posted. The content of the newer DON'T SABOTAGE YOUR SUBMISSION is even more applicable to any genre than the original DON'T MURDER YOUR MYSTERY. I kept the same mystery "theme," however, because a survey I took in planning the second book showed that readers really liked my chapter headings ;-) I hope you will, too.

TheaH said...

There is always so much to think about. Nice to have things laid out so clearly and cleverly. Thanks,


Jill James said...

What a great interview. I am going to the bookstore today and searching for these books.

Margay said...

Thanks, Chris! I will have to check it out.

Kaycee James said...

Great interview. I'm going to definitely checkout the books.

CHickey said...

Great interview. Would love to win "Don't Murder Your Submission"

driftsmoke said...

I've considered buying DMYM several times. Now that I know more about it, either DMYM or DSYS is definitely going on my amazon wish list. :D

Margie Lawson said...

Hello Chris --

Thank you for sharing your time and expertise. Thanks also for clarifying about how your two how-to books are similar, and different. :-)

I loved the slant and targeted hit (pun intended!) for mystery writers in DMYM -- and loved the additional examples in DSYS. Both are winners!

See you back here later today.

All smiles........Margie

Barbara said...

Fascinating information. Thanks to taking Margie's courses I bought both books. I read them but after today's interview I feel I'd better re-read them.
Thanks for all the explanations and thanks Margie for having Chris here.

Jen Black said...

Lots to read through and mull over so I guess I'll be back pretty often. Happy summer hols to everyone - hope you can find somehere that isn't washed out with rain!

Margie Lawson said...


Great to see you here!

You could win --DON'T SABOTAGE YOUR SUBMISSION- from Chris, or a Lecture Packet from me.

I'll draw the names of the two winners at 8PM Mountain Time.

The winner selects which of my six Lecture Packets they would like. I have two new ones on BODY LANGUAGE. Check them out on my new web site at www.MargieLawson.com.

Please drop by the blog after 8:15 tonight see if you got lucky!

See you soon!

All smiles......Margie

Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

oh, please enter me! these sound like great books to add to my craft collection. and one of margie's packets would be excellent!

great interview!

charactertherapist (at) hotmail (dot) com

Nina Pierce said...

So many great reminders. The books are definitely going on my TBB list.

vikkibakus said...

What an informative Blog. Thank you for sharing your expertise. I have to say, I have never read my work aloud, not even dialogue, not even alone in my home office! You've converted me from embarrassed to empowered.

Julie Robinson said...

You're too funny, Chris. You only make me want to get both copies now! But one at a time, so that I'm not overwhelmed.

PatriciaW said...

I found myself thinking through my current wip...and itching to get to a place where I could work on it with your tips in mind.

Thanks for the tidbit on which of the two books to pick up.

Shelley Munro said...

Thanks for all the wonderful advice. I particularly liked the top ten mistakes as they spoke to me. :) Your book is now officially on my TBB list.

Leslie Ann said...

Hello Chris,
Welcome to Five Scribes.

Loved the interview, your books look like they'd be fantastic for screenwriters as well...so they're on my to-buy list. The snippets you offered are down-to-earth, yet often forgotten, or even better, a new nugget for us to mine.

Margie, I'm thrilled you have your own website, I'm very sorry we're losing you here. I hope we'll still see you at FS once in a while.

~LA of Five Scribes

Jordan (MamaBlogga) said...

Thanks for this post! I've had Chris's books on my wishlist forever!

Mary Marvella said...

WOW! Like a mini workshop!

Chris Roerden said...

This is a comment posted on behalf of Suzanne Adair:

Hi Chris, and thanks for posting today. I'm glad to see that you
emphasize reading a manuscript aloud. The value of doing so is
underrated. Yes, it's a tedious task, but writers who take the time
to read their manuscripts aloud are those who have cultivated the
degree of obsession necessary to getting and staying published.
Reading your manuscript aloud lets you to pick up on echoes, hear
clunky rhythm, spot typos, etc.

And if you're unpublished, get used to reading your entire manuscript
aloud. The importance of this task doesn't stop when you've signed a
contract. After your publisher has typeset your manuscript, you may
think that you cannot stand to look at it one more time. But that's
when you must read it again. Guaranteed: embarassing boo-boos have
slipped in during the typesetting process. You really don't want
those going out to your readers, do you?

Suzanne Adair

Leslie Ann said...

Hi Chris and Suzanne,
I'm not sure if it's especially more important, tho' I think so, but screenwriters absolutely MUST read their screenplay aloud.

And then have someone else read the dialogue out loud and see what they leave out and put in.

That's an eye opener.


Donnell said...

Hello everyone: Margie lives on a mountain and she just called to say her Internet is down. -- Lots of lightning and storms happening our way. She has drawn two names:

Julie Robinson, you have won Don't Sabotage Your Submission by Chris Roerden.

Beth Gray, you have one of Margie's Lecture Packets.

If you two will contact me at bellson@comcast.net, I'll put you in touch with Margie.

Chris, thank you! Your advice was stellar!

Julie Robinson said...

WHOA!!! I just got out of the shower and saw my name!!! Thanks so much Margie and Chris. And Donnel!. I'll be in touch with you in a sec, once I've quit leaping about.

Autumn Jordon said...

Chris, Thank you for taking the time to help us. Margie you too. This interview was a lesson in it's self and has generated my interest to read more, learn more.


Vicki said...

Fabulous post/interview. This book sounds like something all writer's should have on their desk. Please add me to the drawing. :)

Chris Roerden said...

Congratulations, Julie and Beth! Have fun and enjoy the process.


Julie Robinson said...

"This interview was a lesson in it's self and has generated my interest to read more, learn more."

Thank so much, Chris, for donating your book as a prize. I feel the same way as Autumn (see quote). I feel fired up from your mini-lesson interview and now the book. Because I have this quirk of having to read things in order, I'm have to order "Don't Murder" now! :-)

But I'll take your advice and not read both at once, so I can absorb the lessons while spending time actually writing, and in doing so, absolve myself of the #1 crime of 'would be' writers.


Anne Randolph said...

Great insights on Flashback. I heard Chris talk at a RMFW workshop. How to handle Flashback helped me with a scene in my current novel that mixes past and present because the character lives in the past.
Thanks for the update.


Janet Kerr said...

This is a great interview! I am always glad to learn from Margie's interviews and lecture packets.
Thanks so much!
Janet Kerr

Valerie Everhart said...

Awesome interview! Chris Roerden's books are on my amazon wish list! And I've taken one of Margie's classes, and so the combination of these two--together on one blog...what an awesome day!

Laura Elvebak said...

Loved the interview. I attended Margie's one-day workshop and Chris's workshop at a conference. I have Don't Murder Your Mystery, and it's a wonderful source. Really take to heart the top ten mistakes.

SandraK said...

Margie & Chris,

Great interview, thanks, Margie.

I guess I'll have to grab two more 'how to' books now. But I promise they won't sit on the shelf unread like many others. You have inspired (shamed) me into getting into some of the ones already on my shelf. You're right, there's always something more to learn. Thanks again.


Cathy said...

Thanks so much for this interview - wonderful insights and ideas. And Chris, an extra thanks for clarifying the role of your two books - definitely on my list for my next craft book purchase!