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.
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?
- 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.
- Sticking it out with a critique group that’s not right for you, your genre, or your writing.
- Failure to read widely and absorb the sound of good writing.
- Reading primarily for plot without analyzing how favorite authors achieve the effects that make them favorites.
- Focusing writing efforts exclusively on plot, as if the story is what happens instead of whom it happens to.
- Embarrassment or laziness in not reading aloud all dialogue.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.