Twenty-One Fatal Techniques


Taken from Chris Roerden’s book on self-editing:

Don’t Murder Your Mystery: Edit It.


My Friend, Chris Roerden, has done a great job reducing writing flaws into simple, easy-to-follow *rules* to help you get that first book sale. In her books, Don’t Murder Your Mystery and Don’t Sabotage Your Submission, she shares these rules with examples of the right way and the wrong way to execute, techniques that can send your submission to the circular can, and the changes that can garner you that first book sale.

While, *as always* there is no one way to do things in the publishing business, I often use these rules in my writing seminars. Editors allow a lot of slack in a published writer’s work, but techniques that they are tired of may not be allowed in a an UnPub’s work. It isn’t fair, no, but it does happen, and if a writer can spot something in that might annoy an editor, why not change it?

I highly recommend her books, and  suggest you get one (best way is to order it online at Amazon.) I’ll enlarge on some of these over the next weeks, but for now, without much explanation or any of my own personal examples, here are some of her rules:

1.      The DONE-TO-DEATH opening. Bait and hook in the first 5 pages needs to not merely snag reader but keep him/her from getting away throughout the rest of the book. DON’T use the phone ringing or doorbell ringing as the opening! I’ve used this one in an expanded blog on Bait and Hook.

2.      Unnecessary prologues, unrelated to Chapter 1 in time, character, or situation, which are too long and have gratuitous violence and sex. Such prologues have been done to death. Especially in a first novel, try to avoid showing the murder/death/time travel/space landing that happened in the past and is affecting the novel’s current time, which will then take place on Chapter 1’s first page. Especially overused is a scene through a dying character’s eyes.

3.      Info Dumps. Too much character background, too much character description, too much backstory all in one place. Too much. Too long. Info needs to be broken up and sprinkled through a narrative, like hot pepper in lasagna. Not all in one place.

4.      Characters too ordinary, not different enough for today’s market. Today’s market needs quirky characters. Not nuts, weird, or off balance, (Monk works on TV, but may be overdone in a narrative) just different.

5.      Character description errors.

  1.  All descriptions the same – No variation in methods. We see this often in police procedurals where every time a character appears, the cop main character says, “She was tall, 5-10, blonde and blue, and walked with a limp.” Or whatever.
  2. A character appears – all action stops as you describe him/her.

6.      Long flashbacks, and too much backstory, (info dumps) stop the action’s forward progression. Rule of thumb—flashbacks are best set in the second third (second act) of a novel. By this time the reader has come to know the main characters and can accept a slowing of progressive motion.

7.      Backstory that does not serve multiple purposes. Backstory should interweave into dialogue, characterization, and the plot’s forward motion. It should be *necessary*.

8.      Time errors and ambiguous passage of time.

a.       Time passes. Is that indicated by changes in daylight and ability to see at night?

b.      Time needs re-anchoring during a scene. Shadows lengthen. Temps increase or decrease. Storms roll over. Yes, time means weather too!

c.       Characters need to eat, relieve themselves, drink water. While you don’t want to show everything, you need to let the character get tired, take breaks, etc.

9.      Cliched dream sequences. If a dream is important to enough to dramatize, it has to expand characterization and be unique. Not the old *running and can’t get anywhere* or being naked in high-school.

10.  Long digressions lacking action. Example: lengthy, verbatim journal, newspaper article, or diary entries. Political diatribes that meet the author’s personal POV but have nothing to do with the character’s.

11.  Coincidence. No just happened to find…or long-lost twin stuff. It’s been done to death. A published writer can get away it, but it may kill an editor’s interest to see an UnPub use it.

12.  Superficial settings that describe a scene one time, then no further mention occurs to keep characters anchored in space. Setting should be part of the structure that holds the reader in place, part of the tone, the feel of the book. This is related to time errors, above.

13.  Settings that lack originality or that use certain settings (restaurants, bars) in old, unoriginal ways. No sense of the uniqueness of the location as characters would experience it. Consider alternative locations or treatments for the all-important meeting place for dialogue. The corner bar has been done to death.

14.  Cardboard characters (even your relief characters.) All need some sort of image to allow a reader a visualization process.

15.  Too many characters with full names and soundalike or lookalike names. Too many adverbs, adjectives, and not enough fresh, original similes, metaphors, or impressions.

16.    Dull dialogue and non-varying speech patterns of characters. As Chris Roerden says – though I paraphrase, *Strive for grammar, language, vocabulary, and other forms of expression that are authentic for the character, without trying to echo pronunciation through spelling and punctuation variants.*

17.    Too many adverbs, adjectives, similes.

18.    Incorrect grammar, punctuation, spelling, word usage.

19.    Sliding point of view. Today’s market wants POV changes to be clear and unambiguous. The POV has to be clear and easy to follow.

20.    Clichés.

21.    Last but not least, Telling instead of showing.


Chris is a brilliant teacher of writing, and I’ve seen her help a lot of writers snag that all-important first sale, turning a series of rejections into success. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be enlarging on her rules with my own take on them with my own examples. For me, this is always a learn-as-I-go trip, as I see flaws in my own writing with every step. I hope you enjoy it with me!

And – once again – there is no *one* way to do anything in writing. You may sell a first novel having violated many of Chris’ rules. But becoming a better writer is what we all are about!

Faith Hunter

Blogs at MySpace, Facebook, and LiveJournal (links at websites)


19 comments to Twenty-One Fatal Techniques

  • Amy

    Okay, so this is the don’t list. Wow…that’s a lot of don’ts. But my question is, what are all the dos?

  • Hi Amy. Good question.
    I’ll post my do list next week.

  • I completely agree on the prologues. I’m a big fan of prologues, but it seems as if a lot of folks call it a prologue when it’s either a first chapter or a trunk of backstory. To me, the perfect prologue is short and cryptic, and not entirely clear until I get to the end of the novel. At which point I can sigh and say, “NOW I get it.”

    The prologue to Tim Powers’ novel The Drawing of the Dark is, in my opinion, the pinnacle of prologuing. It was about a paragraph long, and consisted of a short conversation between two people I didn’t yet know. It utterly hooked me – I couldn’t have put that book down if I’d wanted to.

  • Oh and about #14….some writers have spoken of using role-playing game character generation sheets when they’re creating characters for their novels. You’re forced to figure out what they look like, what their strengths and weaknesses are, where they come from, and so on, just in order to fill out all the spaces.

    The sheets won’t cover everything a novelist needs to know about her characters, but it’s a great starting place. 😀

  • Misty, I need to see a role-playing-game character-generation sheet. I’m writing a role playing game based on my Rogue Mage series (with two other writers), but game playing is entirely new to me. Do you have one you can post about? Like, maybe blog on one and post it and fill out, creating a character for us? Maybe your character Kes…?

  • Faith, I think I could do that!

    And you know, if you’re ever available on a Saturday, you’re welcome to come to the house and watch a game in action. We promise not to sacrifice any virgins or sneak around in the sewers while you’re here. *laugh*

  • Cool list, Faith. And yes, I found things on there that I’ve done and/or continue to do. Some are bad habits; others are just things that I feel work even if other people don’t. But it’s incredibly helpful to have things of this sort pointed out, so that we as writers can look at our own work with a more informed critical eye.

  • Excellent! I can’t wait to hear more as time goes on. And I agree with Amy, some ‘do’s would be lovely as well 🙂

    Also speaking of role-playing characters, you could also take a look at Wizards’ Online Alignment Test:

    It’s a little all-or-nothing in some spots, as it’s narrowing in on good/evil lawful/chaotic, and such, but it comes up with some really interesting scenarios and asks questions about aspects of a character one might not think about otherwise. Plus it’s a lot of fun to do with existing characters, and see if they meet your expectations!

  • Beatriz

    We promise not to sacrifice any virgins or sneak around in the sewers while you’re here. *laugh*

    Sure, *we* may promise. However, I’m not so sure that our Wonderful, Fabulous and Wise Dungeon Master would agree. 😉

    Great list, Faith. Thanks for sharing. I think I’ll take the advice and work backward, using it for my role playing character. It will surely help make Aubrey more real.

    Looking forward to seeing what’s next!

  • MIsty, I am happy about the virgins and sewers. Maybe I can get a saturday free and pop by. I’ll bring popcorn and beer! And I am excited to see Kes soon, as a game character on a sheet. (okay, that sounded wrong on so many levels…) But, pressing on — This will be fun!

    David, I do so many of Chris’ rules wrongly. I used to be the queen of prologues; I still love them. And I have a weird character speaking format and POV thought voice in my WIP. My editor is less than excited about it, but my agent totally loves it. I know I will tick off some readers who want only the Queen’s English in books, and who hate first person POV. Well…tough. I’m loving it!

    Haley, I’ll check out the link, thanks! I already started working on the *do* list that Amy suggested. I figure I can come up with 15 *dos* easily, and some I can expand on in future posts. But you are right about the evil dungeon master. He scares me. *shudders and grins*.

  • Beatriz, my reply to you got slid in to Haley’s… I am not sure how that happened, but then I am a total compudunce. I *did* notice that you made the comment about a certain evil but pretty someone when he becomes master. If I come to watch, I’ll only watch. I’d be scared to play!

  • Great list, will have to re-read my beginnings and make sure I haven’t done this.

  • mikaela

    Great list. I am know I am prone to the last one, and as a result I get cardboardy characters, since the readers cannot connect to him… but, I am learning. And hey, that’s what’s revision is for, right?

  • Natalie and Mikaela, It is so easy to fall into the rut of always doings things the same way–or the easy way. An opening has to be so very *right* for *the* book I am trying to write. I go back over mine several times with macro, micro, and micron rewrites.

    But I do have to say that it isn’t something I do every day. It is also easy to get hungup on nitpicking the beginning. I write the beginning, do one rewrite the next day, and put it aside until page 150 or so. Then I do a rewrite based on what I now know about my characters and the plot. It isn’t easy to set it aside then, until the book is finished, but I do.

  • Faith:
    Thank you so much for recommending my DON’T books for writers. Amy asked about the “dos.” Despite the negative in the series title, the books contain mostly positive examples, which I analyze to show how and why they are effective. DON’T MURDER YOUR MYSTERY offers 160 positive examples from 148 published authors, and its all-genre version, DON’T SABOTAGE YOUR SUBMISSION, quotes 230 excerpts from 215 writers (a few from unpublished manuscripts that I found outstanding). In each instance, its writer uses a technique effectively that most writers use ineffectively or not at all. I don’t call these rules; these are actually expectations, subjective preferences, biases, and standards held by publishing’s gatekeepers for professional-level writing. The “don’ts” are clues alerting screener-outers to dump a manuscript in the “no” pile as soon as their standards are breeched. More than 90 percent are dumped long before character and plot can be judged on their own merits.
    Faith, you may certainly quote whatever examples you’d like to when making up your own list of “dos” to help writers get published.
    Regards, Chris

  • Chris, you are too kind!
    I noticed that your links didn’t make it through the spam filters, so I’ll add them to my own on my next blog. I’d love readerst to be able to find you.

  • Sorry, I’m going back and reading posts I missed. These sound like pretty keen books. I’ll have to go looking for them.

    I usually don’t have to worry about number 1. I’ve always been good at creating non-cliche and gripping openings…I just have trouble closing, which is one of a few reasons I have a slew of unfinished stories laying around.

    Honestly, I really like to see non-standard grammar and spelling in character speech. Most people don’t speak with perfect English, so why should the characters…unless they’re Data from Star Trek. If the character is going to say “gonna” I want to see it written that way when I’m reading. It gives me a sense about the character when I can see how they speak. It’s fine to say a character slurs his speech, but I want to see it reflected in the conversation too. I seem to be able to get into the flow of the story easier when I don’t have to add all those in myself based on a description of a character’s speaking patterns.

    And I have been guilty, many times, of writing my characters up as RPG characters to see what their strengths and weaknesses are. They’re good to keep in a file for reference. Oh yeah, I forgot my main character has an irrational fear of large bodies of water…

    And it’s cool to see that Misty is a roleplayer. Long time gamer (almost 28 years now) myself. 😀

  • Hi Daniel,
    I use gonna, kinda, musta, but what the rule means is dialect intensity like,
    A mae hae ta goo ta th’ stor. Day ye wan iny aigs?
    I might have to go to the store. Do you want any eggs?
    A word here or there isn’t a problem, especially if it is in common usage.

    As to closing, it often helps to make the problem bigger. If it iisn’t as big as possible without kiling the character, then it isn’t something needs solving.

  • Oh the problems are always pretty durn big, that’s usually not the problem. It’s just a sticking with one thing at a time that’s usually the problem. It’s most often a problem with my ability to focus on one thing at a time, not the story. (looks sheepish)