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.
- 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.
- 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.
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!
Blogs at MySpace, Facebook, and LiveJournal (links at websites)