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Workshops for Writers

Agatha Award Winner for Best Non-Fiction Book


I'd like to let aspiring writers knowif they don't alreadyabout Chris's book, DON'T MURDER YOUR MYSTERY. I picked up the book at the Skill Build after listening to Chris's presentation and right away I knew she was trying for something many of these instructional books fail to address (although they are wonderful for learning other techniques). Chris offers new writers a chance to learn how to avoid being placed immediately in the dreaded "NO" pile before an agent or editor gets past their first paragraph. The actual published examples she uses are wonderful....
      And while it is geared toward the unpublished, many experienced writers may also find the tips helpful and inspiring if they have hit a roadblock in their current work. I went back and rewrote an entire first page after reading it.
P.J. Parrish, New York Times Best-selling author

Midwest Book Review
Featured in the January 2007 Issue

Don't Murder Your Mystery:
24 Fiction-Writing Techniques to Save Your Manuscript from Turning Up D.O.A.
By Chris Roerden
Bella Rosa Books, PO Box 4251 CRS, Rock Hill, SC 29732
ISBN: 1933523131 / 978-1933523132, $17.95

From the beginning of this immensely insightful writing manual, Chris Roerden focuses on what it takes to write novels that will survive both an agent's and a publisher's screening process. I spent a couple of years in the early 1990s reading the slush pile at two nearby publishing houses, and I can affirm Roerden's statement that the vast majority of manuscripts submitted to agents and presses are rejected because the writers fail to submit a solid, well-written, and entertaining product.

In the dog-eat-dog world of publishing, Roerden tells us publishers pick very few new writersand only those who look like winnersand they "ignore the rest whose work reveals evidence of average writing, aka 'amateur.'" She goes on to tell us: "The publishing industry cannot afford to gamble on writers who are still developing their potential, who show little evidence of having studied the craft of the profession they aspire to, or who fail to reflect the preferences that publishers and agents state in their submission guidelines" (p. 12).

The book setup is clever. In ten parts, she delineates 24 specific fiction-writing areas to focus upon in revisions. To start out, in Part I: DEAD ON ARRIVAL, she lays out all the reasons why writers simply must write, revise, edit, and format their novels or else they won't be published. In that section, Roerden tells us about THE JUDGES: Screener-outers - and what they look for; THE PLAINTIFFS: Writersand what you hope for; THE DEFENDANTS: Agents and publishersand why they do what they do; and CORRECTIONS FACILITIES: Self-editorsand how to do what you need to.

Each of the subsequent nine parts features one of the 24 fiction-writing techniques, which Roerden, tongue in cheek, labels CLUES. For instance, in Part III: FIRST OFFENDERS, she's got:

CLUE #1: HOBBLED HOOKS - Replace with high-tensile lines that stretch your holding power;
CLUE #2: PERILOUS PROLOGUES - Beware: May lead to low-tension, post-prologue, backstory ache;
CLUE #3: BLOODY BACKSTORY - To remove the evidence, slice, dice, and splice.

The advice to "slice, dice, and splice" is quite simply wonderful, and with her terrific explanations, it's easy to remember what she means and apply it to work on a manuscript. In concise language steeped in good humor and fabulous examples, Roerden reveals each of the 24 CLUES (including FATAL FLASHBACKS, TOXIC TRANSCRIPTS, DECEPTIVE DREAMS, DASTARDLY DESCRIPTION, DYING DIALOGUE, KILLED BY CLICHÉ, GESTURED TO DEATH, and many more). She systematically provides tips and techniques for avoiding these pitfalls. The 24 "Clues," when properly understood and applied, will make any author's well-told tale a winner.

She rounds out this well-written guide with an index and four "Exhibits," including: instructions for standard manuscript formatting; a bibliography of the multitude of books she cited throughout the text; a list of popular Internet crime writing sites; and recommended nonfiction in the areas of general writing, mystery, editing, character building, marketing, etc.

All too often How-To guides warn you about basic no-no's, but I've never before seen a guide that does such a great job detailing HOW TO AVOID those no-no's. Using clear-headed explanations, Roerden creates outstanding examples of poor form and uses shining examples of good form from 150 published novels, all of which provides thorough and easy-to-understand instruction.

Despite the title of this book, this How-To manual is not only for mystery writers. I would recommend it for anyone who is attempting to create a finished draft for publication. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

Lori L. Lake, Midwest Book Review

ForeWord Magazine Spotlight Review for May 2006

In the Spotlight

Don't Murder Your Mystery:
24 Fiction-Writing Techniques to Save Your Manuscript from Turning Up D.O.A.
Chris Roerdon
Bella Rosa Books
304 pages
Softcover $17.95

Reducing the Carnage

For every author whose manuscript gets published, there are tens of thousands who are rejected. At literary agencies and publishing houses, screeners go through piles of submissions, searching for original voices, attention-grabbing characters, and writing styles that rise above the rest. The piles are large; time is short. The writer who has labored a year or more on a story may have only a page, a paragraph, or a sentence read before the screener moves on to the next submission. It is this heartbreaking reality that the author (who is also an editor and writing teacher) addresses in this helpful book.

Pitched midway between the writing advice books that concentrate on format and grammar and those that outline the large-bone mystery basics such as plot, character, dialogue, and creating suspense, DON'T MURDER YOUR MYSTERY identifies twenty-four aspects of the mystery novel, some dealing with the nitty-gritty of submissions but most discussing topics to help inexperienced writers improve the quality of their written work. Roerden's pitch is to help new writers identify and correct pedestrian mistakes and avoid amateurish writing, so they won't be quickly dismissed by screeners. What she has created is an essential handbook for writers longing to improve their knowledge of craft and technique.

One of this volume's greatest strengths is that it grows out of a large body of experience. 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, Roerden writes from forty years in the trenches. She has taught writing at the University of Southern Maine and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She has published nine other books, including four ghostwritten for clients. As a writing coach, she has helped many writers improve their manuscripts. She knows what causes dull, flabby, or amateurish writing, and she knows how to fix it.

Roerden has a clear and thoughtful style with multiple examples from published authors illustrating how to write it right and contrasting examples of how writers get it wrong. In her chapter on the importance of "hooks" to grab a reader from line one, she offers this flabby and awkward version of an opening:

"I was lazily watching my tall, well-built body guard mowing the lush green lawn in her bright pink bikini when I heard a loudly buzzing small, private airplane flying overhead. When I looked up, I saw the scary sight of a man's body falling from the sky."

Roerden then contrasts this with the actual opening of Charlaine Harris's Dead Over Heels:

"My bodyguard was mowing the yard wearing her pink bikini when the dead man fell from the sky."

If writers will read Roerden's book and absorb the lessons, the world will be a better place for readers. She addresses irritations such as the "data dump," contrasting it with carefully chosen and telling detail, tired old conventions like the detective staring into a mirror, the unknowing and tiresome use of clichés, jumpy point-of-view, screwy time-lines, and missing transitions. She provides solid advice on integrating setting into story and listening as a way of learning to write dialogue. She reminds the writer not to have characters named Jackie, Ritchie, Teddy, Megan, Marilyn and Margaret in the same story. To bring attention and originality to gesture so that a book isn't full of women perpetually tossing their heads. Each point is made with detailed explanations and supported by examples. Chapters end with succinct summaries of major points.

Some readers may find the structure used to organize the book, a peculiar mixture of medical and investigative technique, off-putting. There's also a tendency toward puns, as the author defines a leading cause of a manuscript's slow death as "adverbosity and adjectivitis." Skip those parts if they bother you, they don't affect the substance of her book.

DON'T MURDER YOUR MYSTERY is smarter, more comprehensive, more effectively targeted, and more accessible than most books on writing. While it is designed for the beginning mystery writer, it should not be overlooked by mainstream writers or authors with experience. Roerden's clues, especially those later in the book on cliché and gesture, on learning to show, not tell, and on style, language, and resonance, offer a thoughtful tune-up for writers at all levels. (May)

—Kate Flora


Midwest Book Review
An enthusiastically recommended, energetic, easy-to-follow guide.
5 Stars

DON'T MURDER YOUR MYSTERY: 24 Fiction-Writing Techniques To Save Your Manuscript From Turning Up D.O.A. by Chris Roerden (40 years experience as an editor in niche publishing) is a no-nonsense guide to improving one's professional writing skills, making one's manuscript more publishable and not subject to common rejection flaws, and learn from the experience of over 140 published writers. While DON'T MURDER YOUR MYSTERY is written especially for mystery, suspense, and crime fiction writers, the tips, tricks and techniques from bewaring cliches or avoiding clumsy and confusing body language descriptions to making one's dialogue snappy, sharpening self-editing skills and much more will prove invaluable to fiction writers of all genres. An enthusiastically recommended, energetic, easy-to-follow guide.

  Southern Review of Books
Noteworthy small press books: Don’t Murder Your Mystery

If you’d like to try your hand at writing a mystery, here’s a tip. Get a copy of DON'T MURDER YOUR MYSTERY: 24 Fiction-Writing Techniques To Save Your Manuscript from Turning Up D.O.A, by Chris Roerden (May 2006: Bella Rosa Books).

Roerden ought to know her subject. She’s a manuscript editor, and she’s seen most of the mistakes fledgling writers make.

The first readers at a publishing house who review your manuscript are given the job of screening out rejects. “They stop at the earliest clues to rejectable writing,” she cautions. Out of every 100 manuscripts submitted, 99 are rejected, or as she puts it, “dead on arrival.”

To help writers find and fix the flaws first readers use to toss works in the reject file, Roerden draws on her 40 years of editing and teaching. She notes, for example, that inept writers typically open with a prologue that cripples Chapter One with “chronic low-tension, post-prologue, backstory ache.” Scenes are weakened by buried agendas (“tension deficit disorders”), and reader attention discouraged by “adverbosity and adjectivitis,” extra words that novice writers think makes them appear creative.

Roerden, who has taught at the University of Southern Maine and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, speaks regularly at writer conferences.


SouthLit Reviews

Don’t Murder Your Mystery
Nonfiction by Chris Roerden
Bella Rosa Books, 2006
Paperback, $17.95 (304 pages)
ISBN: 1-933523-13-1

Let’s bottom-line this puppy! When it comes to your manuscript for the perfect mystery and the excruciatingly-painful wait for it to come back from wherever you submitted it—don’t you want to know that you have done everything humanly possible to make it appealing—no …compelling to an editor or a literary agent?

Of course you do!

Chris Roerden wants you to know that also. That’s why she wrote Don’t Murder Your Mystery, a comprehensive (and almost exhaustive) study in what to do and what not to do in the mystery writing genre.

Let me tell you…I’ve written a mystery or two, so I get touchy about being corrected on my faults. And, darn it, Chris; you didn’t cut me any slack either! You touched on my backstory (your ‘Bloody Backstory’ section) and my flashback foibles in your ‘Fatal Flashbacks’ telling, then went straight for the ‘Perilous Prologues’ that I tend to favor.

I started to feel weak in the knees, like I was going to pass out or something. I mean, I was beginning to think Chris wasn’t going to leave me anything to cling to…and I was out on a ledge, man! You know, it’s tough when you realize that all those little ‘tricks’ and ‘gifts’ you thought you possessed are Old School and not worthy to put in front of a reader.

But luckily Chris doesn’t leave you to twist slowly in the wind. No, she brings you around to face your bad writing habits and helps you to craft a fine mystery. Written up in chapters that are light-heartedly named ‘Loose Ends’ or ‘Rogues Gallery,’ she combines her tips on writing into a Writing Mysteries For Dummies type of work; yet, she doesn’t depreciate your level of present talent. Instead, her aim is apparent; she works to enhance what you have.

As well, I like her funny notes and experiential witticisms, as well as the many, many citations of mystery writers works. It’s always good to footnote and quote.

Chris Roerden backs up her thoughts with many such notations. I appreciated that. And I think you will appreciate DON'T MURDER YOUR MYSTERY.

R.L. Hall, SouthLit Reviews,


... As I read each chapter, I discovered new reasons why agents reject my manuscript after a partial read. With the exception of the chapter on Prologues and the one on shifting point of view, there wasn't a mistake that I hadn't made. The good news, of course, is that all of these mistakes can be corrected, and thanks to Chris Roerden, now I know how to do it.

Whether you have written a mystery, a romance, some other genre, or a literary novel, Chris Roerden's book can help you improve a lackluster manuscript into something that will catch the eye of agents and editors.

Sam Falco, Florida Writer's Association, reviewing DON'T MURDER YOUR MYSTERY and DON'T SABOTAGE YOUR SUBMISSION

  Don't Murder Your Mystery
Chris Roerden
(Bella Rosa Books, $17.95, 304pp)

Imagine this scenario: a writer has toiled away on his manuscript for a year and is ready to send it to an editor he met at a conference. This editor had requested the manuscript, so the writer, not realizing such invitations are par for the course at events the editor is hired to attend, is confident the manuscript will get fair treatment. As insurance, though, he "accidentally" turns page 33 upside down. The manuscript comes back with the literary equivalent of a "Dear John" letter. Once the writer's tears dry, he thumbs through the manuscript and sees page 33 is just as he had planted it.
      "That lousy, lying editor," screams the writer. "She didn't read it at all!"
      Sorry, Mr. Writer. The chances are extremely good that, though the editor didn't read it all, she read enough. The sad reality is that no one has time for or interest in reading a bad, mediocre, or even decent manuscript. It has to be brilliant, from the front page to the last. Fatal weaknesses usually show up in the first five pages, which are all most editors need to read to know the book won't work. In fact, most such failures are painfully apparent in the first few paragraphs.
      Don't despair, Mr. Writer, because all is not lost. DON'T MURDER YOUR MYSTERYwill clue you in on avoiding those major problems that plague the fledgling writer. The subtitle, "24 Fiction-Writing Techniques To Save Your Manuscript From Turning Up DOA," should appeal to those who like their instruction in a structured, step-by-step fashion. The author, Chris Roerden, is a long-time freelance editor who gives examples not only of successful use of techniques, but weighted-down, dead prose that numbs even the most optimistic reader. She starts the book with a brief rundown of why most manuscripts are doomed before they even hit the mail, painting a stark picture of a publishing world where editors are deluged with manuscripts and writers don't bother to hone their craft before demanding fame and fortune.
      From "Hobbled Hooks" to "Killing Time," Roerden then patiently explains the literary pitfalls that stop a novel dead in its tracks. The book is far more than a beginner's guide, though, because it arcs through dialogue, voice, style, plot and word choice, with indices of other resources. Roerden's "Tip Sheets" neatly summarize the meat of each chapter, serving as a series of brief refresher courses. While the book on its face is geared toward mystery writers, the techniques easily apply to any form of good fiction. Even if you've had a few, or even many, novels published, you're sure to learn something from this book.
      As an occasional freelance editor myself, I have been recommending this book to anyone who asks me for advice. And I can vouch for the reality that weak writing is obvious right off the bat. Even after writing nine novels myself, I keep this book by my computer with my thesaurus and dictionary as an indispensable tool. I can truthfully say I've learned more from it than any of the numerous other instructional manuals I've read.
    DON'T MURDER YOUR MYSTERY won't guarantee success, but it might get your manuscript read all the way up to page 33, and maybe even to the end.

(Scott Nicholson is the author of The Farm, The Home, The Manor, The Harvest, and The Red Church, with They Hunger out in April 2007. He is also vice-president of the Horror Writers Association.)

  Dear Ms. Roerden,
I finished your book over the weekend, and I sincerely needed to seek you out and thank you from the bottom of my heart. I believe your advice on avoiding rejection may comprise the best technique book I've ever read. The oddest part of this whole thing is that I don't even like mysteries. But after giving some thought to it, I think your book can apply to any genre. I posted a review of your book at my site (, adding a few tips for writers on how to translate your instruction to their own writing regardless of genre.
      I've been publishing for nine years now as a work-for-hire contract author with Macmillan, Pearson, Penguin Putnam, and Random House, writing about licensed material. I'm 65,000 words into a young adult novel (I think it may reach 90,000 words). After reading the first half of your book, I rewrote my first chapter and removed a flash-forward style Prologue (because although you didn't say it outright, I think you made some great points about avoiding crazy time and confusing organization). I'm going to hold off on further revisions until I finish the first draft, but your book has already shown me the way.
      I just wanted to—I don't know—THANK YOU, and let you know that when I publish my own work ("when," not "if"), you're one of very few people I have to thank!
      Sincerely, Dan Birlew

Author: Chris Roerden
6"x 9" Trade Paperback
304pp; Retail: $17.95US

ISBN 1-933523-13-1

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