Today is the anniversary of Agatha Christie’s birth (September 15, 1890). Write On! is pleased to interview writer and editor Chris Roerden, whose books include Don’t Sabotage Your Submission and its predecessor, Don’t Murder Your Mystery, which won the Agatha Award for Best Non-Fiction Book. Roerden has worked in publishing for 44 years, has written a game and 11 books (all but 4 as a ghost), and, while raising a family, taught writing at universities from Maine to Milwaukee. For more information, go to her website: www.writersinfo.info, or check out: www.snurl.com/editorsblog.
How did Don’t Sabotage Your Submission come about?
Whenever I presented workshops on writing and getting published, some writers would approach the book table at the back of the room, look at the cover of Don’t Murder Your Mystery, and say, “But I don’t write mystery.” Despite the bookseller’s assurance that the content applied to the writing and publication of all fiction, and despite the information I’d shared in the workshop itself, the word “mystery” on the cover seemed to get in the way for some writers in other genres.
So my publisher suggested that I write a more generic version of Don’t Murder Your Mystery—which, by then, had won the Agatha Award and finaled for 3 other awards. For the next year I did the research, reading other genres looking for extracts to use as positive examples in the new edition.
In addition I put out a call for submissions, and from all these sources I was able to add 130 new extracts from 12 genres, for a total of 230 examples from 212 authors. I also held a contest for the new title, and now the booksellers are able to offer a choice between similar but different editions of my recommendations.
What was your process for writing Don’t Sabotage Your Submission and Don’t Murder Your Mystery?
Whereas Don’t Sabotage Your Submission (my 11th book) grew out of its predecessor, few people know that Don’t Murder Your Mystery grew from the materials I created for the workshops I’ve been giving for many years. Now, I’m continually looking for and adding new examples to my workshops to keep from using those in my books!
Years ago I started a collection of the most effective techniques I came across in my reading that every writer deals with, but few handle effectively—such as how to introduce description and how to handle backstory without stopping the forward momentum of the story.
Soon my collection expanded to include examples of effective hooks, dialogue, tags, body language, suspense, raising the stakes, “show, don’t tell,” point of view, transitions, the element of time, flashbacks, dreams, second references, setting, the “hankering for anchoring,” and on and on.
Like other lovers of books, I’ve read thousands of authors for pleasure. And having worked in publishing all my life, I’ve edited hundreds of publishable manuscripts out of a far larger number of unpublishable ones. It doesn’t take long for an editor to see what distinguishes the publishable from the others. So in addition to collecting nearly 1,000 positive examples of such techniques, my mind was bursting with tons of recommendations about writing, editing, and getting published that I wanted to share.
How did you go about getting it published?
Between 2002 and 2004 I made my first drafts available to attendees in some of my workshops and asked them for critical feedback. The response was overwhelmingly enthusiastic. Beginning writers told me they’d never before seen such detailed explanations of specific techniques. And the published authors volunteered testimonials, referrals, and the connections I needed—without my even asking. That support was especially valuable because the connections I’d made over the preceding 40 years of working in publishing had retired or passed on.
What are the main errors (points of sabotage) writers make when submitting?
I hate to say this because everyone already associates the work of an editor with what I call PUGS—punctuation, usage, grammar, and spelling—but mechanical flaws are the first disqualifiers because they can be spotted instantly, saving editorial personnel many hours they’d otherwise have to spend in actually reading every submission.
The next quickest disqualifier also shows up fairly soon: the unimaginative, ineffective way that most writers use one of the techniques I mention above. Well before an editor reads far enough to evaluate a writer’s plot and character development, up to 95 percent of all submissions have already been eliminated.
Why do writers sabotage their success?
I think it’s because writing and getting something published seem within everyone’s reach, unlike soloing at Carnegie Hall. Parents who urge their offspring to take music lessons and practice, practice, practice don’t always apply the value of learning and practicing to their own writing.
Writing for the enjoyment of it is a wonderful endeavor, but know that commercial book publishing is a huge, complex industry that needs to make a profit.
From my observations, average writers underestimate the study of craft, assume that all resources about writing are the same, are careless about following submission guidelines, reject advice until it’s stated over and over, give up too easily, and—occasionally—exhibit a “poor attitude,” such as arrogance or excessive humility.
I can’t begin to count the number of submissions sent to me without a stamped, self-addressed return envelope or printed in a font that defies hands-on editing, accompanied by my own printed list of what and how to submit. That alone is self-sabotage.
How important is diversification for a writer?
Experimenting with other genres stretches one’s creativity. It brings the benefits of stepping outside one’s comfort zone as a writer to embrace the unfamiliar. When the unfamiliar is marketing, for example, it means entering a field in which many writers have no interest or skills.
It means taking risks, such as learning to speak in public—effectively. Anyone can mumble and meander, and many do. So don’t wait until you’re published to network, learn, and practice.
Are there certain elements all mysteries must have?
The elements of a gripping mystery are the same for all fiction: conflict, suspense, characters to care about, goals and the efforts to overcome barriers, convincing motivation and behavior, and an interesting, entertaining story told well.
A romance might not call a misunderstanding between lovers a “red herring,” but the function is the same: to complicate the plot, misdirect the reader, and impede characters’ achieving their objectives. Writers in every genre would benefit from studying the craft and techniques of well-written mysteries.
How important is it for writers to become involved in groups and associations?
There are exceptions to everything, of course, but personally I believe strongly in associating with other writers and volunteering, especially if you’re conscientious about carrying out a responsibility. Others remember you for your non-writing abilities: being reliable, friendly, and helpful—and when they see that you’re doing something for the organization they support they’ll be there to support you.
Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I’m convinced that my participating in Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime, especially the online “Guppies” chapter, facilitated the kind of word of mouth that any new title in a crowded market needs. That led to Don’t Murder Your Mystery’s winning the Agatha and becoming a finalist for the Anthony and the Macavity.
All three of those awards start with fellow mystery writers nominating the candidates. It’s one thing to vote for one of 4 or 5 titles listed on a ballot, and quite another for readers to recall the reading experience you’ve given them when they fill out the blank nomination form that determines what ends up on the ballot.
I’m enormously grateful for the spontaneous support that generated those all-important nominations.
Additional advice for writers?
Never stop learning. Whenever I speak at writers conferences, I fill every available time slot by sitting in on sessions to learn what others are teaching. Much of the time I observe that I’m the only presenter doing so, yet I believe everyone has something to offer that I can learn from.
What do you know now that you wish you knew at the beginning of your career?
That’s easy: How important it is to maintain all the good contacts I used to have in the business. Over the years I became so wrapped up in my work of editing and writing that I let many years go by without taking the time to keep in touch. I regret that. And I know I’m not doing enough of it now, either, with so much more to keep up with these days.
Tags: Agatha Award Author Q&A Chris Roerden Debra Eckerling Don't Murder Your Mystery Don't Sabotage Your Submission Mystery Writers of America Sisters in Crime