Skip to content

Don’t Murder Your Mystery

I’m sure most aspiring writers have read at least some of the “how-to” books out there. We’ve pored over the advice from agents, other authors, writing coaches, ad infinitum. But when I stumble onto something really helpful and insightful, I just have to share it with my fellow authors.

Don’t Murder Your Mystery is the best and most helpful book I’ve ever read on how to get a manuscript past the two-minute look from the overwhelmed manuscript screeners laboring under an ever-increasing load of submissions.

A full time editor for over 40 years, Chris Roerden knows what makes a manuscript screener toss a writer’s work into the “no” pile, or in today’s parlance, send the author a “not for us” email, if they bother to respond at all.

We like to think that our submitted manuscript is read from cover to cover so the agent or publisher can appreciate the brilliance of our writing, our fascinating characters and our ingenious plotting. The truth is the majority of screeners don’t get past the first page before they reject it. Roerden’s aim is to keep that from happening to our work.

The number one reason manuscripts are rejected: it screams amateur. From Don’t Murder Your Mystery: “The 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.”

Roerden begins her book with Part 1, what screener-outers look for and how to avoid the amateur mistakes that ensure a rejection. She goes on to a very astute and helpful discussion of the Hook, that surefire grabber of first-time readers of a mystery. Without a sharp and well-baited hook, the fish—in this case the screener—swims away.

She goes on to decry the hokey techniques that mystery writers should avoid such as unnecessary prologues, an overabundance of backstory, flashbacks and dreams, predictable plotting, and too many characters introduced too quickly.

The latter part of the book addresses writing technique and shows writers how to avoid clichés, “verbosity, adjectivitis, and other fatal infections,” as well as “gesturitis, a glut of pointless, stereotyped movements.” There’s an excellent section on how to create dialogue between characters that is more than data dumps with quotation marks.

One of the best parts of this book is the Find and Fix Clues sections at the end of each chapter where she lists instructions for analyzing and self-editing our own manuscripts to eliminate the very things that cause most manuscripts to end up DOA, dead on arrival at the screeners’ desks.

I wholeheartedly recommend this book to aspiring mystery writers. It’s simply the best out there.


Published inadvice for writerscozy mysteriesmystery writingWriting