First Page Critique of MOONSTONE

Jordan Dane

Cry baby Truss ZF-9327-85193-1-001


Another courageous author has submitted the first 400 words of a work-in-progress anonymously for critique. Read and enjoy. See you on the flip side with my comments, then join me with yours.


Waterford, MN
June 4, 1994

By the light of the moon you can catch fireflies, or sit by a campfire watching the embers drift upward toward the stars. By the light of the moon you can stroll down a dirt road, or just sit on a back porch with a tall glass of iced tea. By the light of the moon you can propose marriage, or just leave your lover.

And by the light of the moon, if you have a shovel, you can try to bury your past.

That’s exactly what Jack Cicero had in mind, on this night in early June. The sun had already dipped below the horizon, and the full moon was threatening to make an early appearance. As he ducked under the oak trees, darkness shrouded him, causing him to have to use his flashlight which lit up the area like a beacon. All of his senses went into high alert. He pushed his thick eye glasses tighter on his nose. He strained his ears to listen for the sounds of approaching cars. The night was silent except for sounds of the Snake River choking itself on the rocks in its path; and the pounding of his own blood in his head.

He pushed on not willing to test his luck. He spied a large rock under the trees, and set the flashlight down in such a way as to shield its light from the road. If he heard anything, he could grab it in an instant and kill it.

He picked up his shovel, and cursed and groaned as he stabbed the soft earth at the base of the rock. He had to hurry, because this moon was a reluctant, silent witness rising higher in the sky, threatening to expose him. Although she tried, the full moon failed to penetrate the thick oaks overhead. But that didn’t make Jack feel any better. Despite the cool night air, he was breaking a sweat. He swore and picked up the pace. He was in a race to put everything behind him, closing one chapter so that he could open another.

With a groan, he hefted one final shovelful. Then he patted the dirt down and scraped some of last fall’s dead leaves over his handiwork. For a moment he thought that he might actually vomit. He dropped to his knees, leaning against the large rock and bent his head. A single tear rolled down his cheek, soaking into the sandy soil below. A final act of contrition. He wiped his face with his sleeve, pushed off of the rock and stood up. It was done. But Jack knew that no matter how much he could try to hide the past, it could come back to haunt him. He’d always be looking over his shoulder for someone to figure out his secret and expose him. Considering he knew just about everyone in Waterford, the list of possibilities was longer than the river itself.


OVERVIEW: At first reading, I liked this introduction because it stuck to the action (for the most part) and did not slow the pace with back story or explanation. That takes discipline for an author to do this. The narrative is simple and pulls the reader into the story with its mystery. Well done. But as I got into this on a 2nd and 3rd read, I found things I would edit if this were mine. This author shows promise and if the following items are addressed, I would keep reading.

THE START: I understand what the author intended with the first paragraph – to set the stage with a light and breezy beginning of harmless imagery before the reader is shocked once they realize the story will take a dark turn. Who’s POV is this? No one’s. It’s omniscient before the POV becomes that of Jack. This tactic–and the use of YOU–pulled me out. If the story is set up properly, where we see Jack in the dark with a shovel, he could be doing ANYTHING until we learn what’s happening and the mystery begins. The shock factor would be presented in another way, without the need for the faux lead-in.

THE ACTION: What is Jack doing? He’s got a shovel and a flashlight, but it doesn’t appear as if he’s burying a body because he’s not carrying anything else. Is he digging something up? He starts by digging into the ground with his shovel but ends by patting down a mound of dirt and pushing leaves over the pile to hide what he did. The transition from start to finish didn’t describe enough for me to understand what he’s actually doing. With the vagueness, the reader might make an assumption that would prove false later on, and the author takes a chance of alienating the reader if this is not made clearer. I also wondered why Jack would pick a spot by a road where he can be seen with his flashlight. If he’s got a choice and wants to be secretive, why risk a location where he can potentially be seen? I know the risk of getting caught adds to the tension, but maybe there would be a way for the author to explain why Jack picked the spot (even if it meant risk of discovery) and still leave an element of mystery.

WORD CHOICES: In 3rd paragraph, “The night was silent, except for the sounds of….” If there are sounds, the night can’t be silent. The night might be “still” or “quiet,” but not silent if noise is heard.

In 5th paragraph, calling the moon “she” pulled me out and made me wonder if another character had stepped into the scene.

In 5th paragraph, the moon can’t be a “reluctant” witness to anything, but in one line the moon is shining on him, threatening to expose him, then in the next sentence, that description is contradicted by this – “the moon failed to penetrate the thick oaks overhead.” (Oaks are usually ‘overhead’ too. Directional words like up, down, overhead should be scrutinized during the edit process. They can usually be deleted.)

I’m not a fan of the word THAT. It’s often unnecessary and can be eliminated.

DESCRIPTIONS: This might be nit picky, but this phrase pulled me out of the narrative and made me wonder if there would be a better way of describing what is happening. This comes across as TELLING to me and could be more effective.

As he ducked under the oak trees, darkness shrouded him, causing him to have to use his flashlight which lit up the area like a beacon. 

“The area” is actually the ground but what’s on the ground? How does the light play across it? it might be a more effective line if the author could get the reader to actually see the effect of the light, rather than merely saying it “lit the area.” Do the shadows of spindly grasses elongate and move as the light passes over it? The effect could add a creep factor. What sound do they make in the wind…for a guy who is already nervous?

PASSIVE VOICE: One of my favorite TKZ posts of all time came from Joe Moore in Jan 2012 – Writing is Rewriting. A great overview of the draft and edit process. Below are some examples of passive writing. My first pass at editing is to delete and tighten my sentences into succinct and clearer writing. Many readers might not pick up on the passive voice, but authors should strive to hone their craft and challenge themselves with each new project.

3rd paragraph: “was threatening” should be ‘threatened.’

5th paragraph: “was breaking” should be ‘broke.’

Last paragraph: “could try” should be ‘tried.’

PARAGRAPH LENGTH: I prefer to give the reader some white space so the paragraphs don’t appear laden and heavy as they look ahead. A heavy paragraph could encourage a reader to skim. As Elmore Leonard (RIP) once said – “Try to leave out the part readers tend to skip.” I often break up longer paragraphs into 3-4 sentences and change the length of those sentences to create a natural cadence if the words were spoken aloud.


What about you TKZers? What constructive criticism would you give this author?


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Rafael Matero stands in the crosshairs of a vicious Cuban drug cartel—powerless to stop his fate—and his secret could put his sister Athena and her Omega Team in the middle of a drug war.

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The Other Side of the Desk

When the folks at The Kill Zone asked me to join their blog, I hesitated.

Not because this isn’t a wonderful blog. In fact, I think it’s one of the best going and I’ve long been a fan.

But after several years of not blogging, and several years before that writing posts for my own blog and for Murderati, I wondered if a) I was up to the task; and/or b) I had anything worthwhile to contribute.

I guess that’ll be up to you to judge.

For most of my life I’ve wanted to be a professional writer and have succeeded in that goal in a number of ways. I’ve been published in magazines, I’ve sold screenplays, I’ve written for animated TV shows (with the distinction of writing several episodes of what is probably the least popular of all the Spider-Man incarnations), I’ve published books with St. Martin’s Press, Penguin, Amazon, written under pen names for other publishers, including Harlequin, have had books published in several countries, and I’ve even won and been nominated for a couple of awards.

Yes, I’m very tired. And old.

In 2012, after finishing a big project for one of the Big Six, I decided to say goodbye to the “traditional” publishing world and go indie. And I’m convinced that this decision (along with my buddy Brett Battles’s decision to leave Random House) was one of the underlying factors that led to Random Penguin, or whatever they call themselves. They obviously had to join forces in order to compensate for the loss of their two best authors…

No, really.

But I don’t regret the decision to go indie. I’m very happy I took that leap and so is my accountant. So it will probably come as no surprise to you that I’m a strong advocate for the DIY approach.

In 2015, however, I went a little crazy and took DIY to new heights and decided to start my own independent publishing company, which has been an interesting and educational experience so far. In the process, I wound up on the other side of the desk, taking in work from other writers and finding myself in the unenviable position of editor.

I say unenviable because editing a book is hard friggin’ work. Harder in some ways than writing the book yourself.

file1461250298916-underwearI have no idea what kind of writer you are, but I can certainly tell you what kind of writer I am. When I turn in my “first” draft to a publisher, I make sure that draft is as clean as a brand new pair of underwear.

Why underwear?

Because my mother used to tell me not to leave the house with holes in my skivvies in case I got into an accident and embarrassed myself at the E.R. Why that would be of any concern to me is a question I never thought to ask her, but you get the point (at least I hope you do).

And if you don’t, the point is this:

Back when I was publishing traditionally, I made sure my drafts were so clean that if I were to drop dead the next day, I wouldn’t be embarrassed by a story full of clunky prose and plot holes and half-baked dialogue.

I’ve always known, in theory, that not all writers are as crazy as I am. And after working with several now, I’ve learned first hand that some will turn in a draft that barely needs to be touched, while others look at the editorial process as a form of collaboration. A way to hone character, plot, story and structure with the guidance of their editor.

Neither way is right or wrong, but working with manuscripts in varying states of completion has taught me a lot about how others work, and has certainly cemented my long-held belief that there is no “single” way of writing a book. That every author must approach the task in a way that makes them feel most comfortable and gets the job done.

file000118281268-crayonsWhat I’ve also discovered is that, because I’m a writer myself, I’m very much a “hands on” kind of editor.

Part of this comes from the nature of the projects I’ve been working on. The premise, characters and series elements are created by me—in house, as they say—then passed on to other writers to do the grunt work. We work very much like a head writer and staff of a television show, and as head writer, I don’t hesitate to take a final pass on the book in order to make it conform to the “rules” of the series and the books that have come before it.

There’s every possibility that the “staff writers” have been grumbling amongst themselves about my sometimes heavy-handed approach, but most of those I’ve worked with have said they very much enjoyed the process and found the task of writing someone else’s characters both challenging and rewarding.

It’s been challenging and rewarding for me, as well.

So what’s the point of all this blather?

Well, it’s merely to lead up to this:

What kind of writer are you? When you turn a draft into your editor (whether indie or traditional) do you take the clean underwear approach, or do you consider the writer-editor relationship more of an exploratory collaboration?

Oh, and how do you feel about heavy-handed editors? I’m not talking copy editors, mind you (many of whom should be drummed out of the business), but content editors or story editors or whatever you want to call them.

And, finally, do you think editors are actually necessary? Because I may surprise you when I say that I don’t believe they always are. But that’s a post for another day.

Thank you to the folks at The Kill Zone for inviting me into the family. Let’s see how long it takes before they want to kick me out… 😉

Quality Checks and Balances

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

As always, the hot button topic of indie/self-publishing versus traditional publishing has generated lots of comments in recent days here at TKZ and one issue that comes up time and time again is the ‘gatekeeper’ concept – basically agents and editors acting as a ‘quality sieve’ for what comes into the publishing pipeline. While I agree this is an imperfect system – there’s no doubt that agents and editors can get it horribly wrong – there does need to be some system of quality control. Doesn’t there?

Nowadays on the indie front,  this typically comes from readers who are just as well-equipped to judge what makes a good book as anyone else. But from the standpoint of a writer who relies on her agent to raise the bar for her work –  I do wonder how these quality checks and balances will get made in the new era of indie publishing. As a reader, I don’t want to troll through a plethora of e-books that were dashed off prematurely in my search for books to read. Though social media and reviews certainly help, the sheer number of releases makes my head spin and  I still fall back on buying e-books from traditional publishers as I know the system of quality control (though imperfect) is at least in place.

As a writer I have a group of beta readers who help me enormously – but though their feedback is invaluable, none of them ever quite bring the perspective my agent does. For all the tough love I get from them, my agent manages to point out ways in which I can improve the manuscript that they never even considered. So my worry is that if I went the indie route the books I put out there would be good but not as good as they could have been….Because my agent’s 25 years of editorial experience in publishing adds a level of input that, quite frankly, none of my other beta readers can match (and they are an amazing group of people whose input I value enormously).

Many members of my writing group have used freelance editors to help polish their manuscripts but with mixed results. Many of these editors aren’t looking to dissuade a writer from publishing a manuscript and so, given that they get paid to edit, aren’t necessarily going to be as upfront about a manuscript’s shortcomings – not if it means putting themselves out of business.  I’m sure they are all professionals and do their best but do they act as an objective assessor of ‘quality’ – I’m not sure they can. 

Now many of you will argue that this assessment is best left to readers (who will vote with their pocket books as well as airing their online opinions) but it exhausts me to think of all the half-baked e-books that might end up out there, just as it worries me that aspiring writers are becoming ever more impatient to release material before it has been crafted into the best possible shape.

So who do you turn to for editorial guidance? Do you rely on freelance editors to give you much needed input? Are you convinced your own circle of reviewers give you the tough love you need? 

Despite being published, I admit I still lack the confidence and experience to know when a manuscript is really, truly, finally ready. Most of my ‘final’ manuscripts end up being revised and reshaped based on input from my agent before they get shown to publishers, and as a result they become significantly better than the ‘best’ I originally could do (okay, so this might say more about my lack of talent…). In a world where we acknowledge the traditional system has many shortcomings, how do we view the concept of ‘quality control’? If that is still even relevant, how do we achieve it?

Shrugging and Pursing

by Michelle Gagnon

Kathleen’s hilarious post on Tuesday about bad metaphors reminded me of something.

I always hit a point about halfway through each novel where my characters start doing an inordinate amount of shrugging. Seriously, if I don’t catch it in time, they’re all running around jiggling their shoulders up and down a few times a page. For whatever reason, toward the end of Act 2, I draw a blank on anything other than my go-to physical mannerisms.

So a significant chunk of the editing process for me involves sitting there and trying to come up with things people do with their mouths aside from pursing their lips. Or frequently gesturing behind themselves. Or indiscriminately pointing at things like the cast of a Broadway musical (that one was for you, Kathleen).

So today’s challenge is to share your ringers, the default ways in which you describe your characters and how they behave: physical mannerisms, looks, etc.

Aside from the ones I’ve already mentioned, here’s my list:

  • She chewed her lip pensively
  • He grimaced.
  • She rolled her eyes (An overly literal reviewer once claimed that there was no such thing as “eye rolling,” unless you physically pulled out your eyes and rolled them across a table. I rolled my eyes at that).
  • He lunged for the door (lots o’ lunging in my rough drafts. My characters lunge for everything, from beer to bombs).
  • He gulped hard.
  • She polished her glasses on the hem of her shirt. (None of my characters carry tissues or handkerchiefs, and yet many of them wear glasses that require constant polishing. Odd).
  • He grinned. (Must find more synonyms for smiling. At the moment, my WIP is filled with Chesire Cats).

Mind you, many of these are fine if used sparingly. It only becomes a problem when the manuscript is riddled with the same types of description.

So let’s hear yours…and please feel free to add humor…


by Michelle Gagnon

There was a lively debate about typos last week in one of the crime fiction forums. This is always a particularly painful subject for me. You see, I’m a bit of a perfectionist, especially when it comes to my books. I’ve gone through each and every one of them with a fine-tooth comb at least twenty times before they leave my hands and head off to the printer. My sister, a talented editor and copy-editor, has also read through each manuscript three or four times by that point. And of course, my editor and copyediting team at the publishing house have played their part in making sure that the final product is as close to perfect as we can get it.

And yet, somehow, someway, they always get in there.

I first discovered this with my debut THE TUNNELS. My book club offered to read the book, which was a real thrill until they sat down and said almost in unison, “Oh my God, that typo!”

Turns out that a particularly glaring one appears early in the book. I was completely mortified. I raced home after the meeting and dug up my final line-edited copy of the manuscript: no typo. How it got there remains a puzzle to this day.

Which is why I adamantly refuse to crack the cover on my books once they appear in printed form. Because one of those little buggers probably snuck in there. And some sharp-eyed reader is going to make a note of it, and think less of me because of it. Which makes me crazy.

My favorite part of the discussion last week, however, involved other peoples’ “worst typo” ever stories. So I took it upon myself to consolidate the really, truly awful, culled both from that site and other sources:

  • Based on a completely unscientific analysis (conducted by me), one of the more common typos involves neglecting to include the “l” in the word “public.” Several people listed this as an issue, including a woman who produced a newsletter sent to 20,000 pub(l)ic employees, supervisors, and the district office. I would argue that there’s a definite Freudian component to this one.
  • Along the same lines…one contributor used to live on St. Denis Street. Unfortunately their Catholic newsletter incorrectly recorded the “D” in “Denis” as a “P.” And yet somehow, the mail continued to arrive at their house. Apparently they had a better mail delivery person than I have ever been blessed with. Or at least one with a decent sense of humor.
  • Penguin Group Australia once had to reprint 7000 cookbooks due to a typo. The recipe in The Pasta Bible called for “salt and freshly ground black people.” The lesson here: spell check and autofill are not always your friend.
  • One author received a note from a reviewer who, “loved the book, but was concerned by the fact that at one point your heroine looks out across a sea of feces.”
  • And finally, one from the history books: A bible published in the 1600s in London omitted the word “not” in the Seventh Commandment, leading to the mandate, “Thou Shalt Commit Adultery.” Perhaps this is the version many prominent politicians were raised on.

So I’d love to hear any great (as in, truly terrible/mortifying/hilarious) typo stories.

What do you expect from your editor?

By Clare Langley-Hawthorne

After Jim’s post yesterday about rejection letters, I started to think about expectations and how, for many authors, that is the hardest thing to manage. Your expectations when you send out that first query letter (a thousand calls to represent you!), your expectations about the acquisition process (everyone will fall in love with the book instantly!) and then, of course, the expectations once you are published (immediate bestsellerdom and movie deals by the fistful!). When I started out I had no real idea what to expect from any element in the publishing process. I certainly had no idea what to expect from my editor. Thankfully, I was pleasantly surprised and I remain very grateful to have had three great editors – yes, three…so that was one part of the process I hadn’t anticipated- that two of my editors would fall pregnant, have babies, and then leave the publishing house! All this before my second book had even hit the shelves!

So what should we expect from an editor? At the very least I think you should receive professional support and editorial guidance but in an ideal world, I believe an editor should be:

  1. Your greatest champion within the publishing house. This is easiest when your editor is the one who acquired your book, but even when an editor takes over a project, I think authors should feel like their editor is the one singing their praises and going in to bat for them.
  2. Your greatest and most constructive critic. A great editor can help transform your work into something better than you thought possible. Editing itself though is only part of the process, I also think a great editor should be able to communicate her thoughts as constructively as possible so an author truly feels as though she has a partner in the process.
  3. Your Organizer/Juggler Extraordinaire (or the one who makes sure all the work that needs to be done gets done on time!). An editor is like the foreman on a construction site, supervising all the work that needs to get done within the publishing house: from blurbs to jacket/cover and layout. I also think an editor who can effectively juggle all the other department needs (publicity/salesforce etc.) to make sure the author’s interests are served is worth her weight in gold.
So how do these three ‘ideals’ measure up to your expectations when it comes to an editor? What do you want to see and have you received the level of support you wanted in the past or not? I suspect many authors’ expectations differ from what their publishers/editors expect – so, for all you editors and writers out there, how do you deal with mismanaged expectations? What should a writer realistically expect from an editor and what can an author do to make sure the partnership between editor and writer runs as smoothly as possible?

Confessions of an Editor

We’re thrilled to welcome editor Kristen Weber as our guest-blogger today. Kristen has worked as an in-house editor for her entire book publishing career (except for a brief stint as a subsidiary rights assistant) before relocating to Los Angeles for her husband’s job. She’s currently freelance editing in between relearning to drive and hanging out with her pug. You can learn more about her services here:
Tackling my first freelance editorial project, I learned something quickly. You can get a lot more done as a book editor when you’re not actually working as one.
I hardly ever edited or even read a submission at my desk when I was working in-house. I was attending meetings, answering emails (you could lose a whole day right there), checking cover copy, catalog copy, and cover proofs, reviewing contracts, chatting with authors and agents, and just basically making sure every aspect of every book I worked on was perfect and making sure my authors were happy and agents remembered me for every good submission that they had.
I had lunch with a film person here in Los Angeles, and he said, “I picture you editors sitting in dark rooms with only one light on buried under papers and having no human contact.”
That just isn’t the case. The majority of my actual editing and reading (and I know this was true for almost all of my colleagues as well) happened at home in my “free” time. Otherwise we all had to be very personable and present in the office as we worked on many different projects at once.
But my favorite part of the job was always the editor / writer interactions. I’ve heard a lot of people say editors just don’t edit anymore, but I never found that to be the case. My authors will all attest to my carefully worded 6-10 page single spaced editorial letters and my colleagues were always working on letters like those as well.
As an editor, I feel like my job is to help authors push their own words and ideas out even further. They already have the spark of something great…editors are just trying to help them make it explode. And I’m rediscovering my joy for this now, in the quiet of my home or by the pool.
I think the most important thing you can do as a writer is collaborate with your editor. Even if you don’t agree with their suggestions, take time to think about them. Walk around the block. Because you just might be too close to see that there’s a problem…and even if you don’t like whatever solution your editor is suggesting.
I’m also a big fan of writing groups. But I often see projects that have been workshopped essentially to death. The writer received too many different opinions and tried to incorporate all of them into their manuscript, losing their own voice and vision in the process. My feeling on that is writing groups are great for friendship and support. They also can give you great help with revisions – but you need to make sure any changes you make based on their suggestions are true heart. You’re the writer. You don’t have to change anything you don’t want to…although you should probably revisit that if you’re getting multiple agent or editor rejections and they all focus on the same plot point that your writer’s group couldn’t get behind either.
So far I am having a great time freelance editing. I love seeing how a writer runs with my comments on their book. And I can’t wait to see what shape these projects I am working on end up taking as many don’t even have agent representation yet. I am coming in way earlier on the process than I ever did before. And I guess I kind of am now editing alone (although it isn’t dark – coming from a tiny New York City apartment, there is more light than I know what to do with) surrounded by papers…but I certainly don’t miss all of the meetings!

Out Damn Block!

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

We at TKZ had a mini writing school yesterday for our Sunday post and one of the questions posed was about how to deal with writer’s block. At the moment I’m on the final, final, final edits (that’s when even I am totally sick of the manuscript!) and what I am struggling with is what I call ‘final editor’s block’.

I’m not talking about the big stuff like plot or character – I’m talking about those small, yet irritating things that you start to notice when your on the homeward stretch. For me the things I particularly notice are:

  • Overuse of the em-dash: I used to overuse the ellipse…but now, I’ve gone and got married to the em-dash and – just to interject here – I’m seeing those damn dashes everywhere!
  • Repeated words: It drives me nuts that even after all these iterations I still find myself repeating the same words and images. In my current WIP my writing tics include too many ‘sharp’ or ‘brittle’ replies and dry mouths. I mean there’s only so many times people can swallow, lick their lips or have their mouths feel like glass-paper (the precursor to sand paper in case you were wondering).
  • Boring dialogue tags: I try (I really do!) not to use so many adjectives but ‘said’ and ‘asked’ get really boring and when in edit mode trying I try to balance the boring with the slightly more interesting repertoire of ‘replied’, ‘responded’ or ‘queried’ tags without becoming ridiculous (like having people ‘exploding’ or ‘exclaiming’ all over the place!)
  • Flat writing: When there are still tiny pockets of sagging, flabby writing…shit, why are they still there?!

The problem I find is that when in final edit mode I often experience ‘editor’s block’ – when I’ve lost the ability to know what should be changed and what should not, when I’m afraid I’ll start buggering up the good bits and when I’m down to the last persnickety edits and I can’t think of how to improve the manuscript without someone else’s ‘mouth going dry’.

It drives me a wee bit crazy but as much as I read Dickens (far more inspiring than the thesaurus); listen to tortured 80’s music; and brainstorm ideas, I still feel, well, ‘blocked’.

For me writer’s block per se hardly ever happens and when it does I have lots of strategies (mostly driven by panic) that help me overcome the fear of the blank page. It’s another skill entirely, however, for me to overcome the inner ‘editor’s block’ I get when gazing at the page crowded with words – words that I have already combed and preened over many iterations…

So any ideas on how I can tackle the dreaded ‘editor’s block’? How do you manage the homeward stretch edits and, let’s face it, do you ever know when you are really, well and truly ‘done’?


Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Sandra Brown, Steve Berry, Robert Liparulo, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, Oline Cogdill, James Scott Bell, and more.

Fiction Techniques for the Technical Stuff

When a mystery I’m editing includes a great deal of specialized or technical information, I help the writer find more effective ways of presenting the material. Too much explanation not only slows a plot’s progression, it stops the story. Agents, acquiring editors, and other readers reject progression derailed by digression.

Yet the technical stuff might be needed for understanding the story, the situation, or the protagonist’s actions. Jargon may be essential for authentic-sounding dialogue.

What’s a writer to do? In my case, what’s an editor to do?

I’m a developmental and line editor, my full-time occupation for 44 years in publishing, starting in NYC. Coping with family transfers, I moonlighted for eight of those years by teaching writing for publication at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

I was also an instructor of writing for the University of Maine-Portland, then for SUNY-Rochester. One memorable summer I spent in the mountains near Seoul teaching conversational skills to South Korean teachers of English-as-a-second-language. They understood our grammar better than most Americans do.


Notice that the preceding information is a digression. In fiction, that kind of content is called backstory. You probably keep reading such action-stoppers, at first, but after a while you’re likely to skim and skip ahead whenever the content seriously veers off topic.

Skimming and skipping are easy when only a paragraph of tangential information intervenes. Besides, most backstory and explanations can and should be cut. (Really.) But essential material that continually interrupts, especially if it’s technical, needs cutting and restructuring.


Catalyst: A substance that starts a chemical reaction but which is not itself chemically changed.

The above exemplifies a method I suggest of opening each chapter with a paragraph containing the least amount of technical data required by that chapter. Format the information as if copied from another source, using italics or a font different from your main text.

You can also set off the paragraph by indenting from both side margins. Instead of double-spacing, use one-and-a-half lines. Similar formatting and placement make it easy for readers to glance at the technical stuff, yet find it again if they later choose to see what it says.


In Southern Discomfort, Margaret Maron starts each chapter with an epigraph from an actual U.S. Navy manual on construction. Be sure the source you quote is in the public domain. (Government publications are.) Or concoct the “quotation” yourself in the style of a legitimate-sounding source.

The above definition of a catalyst is one of many chapter openings in 13 Days: The Pythagoras Conspiracy. This debut thriller by L. A. Starks follows the woman who must discover and stop a foreign plot to sabotage Texas oil refineries. The resulting gas shortages are shockingly real and unexpectedly deadly.

Definitions placed at the opening of many of Stark’s chapters allow the thriller’s pace to move like fire through an oil spill.


A similar device is used by Deb Baker in her delightfully humorous, nontechnical Dolls to Die For mystery series. Each is supposedly excerpted from a book on doll restoring and collecting “authored” by a character in the series, the missing mother of the protagonist. Here’s an example:

When attending a doll show, a repair artist must be prepared for any doll emergency. Aside from standard stringing tools such as elastic cording, rubber bands, and S hooks … (and so on).

Each of Baker’s epigraphs is followed by this authentic-appearing credit line:
—From World of Dolls by Caroline Birch


Death Will Get You Sober is an insightful, engaging mystery by Elizabeth Zelvin, a psychotherapist experienced in treating alcohol addiction. Her first-person protagonist translates the jargon of the AA 12-step program with brief, unobtrusive asides within the narrative itself. The explanation below follows a line of dialogue spoken by a minor character obviously unfamiliar with acceptable AA practice:

“The man’s an asshole,” he told me.

“You mean you don’t like his sobriety,” I said. An AA way to register disapproval without actual name-calling. Step Four was taking your own inventory, not someone else’s.

Another example from Zelvin’s debut novel offers an even briefer, equally straightforward explanation:

“You take care of yourself,” she admonished me. “Don’t you dare go AMA before you’re discharged, and don’t get into any trouble.” She meant leaving against medical advice.

If you have your own examples of explanatory asides in third-person, or other effective techniques, I hope you’ll share them with me.

CHRIS ROERDEN wrote the Agatha Award winning, Anthony and Macavity nominated DON’T MURDER YOUR MYSTERY and its all-genre version, DON’T SABOTAGE YOUR SUBMISSION.