Ask the Book Doctor

In your opinion, is it worth it to pay to have your book's copyright registered?

No. You own the rights automatically, simply for having written it. The publisher, when you find one, will register the copyright in your name at the time the book goes to press. If your manuscript has a copyright notice on it, the publisher may think you are an amateur and do not understand the system or that you are paranoid and not trustful.

Do not register your own copyright unless you self publish the book, and if so, wait to do it until after all the final changes are made.

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I want to use multiple viewpoints to get into each of my main characters' heads, so I can show what drives them without belaboring the story with narrative explanations. I will need to make my viewpoint transitions clear, smooth and natural, so they don't create confusion or break the flow of the story.

I am just learning about viewpoint, what it is and how to establish and use it. I would like to know if you have written anything that would be a good resource for me in this area. If so, please let me know what it is, how much it is and how to order it. Also, if there are any other resources you would recommend, please do so.

I have a bit of information on viewpoints (also called point of view or POV) in my desk reference book, Purge Your Prose of Problems, which covers hundreds of other subjects for writers, as well. It sells for $29.95 through my Web site, First I will quote the information from Purge Your Prose. Below it, I have other comments on viewpoints.

Point of View
Point of view (or viewpoint) is the vantage point from which a piece of information is presented. POV refers to the person or thing that observes the action or thinks about it.

Although a story can have several points of view, editors recommend that each scene be from only one viewpoint, usually the main character in the scene. As you write each scene, decide whose point of view is most important to that scene.

Point of view confuses writers, so here are examples of how POV sneaks into manuscripts:

John looked around and saw only two women, Mary and Tina, in a room full of men. (John's POV because of the word saw) Tina, conscious of John's dilemma, walked over. (Tina's POV because of the word conscious) "Hello," she drawled.

Mary, afraid of what Tina might tell John, joined the couple. (Mary's POV, because of afraid)

To avoid POV flaws, rewrite the scene in only one point of view, such as John's:

John looked around and saw only two women, Mary and Tina, in a room full of men. He caught Tina's attention, and to his delight she walked over.

"Hello," she drawled.

Soon after, Mary joined the couple.

What if the scene were in Tina's POV? It might come out like this:

Tina saw John walk into the room and glance around at the women. She strolled over to him. "Hello," she drawled. To Tina's disgust, Mary soon wheedled her way into the conversation, too.

Point of view is a long, involved subject, so I recommend that you find a good book on the subject and read it.

Now for a word of warning: Be cautious about getting into characters' heads. Internal dialogue is still telling, rather than showing, and good novels show, rather than tell. (Internal dialogue might go something like this: Tina smiled at John. Can I get him to ask me out before Mary gets her claws in him?)

To cut down on internal dialogue, give each character a vent person, someone with whom the character discusses personal opinions. In that way, the information comes out in dialogue, rather than internal musings. One character might have a counselor, another may have a spouse, and another may have a best friend. When each vents to his or her counselor, spouse or friend, readers see the information emerge in a scene with action and dialogue.

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May I ask you a dumb question? It has to do with AOL email. When I respond to an e-mail, I use the reply button and write a whole new e-mail in response, but I see that you are able to reply right in the context of the e-mail that was sent to you, with a little blue bar indicating the part of the e-mail you are responding to. How is that done?

First, dumb questions are only the ones you do not ask. Dumb means mute, right?

The trick is an AOL feature. Highlight the part (or whole) of the e-mail to which you're replying, and when you hit "reply," that portion is copied over onto the message you will write, along with the blue bar beside it. This method reduces my time typing and keeps clients clear about my answers, because they can see their questions, as well.

In other services, such as Yahoo, I think the same thing applies, except that you get lesser-than and greater-than marks (<<>>) around the lines you highlight and transfer to your response. Getting to know all the tricks that save you time and add to the clarity of your message is far from dumb.

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How do I find a good ghostwriter?

Ah, the key word is good. You can find wannabe writers everywhere, but a good ghostwriter will be one who has experience and has sold a considerable amount of his or her work. Unfortunately, you cannot find a good ghostwriter for free. Most want to be paid in advance of the sale of your book and may want to participate in the profits, as well. Be sure you have a clear contract that sets out what each of you expects and what you are willing to do. Now, how do you find one? Ask around at writers meetings and look on the Web sites of organizations for writers. For example, Georgia Writers lists several ghostwriters on its Website ( ). If you are willing to pay the big bucks, look at some of the better-known autobiographies on the market today and check the acknowledgments to see who the alleged author thanks. Chances are the ghostwriter will be among those folks, but he or she will not be named as such. Some books are written "as told to," and those people are professional ghostwriters you might contact, as well.

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Do you know anyone who has ever taken courses from Writer's Digest Associate Programs?

I do not know of anyone who has taken courses from Writer's Digest, but most writers agree that almost any course has value. Correspondence courses are great for those who do not want to commit to going to a classroom a certain number of days a month. Correspondence courses also allow you to work at your own pace. The drawback is that you will not feel pressed, either, and many writers work better under deadlines and other restrictions. Only you can decide what is best for you.

Writer's Digest is a reputable company. I would not worry about the courses it offers. It has its reputation to maintain, so it probably provides good course material.

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What is the difference between Chicago style editing/grammar and the regular business style editing/grammar?

The answer is not what you think. Chicago Style does not dictate grammar. Instead it standardizes variables such as when to capitalize and when to lowercase letters. It addresses when to write out words and when to abbreviate them. It dictates when to use a numeral and when to write it out. It even covers when and how to use commas and other punctuation. Style details such as those vary according to whether you are writing a business letter, a magazine or newspaper article, a legal document, or a book.

Book publishers generally prefer Chicago Style, set out clearly in The Chicago Manual of Style published by The University of Chicago Press. The book is more than 900 pages long, though, and you do not need to know everything in that book, which not only covers style but also production, printing, bookmaking, and more.

I will condense a little of the information to show the differences in style, and I will make you a free offer.

In business English we learn to use formations such as this one: The compartment takes twelve (12) batteries. In journalism we learn to spell out numbers under ten and use numerals for anything above nine: The compartment takes 12 batteries. Chicago Style says to spell out numbers up to ninety-nine: The compartment takes twelve batteries.

In school we learned to capitalize the word president when it refers to our American leader, but in Chicago Style it is capitalized only when it appears with the person's name: The crowd watched President Carter walk up the stairs. The president waved to the crowd.

In Chicago Style we put a comma before and in a series, although most of us were taught in school not to do so. Many writers are still confused by that variable, especially because AP Style, used by most newspapers and magazines, calls for no comma before and in a series.

The details are too numerous to list here, so I have an e-report that helps even more.  E-mail me  and ask for free Report #105, Chicago Style Variances. It will give you an idea of some of the major differences between business style and Chicago Style. For a comprehensive list of differences, buy The Chicago Manual of Style.

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Please give me some thoughts as to presenting my first novel to an agent. I self-published it already, and I have heard agents do not handle books that have been self published. Perhaps it could be republished along acceptable channels, even if it required a rewrite. What about rewriting the book and presenting it as a new novel? I own the copyright.

Never stop dreaming, please, but most agents do not handle books that have been self-published, because they are nearly impossible to sell. Only a few books--those that have sold thousands of copies on their own--have been sold to traditional publishers after self publishing. We hear stories about books such as The Celestine Prophecy that went from self published to traditionally published, but only a handful of books can boast such a move, and they had a good sales record on their own, first.

Completely rewriting the book is the best solution. You've learned much from writing the second novel. You can apply that knowledge to the first in your rewrite.

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I wrote a short essay in which I use Avon, the company, throughout. In fact, the name is in the title. I have a disclaimer at the bottom of the page as follows:

"All trademarks, brands and names used here belong to Avon Corporation and/or its subsidiaries, representatives or associates."

I realize you're not a lawyer, but do you think this is enough to avert possible legal trouble if published? Have you heard of similar situations?

I am not an attorney and am not the person to resolve legal issues. I do not know if the disclaimer is necessary or even legally valid.

My recommendation: Look for ways to avoid legal confrontations. Any company, especially those with deep pockets, can sue if it wants, and only a judge can decide if the suit has merit. You would have to defend yourself, no matter what, and that defense could be costly. To avoid the issue, let me ask this question: Is the Avon name essential to the essay? Would the essay have the same impact, for example, if you referred to the corporate entity simply as a well-known cosmetics company?

If your essay says good things about the products and the company, you probably will not be in danger. Highly published author Cec Murphey says, "These days, most companies LOVE to have their products mentioned (in a good context). It's good advertising for them. That's a big shift from a decade ago. I mention products by name all the time in what I write. It's much stronger to write 'a Honda Accord' than it is to say 'a gray car.' Last night I finished reading a novel in which the author mentioned Chevy at least a dozen times."

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How do you become a book doctor?

Wow, what a great question! The answer is not as straightforward as I would like, though, because unlike veterinarians, surgeons, anesthesiologists, urologists and other doctors, no medical school exists to train book doctors. No board certifies book doctors. No specific course teaches the craft of book doctoring.

Instead, book doctors must each find their own path before they arrive at the point when they are ready to hang out their shingles. The first book doctors were manuscript editors laid off from publishing houses during the years of downsizing. No longer able to work in-house for publishers, they became independent and orked with the publishers on a per-book basis. Eventually they began working with writers, as well.

My path was a little different. I trained as a journalist in the 1960s. I wrote news articles and commercials and business copy for years, working under good editors, so I learned more as I went along. On the side, I studied creative writing, read books, took classes, joined critique circles and attended writers conferences to build my knowledge of creative writing elements such as plot, characterization, pace, voice and such.

In my day job, my career skills increased. I became the editor of a newspaper, then managed a media department, then became the manager of the publications and communications department for a huge worldwide company. I never stopped learning, attending conferences and classes and reading about writing and editing. I constantly added to my skills. I maintained a full-time job as a publications manager and editor while also selling work freelance as well.

For newspaper and magazine editing I learned Associated Press Style, which dictates when to spell out a numeral and when to use the number, when to capitalize, where commas go, when and how to abbreviate words, and other details that are not set grammar rules but style issues. For book editing, I had to learn Chicago Style, which differs from AP Style. To build my skills and confidence, I edited books for friends until my editing, evaluations and suggestions were on the mark.

When I was ready to go into business for myself, I approached publishers and received contract work editing books. Because publishers accepted my credentials and liked my work, I had enough experience and expertise to call myself a book doctor and charge writers for my editing services, too. I built my reputation on being thorough, dependable, honest and ethical. It worked. The business has sustained me since 1992 and is getting stronger every year.

For me the process meant education and experience in journalism, several dozen years of work with periodicals while also educating myself and practicing creative writing, many years of submitting work and building my credentials as a highly published writer, then the faith in myself to quit my day job and go into book doctoring full time.

How do you become a book doctor? Gain a strong background in writing and editing, learn everything you can from knowledgeable people, and look for people who will pay for your services.

One sourcebook that will help is my Purge Your Prose of Problems, a book doctor's reference book that includes all the details I collected to use for evaluation reports to clients. The book started as boilerplate files I wrote, so I could copy and paste the appropriate explanations into the reports I give clients when I doctor their books. Each report is unique, but some of the items could be standardized, when I saw the same mistakes in prior manuscripts. The files grew as I saw more and more repeated errors in work from hundreds of clients. I also use those boilerplate files to educate the editors who work for me, and they put the appropriate ones into their evaluation reports to our clients. The reference book is an indispensable condensation from dozens of sources on hundreds of issues that arise in manuscripts every day. It also includes tips on creative writing. To order Purge Your Prose of Problems, click  here .

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After the first draft of my novel is done, should I send it to my agent to get suggestions for revisions or forge on, revising on my own? I prefer to get this answer prior to asking my agent herself, as I hate to appear stupid.

A first draft is a first draft. The keyword is draft, or maybe it's first. The point is, the first time you do anything, it's not yet the best it can be, and the term draft by itself implies a lack of polish and completion.

Never send a first draft to an agent or publisher. To improve your chances of selling the manuscript, send it nowhere until you have made it the best it can be. If you must take your manuscript to two, three, five, or ten revisions, do so, don't send it out until you know you have reached the point that you cannot improve it one iota. At that point, you can send it to agents or publishers. If agents or publishers are interested, they may suggest further revisions, but only because they recognize that the novel is almost there. If the novel needs too much work, some agents and most publishers won't consider it.

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Bobbie, do you have an opinion of the travel-writing courses offered in [name deleted to avoid impropriety]?

I don't have an opinion about the quality of the course because I haven't seen the contents or spoken with anyone who took the course, so my answer will be a little tainted by lack of knowledge. Frankly, though, I didn't like the promotional literature for the course. It spends thousands of words building a picture of a life of luxury visiting foreign places and getting paid for it. It describes how you can work from home without travel and earn a terrific income. It implies that you will become a completely successful travel writer and that it is a dream job. It gives "success" story after "success" story, but it never says you will have to work and you have to market yourself and you will have downtime when you have no assignments. It sets up a fantasy image--typical in every over-the-top direct-sales pitch--but it does little to explain the actual course.

Travel writers rarely live the life the course literature describes. Getting travel-writing assignments is as difficult getting any other kind of assignment, and few people get the rich assignments mentioned in the course literature. I consider the information misleading.

The information is vague in far too many places, too. For example, it says at "several critical junctures," you can send in your work for evaluation. It doesn't explain how many times you get your work evaluated and what the evaluation covers.

It says you can "get started for only $49." It does not say how much the entire course costs. It mentions "additional chapters" that will be sent monthly, but it doesn't give the cost for future chapters, the number of chapters you must buy to complete the course, or the number of months it will take. I would not commit to anything without knowing the total cost and whether I would get feedback throughout the course. I went to the company Web site and found that the total course costs $274, but you can get a ten percent discount for paying in advance.

Instead of a highly pitched, overpriced course, you could glean sufficient information on travel writing from a book. I saw three current travel-writing books on priced between $12 and $15. Those prices are significantly lower than the $49 "introductory chapter" of the travel-writing course.

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I'm having difficulty coming up with a plot for a fiction story in the mystery/suspense genre. I've tried beginning with the character and a seed of an idea and see where it goes. I've tried beginning with the seed of an idea and developing it in a timeline, but as I worked and worked on it, I lost interest in the story and felt depleted of any creative inspiration or passion for the story or the characters I began developing.

I've been writing for well over ten years, have taken classes, have participated in creative exercises, have studied and practiced most of the components of "good fiction"--i.e., plotting, character development, pacing, etc.--yet I still feel like a talentless hack. I know I'm not, really, but why is it I just can't come up with a good story?

I read a quote last year that stuck with me: "Avoid spending a lot of time coming up with a perfect idea that no one else has come up with before. There are no unique ideas--the uniqueness comes from your writing and approach." I understand and agree with that philosophy, yet it seems beyond me to even come up with ANY idea, unique or not.

Do you have any words of advice or suggestions that might help me head in a direction that will get me past this block or lack of confidence or whininess (probably all three)?

What a tall order! I'm having the same issues with a children's book I'm supposed to write that uses a line of dolls that have already been created. I've been given the characters (the dolls) and must make up mystery stories that involve them. As an old nonfiction writer, I create a chapter-by-chapter outline, first. True, I hated outlines when I was in school, but they actually help me write fiction, so I can be sure that every chapter will have mystery, suspense, action, tension, and conflict. It's easier for me to start with an outline and manipulate it all I want before I begin the actual writing.

One of the earliest lessons I learned about fiction writing has to do with where to begin the story: Start in the middle of things. Susan Graham, the literary agent who owns About Words Agency, says it even better: Start when things go wrong. As a cliché, think of it as the missionaries in a pot of boiling water surrounded by cannibals. How will the missionaries get out? Will they get out? Later we can find out how they got there, but when the story opens, readers want to see drama, trauma, conflict, and tension.

How do you keep up the suspense and tension? Think What if. What if the missionaries stepped out of the boiling water and into the fire? What if one escaped and ran into the arms of the hungriest cannibal in the pack? What if one helped the other escape and raised the ire of the leader of the pack?

What if, what if; keep applying that theory throughout the story. Find ways to crank up the tension and conflict at every turn. Look for what if situations that can happen to the characters and among them. What if Character A falls in love with Character B? What if Character B is married to Character C? What if Character C has a history of mental illness? What if the doctor who treated Character ... who knows? Those emotional elements can be figured out in an outline as well as where the actual story goes.

An outline is merely a guide, though. It helps you set the original premise, which in fiction must almost always be that the main character wants something really badly, and something or someone must get in the way to thwart that main character and make the mission difficult. In the case of the missionaries, they wanted to save the souls of the natives. The natives, however, obviously had a different set of motives; they wanted to savor the soles of the missionaries' feet! See how you must have characters with different goals, motives and wants?

Next you want to turn up the volume on the suspense and tension, usually with all the things that get in the way of what the main character wants. Once you begin writing based on your outline, your characters may take you places you never expected, and if those places crank up the tension and suspense, let the characters lead the way.

If have tried every technique you can and still cannot come up with a viable fiction story, do not give up on writing. No one says fiction is the only creative writing in the world. Nonfiction can be equally creative, plus nonfiction sells even better than fiction. Find a subject that interests you and write about it. If you prefer not to research subjects, you can simply tell your personal experiences, and if you write them well enough, you can sell them as fillers and as submissions to collections such as the Chicken Soup for the Soul series and the Cup of Comfort series.

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I was wondering if you have any suggestions about what I can do now in order to obtain a job as a copy editor.

I see by the information that you sent that you have the education, but you lack experience.

I understand why companies prefer to hire editors that already have professional experience. Experience is the best teacher. I had been a news editor at a weekly paper for years, with no editor above me, yet I learned much more after I moved to a corporate communications department and worked under the steady eye of an excellent editor who taught me more than I ever learned in school or on my own.

You may think the situation is a Catch-22: You need experience to get a job, but you can't get experience unless you get the job. You do have ways to get experience, though. Volunteer to edit newsletters or literature for a nonprofit organization. Ask around at large companies to find out if they have intern positions (Peachtree Publishing does, for example).

Some places, such as trade magazine publishers, ask that potential copy editors pass a written editing test, and if you can pass such a test, you might be able to get a position that way. If you take such a test, look for obvious as well as the not-so-obvious errors to repair. You will already need to know editing proof marks. Many are often listed in the back of a dictionary. I'll be glad to send you a list, if you don't have one. Send me a self-addressed, stamped envelope and ask for Proof Marks. (This offer applies to any interested reader. Send your SASE to the business address listed on my Web site.)

Technical editing is often easier to break into than magazine and newspaper editing. Perhaps you can get experience copy editing on a freelance basis or a contract basis through some of the editing firms in your area.

Copy editing takes a keen eye, a good memory, and a love for improving every sentence. Experienced editors tighten everything, pick strong verbs, and delete unnecessary words. For example, the request, I was wondering if you have any suggestions about what I can do now in order to obtain a job as a copy editor, would be a little stronger if written this way: I wonder if you have suggestions about what I can do to obtain a job as a copy editor. Possibly the best rewrite would be this: What can I do to obtain a job as a copy editor?

I hope you'll excuse a little pride in my work, but I recommend that you read my book, Write In Style, for other tips on words to delete to make writing its strongest.

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