Ask the Book Doctor

How Can I Tell When I'm Telling?

I met an agent at a conference and asked if she'd read my mainstream-fiction manuscript. She took one look at the first page and handed the manuscript back. She said it told, rather showed, and it needed more work. Her words cut me to the core, because I'm a good writer. I know a novel should show a story unfolding and that I shouldn't just tell the story. If she'd read on, she would have seen all the action, twists and turns I put into the story, but she never got to that part. How could she say my story told, rather than showed? She only glanced at the first page. --Discouraged

Dear Discouraged:
As you can well imagine, agents and publishers see hundreds of manuscripts a month, and they learn ways to quickly detect whether a manuscript will interest them. You already know publishers want mainstream fiction to unfold like a movie, rather than for a storyteller (narrator) to tell readers everything what happened. To determine quickly whether a story tells, rather than shows, check the percentage of dialogue. Fiction should be about 70 percent dialogue.

If the first page has little or no dialogue, a red flag goes up in an agent's mind, but the manuscript does not necessarily need recycling. The next test determines how much of the narrative involves action-characters actually doing things, getting into plot-related situations. If, instead, the opening page describes the scenery or someone's background, then it tells, rather than shows, and it needs rewriting. Contemporary fiction does not begin with static exposition; it jumps into the action. It hooks the reader with strong verbs and action.

How can you tell if your narrative tells, rather than shows? Here's another quick trick: Check how many times it uses any form of the verb "to be." More than about four or five on page one, and it probably tells, rather than shows. Remember, after all, that page one is the beginning of a chapter, and in correct format, each new chapter begins about a third of the way down the page. If the manuscript has five uses of the verb "to be" in only two-thirds of a page, the writing exhibits signs of weakness.

I don't know which flaw the agent spotted in your manuscript. Check for yourself. If you want an agent or publisher to read past the first page, you must choose strong action verbs and write tight scenes that reveal people doing things that lead them somewhere, get them in trouble, set them up for the next scene, or otherwise draw readers into your story. The entire book should move forward in that manner, but especially the first page must.

Perhaps you think you absolutely must set the scene or give background information. You can do it later, after page one, and intersperse the information with interesting action. You can't eliminate every instance of telling, rather than showing, but keep each occurrence short-no longer than a brief paragraph here and there-interspersed with action and dialogue, and the manuscript will stand a better chance of catching the eye of readers, agents and publishers.

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How can I find a publisher for my nonfiction book?

Whew, a simple question, but a tall order! Writing a powerful, complete book proposal comes first. Read and follow a reference book such as How to Write a Book Proposal by Michael Larsen. Next, research is key, and after that, follow-through is essential.

Originally, I wrote a book proposal and three sample chapters of my book on creative writing. I landed a New York agent based on that proposal, and I felt smug that she would find a publisher. After she took my book proposal to three major publishers where she had contacts, she dropped me.

I picked myself up, dusted myself off, set out on my own, and I succeeded. I sold my book to a well-established New York publisher with the right contacts and distribution, and I'm pleased with the way I've been treated.

How did I find a publisher? I followed these steps:

  1. I wrote a killer book proposal, complete with facts and figures gleaned from reliable sources. I used the Internet for my research on the size of the market for my book. I did not use vague words, such as "huge." Instead I gave the exact percentage of Americans who like to write creatively outside of work. The National Endowment for the Arts gladly supplied the figures.

  2. I went to two large bookstores to see what books were available in the same category as mine. This essential step also ensured that no books exactly like mine were on the shelves, but enough were in my category to indicate a strong market for my book. I wrote down the title, author and publisher of each book in my category (reference/writing). I also wrote down the selling price of the book, on the chance that I might later decide to self-publish.

  3. I subscribed to for $2.99 a month. Yes, other sources list similar information (Literary Market Place and Writers Market, for example), but the online service is updated more regularly than a printed book and is infinitely more user friendly.

  4. I looked up all the book publishers interested in my category and printed them all out, including the guidelines. If guidelines were not listed on the site, I went to the publisher's Websites to get the information.

  5. I selected the book publishers whose books I had found in the bookstores and approached them first, following their guidelines, provided they accepted submissions without an agent. I set aside those that required an agent or that did not accept multiple submissions.

  6. I prepared the appropriate packages, carefully following each publisher's guidelines. Some publishers wanted a full book proposal and sample chapters. Some wanted only an outline and cover letter. Some wanted the table of contents and my bio. One wanted only an e-mail query. I made sure to follow each publisher's guidelines to a T and always enclosed that vital SASE, out of courtesy, whenever I mailed anything by snail mail.

  7. I individualized each cover letter. If I did not know which acquisitions editor handled books in my category, I called to find out, before addressing the cover letter. In the cover letter I listed the books and authors that publisher had released in my category, which showed I had done my homework.

  8. I stored the information and listings on the publishers that did not accept multiple submissions, figuring I would approach them one at a time if I received negative responses from all of the first line of publishers.

  9. I also kept the information and listings of the publishers that accepted submissions only through an agent, figuring my former agent or another one could use that information, should I try to go the agency route again.

  10. I tracked the dates I sent out each query and when I heard a response. Interestingly, three or four never responded at all.

My approach worked. I received several nibbles, e-mails and phone calls from interested publishers. I chose the best publisher of the lot, in my opinion, and we negotiated an arrangement that made both my publisher and me happy. Negotiation is another matter entirely, perhaps worthy of a future column. Meanwhile, watch for my book, Write In Style, to be released in June by Union Square Publishing, an imprint of Cardoza Publishing of New York.

I did my research, followed guidelines, and found a publisher. If your book is worthy, you can do it, too.

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What's with the new rule about spacing only once after a period? In my books I still stick to the two spaces between sentences. It's less confusing, I think.

Of course you can do whatever you want, when you self publish, but let me explain the logic, so you can make an informed decision.

When we learned to type on typewriters, typewriters automatically created their own style, typing copy that was flush left and ragged right. In other words, the words on the left were aligned, but the words on the right zigzagged according to natural breaks between words. Original typewriters gave typists but one option as to the font, almost always a style we now call Courier, and it used one space per letter, no matter whether the letter was wide, such as an "m," or narrow, such as an "l." Because letters sometimes took more space than logical, we needed to add extra space to indicate the end of a sentence. For ease in reading, we learned to separate sentences with two spaces after a period.

Let me clearly state that typewriter typing is not the same as book publishing. Since the beginning of publishing (even when books were handwritten by monks), most books have been set in justified type (that is, the margins on the left and the right are smooth, up and down), which looks very different from typewriter type. I will later explain why books are set in justified type. Read on.

With the advent of computers, any of us can create our own books and decide whether to use justified type, but because books were always set in justified type, readers take justified type more seriously than typewriter style, which is ragged on the right. Ragged right means something is more playful, less serious. Note that many newspapers use justified type on the hard news pages, but use ragged right on profiles, book reviews, celebrity news, and such. The difference is subtle, and probably only those of us who have been in the publishing business would notice, but the message is there: Hard news is to be taken seriously; all other news is filler. Hard news is set in justified type; all other news is set with ragged right margins.

If you want your book to look playful and be a personal statement, rather than be informative and serious, then by all means set it in ragged right copy, and the subtle message will come across that your words are all in fun.

If you publish a work that you want reviewers and readers to take seriously, whether fiction or nonfiction, set it in justified type, and it gets more respect.

Having said that, if it is set in justified type, the two spaces after a period can cause a serious design flaw. Justified type takes each space and spreads it a little to make the margins even on both sides. Double spaces create an even wider break and result in awkward spacing, at times.

To avoid awkward spacing in the final product, typesetters knowledgeable in book publishing know to use only one space at a time, hence only one space after a period, so that justified type looks good to the eye. Chicago Style (adopted by book publishers) follows that guideline. The odd-spacing issue could also be the reason why Chicago Style calls for no spaces between words and dashes (John--who always ordered milk--drank tea that day.), although we learned to add space, on the typewriter (John -- who always ordered milk -- drank tea that day.). On typewriters we also learned to type two spaces after a colon, but when we use justified type, it should be only one space after a colon. Again, typewriters are not computers. Computers squeeze type together more naturally, so extra spacing glares, like a missing tooth.

Ask degreed graphics designers, those who took the courses and learned their trade well. They know how to make books, advertisements, Web sites, and brochures pleasing to the eye, and they will all tell you why they space only once after a period.

If you self publish, you have the right to space your book in whatever way you want, but know that if you break the rules of typesetting, your book will look unprofessional. Understand the reasons behind the rules and then choose wisely, depending on the image you want your book to project.

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I sent my nonfiction book to a publisher, but the acquisitions person said the book has "problems." I am not sure what that means. Any ideas?

What a shame the note wasn't more specific. "Problems" can mean anything, from punctuation to content. It's too vague a comment to be of help. As a pro who makes her living editing books, I'm inclined to tell you to pay an editor such as me to identify and repair the problems, but never ask a barber if you need a haircut, because you know the answer. Perhaps you can get feedback from a critique circle or a peer, though, at no charge. You can't fix problems until you know what they are, and I can't identify the problems without seeing the full manuscript.

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I queried you several weeks ago about charging for writing a book, and you gave me some good, logical feedback. In the same vein, I want to ask you about co-authoring a book. I will be doing most of the writing, but drawing from the materials and experience of another person, to whom I will give co-author status. This person wants to contract with me to write the book, and we are working on the terms of the contract now. How should my contribution translate into a share of the profit from the book? This co-author is paying me to write the book and assuming all risk with respect to getting the book published and promoted. Do I still have a right to a share of the profits? My name will be on the book as the author, along with this other person. As always your sage advice is greatly appreciated.


Hmm. You want my sage advice? Sage is a spice best used on chicken, and I'm chicken about advising you on legal matters. I'm not an attorney. That said, I can tell you what I have done in the past and why. My contracts have mostly been work-for-hire, with no participation in the proceeds. Why? Because I would have no control over what the other person did with the book, anyway, and would have no way of knowing the actual proceeds. I would have had to rely on him or her for honest accounting, and after expenses, I doubt little would be left for me, anyway. I've found that if I get paid to do the work and then relinquish the product to the client, I can let go without fretting about what happens afterward. I don't worry whether the author or the publisher will put the right amount of effort into marketing it or distributing it, and I never have to worry that I did not get money due me from the proceeds. Work-for-hire arrangements ensure I get paid for my work, and then I can go on to the next project with a clear mind and happy heart.

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I had a problem converting some of the present-tense sections of my novel to past tense. It's hard to explain, but in a first-person narrative in the mystery genre, there are precedents. Occasionally authors talk directly to the reader, and that's done in present tense, because it's supposed to be true, even as the reader reads. I thought about it and picked up Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye. I saw several places where he used present tense for some comment like this:

"There are blondes and blondes and it is almost a joke word nowadays. All blondes have their points, except perhaps the metallic ones who are as blond as a Zulu under the bleach and as to disposition as soft as a sidewalk...."

If this kind of writing won't pass the editing process, I'm stumped. Not that I'm claiming any kinship with Chandler. But it seems to me that writer in first person can get away with an occasional comment like the ones I showed. For example, I began Chapter 3 with this paragraph: "Mt. Soledad is only several hundred feet in elevation, but it does an effective job of sealing off La Jolla from the rest of San Diego. It also provides an opportunity for homebuilders to create a multitude of multimillion-dollar estates with ocean views."

Changing it to something like "Mt. Soledad was only several hundred feet in elevation, but it did an effective job of sealing off La Jolla from the rest of San Diego" doesn't seem necessary, except to conform. Kind of like changing Chandler's paragraph to "There were blondes and blondes and it was almost a joke word in those days. All blondes had their points...."

If that's what it takes to pass the editing test, please let me know.

  1. Believe in your style and stick with it. You have the right to use any style you want.
  2. Let me remind you that narrative that talks to the reader is no longer in fashion. It's not considered contemporary fiction.
Do my statements conflict? Yes. That's why you should create your own style and stick with it, until you've gotten more than one opinion against it. I always fear that I will step on someone's unique style and ruin a potentially great writer, which is never my intent. I talk from the standpoint of technicalities and marketability; only you can decide which comments to take to heart and apply to your book.

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