Ask the Book Doctor
By Bobbie Christmas
Showing versus telling, chapter divisions, mail protocol and nondisclosure forms.
Q: I’m looking at my manuscript, which you edited for me. When you put all or part of a sentence in parentheses and write the word "tells," what are you trying to get across to me?
A: The portion in the parentheses would be better if rewritten in a way that shows, rather than tells. Here’s the example you sent, with my added parentheses:
Sloan (mustered his nerve, knowing that the intimacies of pregnancy lay outside the male realm.) "I personally feel life starts when the infant takes its first breath. Only at that point does independent life begin."
Here’s a potential rewrite:
Sloan straightened his spine and cleared his throat. "Although the intimacies of pregnancy lay outside the male realm, I believe life starts when the infant takes its first breath. Only at that point does independent life begin."
In the rewrite, the character’s actions show him mustering his strength, and the dialogue shows his thoughts. The entire rewritten passage shows, rather than tells.
Q: Could you recommend something about chapter divisions? Some authors I've read start a new chapter in places that don't seem to make sense. What determines proper chapter divisions? How many chapters should a novel have? Why?
A: No rules apply to chapters in fiction, except that a novel definitely should be broken into chapters. In a novel, the best way to end a chapter is with what editors call a cliffhanger: Someone is left in deep trouble or with some event looming, so readers will want to continue to the next chapter. Read anything by Sandra Brown to see that technique in action. Some writers prefer to shift scenes with the start of a new chapter, and that's fine, too. Your protagonist can be hanging off a cliff by her fingernails at the end of chapter two, and chapter three can take place in a bar many miles away, where the protagonist's friends discuss the fact that she finally went on the restful vacation she needed. You can also choose to open chapter three with the character being rescued or even falling to her death.
Nonfiction has more set recommendations regarding chapters. In nonfiction each chapter should make five to seven major points and should be about 20 pages long.
Q: In a regular snail mail letter, if I'm pitching a manuscript that is not yet a book, is it still treated as one and put in italics?
Similarly, when referring to published book titles in an email, is it acceptable to put them in quote marks if you are sending in Unicode or non-html? As far as I know, only html can handle bold, italic or underlined type. What is the protocol on this for an email letter, especially in an e-query to an agent?
A: I am not sure if business English addresses the issue of manuscript vs. published book. I look at it this way: If you think of your manuscript as a book, you’re more likely to sell it. I don’t think you can offend anyone by using italics in a business letter to refer to your yet-to-be-published book. If anyone would like to differ with me, send me a note.
As far as e-mail is concerned, few rules apply, except to be as professional as possible when writing to business people Because italics do not translate in many programs, I often use quotation marks myself, to indicate italics. Such a small issue won’t break a deal.
Q: Where can I find a nondisclosure form?
A: Quite often nondisclosure forms are appropriate when content is sent to an editor or publisher who might reveal information to sources who could use it before you get a chance to publish it. I’ve had clients ask me to sign such forms before editing their manuscripts. Of course I could not have stayed in business this long if I shared proprietary information, but if my signing an agreement makes a client feel secure, I do so. To find such a form try this Website, which offers thousands of free forms:
—Send your questions to the book doctor at Bobbie@zebraeditor.com. Bobbie Christmas is a book editor and author of "Write In Style: Using Your Word Processor and Other Techniques to Improve Your Writing," available in bookstores and online from most bookstore Web sites including SimonSays.com, Walmart.com, BarnesandNoble.com and Amazon.com. "Write in Style" is published by Union Square Publishing and distributed by Simon & Schuster. http://www.zebraeditor.com