Starting Out, Crediting Sources, and Spelling Coworker


by Bobbie Christmas

Q: I have considered starting a book for a long time and I have come up with ideas on the plot, the development of characters, and so on, but when I get down to writing it on the page, it ends up uninteresting. I can’t get the suspense or the dialogue right. I can’t get the story to come to life. Can you help me get my story to come to life yourself, or can you send me some links that will help me in this area?

A: Congratulations on creating a good plot and planning the character development! Idea creation is one area where many beginning writers fail, and you’re past that point. Way to go!

First let’s discuss the plot, to ensure it is a strong one. Does it involve a character strongly wanting something and then striving to get it? What obstacles or people make it harder for the character to obtain whatever it is that he or she wants? Most good plots have this struggle as the general basis. For example, in The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy wanted a better, more colorful life than what she was living, but after attaining what she thought she wanted, she realized she had everything she wanted back home, and then she had to overcome many obstacles to get back home.

As for how to write ideas so the book is interesting, how to write natural dialogue, and how to make a story come to life (how to show it, rather than tell it), all those things take practice. You must simply start, write, and practice, with feedback from knowledgeable people.

I recommend taking a course in creative writing, and be sure to sign up for a course that gives you feedback each time you turn in an assignment. As you practice, practice, practice and get feedback, feedback, feedback, your skills will improve.

Look for courses at art centers or centers for continuing education. Don’t simply take a one-day seminar. Take a six-week or eight-week course that gives assignments and gives you feedback on areas that could use improvement. When that course is over, take another and another, even taking the same course again, if necessary, until your skills are at the highest level possible.

While you take courses, join a critique circle of accomplished writers specializing in the genre of your book. You’ll get free, valuable feedback from members of your critique circle, and you’ll learn even more when you critique the work of others, as well.

Writers don’t simply sit down and write a blockbuster novel on their first attempt. They take years to hone their skills. Skiers, skaters, hockey players, basketball players, even competitive dancers did not start out being great at what they do. They practiced long and hard first. I am pleased that you are willing to do the same with writing, which is why you asked what you can do to improve your skills. You’re already on the right track by asking.

Go for it! Practice, practice, practice, and enjoy the journey.

Q: I’m writing a novel, but it is set in a real era and a real city. I am using a real quote from a newspaper during that era. Do I have to footnote it to attribute it to the right source?

A: Although you should give credit to the source, footnotes do not have a place in fiction. Instead, name the periodical and note the date of the article in the text. Here’s an imaginary example:

John opened the October 16, 2006, Pickle Times and read, “Heinz, known for its many varieties of pickles and other food products, plans to release its newest product, an avocado pickle, in December.”

Q: I am checking the proofs of my latest book and need a definitive answer on the spelling of a word. My sources give me conflicting answers. Coworker or co-worker? Which spelling is correct?

A: Dictionaries differ in their answers, but most book publishers use Merriam-Webster as their final source. According to M-W, the proper spelling is coworker, with no hyphen.

For much more information on hundreds of subjects of vital importance to writers, order Purge Your Prose of Problems, a Book Doctor’s Desk Reference Book.

Send your questions to Bobbie Christmas, book editor, owner of Zebra Communications, and author of seven-award-winning Write In Style: How to Use Your Computer to Improve Your Writing, will answer your questions quickly. Read more Ask the Book Doctor questions and answers at



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