Switching from Nonfiction to Fiction Writing, Comma in Direct Address, Questions about Using an Editor, and an Addendum to a Prior Column

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bookdoctorBy Bobbie Christmas

Q: I’ve been a freelance writer for magazines and newspapers for many years, but I have a novel in my head, begging me to write it. I’m not sure I can successfully switch from writing nonfiction to writing fiction. What are some of the things I need to know?

A: Quick answer: everything.

Let me explain. I worked with newspapers and magazines for the first twenty years of my writing and editing career, so I thought I knew enough to write a novel. Boy, was I wrong! The best thing I did was join a critique circle for novelists, and I quickly saw that I knew almost nothing about how to write fiction. I knew a great deal about how to form a strong sentence, I knew grammar, and I thought I knew punctuation. I learned, however, that I had been using punctuation, capitalization, and abbreviations standard in AP style, whereas novels and nonfiction books call for Chicago style.

As a gift, my son gave me a copy of The Chicago Manual of Style, and I went into overwhelm, because of the volume of the book. I didn’t think I could learn it all. I soon realized that I did not have to learn everything, but I did need to look up specific things when I wasn’t sure.

Members of my critique circle had been writing fiction much longer than I had. I could help them when it came to grammar and strong sentence structure, but they helped me tremendously with details of Chicago style as well as the many elements of fiction. They made me aware of point of view, setting scenes, scene changes, character development, plot development, exposition, backstory, flashbacks, and much more that I had never encountered as a writer and editor of newspaper and magazine articles.

Go ahead and begin writing your novel, but find a good critique group that concentrates on novels and get feedback and information from members more knowledgeable in writing fiction.

In addition, pay attention while you read your favorite novelists and see how they handle openings, chapters, flashbacks, backstory, exposition, dialogue, scenes, character development, plot evolution, climax, and denouement.

I also offer a lengthy free report on some of the differences between AP style and Chicago style. It has good information for anyone not yet fully familiar with Chicago style. Ask for Report #118 by e-mail (Bobbie@zebraeditor.com), and I’ll send it right away.

The switch from nonfiction to fiction isn’t simple, but if your heart is in writing a novel, you will enjoy entering a whole new world of writing.

Q: Is a comma necessary before “Levi” in the following?

“You know what Levi? I do my best work when I am in a hurry.”

A: Yes, Mary, as you suspect, a comma is always necessary in direct address.

Q: I have never published before. I have written a book containing twenty-four short stories. Do all novice writers need to employ an editor? Without the book being edited, will a publisher reject the book outright? What is the cost of hiring an editor? If I hire an editor, is it necessary to have one that lives near me so that we can discuss the editing process from time to time?

A: Do all novice writers need to employ an editor? No, but novice writers who want to improve their chances of success do employ editors, not only to ensure the book has no errors, but also to learn in the process. One of my clients said the report I sent, based solely on his writing, was like a four-year college course in creative writing.

Will publishers reject an unedited book outright? The answer depends upon the publisher. Some have guidelines that state the book must be edited before it is submitted, but major publishers (and they are few in number) may accept an unedited manuscript. It would have to be spectacular in every other way, of course, and in some way carry a guarantee of success, such as if the author is already a well-known celebrity.

The cost of hiring an editor depends upon the editor and the services he or she offers. My prices are posted on my website for everyone to see. I do recommend using an editor who is upfront about his or her fees and services. Editors who charge by the hour scare me; authors have no idea of what the total cost might be.

Do you need to find an editor near you? Absolutely not. With today’s technology, every editor can be as near as a computer or a telephone. I edit books for English-speaking clients around the globe. My clients in South Africa, Australia, Japan, Canada, and other countries chose me because I was right for their books, not because I live nearby, and we’ve had no difficulty communicating.

Finally, do you personally need an editor? We all do; we cannot know what we don’t know. We cannot see our own mistakes. For example, you sent the title of your book, but it is missing a hyphen, and without it, the meaning of the title changes. I do recommend finding an editor to ensure the book is the best reflection on you and has the best chance of success. You’ll be amazed at all you will learn from a qualified professional editor.


Bobbie Christmas, book editor and owner of Zebra Communications, will answer your questions, too. Send them to Bobbie@zebraeditor.com. Read more Ask the Book Doctor questions and answers at www.zebraeditor.com.

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