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Ask the Book Doctor

By Bobbie Christmas

Ask the Book Doctor: About lie/lay, attributions, and evaluations

Q: Is there an easy rule for remembering when to use "lie" and when to use "lay?"

A: That’s the same darned problem I often have, and I always have to stop and think. Lay, though, is an action word, and lie is something that has already happened. One of our members uses this memory tag: Chickens lay; people lie. I think in terms of this: We lie in state, but we lay our heads on the pillow.

Richard Lederer and Richard Dowis, two colleagues of mine who also endorsed my book, Write In Style, have written a great book for the grammatically challenged called Sleeping Dogs Don’t Lay (St. Martin's Griffin, 2001). I’ll bet they cover the lay/lie subject well in their book.

Q: A writer in my critique group writes a line of dialogue without attribution but has another character say his name in the next line of the dialogue. I contend this method leaves readers unsure of who is speaking until they get to the second line. For example:

"Stop talking like that. He’s a fool."

"No, Joe, he’s in love."

"Love, a fool, it’s the same thing, Mary."

A: As with any creative-writing issue, overuse something, and it grows wearisome. The ploy you address is something I call "name-calling," and not only does it not allow the reader to know who is speaking while the dialogue is going on, but it’s also unnatural. Think about it. When was the last time you called someone by name?

Yes, we use names when we call people on the phone or from another room. We use names when we’re in a group and want to address one specific person. When we are conversing with only one person, though, we hardly ever call the other person by name, unless we are angry at that person.

I don’t recommend relying on name-calling as a method of attributing a previous line of dialogue. Instead, I prefer action, whenever possible. Consider the following rewrite, and note how the action comes at varying places in the dialogue:

Joe held up his hand. "Stop talking like that. He’s a fool."

"No." Mary shook her head. "He’s in love."

"Love, a fool, it’s the same thing." Joe smirked and sipped his soda.

Q: At what point in my writing should I ask someone to evaluate it and point me in the right direction to publish?

A: The question isn’t easy to answer for several reasons. First, not everyone who evaluates work will also point you in a direction of where to go next. Second, only you can decide when you need help or your work needs evaluation.

Writers turn to me at whatever stage they feel stymied or whenever they want feedback. Some people need feedback after they have created a concept, proposal, or synopsis. Some wait until after they write the entire manuscript, so I can evaluate every element and correct all the technical flaws. Some writers send the first few chapters, to ensure a novel or nonfiction book is headed in the right direction. Others never think they need help.

As for pointing you in the right direction to publish, that’s a separate category and is usually a service that costs extra, depending on what you want. If you want someone to suggest specific agents or publishers and locate submission guidelines or even submit your manuscript for you, you can expect to pay a fee for that person’s time.

If you want a general concept, such as whether your manuscript would appeal to teens or what genre it might best fit under, that’s another matter, and a good editor should be able to answer your questions after having read the manuscript. If you hope to get such answers, though, use caution. Before you pay an independent editor or book doctor to evaluate your book, make sure he or she will give you the answers you seek. Before you commit, discuss everything you hope to get for your money, and if that person is not able to give it to you, find another editor or book doctor who will.

–Do you have a question for Book Doctor Bobbie Christmas? Get a personal answer today! Send your questions to For more Q & A, go to and click on "Ask the Book Doctor."



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