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Ask the Book Doctor

By Bobbie Christmas

Ask the Book Doctor: About writing humor, showing transitions, the use of "had," and using standard manuscript format

Q: Do you have any suggestions about how to write humorous personal stories?

A: Humor takes hard work yet often still does not work. When a group of writers discussed this matter, one person suggested recording the stories as you speak them, then typing them up as spoken. That method avoids a stilted writing style that intrudes on the story. We all agreed that someone else must read the stories to ensure the humor is intact and that it works. Study the masters at telling humorous personal stories, such as Dave Barry, David Sedaris, and Erma Bombeck.

Q: I’m writing a book that spans a long period of time. What’s the best way to show the transition from one era to another?

A: The easy way out is not always the best way, simply to put the date at the beginning of a new portion as a subhead, a chapter title, or under the chapter title. Although that method works, it’s too pat, too easy, and it’s distracting to some readers.

Any transition in time is formatted by starting a new chapter or by adding extra space between paragraphs, which is the reason standard manuscript format does not have extra spaces between paragraphs, except to show a shift in time.

After adding the extra space, set the era with current events, current music, and other references to help readers identify the era.

I have one warning: long skips of time may be an indication that the novel spans too much time. If the information in the beginning is vital to the plot, perhaps it can be recast into dialogue or memories that come to light in a later era.

Q: My writing organization is preparing an anthology. Would standard manuscript format apply? We are unsure of individual submission formats at this point. Please advise.

A: Standard manuscript format applies when submitting a manuscript to an agent or a publisher. If you are going to self publish the anthology, you may set the format any way you would like, but if an editor is going to edit the submissions, which I strongly advise, you would do well to ask for submissions in standard manuscript format, which does several things. It gets writers in the habit of using standard manuscript format; it is easy to read; and it gives an editor room to work.

If you are unfamiliar with standard manuscript format, e-mail me at for a free report that explains standard manuscript format clearly.

Q: I'm on page 104 of your book, Write In Style, and I have highlighted all the things I am going to find and refine in my next draft. I have one question so far, and it’s about having a couple uses of "had" and then using the past tense verb. Does that technique also apply to prologues?

A: It applies to all writing. One or two uses of "had" will set a scene in past perfect tense, after which you can use past tense from then to the end of that portion. I'm making this statement without seeing the actual manuscript in question, but it works in most cases. Here is an example:

Original: Mary had liked John the first time she had seen him, but John had not noticed Mary. She had gone back to his table several times and had asked if he needed anything more to drink, but he had not paid attention.

Rewrite: Mary had liked John the first time she saw him, but John did not notice Mary. She went back to his table several times and asked if he needed anything more to drink, but he paid no attention.

–Do you have a question for the book doctor? E-mail to get a personal reply.



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