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Ask the Book Doctor

By Bobbie Christmas

Marketability, Telling, and Research

Q: You’ve edited my novel. If you doubt my manuscript can be properly prepared for marketability, then I should proceed toward self-publication. I very much want to move into the traditional publishing field; however, I need to be realistic. What do you think?

A: I have good news and bad news. First the bad: Only one percent of fiction written today gets published by traditional publishers. Odds are low, no matter how great your writing may be. Next the good news: I truly believe [title deleted for privacy] has an interesting story line, good twists, and a good title. I've watched it grow from wordy and static to tight and active, the style that contemporary publishers want. With just a little more work, I honestly believe it has a chance. I would not lie about that fact.

Self publishing is always there as a fallback, but self-published fiction rarely achieves much success. I’ve heard that the average self-published fiction book sells about 100 copies. Dismal statistics, when authors are investing their own money. For that reason, I advise fiction writers to do their best to find traditional publishers and to self publish only as a last resort. Traditional publishers have the distribution system that will get your fiction into bookstores, whereas bookstores rarely handle self-published books.

Q: I'm climbing the wall with your "tells" comments. Telling, at length, is in every book I've ever read. I'm forty pages into Saturday by Ian McEwan, and there hasn't been one word of dialogue yet. Over half of The Da Vinci Code is telling.

Is there a difference between "telling and "showing" that I don't understand? To me the only way to "show" is through dialogue. Is there another way? Maybe there's a fine line between telling and showing that I don't comprehend? From what I know, dialogue is showing and narrative is telling, and a book should be a good balance of the two. What am I missing?

Your next book should be on the telling-showing subject. My 12 year-old son is taking writing courses from Stanford U. via the Internet, and he read your book last week.

I laid it in his room and told him to read the first chapter, and he finished the book on his own.

A: I’m thrilled that your son is a writer and read my Write In Style book. I wish I had known all the stuff in my book when I was twelve, but at least my father encouraged me to write, as you are doing for your son. Way to go!

As to the issue of showing versus telling, you're right that a happy medium is the order of the day. I took issue only with the long passages with too much telling and no action. Action is the key difference. Action takes place when people are doing things "in the moment." Not all narration is telling, rather than showing; some is action filled. "Telling" occurs when the narrative is relating something that took place earlier. Action shows what is happening at that moment, even if it does not include dialogue. Da Vinci Code is full of action, people going places, looking at things, doing things. Those narrative passages are action, showing, not telling.

I mark long passages of back story, exposition, narration--whatever you want to call it--when it lacks action and kills the pace, when nothing is taking place before our "eyes." Chop down those long passages into short versions or short pieces interspersed with action and dialogue, and the pace improves.

Q: I am physically disabled. I am not in a position to travel to [country name deleted for confidentiality] and personally discover the day-to-day living environment of a seven year old in that country, one I want my first story to focus on; yet, as you mentioned in a previous snippet, I need to have the facts and references straight.

Could you recommend a way I could research the information I need to proceed with this book? How do I discover typical daily activities, without traveling and witnessing them firsthand? How do I know if my references are correct? Should I use another book or a video presentation for background information?

A: Excellent question; it shows you want authenticity in your story. One great way to get good background information is to find a source that has been there, or even better, one who was born there and moved to your area. To find such a person, look for local religious organizations that sponsor immigrants. You could try a local university that teaches cultural diversity, intercultural communication, or international studies. Someone in those departments may be able to refer you to a native of that country. Because you said you attended an event that made you want to write about that country, locate the people who hosted the event and find out if they will put you in touch with someone from that country. Firsthand information is best, but lacking that, you can go to the Internet, books, and videos for reference material.

–Bobbie Christmas is a book editor, freelance writer and author of Write In Style: Using Your Word Processor and Other Techniques to Improve Your Writing, published by Union Square Publishing and distributed by Simon & Schuster. Send your questions to the book doctor at New! If you liked these questions and answers, you’ll love Bobbie’s latest e-book. Ask the Book Doctor: How to Beat the Competition and Sell Your Writing, addresses hundreds of questions from writers like you. It’s only $8.95 at



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