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Ask the Book Doctor

By Bobbie Christmas

Ask the Book Doctor: About query letters, dialogue, formatting flashbacks, and telling vs. showing

Q: What’s the difference between a query letter to a literary agent and a query letter to a publisher?

A: Mostly the difference is in the address. I’m serious. Otherwise, both letters want the same result: to gain the interest of the person reading it and get permission to send more. Both should begin with a catchy summary of the plot of the novel, include a brief paragraph about why you are the right person to have written the book, and end with the request for permission to send the whole manuscript. Both letters should be brief and businesslike. Don’t forget to include all your contact information in the letterhead, not at the bottom, and include a self-addressed, stamped envelope if you send a query by regular mail. Nowadays some publishers and agents prefer emailed queries. Be sure to find and follow each agent’s or publisher’s submission guidelines.

Q: When I write dialogue, must I make all my characters speak in contractions? My critique circle members say all dialogue should use contractions. Aren’t we supposed to give each character a unique voice? If so, can’t one of my characters be so prim and proper that she doesn’t speak in contractions?

A: The members of your critique group have the right idea—natural dialogue does usually rely on contractions, but creative writing gives a writer a great deal of leeway. You know your characters best, and if one doesn’t use contractions, so be it. Don’t let anyone—not even members of your critique circle—cram a singular opinion down your throat. Listen to the suggestions of others, thank them, and then do whatever you want. If, however, an acquisitions editor asks you to change something to make your piece more marketable, that’s the time to listen and follow.

Q: My question has to do with formatting. Is there a standard way to insert a flashback? For example, should I have an extra line space before and after the flashback? Should I indent the flashback five spaces on both sides?

A: Formatting is not the only way to indicate a flashback; it must also be handled with a narrative transition from the present to the flashback and from the flashback back to the present at the end. You can, however, also add a line space before and after the transition, but do not indent on both sides, which is a formatting device reserved for long quotations. Do indent the beginning of each paragraph, through.

Q: We hear all the time, “Show, don’t tell.” My feeling is the point is overused. Better might be “Telling is okay, but it must be interesting and justified, for example, moving the story along.” What do you say?

A: Everything in creative writing is a matter of moderation. Back story almost always includes a little telling, but keep the “telling” to a minimum. Make sure it involves as many action verbs as possible, and it probably will be fine.

What’s your question for Book Doctor Bobbie Christmas? Send it today to


– Bobbie Christmas, book doctor, author of Write In Style (Union Square Publishing), and owner of Zebra Communications, will answer your questions, too. Send them to Read more “Ask the Book Doctor” questions and answers at



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