Ask The Book Doctor, Bobbie Christmas

Friday, March 09, 2007
Ask the Book Doctor: About Categorizing Manuscripts, Handling Pet Names and Terms of Endearment, Recommended Manuscript Lengths, and Hiring Practices!

By Bobbie Christmas, author of Write in Style, the triple-award-winning textbook on creative writing.

Q: I am writing a book proposal. How do I categorize my book beyond nonfiction? It is a family saga with issues related to custody, mental illness, individual challenges faced by two young boys and others, and the failure of social services agencies.

A: You are correct in thinking that your proposal will have to clearly define the label on the bookstore shelf where the book should be displayed. My first thoughts are to say that it falls under biography, relationships, and/or psychology, but to be sure, visit a bookstore, find other biographical books on relationships that deal with mental health issues, and see how those books are categorized. I think psychology may be the winner, because it's also a popular category, but to be sure, do your homework by visiting a store.

Q: How and when should one capitalize pet names used in dialogue? Not Fluffy or Rover-type pet names, but things like: dear, honey, sweetie, dear lady, kind sir, baby, babe, etc.

A: According to The Chicago Manual of Style 15th Edition, which applies to book-length fiction and nonfiction, pet names are always lowercased. It gives this example: "Sorry, sweetheart."

This guideline goes against traditional wisdom, which says that if a term of endearment or pet name replaces a name, it should be capitalized.

Q: The length of my story is 162,000 words. If I trim the word count to 120,000 words, would that be of acceptable length for potential publication?

A: I always recommend staying between 50,000 to 100,000 words for a first novel, so 120,000 is pushing the envelope, but it may be okay if the novel warrants it. Literary Agent Susan Graham (About Words Agency) says that 120,000 is the maximum, but it's better if it's less, especially for first-time authors.

She continues: "What I always tell the author is this: Cut, edit, and shape the novel until it's in the best shape it can be in, and it almost always works out to be the right length. If it's still too long, get some advice on big things that can be cut to make it work, but sometimes it isn't possible. In fact, I prefer for authors to forget the word-length issue while editing and instead, focus on making it the best they can."

Q: I want to become a writer. What are some common hiring practices?

A: Because of the many ways writers can be employed, this question is too broad for a simple answer. I can answer only regarding the hiring I have done in my career. Back in the 1970s I was the news editor of a weekly newspaper, and many wannabe writers applied for work there. At first I interviewed each one, studied their portfolios, and spent a great deal of time with them. If I thought they had potential, I assigned a sample article.

To my dismay, most folks never turned in the assignment. I started a new technique. When people said they wanted to write for my paper, I did not waste any of my time; I simply assigned an article. I used the same subject ten or twelve times before someone would finally return with an article on deadline. Those were the people I hired. Perhaps the other folks needed someone standing over them cracking the whip and checking the clock. I needed people who could work independently and fulfill my needs.

Later I managed the communications department of a large construction firm, where my writers were expected to come to work each day and not be independent contractors. When I hired corporate communicators, I requested an interview and looked over their portfolios, no matter where they had been published. I looked for writers who could not only take an assignment and fulfill it, but they also had to project the right corporate image and fit in well with the rest of our team.

Hiring practices and requirements vary depending upon the company and whether you are expected to be in an office, in the field, or working from home. Find other writers doing the type of writing you would like to do and ask them how they got their jobs. Most will gladly tell you.


Do you have a question for the book doctor? For a personal response, ask Bobbie Christmas, a professional book editor. E-mail Bobbie Christmas at

Subscribe today to The Writers Network News, a free newsletter for writers of all types. Go to and click on "Free Newsletter." Double opt-in system ensures no spam. Honest!


Powered by Blogger.
Back to Top